Martin Majoor, type designer

Interviews by Peter Biľak
1 282 words7 min read

PB: What inspires you to design typefaces?
MM: In 1995, Robin Kinross wrote an article in Eye, calling me a ‘Modern Traditionalist’, or ‘Motra’, a name that is based on the way I work. I get my inspiration from certain (and sometimes very old) traditions in type design, but at the same time I am ‘inspired’ by the possibilities and speed of today’s software. Small capitals come from an old tradition, but designing something like Scala Sans Italic Caps was not done before. Old style figures have an even longer tradition, but making them for a sans serif (like in Scala Sans and in Seria Sans) was only done before by Paul Renner for his Futura. But I am explicitly not a Traditional Modernist. Another important source of inspiration has always been writing with a broad nibbed pen. Yet another source of inspiration are the mistakes I have made in my typefaces.

In your article My type design philosophy, you write that the most logical order for creating a family is to start with seriffed design and to use that as a base for sans serif. How do you think this order affects the result, and why do you think that deriving a seriffed design from a sans is impossible?
For me the basis of all good text typefaces is writing with a broad nibbed pen. The contrasts in written characters is derived in a natural way, and it is the type designer who translates these contrasts in a printing type. It is not only the contrast that comes into being, also the widths and proportions within the characters flow from the pen. Making a seriffed typeface based on a sans serif leads to unbalanced proportions. I am of course not saying you cannot design a sans serif without first making a seriffed typeface, there are a lot of fine sans serifs that are designed without a written base. But when a family of serif and sans serif is created it is my conviction that the seriffed version is the starting point.

Scala Sans has become the trademark typeface for arts-nonprofit organizations all over the world, in the same way that Bell Gothic became the international standard for architecture, and Trajan Roman for Hollywood movie posters. Do you think there is an explanation for this?
Not really, one explanation can be that Scala Sans is different from Helvetica/Univers-like typefaces. Not only does it have a much more humane character, but also the details within the typeface are much more refined. Besides there is a choice of a real italic and small caps, where in Helvetica there is a slanted roman and too many different weights.


Were you surprised by the success of Scala?
Very much so. When I designed Scala I thought it would be used by Muziekcentrum Vredenburg only. The success of Scala gave me such a confidence that I started using Scala myself from 1993 on, something I hadn’t done before. Another thing that surprised me was the way it was used by different designers for different purposes. I saw Scala used in the arts-nonprofit organizations (as you mentioned already), but also as a corporate identity typeface (KLM, Rosenthal Porcelain, Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs), by publishers (Taschen), in a Bible, in a newspaper (Algemeen Dagblad) etc.

Seria is obviously based on the skeleton of Scala, have you considered making this connection more pronounced by naming it for example ‘Scala Literary’, or do you want people to think of it as a completely different font?
First of all: Seria is not based on the skeleton of Scala, most characters were drawn from scratch. Secondly Seria is a completely different font. Look a little bit closer and you will wonder why you asked me this question in the first place. Asking a question like this to Gerard Unger would make more sense, it must be said that most of Unger’s typefaces are derived from each other, changing the forms slightly and replacing the form of the serifs. I don’t believe in this way of designing a typeface, maybe in the same way as I don’t believe in attaching serifs to a sans.

You mentioned that you are convinced that one cannot be a good type designer if he is not a book designer. I very much agree, but when I look around, I don’t see many that combine those two skills. On a larger level, I don’t see many that would be good designers and good type designers at the same time. It is almost as if one would be incompatible with the other, using different sides of the brain. A combination of micro/macro type of approach would be certainly very interesting, and beneficial.
Indeed there are not many designers that combine the two skills, so my conclusion must be that there are not so many good type designers. I am talking about serious text faces, not about display faces. I think there are a lot of good display type designers using these faces in beautiful posters. This is probably due to the speed of making posters, using only a few characters. In, let’s say, scientific books you must have endless patience, not only in the design of the typeface, but also in the design of the books, it is simply not so attractive.

When I moved to The Netherlands, and start working with Dutch language I had to modify Eureka – it simply didn’t work well with a Dutch text, I hadn’t thought of some letter combinations, and the rhythm of the language. I am wondering if you experienced the same when you moved to Poland? Does the fact that you work now often with a new language affect your thinking about type design in any way?
No, not in any way. Of course I had to make special characters and accented characters, but this did not affect the typeface.


I find something disturbing in the trend of designing large families that are intended to work all together. It is often beneficial to mix unrelated fonts together to achieve a good contrast and balance in text. I think it was Matthew Carter who likened it to the 1980s trends in clothing: all dressed in denim, trousers, jackets, hats and shoes—after a while it just looks laughable. You need some contrast to accentuate details. Why do you think this uniformity and consistency of mixing derived typefaces would be beneficial in typesetting of books?
Mixing related seriffed and sans seriffed typefaces gives the right amount of contrast and balance in text. Not too little because seriffed and sans seriffed faces do have a lot of contrast, not too much because their basic forms are derived from each other. Only if you want very big contrast it is better to use non-related typefaces. If you are detecting a trend of designing large families that are intended to work all together, I could only be very happy that this way of thinking finally reached type design.

You create fonts in a slow, thoughtful pace. Are you planning new releases?
Right now I am working on Seria Cursive, a normally slanted italic that can even be combined with the already existing upright Seria Italic. I will include swash characters and tail characters, suitable for book covers and posters.
Two italics in Seria

Two italics in Seria