God is in the details

2 July 2008


First published in Sunday Magazine, 3 August 2008.


The craft of leading font designer Kris Sowersby often — surprisingly − provokes intense reaction and debate. Rose Hoare looks at the letters behind his name and discovers why all the hype in the type.

In an interview published on a blog called I Love Typography, New Zealand typeface designer Kris Sowersby related how he first came to fall in love with letterforms while practising drawing a typeface called Bembo. “I noticed that the arch of the ‘n’ subtly curves into the right-hand stem — all the way down into the serif,” Sowersby recalled. “For some reason that struck me as being quite amazing. It is a detail that would seem rather innocuous, yet lends so much warmth and character to the overall printed impression.” Sowersby kept his sketch of that first, beguiling ‘n’. Next to it, he’d written, “Cheeky Bembo!”

Last month Sowersby entered into — you wouldn’t call it an argument, exactly — a moment of typography-related tension that erupted during a panel discussion at Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery. He was one of six graphic designers who had given talks about their work, and a question and answer session followed. A white-haired man in the front row, in his best Grandpa Simpson voice, accused a book illustrator of drawing something that wasn’t especially legible. (It was the phrase, “While you’re up, could you put the jug on,” rendered in lettering that looks like ribbon). The illustrator agreed with the man, but argued that since this was a personal rather than a commercial piece of art work, legibility wasn’t a prime concern.

Sowersby — who is 26 — leaned into his microphone and interjected, “That’s just a really old way of looking at things.” The man persisted, harrumphing that legibility isn’t a concern to be dismissed so lightly, that no one would read newspapers if they weren’t legible, and so on. “Of course you wouldn’t lay out a newspaper in that,” Sowersby said, dispatching the argument.

I’ve never seen a theoretical debate at an arts seminar — or indeed any kind of conversation at an arts seminar — wrapped up so quickly.

Amongst the graphic designers, Sowersby somehow stuck out as the odd one out and, in his talk, he offered the analogy that, as a typeface designer amongst typographers (designers who use typefaces in their work), he was like a brickmaker amongst architects. He wore a black shirt, a black tie and a black waistcoat and someone mentioned that at a recent Pecha Kucha — an informal, network-y night where designers talk about a slideshow of 20 images, each shown for 20 seconds — he’d been mistaken for wait staff, until he got up to speak.

I’d first heard about Sowersby because of Hokotohu, a typeface he designed for the Chatham Islands as part of a campaign to ‘rebrand’ the Moriori. He’s also designed a special space-saving font for the White and Yellow Pages. He submitted a new masthead for this magazine, although he never heard anything back. He’s designed a font, called National, which he intends as a patriotic gift for all New Zealanders. Of course, not all of these endeavours were solicited, or accepted. (Or even appreciated. From Sunday’s institutional memory, I was able to ascertain only that a “nutty old woman” might have submitted an alternative masthead design years ago.) Last year Helvetica, a documentary by Gary Hustwit, who’d previously made films about the Moog synthesiser and the American alt-country band Wilco, was released. Helvetica was broadly focused on typography and featured interviews with type designers, but they talked mainly about Helvetica, the 50-year-old Swiss typeface used for New York’s subway signs, in corporate logos including Microsoft, Toyota, Nestlé, Evian and Panasonic, and found almost everywhere else around the world.

Most of the designers interviewed in Hustwit’s film admired Helvetica, but some loathed it. It’s a plain typeface, described by an art writer as being “smooth and well-proportioned, with a pleasing roundness that feels friendly yet sleek and efficient, like an amiable, perfectly groomed flight attendant in business class”. But it was denounced by a German typeface designer, Erik Spiekermann, as “familiar, predictable, dull, overused, corporatist, and conformist”, and another designer said that in the 1960s, Helvetica was the establishment typeface, “and therefore somehow responsible for the Vietnam war”.

The film’s surprise twist, then, is that some people — mainly graphic designers — really, really care about fonts. Typefaces engender passionate, intense feelings. Feelings that are perhaps tinctured with ironic humour, but that have led, all the same, to the inauguration of internet groups like the one that lobbies to “ban Comic Sans”, the pudgy, juvenile-looking dork of the font world.

“Early type designing and setting was so laborious that it is a blasphemy to the history of the craft that any fool can sit down at their personal computer and design their own typeface,” the group’s manifesto thunders. “Technological advances have transformed typography into a tawdry triviality. The patriarchs of this profession were highly educated men. However, today the widespread heretical uses of this medium prove that even the uneducated have opportunities to desecrate this art form; therefore, destroying the historical integrity of typography.”

