PDINZ Interview - Alistair McCready

An existing Member (DINZ) who has gained up to five years experience as a practising designer and attained a high level of professional competency in their design sector may apply to DINZ for Professional accreditation. A Professional Peer Review is carried out by a selected panel to acknowledge this Professional Membership (PDINZ).

The PDINZ Interviews are a follow up with recent successful Professional Peer Review candidates.

Alistair McCready PDINZ
Founder, Monolith 

Q: A lot has happened since the last time we interviewed you… can you break down the myriad of changes?
Al: Yes! The last 12 months especially have seen some fairly big changes. My wife Betty and I became parents and have made a home here in Auckland. We live out at Hobsonville, and both come from families that were once stationed here when it was an air base. Betty’s grandfather, in particular, was a squadron leader in the 1960’s. We walk past their old house most days — so in a way the area has long been part of our story.

Q: And you have a desk there at the shared workspace in the former hangar,  how are you finding that style of working?
Al: Yes it’s quite remarkable how things have come together in this way. The development of the area has been really well thought through, particularly down by the waterside. I’ve been able to set up a studio space in the former Sunderland hangar, surrounded by restaurants and some great walking spaces. The workspace itself is home to quite an eclectic mix of people; mainly engineers and financial advisers but a handful of creative professionals too. It makes for varied conversation in the brewery downstairs...

Q: You have had time to settle back in NZ after a period overseas; how would you compare being a designer in the UK and what you have found being back here?
Al: It still feels like we just moved home really, but a lot has changed for us personally. The local design community feels very different from when we first left NZ, but that might be more of a reflection of where we’re at, along with the myriad of circumstances re-shaping the world right now.

Working in the UK was fantastic, but difficult. Design studios there move very quickly and I appreciate now that for the most part I was in a heavy state of anxiety a lot of the time. A huge amount of resources are spent on short-lived projects, which I would say is the antithesis of the work I do now. Typefaces have a very long life span as opposed to brand activations that run for a week.

Working and living in an international center like London, compared to just visiting, are two very different things. What you gain in prolonged exposure to wonderful opportunities and experiences you also lose in other areas. It wears you down. I know for myself it’s easy to lose perspective when you’re riding in a tube six stories underground with thousands of people trying to get to the same place you are. Read into that what you will.

Q: Since then you have had a chance to work with the talented crew at Inhouse, what were some of the projects you enjoyed the most while you were there?
Al: Switching out Highbury Islington for Highbury Birkenhead was quite a shift. Inhouse is such a wonderful studio and I’m so grateful to them for allowing me the space to decompress. I used to joke that I needed to spend time working abroad to be good enough to join their team. I’m really proud of a lot of the work we did while I was there. I would say creating a brand typeface for NZPost would be a highlight. My fondest memories though are the simple things like a glass of wine around the kitchen table. Good times. 

Q: Now the big new project for you: Monolith, what is the impetus, business model, will it be a digital-native type foundry, who do you see your main clients being, spill the beans on what made you take the plunge? 
Al: The main impetus for making the move was simply to be more available for my family. It wasn’t so much about chasing a calculated opportunity as it was about being more fluid where I needed to be. My desk is a 15 minute walk from our home. That being said, I wouldn’t have taken the leap if I didn’t feel confident it was the right move.

Rather than taking the freelance route, I decided to set up my own design practice under the moniker of Monolith. It’s an evolving focus but primarily I’m creating custom type work for a range of clients both here and overseas. The response has been tremendous. Most often I occupy a role between another studio and their client, taking an existing idea or concept and re-working it into something usable. It’s not your classic foundry model but this has been a deliberate move so far. The output will shift and change but the work will always be centered around letters. 

Q: Are emoji designers the Lex Luthors of typography?
Ha! I’ve not heard that analogy before. While emoji’s still fall on the unicode table they’re a pretty different beast to letters. I used to think that those little symbols are nothing more than a form of lazy glitter for the illiterate; but I can appreciate now they’re part of an evolving language all on their own. I’m sure a fluent emoji speaker could rewrite this interview if they had to.

Q: How would you describe the mood, or the aesthetic or the ambience that Monolith fonts represent (is there one?)
Al: There is a Māori whakataukī or ‘proverb’ about walking backwards into the future which I see as a really beautiful application to the way I like to work. Ka mua, ka muri. I’m not intending to appropriate this into my own western worldview, as I know there is more to it than how I simply read it. Nevertheless, I see it as a guiding torchlight to the way I like to approach projects. With creating new typefaces, it’s really about understanding why something should exist, rather than just adding more to the spectrum. Something can be new while still reflecting some semblance of what has come before.

I have a growing library of my own original types, and when I’m ready some of these might make it out into the public sphere. The tone informing all of them is based on these same ideas. If I’m going to make something then I feel obligated to at least be thorough in doing so.

Q: Seems to me NZ is at an interesting historical crossroad in terms of typography, where many of us are learning how to use, type, write, draw and incorporate macrons into our day to day, for the first time ever… what could make that transition easier? (or what is making it harder?)
Al: All over the world people are becoming more aware of how to both pronounce and write languages correctly. Macrons are one of many diacritic marks used in plenty of latin based languages. They’ve long been a thing — but different technologies, especially over the last few centuries, have seen them fall by the wayside.

Most decent fonts have these accents available, but a lot of people just don’t know how to access them. From a digital point of view, typefaces tend to get compressed and stripped of these lesser-used characters by developers in an effort to save on loading times. When a non-existent glyph (like an ā) is then required it will default out to a backup font. I’ve even seen messaging for NZ’s Covid19 response where this has happened, even though I know the hero typface being used has these glyphs on offer.

All that to say, it’s simply a matter of caring. Slowly, but surely, indigenous words are being added to digital dictionaries, but we need to care enough to know what we’re writing. Support good type foundries that make well engineered typefaces. Use the right versions for the job and don’t go converting your own file types. If you don’t want to learn the keyboard shortcuts, there are apps available where you can search and plug these characters in manually.

Q: A lot of your work has had a print application. What do you see as the future of print?
Al: It’s difficult to speculate on what the future of print could be. I would say it’s entirely possible that books are fast becoming what they were a long time ago. Personal libraries were often built to communicate a certain status or point of interest. A wall of books is a pretty impressive sight these days. I don’t think print will ever be ‘dead’ as many people like to forecast — but things do have to be deemed ‘worthy’ of print now.

Q: You have been very involved with DINZ for a long time now… why, what has been the most valuable thing you have gained?
Al: I first got involved with DINZ alongside a group of other students while studying. Our attitude at the time was that if the Institute is our professional body and we were to one day inherit it, then it made sense to be involved rather than sit on the sidelines. Our way of showing support was to attend what events we could and just get involved if the opportunity presented itself — which it did. Measuring what we got in return didn’t really come into it. That being said, a lot of the connections I made back then are still really strong today.

Q: What do you hope to contribute as a PDINZ?
Al: Becoming a PDINZ felt like the next step in the journey. If I can be on the other side of those conversations I had as a student all those years ago, then that would be great. There has to be some sort of exchange happening between generations in this industry. Otherwise what are we all doing?

DINZ Interviews

When the opportunity arises, DINZ interviews leading designers from here and overseas. These interviews seek to dig beneath the surface to address the common and uncommon challenges, problems and opportunities the design community faces.