Letterror, designers and programmers
A discussion from the late 1990s with Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum about their work as type designers designing programmers.
Just van Rossum,(1966) Erik van Blokland (1967), are known for their work that they done separately together under the name Letterror. They are both graduates from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. After a short work for companies abroad (MetaDesign, FontBureau) they started to work freelanced in The Hague. In 1990 they have introduced “random fonts”, computer programmed outlines that print differently in each impression. They have designed over 50 fonts for FontShop and FUSE. In their typographic work they extensively use programming.
...is your recorder working..?
Yes.... OK, Is it correct to call you typographers programmers? I never knew if you were more designers or...
...first we are designers then we are programmers...
...then we are programmers and again designers...(laughter) ...no really, it’s been increasing last few years, we’ve been having more fun discovering things with programming then with designing. We do design work, but not so much now, not like a daily business graphic design. We design everyday but...
...you don’t get paid for it.
Well, for some of the stuff. That’s the nice thing about having regular income from selling fonts. We have relatively well-selling fonts with FontShop so there is some back up money every three months which allows us to do projects for which we don’t get paid.
What was first, you interest for the computers or for typography? Or is all so tight together that you don’t distinguish it anymore?
Both of us we were playing with computers since the age of 15, at 18 we went to the Academy to study graphic design. That was in 1984-85 when Macs started happening, but hadn’t happened yet.
That’s very early.
Yeah, the whole desktop publishing was just starting. We found out that the stuff we were also interested in as a hobby - messing around with computers is even more interesting when combined with graphic design and typography. We were asking questions like: what if I don’t draw a letter but write a program that draws a letter.
We are basically lazy, and like to invent things that work for us...(laughter) ... Thinking about design in terms of programming forces you to have an abstract approach of what you want to do. Instead of writing theoretical articles, we write software and you see the direct applications. You write a program and you see the result, you change the program you change the result. Programming and designing becomes part of the same cycle. Normal cycle in design is that you make sketches and make some decisions, and this is exactly the same with writing programs.
Do you make program sketches? You cannot just doodle with codes, right?
Python, the programming language that we use, is very forgiving, it is very easy to get it to work. With other programs it is lot more work.
If you are really just sketching it is not very helpful. You must have some idea what you want to do. Maybe I am going built machine which generates EPSs, maybe something else, but you must have some sort of idea first.
We designed a calendar for Dutch PTT, internal calendar for the employees. We had enough time for the job. We made some traditional design sketches (gestures) so we knew were we were going, discussed it with the client, then we decided to make a software which would produce all the pages for us. We could either spend our time typesetting the rest, or spend less time to write a software that does it for us. So Erik built this application which generates Illustrator EPS files. The calendar was fairly complicated and repetitive, but with our program we were extremely flexible in designing it. We could change some numbers and the whole calendar would change.
By writing the program we solved the production part of the job. We could concentrate on design. Instead of looking at one page we could look at the whole calendar, we would change one page, and in ten seconds we could see the changes on all the pages. We did not have to anticipate how the layout is going to work on all pages, we could see it. We could spend more time with the typography.
Can you imagine typography now without computers at all?
Type design and typography has always been heavily involved in technology and machines. At one point the printing machine was the hottest technology in the world. Same with typesetting machines...
...and right now it is computers.
It is possible to see typography disconnected from the computers but it is not possible to see it disconnected from the technology, because typography is a result of technology.
Do you think that reliance on the computer can impair the thought process?
I think inability to operate the computer or lack of understanding of its functions can impair thought and creative processes. Once you know what makes a computer tick, it stops being a problem.
As Erik said, it depends on how fluent you are with the computer and it’s software. If you can’t use a pencil, the pencil might impair the thought process.
In the 80s-90s the star-making process really accelerated. At that time you were still students, and someone wanted you to lecture and write about. How did you cope with it?
Well, we boasted our way into our first lecture. We had made some slides, but we were still improvising the talk minutes before we had to go on. We’ve been doing that ever since, except fewer slides. We show our stuff perhaps more often than other people, but I don’t think our stardom is big enough to even cause awareness of such stardom, let alone any problems related to it. Does it matter? You’re the one with the stunning blonde on stage! How is stardom affecting your view of the world?
Our names are pretty well known, but stars? Actually, at our Type90 lecture I wasn’t a student anymore, only Erik was.
Your personal handwriting (FF ErikRightHand, FF JustLeftHand) is available to public. How do you feel about other people using your fonts? Are you worried that your type might be used inappropriately?
It’s still very exciting to see what other people can do with them: they don’t stop surprising me, either good or bad. It doesn’t make sense to worry about it: I have no control whatsoever. And if I wanted to have control, I shouldn’t sell my fonts to strangers.
Robin Kinross compared typefaces with bricks. We make bricks. Obviously bricks need to be used in order to function, they don’t have much point all by themselves. Usage implies different people with different ideas, some good, some awful. It is interesting to see that people can do unexpected things with our fonts. Sometimes when it’s bad, it is interesting as well. I don’t have a problem with that as long as most people recognise that we did not design something even though our fonts are on it.
Do you find difficult to motivate yourself to design new fonts?
Well, yes and no. If I don’t have a motivation to make something myself, I don’t. Right now I have no intention to spend years on Yet Another Gothic so I don’t. Usually I work on faces to investigate particular properties, sometimes because it is enjoyable. Otherwise if a typeface is commissioned they come with their own motivation, solving a problem, fitting the brief, money.
