Process Journal interview

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

1,164 words by Kris Sowersby & Nicholas Cary
1 September 2010

Interview with Nicholas Cary from Process Journal, Issue 03, Third Quarter 2010.


Nicholas Cary: Tiempos first came to light at the request a of Spanish newspaper. Can you tell us about the initial brief and the requirements it had to meet?

Kris Sowersby: They never commissioned it from the outset — it was a case of fortuitous timing. I had already begun to work on a Galaxie Copernicus news font and sent a working draft to a client of mine. He was in the process of redesigning a Spanish newspaper and wanted to test it. After several rounds of testing, feedback and revisions it became its own typeface. The redesign project, however, fell through for various reasons. But I was left with a perfectly useable newspaper typeface!

Specifically designed for newspaper text, how does Tiempos Text differ from Galaxie Copernicus? How did you go about modifying Galaxie Copernicus?

Newspaper typefaces need to perform under the worst conditions — fast printing, bad paper and lots of ink spread. They need to be horizontally and vertically economical as columns are narrow and text will be crammed in. Bearing this in mind, it was essentially a process of elimination, especially in the Italic. It starts with the proportions. Galaxie Copernicus is rather wide and loose with a low x-height. It needed to be narrowed, and the x-height increased to maintain the inner space of the letterforms. The Galaxie Copernicus Italic is too florid and detailed — I’ve simplified it to harmonise with a more neutral newspaper environment.

Copernicus is based on Plantin, which has influenced a number of typefaces (including Times New Roman). Did the fact that so many variants have stemmed from the same source help or hinder your process?

It certainly didn't hinder the process. Type design is full of lineage. It’s virtually impossible to create a new typeface out of nothing — it will inevitably stem from somewhere. Traces of the old masters permeate everyone’s work.

Having worked with Chester Jenkins on Galaxie Copernicus, how did the process of optimising Tiempos on your own differ? Did Chester play any role in this project?

Galaxie Copernicus was a joint effort; we passed the files back and forth during the entire design process. It’s an amalgamation of both our ideas, and as such we made joint decisions and compromises — an entirely normal part of any collaboration. With Tiempos the decisions and compromises were my own decisions, and were based on a differing set of design considerations. Chester plays a role in all my typefaces; I always show him work at various stages to get his impressions and ideas. He comes at type design from a different angle than I — his suggestions and advice are therefore invaluable.

As newspapers rely on hierarchies and text sizes play such an important role in this, how did you overcome the optical difference between body copy and headlines when text is scaled up?

There are several considerations to make when creating a ‘display’ version of a text typeface. Do you want to play up the design features and style or tone it down? Should the spacing be tighter and thrifty or looser and airy? Do the proportions and relationships need to change? All of these decisions are made by thinking about the design environment where the typeface will be used. In this case, it’s a newspaper, which is typically conservative — you don’t want a headline typeface that’s too fruity or it loses credibility.

The advancement of OpenType has meant a great deal to the subtleties of type design and relationships between characters. How do you employ the possibilities this format now offers?

Type design has always been about subtlety and the relationships between characters. OpenType doesn't change this. For me, the best thing about the OpenType format is the cross-compatibility between operating systems and consolidation of multiple ‘expert’ font files. But in general, the most popular employment of OpenType seems to be for script fonts. The designer can expand the character set ad infinitum, offering the user a veritable cornucopia of alternate letterforms. Unfortunately most of the scripts fonts aren’t that good to start with, masking their inadequacies with overly-complicated swashes. It’s almost paradoxical that the more choice there is for alternate letterforms, the less adaptable the typeface becomes. I like type design because of the hard decisions, like deciding which letterform is the final and best form. Choosing to have five different forms of ‘a’ is easier than settling on one.

The production of a digital type foundry means that web presence becomes your main point of contact. Has operating remotely in New Zealand had any effect on you or your work?

I have always operated like this, so I have nothing to compare it with. However, I do love this way of working. I can dedicate long, uninterrupted hours to projects. I have the luxury of solitary concentration, but also enough outside contacts on whom I can rely for informed critical opinions.

Font piracy, coupled with a general lack of understanding in how licensing works has caused major grievances for your profession. Have you had any experiences with this? Do you have any insights into a potential solution?

The first time I saw Feijoa on a Russian pirate site was a shock, I have to admit. They’d ripped data out of a PDF and recreated the font — no kerning, reduced character set, no OpenType features. It was a parody of the original. But my shock subsided quickly — I realised that too much time would be wasted worrying and pursuing it. Pirates are pirates, if they want it they’ll get it. I prefer to focus on the honest side of the game, which is more plentiful than people realise.

Typeface design is a mammoth undertaking, particularly when you consider the sheer amount of work involved in creating a family with several versions/weights. Is your approach reliant on rules and fundamentals, or is it more about what ‘feels’ right?

It’s a mix of both. The rules and fundamentals underlie much of the construction and production of a family. The intuition part is more an aesthetic thing, it is totally arbitrary — like taste. I used to fret about why a ‘good’ idea wasn’t translating aesthetically. After I heard the saying, ‘if it looks right, it is right’ a lot of the worry vanished. Some things just can’t be forced. Just because you’ve put a lot of time into something doesn’t mean it’s automatically any good. You have to become a critical, savage editor of your own work. It’s very important to acknowledge when something ‘feels’ right, but not necessarily to understand why it feels right. It’s important to know how to fix something that isn’t working, rather than dissect what is working.

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