Interview by the Type Journal (2014)

Журнал «Шрифт»In the summer of 2013 Alexei Vanyashin asked for an interview for the (then still to-be-launched) online journal «Шрифт». The questions ended up being the most comprehensive set I had ever responded to. Over several weeks Eugene Yukechev (the editor) followed up with additional questions and clarifications, to make sure that my points were clear. It is rare to have the space to go deeper in an interview, and this one was a pleasure to do — for this reason, and for the professionalism of the editorial team. It is also a pleasure to see that Evgenia Basyrova‘s photographs captured the atmosphere in the Department. 

Below are my original responses in English, which formed the basis for the final text.

Журнал «Шрифт» Have there been any changes in the Reading MA Typeface Design programme over the last five years?

The programme changes every year. There are external factors (where we perceive the industry moving towards, and the direction in which we want to grow) and internal (the interests and personalities of the students, and the mix of the visiting staff).

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What are the highlights of the MA Typeface Design programme? What major skills and competencies are students expected to build?

The MATD is founded on the idea that typeface design exists at the junction of design practice, a historical and technological environment, and a cultural context. So, alongside designing typeforms, and specifying typefaces, our students dive deeply into historical, cultural, and technical research. Achieving a high level of practical skills comes with building a deeper understanding of how typefaces meet specific demands in a range of cultures. And, above all, is probably the change in the way of thinking about design, and your own practice. Graduates learn to think more critically about their discipline, and question the design decisions they make – not just for the typeface they work on while at Reading, but long after. Highlights would include regular workshops on scripts, seminar series from Michael Twyman and lectures from James Mosley, the annual field trip, as well as deeply personal moments of discovery and insight.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» The MA Typeface Design programme is known for developing multi-script typography skills — would you say this is market demand driven or an educational method?

Both, and then one more thing. Firstly, we are tracking the growth in demand for multi-script design skills in the type market. This is well recognised and indeed still growing from “mainstream” scripts (like Arabic and Devanagari) to scripts for smaller communities (like Khmer or Burmese). Secondly, we use designing for a wide range of scripts as a way to build better design skills: a deeper understanding of the relationship of written and typographic forms, and the developing conditions in global typography. And, thirdly, we use work in this area to develop research skills, the experience of working with archival resources and field work, and the construction of arguments.

We have developed a methodology that shows how the technological, corporate, and cultural environments in which typefaces are made have influenced the interpretation of the original, underlying scripts. Our method of typeface development takes into account the growth of non-Latin typeface design as an industrial enterprise in pre-digital and digital environments; the impact of type-making and typesetting technologies on the form of individual characters the typographic decisions in document design that reflect changes in type-making and typesetting environments; and the tension between tradition and modernity in contemporaneous visual communication. Once understood for the scripts each student is working on, this methodology can be applied to any script.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» At TypoBerlin 13 Erik Spiekermann expressed his disregards to Cyrillic. What is your take on Cyrillic? In regards to Latin and Greek, is it an alien script?

I do not know what context this was said in, so can’t guess what Erik meant, you’d have to ask him to clarify. My own interest in Cyrillic is from the point of view of a script shared by different cultures that seek to express a typographic identity, of communities of designers with very different backgrounds, and as an example of a script with a constantly developing typographic repertoire.
From a design point of view, I think that the three european scripts are a superb lesson in developing consistent typographic identities from very different fundamentals. In the Cyrillic, you have a degree of intentional form-making, and a combination of elements that require a deep understanding of the script structure, with a very specific history of adaptation to historical models. In the Latin you have a very high degree of formal uniformity and a grammar that allows the widest range of configurations, but a fairly narrow scope for innovation. This, in my view, makes it possible to achieve moderately successful (and slightly boring) designs easily, but makes innovation more difficult. Greek is at the other end of the scale, like an unconnected-Arabic: it has eastern scribal roots, a single writing style at its roots, and is based around counters and loops, rather than strokes. Put all three together, and you’ve got a superb lesson in typeface design.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» Is it often for students to express their willingness to design a Cyrillic? How do you find the overall level of Cyrillic in the MA projects?

I would say that there is only a moderate desire to cover Cyrillic. If I had to speculate why, I’d say that the relatively healthy production of typefaces from Russia and Serbia, and increasingly Bulgaria (possibly other places, too) makes Cyrillic less of a challenge in research terms. As for the work of MATD graduates in Cyrillic, I do not think I have the expertise to voice my opinion. When a student wants to cover Cyrillic I am primarily interested in how they propose to build the right skills themselves: you want a student to have a solid research-based approach, and to build a methodology that will allow them to build skills for any script.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» The Reading programme, as opposed to t]m, includes a large analytical research. What are its benefits?

In this Reading is not only different to the KABK, but to any course that is situated in an art school. All the courses in the Typography Department at Reading are informed by us being part of a research-intensive university (and, indeed, a very highly-rated one). Typefaces do not exist in a vacuum: they take form and meaning because they are responses to many other typefaces that exist already, and to changing conditions of use. Good research skills, and a sufficient understanding of typographic history and practice, are essential.
For example, how can a Russian designer create a good typeface for the Latin script, or Greek, or indeed anything else – and vice versa? Surely just being able to read the language is not enough, otherwise any graphic designer who can move a Bezier curve would be a good typeface designer. Apart from the skill of working with details that combine to create a typographic texture, a typeface designer can engage with what’s appropriate for a document type, and for specific uses: this is all pretty basic stuff, but it is based on research. And innovation requires a deeper understanding of what it is you are innovating against: what is the common position that you are re-thinking?

