Ryan Hurley
S book 3

The S book is published yearly by the BA Graphic Design Course at Southampton University. All interviews are undertaken by students. Ryan Hurley currently works at Form, London.


David, why did you decide to specialise in typography when you formed your own company in the mid seventies?

Simply because I had so much type and lettering work that I needed to employ somebody who could help out on the artwork side. Bear in mind we are talking about pre-Macintosh days. Up to this point I’d used this freelance designer who was very good at artwork and drawing. I was paying him huge freelance fees so I thought it would be cheaper to start a business and make him a partner! We divided the money equally and the partnership lasted 3 or 4 years. Unfortunately he had this rather grasping wife who wanted to take money out of the company to buy expensive cars we couldn’t afford. So then I started back on my own again, until in 1989 I formed ‘The Foundry’ with Freda Sack. We specialise in typeface design, not graphic design. I still do graphic design, but not as part of The Foundry.


Don’t you think there are enough typefaces available?

No I do not! 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. 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. We need typefaces that reflect the time we live in, so why use old fashioned typefaces? Typefaces that reflect the social and cultural values of our time, and as importantly, we need faces that can reference the sub-cultures that exist within that framework. Architecture obviously reflects its time, as does automotive 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 traditional novels in Garamond? Eric Spiekermann complains about people making slight alterations to his typefaces and using them as their own.


Has this happened with your faces?

Our Foundry Gridnik has been systematically altered and ripped off by other designers. But there is not much you can do about it. There is a major men’s magazine in England that’s actually using Gridnik as their headline face, and they haven’t paid for it! They haven’t even bothered to alter it. That’s plain theft. They’ve just stolen it, and that’s probably worse to a type designer than people changing it slightly. At least that takes time, effort and also some expertise. It’s quite a long process to open up a font make visible changes and remake a new font. You would need some skill, but that’s not a real problem. The major loss of revenue comes from people using your typeface without buying a license. This magazine will in the end have to make reparations to The Foundry. You can ask for an independent audit of a company’s software if you believe they are using your typefaces without buying them. I think you would soon find out if another designer were using it or a slightly altered version of it. If they are well known they are unlikely to do such a thing. However, if some local designer has altered a face and used it on a job, it’s not really that big a deal. It could be seen as a compliment!


How many good typefaces do you think are released each year?

Not many. Not if we are using longevity as the primary criteria. Yes there are a huge number being released each year, but the majority tend to be quite fashionable and they will disappear quite quickly. How many good sans serifs came out last year? Not one. There might be one every few years, and the last really good one was probably Thesis by Luc(as) de Groet. And that was a long time ago. But then again how much graphic design comes out each year that’s going to be remembered? Every morning half a tree is pushed through my letterbox, and how much of that is memorable? How many beautiful books and how many really beautiful posters are produced each year? More than good typefaces obviously, but then there are thousands of graphic designers out there. Just think how many graphic designers come out of college each year? Thousands and thousands. And how much good graphic design comes out of that? How much work do you see that takes your breath away and makes you say ‘I’ve got to buy that, it’s so beautiful’. It’s the same with typefaces. There’s a lot of junk, but not much you would want to own.


What motivates you to design a typeface?

That’s a very hard question to answer. Sometimes you’re influenced by the things that surround you, and sometimes your work is a reaction against those things. 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 interesting but not very well 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 a system will create a typeface 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.

I think Helvetica is quite honestly human, to some it may look mechanical but it’s very subtly shaped and proportioned by the eye of its designer. So I’m currently designing something in this 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. You really have to feel for a typeface, and you have to be careful that the idea has real substance. A typeface can easily slip into a stylistic form with little real merit. You can find yourself 6 months into a design before you realise the original concept isn’t as good as you first thought. You no longer truly believe you’re moving in the right direction, and you quickly loose your motivation and you can see it in the final typeface, stiff and lifeless. After that point it becomes a prison sentence because you’ve invested so much time in it, yet you’ve got another 2 or 3 years of work to finish it. That’s a long time to work on a face that maybe hasn’t got a lot of heart in it. That’s why I have to spend a long time, maybe a year, thinking about a typeface design. You must create many sketches before you can embark on 3 years of work.

