Q&A: Post Typography founders discuss partnership with Topos Graphics, their work in Baltimore and more

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From left: Seth Labenz, Nolen Strals, Bruce Willen and Roy Rub. Photo courtesy of Post Typography.

You might know them for their signature W sign near the Waverly Farmers Market. Or the striking black-and-white storefront for Beyond Video on Howard Street. The John Waters Star Walk in Hampden. The cinema-themed graphics at the Parkway Theatre.

For more than a decade, the design studio Post Typography has made its mark on Baltimore’s visual landscape, while helping clients strengthen their identities and sharpen their messages.

But 12 years after it was founded, Post Typography, one of Baltimore’s leading graphic design studios, is changing the way it does business. Partners Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals announced this summer that they would scale back the work they do as Post Typography and form a partnership with a New York-based studio, Topos Graphics.

Willen and Strals say the name Post Typography isn’t going away completely and that they will continue to work for some of the clients they’ve assisted over the years, including Union Craft Brewing and the Maryland Film Festival.

“Post Typography, the brand and the business, is still going to exist, and we’ll be working on selective projects as Post Typography, but the physical office is going away,” Willen said.

“It’s not a merger” with Topos Graphics, he added. “It’s a partnership. We’re a separate entity from them… This seems like the best-case scenario. A lot of times businesses make changes under duress or pressure, financial or otherwise. I think we’re doing this in a very considered way.”

Founded in 2005 by Seth Labenz and Roy Rub, Topos Graphics has offices in New York City and Atlanta. Its cultural, nonprofit and commercial clients include the Knight Foundation, the Jewish Museum of New York, MoMA PS1 and KIND Healthy Snacks.

Willen and Strals, who met while they were students at the Maryland Institute College of Art, established Post Typography in 2007 and have had offices in Baltimore and New York City. Their agency has completed design work in print, digital and built spaces for a variety of clients, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Special Olympics, Time Magazine, Random House and John Legend. They say they’ll continue to work with certain clients and will lead high-profile projects both in collaboration with Topos Graphics and independently.

As part of the change, they leased the office they’ve occupied at 2219 St. Paul Street to a landscape architecture and urban design firm, Unknown Studio. On Thursday they’re having a sale of equipment, artwork and other items from their office.

The partners say the change is amicable, but they wanted to have the freedom to go in somewhat different directions when opportunities arise.

Willen, 38, says he’s interested in doing more work in the areas of placemaking, public space, civic design and art. He’s looking for opportunities that build on his skills in experiential design, arts branding and formulating design strategies for cultural institutions and communities.

Strals, 40, says he wants to do more in the commercial realm, continuing the work he has done for customers such as 2SP Brewing Company, Union Craft Brewing and the Maryland Film Festival.

By joining forces with Topos Graphics, they say, they won’t have to spend so much time on areas such as business development and office management and will have more time to focus on design. They say the new partnership will introduce them to Topos’ clients in Miami and Atlanta, while giving Topos’ principals a chance to meet their clients in Baltimore and Washington.

“We’re excited about this evolution of Post Typography,” Willen said. “Seth and Roy are creative kindred spirits, and they’ll continue the ethos and stellar work Post Typography is known for. The partnership offers new opportunities for everyone, and gives Nolen and me some room to grow and collaborate with new people.”

“Post Typography has been pushing the envelope with wit, humor and class for over a decade, changing Baltimore in the process, and garnering a reputation as one of America’s top design studios,” Labenz said in a statement. “Roy and I are thrilled to be combining forces.”

Willen and Strals took some time recently to talk about the work they’ve done together and the changes they’re making. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Baltimore Fishbowl: How did this change come about?

Nolen Strals: We’ve been doing this for a long time together, and as time has gone on, Bruce and I have been getting interested in different aspects of design. We have known Seth and Roy from Topos Graphics for over a decade, and when this opportunity to partner with them came up, it just made sense as a way to give each of us some more freedom but keep working together, too.

Bruce Willen: We were talking about how to reduce some of our managerial responsibilities. One has to wear a lot of different hats when running a design studio, and this was a way that we could give ourselves more creative space individually.

BFB: How did you get to this point?

BW: We were having a conversation with Roy and Seth, and the conversation evolved very naturally. They were interested in scaling up their practice and bringing in some new clients.

BFB: You’ve been in Baltimore since you were students at MICA?

NS: We both liked the city. We had already started to make some connections creatively, and it just felt right to stick around.

BW: Baltimore is a great town for anyone who wants to explore, to push themselves creatively and take risks creatively, because it’s a cheaper city to live in and there’s a little more space. There’s a more communal and collaborative spirit within the creative communities here that you don’t necessarily find as much in cities like New York that have a more market-driven art world, for lack of a better word.

BFB: You’re saying it’s a good incubator.

