Azimuts 43 Interview

31 December 2017

An interview with Gwenaël Fradin & Samuel Vermeil for Azimuts 43, December 2015. Conducted over email, and translated into French for publication.


In this issue of Azimuts journal, we question the notion of end and the finish in design project, what determines it and what happens at this step that often conclude a long investment. Here are some questions about it.

Your work, in many aspects, establishes links with letter shapes and typefaces from the past (from Feijoa to Domaine). Could you explain the reasons?

It is impossible to escape letterforms from the past! You cannot invent something from nothing.

Is the work on technical issues less interesting to build a project?

Sometimes, yes. I am mostly interested in drawing typefaces, not the technical realisation of the typefaces. This seems contradictory, but my skills do not lie in solving technical font issues.

In your work, what are the incidences of technique on the shapes?

I can’t describe the particulars of my technique, all I do is draw letterforms in vector outlines. I don’t think my technique is unique, only the shapes I draw.

In the article on Metric and Calibre typefaces, you wrote that they ‘are a pair of typefaces that share a fundamental geometry yet differ in the finish of key letterforms’. Could we speak about different ‘finish’ or is it a nonsense? Does that notion have a meaning for you in type design?

Perhaps I should have written, “yet differ in the shape of key letterforms”. As mentioned previously, all digital typefaces have the same “finish”, technically speaking.

You started from Galaxie Copernicusto design Tiempos, another type design project. Did you think that there were enough potential and non explored ideas in the first one to build the second? Or was it just an opportunity?

Tiempos was a specific request for a newspaper typeface. I can’t remember now if the request was to use Galaxie Copernicus as the starting point or if I thought it was a good place to start. Either way, Galaxie Copernicus was bound by the proportions of Chester Jenkins’ large Galaxie family, and Copernicus had to fit within that. In a sense, it’s more his typeface than mine. Tiempos was an attempt for me to better assert my own ideas and proportions, free of the requirements of the Galaxie system.

Let’s continue with this idea of taking something again from a project to another. What do you think of the hypothesis assuming that some type designers work with few ideas differently played in several projects, for example as we can see in Gerard Unger’s great work?

Ah, I don’t see a “few ideas” in Unger’s work—I see many different ideas expressed through the same hand. This is the same with all type designers, I think.

Our wording about Gerard Unger was awkward. G. Unger has produced beautiful and original typefaces, we didn’t want to minimise the interest and richness of his work. What we wanted to emphasise through his example and on which we wanted to have your opinion, was the fact that there is like a common thread in some of his projects that extends from one to another. And, for us, it seems not only spring from the author’s style, his own way, but can be a kind of quest of an ideal type, specific to the author (this is probably an excessively romantic vision).

Well, that’s the fashionable “reading” of Jan van Krimpen’s typefaces: even though they’re all somehow fundamentally flawed he seems to strive towards an “ideal” form. I am not totally convinced by this, I’ve not read anything from him that explicitly states this was his intention. Of course there are similarities between the typefaces from the same designer, it’s like the same person singing different songs: it will have a specific, recognisable voice. To insinuate a designer is questing towards the ideal type is to second-guess their intentions, to make assumptions on form alone. I can’t speak for other typeface designers, but I can assure you I’m not aiming towards an ideal typeface!

In your point of view, do you agree with the idea that type designers are like jazz men, constrain to interpret the same ‘Real Book’ made from standard shapes?

Yes, I think so. Erik van Blokland’s digitisation experiment was fascinating. He asked a bunch of designers to digitise a scan of an Enschedé Caslon n. The results are all different: no two points align. The significance of this is twofold.

1. No two revivals will ever be the same, regardless of source material. The usual and cliched ‘problem’ of revivals is ‘which size to use’. No two letter pressed letterforms are the same, so which one is ‘the definite’ form is impossible to evaluate. So even if there was the one single printed specimen of Caslon 12pt, 20 digitisations of it would all be subtly different. There could never be any definitive digital Caslon.

2. Very few contemporary typeface designs are indeed straight revivals. Designers typically draw from many sources, but all ultimately express their work in digital vector outlines. As Smeijers quips in Eye 90, “Somehow it seems that the current technology *only* allows for slick. This seeps through everything, and type is no exception.” Despite this great digital unifier, there is no definitive form of the alphabet. It is a concept made concrete through countless written and designed letterforms: the alphabet is not defined by a single typeface but expressed through all of them. To think that we’ve “solved the problem of typeface design” is to assume that the alphabet has been “solved”, that it’s forms have all been discovered. I don’t think the alphabet is a problem, though, it’s a concept. A concept can’t be solved, it’s not that facile.

When do you consider that a project is finished and accomplished how do you achieve it? Is all the process planned?

I think there are largely two parts to a typeface project: “drawing” and “selling”. The drawing part is finished when everything is drawn/spaced, kerned, hinted and mastered. That has a concrete end. The selling part, however, is ongoing. There are endless enquiries to deal with, technical support, deals, customisations, interviews, lectures, blog posts and marketing. For me the drawing part is easy and finite. The selling never ends. Take your very first question for example, asking about Feijoa. That went on sale in 2005, a decade ago. I have changed since then, but Feijoa hasn’t. But I still have a responsibility to think and talk about it, because it still sells and people are discovering it for the first time. So, to answer your question, the drawing part can be planned, but the selling part can’t be fully planned.

In type design, the step of drawing is also the one of realisation, unlike architecture or music where they are separate. Does that immediacy of realisation, which seems a property of type design, make difficulties in the drawing process? How do you manage to re-evaluate the project in progress?

It makes the process much faster. I am lucky enough to use a nice Retina screen, which allows me to do a lot of proofing in a browser. The resolution is just as good as my 1200 dpi laser printer. So the actual design process is now much more efficient, for me at least.

We observe that the articles you write on your projects fluently come at the end of the process. Is it a way to end projects?

Yeah, sort of. It marks the boundary between the “drawing” and “selling” parts of the process. It’s helpful for me to reflect on the typeface itself and bring some closure to the “drawing”. It also helps others to understand the typeface, why it exists and how it came about, the beginning of the “selling” process.