dot-font: Type Design Today

When Jean-François Porchez handed me a copy of a Japanese graphic-design magazine, “Idea,” while I was visiting him in Paris last month, my first impression was that it featured a very nice article about Jean-François’s work as a type designer, and a cover that used one of his more unusual typefaces. The cover, it turned out, was designed by Jean-François himself, and he was the subject of an extensive, well-illustrated article, but the 200-page issue is essentially the equivalent of a short book on its topic: “Type Design Today.” There are many books that don’t give as thorough a snapshot of the state of modern type design as this issue of a magazine does.

What Jean-François was most delighted with was the way “Idea’s” designers had reproduced some of his type-specimen sheets, and tipped them into the issue, despite the fact that he had never sent them digital files to work from. “It’s all a fake!” he cried, with a smile, as he pointed this out to me. They must have scanned the specimens (at very high resolution) and then chosen equivalent paper stock and printed them on that paper, carefully, to re-create the original specimens in faithful copies. It was almost like the loving reproductions of 17th or 18th century type specimens done for books about printing and typography in the 20th century. Why the “Idea” designers didn’t ask Jean-François for the digital files and use them, I don’t know, but the result certainly surprised and amused the type designer.

Figure 1: A spread from the section on Jean-François Porchez’s Le Monde typeface. The righthand page is part of a foldout type specimen.


And the effect for the reader is spectacular. Foldout specimens of Le Monde, the family of typefaces that Jean-François created for the famous Paris newspaper, and of Anisette, a sans serif face with both wide and narrow widths inspired by Maximilien Vox’s typeface Banjo, punctuate the magazine; along with another foldout inside the front cover, a demonstration by Jean-François of various typographic terms and distinctions. None of the other articles include foldouts, but they are all generously and stylishly illustrated. (There is also a large foldout poster at the back of the issue, which is not obviously related to the type-design theme.)

Fonts as Digital Bricks
The integration of image and text is admirable throughout ‘Idea.’ The text is presented bilingually, in Japanese and English, and the text typography is consistently readable, despite occasional layout excess that makes it momentarily hard to follow from one column to the next. (I don’t read Japanese, so it’s the typography of the English text that I’m talking about here — though as far as I can tell the Japanese text also looks clean and easy to read.) The only real fault is in the text itself, which could have used more careful editing. The introductory article by Robin Kinross, self-effacingly titled “Some features of the font explosion,” is well written, but some of the text by those who are not native English-speakers would have benefited from a sharper editorial eye.

Figure 2: Robin Kinross’s introductory article talks about modern type designers’ interactions with historical models.


Kinross’s essay puts the current state of type design into perspective, making the point that the nature of the craft — and the business — changed dramatically with the beginning of the PostScript era. And he makes connections that some might not have thought of. For instance, in noting the proliferation of extensive type families by young designers such as Lucas de Groot and Martin Majoor and Fred Smeijers, Kinross points out, “Typically these ‘families’ were designed by youngish men working long hours, seven days a week, and without ‘family’ commitments in the usual sense of that word. So, in the spirit of that time, both Scala and Quadraat were expanded by their designers, who added san serif partners as well as further weight, width and display variants, and Cyrillics too…”

Kinross makes very good points about the nature of tradition and innovation in type design, and what it means to speak of “reviving” a design. “Given the huge spectrum of ways in which older forms are built on, ‘revival’ is too simple a term to be very helpful. It sounds like the attempt to make a reconstruction of an old style of house. But typefaces are not like houses. They are more like bricks: modest components that are combined to make a new entity.” At the end of the essay, he refers to recent typeface designs with historical roots but digital forms, and suggests that perhaps “there is a way forward, which uses history but which does not sacrifice itself on the altar of the past.”

Take Off Your Glasses and Squint
The interview with Jean-François Porchez touches on several aspects of his career, and gives him a chance to retail anecdotes about what it was like convincing “Le Monde” to accept his proposal of a new set of typefaces for the newspaper. (He scored a success when he recognized that the publisher, who was looking at side-by-side samples of the proposed new typeface and the existing Times Roman, was far-sighted; Jean-François urged him to take off his glasses, step back across the room, and walk slowly toward the two specimens that Jean-François was holding, until he got close enough to read the text. It was the new typeface that resolved into focus first.)

In some ways, the most fascinating part of the Porchez section is a study of the Métro type (commercially released as Parisine) that Jean-François designed for signage in the Paris Métro. In designing typefaces for such high-profile uses as the capital’s transit system and the text of the nation’s most respected daily newspaper, he was made very much aware that “typefaces are not simple products; they are cultural items.” In creating specimens (many shown here), he envelopes the letterforms with a cultural context, not just dry examples; and in designing typefaces for public use, he builds their context into the form of the design.

Figure 3: Examining the contrast between Helvetica-based signage and the new typographic system in the Paris Métro.


But the richness of this issue of “Idea” does not, by any means, stop with the first two articles. They are followed by sections on Fred Smeijers, Akira Kobayashi, André Baldinger, LettError (Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum), François Rappo, and Matthew Carter. The Smeijers section is like the Porchez section, though not as extensive: a brief intro by Robin Kinross, several pages of showings of typeface designs and publications, and an article by Andy Crewdson about Smeijers’s Arnhem family of typefaces, followed by a section (printed on bright amber paper) of excerpts from Smeijers’s recent book “Type Now.” Akira Kobayashi’s section, which he wrote, focuses on “Originality and Redesign of a Typeface,” which reflects both his original designs such as FF Clifford (based on 18th century British types) and his work, as type director of the Platinum Collection at Linotype, with legendary type designers such as Adrian Frutiger and Hermann Zapf in creating refined and updated digital versions of their typefaces. Kobayashi is quite frank about the failures of converting metal and photo versions of many type designs to digital form; he is the first person I have seen point out in public, for instance, that Bauer Bodoni, although a famously beautiful version of Bodoni’s designs when it was cast in metal, is uselessly spindly in its digital avatars.

The Street Has Its Uses
The other articles are more closely focused on particular projects. LettError write about the creation of Twin Cities, the typeface whose online form varies with the state of the weather in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The André Baldinger piece examines his invention of a Latin typeface with non-Latin elements for signage at the Cité internationale universitaire de Paris, and its antecedents. François Rappo describes reviving the extremely odd typeface designed by Henri Didot, with elements that look like they were added by a postmodernist designer today but that can be found in the 1812 and 1819 type specimens. And the Matthew Carter section presents his typeface family for Yale University, designed to look classic and be easy to use, with a signage variant (Yale Street), an office version (Yale Admin Roman & Italic), and a more classic version for fine typography (Yale Design Roman & Italic); this family looks typically well conceived and well executed, though the text here appears to be largely an explanation of how to use the typefaces, intended for its potential users at Yale, rather than an article for a more general reader about the background of the project.

Figure 4: Matthew Carter’s Yale typeface: a proprietary design for signage, office use, and fine typography at Yale University.


The back of the magazine includes more piecemeal items such as brief samples from various digital type foundries, and a remarkable little meditation on Stanley Morison’s influence in Japan.

I have not been a regular reader of “Idea,” so I can’t place this issue in context; but this single issue all by itself is well worth getting hold of. I expect that a regular subscription would be worthwhile, too (all the issues seem to be bilingual, in Japanese and English). I understand that they’re working on a new issue focusing on the work of Jan Tschichold.

Posted on: December 6, 2004

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