 

Журнал «Шрифт» Do you consult students on their Cyrillic? What is the hardest part in consulting on Cyrillic?

We try to support the scripts the students do, with regular feedback by relevant experts. Cyrillic has been one of the most difficult to find good support for, partly because of the very small number of suitable experts who are resident in the UK, or permitted to work here. The way we teach requires repeated contact, which is even more difficult. Unfortunately the costs and visa situation looks like it will get worse before it gets better.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What are your preferences in typographic conferences and events?

I have a soft spot for ATypI, and enjoy hugely TypeCon. I also try to attend as many of the one-day and evening events at St Bride as I can (my favourite location for type gatherings in the UK). There is an increasing number of UK events that make it very difficult (and expensive) to keep up: TypoCircle, TypoLondon etc., Point, events in Birmingham, and many more. I am also very happy when I can attend smaller events like TypeTalks, where there is an opportunity to meet many people. In recent years I have been talking at events that are not targeted at typographers and typeface designers (like the tightly-focused Ampersand) that require me to think more deeply what is relevant from typeface design to other fields. My second-favourite events outside the UK are in Poland, which I find buzzing with activity. And my top-of-the-list is the triennial ICTVC, first in Thessaloniki, and recently in Cyprus, which brings together a very unique mix of specialists.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What are the key discussion topics in the typographic world today?

There are three areas we are discussing intensely. Firstly, the globalisation of typography and typeface design. This means not only that wide script coverage, but also that designers think about wide type families, and typefaces that allow typographic differentiation in scripts that have not had a developed tradition for this. For example, starting with a script that until recently only had a low-modulation stroke, to develop a modulated display style will require a decision about the angle of stress and how it changes along the forms. There are many different possible implementations for this, and the structure of the letters does not give obvious answers. Conversely, removing the contrast from a heavily modulated style may distort the letterform in unacceptable ways. These are hugely exciting areas, of intense innovation.

Secondly, some areas of typography are changing rapidly, mostly due to the rethinking of what “document” mean in a world of smaller, user-responsive devices. In this environment the typefaces and the typography at the paragraph level become a key identity identifier.

Thirdly, we are seeing typography and typeface design maturing into a recognised discipline, with its own established literature, numerous education pathways, and a growing understanding of its importance by the wider public.
These three areas make working in typeface design and typography today more exciting than ever.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What is your take on the phenomena of the ever-growing Monotype Foundry?

I think this discussion is a distraction. The current Monotype company will never have a hold on the document-making industry like the two main companies did in hot-metal years. The type business is growing rapidly (witness the rapid growth of small- and medium companies, like Type-Together, HFJ, and DaltonMaag). There are, however, two very interesting aspects in Monotype’s activity: one is their rediscovery of the importance of their historical know-how, and the other is their move into the area of online documents, with Typecast – the most exciting new company, from my perspective.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What is the most important skill, a student must learn on the MA course?

To ask questions! To think critically about the forms they make, and the typographic world around them.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» Maxim Zhukov considers you the best type design educator in the world today. What do you think is the key ingredient of this success? What should a successful teacher be?

Yikes! This is an embarrassingly generous compliment, Maxim is very kind. I think a good teacher tries to give the student what they need, and also push them a little bit outside their comfort zone, while being sensitive that each person needs different challenges. I try to do this, but I am sure there are graduates who hate my guts.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» How would you describe the role of Gerard Unger on the course, how many hours does he spent with students?

Gerard is as central to the MATD as Fiona and myself are. He visits six times a year, for four days each time. He covers a wide range of topics, and is instrumental in shaking things up. He does not let students be satisfied with something just good enough, and keeps pushing them. He also exceptionally patient and insightful when students are looking for inspiration. Gerard also contributes with many lectures, and looks after half of our field trip. I think that we have a very good balance of influence, and complement each other well. And we are good friends.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» Are there any new guest lecturers on the course? Who was visited Reading with a lecture recently? What topics are are of interest to the students?

Many visitors contribute each year, in addition to Michael Twyman’s twenty seminars, James Mosley’s similar number of lectures, and Victor Gaultney’s six all-day visits. This year we’ve had people doing workshops (e.g. Wayne Hart for two days on stonecutting, and Martin Andrews on letterpress); visiting speakers like Richard Grasby, John Hudson, Paul Barnes, and Myra Thiessen; and people running multi-day sessions, like Tom Grace, David Březina, and Miguel Sousa. We also have speakers for all our MA programmes in common, like David Pearson and Lawrence Penney; and about a dozen PhD researchers presenting their work.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What makes a successful student project?

The student projects are primarily learning tools: the best projects help the students become great typeface designers, able to do exceptional typefaces after they leave Reading, and be great collaborators. If the typefaces get published and have a commercial life of their own, then that’s a bonus.
There also students who do not go into type design; for them the projects are learning experiences of a different kind, and there you need to focus the project on what would benefit the student more. We’ve have people who come to Reading with, say, ten years of software engineering experience, or twenty years of book design experience. In such cases the objectives are tailored to what would give those students a steep learning curve, a good challenge that is relevant for their career.
And, in all cases, you want the graduates to leave with a love for typography and typeface design, and with an open mind for themselves and their discipline.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» On your recent TypoBerlin talk you mentioned that there is an increasing number of Reading students from Germany. Is Germany in your opinion more typographically active than other countries? Or could you say the interest in typography is decreasing in the UK?