At the moment I’m working on a face called Context and The Foundry will probably release it towards the end of this year. At this very moment I am comparing the consistency of the kerning between the Bold and the Regular. Sometimes you have to open the kerning up a bit on a bold depending on the blackness of the letter. You make sure your regular is perfect then compare the bold with it. So now I’ve got 2 computer screens linked together, 6 windows open and thousands of kerning pairs to check! That’s months of work if you take into account all the weights. If you lose your commitment to this process it will quickly become a living hell. You have to believe this typeface is going to be your best. You have to get as close to it as you can. You have to be in love with it. Therefore, if somebody steals your typeface you want to break their legs. Unfortunately copying is now normal in our society. I won’t even copy a CD. I always buy the original CD. I don’t want to borrow a book from a library and photocopy it. I want to buy the real book, just like I want to buy the real CD. You’re denying the artist their living. Some bands, if they’re heavily copied, just won’t be able to make any more music. Records like typefaces are expensive, but that’s because they take a very long time to create.

When people copy The Foundry’s typefaces, we often find out, as we do not sell our fonts in huge quantities. We are not a supermarket or a font shop. It’s pernicious. A long time ago I rented part of my studio to a PR girl and she said, ‘I’ve just received a change of address card from a freelance designer and I think it’s in your typeface’. When we looked the designer up on our database he hadn’t paid for it. I phoned him up and said, ‘Very nice typeface mate. Can I ask you what it is and where you got it?’ He didn’t reply. So I told him he had to pay for it and when he asked how much I said, ‘Well that’s 250 quid for the family and another 250 for legalising the font, so that’ll be 500 pounds’. Then he asked if he could just take it off his computer, to which I replied, ‘Certainly not, you’ve used it’. He said it was the most expensive business card he’d ever designed! Sometimes you have to hurt a few people so they tell their friends ‘My God, I got squeezed for stealing that typeface’. When a dentist starts his business, he doesn’t go out and steal all of his equipment from another dentist does he? If you’re a builder you have to go out and buy your trowel, your wheelbarrow and your bucket, then lets go and steal the cement and bricks to make a house! As a society we have come to think that we only need to buy the computer. The software comes free and we can collect it like tokens on a cornflake packet. This particular designer had found our typeface on a computer at magazine where he was freelancing. A good friend of mine was art director there and asked if he could test the typeface out on a new supplement he was working on. He’d buried it in his computer but this designer had found it and copied it.


How did you approach the brief to design a new typeface for the Yellow Pages?

Freda and I were asked by Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks to have a thorough look at the problem of designing a typeface to work in very small sizes and to see if we could come up with a really good solution. He gave us a very tight and well-written brief. That’s one thing we always admire about Michael, he always gives you a thoroughly researched and well-prepared brief that is also very flexible. It always emphasizes creativity and its always open to interpretation. But the backbone to it is very solid. So we started with a good background direction from him. We then sat down and considered what happens when wet fluid ink hits very cheap paper at high speed on very long print runs. You know immediately that you can’t create subtle shapes and you know that everything is going to get rounded off. So you have to over sharpen everything and then do lots and lots of testing. Initially we designed some words and we asked them to stop the Yellow Pages printing presses so we could put our little test job on. You can imagine how much they wanted to do that. Their print runs last for days and we had to fit them between. Stopping the press and then getting it back up to speed for a single test print must have seemed a bit mad. And we had to ask them to do this several times before we could finalize this typeface design that would work on this particular paper. It wasn’t a difficult job. It was just hours of research and hours of hard work, also very enjoyable work.


How long did the tests take? The testing took longer than the design process!

