Mark Caneso

Today, we’re sitting down with Mark Caneso — designer, creative entrepreneur, and mad-lettering-scientist behind this year’s TypeCon identity.

Mark runs pprwrk studio, a design and lettering studio, and PSTypeLab, his retail and custom font foundry. In addition to wild ambigrams and typefaces like Pika, Hatch, and Quatro, he creates a bevy of must-have typographic retail goods including Apple Pencil wraps and furniture.

Mark’s mind-blowing lettering is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before. Luckily for us, he’s not only willing to push the limits of creative experimentation, he’s also incredibly down-to-earth and loves talking shop.

Read on to learn more about how Mark developed this year’s identity, his thoughts about the creative process, and his suggestions for designers who want to stretch their capabilities.

TypeCon: Tell us a little bit about you, for those who may not be familiar with your work — where are you based, and how did you find your way to lettering and type?

Mark: I’m currently based in Austin, Texas. My wife and I have been here for just over a year now.

Prior to Austin, we were in Portland for two and a half years and Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, for a year and a half. But originally I’m from SoCal. Grew up there, and went to Otis College of Art and Design in LA. That is definitely were I got the type design bug. I created my first typeface during my time there. I started doing more lettering as a way to come up with new typeface ideas. I felt like I was creating the same thing over and over so picking up a pencil and just drawing became a way to explore shapes and forms in a very different way then I had previously been working.

TypeCon: You’ve created the branding for TypeCon2019, which we’re beyond excited to show off and share. There’s an exuberance and playful spirit that runs through all of your lettering projects, and that characteristic dovetails perfectly with this year’s theme: “Nice!” How did you approach the project? What inspired your vision for this year’s identity? (We adore the logo — it looks as though the letters are smiling!)

Mark: Thanks. I definitely wanted this years identity to be a deviation from some of the past conference designs. When the board approached me about working on the brand I was stoked. I assumed they would have a concept that needed execution but they were very open to my interpretation of everything, including the theme. After some initial concepts I happened upon the idea of Minnesota Nice — the stereotypical behavior of people being courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. So I proposed TypeCon “Nice”. In my head I immediately saw it functioning in a way that allowed a lot of fun things to happen … Nice Shirt, Nice Tote, Nice Poster.

Nice can act like the voice of a variety of people, so we can typeset and letter it in a variety of styles.

NICE, Nice , Niiiiiiice — the identity can build off this word being so flexible, short and sweet.

TypeCon: You’re very open about the process of lettering and design — can you share an early sketch or two of logo options, and tell us more about your creative decision-making process? How did the logo evolve from that sketch to the final lettering we see here?

Mark: Yeah, people like seeing the process. I think it helps seeing the imperfect drawings and unrefined sketching. You can peek inside the mind of someone by seeing their sketches. I tend to do both analog and digital sketching and often bounce back and forth. I’ll even vectorize a sketch just so I can print it out and draw over it again. I used the iPad to do a bit of sketching as well.

TypeCon “Nice” Sketches by Mark Caneso

TypeCon “Nice” Sketches by Mark Caneso

As I worked the lock up, I felt in order to embody the “Nice” theme the forms should feel warm and inviting.

Some of the early exploration was all over the place. I did quite a bit of doodling. Knowing that the full lock-up needed to have TypeCon and Nice and the year, I felt like stacking the words and creating this bundle of letterform joy would be a good solution. Once I had the stacked words kinda working together structurally, it was a matter of refining again and again until it felt done. I printed it out and stepped away from it for about a month before coming back to it and putting the final touches on it. That time away helped me tackle it with fresh eyes.

TypeCon “Nice” by Mark Caneso

TypeCon: What’s been your favorite part of this project?

Mark: The freedom to take the idea and run with it. It’s been great to just make stuff. I’ve been able to draw, letter and even make a custom typeface for the identity. I hoped I’ve touched on a wide range of avenues that people in the type community would appreciate and I look forward to hearing what parts resonate the most with everyone.

TypeCon: Some of your most well-known projects are the incredible ambigrams featured in your Instagram. (You’re a lettering alchemist!) Can you share more about how these ambigrams, encrypted visual messages, and shape have become such an integral part of your work? How do you “see” the possibilities hidden inside letters and words?

Mark: I love creating pieces that force the viewer to look twice or spend a little time with it. There is something about not being so obvious that I gravitate towards. Being clever, puns and wordplay are just something that I feel are my personality coming through in the work. Staring at letters for the past 15+ years and training myself to try to see beyond the individual letters. Making a point to consider the negative space, the counters as well as the solid shapes. It all goes into creating something different and keeps me from boring myself.

Often, I’ll think of a word or words with conflicting meanings and see if I can somehow meld them together. I’m on a mission to make ambigrams of every word; some lend themselves to it and others are definitely a stretch. But those stretches keep me exploring shapes and hopefully lead me to unsuspecting results.

TypeCon: Are there any resources or tools that you would recommend for designers who are looking to challenge themselves and further their creative skills?

Mark: We have so much access to information and people all over the world are sharing more and more on social media. If you’re looking to challenge yourself, that often means doing something that is uncomfortable, which can be intimidating. But treat it like any other real world project. If you need to give yourself a timeline do that. Take a workshop at a conference like TypeCon (wink) or by your local AIGA chapter. If you’re specifically looking to dig into ambigrams there are a few books out there. One I have is Ambigrams Revealed by Nikita Prokhorov.

TypeCon: What’s next for pprwrk studio? Any upcoming projects that you’re excited about and can share?

Mark: I am working on creating a bunch of new products to bring to the TypeCon Marketplace. Those little personal projects excite me the most. The ability to be my own client is always a plus. Otherwise, I’m continuing to make progress on some new typefaces and always looking for collaboration opportunities

TypeCon: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and process with us, Mark!

You can see more of Mark’s work at TypeCon2019, @markcaneso, @letterfarm, and a workshop near you!