Could you please describe your days as a student at the Ravensbourne College of Art & Design?
I went to Ravensbourne in 1963 when I was 15 years old.
I had been very lucky at school, I had a wonderful art teacher. When I was 14 he asked me to stay behind for a few minutes after school to discuss my future. He told me he had talked with the other teachers about my work and performance at school and although l always tried my best, in his very words, ‘I was hopeless’. He then went on to say that I could also draw like a dream. I told him I wanted to be a commercial artist, which he was going to suggest had I not thought of it myself. He said he would discuss the matter with the other teachers. An appointment was made for myself and my mother with the headmaster. It was agreed that the following spring the art teacher would arrange an interview for me at Sidcup College of Art & Design, where he had contact with the Principal of the school. It was also agreed with the headmaster that I would spend the next year working almost entirely in the art department, only doing the legal minimum requirement of three one hourly lessons a week, mathematics, English and one other subject of my choice, I chose history. That was it, schooling over, from then I led a blessed life tucked away in the art department separated from the main building by a railway bridge and allotments.
I slowly prepared a folder of work and the following spring I was accepted at Sidcup College of Art & Design. I think one of the main reasons being the poster I had done which showed an illustration of St Basil’s church in Red Square, done in fine pen and ink. I had drawn the word Russia in capitals underneath in Bodoni, with the fine serifs matching perfectly the pen illustation above. But what really impressed the Principal was that the letter ‘R’ was in reverse. I got the idea from the front cover of a Russian newspaper I had seen. The letter R appears in the cyrillic alphabet backwards. I was euphoric, and started there the following September.
The first year was fairly formal. We were introduced to illustration ,wood engraving, screen printing, etching and and lithography. It was all very English and traditional and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A year later Sidcup College was absorbed by Ravensbourne College of Art and Design and we were moved from Sidcup to Bromley. Ravensbourne had a strong modernist tradition, Bauhaus and the new Swiss typography were great influences on the school’s graphic design teaching. There were also life drawing classes, a print shop where we learnt to set metal type (Helvetica of course!); and photography and darkroom classes. It was a brilliant second year; the teaching staff were dedicated, enthusastic and highly thought of. I thrived.
One teacher there, Ralph Beyer, taught lettering. He had been an assistant of Eric Gill the designer of Gill Sans. I showed a lot of promise in the lettering class and could draw letters fairly easily. He asked me if I would do some freelance work for him and I agreed. I think he paid me 7s 6d an hour. He did a lot of big stone carved inscriptions for foundation and commemorative stones for hospitals, libraries, and public buildings, often opened by the Queen or The Lord Mayor of London. He hated drawing the letters out on tracing paper and it was my task to prepare the final drawing for him. He gave me an alphabet that he had designed for that particular commission along with the dimensions, it was laborious work setting out the text and getting the spacing correct, and then filling in the letter with ink. The long roll of paper on the floor either side of the kitchen table made it difficult to see all the text in one go. I remember one of about 20 feet, so long there was nowhere big enough to unroll it, eventually we pegged it on his washing line! He would transfer the letters I had drawn, by rubbing chalk on the back of the paper, then tracing over the letters with a hard pencil to press an impression directly onto the stone waiting to be carved beneath. I worked for him off and on throughout my college years and besides the Helvetica and grid systems, I gained an invaluable knowledge of the underlying structure of letterforms. I would say that he had the single greatest individual effect on my early career as a designer.
Ralph taught me how to space letters the way Eric Gill had taught him. I started by drawing two parallel lines, baseline and capital height, (Ralph never used lowercase) and placed the letters he designed under the tracing paper. For a long time I was not allowed to infill the letters directly with ink. I would fill the space in the counters of the letters and between them very evenly in pencil, and keeping within the parallel lines. The purpose was to fill in the negative spaces making sure that the spaces were visually the same. When I had achieved an eveness of visual tone along the lengths of the lines of texts, neither too light a tone or too dark an area. Ralph then checked it and if the spacing was even I then filled in the letters and rubbed out the pencil. One day he said that I did not need to use the pencil any more, just ink in the letters directly, but still in my head I saw the grey visual spaces in and between the letters. Today when I’m designing a typeface I am still very conscious of this. For me there is no negetive or positive space, if both spaces are equally and well balanced then the letter itself will be ok.
