Allow me to begin by stating that Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, the design duo behind Post Typography, are bright, well-mannered people. They’re also eminent professionals. Since they established their Baltimore-based agency in 2007, it has amassed a multidisciplinary body of work including branding, illustration, environmental design and, of course, typography. Post’s clients include the New York Times Magazine, Random House and the Maryland Film Festival. Its portfolio advances social-justice causes and welcomes ordinary people of all kinds.
Now, keep all this in mind as we begin with a less-than-perfectly-polite anecdote.
“In the early 2000s, we were collaborating on a poster for this band, Arab on Radar,” recalls Strals. Then students at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Strals and Willen played together in a heavy metal band called League of Death. “Arab on Radar’s lyrics are sexually charged, and their music is very harsh,” Strals continues. “We took a photo of the Beatles and snuck into MICA’s mail room. I had my boss’s key because that was my work-study job. We downloaded porn on the computer, cut the Beatles’ heads off, replaced them with boners and drew all of the band names as semen flying out the top.”
“Your mom’s going to love this story,” interjects Willen, at which Strals ruefully laughs. “True, and [MICA] might take my degree away,” he says, continuing, “As we were drawing the letters, one of us remarked that making letters from that substance is what you might call ‘post typographic.’ We thought that was funny and decided Post Typography would be the name that we collaborate under.”
Wit and subversion are twin kinds of intelligence, a theme that persists in Post’s work. Strals graduated from MICA before Willen, but the two designers kept in touch. They still played music together, reforming as punk trio Double Dagger. Willen briefly moved to Delaware to work at House Industries, later returning to Baltimore. All the while, “we continued working together for music-related projects and freelance work,” Willen says. Then, “some friends who worked at the New York Times were like, ‘You guys should send stuff to our art directors.’ That’s when we realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t just doing stuff for a friend’s band for a few bucks. Maybe we could pay rent with this.’”
Or buy a Baltimore row home. I meet Willen and Strals there, where Post’s offices occupy most of a nineteenth-century building in the Old Goucher neighborhood. I can’t see a sign that announces Post’s presence, until I notice a cleverly altered NO LOITERING sign. It’s overlaid with a splash of highlighter-yellow and royal-purple lettering that reads: TOMORROW, THIS IS PUBLIC SPACE FOR ALL. The lettering trembles as if it’s a disturbed communications broadcast.
I enter into what was previously a front-room parlor, now lined with desks. Light filters through the front window amid a tangle of houseplants and one dogged poinsettia.
After meeting colleagues Christian Mortlock and Kacie Mills, I follow Strals and Willen up the wooden staircase. Strals leads the way; as we climb, I’m eye level with his bowling shirt, with the words Pay Attention across his shoulder blades. (It’s a design by Barney Bubbles, an English album designer in the late 1970s through 1980s.) The tour culminates on the roof deck, revealing Baltimore’s low, crooked skyline.
Heading back downstairs, we traverse a hallway painted tomato red and lined with limited edition prints that Post created for an exhibit commemorating the War of 1812. We settle in the rear conference room, whose most noteworthy feature is a massive, square basketball hoop at chest level. Willen dunks a square beanbag basketball—swish!—before we sit down.
Humor is manifest everywhere in Post Typography’s designs —the kind of humor that lets everyone in on the joke, and springs from such skilled confidence, it can afford to be good natured. Take Post’s client 2SP Brewing Company, cofounded in 2015 by award-winning brewer Bob Barrar. Mike Contreras, 2SP’s vice president of marketing and sales, describes the crowded market they were entering: “You go into a beer store, all the brands fall into category types. You’ve got your Allagash and Nevada Pale Ales, whose brands say, ‘We like to hike, we like our coconut water,’ that kind of thing.” (Contreras’s pungent Philly accent makes it clear how he feels about coconut water.) “You’ve got your commodified-dissent brands like Dogfish [where Contreras previously worked]. Those brands say, ‘Buy our product, we’re revolutionaries.’” As an outgrowth of the local tavern chain Two Stones Pub, 2SP was attempting to “carve its own niche, but we knew we couldn’t fake it,” Contreras says.
