Minimalism in Design: It’s Harder to Take Away than to Add

23 April 2017

Kris Sowersby interviewed by TypeThursday.

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So much of life today is about adding more. More features, more bandwidth, more ads. How can design help strip away the noise? This week, TypeThursday speaks with Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry. We talked how Klim Reader and the Untitled Series are a step towards a less crowded web.

TypeThursday: Kris, thank you for being here for TypeThursday.

Kris Sowersby: No worries.

Your foundry, Klim Type Foundry, has an innovative relationship with the web. First, with the Klim web specimen pages and now with the Klim Reader. Has this always been a focus for you or a newer development in your professional practice?

Klim only exists because of the internet. My first contact and exposure to typeface design proper was online. I learned a great deal from various internet resources and made good personal/professional contacts over email and chat. I would hesitate to say the relationship with the internet is innovative, it’s just natural and obvious.

What were those online resources? Was it Typophile or other resources?

Yes, typophile.com was a great place before it atrophied. From there I was pointed to various articles, sites, magazines, books & blogs. Some of these are gone, like the great daidala.com. But some still exist, like this.

Now, there are basic reasons the internet was — and still is — essential to my working life. I desperately wanted to attend a typeface design course like the Reading MATD or TypeMedia, but these were expensive and very far from New Zealand. At the time I was broke, they were not feasible options. There are also not many obvious, easily accessible typographic resources here. What little exists is scattered about the place, unlike in Europe or the States. Access to those museums, archives and libraries is such a privilege. Imagine getting on a train, and in under an hour you’re in another culture & country with all that entails! It wasn’t until last year that I saw an actual, real printed sample of a Garamond type.

My impression was your first exposure with type design was from the internet. This included both resources, like typophile, and people. Is my understanding incorrect?

No, my first exposure was at design school. And, perhaps, even earlier at intermediate school from The Lettering Book. I spent hours tracing these letters for school projects and title pages!

Can you help me understand how internet resources like typophile assisted you in your development in typeface design? From what you’ve shared, it sounds like the web resources were an acceleration of your interest that started in intermediate school, tracing from “The Lettering Book.” Is that a fair conclusion?

The resources helped with various technical and aesthetic issues in typeface design. Technical things like using font making software, proofing etc. Aesthetic things like letter spacing, proportions, construction. These things supplanted the many hours I spent thinking about and drawing typefaces. It was a slow, but fairly solid education in typeface design.

You shared before your approach to the web is natural and obvious. I noticed in a previous interview, you’re remarked you work primarily on the screen. In another interview, you’ve commented on the unusability of some digital versions of typefaces, such as Gill Sans. Do you believe there is a different sensibility in digital production, or am I mistaken?

Everyone making digital typefaces works primarily on the screen, there’s no other way. Perhaps there still a romantic notion of “analogue” tools being used, but that would be a minority I reckon. I have no idea if there is a different sensibility for digital production. I’ve never produced typefaces any other way, so I have no frame of reference, it would be pure speculation.

What about reading? You shared before how The Lettering Book was influential in your youth. I take it your current engagement in reading is mostly digital now.

Yes, I’ve always been a big reader. And I suppose it is mostly digital now. I don’t have a preference for format, but I do have a preference for form. I’m a heavy Instapaper user. I like the save-for-later model, it’s enormously useful.

Can you clarify when you mean by a preference for form?

I prefer good, easy to read typography over bad.

Is that the motivation for the Klim Reader?

Yes, exactly. The internet is full of great stuff to read, but most of it is compromised by terrible typography, pop-ups, inane ads, scrolljacking, etc. Brad Frost sums it up nicely in his Death to Bullshit article.

I was a happy user of Evernote’s Clearly plugin before it was abandoned. I use Safari iOS Reader View all the time. Some sites don’t have responsive typography, some simply have terrible typography. Design sites are some of the worst offenders. Anyway, Klim Reader isn’t an original concept, but it fulfils a need for me & others.

Would it be fair to say Klim Reader provides good typography by stripping out the distractions of the web and leaving just content to be read?

Yes.

Are Klim’s recent releases Untitled Serif and Untitled Sans related to Klim Reader?

No. Do they seem to be?

In a blog post about the Untitled series, you wrote: “The old clichés about ‘neutral’ typefaces never seem to apply to serifs, only sanserifs. Untitled Serif started as an intellectual challenge, but slowly became a practical goal. Sometimes — as a typographer — you simply want a serif that sets text well. Something that doesn’t feel fashionably new or ironically old, but a typeface that just does the job.”

You go on to say, “All Untitled Serif design decisions were made while reading”. This gives me the impression the motivations behind Klim Reader and the Untitled series are connected. Am I mistaken?

In that sense, yes, I suppose there is some overlap in motivations with the Untitleds & Klim Reader. As projects, though, they were started independently. With the Untitleds I’ve tried to remove myself from the typefaces. With Klim Reader we’re trying to remove the junk from the page. They’re both reductive approaches, taking away the “design” and leaving the essentials.

In the context of typeface design, when you say “design,” are you referring to your work like Maelstrom, Bula, and Pākati? Work that is exuberant and over-the-top display.

Sort of. Bula and Pākati are commissioned typefaces for specific display use, so the detail and stylistic complexity is integral. With the retail typefaces like Feijoa, National, Newzald, Domaine/Sans, Maelstrom and even Founders to a degree, there is a lot of “design” in them. Up until now, I have tried to put a lot of myself into the letterforms in order to make them “unique”. Now that the Untitleds are finished and released, I have started to question this approach. I am now, essentially, trying to remove myself and my fist from some forthcoming typefaces.

For you, “design” means imbuing idiosyncrasies into a font that is not relevant to the intended purposes of the font. Is that a fair summary of your thoughts?

No, that’s quite incorrect. All idiosyncratic details are relevant to the intended purposes of my typefaces. These details add to the atmosphere and aesthetic of the types. I was using “design”, in quotes, as a shorthand to indicate my obvious idiosyncrasies. Of course everything is designed, even things that claim to have “minimal” design. Sometimes it’s harder to take things away that to add them.

Thank you for the clarification. Kris, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for being here for TypeThursday.