(Comic Sans’ designer, a Microsoft engineer called Vincent Connare, argued that his font isn’t hideous and clownish, it’s just misapplied: it was only ever meant to be used in children’s cartoon speech balloons. “I am too personally amused when I go to restaurants and have to read it off the menu,” he wrote back, in what looks like Courier font. “So I’m Eminen [sic] of font type users now but I’m just me too.”)

Fonts don’t always meet with the tolerance and understanding they crave. Typographical hate speech is rife on Facebook, where there are groups like “Arial is a Plague on Mankind”; “F*** Times New Roman”; the emphatically punctuated but lesser-joined “Thank the Lord for Bookman Old Style font!!” and “Equal Type Now!”, which makes satirical shift to agitate on behalf of a perceived “underclass” that is “forced to set their documents in faces such as Arial and Times New Roman” while an “oligarchy” with “access to quality typefaces… lords over the populace”.

But enough font jokes. Fonts are not here to amuse you. They are not to be trivialised. They may seem insignificant, but they’re the brickwork that, if messed with, could topple the edifice.

Fonts — even Helvetica — are far from neutral. We read subtexts like tone, gender and class in their swashes and serifs. I’ve come to think of typefaces as being like music — we sense it, and it plays upon our mood, but we don’t always grasp the intricate mechanics of its structures.

This might be why typeface designers behave and talk as though they’re writing operas. They display a thoroughgoing involvement with, and zealous commitment to, their work. Quite a few have had unruly and tumultuous lives, of the sort you associate with the owner of a grand artistic vision. The guy who invented italics — clearly an unstable individual — murdered his son-in-law. Paul Renner, who designed the Futura typeface (used in all of Wes Anderson’s films), was the sort of severely theoretical German who mistrusted abstract art, jazz, cinema and dancing.

Typeface designers engage with the forging of cultural and artistic movements — romanticism, humanism, modernism — in the same way that poets, philosophers and artists do. Yet their work, although it is almost everywhere you look, goes largely unnoticed. “There’s a publication called The National Grid,” Sowersby says, “sort of a crazy graphic design magazine, and the first issue came out and they had ‘The National Grid’ set in Helvetica. And they’d used Helvetica and Times, for whatever reason, on the inside. I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if New Zealanders had a sans serif like Helvetica, that they could call their own, that they could use, and not rely on a whole lot of old, foreign typefaces?

“Sometimes I see it as like an accent — you’re setting New Zealand poetry in an Italian typeface. It’s sort of like speaking in an Italian accent. I thought it would be nice if New Zealanders could have a New Zealand accent in the typefaces they use.”

Although an early version of Kris Sowersby’s National was licensed to Victoria University — the biggest typeface commission in New Zealand — it isn’t used much here. But at Village, the boutique Manhattan co-op through which Sowersby sells his typefaces, it outsells both of Sowersby’s other typefaces put together ($US250 for a full set of fonts; Sowersby takes a 50 percent cut, which increases with sales volume). Sowersby knows it’s been used in Mass Appeal, a now-defunct New York culture/hip-hop magazine, but he doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to who licenses his typefaces, and often doesn’t know how they’re used.

This year National was one of eight typefaces, from around 120 entries, to win a certificate from the Type Directors Club, an international governing body for typography. It also won a Judge’s Choice award from Sara Soskolne, a designer at New York’s Hoefler & Frere-Jones, one of the world’s fanciest, most intimidating type foundries.

Sounding jaded, Soskolne observed that although 2007 was a “surprisingly lean” year for text faces and although we are living through a time of spiritual ennui for the sans serif, Sowersby had “quietly surprised” the judges with his “charming take on the late 19th-century Grotesque”. She heaped so much praise on National it’s practically disgusting to read. “The quirky forms of the humble Grot have been modernised without being sanitised, achieving at small sizes a tight crispness that opens up the face to reveal its looser, more idiosyncratic alter ego... If National is New Zealand’s first homegrown sans serif,” Soskolne raved, “I’d say it’s a pretty fine start.”

“It’s very basic looking,” Sowersby says. “There’s not much to it. That’s the thing: you’re dealing with a lot of subtleties in typeface design. That’s why it’s only really graphic designers and typographers who get all excited about this, that and the other thing. Everyone else goes, ‘What is it? It looks like Helvetica to me.’” Last year Sowersby earned a garland worth more to him, probably, than his Type Directors prize. In a career-affirming break, Sowersby was apprenticed to a German maestro. “The point where I realised that I could do this for a living, and that it was serious,” he says solemnly, “was Meta Serif.”