I must add that the strict constructivist design education left its mark on me, to this day you cannot find anything frivolous in my work. Everthing I do has to be logical and rational, you see that in my Foundry typefaces, always a very strong underlying structure without any embellishments. I admire designers that can just arbitrarily place things seemingly randomly on the page, l wish I could work that way too, with more freedom, more spontaneity, but it is just not me.
What were your first experiences in graphic design like, after you got your degree?
It took me a long time after leaving college to get a job as there was a recession in England at that time. Six months later, towards the end of 1969 I Ianded a job as junior designer, with a design company in New Cavendish Street , central London, called Design International. They practised an ‘International Style’ design style with an English sensibility, more humanistic than the Swiss, softer, and they sometimes replaced Helvetica with Gill which gave their work a British resonance. Design International were not overtly specialized, we did everthing from house styles, exhibition design, packaging, surface graphics , to patterns for products. It was a very good introduction to the real world of graphic design. The director, Jack Foxell was a kind gentle man and a Gentleman, he looked after us very well, we never worked late and if we had family or personal problems they took precedence over work. I had a chance to work across the board – one day on a packaging project, a week on a signage system for an exhibition, or a few hours contributing with the other designers designing patterns for a vacuum flask, or designing a house style. The way we worked was very methodical working through a project in a logical and systematic way, not dissimilar to my education at Ravensbourne. Jack Foxell always insisted on clear typography, he personally liked Univers but never insisted on it, and we always ranged left. I have justified text once in my life and always regretted it.
When did your relationship with typography start? What motivated you to be a type designer?
I remember when I was 8 being in hospital and drawing the names of the nurses in fancy scripts, especially one nurse I had a crush on.When I was 12 my father died and I put a lot of energy into drawing which was a way of compensation for his loss. I also bought at that time a book on the American Wild West at a school jumble sale. It was not so much the exciting stories about the James Gang or Billy the Kid that fascinated me, but the typefaces used on the wanted posters that were illustrated throughout the book. I loved that book and tried to draw the whole alphabet from the few characters shown in the poster. Later at Ravensbourne when I met Ralph Beyer it confirmed my love of drawing letters. I did not know the names of the typefaces at the time, much later I found a book on American wood type by Rob Roy Kelly and learnt they had exotic names; Antique Tuscan Expanded, French Clarendon Triple X Expanded and Full Face Grecians, all named after their serif shapes. Some were so fat and bold, others ultra condensed but all had that rugged character characteristic of late 19th century display types.
What does typography mean to you? What role does it play in society?
To me typography is one of the fundamental building blocks of graphic design. Without an understanding of typography, how can you communicate effectively? Typography makes thoughts visible. As typographers we have a strong responsibility, we are the visual custodians of our language. For thousands of years scribes, printers and typographers have developed a system of codes and precedents that make text more understandable, ie. paragraph indents, use of en or em rules and hyphens, the type size and leading, the use of regular, bold or italics and much more. All these little details guide the reader through the text and make it more accessable and readable… so readable that he does not even notice this visual guidance.
At Ravensbourne we were taught that design also has to have social conscience and that it should help mans understanding of the world. Design must not be used to lie or to make things seem better than they really are! Sadly this is no longer true today – design now is mostly used as a marketing tool. If I see one of my typefaces used well in a social context I feel a certain pride; as when I suddenly came across Foundry Form used throughout the new ecological Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Used for the markings of a cruise missile I would feel very unhappy.
In my book design work I always try to let the text and the illustrations speak for themselves. When I designed the book on the work of Dutch designer Wim Crouwel I tried to leave my personality out as much as possible, and let the personality of Crouwel come to the fore. It is different with a poster, there the typography has to be so much more forceful and eye catching. With my type design I also try not to impose myself on the design, other designers have to use it and they do not want another personality competing with theirs. Designer friends that are close to me say that they can always spot my signature in my typefaces. One thing I always do is overdraw the botton end stroke of the lowercase ‘s’ it always sticks out too far to the left and always takes a lot of correcting.
