Categories / Interviews

Bits of Inspiration from Dan Cederholm’s Design Journey

Featuring Cartridge by SimpleBits

Laura Busche July 25, 2023 · 13 min read

In the world of design, Dan Cederholm is a household name: a master of his craft whose many creative pursuits have seen him wear many hats—from designer and entrepreneur to author, musician, and even licensed captain. As a co-founder of Dribbble and the mind behind Cork’d, Dan’s innovative spirit is evident. However, it is his insightful takes on imperfection, authenticity, and the power of community in design that are the heart of his lasting influence in our field.

Dan’s story is a fascinating journey of continuous learning, from his deep love of type and letterpress printing to his dabbling in display fonts — now available in his new Creative Market shop.

Whether you’re curious about type design, embarking on your own entrepreneurial journey, or seeking to understand the ever-blurring lines between digital and physical design, you’re in for a treat. We sat down with Dan to learn about his journey and refreshing perspective on design.

How did typography become a part of your world?

It’s kind of funny that this is what I’m doing now. I can’t help but partially blame the pandemic a little bit on it, but truth be told, my love for type goes back since the beginning.

I’ve always been drawn to the world of type, its complexity and beauty, and the idea of creating fonts had always been at the back of my mind. Fast forward to the early 2000s, I ventured into this passion and ended up making a pixel font. This was a time when making pixel icons was trending. 

During this period, the tools were intimidating. I was a novice, trying to work my way through FontLab, trying to get something that worked. But I really didn’t fully grasp what was going on. The complexity of the process turned me off from making other fonts. The software became a sort of a blocker for me, unfortunately.

A walk, a vintage bank sign, and the birth of a new passion

Fast forward a bit more, just before the pandemic, I’d been walking by this bank here in Salem, Massachusetts. It was a vintage bank sign that had been there for years. Each time I looked at it, with ‘vault alarm’ inscribed on it, I found myself drawn to the lettering.

That’s gotta be a font.

It was a blend of vintage lettering, perhaps from the early 1900s. Finally, when the pandemic happened, we were all looking for things to do while we couldn’t be out.

So there I was, driven by my long-standing fascination with typography and armed with an abundance of time. And that’s how my journey with SimpleBits began.

How did you master the art of making a font?

And I’m like, all right, you know what? I’m going to buckle down and actually learn how to make a font. I’m going to teach myself how to do this. And I credit Glyphs, the tool, for making it all possible.

The moment I started using Glyphs, it clicked. This I get, I can work with this. And from then, I just plowed through learning glyphs, trying to mimic the vintage lettering I had found, beginning with a handful of letters. Gradually, I fleshed out the rest of the alphabet, imagining what a complete set would look like. And that was how I got into it.

This was a few years ago. I consider myself still new to this type design game. It’s kind of interesting and fun to start over again at my age, learning something completely new, stepping out of my comfort zone. I relish the process of learning something new and then sharing my experiences, helping others follow in my footsteps.

How did the pandemic change your perspective?

There was more time to just sort of ruminate on the meaning of life and what we want to spend our time doing.

I had this extra time that I didn’t think I had. Liked I mentioned earlier, I had been walking by this sign every day for a long time. I really wanted to make this a font, but had never actually buckled down and tried it. I guess I credit the pandemic with nudging me to actually take the time to follow a passion I had been procrastinating on.

Where does the font design process start for you?

For me, it was that sign with the unique lettering that piqued my interest. Given that it was on probably a hundred-year-old building, I was confident it wasn’t an already existing font.

I had the letters ‘vault’ and ‘alarm’ to begin with. That was all I had to go on. And there it was, a challenge that I loved: solving the rest of the puzzle. Because designing type is quite like puzzle-solving in a really cathartic way.

Creating each letter is kind of like this little self-contained puzzle that I can just immerse myself into. And it gives you a sense of accomplishment, you know: I made the ‘K’ today, or made an ‘S’, which is always difficult. It’s these little victories that made it fun for me initially. I hadn’t made a bunch of ‘S’s before, and each time I created another glyph, it was a learning experience.

Letters from Cartridge, an 80s-inspired video game font

What has your learning process looked like?

Type design is one of those things that you’re constantly getting better at. You’re learning every time you create another glyph. I know a lot of type designers look back at their early work and cringe because they’ve learned so much. But I kind of love that about the process, the imperfection of especially the early stuff.

I’m not trying to create the next super family of fonts that will be used everywhere or for corporations. My passion lies more in crafting imperfect typefaces that have a very specific goal and use, like helping a designer create something that feels a little handmade, a bit quirky.

Wonky, now that’s a good word in the type design world. Wonky fonts is probably what I should have named the foundry. But that’s perhaps a tad too on the nose.

What’s the story behind SimpleBits?

Funny you should ask. So it’s SimpleBits, which has been my company and blog name for about 20 years now. There was a moment where I thought about rebranding to Simple Type Company specifically for the fonts, and even ran with that for a little while. However, I got really overwhelmed with managing double the social media channels and twice the workload.

I realized this was getting ridiculous. Being essentially a two-person operation, I needed to consolidate and lean into the brand that has been an integral part of me. SimpleBits is me, and that’s what it should be. It’s simple, right?

I believe for the type of type, I’m crafting, Simple Bits works as a name. Now, the goal is just to maintain consistency.

What do these “bits” mean to you? 

For me, it’s all about those small learning revelations. Whether I’m pondering a design task, guiding someone on how to start with fonts, creating websites, or building a community, those ‘bits’ are the nuggets of knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way.

In my books, these ‘bits’ are potentially interesting points or insights that I’ve gained from my experiences. I’m careful not to present them as hard-and-fast rules or expert advice. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, just a creative individual constantly learning and starting over from scratch.