We have always had strong interest in the course from Germany, and it does seem to have increased in recent years. Germany is a unique market in Europe: it is not only mature typographically, but also large enough to sustain its internal typographic education and publishing industry with no need to translate native texts, or seek to sell in other countries. At TypoBerlin I was teasing the audience a bit, so I will rephrase my question as: “in a saturated market, how can a young designer distinguish themselves?” This is, to a growing degree, a challenge for new designers in many other countries.
As for the UK, I do not think interest is decreasing at all; on the contrary, it is growing; we see this at Bachelors, Masters, and PhD levels. But the UK market is different: it is very international in exporting skills and services, as well as in receiving talented professionals form other countries. In the creative industries, London is by far the most international city in Europe: although cities like Berlin attract a lot of self-employed designers (mostly due to the lower cost of living) it is London that has the business turnover.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» The technological aspect of the production of type design over the last ten years has greatly improved(evolved). Nowadays a good type designer is often a good programmer. How did this affect teaching type design, how has the practical methodology changed?

The expectations from type designers on the technical level have increased in recent years, but gradually, and not fundamentally: there’s more to learn, and some stuff may seem more complex, but nothing is prohibitive for entry in the profession: you don’t need a degree in computing. This means that a motivated graphic designer can easily pick up the training to shift to type design. This is similar to designers having to learn to work in proprietary markup languages, SGML, XML, and so on: nothing new. The intensity of the comments on this is more revealing of the short memories of the commentators, rather than any deeper shift. Type foundries are full of technically very competent people who learned through online resources, and short workshops. So, I think this is something of a non-issue: designers have always had to learn about the technology of their field, and it never was at university-level.

The real challenge, where there has been a fundamental change in type design, involve the expansion in skills into non-Latin scripts. The level of knowledge required there to produce competent designs is not within the realm of the self-educated. The research and interpretation skills that a new designer would need to tackle unfamiliar scripts are simply not possible to develop on your own. And, unfortunately, for many scripts we do not have yet widely available resources to support this. This area is leading the elevation of typeface design from a craft-based activity to a profession with a recognised body of knowledge and skills. We are still at the very beginning of this process, but in another ten years this will seem too obvious to mention.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» What are the career options of today’s Reading graduates?

Many are employed in type foundries (like DaltonMaag, Fontsmith, or Hoefler & Co). A good number work for Monotype, Adobe, and Microsoft. Quite a few work as individual freelancers, publishing through other foundries. And it is important to mention Type-Together and Rosetta Type, two foundries founded by graduates with considerable growth. About a third have some engagement with teaching – either full-time or part-time, and this is growing as graduates want to add variety to their careers. As type design schools grow in number, this will continue to rise. And about a third return to graphic design work while doing a bit of type design.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» Why do you think Russian type design students prefer Holland to England for their education? Is it merely a question of finances? 

You’d have to ask them, but my impression is that the financial difference is overwhelming for a Russian applicant. And because there is no framework for student loans or suitable scholarships, students rely on personal or family finances. This is just crazy, and discriminates heavily against people with talent.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» If you were to explain to a prospective student, how would you underline the main differences between Reading and KABK MA programmes?

You asked me a similar question already. Why compare with the KABK, and not Porto, or Elisava, or FADU-UBA, or Gestalt? In the recent exhibition of student work at the Ampersand conference there were well over thirty institutions represented. So, your question is misleading, as if there are only two places to study type design. Regardless: I advise applicants to visit the schools they consider: it is important to meet their tutors, ask questions about studying there, and get a feel for the place. Speaking with graduates is also important.

Now, specifically about the difference between Reading and the KABK: we are not an art school, but a university programme, in a department with a range of related programmes, and forty years of institutional experience of PhD and staff research in typography. Our student read and discuss at a high level, and conduct research in type design that is often ground-breaking. They work on typefaces that get them design jobs, and produce academic works that get them teaching jobs, and help other designers as well. When they graduate, they publish proper type specimens and dissertations that have weight and content, not ephemeral posters. These are our strengths. Worldwide, the trend in type design education is to emulate what we do.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» The inability to design non-latin fonts by non-native readers has been discussed at conferences. It turns out Reading MA programme counters this, providing an opportunity for designers to be involved in the multilingual typographic scene. Is that true?

This is, unsurprisingly, nothing new: this challenge is central to the history of typeface design, and grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. At Reading we have records of such discussions from the 1960s at least, as well as documents that show how people addressed the design problems of unfamiliar scripts. With Fiona Ross we have developed a methodology that builds on these earlier processes, and is based on a combination of research and script-specific practice. We start with the manual foundations of a script, with sensitivity to tools and substrates, and an analysis of writing practices. We correlate this with research into the type-making and typesetting technologies that influenced the typographic implementation of the script (for example, hot-metal technology imposed limitations in the character sets, the forms of individual letters, and the way forms combine, that do not apply to today; to reproduce these restrictions would be not only ignorant, but plain bad design). We then explore the way in which typeface design reflects the tension between tradition and modernity in visual communication, which is a key consideration in typeface design (for example, the associations with monoline strokes as “modern” or “traditional” are entirely relative to precedent and regional associations, not inherent in the shape itself). Finally, we investigate typeface design for complex typography within each script / language combination, by analysing past and current publications from that community. These considerations allow for a more nuanced development and testing environment, that allows talented designers to cover scripts they are unfamiliar with. While there is always a requirement for testing with native readers, this is much more towards the end of the development process than people tend to think.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» In your opinion, does it make practical sense to design Cyrillic without a having Greek extension? (Does designing Greek aid in working with Cyrillic?)

