Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial: Beauty

On occasion of the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, we discuss approaching typeface design, style, historical inspiration, geographic location and beauty.

2,164 words by Kris Sowersby & Justin Zhang
18 February 2016

An interview with Justin Zhang for “Beauty”, the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, February 12, 2016 through August 21, 2016. I highly recommend the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition. The specimens below were all printed and mounted in the exhibition as posters, and are now in the permanent collection.


Tell me how you approach typeface design.

If I’m commissioned to make a typeface for a client, then I need a clear brief. What does the client intend to do with the typeface? How do they want to use it, and what style or atmosphere or feeling do they need? These questions will inform everything about the typeface.

The other situation is making typefaces for retail rather than for a specific client. Here, it’s just me drawing letters and following an idea and seeing if things work. This process is a bit self-indulgent, but most of the time it seems to work. I might be flicking through old type specimens, or have an idea, or see a letter somewhere and I’ll think, “Oh, maybe that could work as an entire typeface.”

I’ll work through it and make some test letters and test prints. I then leave it alone and come back to see what’s worth keeping and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s all rubbish and I throw it away, but sometimes there’s something useful there. At the moment I’m working on a “Garamond”. This project has been bubbling away in the background for six or seven years, on and off. It’s only last year that it finally found its voice and became something worthwhile. The typeface looks completely different now from what it did when it started.

Poster, Domaine Sans Fine specimen, (2015).

Poster, Domaine Display Narrow specimen, (2015).

Poster, Maelstrom specimen, (2015).

Would you say you have a particular style that is identifiable?

I’m fairly sure that I have a style, but I can’t see it myself. Sometimes I can feel it, like when I’m walking through the street or in a shop, I’ll see a book cover and it feels familiar, like it’s speaking or reading in a familiar voice. I look at it closer and see that it is indeed my typeface. I may open a page of a book and I’ll feel that maybe this is my typeface, and then upon closer inspection, I find that it actually is. I assume that I do have a style; I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I can feel it.

You said when you’re doing your retail fonts, you tend to look at old specimens for inspiration. Is there any particular period you’re looking at? How does this lead to an eventual design?

I’m interested in what various countries have done over the years, which typefaces have fallen out of fashion, which ones have stayed in fashion and how they’ve changed with the different methods of production. Old specimens are nice to look at because there’s care in their production. Typically, the typefaces themselves are no longer being used. Looking at the original source material of these historical forms is like a musician going back and listening to, say, Lead Belly. Imagine if you could listen to him and how he sounded directly rather than listening to recordings that have been passed down, transmitted and deteriorated over the ages.

Looking at old specimens is like looking at the originals. For example, I never really understood Helvetica, because my experience of it has only ever been digital and maybe a few phototype settings. But when I saw some of the original typeface specimens of Helvetica, I immediately understood what Helvetica really was, which is quite different from the digital typefaces we use today. If I was a designer in the ’50s or ’60s and that Helvetica specimen landed on my desk, it would have blown me away. I look at old specimens in order to understand what these typefaces were like before they were readapted and changed and reproduced and all the rest of it.

What makes typography beautiful?

I know I apply rules and criteria to what I do, but I couldn’t properly articulate them. I actually started using Pinterest for this reason. I started pinning things that I liked. I didn’t think about it too much. I’d just flick through and I’d pin it. Patterns emerged. When I go back over the last year or so, I see two broad categories: the things that I like and things that I do. The things I like are different from the things that I actually make. The things that I like are on the cusp of being undesigned, especially typographically. I really like single-word letterpress and large wood type pieces that aren’t produced professionally. A lot of things that aren’t overly considered, that are raw and speak to you on a gut level, are very beautiful. They’re just simple things that don’t use all the nice fine details like oldstyle numerals and small caps. They haven’t been fussed over. It’s like a direct, raw, unmediated hit of typography. That’s the stuff I like.

But when it comes to your typography, you’re obsessed with the details.

All designers are into details. I read a little post by Spiekermann about this just yesterday. The details are the design. Obsession with details is not really obsession — it’s just doing the thing properly. In my own stuff, I spend so much time and effort fiddling around and doing all those little fine adjustments. A piece of under-designed typography is just the opposite. It’s a relief. You could be sitting out in the hot weather and you’re all sweaty. You then jump into an icy cold pool. That’s the effect. It’s the visual equivalent of that.

Has being in New Zealand and away from the main design capitals influenced how you see design?

What are the main design capitals?

Being in New Zealand versus being in New York or London, where there are so many design activities going on. I was just wondering whether, coming from New Zealand, you see design and concepts of beauty differently from the rest of the world?

Once upon a time, geographic distance was a problem, but not anymore. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing on the Internet. But living in the culture is another thing altogether. New York is nice, but I couldn’t live there. It’s not where I grew up. It’s not my culture.

