Behind the Font: Modena, a Bold Font Duo by Jen Wagner
Talk to enough type designers and you’ll quickly realize something: there’s a story behind every letterform. In this Behind the Font series, we’re on a mission to reveal the creative process behind some of the most popular font families on Creative Market. This time around, we talked to Jen Wagner — the talented designer behind Modena.
1. Where does your creative process usually start?
When I first started, it was a lot of just working as I was inspired. I was still such a novice. I’m self-taught so I just wanted to get out as much as I possibly could to learn as much as I could. Since then as I’ve gotten better at my craft, I’ve moved more into the problem-solving side of it where it’s hard for me to just put something out that looks like everything else because it’s trending.
Take Palmer Lake. That one was one that I made because I was working with a client and I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. She needed a special font for quotes and posters. I’ll look for something and, if I can’t find it, I’ll make it. If it solves a problem for me, it’s probably going to solve a problem for other designers.
That’s even like the first font that I ever put out I think was Faroe, and that one was solving a problem as well. I couldn’t find a modern serif stencil font, so it was like, “Well, I guess I’ll make one,” and it ended up coming out.
I guess my process has always been about problem-solving and wanting to make sure that fonts don’t just look good but actually help other people’s processes. As far as naming them after cities goes, I wanted to have a theme when I first started. But it’s been getting harder and harder!
2. What inspired you to design Modena?
That one’s funny. I always tell people: the ones that take off are the ones you wouldn’t expect to take off. There are so many fonts that I’ve made that are like, “This is it. This is the next big thing and it’s going to be number one awesome,” and then no one cares. But Modena is one of those that solves a problem. I was looking for a font pairing, something that I could either find pre-done or make myself that was this strong, feminine — just this bad-ass, rock-and-roll kind of vibe.
It felt like all of the scripts that were on the market at the time were either super cute and delicate, or on the complete other side of the pendulum: gritty, rough, hardly scripts. What I loved about the idea of Modena was taking this monoline script, so you don’t have so much of the calligraphy look. It kind of takes the cute out of it and makes it more streamlined. It was a lot more scribbly than anything else I’d ever done but more intentional than just your handwriting at the same time.
I added a wide, strong sans with really clean lines and paired them. I want women, specifically, to feel like they can have a brand that is feminine and powerful and they don’t have to settle for just the cute calligraphic stuff.
3. What’s your favorite feature in this font that may not be immediately apparent?
I think more than features of the font itself, what I love is the possibilities of them together. Because the script is so thin and the sans is so wide and bold, you can layer them in Photoshop so it looks like the script is weaving in and out of the sans if you put them on top of each other.
I think it’s part of the success of this font that the balance is so delicate. You have this really light, like I said, almost signature font crossing something that feels more robust, powerful.
4. How has your style evolved since you first started your craft? Would you say you’re headed in any certain direction?
Your style will change as you get better at something and as you understand it more. I’ve been doing this for four years now and I’m, just in the last month, being educated for the first time. I’m taking courses at the Cooper Union for type design, which has been so great.
That’s why I encourage people to just do stuff. You don’t have to be educated. Education is great, but impostor syndrome will follow you around forever, whether you’re educated or not. So if you want to do something, do it and the more you do it the better you’ll get. Opportunities to learn more about the craft will come. This is the first time I’ve been actually learning the rules from someone who can look at something that I think is great and is my best work and be like, “Nope, because this, this, this, this, and this.” Just picking it apart, and I love that.
For years I was just like: put it out, it’s done, we’re moving on, we’re moving forward, we’re getting better. Now I’m excited to be learning the rules and why things might look just a little bit off. It’s like: this point needs to move three pixels. Stuff like that — it’s that subtle.
I want people to put themselves out there, because you never know what could happen when you do that. I didn’t know this was going to be my career. My plan was to have a female-owned-and-operated marketing and design firm. That was my dream, and when I quit my job to do that I couldn’t find any work. For seven months I was just out of work and all these clients that I had booked bailed day one. So I started making fonts in the meantime, and something just clicked. It wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t put my perfectionism on pause and just put things out. You’ll never know what’s possible if you don’t put yourself out there!
5. Many claim that finding the perfect font feels like falling in love. Describe a brand that would be a great match for Modena in three words.
I always envisioned fashion, female-owned, rock-and-roll. It wasn’t intended to be delicate; it meant to give the female touch a place in a position of power. It’s elevating both things: holding both the femininity and the power of it. The strong female protagonist is Modena to me. It’s not the damsel in distress — she doesn’t need help.
This font is about figuring it out and doing a killer job with a really bold, female energy that isn’t apologetic.
6. What advice do you have for aspiring typographers looking to build a brand? Any specific resources or tools?
One of my biggest things is to stick within your style and what comes to you naturally and solving the problems that you run into. I tell people that a lot of times the things that will be successful are right under our nose, because they’re problems that we’re experiencing. That goes both for design and the physical products market.
The whole point of a product that people want to buy is that it alleviates pain. It solves a problem for them. If you are being hired for design work, you’re solving a problem for that person and they’re not the only one that has it. If you’re being hired to design social media templates in your particular style and it’s really valuable to a client, it’s going to be valuable to other people as well.
As tempting as it is even for me now still to see what other people are doing and be like, “Oh shoot, I need to do something like that because it’s trending and I think it would sell well.” It doesn’t work. People can sniff it out.
When others see what I’ve created and make their own version, it frustrates me, not because I’m being copied, but because it feels like when you do that you’re actually robbing the market of your gift and your uniqueness and the thing that only you can offer people. Being inspired by other’s work and by products that are performing well is all fine and good and well — we all do that. I’m guilty too of seeing a number one font over and over and over again and being like, “I guess I should probably design something like that.”
If you can take data and market trends and put your unique spin on them, that’s where people find really great products. That’s where your unique creativity can actually solve a problem for people in a way that others might not; and that’s when you stop getting all of these copycat products.
I just released an update to one of my fonts, Rylan, that’s a good example of this. All of these ligature fonts with diamond accent characters are trending right now. I finally was like, “Fine, I’ll just update this one, and if people want that feature they can have it in this.” It’s not selling out. I don’t think that’s the thing. I think responding to the market is responding to the market, but you should really dig in and think, “How does my style do this?” As opposed to “How does their style do it and how can I copy that into something that exists?”
Filter the idea through your creativity, lens, perspective, worldview, and experiences. That’s when you come up with something that people want because it’s solving a problem in a truly unique way. I think there’s a balance that can be had, and want so badly for designers to find themselves thinking about how they can help others through their own perspective rather than referencing other people all the time.
Buyers realize, followers realize, and more importantly, you realize that you’ve been living something that’s not true to who you are, your vision, and your values. And, at that point, it’s just another job that you hate. What if it works? What if you’re designing something that you don’t enjoy in order to hopefully make a trending product that will be super successful and sell really well? What if it works and that’s what people want more of and then you’re just stuck in this job that you hate again? So instead of feeling pressured to create like someone else, make what you love, in a way that solves problems for others, and you’ll always enjoy what you do.
You can learn more about Jen’s fonts in her Creative Market shop, website, and Instagram account.
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