Contreras had met Strals six years before in a chance conversation at Club Charles, filmmaker John Waters’s favorite Baltimore dive bar. Contreras was auditioning another firm for 2SP’s launch but found them less than responsive, which made him antsy. So he reached out to Post, and found the firm both responsive and attuned to 2SP’s unique sensibility. The name 2SP reminded Post of an old motor-oil company more than a brewery, so, as Willen recalls, “We embraced that and made all the cans and everything reference old industrial packaging.” The result is exuberant, smart and, best of all, hip without excluding the unhip.
Contreras appreciates how Post Typography educated 2SP on the unfamiliar process of launching a brand. “They captured our essence and made it into something much bigger,” Contreras remarks. “Everything they pushed us towards has worked out in our favor. Post nailed it without compromising who we are,” says Contreras. “They fucking nailed it.”
Post Typography has used design to democratize access to very different conversations too. “I’m either the world’s best client or the worst,” says Gamynne Guillotte with a laugh. She’s chief education officer at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). With a background in architecture, “I’ve sat on the other side of the client’s chair. I have a strong sensibility and an ability to argue vigorously,” she continues. “Working with Post has been a beautiful and productive relationship.”
Guillotte first engaged Post in 2012 to design the BMA’s education space adjacent to the galleries. She appreciated how Post “understands the artistic process, but also the hard, bright line between art and design objects.”
When the BMA began its event series The Necessity of Tomorrow(s) in 2017, Guillotte and her colleagues wanted a “campaign that sat between marketing and visitor engagement,” she says. “We were inviting viewers into a speculative space. Irrespective of whether you end up at my event, the campaign would be judged successful if it engages people in that speculation.” The series title references an essay by Black, queer science fiction writer Samuel Delany. The essay, which is widely quoted among Afrofuturists, posits science fiction as a vehicle to “believe in and develop more alternative visions for tomorrow,” paraphrases Willen. It also considers “the impact of certain people being left out of a vision for the future.”
“Right away, we started writing,” recalls Willen. “What’s great about having designs be more focused on language is, we aren’t describing to people what they should think,” adds Strals. “Strong images might have boxed in the thinking.” The event series, which is ongoing, consists of provocative statements about the future, each beginning with the word Tomorrow. (The altered sign outside Post’s offices is one example.) The series website crowdsources fresh statements from the community.
Guillotte recalls “having cold feet” about the initial series ticket very late in the game. They’d opted for a shiny, Willy Wonka–style golden ticket, but Guillotte found herself speed dialing Willen to ask, “Is the ticket too nice? What does this signal—that the BMA is throwing money around? We want to bring in an underserved audience. What should hospitality at a museum look like?” She remembers how Willen patiently heard out her concerns. Then he said, “‘Either go very high or very low. But don’t go in between; that’s the worst of all worlds,’” she recalls. She appreciates how Post “articulated the implications of each decision. That’s a skill of a really good designer: demonstrating commitment to, and belief in, your decisions, but holding the client’s hand on their journey.”
Place, placemaking and community are all core to Post Typography’s work—and choosing Baltimore as its place is no accident. In contrast to pricier cities, “Baltimore isn’t a city where people come to ‘make it,’” says Willen. As Strals and Willen describe it, lower rents and smaller-scale community are mind clearing. They can select projects based on intrinsic value first. Great design here can, and must, speak to people beyond the design aficionado's circle.
Design snobbishness ranks highly among Strals and Willen’s peeves. They particularly dislike “what we call Ye Olde Brooklyn design,” says Strals. “If a business has the word purveyor in its name, you’re getting one of two styles: a mono laid script with rounded terminals, in cream or gold, on black.” It reminds Strals of a song he and Willen wrote as Double Dagger, called “Empty Dictionary.” “It was literally just speaking all these words whose overuse had drained them of all meaning,” Strals says. Words like “luxury,” “guaranteed” and “bipartisan” are all spat out in turn.
You might say Post Typography harnesses youthful rage at inauthenticity and metabolizes it for adults—into whip-smart, friendly and pointed yet hopeful visuals. Post’s approach to design recalls for me the ethos of another punk band that Strals, Willen and I all admired: Minor Threat. Like Post, the band’s name was always both joking and oddly earnest. Minor Threat’s influence cast a long shadow over punk and hardcore for decades. Post Typography may have started out minor, but it’s certainly not anymore. ca