Dutch type design

Essays by Peter Biľak
1 773 words9 min read

The Netherlands is a small country with some 15 million inhabitants. It is flat, and has no geographical particularities. It is situated on the western border of Germany, the north of France and Belgium, and the east of England across the North Sea. As a comparatively small country, the Dutch people have always felt the influence of surrounding countries. If they attempted to be a part of international styles, they risked dissolving the national characteristics of the small nation. On the other hand, if they tried to stay untouched by foreign influence and keep to themselves, they could easily fall into provincialism. However, they have succeeded in creating one of the most remarkable and outstanding cultures.

The homeland of Piet Mondriaan, Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld and Piet Zwart now produces designs of the highest abstraction—designs of letters. “Holland today has more type designers per capita than any other country in the world, a remarkable fact considering that there is now not one surviving Dutch type foundry,” says Gerard Unger, one of the most important typographers in Holland. Unger, a very active typeface designer and lecturer, stands somewhere between the classic typeface designers and the experimental ones. Among Unger’s work are the typeface for the Amsterdam Metro, Demos, Praxis, ITC Flora designed for Hell company, Amerigo and Oranda for Bitstream, and his latest drawings include the newspaper faces Swift and Gulliver.

According to Unger, this has to do with the low-lying land and cool skies of the Netherlands. “Hollander is one of my designs to reflect the inescapable Dutch horizon. The horizontal parts of the curves are stretched, the resultant gentle arches combining with the large serifs to assist the letters in joining visually to make words and lines,” describes Unger the typeface that follows the best traditions of Dutch typography.

Is it possible that the physical character of the landscape forms characteristics of graphic design? For the answer to this question we go back to the beginning of the century. While most of Europe accepted “Art Nouveau” as the “last international-spread art movement” that influenced architecture, craft, and fine arts, the Dutch rejected Art Nouveau as frivolous. Dutch artists considered themselves pragmatic and realistic. Thus, they rather turned themselves towards conventional realism that later evolved into abstraction.


Forty years ago, the Dutch society was still solidly bourgeois, puritanical and strongly influenced by religion. It is the change after the second world war from a politically neutral country to an active member of transatlantic and European alliances that had far-reaching cultural effects. It totally changed the Dutch perception of their own nationality, and revised the traditional Dutch values. From a very religious country the Netherlands developed into one of the most liberal societies in the world. Life in the Netherlands became much more open and hedonistic oriented. The prosperity of the nation in the 60s also helped to create a mood of great expectation; instead of looking abroad for models, the Dutch understood the advantages of being themselves. No, this was not a sudden turn in the history of the nation; the Dutch stayed as they have always been, open towards international developments.

It is very unlikely that the countryside (even though it is so remarkable in its flatness) is the only determinant of art development in the Netherlands, although it is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for Dutch artists. Holland has always been an unusually tolerant place. It is the place with many political parties, many different views and opinions. Individuality here is a very important element. It seems that with the world-wide availability of graphic software, the national characteristics of graphic design and typography would disappear. How is it possible that there is such a phenomenon as “Dutch design” in today’s international style? And, what are the characteristics of Dutch design? Reading the art history books, I can say that realism, sobriety, outspokenness, clarity, moral integrity, and social responsibility were frequently marked as typical Dutch virtues. But these characteristics do not in themselves define style. And even if they did, the same qualities are related to Modernism (International style), another movement that didn’t influence Holland very much. The Dutch found their own interpretation of Modernism.

Gerard Unger in his essay Dutch landscape with letters wrote: ‘The national character is only one of the components needed for a recognizable style of type design. The chief elements of style are the product not merely of the country, region or city in which the designer happens to live, they are also molded by his own personal qualities and the age in which he works.’ Maybe a foreign observer can better describe what is hard to see for the Dutch themselves. Erik Spiekermann, a German typographer, puts it like this: “All the Dutch type designs I know, even the historical ones, have a vertical oval as one of their basic shapes. They are narrow compared with French designs like the types of Excoffon, which are actually broader at the top than they are at the bottom. Clarity and openness and high contrast are also clearly identifiable characteristics in Dutch types. The clarity and openness are part of the construction and contrast in, say, the alternation of rounded and angular forms. The structure is always clearly visible in the work of Dutch designers. The Dutch are more concerned with the structure, the basic shape. You can follow the syntax of the design process—the design can be understood immediately. At the same time they are also sophisticated.”