Could you describe your first works in type design? What is your evaluation today of that first stage in your career?
My first type design was in the early stages of my freelance career,I designed a typeface for the English Meat Marketing Board. I took a Stevenson Blake bold slab serifed metal typeface as a basis and rounded it all off to made it look really juicy and edible. I did not know a lot at the time of the small intricacies of designing a whole font and using the slab serif as a basis held the design together. Later on I did a lot of typefaces for Letraset; with headline typefaces you can make a lot more mistakes. Looking at some of the work now I cannot believe some of the designs I did – but it was a good learning curve, without them I would never have progressed to be a ‘proper’ text face designer. A few of the designs I am still proud of.
Nowadays, there exists a trend, not only in type design, in which the whole designing process is done on the computer. Do you see yourself as belonging to the old school, where the creative process started on the paper? Could you describe your methodology for designing a font?
I used to sketch out the whole alphabet on layout paper then accurately re-draw everything using a 9h pencil on tracing paper, a long tedious but very satifying method. Now I still do a lot of original sketching but then quickly start working from scratch on screen. You can achieve amazingly good quality with the computer. For me it’s important to transfer those hand skills to the computer without losing the human quality that real drawing brings. You can become a computer craftsman but it takes a lot of time and application… it’s easy to get an achievable good first result, but to get it beyond that to a near perfect letter with all the correct points in the right places and the handles the right length is harder than drawing by hand. I feel sometimes whem I‘m drawing on screen I’m wearing boxing gloves!
Observing your typographic production as a whole, there are some fonts which seem to be inspired by the geometric styles of the constructivist movement, such as the Teknic, Robotik, Scriptek, among others. Do you consider this movement a strong influence? What other influence and master typographers could you mention?
Those typefaces you’ve mentioned were not really a serious attempt at designing constructivist typefaces. They where more a parody, or a pastiche.
Yes – the constructivist movement is a big influence on me. At Ravensbourne we studied the great masters that created it; Alexander Rodshenko, Piet Zwart, El Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer, Jan Tschichold and the new Swiss designers: Armin Hofmann, Emil Ruder, Karl Gerstner and Josef Müller-Brockmann who was elevated to a god!
Was the ITC Quay Sans your first experience in the design of text fonts? What was the designing process like? What features could you highlight?
Yes – it was my first serious attempt at a true text font. I wanted to design a font specifically for magazines that could be set in fairly narrow measures and save space. I submitted the idea in the form of the word, Hamburgefontsiv to ITC and they were very enthusiastic. They asked me to draw the regular weight and it was then sent to be digitized in IKarus by URW in Hamburg, Germany, and then test text setting was made in various point sizes by ITC in New York. lt was accepted. I then drew the other weights and the accompanying italics. From then on I lost control, in fact they highjacked the design and I had no input in the rest of the production process. That’s the way they worked at the time and URW had a strict fee for digitizing each typeface family, so the designer was kept at arms length in case he caused problems by wanting changes, which cost them money. The end result was a strange mixture of emotions, your first real text fonts was released throughout the world but knowing that the production values could have been a lot better.
In 1995 at The Foundry I completely re-drew the typeface and it was re-digitized. In the process re-drawing the lowercase ‘a’ which I was never entirely happy with and making small improvements overall. I also removed the flared strokes which I found uneccessary. The Foundry named the resulting typeface was Foundry Journal for its intended use.
One of the features of the ITC Quay Sans is that the weight of the strokes throughout the alphabet varies very little. In the description of this font made at Linotype, (reference is made to microscopic flares on the ends of each terminal which add a bit of dimension to the design, preventing the onset of monotony, a danger when one repeats countless near mono-weight stroked letters throughout a large body of text. How did you reach this solution? What does this effect, which is almost imperceptible, produce when reading? Is its legibility related to the body of the letter?
