Italy, stencils and social media type hype — an interview with Fred Smeijers
During the ISIA Type Design Week 2015 I had the pleasure of talking to Fred Smeijers about this workshop, what students can learn by using stencils and about type design in general.
Hello Fred, my first question is: how do you like Italy?
I like Italy very much. What do I like about Italy? Of course it has a lot to do with the Renaissance, but in general there is also very good food and the scenery is absolutely stunning. So we have food, scenery, and history, and all of these aspects are well presented in Italy. , so to say. That’s why I like Italy so much. Another factor is the weather — most of the time it is much better than in the north of Europe. Yes, my family and I like Italy quite a lot.
You are a guest tutor at the ISIA Urbino Type Design Week for the second time after last year. What do you like best about this venue?
First of all, it is the town of Urbino itself, which qualifies for all the nice things I just have mentioned. It is a lovely, very compact and fascinating Renaissance town. And secondly, there are some Italian friends connected to the school here, either directly as staff, or as former students.
The first time was an experiment for me, because I used a method that I also apply in my classes in Leipzig. But here in Urbino I have to squeeze it all into one week, and it worked. When I did it for the first time in 2014, everybody was rather pleased with it, so they asked me if I could do it again.
The focus is, of course, on giving beginners a sense of what it means to design typefaces and to provide an understanding of how this works. The course aims to explain how letters are constructed and to teach the basics of digitizing letter shapes and how to make words with them. In principle we aim to provide the students with enough knowledge, so that they are able to expand their knowledge independently afterwards. They are of course free to use the internet as a source for further references.
What is the reason for using stencils in the type design process?
The stencils we make in the course are not letters but parts of letters. And these parts are based on the pen strokes we use in writing. It’s going back to the principles of writing, only not with pens but with stencils. So we use stencils to construct letters. We don’t use stencils to make stencil letters, we simply use them as building blocks. This is possible because the stencils are made of transparent cellophane. This material can be easily turned around and flipped; you can simply build a number of letters from a few elements.
The stencilling itself can be done very quickly, without making a big mess. For most students, the process is very exciting and pleasant because it’s analogue. It’s far more hands-on than working with a computer screen, and totally different from creating a few outlines in Illustrator and printing them out with the help of a laser printer. For most students it is a completely new experience.
I use the analogue method of writing and creating letters with the help of stencilled elements, in order to create enough awareness of how letters are constructed. Only after a certain level of knowledge has been gained do we move on into digitalizing, or working with computers.
Does the stencil technique play a role in the design process of your own typefaces?
Very occasionally I apply the same method as my students here. I play around with a few small elements and then might end up with a word image that can be expanded. In the end, a few stencilled words might turn into a font, but usually it’s just something to play around with. When I make outlines of it, it’s probably a display typeface. At the moment, I’m planning to release a stencil typeface again. But other sources of inspiration are also very important. It’s definitely not only stencils, for me, it’s more a method which I developed in early 2002 specifically for educational purposes.
It is a kind of playing field?
Yes, a playground, definitely. Sometimes I just make stencils for fun or to put me into a better mood.
Well that’s perfectly OK!
One question concerning the Dutch type design: What is the characteristic feature of Dutch type design compared to German type design?
Right now this is quite difficult to explain. It was a bit easier two decades ago. Today, we live in a climate where there is a lot of exchange in know-how, while technical know-how and support have moved on significantly as well. Conferences and dedicated courses, the advance of social media and communication by email have made a huge contribution in this respect. Thus, knowledge and new methods are easily spread around. On the one hand, this is okay because nobody is left behind, but on the other hand it makes things more uniform. It’s like putting ‘McDonalds’ all over the globe.
One thing that has more or less disappeared in a process that has been going on for maybe two centuries is the national peculiarity of type design. There are some traces left, I guess, but not much.
Two decades ago, the most striking difference was probably that — compared to Germany — the Netherlands had a lot more young designers. They were not just younger in years, but also in heart and soul! These young Dutch designers were far more rebellious than their German counterparts (if there were any?). The Dutch style rebels took the things they liked and which they regarded as important very seriously. This resulted in rather wild but still significant writings on the wall, like, for example, Beowulf. But a type design like Quadraat can be considered as revolutionary in the field of more serious text faces, and the same applies to Scala and Thesis, which changed the perception concerning the size a typeface family worldwide. And this seeped through to people like Underware for example.
