NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 26

Face to Face

Gerard Unger: Timeless Typefaces

Kambiz Shafei

Where does your fascination for type design come from?
My fascination for type design stems from my father’s bookcase and his interest in graphic design. Working for a large Dutch firm, he was in charge of publicity. At that, he had an interest in literature and well made books. So, I grew up with typography and letterforms around me. As my father travelled often to France and brought home publications, in the 50’s, French typography from that period also coloured my experience.

What does it mean for you to live and work in the Netherlands?
As Holland is a small country, wedged in between Germany and the United Kingdom there is a strong sense of identity over here, and at the same time a broad orientation towards all things foreign. Despite the present wave of xenofobia – which I definitely do not share – The Netherlands is still an open country with a wide outlook. That is what appeals to me.

There are different ways of starting a type design project such as looking for an idea, going back to a source, picking up an existing form and being inspired by either technological development or technological insufficiency. How do you conduct your search for new forms when you start to design a new typeface?
Over the years I have followed many different approaches. From the 60’s of the last century technological change – on every level in communication – has been a strong driving force. Typefaces like Demos and Swift have been influenced thereby. Meanwhile cultural interests played a role, like my fascination with French type design, as is visible in Swift. Another time it was pure legibility, as with the design for the Dutch road signs. Economy (Gulliver), history (Hollander), calligraphy (Flora) have also cast their shadows. There is never one single interest at work, always a combination. One factor can be the main requirement, but other parts of my cultural luggage usually are added.

You are one the first designers who experienced digital type design first-hand. Please talk about the design process of Demos.
Demos was designed for a machine, the Digiset, which used a cathode ray tube as an imaging device, with a much cruder resolution than machines equipped with laser beams. And in the early seventies the properties of photographic material and photographic processes were still of much influence. Letterforms could be victims of extreme degradation. So, Demos had to be powerful and tolerant, sturdy and open, as legible as possible. I wanted to design a survivor. And it did survive, not only its own era of quickly improving technology, but also the influences of time. It is used by the German government for its identity and Linotype will re-issue it.

Among your typefaces another distinctive typeface is Gulliver. Gulliver’s great legibility and its potential in saving space make it a very suitable typeface for newspaper use. Please briefly describe the other characteristics of this typeface.
Gulliver started as experiments with extremities: how fat can the x-height be raised nowadays, how big can I make the counters, how much experiment can I combine with a conventional appearance, would it be possible to increase legibility? After one year of working on many variations I began to discover it’s space saving qualities. By that time my wife was convinced that I was just playing around, not going anywhere. I could ask her to wait a little while and there would be a surprise: the combination of economy with good legibility.

Swift was originally designed to be a newspaper face. Since this typeface has very strong characteristics it seams to be one of your most popular faces outside of newspapers. To what extent you think the initial intention of type designer should be taken into consideration by graphic designers who use the fonts later on?
When I designed Swift I already knew that the designer can have a specific purpose in mind, but that users have their own agenda’s. This is a nice game. Swift was strongly marketed as a newspaper face, but other applications were of course not excluded.

Please tell us about Capitolium and how you took the work of Giovan Francesco Cresci as the starting point.
Cresci made a very important contribution to calligraphy and typography, or, his introduction of the pointed pen ultimately led to the development of the moderns (as such designs are called in English) the Didot-Bodoni model (vertical stress). In his writing books from around 1570 Cresci has shown very elegant letterforms, not yet what we would call moderns, but very modern for the period: his lettera antica tonda. I had had an eye on them for some time already. The Cresci-Didot-Bodoni model in that stage could still share qualities and properties with old face (diagonal stress). So, the request by the City of Rome to design for them a typeface that would take the two thousand year old Roman tradition of public writing into the 21st century, was used by me as an excuse to experiment with Cresci’s letterforms. I have never been one for revivals, I cannot do them. I can study ancient shapes, but the moment I put pencil to paper or cursor to screen, my own shapes, eyes and imagination take over. James Mosley, the renowned type historian has tried to come up with an estimate: 30% Cresci and 70% Gerard Unger in Capitolium.

Perhaps one of the few fields that offer a good financial basis in type design is corporate type design. On the other hand the creativity freedom within the process is limited in comparison to a self-initiated design. Please explain how you balance these circumstances.
Corporate type design can indeed be profitable, if you are a good business person as well as a type designer. When I was proposed, together with other designers, to make proposals for a typeface for a large European firm, the reaction within the firm was: We do not want a Gerard Unger typeface. When the design agency involved explained this to me I asked them to keep me on the list. If asked to, I can move my personal preferences somewhat to the background. In the end you can still see that I made it, but it has definitely a more general air. Of course, with anything self initiated you can go all out, but I have always thought of the readers. They have checked me.

Through your work you have always been very aware of technological developments and you always used them as a source of inspiration. Today we read more than ever before and of course a great deal of this reading is being done on screen. In your opinion, what is an important topic today for type designers and students to research?
I am certain that more text is already read from screens than from paper. So any design started now should be primarily for screens. At the same time the qualities of screens are steadily improved. And there is very little research being done on reading from screens. As a consequence it is not easy to come up with a definitive design brief for the font of the future. Things are too much in flux. Not only the technology is changing continuously, reading habits are changing too, as are our cognitive skills, of which the ability to read is one. I follow all developments with a keen interest and would like to work any findings into a new design, but right now this is not easy, almost impossible even.

What would be the dream type design project of Gerard Unger?
An invisible typeface for transcendental reading.

Kambiz Shafei

Kambiz Shafei is a Swiss based Iranian graphic designer and photographer. he graduated from the Basel School of Design with a MFA degree in visual communication (HGK/UIC). In 2010 Kambiz founded Studio Shafei in Basel, Switzerland.

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