That is a feature of a lot of my typefaces, the low contrast between the thick and thin strokes. I suppose that I try as hard as possible in my typefaces to remove any reference to the broad nib pen which can be seen in the earliest incunabula typefaces, and has influenced type design ever since.
I think the description Linotype have written is wrong, after I removed the flares on the terminals I could see that the bare structure of the letters gave enough character. In fact the microscopic flares soften and weaken the strength in the letters. The sharp angularity that I gave the joining of the curved connecting stroke to the main stem gave deep v cut-ins, as on the a, b, d, g, h, n, that make the letters more legible and give energy to the letters. I never intended this alphabet to be read in huge volumes of text. It was, as I have already said, a magazine face or for use in advertising literature, this is reflected in the contrast of weights selected for the family.
In Holland there’s The Royal Academy, in The Hague. They’ve been producing typeface designers for a long time. Their teacher Gerrit Noordzij influenced a whole generation of young Dutch type designers believing that handwriting and the pen stroke should strongly inform the letterforms. This trend has been around in Dutch typeface design for some time. You can see it in obviously In Martin Majoor’s badly drawn ‘Scala’ and more subtly in Luc(as) de Groet’s superb ‘Thesis’. I stand opposed to this. I believe a typeface shouldn’t have calligraphic influences. I don’t believe that such typefaces create typefaces of our time. My work at this moment is motivated, in part, by a reaction against this trend. There is no trace of calligraphic form in my recent work. Many type designers believe they need to re-humanise Sans Serifs. Why? I think Helvetica is quite honestly human, to some it may look mechanical but it very subtly shaped and proportioned by the eye of its designer. So I’m currently designing something in that area. It’s very round and very pure, without any sort of handwriting flow. I looked at some of the old 19th century sans serifs. Obviously I looked at Akzidenz Grotesque and Futura and I went on from there.
In 1990, together with Freda Sack and Mike Daines you founded The Foundry, a company which designs, makes and commercializes PostScript fonts. Did this arise as a business proposal or from the necessity of covering the whole typographic process? How do you commercialize your fonts at present? Is it possible to make your living by designing types?
The decision to start a foundry was in the back of my mind since working with ITC. I did do a font after Quay Sans, Helicon, with H. Berthold AG in Germany. That was an entirely different and pleasant expierence, but you were still relying on another typeface manufacturer to accept and market your designs. Your designs had to find a niche in another manufacturers design programme. You earned a small royalty after all their costs were taken off and you had no control over the price of your fonts. Sometimes they bundled your fonts with others and sold them at a very low price. Bertholds never did that kind of thing and they themselves got badly ripped-off in America and lost control of their fonts there. You could not really rely on making a living from your work.
Mike Daines, partner in the type technology firm Signus Limited, who I had known for some time, suggested at the 1998 ATypI conference that the time was ripe to start our own foundry. We discussed everything carefully, our roles and the financial structure.
Signus Limited’ role was be to digitize the typefaces, produce them in their various software formats for use on Apple Mac and PC and also to market and sell the fonts. Our role was to design the fonts and design the promotional material. The Foundry was formed as a Limited Company and Quay, Sack and Signus formed the three members of this venture. In 1993 Signus had very bad financial problems and was wound up – The Foundry company was dissolved, and Freda and I then formed a new partnership between us continuing under The Foundry name.
We have consistently advertised in Eye, a well-respected English design magazine, this reaches our target audience in England and internationally. Designers who read Eye seem to be more typographically aware and intelligent. We also from time to time advertise in the English monthly magazine Grafik, which reaches a younger audience and is a good vehicle if we want to release a font and say, ‘Here we are again!’ We used to do fliers of each new typeface but as our typeface library grew this got increasingly more expensive to do and it was more effective to put that money into advertisements. Also later having a website took over from the function of the fliers. A pity really as I do love designing printed material – there’s something more tangible about print.
What do you think about the hundreds of typographic projects which have originated with the development of the Internet? Do you think this means has favoured the proliferation of types to the point of overloading the market?