It seems to me that this new and radical approach was never taken in Germany. The Germans tended to be more traditional, rather serious and tried to make practical, serviceable typefaces. Nobody was allowed to step outside the perception of what the German type design discipline considered as normal.
Anyway, since communications are now global and fast, the type design mentality and its output seem to have become more or less identical everywhere.
How important is the manual process?
I think it’s very important. If you have sketches drawn by hand, you have another relationship with them compared to any sketches made in some digital way. My feeling is that drawing with pencil and paper is another way of thinking, unlike drawing with the help of digital outlines, but that’s my opinion. I know some very good type designers who simply do not know what to do with a real pencil, but still manage to design proper typefaces. There isn’t really a law. Nevertheless I think that in general, it applies to most people. The majority are better at being creative — if I may call it this way — on paper and then, from these bits and pieces, trying to transport them into the digital world to see whether the idea works and if it’s worthwhile to develop it further.
Of course it’s also a matter of skill and precision. You have to be able to draw or to materialize on paper what you are looking for or what you are interested in. Another aspect is experience; you have to be able to make the right decisions in a medium whose precision boundaries are rather blurred. Those lacking this experience and confidence tend to escape into precision. They need, right away, all the precision that software offers, otherwise they don’t feel safe. I’m afraid to say that this approach is a bit dangerous because, although you’re making precise but very small steps, you might end up with differences that are simply not big or worthwhile enough.
Is it perhaps a problem that — when you have a look at the contemporary type design scene — a lot of fonts are quite similar to each other?
Yes, of course, the problem nowadays is that there’s too much of everything. There are some clear trends and everybody is contributing his or her share to these trends, so the differences are getting smaller and smaller and smaller, until a stage has been reached where there is hardly any difference at all, so why bother? We are more or less at this stage, I think. Why should I be interested in the next slab serif? There are so many of them around already. It seems as if you enter into an area where the designer of that new slab serif is just a person who simply liked to have the experience of making a slab serif himself and is having a good time doing so (at least I would hope so). But to claim that this is a new design or even to imply that it is worth your attention is, of course, a bit much. You might even state that contemporary type design serves primarily as a social media content generator rather than a real design discipline. Let’s put it very bluntly: it seems that we find ourselves writing about new typefaces, rather than using them.
That may be right, yes.
That’s a bit of a strange balance, of course.
Okay then — here’s the last question: What goal do you try to reach with your own type foundry? Which fonts do you distribute? Is there a concept behind it?
OurType was simply a platform to release new typefaces that came from me, or old faces that had not yet been released. That’s what we did. Some people came along and — so I believe — did some interesting things, so we released those as well. In the beginning, we had a big success with our website, and OurType was not the first independent foundry, there were many others. We were certainly not the first who sold typefaces via a website, but we were among the pioneers who showed the way. We probably inspired a lot of other people with enthusiasm to do the same thing. We were kind of proof that it could be done. That’s what OurType did, and it set, I think, a level of quality, which is now more or less considered the norm.
Fred, thank you very much for the interview.
About Fred Smeijers
Fred Smeijers is a Dutch type designer, educator, researcher, and writer. One of the most versatile contemporary type designers, Smeijers has a whole range of distinctive typefaces to his credit. Among his retail typefaces are: FF Quadraat; TEFF Renard; DTL Nobel; Arnhem, Fresco, Sansa, Custodia, Ludwig, Puncho, and Bery series — all published by OurType, the label he co-founded in 2002. His custom type designs include typefaces for Philips Electronics, Tom-Tom, and Canon-Europe. Smeijers is the winner of Gerrit Noordzij Prize for outstanding contribution to type design, and author of Counterpunch (Hyphen Press, 1996, 2011) and Type Now (Hyphen Press, 2003). Smeijers is professor of type design at the HGB in Leipzig and research fellow at Plantin Museum in Antwerp.
Counterpunch, Type Now published by Hyphen Press