These ‘bits’ are a casual way of saying, “Here are things that I learned, take them for what it’s worth.” They are not life lessons but shared insights, which was always the thought behind the name.

I had this thought that I would love to hear these ‘bits’ from everybody. If you can distill the key points of what you’re trying to explain about your work into a handful of points, or ‘bits’ as I call them, it’s an interesting way to frame it that the general public might understand.

These ‘bits’ are personal. They reflect my experiences and my creative perspective on the world.

What’s your signature style?

While I don’t have a specific intentional style in mind, I do aim for a few things when you look at what I’ve created so far. I strive for a sense of genuineness and a handmade quality in my work.

“I strive for a sense of genuineness and a handmade quality in my work.”

In the past, ‘handmade’ might have been considered a goofy way to describe something, especially in our digital world. I’ve admittedly used the term a lot myself. But with the rise of AI and such, ‘handmade’ or human-made has taken on a new significance. It speaks to something that someone has put a lot of thought into.

“‘Handmade’ or human-made has taken on a new significance. It speaks to something that someone has put a lot of thought into.”

So, I believe ‘handmade’ works in this case. And it also works for other foundries. My fonts might be placed next to those from other creators on Creative Market, but they have this distinct ‘handmade’ touch that sets them apart.

How does imperfection shape your style?

Going back to the idea of imperfection, that’s certainly part of my style as well. While it might conveniently cover up some mistakes, I believe that these imperfect parts of type lend to the style and set them apart.

I’m not striving to recreate Helvetica or anything—I admire type designers who can focus so intently on a single thing. Instead, I aim to create something a bit more quirky, something that designers can use quickly and easily. So, I would say my style can be described as genuine, handmade, and nostalgic.

Where do you find inspiration?

A lot of my typefaces have been inspired by older examples, be it a video game label from the ’80s, a sign on a ferry boat, or some nautical themes from my New England surroundings. Each one has a personal story or meaning for me. Once I’ve finished a typeface, I move on to the next, continually seeking that next spark of inspiration.

My main source of inspiration isn’t the hyper-digital world. Despite starting my career in digital and coding, I’ve come full circle to appreciate physical objects and craftsmanship. I find inspiration in real-world examples and love that this can be translated into digital work.

From Dan’s book “Twenty Bits I Learned About Making Fonts”

What’s your favorite font thus far?

When asked about a favorite from my catalog, that’s a tough question. Each design is like a little child to me—I’ve put so much thought into each one, regardless of how successful they are or how many people use them.

If I had to choose, though, it wouldn’t be the most popular font. ‘Easy Coast’ is probably my favorite. Not because it’s the best typeface or the most utilized, but more due to the idea of where it came from. The inspiration came from a potential client disliking some lettering I did. The design felt unique to me, like chiseling away at a square woodblock to create letterforms, and had a surfy retro ’70s theme to it.

When designing a typeface, there’s an interesting cycle that occurs, particularly with a design like ‘Easy Coast’. The font was completed digitally, then turned into physical wood type, which was then printed on paper. It’s this loop between digital and analog that I find fun and intriguing.

“It’s this loop between digital and analog that I find fun and intriguing.”

The ‘Easy Coast’ font isn’t the most usable—it’s very specific in its vibe and its application. Yet for the right use, it’s perfect. Much like Comic Sans, a font often criticized, yet when used in the correct context, it’s entirely suitable.

Who do you design for? What kinds of brands use your fonts?

I imagine the typical user of my fonts to be an independent designer, possibly more on the illustration side, who needs a range of letter forms to complement their style. But, I’d also love to see brands adopt them—any brand wanting to express genuineness, playfulness, and a touch of imperfection.

I appreciate imperfect logos, even those that might be considered “wrong” from an academic graphic design standpoint but work wonderfully for the brand and prove successful over time. Brands within quirky industries often exhibit such logos.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment would be for a company to use one of my fonts in a logo that, while potentially disliked by graphic designers, stands the test of time as part of a successful brand.

What are your top resources for beginners?

For those just starting out as designers, one invaluable resource I’d recommend is writing—sharing your learning journey publicly. It’s crucial not to fear admitting you’re not an expert or that you’re still learning. Documenting your process can help both you and others on the same journey.

While I’m not a type expert, I’ve found immense value in writing about my experiences, even authoring a book and conducting workshops. Encouraging people to overcome the mental roadblocks that keep them from starting something new is a passion of mine.

Type design, for instance, can seem daunting, and while it might appear that you need an extensive academic background or knowledge of mathematics, in reality, a keen eye can sometimes be the most crucial asset.

Overcoming impostor syndrome and building a community

My persistent imposter syndrome has ironically served as an ally, pushing me to share my experiences and growth while admitting my uncertainties. This openness has helped build a community around me.

“My persistent imposter syndrome has ironically served as an ally, pushing me to share my experiences and growth while admitting my uncertainties.”

Writing and sharing experiences are highly recommended for beginners. This could mean blogging like in the old days, or utilizing the myriad platforms available today like video, podcasts, and social media. Don’t be hesitant to share your process; choose a medium that suits you best or even explore multiple avenues.

In type design specifically, don’t hesitate to dive in and create, even if you lack formal education in the field. Initial fears typically dissipate as you start making and releasing your work. Remember, your early creations might not be perfect, but each letter, each typeface, is a stepping stone towards improvement. Don’t be afraid to share your journey.

You can follow my journey on various platforms under the handle @simplebits and visit my website You can find my shop there, featuring books, fonts, t-shirts, merch, and other elements of my ever-evolving brand. Going forward, my focus will be on creating more fonts and physical products.

About the Author
Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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