Taking Stock: Paper, Book Design and a Place Called Kenema


Choosing the right paper for a print project can be tricky. The tactile nature of paper conveys tone, quality and character before a single word is read, and especially applies to designing a book (which we happen to be doing).

O Street Kenema

As you may have seen flying around our various social media channels, we are currently working on a stunning portrait photography book by British photographer Peter Dibdin. He has been working to capture community life in Kenema, Sierra Leone. This book will seek to capture the powerful photographs taken by Pete during his visit to the newly built girls school, run by Swawou School Foundation.

O Street Kenema

To represent Pete’s journey and experiences of this vibrant culture, we have worked with him to develop a design that allows the photography to do the talking. We chose a minimal colour palette inspired by the earthy brick used in the development project itself. Handwritten text—Pete lent his own hand—is used to note the subjects of each portrait. Alongside these design choices sits the ever important selection of paper stocks and finishes.

O Street Kenema

In some ways, its a designer’s dream to be sitting surrounded by piles of paper samples, stacks of photography books and heaps of beautiful inspiring pieces of print. In other ways it presents a challenging process. With Kenema, we want to bring the warmth of the people into the tactile aspect of this book as much as possible—think ivory, cotton rich, textured pages. On the other hand, we need to allow the photography to sit on crisp clean white spreads to really express the colours and lighting by Pete.

O street Kenema

All in all, this has lead me on what can only be described as a paper trail *ahem* to end all paper trails. I’ve gone from Mohawk and Crane’s Crest to Tatami and Woodstock; from Shiro and Biancoflash to Conqueror CX22 and recycled Keay Kolour. In a very short space of time I’ve gone from a samples novice to the new studio paper guru…okay, not quite. But if Ed is Yoda then I’m definitely Luke. And in this analogy our huge studio bookcase is Dagobah. I’m getting side-tracked. Either way, I’m feeling a lot more knowledgable and excited for how this lovely piece of print will turn out. And that’s not even taking into account all the foiling, finishing and bindings I’ve got in mind…

If you would like to get your hands on your very own copy of the Kenema Book then simply follow this link and pledge some money to help us produce this stunning photography book. If you can’t pledge all that much, even a small amount would be appreciated to support its production and make it possible. Once published, all profits from the book will be going to the Swawou School for Girls to help them carry on the amazing work they do.

We’re super proud to be part of such a great project and we hope you’ll join us to continue the story.

Making Roadline—designing a font


How do you make a working font from some type on a road? Our collaboration with Glasgow roadliners was an amazing experience but as ever there is more to it than meets the eye. We thought we’d share a bit of insight into the process of crafting a typeface—and a few of the bumps and turns along the way.

O Street — roadline type spec

As a studio, we’d long been obsessed with the quirky typographic characters populating the UK’s roads. It was an obvious direction to head in for a re-brand. To begin research, we took some shots.

O Street

Lots of shots.

O Street

We also began to explore what gives the UK road type its unified and distinctive look. UK roadliners are essentially executing a brand system—the amazing UK roads guidelines created by design champions Margaret Calvert & Jack Kinneir.

Margaret Calvert

Margaret Calvert (Courtesy The Independent)


Margaret Calvert typographic work

Margaret Calvert’s typographic work

We’re big fans of Margaret. The supporting typeface we chose—what you’re reading in this post—is also her work and is called New Rail.

Margaret Calvert — Glasgow Airport

But back to the main road. Just like any good typeface, there are some basic rules at work here. The height and width of characters depend on things like speed limit for the road—and has got to be done to the spec in the guidelines. 1.5m high for 30mph, 2m for 40mph, etc. Over the years, professional roadliners have these rules so engrained into their workflow they can mark out the measurements freehand.

A font is born — on designing type

The stroke width is mostly set by the paint tool they use .


And then—this is where the magic happens—the letters are each drawn by hand. Every one ends up with a life of its own, all quirks and character.

At this point we could have taken a bit of a shortcut. We could have just used the photographs we’d gathered and patched together a typeface, but we believe the story behind a design injects life into the work on a higher level than we might immediately perceive. At the very least, we wanted it to be hand drawn. One option was to do an interpretation rather than an exact replica; inspired by the original but very much its own thing—think Andy Warhol.

O Street GDFS

We set out to do this as part of Graphic Design Festival Scotland, where we had the opportunity to join a Colophon type workshop. The approach we took at first was to re-create the tool that roadliners use on the roads and hand draw it ourselves.

O Street GDFS A font is born — on designing type ostreet-type-9 ostreet-type-10

The resulting typeface does have a lovely character to it, but lacks a lot of the detail and charm that the texture of real roadline type brings.

We decided the only way to do it was to do it right, and get the roadliners to draw the whole alphabet somewhere. Great idea—although organising it was another matter. After a whole lot of watching paint dry and banging our heads on the proverbial tarmac, we worked things out with a company called Markon. They have a site up at Glenboig where roadliners train, and there they cut us loose with a crew for a day.

O Street

Tam and his roadlining partner John, who are usually kicking it around Glasgow, drew us a full alphabet along with numerals and punctuation—they even let us have a go.

O street

As we might have mentioned once or twice, we documented the process with help from filmmakers Pretend Lovers and were able to catch drone footage thanks to Wav Lab. Much more of that here and there.

O Street, Pretend Lovers, Wav Lab

Once we had photos of all the letters, numerals and punctuation, it was screen time. We imported all the shots, corrected for lens adjustment and scrubbed all the extra details we didn’t want.

A font is born — on designing type

We started to digitise the font to vector, however, we liked the detail—like the lovely radial lines on this ‘8’. Unique characteristics such as this would have impossible to replicate any other way.


Design with this kind of texture often gets labelled with the derisory ‘grunge’ label. Many a swiss-font-packing-rational-modernist would drop their pantone coffee mug at the slightest possibility of ‘adding texture’ to a font.

We’ve found that it’s actually very difficult to design a good ‘grunge’ font. The software just doesn’t cope that well.

O Street roadline A

For example, here’s an ‘A’ drawn for us by Tam. Digitised to vector, it has literally tens of thousands of points. Eventually it was really just a case of balance, and a lot of trial and error. Overly simplifying it would betray the nature of the type, but too much detail would mean a slower-loading and less functional font.

A font is born — on designing type A font is born — on designing type

Some people stop at having a vector version of a typeface, which is okay for very limited headline use. However, we wanted a fully functioning font for print and web. To make it happen, we turned to software called Glyphs. If anyone is thinking of making a typeface, we’d highly recommend it. You can setup each character in illustrator and then paste it into the right position. More here on how to do that.

A font is born — on designing type ostreet-type-18 ostreet-type-16

Thankfully with our font just being an upper-case only headline font, we only had a few characters to set the spacing and kerning on.

A font is born — on designing type

As with the rest of the project, there were no shortcuts here. We tried to match it as closely as we could to the spacing on the roads, albeit designed for different sizes. Each letter still had to be carefully looked at in relation to every other letter.

Another final thing we did to try and keep some of the kind of character you get on the roads is to have alternate characters. So the font is programmed to rotate characters in sequence as you type.


O Street good

In the end, here’s three things we hope you take away about designing a typeface:

  1. Go for it.
    If you’ve got half a typeface designed in illustrator, try glyphs and get stuck in.
  2. Collaborate.
    Something we do a lot at O Street. People are good. And the people we worked with on this are amazing.
  3. No shortcuts.
    We might have spent half the time we actually did on this project. Or been half as ambitious. But it would probably only be half as good.