BW: I definitely think so. You know, people often move to New York to try to make it because there’s a lot more economic opportunity even though it’s more difficult. But I think the silver lining of there being less economic opportunity in Baltimore is that people really can afford to take risks. You can do something that’s a little louder, crazier, cooler. It’s the same way New York was in the ’80s or ’90s

BFB: Many architecture and interior design firms may be good, but if they’re based in Baltimore, the opportunities for them may be more limited than if they were in an area where they have access to more clients. Is that true in your profession?

BW: Absolutely. There are definitely fewer clients in Baltimore. Budgets are smaller.

BFB: Are you getting around that by joining forces with a New York-based studio?

BW: I think it works in both our favor and Topos Graphics’ favor. We’re going to get opportunities to work on some projects that they’re working on in New York City or Miami or some of the other cities that they’re active in, and they’re going to get opportunities to work on projects in D.C. and Baltimore. So I think for all of us, it’s a good way to expand our networks and the clients that we work for.

The W sign outside the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly. Photo courtesy of Post Typography.

BFB: When two offices come together, sometimes there’s a trial period or something.

BW: Since it’s not a merger, we’re just going for it. If it was a merger, obviously we would want to feel each other out a little bit more first. Topos and Post Typography share a very similar approach to design, and they work for similar types of clients, a lot of nonprofits, arts and cultural people. And the commercial clients they work for are mission-driven companies that are trying to do more than make a profit. They have a very ethical approach to the way they practice.

BFB: Will you have any kind of physical presence in Baltimore? Work from home?

BW: Work from home. Co-working. One of the nice things about the work climate now, compared to when we started, is that there’s a lot more flexibility in terms of where you can work.

BFB: What is there a need for that you can fill better than anybody else?

BW: I’m getting more interested in public space, placemaking, art. Post Typography has been doing some projects that touch on this recently, but oftentimes it’s only a small part of a much bigger project. Personally, I’d like to focus much more on public space.

BFB: That sounds like you’ll be part of a larger team. You can’t be the placemaker all by yourselves, necessarily.

BW: That’s one thing I’m looking forward to. The flexibility of shrinking also means the possibility of being able to partner with other people as well.

NS: Exactly. Flexibility is a big part of it. And the opportunity to collaborate with new people as well to take on new projects. We’re both creative people. We’re always trying to push ourselves forward and do new things, learn new things, work with new people.

BFB: Is there an example of something you’ve done that shows the direction you want to head into?

BW: I think some of the projects like the Waverly sign, the W for the farmers’ market, or the installation that we did at Light City last year, the underwater light installation [with PI.KL Studio and Figure 53]. The title was “Some Thing in the Water.” I’m very interested in projects that blur the lines between art and design, projects that aren’t strictly utilitarian.

BFB: Nolen, what are you planning to focus on?

NS: I really want to focus on clients in the commercial space.

BFB: Such as Union Craft Brewing?

NS: Union Craft, and we have a relationship with a [client] in Pennsylvania called 2SP Brewing Company. We’ve also done a little bit of work in the world of legal marijuana. I find that market is ripe for doing more interesting work than what’s happening. At the same time, I’m continuing to do work for the Maryland Film Festival.

BFB: Design that promotes products or organizations?

NS: That’s what I’d like to focus on. In general, I like to help people with a good product or a good event. To make them more than they already are.

BFB: What work of yours makes you most proud?

NS: I feel like I don’t want to single out any one client, because I loved them all, but I’m super proud of all our work with the Maryland Film Festival. It goes back to 2011. I feel like we really helped to better identify their visual voice.

BW: The Festival is obviously a great example. We’ve worked with a lot of organizations, often smaller arts, cultural, nonprofit organizations. Sometimes very DIY, like Beyond Video. Working with them has been great. We love partnering with people who are doing something a little bit new. I think probably a lot of people were asking, “You’re opening a video rental store in 2019? You’re insane.” But so far it seems like they’re doing pretty well.

The lobby of the Parkway Theatre. Photo courtesy of Post Typography.

BFB: How has Post Typography most made its mark?

BW: I guess it’s really in the cultural scene in Baltimore. That’s one of the cool things about living in the city and being so involved and invested in the cultural community here. I think we’ve made an impact in our work but also helping out all these people that are doing cool things, whether it’s giving them some sort of support or taking what they have and giving them a framework to do what they do.

NS: Something people have said through the years is that we’re able to help elevate our clients but also the visual landscape in general.

BFB: What are you looking forward to most?

NS: I’m most looking forward to having greater opportunities to focus on the type of commercial food and beverage work that I’m most passionate about, and getting to deep dive on certain types of design that I’ve just begun to explore.

BW: I’m really looking forward to pushing myself more as a designer and trying new types of projects and collaborating with new folks, including on public space and art.

This is something that Seth said, so I can’t take credit for coining the term, but we like being “professional amateurs,” which means seeking out new opportunities where we can approach things from a fresh perspective. We had never done a building like the Parkway before, but approaching it as amateurs, I think, gave us a different perspective and a different approach to our design.

NS: We were able to bring new ideas to it because we didn’t already have a set vision.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts


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