You and I could look at the same piece of design. I could look at it and all I’m going to see is the things that I’m accustomed to seeing and interpreting. You’d look at it through your eyes and see what you’re accustomed to seeing, and someone in Indonesia would see something entirely different again. A good example of this is a typeface I did for House Industries in the US. It was for the Photo-Lettering set, called Exotique. It was a digitisation of an inline typeface with large ball terminals on the end of all the strokes. Anyway, I did that, finished the typeface, and it was all really nice. Then New Zealand designers started asking me about my koru typeface. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” They show me, and I say, “Oh, that’s Exotique from House Industries.” For New Zealanders, the koru is a very traditional motif in Māori design, carving and art. Nobody else sees it like that, but that’s how we see it.

How do you know when to stop?

I’m redrawing National at the moment, because there are some parts of it that I’m not happy with. I’m expanding it to different widths and weights. But in general, if you try and just have one small, simple idea, like the Garamond, and you stick to that, there will be a point — really hard to define — when you’re drawing, and the typeface just snaps into focus. It becomes right. From there, it’s just a matter of filling out the character set and making sure the letters all work together. For me, once it feels right, it’s not that hard to finish it. Sometimes it takes ages to that point. This Garamond thing’s been taking bloody ages. Other things happen quite quickly, like Pitch, for instance. I smashed that out really quickly because I was kerning Metric and Calibre and I just needed a break. I made a few sketches and didn’t think about it too hard. I managed to do Pitch in a few months. Some things are quick and some are slow. That’s just the nature of it.

When you design a typeface, do you start with certain letters first?

I start with some of the lowercase letters, like the n and o. From there, you can make an h, l, i, m, and u. Then with the o, you can move on and make a p. You can make a b and a d and a q and then just throw in a v for a bit of interest. From there, all the letters inform other letters. I use a good tool called adhesiontext™. You put some letters in and it just throws out a bunch of random words with just those letters. If it’s holding together there, you make a few more letters. You make some uppercase letters, and then you test and test, and then move on from there. There is some structure to it, but how it happens is quite intuitive.

Do you design on the screen or do you draw things out?

Always on the screen. I do some thumbnail sketches, but they’re just rubbishy things, just to quickly figure out an idea. I don’t ever draw a thing out and then digitize it. It’s always straight on the computer because it’s much easier to manipulate.

Are you concerned about how people use your typefaces? Does how you use it determine whether it is beautiful or not?

That’s one of the best parts. That’s the only part to it, actually. The actual designing of the typeface is all well and good, and I find that quite interesting. But up until the typeface is used, it kind of doesn’t exist. For example, if I design a typeface, and I display it on my website, that’s not really the typeface being used. That’s just the typeface advertising itself. It’s not until someone licenses it, and uses it in for print or a website or an app or whatever that it comes alive. It’s like a knife just sitting in a knife block. Until it starts chopping things, it’s bloody useless. I love seeing what people do with a typeface, because you can never predict that. It’s always interesting. It’s not always beautiful, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just happy that people are using them. There are a lot of typefaces out there. That somebody has taken the time to look at it, select it, purchase it, and work with it for several hours, get it through the client meetings — that’s quite a long, involved process.

What does beauty mean to you?

Beauty is a state of being. It’s not fixed. It fluctuates from person to person and throughout the ages. It’s a nebulous thing. It’s more of a concept. It’s not really something that is concrete. It can be nice, but it can also be dangerous. It’s nasty, I think. Yeah, that’s what I reckon. That’s, I suppose, what I think of beauty.

What is the most beautiful time of the day for you?

Dusk, because the day’s almost over and it’s a good time to think. It looks good. You get long shadows. There’s a warmth about the atmosphere, and you will probably have a beer. That’s a good thing as well.

What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever visited?

The South Island of New Zealand. It’s the landscape and the amount of natural bush on the west coast. It has long, dry plains in the middle, Central Otago. It has rugged cliffs and huge mountains. It’s got big lakes, beautifully clear lakes. The color of the water, you just can’t believe it. It’d be the South Island. Yeah, definitely the most beautiful place.

Poster, Heldane specimen, (2015).

Poster, Domaine Display specimen, (2015).

Poster, Domaine Sans Fine specimen, (2015).

Poster, Mānuka specimen, (2015).

More blog posts

Eye Magazine interview

We discuss education, heroes, the aesthetics of letterpress, source material and revisiting history.

The Design Conference interview

“I am not entirely convinced that a typeface can embody an idea. Sometimes I think it’s pure form, other times not. All I know is that anything made today will always be of this time.”

Process Journal interview

We discuss the roots of Tiempos, optical sizing, working from New Zealand, fundamentals and feelings.