In the case that a project is driven by a client’s brief, the Greek many or many not be part of what the client is paying for, at least initially. Certainly for a pan-European market the Cyrillic may come first, but experience shows that big branding projects tend to “script creep”: the initial briefs get extended as the brand spreads to more regions. So, the designer may well add Greek after the Cyrillic is delivered. Another answer depends on the designer’s plans for building a library: there is a competitive advantage to script coverage, and — once you’ve got a Cyrillic or a Latin — the Greek is relatively easy to do compared to other non-Latins. Finally, there is the point I made elsewhere: designing Greek and Cyrillic for the same project is a good design challenge.

 

Журнал «Шрифт» Could you give us a list of ‘Gerry Leonidas recommends’ books that no type designer/typographer can live without?

This is a difficult question to answer without some limits on time, or some idea of the experience of the reader. There are fourteen key topics we discuss on the MATD, and I select texts for each depending on the ideas we want to discuss. In that sense, a book or article that is controversial might be more useful in the environment of a structured, guided discussion. But the same text might be misleading if someone reads it on their own without pointers. (I am slowly putting the lists for these seminars online.)

I also never include books like Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of typographic style, or Philip Meggs’ History of graphic design: titles like these are on every designer’s bookshelves, and to include them would repeat the obvious. And I don’t include some targeted titles (like Cyrus Highsmith’s very good Inside paragraphs, because I prefer to discuss spacing alongside Tracy and Dowding’s methods, as well as objects: a page of Didot and a screen of Instapaper with Nicole Dotin’s Elena selected.)

So, which texts? I’ve got a list for incoming MA students on the new Typeface Design site which I think is a pretty good starting point. It also includes some comments on magazines and blogs that form an essential part of a typographic designer’s horizon. I occasionally update the listing, but prefer to have items that have proven their value, rather than the latest title.

 

 

Form(al) education

form magazine cover

The re-issued form magazine dedicated an  issue to design education. Anja Neidhardt asked me four questions, as part of her research for her article. (The issue can be read on Isuu via the form website.) Here are my answers to Anja’s questions:

 

At Typo Berlin (if I remember right) you said about teaching: “What we do is: We cheat”. Please explain this statement.

The context for this sentence was a longer statement about the nature of typographic and typeface design. Typography happens in contrast with other areas of design, where the functional conditions are relatively simple and the space for formal experimentation relatively wide. In the typographic disciplines we look to past practice as a guide to the assumptions that users will make in each circumstance. This happens because the design objectives are relatively complex (the information density is high) and their configurations relatively stable (a news article has a similar structure on a print newspaper as on a smartphone); and because the consumption of typographic design is iterative, and cumulative: changes take place in an environment of many similar objects used concurrently, within a continuum of experience by each user. In other words, the more radical a change, the more it needs to echo and relate to pre-existing structures and affordances. The use of visual metaphors in interface design is a typical case of this mechanism.

So, designers rely on a whole range of pre-existing decisions for their own designs to make sense. In the best case, these pre-existing conventions are consciously acknowledged; in these cases the designer can engage in depth with his subject, and improve the discipline. But in many cases designers are only partially aware of the way conventions have been formed, and how their own ideas are influenced by the design environment. In these cases, designers “cheat” in the sense that their work feeds off past projects without due recognition.

 

How does education in the field of typography look like today? What should be changed, and why?

It is possible to see strong growth in some areas, and early signs of risk in others. My own niche area of typeface design is experiencing strong growth, and will continue to do so for many years, in response to the globalisation of typographically complex documents, and the need to support text-intensive environments. The result is a lot of new courses at a range of levels, and a strong interest by both younger and more experienced designers to study. With regard to document-level typography (from a periodical publication to newspapers to reference works) there is a critical transformation in progress, with inadequate response by education institutions globally.

Until roughly the last decade the design and the production spheres were relatively separate, and with clear professional roles (in other words, a designer was not also the printer). The situation nowadays is different, where the “maker” may be a designer as well, or work in an environment with a lot of overlap (the person who writes the code to render a text on screen may implement a specification by someone else, but may just as easily devise the typographic specification him/herself).

This new environment, where the typographic specification has, in fact, a high overlap with the encoding of the text, places new requirements for typographic education. The easiest examples are those of “conventional” publications like novels and magazines turned into ebooks and tablet-based apps. The old model called for a relatively stable typographic specification, implemented by typesetters and printers who made the content of authors and editors appear in print. In contrast, we now have typographic specifications that are not only fluid across platforms and use scenarios, but also across time: the typographic design changes often in little steps, instead of only every few years in big ways. And, whereas the roles of authors and editors may be clear, the “makers” (designers and coders who make the content appear on each device) are now melded into multi-skilled individuals, or closely integrated teams (at least where things go well).

