Jean-François Porchez has had a remarkably wide influence on the look of printed matter in France. Rather than making his mark by establishing a flashy, distinctive style in advertising, the 36-year-old type designer and typographer has been redesigning the day-to-day typography of France. Porchez has reworked the appearance of some of his country’s most widely read newspapers. He also designed the typeface used in part of the signage of one of the world’s best-known subway systems — the Paris Métro.
The most respected daily newspaper in Paris is “Le Monde,” which is often referred to by Americans as the “New York Times” of France. “Le Monde” matches the “Times” in portentousness and giving the impression of speaking with ineffable authority, but it does so with a good deal more candor and enthusiastic analysis.
Typographically, “Le Monde” also resembles the “Times” in the jumbled look of its front page, although “Le Monde” goes one better by mixing serif and sans-serif text typefaces. When Jean-François Porchez was called upon to design a new typeface for the esteemed newspaper, he created a super-family comprising both serif and sans-serif type families that were designed to work together — and to work on the crowded, quickly printed pages of a daily newspaper. (Naturally, the way his typefaces are actually used every day is a lot more chaotic than the carefully thought-out sample he designed to show off how the typefaces could be made to work together.)
Le Monde Journal, the serif typeface that debuted in “Le Monde” in 1995, bears an obvious and intentional resemblance to Times New Roman (which was the serif text face of the newspaper before the introduction of Porchez’s typefaces). Like Times, Le Monde is narrow without looking so. But it has a larger x-height and a somewhat larger “eye,” to give more space inside the letters. There’s a little more sparkle and liveliness to the cut of the letters, but not enough to be distracting. The italic is more calligraphic than the Times italic, and not so curly — all of which helps its legibility, both within a passage of Roman text and when used by itself.
Le Monde Sans, which is frequently used on its own in the daily newspaper, is also calligraphic, but not obviously so. It has an oblique stress, like the serif face, and subtle variation in the weight of the strokes. And it has a true italic (unlike the slanted Roman of, say, Helvetica).
Porchez has extended the family with several other subfamilies, such as Le Monde Livre, a bookface based on Le Monde Journal but modified to work at larger text sizes, and Le Monde Courrier, an informal slab-serif typeface meant for correspondence (in the tradition of faces such as ITC Stone Informal). More recently, Porchez extended Le Monde Livre with Le Monde Livre Classic, which adds a large number of historical letterforms, ligatures, ornaments, swashes, and variations to the basic book family.
Porchez has added numerous subfamilies to his Le Monde typeface family, including Le Monde Livre Classic, illustrated here.
When I visited Porchez last February at his small apartment in Malakoff, an industrial suburb on the southern outskirts of Paris, he was working on the redesign of a line of regional newspapers in the middle of the country. He showed me his work in progress, as well as several earlier typographic makeovers he had performed on other French periodicals.
Newspapers in the provinces are not usually at the cutting edge of journalistic design, but they are workhorses that are read by thousands and thousands of people every day. How these papers look, and how easy they are to read, is essential to their success. It’s hard to think of any undertaking more “unsung,” but Porchez’s design task had an immediate, direct, hands-on effect on the daily experience of his countrymen.
Like many independent type designers, Jean-François Porchez works from home. The image of the mighty Porchez Typofonderie may be seamlessly professional — and it does accurately reflect the quality of the work — but the actual labor was being done at a Mac on a desk in the half of the bedroom that was designated his workspace. Since he shares his home with his wife and two small children, the boundaries of the workspace were hardly impervious, but usually they were strictly maintained. (The boundary-keeping went both ways. His posters and type samples and books were not to slop over into the living space.)
I speak in the past tense because just before the new year, Porchez and his family were moving into a house in the same town, where they will presumably have somewhat more space. (I knew I had to write this column quickly, before its central observation got too far out of date.)
The other area where Porchez has had a typographic effect on daily life is in his typeface for the Paris Métro, called Parisine. Parisine is used both on signage and on maps and other printed materials.
Porchez created his Parisine typeface for use in the Paris Métro, such as in the sign show here.
There is more than one typeface in use in the Métro, and Porchez is following in the footsteps of one of the 20th century’s great typographic practitioners: Adrian Frutiger designed the earlier signage typeface, which is still in common use. I confess that when I’ve ridden the Paris Métro I’ve been hard put to figure out the logic behind the use of the two typefaces (there are also older remnants of earlier lettering, as there are in almost any subway system that’s been around for a while), but the general direction-finding system is noticeably more coherent in Paris than it is in, say, New York. Of course, the typeface has only so much influence on this; everything depends on how the typeface is actually used, and on how logical the actual arrangement of the lines, the stations, and the trains really is. No signage or way-finding system can make up for a physically confusing transit system.
La Voix de la Lettre
Porchez is an activist in the field of typography. He organizes and supports design events in Paris, he teaches widely, and he organized the program of the 1998 ATypI conference in Lyons. He is matter-of-fact and unpretentious, but he has strong opinions. He takes a resolutely international stance on typography, yet he has been instrumental in bringing together and publicizing the typography and typographers of France, in ventures such as the encyclopedic small book prepared for the ATypI Lyons conference, “Lettres Françaises.” He is also one hell of a type designer.