Vagus Magazine Summer 2021 Feature Story
Tom Cunningham is an Australian-based typeface designer specializing in unique display fonts.
Byron Bay, Australia
Through his New Tropical Design studio, he creates elegant single-weight typefaces that can be sold to graphic designers and design studios.
Typeface: Future Classic
When did you develop an interest in designing typefaces and how long have you been producing creative fonts?
I started as a freelance designer and moved into digital product design (logo, templates, and graphics). From there, I moved into typeface design as I loved unique typography and thought there was space for more interesting typefaces in the market. I have been doing this full-time for about 3 years now.
What was the inspiration that fueled the creation of your design studio?
I live in a small town. Without any opportunities to join an existing studio, I started my own for the sole purpose of needing a job.
Who are the members of the New Tropical Design team? Do you collaborate with other designers?
It’s mostly me. I have a few contractors who I use to help out with the boring stuff and I sometimes collaborate with lettering artists to make some fun typefaces.
New Tropical Design is located in Australia, a beautiful country surrounded by water and beaches. The typefaces have a curvature that resembles waves, and therefore prompt the question: do your surroundings and experiences influence the work you create?
100%. Nature is the best designer and it’s full of unique curves. It’s not interested in being perfect and that’s part of its beauty. If you look for inspiration on Pinterest or Instagram, you will just end up looking like everyone else. In nature you will find something new every day.
Sometimes it can be easy to just “stick to what works”, but this can result in repetitive productions and possibly even lead to a creative plateau. As a designer, how do you challenge yourself to come up with new/different ideas?
I have lots of tricks to keep it fresh. For example: One trick I use is to scribble abstract shapes and curves all over a page or my design software with no intention of creating anything. I then look over it and pull outlines or shapes I think are interesting. Those shapes are twisted or turned until they can fit into a curve of a letter. Once I have 1 letter, It’s a puzzle to work out how the rest will fit in. Sometimes I design my letters with the page upside down or back to front to find something unique. Jimmi Hendrix played his guitar upside down (he was left-handed and he played a right-handed guitar). This is why he had such a unique style. I always think about that.
In terms of running your business, what have your experiences been like from a marketing perspective?
I approach my business decisions just like I do with my typeface design. I try to think outside the box. My marketing strategy is quite different from most companies trying to sell products. I try to focus all of my time on creating good work. I find that others will market your work for you for free if it’s good enough. The opportunities that can come from something going viral online are much greater than just running ads to promote your work.
In what ways would you like your business to develop in the future?
Good question. I have created almost 50 typefaces over the last 3-4 years and I always wonder if I will run out of new ways to draw letters but at this stage, I'm still going. The world of design and digital product design changes every few months so the main goal is just to keep up.
Are there milestones that you’ve reached in your career that you’re appreciative of?
I just hit 50,000 typefaces sold which is kind of crazy. I have seen my work throughout the world from large corporations to small boutiques, in global protest movements, and in my local supermarket. It’s always exciting to see what other designers create using my typefaces.
Typeface: Future Classic
Typeface: Future Classic
When browsing through your online store, there is a line that reads “Your purchases help feed kids in 3rd-world countries”. Do a percent of the proceeds from purchases go to charities?
I have been lucky to have had financial success with my typefaces over the last few years. This has enabled me to not only feed my own kids from typeface sales but also to help out others. New Tropical has a sponsorship with World Vision that helps supply food and other essentials to kids in the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh.
What is it like to live in Australia?
I love it. I have travelled all over the world but I find Australia is the best place to live for me. I can watch whales go by from my rooftop studio and surf every morning. The weather is usually good, and there's a lot to see and explore. I am very lucky to have been born here. I do miss seeing the rest of the world and can’t wait to get going again once COVID-19 is over!
In the process of creating work, what have you learned about yourself?
I have learned that I'm just like every other designer. Every creative project goes through these stages: loving it, hating it, almost giving up then ending up with something pretty cool. A creative mind is great for design work but it’s also great at distracting you, making you question everything and the imposter syndrome never goes away. You just have to accept it and remind yourself that it will all work out!
Typeface: Star Light
You can view more collections from the New Tropical Design studio and purchase affordable typefaces from their online store: www.newtropicaldesign.com
Portfolio Website: www.newtropicaldesign.com
This interview was originally published in Issue 2 of Vagus Magazine: Transient Illusions (June 2021).