It is my impression that design education has not responded fast enough to the challenge of these new models of publishing, and have not acknowledged the need to respond to the demand for these new roles. Furthermore, we are now at a stage where “tradition” typographic education is at risk of falling behind. The sequence in which complex documents are migrating to screens, and the way in which content is specified, has helped establish some basic parameters for on-screen typography that makers can refer to while maintaining the readability of documents, but lacking the skills and understanding to deal with more complex information structures (this is a kind of “cheating” like that discussed above).

Colleges and universities teaching typography face the challenge of adapting to a typography that is personal, portable, responsive to its context and that of the reader’s route through texts, that references established conventions, that integrates time-based elements, and even jumps across may possible combinations of all these parameters. The ones that respond to this challenge will have strong growth ahead, but I think that the difficulty of radical change in many institutions puts typographic education at risk.

 

On the one hand there are many, many fonts made for the latin writing system. But on the other hand there is a lack of fonts in some countries. How can students be taught to design typefaces for languages they don’t speak?

Indeed, in recent years we see an overdue push to cover gaps in global typeface design coverage, both in wide character sets (multi-script typefaces) but also in extended typeface families in non-Latin scripts. This corrective is a response to changes in type-making and typesetting technologies, the growth in the range of documents (in the widest sense of the word) produced in global scripts, and the spread of readership in new demographics. Although digital technology liberated the type-making tools from the geographic restrictions of previous technologies, the know-how and support resources have remained, for many scripts, near the traditional centres of typeface design. It is not surprising, then, that designers who are experienced in some scripts may be called on to design typefaces in new scripts – a practice reinforced by existing professional networks and the focus on business development in English. In practice, professional designers may be expected to build experience in a whole range of related or unrelated scripts. The education challenge is then clear – and pressing, since the market is growing faster than existing designers can develop their skills.

Four areas need to be addressed for a student to develop non-native design skills (and the same for a designer experienced only in their native script):

First, and most fundamentally, an understanding of the historical development of the written and typographic script as it currently stands, with particular focus on the impact of type-making and typesetting technologies on the form of individual characters, the character set and any composition rules (esp. substitution and positioning).

Second, an exploration of the key combinations of writing tools and movements that generate “valid” letterforms and words in the script. This is particularly important in all the scripts that have a much closer relationship to written forms than the Latin (which is, in fact, the overwhelming majority).

Third, an understanding of how existing styles correspond to specific typographic structures, and how they are used in native documents. (For example, how is hierarchy, emphasis, and differentiation in tone indicated in the typography of the non-native script? What is the practice when equivalents to styles like “italic” or “thin” are not present?)

Fourth, an understanding of the tension between tradition and modernity in the context of the local visual culture. This forms the basis for progressing beyond mere adaptation towards originality and even innovation. The role that lettering can play in inspiring alternate styles is a key example of this area; another is the relationship of stroke properties to established styles (for example, in one script a monoline stroke may be considered “default and traditional” whereas in another the loos of contrast may be a radical proposition).

While developing a critical understanding of the non-native script, students also need to do some text analysis. This will give them insights into the combinations of letters and the patterns of shapes (just as a German designer will also test their Latin typeface with texts from all European languages). Unlike the four areas of learning, this is a process that is easy to share amongst designers, and pool the results, which can then be converted into common test documents.

It is, of course, important to seek feedback from native readers, but not any native reader – even if they are design professionals from the native community. Feedback needs to be sought from people who can give type-specific comments, which are fairly specialised. (Graphic designers, for example, are used to seeing type in a different scale from type designers, and tend not to understand the cumulative effects of detail changes within individual letters.) And before readers instinctively object, it is useful to be reminded that there are many examples of exceptional typefaces by non-native designers, with and – in some cases – without native feedback.

A final caveat: in Reading type design students develop native- and non-native script skills in parallel. This makes for better, deeper education, but is a different scenario from that of an already experienced designer of (for example) Latin typefaces seeking to learn how to design in another script.

 

Will there be another, new Erik Spiekermann? Or is time up for big stars like him?

This is a nonsense question. Erik is very successful in his field, with a high public profile – but the same can be said of many professionals in their respective fields. It is more appropriate to ask why is Erik’s success interesting, or whether his career is more revealing in relation to other high profile designers of his generation (of which, let’s be clear, there are many).

Erik’s career is notable for two reasons: firstly because, unlike other designers whose work is focused within a relatively narrow domain (such as typefaces, or posters, or transport maps, or branding) his work spans several domains: all of the ones I just mentioned, and then some. This richness of practice is illuminating in itself, regardless form the fact that in some of these cases it can be described as capturing the spirit of the times perfectly, and in a few cases even being ahead of the curve. There is a problem in this richness for those who want to capture design outputs into neat narratives, because clearly in Erik’s case there isn’t one, but multiple strands of thinking in parallel. So, the uniqueness of his work lies not in individual projects, but in the totality of his work.

The second reason Erik’s career is notable is that he has made a point of using his visibility to get key messages about design to wider audiences, and not just in the design world. Even in his most indulgent moments, the notions of rigour and process are present. He has also shown that user-sensitive, evidence-driven design does not need to be dry or visually uninspiring – a common failing in the wide information design world. And, related to this, Erik does not take himself seriously – one of the most positive personality traits one can aim for.

The second question (“is it time up for big stars”) neglects the length of Erik’s career. There are many people in the wider design world who are gradually building very strong public personas that can be expected to be just as recognisable and influential when they reach Erik’s age (and probably, give the speed with which things happen nowadays, much sooner). They are more likely to be from the “design for screens” crown (I want to avoid separating IA, UX, and so on) but there are many possible candidates.