There are some designers that say, ’Oh, there are too many typefaces’, to which I reply, ’Well, I think there’s also too much graphic design!’ You could argue there’s too much of everything today, and we consume typefaces just like we consume everything else. We all have to make a living somehow. I’m good at what I do and so I can’t see why I shouldn’t make a living out of it. I used to have a running argument with Mike Dempsey of CDT a London design company. He would say, ‘You should only use those tried and tested typefaces like Bodoni, Caslon and Garamond’. But we no longer walk around wearing top hats, long boots, and carry fob watches and swords. We need typefaces that reflect the time we live in, so why use traditional typefaces? We need typefaces that reflect the social and cultural values of our time. Architecture obviously reflects its time, as does automobile design. An old ‘30s Bentley is a wonderful object, but I wouldn’t want to drive one around on a daily basis in modern traffic. It was fit for its original purpose, but now the roads are full of cars that can out accelerate it, corner and brake better. So why drive around in an old Garamond? Zuzana Licko once said ‘You read best what you read most’. If novels were set in Helvetica you would eventually get used to it. So why is there this tradition of having to set novels in Garamond?
What analysis could you do of the typographic market from the appearance of digital types?
Obviously the market is very fractured and will continue to be so. The big manufacturers such as Linotype and Monotype with their huge type libraries become increasingly more like type supermarkets. Their cumbersome libraries are very mixed, they have some very good designs and some of dubious quality. The smaller independent foundries market and generally sell their own work – they care fanatically, and generally their work is of very high quality, and this reflects often in a premium priced product. More often than not I would say the independents employ only a few people, as it is with The Foundry, and in many cases one lone person working fanatically day and night. We are four people. FontShop is more a mail order catalogue, it represents many designers that do not sell their own fonts. It does a good service and cares about the quality of the fonts it sells and the designers they represent, but The Foundry has always remained independent. Although in the beginning we did have a few agreements with other type distributors, but we were never happy with that kind of relationship and ended the agreements quite quickly. One reason being we couldn‘t keep a true record of who our fonts were being sold to. We like to keep track of every font we sell, we can then tell if someone has copied our fonts more easily.
Do you think it is still possible to make innovations in typography? Do you believe that the tendency of young professionals to display fonts has to do with the fact that it is more simple (at least it seems to be) to make something new or different in this kind of font? Is there anything left to say as far as text fonts are concerned?
Of course it is still possible to innovate, although I think it is getting harder to do so. There is a tendency for young designers to make display fonts. Often a designer has an idea for a special font for a particular graphic design project and this is eventually developed into a full font and released. A few more might follow but then that is it – as in the case of designers like Jonathan Barnbrook and David Carson. The problem with these fonts is that they are very personal to the designer who created them, another designer using them has to cope with another personality appearing strongly in his work; but remember I started off in the same way designing type for certain projects, I then developed some of them for Letraset in the beginning. It was a great learning curve without that experience I would’t be designing text typefaces today. Designing typefaces for Letraset is where I met Freda Sack, in all my typeface designs you see her careful eye there.
Where does your teaching vocation come from? Could you tell us some features of the teaching of design in England? What differences do you find with other European schools you have visited?
Teaching for me is passing on enthusiastically to the students the expertise that I have gained. I taught for a long time at the London College of Printing (LCP) on the HND typography course. Under the leadership of David Dabner we created one of the best typographic courses in the world and I do mean that ‘The World’! We were a dedicated teaching staff that tried with the limited resources that we had to give the broadest and best course we could offer the students. As staff we never had problems with each others egos, even though we all had extra strong personalities, we put all of our differences aside and collectively dedicated ourselves to getting the best from our students. We all loved typography! Sadly Dave Dabner retired this year. The course has been absorbed into the BA design course which was always jealous of HND’s high standards and successes. It will never be the same again. Many of the students I taught went on to really great things and have remained very close friends.