It was between six months and a year before we ended up where needed to be. It was a nice job and we received our first D&AD award. I remember we got enormously drunk. You need a good excuse, well sometimes I do.


Do you work on a number of typefaces at the same time?

Not at the moment. I am only seriously working on Context. But I’m forever playing around with little ideas. There are always some silly fonts to have fun with, in between the major works. Flek/Plek started off as a little plaything. I thought what could I do with a 9×5 dot matrix system, what can I get out of it? I am not someone who can just sit in front and watch the news on television. I have to do something with my hands, and so I’ve always got my little laptop present. Once you’ve got the idea, it only takes 3 or 4 months to get a little type family out of it. However something like Context has got a lot of very pure shapes that need to be drawn accurately on screen and the more pure the shapes the more difficult they are to achieve. It’s like drawing with boxing gloves on. All those control points on Bezier curves need to be nudged pixel by pixel. You can spend 2 or 3 days on a lower case ‘s’, then think its shit and start all over again. Or you might take an ‘a’, try to improve it, but end up making it look like it’s been cut out of black paper with a blunt pair of scissors. Still the lower case ‘l’ is very easy. It’s only got 4 control points!


So is that your favourite letter of the alphabet?

My favourite letter is the ‘s’ because it’s probably the most difficult and I love drawing them. I can draw them freehand like a dream, however putting that on screen takes forever. The computer can make beautiful curves but without any tension, trying to overrule the computer and get that tension that drawing by hand can produce is very difficult. In the end you always compromise but only when the compromise is perfect! How do you monitor the success of a typeface? By how it sells and by who uses it. I’ve just seen a book in Nijhof & Lee’s design bookshop here in Amsterdam. It’s by Roger Fawcett-Tang and its set in one of our faces, ‘Foundry Fabriek’. It’s about unusual book formats, and it made my day. I think he’s an incredibly good designer. He’s a modernist who actually has fun and plays with words in an interesting way. He has this ability to chop up letters or words and make remarkable, humorous things from them. Have you seen the corporate identity he did for a shop called minimum? You read the word and then you realise there are no ‘i’s’ in it, just dots over certain letters. So he really did make it minimal. This works because we don’t read letters; we store words in our brain as symbols or shapes. For me, someone like Fawcett-Tang using the Foundry family makes it a successful typeface. Conversely, if I saw our typeface on the packaging for an MFI kitchen, I may not be quite as ecstatic, but I know it would make my bank manager very happy. To be honest you can only judge a typeface by its commercial success. And it generally takes years before you can make that judgement. It takes time for a typeface to work its way into a designer’s consciousness. It’s a bit like Chinese whispers. Once the big clients start using your typeface you know it’s a success. For example, there is one of those small provinces in Australia, like New South Wales, that uses one of our faces as a corporate font. They required a license for over 3000 of their personal computers!


What do you think the future holds for typographers?

I think we have a very positive future. Obviously a lot of print will disappear and move on to screen. Eventually you won’t get a catalogue from your travel agent and you won’t get printed information from an estate agent. Information will be screen based. Screen resolution will improve dramatically and it will become as easy to read text from the screen, as it is to read from paper. I have this beautiful Apple screen and the type quality is absolutely amazing. It really looks good. It’s unlikely that newspapers or books will entirely disappear. People like to sit in a café with a paper, and many of the unique qualities of paper cannot be replicated. I needed to read an article from the New York Times, so I just looked up New York Times on the Internet and there was the article in the archive. OK, we as designers are not going to fall madly in love with the layout, but it was well presented and fully interactive. It was an article on the exploitation of illegal Mexican workers It had mini interviews with restaurant owners, the waiters and the policy makers. It had selectable graphs for extra information on the distribution of income, and it was presented beautifully in very readable typography. Mind you, it made me want to buy the paper to read the rest of the article! Which was of course is its primary function. Reading from a screen at a Café on a bright sunny day is none too clever. I would also have the added problem that as soon as I open up my laptop I would want to start designing typefaces. I see my laptop primarily as a tool although secretly somewhere inside it sits is a whole home entertainment system. I go outside every day, sit on the side of a canal, drink my coffee and read my newspaper, always the Dutch newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’. My first job in the Nederland was to redesign its masthead so l feel a natural allegiance to it, it’s the equivalent of The Guardian that I read all my life. It’s a ritual that I will never change. But the younger generations are more adaptable. My son did his homework on screen, watched the television, listened to his Walkman all at the same time and now if he wants the latest news accesses it is through the web. Young people born and brought up with computers quickly adapt to new technology.