Interview by Elliot Jay Stocks for 8Faces (2012)

Elliot Jay Stocks Reading has been mentioned throughout so many of the interviews that we’ve done over the past four issues and it seems to have become known as one of the best places in the world — literally — to study type design. Could you tell us about how that has come about and when you think England joined the typographic ranks usually associated with countries such as Germany and the Netherlands?

It’s more the other way around: other regions have joined England, because a lot of the technology and the design production revolving around type has been carried out here; so even if you’re looking at pre-digital times, most design work for Monotype and Linotype was happening here, even if it was produced worldwide. In the case of Linotype, designs would happen here, the production in Germany. But the designer was British, and of course, Monotype was based here.

So a lot of the typographic education was established in Britain. The other consideration is actual scholarship around type. Going back to the mid-20th Century, Ward, Morrison, Fleuron and Spencer wrote about type and treated it as a serious subject of study. They were responsible for doing quite a lot of important work on how typefaces are received by readers. When we began really looking into type in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was already continuing along a fairly well-established pattern. Now the Typography Department in Reading has a couple of distinct strands of inquiry and activity: typography (including journal and book typography), information design, and typeface design. These things have always been developed in parallel. When we started the Masters programme, we just moved this one step higher. I think reading the market correctly, typeface design was beginning to mature as a discipline and needed a more formal structure in education.

EJS So type design at Reading had always existed, but it was the introduction of the Masters course that gave it a ‘public’ face?

It’s interesting to note that there was a lot that happened pre-digital that left only paper documents. Here in Reading there are workshops teaching letter calligraphy with all the big names of the 1970s. We have an amazing library: a lot of the material from that time exists for people who are beginning to learn about typeface design, so they can see that they’re not the first ones to deal with certain design problems.

Treating typeface design seriously — not just as a practice but as the main focus of study — was certainly happening at Reading from 1999 onwards. That is a critical distinction. It’s not just something that people learn by training themselves to use tools like pens or brushes or computer applications; it’s also something that has a context. There’s a typographic history that informs decisions, an environment of use that might inform our decisions, and quite a lot of past practice that informs our style choices. Whether something is ‘original’ or not, or ‘conservative’ or not is not an issue that exists on its own; it’s something that comes out of a reading about what other people have done.

EJS Am I right in saying that the Masters course doesn’t require a degree in something specifically type-related?

Most people who come to do the Masters course come with a few years’ experience. They might have a general design degree, or they might have a degree in an unrelated field, but have happened to move into design. We’ve had people who were trained as product designers or architects, so their professional life moved towards graphic design or typography. We also have people come to us who have trained in things like computer science degrees.

EJS Is there any kind of consistent thread running through students’ past experiences, whether that’s a common pre-master’s degree or a common work experience? Or is it literally across the board?

There is an overwhelming presence of graphic design-related degrees, but because the admission is by portfolio and usually interview, what we try to do is find out whether the person has the right combination of skills; we want someone to have form-making skills. But you also want them to have an inquiring mind to ask questions about how things happen the way they do, or why they’ve developed in the way they have. It is this foundation of curiosity about the subject that you build on to then develop the skills. For example, if you want to find out how to create an interesting, new, modern typeface, you’d need to ask, ‘how did the tools that generated the first models get used?’, or, ‘what are the conditions of using these tools that give rise to certain forms?’ You need to understand how the tools make shapes and then you can begin to understand how these shapes represent a certain cultural moment; you can then update this and make a typeface based off its time.

EJS It seems that the academic side of typography is a fairly large part of the course as well? What’s the split between the academic and historical learning, versus the practical drawing?

On paper it’s about fifty-fifty. In terms of the time students’ spend, it’s probably sixty percent practical and forty percent academic. However it’s not easy to distinguish this, because a lot of the research that students do is directly related to the practical work, which is most evident in the non-Latin work. People who might be interested in designing a Devanagari typeface, for example, might undertake a lot of research that will help them to understand this new script; that would fall under the umbrella of academic work, but it’s directly related to the practical work.

EJS Do you find that non-Latin typography is something you’re seeing more of these days?

Yes. I think one of the main achievements of the course is that it has demonstrated it’s possible for people who are non-native to a script to design very good examples of that script if they have the right foundations. I don’t think it’s very easy at all for someone to start with paper and design a good typeface in a script they don’t understand; but you can get that same person and put them in a structured environment, give them the right things to read, the right things to look at, and then give them a constructive feedback that will allow them to build a criteria for making decisions. Then fairly quickly you can see that design skills will transfer from a script that people are familiar with to scripts that they are unfamiliar with, and they will produce fairly competent typefaces.

EJS You have interesting people coming out of this learning such as David Brezina, who has gone on to contribute a lot to the multi-script industry — especially with Veronica and José — in the shape of the Rosetta type foundry.

The interesting thing is, if you look at David’s work, he’s done a typeface that’s extremely successful, but he’s also produced a dissertation on Gujarati that’s now a source of reference for the next person who wants to do that. So what we’re producing is a body of knowledge in the field that allows people to help themselves when they can’t come to Reading. A lot of this is online and it’s free to access. If you want to do an Indian script, you’re not alone anymore. You don’t have to look up Wikipedia or some resource you can’t evaluate. What we produce has passed a certain editorial control and has been compiled with access to substantial resources. We’ve produced a body of literature that turns typeface design from simply a domain of practice into a proper field of study. It’s about moving typeface design towards something like architecture: there’s constant dialogue between practice and research.