I found the total opposite when taught as a guest professor for three years in Mainz, Germany at the Fachhochschule Mainz. There the situation was the total opposite of the LCP. The professors were divided into cliques. I was lucky to work with a small group of professors who were, like my colleages at the LCP, dedicated to teaching, most of us also had outside and demanding work. Charlotte Schroener for instance was a partner in a design company in Frankfurt, OPAK, and had very little time so the teaching she did was always very well prepared, based on real experience and of high quality. She was, and still is, a powerhouse at the school. The older professors that relied on teaching for their income, hated innovation and her, seeing her as a threat. In Mainz the professors ran the school, when a student wished do his final diploma project he asked one professor to guide him through it, and then that professor marked that students work. The professor then often gave a very high mark for work that was mediocre because his own ego was more important. ‘I am so important that I attract the best students who wish to do their diploma with me, therfore that student however bad must reflect my importance and be given a high mark’, unglaublich!
That would have been unheard off at the LCP or in Holland where all the teachers (docenten in Nederlands) mark the work and then an average is made from all the individual marks. As a teacher at the LCP if you didn’t perform well Dave Dabner didn’t renew their contract, in Mainz professors had jobs for life, even if you robbed a bank or got a student pregnant, which has happened, you still had your job!
I taught for two years at the St Joost Acadamie in Breda, South Holland for two days a week after moving here five years ago. Here the situation was more comfortable, more like the LCP, although the individual teaches are much more sef-centred and individualistic.
but that is a typically Dutch trait. German students who always pay deference to what the professors say. Dutch students always listen to what you say and then try the opposite! The Dutch student always questions and will push his or her work to the limit even though the idea could collapse and end in negative result. They are far more experimental, and don’t worry whether their work is acceptable in getting a job in an industry that readily accepts a more individual and adventurous approach. German students are always looking over their shoulder, making sure that they will get the right exam marks and a job in a relatively boring German design industry. English students are much more like their Dutch counterparts but a bit less adventurous. Of the three systems I have worked with, the English and Dutch methods are for me the best, although in all three countries drastic changes are afoot in education, probably in Germany the most drastic changes will one day take place, where now the system is totally intellectually and morally bankrupt.
The differences in the design industry is very interesting, in England and Holland graphic design and advertising are separate professions. In Holland there is a large cultural section supported by various government and private foundations with large sums of money for all manner of design and art projects. Designers here are well insulated from the vagaries of the economy. They are in a luxurious position although designers here do not earn vast sums of money they live a comfortable and relaxed life. The Dutch are more concerned with quality of life than chasing after money. In England those subsidies do not exist therefore designers are much more exposed to the economic situation at the time. Therefore design in England has to work and do it’s job well, very good design when it happens still has to be accountable. In Holland that is often the opposite, design is more self-indulgent and less stringently controlled by the client, often the design only half works but the Dutch just shrug their shoulders and hope that next time it will work better. In Germany this separation of advertising and design has not happened to the same extent, advertising agencies often have in-house graphic design departments, the agencies seeing design as just another service that they can offer their clients. They do not understand the value of design, design for them is another marketing tool, therefore the design they produce is bland and highly commercial.
If I was caught speeding by the police in Germany they would have to hand me over to the Dutch police as their housestyle is so fantastic, I’d tell the German police he couldn‘t possibly arrest me as his police car is so badly painted in a vile shade of green and his police logo is so ugly!
What are your short-term projects?
I am at this moment finishing of a new typeface family for The Foundry called Foundry Context and probably by the time this article appears it will be released. It has taken three years, and the short term project is to release it! Some time ago The Foundry released the work of Dutch designer, Wim Crouwel who designed a small group of typeface for various design projects in and around the late 1960s while he was a partner in Total Design. Another colleague of his, Benno Wissing also designed an intersting small group of typefaces for the Ahoy Exhibition Centre in Rotterdam, as part of a house style he was doing. Benno Wissing is now in his mid 80s and recently I had permission from him to digitize these fonts , and now this project also has the possibility of turning into a book. I also want to do a screen printed poster showing how to detail text properly in a colourful and interesting way… and do my own website, a design company in Amsterdam, Samenwerkende Ontwerpers (Together Working Designers) are allowing me to work there for a couple of weeks and instruct me how to build it. That’s enough to get on with for now.