Tiffany Wardle Memorial Liveblogging™ of a presentation at ATypI Brighton 2007 (q.v.)

(If you don’t know, Akira Kobayashi is type director at Linotype in Berlin – of course! Introduced by David Lemon, who also introduced Xurxo Insua.)

What I’m going to talk today is not too much into details or history of a sansserif type design, but it is about how we see, or how I see, or how I think when I design sansserif type.

(Shows photo of him with Zapf.) Since 2001 I’ve been living in Germany and working with two type giants, Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger. This photo was taken in 2003 during the Zapfino Extra project. His Zapfino is still one of Linotype’s top-selling fonts. When I became interested in Latin type design when I first read his book was about 20 years ago. It was a small book called About Alphabets. I was working at a type-design department of a phototypesetting-machine manufacturer in Tokyo; I was obviously designing Japanese letters then. What I was doing was to design 20, 30 characters per day to design a complete Japanese font, which consists of usually 10,000 characters. So I was working as one of about 30 type designers.

And one day, feeling rather exhausted, I took a book in bookshelf in the design department. It was one of his books. So I became interested in Latin type design, and I kind of went to England to study calligraphy and typography. That was 1989. I may look older than that, but actually I am about 18 years old in the Latin world.

So. Well. This is his newest font, called Palatino Sans. (Slide.) A sansserif font based on Zapf’s famous Palatine, which is a roman typeface first released as a hot-metal type in the 1950s. As you see, the type looks very humanistic. They almost look like a script or hand-drawn type, and that was one of his strengths. With this, he tried to design a very humanistic typeface. He did not want to design a straight-edged sansserif.

The initial idea was from our marketing director. He asked Hermann, how about Palatino sansserif? Well, let me think about that. I have a sketch in my drawer. So what he brought to us was a very fine sketch done in 1970s. So the idea was very new, but he did sketches about 30 years ago.

(Shows slide with Adrian Frutiger.) The designer of the famous Univers and Frutiger. In 1988, he designed a geometric sansserif in Avenir. Avenir is “future” in French, suggesting his type was his answer to the Futura type that was designed in the Bauhaus period. In a close collaboration with Mr. Frutiger, I designed Frutiger Next, the revised version of the type.

At a glance, the Palatino Sans and the Avenir type look completely different, but I see lot of things in common. I believe there are some important aspects that every type designer should know. We can also explain how a Japanese type designer like me can work with Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger. Remember, it is what I see as a designer; I am not going to give scientific evidence or whatever.

The first thing we see is the crossbar of the letter H. Every type designer knows the crossbar is not in the mathematical centre of the cap height. (Compares Avenir Next H with an H with a horizontal bar right in the middle.) It looks too low. So. And if the horizontal stroke has exactly the same thickness as the vertical, it looks too thick. So. Well, those are kind of optical illusions.

And the lower-case x is more complicated. (Shows two crossed diagonals.) But without guidelines it looks completely wrong. With the same guidelines (overlays red lines), the Avenir x looks even illogical.

The lower-case letters bdpq have to be carefully designed. Otherwise the junctions of curve and vertical stem look too heavy, and the circle actually appears squashed. We have seen the b; why not the o? In geometric sans, it’s supposed to be like a circle. Even a circle does not look like a circle. (Shows Avant Garde Gothic o rotated 90°. Same with Futura. I would recommend Christopher Burke’s book about Renner.

Does that mean Futura cheated too? No. What Adrian and I did was just to follow those conventions. A skilled type designer takes time to adjust those forms to make sure they aren’t resembling bars and circles. A good type designer knows how it will look and how to compensate for optical illusions.

Capital A: It is different from optical illusions. Two diagonals have different stroke thickness, rather obviously in Palatino Sans. In the Avenir A, it is very subtle, but left diagonal is slightly thinner. When it’s done right, we hardly notice that the strokes have different thickness, but the other way around would look simply wrong. We can immediately spot a mistake and say, hey, the letter A looks strange or it is mirror or that kind of thing. Why?

Well, this is the replica of the famous Trajan Column, in the second century. The thick and thin contrast is not clear in this photo, so I am going to replace it with Adobe Trajan font, which is a faithful rendering. Many of the inscriptions appear to have been painted on a stone with a brush. Then it’s easier to understand why the left diagonal stroke is thinner than the right. The other way around, it’s uncomfortable to draw (if right-handed).

So those were some useful tricks when you want to design a geometric sansserif like Avenir or Futura. (Show slide with Palatino Sans, Avenir Next, purely geometric face.) Those aspects are not new to western type designers or art-school students, but it was rather new to Japanese, especially the aspect of the balance between the two diagonals of A.

(Taught lettering in Tokyo.) I explained the form of Latin alphabet using a flat brush. They understood it. They even enjoyed it using a flat brush rather than rulers and compasses. They all know that the forms of Japanese letters reflect thick and thin contrast made by pointed brush. (Shows Japanese and Avenir Next H.) Perhaps can be applied to any writing system in the world. Once you know the trick, you can be a good type designer.

(Shows that Trajan column has larger lines at the top than the bottom. Same thing when Japanese food is served: Things are moved closer to look mathematically centred.)

Is not what you did, but who will be seen by others. To understand other person’s point of view is the key to good design, I think. You may have to do something illogical, but if it’s necessary, do not hesitate. Good type designers think visually, and geometrical sans are not geometrical at all.

(Q&A untranscribed. I asked about the theory that sansserifs are serif fonts with the serifs removed, but he doesn’t agree with that. He thinks sansserifs came about, essentially, because somebody wanted to design something new.)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.09.14 16:22. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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