Italy, stencils and social media type hype — an interview with Fred Smeijers

Fred Smei­jers hands out advice how to improve let­ter shapes

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!


Sten­cils drawn and cut on squa­red paper by Fred Smei­jers

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.

Sten­ci­ling is a fast and exci­ting way of achie­ving word images (work by Fred Smei­jers)

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.


More Information:
Counterpunch, Type Now published by Hyphen Press


Thanks to Veronika Binoeder for lectorship