There is too much of it. Contemporary Dutch design can be stylish and eclectic, inventive and trains-historical, systematic and non-functional, provocative and conventional, conceptual and random, pragmatic and nonsensical, witty and stiff, anarchic and traditional and it still keeps its characteristics; it is still so Dutch. It fluctuates between rigid logic and total senselessness. In other words, there is no style of Dutch design. Or, in the words of designer Max Kisman, the style of Dutch design “is style of styles. There is pluriformity which is unique to Holland.”


Kisman pioneered the use of computers in 1977, when he was the first designer to create stamps for the postal/telecommunications services PTT on an Amiga computer. Kisman is also known for his belief that legibility is a code that depends on the impressions, rhythm, and expression of symbols which may or may not be letters. Kisman has become increasingly skeptical of designing new type, and since 1992 hasn’t designed any new fonts. “Because my angle is shifted I am less interested in type. There is so much of that stuff and I wonder what I could add which hasn’t been done before. Too much I see now is somehow related to what I did years ago. Of course, I recognize some very good designs but to me the revolution is over and repetition began a while ago. There is no meaning in type design, all is decoration. Everyone can do what someone else is doing. Type design becomes an average taste to express a general life style. Type is available anywhere at any time. Concepts of type are available anywhere at any time. Like the jersey you wear or the shoe you choose. Nothing more, nothing less. All this fuzz about type becomes a bit irrelevant, I think sometimes. Of course, it’s a big industry, a lot is involved, many typographical magazines appear, lots of students are waiting to bring in something new. This massive run on type is an escape from an essential question. Whether graphic design will survive or not. And if so, how? More important at this moment is to redefine graphic design.”

While in 1989 Gerard Unger could say that “Dutchmen are a folk for text types, not headlines,” today he admits that young designers have proved otherwise. One of the most prolific contemporary type designers is the duo Letterror, formed by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum. At the ages of 24/25, they designed their revolutionary Randomfonts. Since then, they have produced many best-selling typefaces. In the short time of 4 years they created 17 typeface families published by FontShop International, excluding their font contributions for Brody’s FUSE project. Beowolf, their first randomfont, is the typeface that for inspiration goes somewhere to pre-Gutenberg time. Instead of the traditional system of writing—repeating of graphical forms that become visually so unobtrusive that they are virtually invisible, Letterror developed a special technology that allows the random changing of letters. Randomfont technology generates each letter separately and differently. No two letters are the same. For instance, if you type two “A’s” in row and print them, they look different depending on the level of randomness you choose. This new invention is not limited only to changing letterforms. “We could change typographic awareness of computer users around the world by creating a font virus that would slowly transform every Helvetica into something much more desirable—the Post-modern typographer’s revenge, or we could create letters that would wear out through frequent use, combined with a feature that uses up certain often used letters.” Van Blokland and van Rossum devoted their research to humanizing type design. “A font that does not work overtime” and “a font that adds typos” go to the extreme in their attempts to add “the human quality” to computer typography. They believe that the computer can bring back subtleties that were lost during type evolution due economic considerations. “Recognition does not come from simple repetition of the same form, but it is something more intelligent, something that happens in our minds... Randomness and change can add new dimensions to print work”

The experiments of the Letterror duo certainly have a great potential. We can add some data to a digital typeface, and it can act very intelligently. It may adjust its shape according the form of medium we are using it in, change its contour according to its size and relation with color background.

The Netherlands has 13 design schools. Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Peter Verheul, Martin Majoor, Peter Matthias Noordzij, (Luc)as de Groot, Evert Bloemsma, Fred Smeijers, are all their recent graduates, and already internationally recognized ones. Most of them emerged from The Art Academy in Arnhem and the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague (Gerrit Noordzij and Petr van Blokland teach in The Hague). None of the above mentioned typographers gave me the opportunity to summarize what “the Dutch style” is. My hope is that even in a new united Europe, where things are going to get all mixed up, the Dutch personal creativity will prevail.