Meta is a corporate-looking typeface released in 1984 by big-shot typeface designer Eric Spiekermann. It was taken up widely throughout the 1990s and early 21st century. It’s touted as the most influential sans serif typeface of the digital age. (Since it is part of Spiekermann’s vast typeface library, called “FontFont”, its proper nomenclature is ‘FF Meta’). “It’s kind of the Helvetica of the 90s,” Sowersby says. “It gets a lot of play. It was one of the ones that ushered in a new era of typeface design, I guess.”

Through his connection with Christian Schwartz, a designer at Village, Sowersby was engaged to work on Meta Serif, an assignment that had defeated Spiekermann for more than two decades. “From what I understand, he’s tried to design a serif version for ages, because people were always asking him, but he never quite managed to nail it, for whatever reason. I don’t know why he felt he couldn’t do it.”

Although he has a sketchbook for messing around, Sowersby designs all his typefaces on a computer. “You start with lowercase, because that’s what we read the most and it’s more interesting than uppercase.” He begins by drawing words that contain what he calls “money glyphs”. (Glyphs are the characters — letters, numbers, symbols etcetera — that make up a font; fonts can be roman, italic, bold, bold italic and so on; and a family of fonts makes up a typeface.) Usually, those words are ‘handgloves’ or ‘hamburgefontsiv’. “From those letters you can build all the other ones, and you have a very good idea of the round letters, the straight letters, the angles and the curves, and how they all relate to each other.”

Once those letters have been created, a computer programme can generate more words and a test print will confirm whether it’s worth persevering. “Then you build the same with uppercase, mix those around and get them as good as you can, until they’re absolutely perfect — their relationships to each other, and to the upper and lower cases.”

Towards the end, there’s kerning to be done — adjusting the amount of space between letters such that they won’t bump up against each other or stray too far apart and leave big, unsightly gaps. “I’m talking about 40 or 50-odd pages of almost every letter combination. You spend so long looking at it, spacing it and kerning it, you’ve just had a fucking gutsful of it at the end. But you have to do it, otherwise someone’s going to notice and someone’s going to complain.”

A full glyph set, for Meta Serif, comprised 733 glyphs, and since there were eight fonts for that typeface, Sowersby had to draw, check, space and proof 5,864 characters. It took him and Schwartz about a year to complete, with Spiekermann overseeing the work.

“It wasn’t just tacking serifs on to the original forms, you had to make them look like they belonged together. They had to have that essential ‘Meta-ness’ in the serif, whatever that was. Which was quite hard. There’s a certain Teutonic pragmatism to Meta and it had to be the same with the serif. It had to be a very practical, functional typeface.” Sowersby spent three years, after graduating from Wanganui School of Design, teaching himself how to design typefaces. He doesn’t know why he liked it so much, but he did. He remembers very clearly being at a design conference at Wanganui and approaching a guy he won’t name, from a big advertising agency. “I went up to him at the bar and soaid, ‘I’m interested in designing typefaces. Do you have any advice for me?’ and he said, ‘Don’t bother. There’s no money in it.’ That was it.

“At the time it really pissed me off and galvanised the whole thing. I thought ‘Fuck you, I’m going to do this. But that wasn’t the only incidence. People were encouraging, but in a very ‘He’ll grow out of it’ kind of way.”

Sowersby has his own type foundry, called Klim, which is “milk” backwards because, at the time of naming, he was interested in “reversing words to see what other words would come out”. “Back in the old days, when you had a type foundry, you had heaps of people working there and they were working with metal — pouring it. They had illustrations of the premises on their business cards and sometimes they over-inflated the size of the buildings, to give it importance and stature,” Sowersby explains. “It’s sort of the same online. You can invent. I work out of the spare room. I exist solely on the internet.”

He avoids using Microsoft products like Word or Excel. He can’t stand the fonts. He composes text (in Meta Serif) in a programme called WriteRoom that has none of Word’s distractions. His email programme converts incoming mail to Verdana at 10 points, “because some people can send you stuff and it’s got formatting and styling… and it really annoys me because if they use an awful typeface [ my reply will be] blue and small and I can’t read it. Mine strips everything to plain text, so I can focus on the writing.” Sowersby is more distractible than most. He admits that when he’s reading he can sometimes go “for pages and pages” before he realises that he hasn’t been reading the words. “I’ve been looking at the font and thinking about the font, and who did it, where it comes from.”