Do you have any typographic rules?

I used to teach typography on Friday afternoons to students who knew nothing about the subject. They would always ask, ‘What are the rules’ and I would tell them, ‘Don’t use a hyphen between dates, use an en rule!’ It’s one of my pet hates. A hyphen is for hyphenating words; it’s not a bridging tool. You use an en rule between dates. Otherwise it looks crap. It’s too small and it has no importance. It’s only for dividing words up. That’s one of my typographic rules. Also when setting text in a traditional typeface, for example Garamond, for bookwork, use old style figures, if available. Don’t use modern day aligning figures. It just looks like a sore thumb standing out in the middle of the page. You wouldn’t get them in Helvetica. With certain typefaces you will have FI and FL ligatures. Use them. It’s only shift option 5 and shift option 6. Designers are supposed to know these things, but how many of them do? That’s one of the real shames about the Macintosh; we have become a jack of all trades, and master of none. If you were able to go back 20 years you would have used a compositor working in a typesetting house. He would set your type carefully by hand, and apply all those little typographic rules. Designers really didn’t have to know too much about these things, because compositors spent many years learning those rules as part of their apprenticeship. When the Mac came along they all lost their jobs and that information never found a forum to got passed on. How many times do you see inch and foot marks used instead of proper quotation marks? Designers just don’t know where they are on the keyboard and too many of them are more concerned with the overall effect, rather than with real communication.

How many designers really read? I recently watched a competition to find the young violinist of the year. There was this chap from China who was playing a very difficult piece by Shostakovich. He played brilliantly and then a panel was asked for comments. They said, ‘Well he plays every note very well, but he doesn’t play between the notes’. Then an 18-year-old Belgium violinist came on and played an equally difficult piece by Tchaikovsky. The panel said, ‘Well he’s played all the notes very well and between the notes as well and everything harmonised perfectly’. When he was asked afterwards, ‘Did you just play the music?’ he said, ‘Oh no, I have read everything that has ever been written about Tchaikovsky. I went to Russia and found out about the period he lived in and how he played. So I immersed myself in the culture before I learnt the piece.’ How many designers read and understand the book they are about to design? If one is designing a book on medieval history, how many will make a genuine effort to engage in that subject? Especially here in Holland, where most designers impose their own ego over the subject matter, rather than allowing the subject to speak for itself. I had better stop now before I am hunted down by a group of revenge hungry Dutch designers. So remember, if you want proper quotes, it’s shift option bracket. It’s not so difficult to find. And actually what I have just said told you about playing music I‘ve realized how strong a connection typography and music have! So are these the only points you stress to your students?