EJS That must be incredibly rewarding for you to have students and see them not only produce good work, but for that work to go on to inform the next generation of students.

Probably the most rewarding thing is to see projects that started as Masters projects have successful online presence. Titus Nemeth’s Arabic typeface Nassim being converted to a web font and used for the BBC Arabic website is a very good example. For a student project to achieve something like that is huge. David’s Skolar is everywhere as a web font, and again, it’s something that is almost inconceivable for someone to do within a year of just putting pencil to paper and starting to sketch. For every best-case scenario we have like this, we also have a lot of typefaces that just served as learning tools for people; but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t equally good designers, or better in many cases. People learn how to be good designers within their projects, then put them aside and develop very successful careers. The interesting thing with the majority of Reading graduates now occupying quite a lot of positions within type foundries is that they tend to bring with them this more serious, research-based approach to their work.

EJS I’m interested to hear about the short course you run as a taster for the MA.

The short course began because we have a lot of professionals who couldn’t afford to take time out, but had experience in designing or wanted to improve their skills very, very rapidly. So we took the most interesting aspects from the Masters course and packed them into a weeks The course includes about twelve people — plus three full-time staff — who dedicate a whole week to the short course. It also has visitors, such as Erik Spiekermann, who do individual sessions. We now have a second week, in which people are encouraged to work on extending the ideas they’ve developed in the first week.

EJS So it can be steered in a particular direction relevant to the student?

Exactly. And that is why there’s an abundance of staff. We can take one or two people aside and do exactly what they want, so that there isn’t necessarily a fixed programme. There are different sessions that happen in parallel, and there are things that double up so that people can do different taster sessions, but before they come, we know what their main objectives are and we set aside time specifically to deal with the things that they want to learn.

A lot of people aren’t interested in non-Latin until they start doing it and realise it’s a much more interesting design challenge than the Latin script. If a student just wants to introduce themselves to the full range of design expression, they could look at very early newspapers and Herbert Matter’s posters from the 1930s to Otl Aicher’s posters from the Munich Olympics to try and see how the type changes in response to different styles. When I say put these things side-by-side, I mean the originals; not just a picture, but the original Herbert Matter scheme posters from the 1930s beside the original Otl Aicher posters from the 1970s. You can look at these alongside 19th Century type specimens and see where the sources of all sans-serifs might be.

For people who have not been to Reading as visitors, it’s difficult to imagine the level of access to material that, in other places, would be permanently behind closed doors.

Interview by Chang Kim (2011, FontClub Korea)

Chang Kim Could you tell us a little about yourself and your design / teaching background?

Many years ago in Greece, it was not possible for me to study typographic design. I took a degree in Business Administration and a Diploma in Print Journalism, while working on any typographic project I could get my hands on. I did a lot of publications design, print production, and editorial work, while accumulating the frustrations of a small, conservative market. After some years of this I had the option to study for a postgraduate degree in Reading, and found here an approach that recognised the depth and complexities of of typographic design. I started working at a time of change in design education, and was fortunate to be part of the team that gave the Department its current strengths and focus, particularly in typeface design. I now run the MA Typeface Design, teach on the BA Graphic Communication, and help supervise research students. My professional work, now carried out entirely as University consultancy, focuses on Greek typeface design and typography, but I try to bring the world of industry into teaching as much as possible.

CK Who has been the most influential mentor of you and why? And also whose work do you admire the most recently and why?

Mentorship probably works best with mimetic apprentices, or at least along established paths of progress, which might explain why I never had one. But I am privileged to count amongst my friends Klimis Mastoridis, a typographer and historian whose ethos, untiring efforts, and vision are a constant inspiration. The most illuminating challenges have come from the texts of Richard Southall, whose examination of typeface design through models and patterns (roughly, design intentions and their encoding in technology) I consider fundamental to discussions on design and technology beyond typography. Michael Twyman’s more theoretical texts and his wide view of visual communication stand out, as does his grand narrative of the “long” nineteenth century. Robin Kinross has, from a different perspective, impact on my thinking about typography.
It is easy to single out specific projects to admire when the passage of time offers the benefit of hindsight (for example, Letterror’s Beowolf, Matthew Carter’s webfonts and the Walker typeface). It is more difficult to identify admirable work as it happens. I generally expect to be surprised in very good ways by Cyrus Highsmith and Eric Olson, and I am very keen on Tom Grace and Patrick Giasson (both under-appreciated designers of the first order, in my view). There is also a lot to be said about House Industries’ re-definition of display typography, the scripts of Ale Paul, and the singular vision of Gabriel Martinez Meave. Lastly, I have a lot of time for anything Richard Kegler sets his mind to, be it a typographic non-profit or a film on Jim Rimmer.
CK I know it may not be easy to say, however how do you define “British style of design”? And what makes British design different from German and Swiss style?

