Open brief

It’s a transitional time for font design, with the need to make lettering work across a range of media shaping the discipline and opening up new possibilities. Anna Richardson hears how a new generation of type designers views the craft

Francesca Bolognini
As is common among type designers, Francesca Bolognini describes her job as a labour of love. ‘You need a passion for achieving balance and beauty,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes you make shapes that look good on some letters, but do not work for the whole alphabet. So there is a lot of compromise and honesty involved. It’s important to understand who is going to use your typeface and in what context. A good type designer must be sensitive to the final use.’

It wasn’t until her final undergraduate year, during a placement with Antonino Benincasa, that Bolognini started to work with type and typography. A two-year stint at Spiekermann Partners in Berlin, followed by an MA in Type and Media at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, fanned the passion. ‘Since then, I haven’t stopped working with type,’ she says.

Inspiration comes from many places, such as ‘old books, good type, old type, bad type, lettering on the street, packaging’, says Bolognini, who volunteers at the St Bride print library in London. ‘By cleaning the nooks and crannies I get to see some amazing books.’

Seeing your type design being used well is the most satisfying part of design, she adds. This happened when The New York Times Magazine used her Kina typeface for an issue on women’s rights. ‘They used it so well and I could not ask for more.’

Bolognini is currently freelancing in graphics and type, and collaborates with Miles Newlyn, with whom she just finished a script typeface for HTC. She is constantly working on Kina, the typeface she started at The Hague which is due for release by the Village type foundry in the new year.

It’s a good time to be a type designer, believes Bolognini. ‘The development of the Open Type format is giving us much more freedom for testing and experimenting with new ideas and forms,’ she says. ‘The “information age” has also blurred a traditional barrier between type designer and graphic designer. I expect this trend to continue in the future, and personally, I welcome it.’

Dan Reynolds
American Dan Reynolds has picked up a myriad of influences over the years. He studied graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design, before moving to Offenbach in Germany to study typography, where he was nudged by tutors towards type design. A University of Reading Masters degree in typeface design followed, and Reynolds has now settled in Berlin where he works for Linotype and has been designing fonts full-time since January.

After the colourful 1990s, he believes the current generation of type designers is often seen as too conservative. ‘Everything got very clean, with lots of white space and order, which seems to have manifested itself in type design,’ he explains. ‘The focus in the 1990s was on pushing borders. Now designers think about making readable typefaces that include other languages and are usable on screen and on mobile phones. There is a conservatism there, but at the same time you’re opening possibilities.’

Those include exploring tools to adapt print type for the screen. ‘There is no process yet, so this is what’s consuming our thoughts. It’s exciting. If we don’t adapt to new technologies then we will become obsolete. This drives me and younger generations,’ he says.

Typeface revivals are becoming less important, says Reynolds, but acknowledging your influences is more popular. When he designed his Malabar typeface at Reading, for example, one of his influences was a certain punchcutter from the low countries in the late 16th century. ‘There are no direct similarities; the thin strokes are a bit similar but not handled the same way.’ Gerard Unger has also made his mark on Reynolds. ‘His typefaces are very clean and you can see how they’re put together,’ he explains. ‘There’s not a lot of fuss. Everything is there because it needs to be. This philosophy has influenced me.’

Jo De Baerdemaeker
Lungta is a Tibetan font, a refined digital typeface which attunes a Latin set, making it compatible with a Tibetan one. ‘As a text face, Lungta has a character of its own: a particular sturdiness yet sober and simple in design, with large open counters,’ says its creator Jo De Baerdemaeker, who designed it during his MA in type design at the University of Reading.

Belgian De Baerdemaeker already had a postgraduate degree in aggregate typography from Antwerp, and had travelled extensively through India, so he relished the challenge of tackling a non-Latin font at Reading. He went on to research a PhD in ‘Tibetan Typeforms: From their inception in 1738 to the present day’.

De Baerdemaeker is a keen advocate for non-Latin typefaces. ‘There aren’t that many [non-Latin] fonts yet, and the ones that do exist, especially the text fonts, are of rather poor quality,’ he says. Multilingual typography aspects in wayfinding and exhibition design will become increasingly important, he believes. And recent technologies, such as Open Type, enable designers to incorporate big character sets, supplementing Latin characters with other languages, but within the spirit of the typeface.

Creating non-Latin typefaces has specific challenges, such as the number of characters, and you have to approach it not just from the design, but also from a scripting point of view. Designers of non-Latin scripts should do sound research into typographic developments of specific scripts, De Baerdemaeker says. ‘Indian or Arabic scripts were developed for linotype or monotype machines, forexample, and some of the scripts suffered from the restrictions of these machines.’

De Baerdemaeker doesn’t work exclusively on non-Latin fonts. He has collaborated with graphic designer Sara de Bondt on typefaces including the Elegant Contemporary custom font for the Nottingham Contemporary arts centre. A good typeface should meet the brief, but also offer originality – not only in its design characteristics, but in tackling its limitations and in the way it harmonises different writing systems within the same font, believes De Baerdemaeker.
Beyond his PhD, De Baerdemaeker is looking to become an independent designer, collaborating with a variety of people. He also noted more interest in non-Latin type design in their original countries. He says, ‘It’s not up to the Westerners to design good-quality typefaces – it’s up to everyone.’

Alice Savoie
Alice Savoie appreciates that type design touches many fields. ‘There’s the history, the linguistic aspect and the psychology of what makes a letter,’ she explains. ‘All these are fascinating.’

Even though type design is a traditional art, at the moment it’s all about Web fonts and reading on the screen. ‘So there are some good challenges,’ she adds.
Born in Paris, Savoie studied graphic design and typography there, before doing an MA in type design at the University of Reading. She graduated in 2007 and joined Monotype in London in 2008, where her work consists of custom type designs and font library development.

She enjoys the custom work for its variety. Projects have included a typeface for an American football team, for example. ‘It’s also nice to do library development,’ she adds. ‘You spend a lot of time maturing ideas and sketching.’

Savoie tries to absorb existing typefaces to ascertain where she can add something useful. ‘The developments on screen bring new challenges,’ she adds. ‘And you need to think about designing type that looks good now, and still looks good in ten years time.’

If she had to pick her current favourite type, it would be Bodoni. ‘It has very strong contrasts between thick and thin,’ she says. ‘The typeface can look so elegant, and then you make it slightly bolder and it becomes something completely different.’

One of her favourite Monotype projects is the Ysobel series. ‘It’s elegant and versatile,’ says Savoie. ‘It was initially intended for newspapers and magazines, but I think it looks quite good on screen. I’m really curious about how it’s going to be used.’

Some type designers are scared that their fonts will be used in a bad way, but Savoie finds it rather amusing, ‘You give it to the world and then discover what they do with it.’

Latest articles