No, those are just the points I look for when I’m doing my work. The students have to find their own typographic language. What is relevant to me is not always relevant to them. For instance, screen based typography needs another set of rules. An ‘fi’ or an ‘fl’ ligature doesn’t really make any difference on screen. In the end you can only make people aware of these things and if they find them relevant, then they’ll use them. I try not to be too dogmatic, but I do shoot them if they use a hyphen between dates. Or I will just hang them up by their short and curlies for a lesser typographic infringements. Have you noticed a difference in the quality of your work since moving from London to Amsterdam? It’s definitely got better. I don’t know if that’s the influence of the culture or whether I’m just more relaxed. It’s a very nice place to live and I’m not rushing around being overly obsessed about my work. But although I’ve lost my obsession I still love what I do. As the bumper sticker says, I just do it a little more slowly nowadays. Its funny but I appear to be able to draw more freely here and I can form shapes easily. I can spend a lot more time on a particular letter because I haven’t got the interruptions of a studio full of people and the constant ringing telephone. In that environment you can easily get distracted and miss those little things that make a letterform special. There’s always that little bit of pressure and that little bit of tension that makes you finish a letter maybe 5 minutes too early. Or maybe you forget to review it again properly, and instead just cross it off the list as completed. I don’t do that here. I’m able to analyse things in a much more relaxed manner.


How different is the design culture in Holland?

There is a very rich typographic culture here. You can’t help but be influenced. It’s very joyful in a way. London’s very demanding and much of the design work appears joyless. I look at the work of people like North and I love it. I think it’s beautiful, but obviously the designer hasn’t got a lot of pleasure from it, they all look so grim, dressed in black and photographed against some old industrial background! Here people create much more colourful and eccentric work. It’s a kind of celebration of life. Life in London is hard and that’s reflected in the work. The hours are so long that all a designer is fit for on a Friday night is to go out and get smashed out of his brains. Here everybody finishes work at 5 o’clock. On a Friday it’s a 4 o’clock finish and then they sit around having a beer for half an hour. Then they go their separate ways they don’t seem to socialise with each other after work. They all have independent groups of friends. Here, you can cycle home after work, get home by 6 o’clock, have your tea, and spend some time with your family. Then if you want to meet your friends for a drink you can go out at 9 or 10, or even 11 o’clock. You can relax because you know you’ve only got a short cycle ride in the morning. Designers even take their kids to school in the morning. We have a very good design company here called Thonik, and the partners all have families. They take their kids to school and when they pick them up they take them back to the design office to play. That’s quite another way of thinking. The museums here have a lot of funding from the government and design companies obviously benefit from this. The museums in England have to sell themselves like hamburgers. Their shops are larger than some of their exhibitions. They have to attract punters and that’s not easy when there is so much competition from commercial entertainment. That doesn’t happen here. It’s much softer. It’s only a country of 16 million people and graphic design has always been seen as culturally important, more culturally important than in England. The Dutch Post Office in the 1920s used avant-garde artists and designers such Piet Zwart. Even now, they will choose students who are real risk takers. And we are not talking about little projects. They will give them major books and exhibitions to direct over a sustained period. The whole system is orientated towards making young designers successful very quickly. Graphic Design is seen as something very culturally important, nearly on the level with architecture.


So what advice would you give to a graphic design graduate who intends to work in London?

I don’t know now. I have been in living here in Amsterdam now for nearly five years and I am a bit out of touch with the situation in England. Here in Holland you have a solid placement system in place where all students go out and work in design companies for 3 or 4 months. And they get paid for it! You could work for a company like Thonik as a student and they will pay you a proper wage and you will work on real projects. If they like you, they will often take you on. This system doesn’t seem to exist so strongly in England. Here you have a design organisation called the Bno and they lay down rules for these things. Most designers in their first job here will be paid the basic rate as laid down by the Bno. They have a pay scale where each year, as you gain experience, so your salary increases appropriately. So you’ll never get ripped off, or underpaid and overworked. Of course designers sometimes have to put in long ours but that is not the norm here, quality of life is more important. If you’re approached by a client to do some work and you know that an existing Bno member is already working for that client, you are morally obliged to inform that designer. But the picture isn’t always rosy. Dutch designers seem to hate each other sometimes with a vengeance. Designers generally speak well of each other in London. That’s not the case in Holland and especially Amsterdam. The Dutch are very individualistic and very direct. They say exactly what they think, which is very disconcerting for an Englishman. I know, I have a Dutch girlfriend and if I do something she doesn’t like it’s the knife in the jugular without delay!