I don’t think it is very useful to talk about national styles. The style of a few persons or an institution may become emblematic through contemporary critique, although more substantially through highlighting in design histories. In other words, we tend to elevate the strands of design that stand out or survive into the mainstream, but often neglect the less prominent or durable styles, even if they might have been dominant for a time. Especially within the sphere of European design there is a tendency to see neat, overwhelming trends rather than parallel, sometimes conflicting regional developments, which is a more difficult story to weave. The style of Brody, Oliver, and Barnbrook is not British, it’s just the style of Brody, Oliver, and Barnbrook. A more interesting question would be to ask what was it in the British design market at each time that allowed designers who were exploring new forms to break into the mainstream and establish a trend? Conversely, you should ask why the German market, arguably the strongest internally in Europe, is so conservative and under-represented internationally? (Was the style of Wilberg and the Hermann Schmidt Verlag so “good enough” that there is little room for innovation?) As for the Swiss style, it only makes sense as a politically neutral solution, historically equidistant from alternatives, and stylistically objectivist. Of course, this assumption is somewhat naive and a-historical, not to say a formal dead-end. But it is representative of its time, which is what ultimately makes a rather dry style interesting.
CK What makes University of Reading has become one of the the most influential typography (especially typeface design) program last few decades?

The Department of Typography benefits from operating in every respect within a research-intensive university. Our BA and taught postgraduate courses run alongside a suite of PhDs, staff-driven research, funded research projects, Research Centres, and an substantial exhibitions and publications programme. Our engagement with industry through enterprise and consultancy underlines the currency of our work, and strengthens our network. Our dedicated Collections and Archives support many of these activities, providing a world-class resource for designers and researchers. Indeed, it is our integration of research methodology into design that gives our graduates a wider set of skills that make a difference in the workplace. I should also point that we have relatively small class sizes. And, although staff time is always in demand, contact hours are very high.

CK What was one of the most challenging typography problems you have ever had to solve?

Recently I have been helping design a large Greek-English Lexicon for CUP. The entries need to balance typographically around nine strings of characters across two scripts, with typical genre problems such as bold headwords followed by italic abbreviations. All this has to happen at very small sizes, with a full run of Greek diacritics eating into the linespacing. And, this being a 1,400 page volume, the typographic specification needs to work across every spread, without the luxury of local adjustments. This challenge, to devise a system that works for given classes of content, but effectively unknown strings of text, is one of the key joys in typography (and, indeed, one of the main differences between typographic and graphic design).

CK Let’s talk a little about your teaching methodology and philosophy. In addition, how do you keep motivating yourself for being better teacher and what’s your favorite part of teaching at the school?

Although there is a layer of projects with clear outcomes and skills we expect students to develop, I teach by guided enquiry: asking questions that help students understand the wider context, appreciate the perspective of the users, and arrive at good solutions in awareness of the qualitative judgements they make. You would also want students to learn actively from this round of questioning to improve the process the next time round. For designers specifically, it is important to cultivate a T-shaped model of learning: deep skills in an area of specialisation, but an competent understanding of a wide set of related fields. All of this works if you can assume that students are driven by a persistent intellectual curiosity. (Indeed, design is a profession where you can never reach a plateau of knowledge and experience: perpetual curiosity and drive for improvement are fundamental qualities.)
Motivation is easy: it comes from the joy of interacting with a new group of people each year, each of whom is bringing a different set of experiences and ideas. It is hugely rewarding to work daily with people who are driven to learn, and seek to rise to the challenges you place before them. My absolute favourite part is when a student figures out the bigger picture in design, and a spark lights up in their eyes. I remember a very keen MA student a few years back telling me halfway through the year “So this course is not really about typeface design, it is about learning to see!”

CK How do you envision of the future of the typographic education approach?

For the second time in my career, typography education is at a crossroads. Wit some exceptions, as a community of educators we did a so-so job of integrating the lessons of traditional typography into the challenges of web design. The result was that many web designers had to discover themselves principles and processes that are the bread and butter of print typographers. We are now at a another cusp point: the confluence of portable devices capable of rich displays, the standardisation of content generation being separate from appearance specifications, and – last but not least – webfonts, offer tremendous opportunities for typographers. Some authors call meeting this challenge “responsive design”, but this is just a handy market differentiator: it really is just Good Design. Before long we will be assuming that rich content will be accessible from any medium (much more widely than just a smartphone, a tablet, and a TV set) but somebody needs to educate publications designers who can not only respond to the specifics of publishing a post-newspaper (whatever form that aggregated publication will take), but also lead the next round of innovation. A focus of constant, self-directed learning, solid methodological and research skills, and explicit qualitative evaluation processes should be central to any forward-looking course.

CK Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring young graphic designer/students who are serious about typography?

First: there are many good writers and commentators on typography: seek them out, and read them. Second: seek to see, as much as possible in originals, exemplars of good design, and get a feel for all aspects of the design, from the micro-typography to the material and the construction of the object. Third: practice, and do not respect your own design much: it is better to improve through many projects, rather than trying to reach some ideal for just one. And, fourth: be perpetually curious about the context of design: it is a social activity, responding to, and feeding back into society in a number of ways. Be conscious of both the limits and the potential of design to influence peoples‘ lives.

CK Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, and I wish you the best of luck with all of your ventures. Do you have any final words for the readers here at FONTCLUB? 

In recent years typeface design is experiencing very strong growth, both in the range and richness of designs published, and the countries of origin of internationally active designers. There is more competition, but there is also more room for new entrants with strong potential to distinguish themselves. Unlike other areas of design, typeface design rewards experience and depth of skills. For those interested in including typeface design in their career, this is a pretty good time to get involved.