Computer Arts interview

With three Type Directors Club awards in the last two years, Kris Sowersby is the man agencies turn to for a custom typeface. Garrick Webster goes behind the scenes.

1,852 words by Kris Sowersby
30 June 2009

An interview by Garrick Webster for Computer Arts Magazine, June 30 2009.


With three Type Directors Club awards in the last two years, Kris Sowersby is the man agencies turn to for a custom typeface. Garrick Webster goes behind the scenes.

The tiny Chatham Islands in the South Pacific can boast a rather unique claim to design glory. They have their own typeface, which was designed by the award-winning typographer Kris Sowersby, based 500 miles away in New Zealand.

From a cultural point of view, Sowersby’s Hokotohu is one of the most interesting custom typeface creations in recent decades, particularly as it involved traditional wood-carved symbols from the islands. Almost extinct thanks to Maori and white invasions in the 19th century, the Moriori culture of the Chatham Islands is now seeing something of a revival. So New Zealand-based DNA Design was called in to use indigenous imagery, forms and colours to bring back some of that local identity, and to reposition the islands on the global scene. When it came to designing a typeface for the project, the agency called on Kris Sowersby, the man behind the Klim Type Foundry in the North Island’s Wellington.

“Hokotohu’s serifs are closely based on dendroglyphs from the art of momori rakau - tree carving,” Sowersby explains. “The indigenous Moriori people of the Chatham Islands practised momori rakau, but scholars have been unable to decipher the exact reasons why. The dendroglyphs cover a range of features, with many representing human figures.”

He continues: “I actually did quite a bit of sketching for this one, which is rare for me these days. I really had no idea what to do until Charlie Ward from DNA loaned me a photocopy of a book about momori rakau. As soon as I saw these images it was a fairly straightforward process.”

Though his work for the Hokotehi Moriori Trust took a prize at New Zealand’s BeST Design Awards 2007, today Sowersby looks on Hokotohu as one of his early faces. But while he has the same mixed feelings that many designers experience when it comes to older work, he does deem it a success - largely because it was culturally specific, and particularly relevant.

Although Hokotohu was a fascinating project, Sowersby seems much happier about his work on a custom typeface for the Australian wine brand Hardys in 2008. This brought the typographer one of his two Certificates of Excellence from the Type Design Club of New York in this year’s awards - and there are no higher merits in the world of type design. He was brought on board by Parallax, which was in the process of rebranding Hardys for Constellation Wines Australia. Its mission was to ‘retain heritage but introduce contemporary values’, with an overall brand position of ‘rich in heritage, progressive by nature’.

“They initially wanted help fixing up the Hardys logotype. As Hardys was established in 1853, there was a lot of heritage to be drawn upon, so Parallax had dug into the Hardys archive and found some really interesting old typography. From this they mocked up a logotype for me to re-draw, and showed me some of the more interesting stuff they’d found. After this was finished, it was decided that a custom typeface was appropriate, and to base it upon the new logotype,” he says.

For Sowersby, designing lettering for a custom typeface follows the same format as for a retail one. First he creates some rough sketches, usually starting with ’n’, ‘a’, ‘g’ and ‘p’. For him, these sketches are like caricatures of the letters. The bulk of the drawing and spacing work is done afterwards in FontLab. From the ’n’ he has the basis for ‘i’, ‘m’, ‘h’, ‘l’, ‘u’ and ‘r’. Then he tackles ‘o’ and ‘b’ before ‘a’, ‘v’, ‘g’, ’s’ and ‘e’. When the lower case is done, he then generates a font file and tests it using an online utility called Just Another Text Generator.

Sowersby does print tests throughout production, believing a typeface can only be judged on paper (ideally using offset printing, but if not, laser will do). When he’s happy with the lower case, he ventures into the capitals with ‘H’ and ‘O’, and then ‘I’, ‘V’ and ‘P’. Sowersby fills out the test phrase ‘HAMBURGERFONTSIV’, and also begins some punctuation and the numerals.

He tests the composition of his work all the time; the black and white balance in a typeface is crucial. It’s what he focuses on during most of the testing - balancing the spacing, counters, ligatures and so forth. For a retail typeface, however, there’s also still the extremely time-consuming job ahead of filling out the whole character set. For instance, his Newzald typeface at Book weight alone comprised 998 unique glyphs.