I don’t have to. Ideas come or they don’t, I don’t think it’s effective to say: “hey, you better get a new idea ‘soon’”. I do have difficulties finishing stuff I have started, though...
Do you design your fonts for particular audience?
No. Usually the typefaces have utterly tangential reasons for being created. Sometimes a technical process we’ve developed, like flipper in Kosmik or BitPull. Sometimes an interest is a particular graphic trait like a really wide slab serif in Zapata. Our fonts find their own audiences. Hands are being used in baby magazines, Trixie and the Instant Types were all over cigarette ads and hard rock covers.
Sometimes yes, GAK for instance, but that’s obviously a functionality issue, and not a style issue, but most of the time no. If you’re talking about style, and you want to design for a specific audience, then the only thing you are doing is following an existing trend, which is not very interesting to me.
How do you judge the validity of a new or experimental typeface design?
I think it should be clear why a typeface exists, perhaps it meets some technical requirement it sets out to fix, perhaps a typeface is utterly complete, perhaps it has a new and interesting aesthetic trick to it that makes it necessary to look at.
If I see a typeface and I can’t think of any reason why it exists I begin to doubt if there is a point to it. I keep in mind that obviously I’m ignorant and there must be some reason for a typeface, sometimes I figure it out after a while. But looking through bunches of font catalogues, there’s a lot of duplication, fonts that only repeat ideas, instead of create new ones.
A lot of the fonts that are labelled experimental are mainly trials in operating the software, some of them are pure typographic experiments - applying existing type in some way. Too much stuff has been mislabelled as experimental.
Very valid. One should just not expect to change the world quickly. Readers are conservative, and will refuse to read larger amount of text set in typefaces that are too strange. Reading habits can only change very slowly. However, much experimental typeface design is not about typography: if the characters are not recognisable at all anymore, then it’s only an experiment in using font technology for things it wasn’t designed for. Which is fine, and can be very valid in it’s own right. But typography is just not defined as ‘using arbitrary images which can be accessed through a keyboard’.
What what the brief for the typeface for MTV? How did you approach it?
Make Helvetica Black Condensed, but a bit different. I made a sans in two weights in which all stems, widths and most curves were fitted on a course grid. This way even automatic truetype hinting would provide acceptable results in low resolution, like small type on a TV screen. Because of the grid a number of quirky elements were introduced that gives it a bit of character. I drew a couple of characters which were evaluated. Then I drew some more. Then nothing happened for a year. Then we had a legal battle about contracts. They compromised in the end.
Working for MTV has two sides: it’s great to tell other clients you’re doing stuff for them, but at the same time, no time, difficult feedback, unclear who you’re working for — all projects I worked on had a 50% success rate, the other half went bad and then I mean really bad. And that was pretty good score I was told. The guy I knew there left and that was the end of that and I was glad about that.
How was it with the font for GAK?
“Design something like Interstate, but clearly different, and more versatile so it can be used for anything from small print on a form to type on buildings. Oh, we need more variations also.”
And that’s basically how I approached it... I drew everything from scratch on the computer, discussed the intermediate results intensively with Studio Dumbar. Many tests were performed by me and them to make sure it worked the way we wanted it to. I only drew the Light and Black variations, the intermediates (Regular and Bold) were interpolated. This meant that we could postpone the decisions about the exact weights of the intermediate variations to a pretty late stage in the design.
How did your hero, the Typoman, come to life? Where is he heading now?
Typoman was first drawn as a comic for the Kosmik type specimen. After a number of animations, we developed the character into a live controlled puppet/actor which lives in a world and can interact with its friends. Crocodile is his new pal. They should be on TV really.
Erik explained it nicely, but forgot to mention the several times TypoMan appeared in comic strip form in various TypeLab newspapers (whatever they were called).
What do you find valuable in current graphic design?
I don’t know if there is any particular style or approach I like over another. In a time when anything can look like literally anything, I’m happy to see designers with distinct opinions and voices. Everybody can sample, everybody can put laud boom tracks on their movies, it doesn’t make them more interesting..
That’s a tough one. I must say that I don’t even attempt to stay fully up-to-date as far as cutting edge design is concerned, so I’m not even sure what ‘current graphic design’ is.
What is your outlook for type design in the 21st century?
There will be people that read and write, there will be technology, there will be type, so there will be people making type. There might be alternative and new licensing models, perhaps Microsoft will own everything and it won’t matter anymore.
Type design will continue as ever. What I’m not sure about is how economically viable it will be to design type for retail. The font market basically exploded, it has become so enormously big that it is already extremely hard to stand out and compete successfully. But I hope I’m wrong: hopefully new technology will open up new markets, offering new opportunities.
I think this is a good time to finish the interview.
- Dutch type design
- Martin Majoor, type designer
- Max Kisman, graphic designer
- My Type Design Philosophy
- New Faces (abstract): type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)
- Official Anarchy: Dutch Graphic Design
- Peter Biľak, founder of Typotheque, Dot Dot Dot
- Tobias Frere-Jones, type designer
Other Articles By Peter Biľak
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- Designing Type Systems
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- In search of a comprehensive type design theory
- Experimental typography. Whatever that means.
- Martin Majoor feature
- History of a new font (notes on designing Fedra Serif)
- Sandberg, Designer and Director of Stedelijk
- En busca de una teoría completa del diseño tipográfico
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- In the Name Of the Father (or the troubles with L-caron)
- The history of History
- Methods of Distribution: Digital Fonts and the Global Market
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