Starting from a logotype, and with fewer characters than usual, Hardys turned out to be a different sort of process. Sowersby sees the face as unusual in today’s market. “The serifs are essentially a bracketed Latin style, which isn’t particularly popular these days,” he says. “Perhaps typefaces like Americana have put people off - I don’t know. This made it quite challenging for me, so with help from Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz, I dug around and found a few old specimens from the 18th and 19th centuries made in a similar style. The ones I found were pretty outlandish in their details, so I toned them down and tried to fit them onto a more contemporary skeleton, similar to Miller by Matthew Carter.”

Interestingly, Sowersby views Hardys as the first typeface he’s done where he’s worked outside his own style. This itself is fairly formal, with the stated aim of Klim being to produce considered type. Some observers may detect modernist leanings in his overall output, but Sowersby doesn’t see it that way. Most often, his work is specific to the needs of a client.

“I am really happy with Hardys; both with the typeface itself and how they use it,” he adds. “It is quite elegant when used for display settings - the details really come through - but it quietens down for text settings. I like that it’s a fairly contemporary take on an underexposed genre. It fits the brief for the Hardys re-brand perfectly.”

Amongst Sowersby’s corporate clients is the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ), for whom he created Serrano. Again he worked with DNA Design, and the project won him a second Type Directors Club Award in 2008. BNZ wanted something that would look friendly, approachable and helpful. After much research, the design team concluded that they needed a humanist typeface that was slightly condensed, in four weights. Sowersby turned to five fonts for ideas and inspiration: Gill Sans, Quadraat Sans, FF Unit, Frutiger and FF Thesis Sans.

“Gill Sans was ruled out as too geometric and literary. FF Unit was also ruled out for being too Teutonic and technical. So the first version of Serrano became a synthesis of the remaining three. It had roughly the same proportions and sheared terminals of Quadraat Sans, the humanism of FF Thesis Sans, and the open simplicity of Frutiger,” he says.

“After a few rounds of development, aided by Steve Maskell from DNA, the sheared terminals were deemed too sharp, so he suggested the rounded-to-a- point terminal for the lowercase ’t’. I countered by explaining that treatment would have to be applied to all the other relevant terminals, like ‘a’, ’n’, ’s’, ‘g’, ‘e’, and so on. He agreed, and that’s essentially how Serrano ended up looking like it does!”

Sometimes the final outcome can be a bit of a surprise. Sowersby’s custom job Methven Flow - complete with unique ornamental loops - is a case in point, and he had no idea if it could be used successfully. He came onto the project through one of his retail typefaces, National, which was being used by the design company Designworks for their client Methven, who manufacture shower systems. In addition to National, they wanted a display face that would imply and accentuate the sensuousness of their showers via the branding.

“Initially I was reluctant to do the work. I couldn’t see how it was going to be used or the point of it all. I had no real idea of the context,” he says.

However, he soon got down to work: “Tana Mitchell, lead designer on the project, sent me a sketch of what she wanted; effectively a weight of Gotham with loops tacked on. I suggested reworking National into these forms: she agreed, so it was actually really straightforward. The only tricky bits were figuring out where to put the loops. It had to look somewhat natural, or at least integrated into the base letterform.”

According to the company’s brand manual, the face is: “An ownable, consistent, yet flexible signature typeface that creates unity whilst allowing diversity.” Inspired by flowing water and the distinctively New Zealand koru curl, the typeface Methven Flow is unique to Methven.

While that’s enough to make any typographer blush, in the end Sowersby was really pleased with the final results: “I was completely taken aback when I actually saw it in use,” he confesses. “They employ it sparingly and appropriately, using one or two looped letters per headline or logotype. I really love what they’ve done with it.”

While typefaces can be extremely time consuming to produce, designing logotypes is something Kris Sowersby finds more challenging. His work in this area is, just like his typefaces, very considered, although logotypes do give him more scope for exploring the use of flair and colour.

For instance, the lettering he created for the Wanganui Festival of Glass uses basic shapes to create the letters, with overlapping colours hinting towards the concept of stained glass - a modern and touch daring in itself. Meanwhile his work on Strange Resting Places, a logotype for a theatre play about a Maori battalion in World War II, is the closest he’s come so far to designing a fat face.

With a brand-specific typeface, what’s seen as important is the overall feel and atmosphere of the letters when they’re used in various situations. “Depending on how it will be used, you usually only need to put a pinch of flavour in each letter. They’ll be used en masse, so you don’t want to have too much flavour - a typeface is a functional thing after all,” he explains.

“A logotype is very different. It’s usually only a few letters, so it’s expected that the essence of the brand or company will be distilled into them. To this end, I find it much more difficult to come up with a concept for a logotype than I do for a typeface, even though typefaces normally take much longer to create.”

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