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Zwiebelfisch interview

→ This interview was conducted via email by Emanuela Fechte for Zwiebelfisch, a German design magazine created by the students of the Freie Hochschule für Grafik Design und Bildende Kunst in Freiburg, Germany.


Why and how did you become a type designer?

The simple answer is that in 1989 I ran into Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum who were interns at Meta Design at the time. We became friends and I went to Den Haag to study Graphic and Typographic Design at the Royal Academy. If you don't watch out they turn you into a typedesigner there.

Where do you get your ideas from?

There are two ways to have an idea. One is that thing where an idea slaps you in the face when you least expect it. Like in any other design job you can also methodically work your way towards an idea. That is probably the difference between inspiration and problem solving then.

What inspires you?

Teaching has been a great inspiration. It's great fun to try explaining something you were sure you knew to somebody who is sure they don't. And then find out how much you still don't understand.

Will you ever run out of ideas?

Wow, I imagine that would come pretty close to being amputated of a vital body part. But I'm sure that when it happens I won't feel a thing. It will probably be like I got tons of Ideas when really I'll be repeating my self, spiraling down towards complete redundancy.

How did your designs change in the last years?

Dunno... maybe I get more precise and less exciting? See, it has begun already!

Have there been different influences for your changes?

Getting older I guess. And then of course sometimes there are cultural developments when time seems to have an acute craving for certain shapes. Is that fashion? I love fashion.

Your favorite letter?

To draw or to look at? The more shapey a character is the more you can say with it. So if I had to give you one favorite character I'd probably go for the lowercase "g" or so. But on the other hand the characters that have the least going on like "v" or "z" are the hardest to get just right. So, that's a nice challenge.

Which typeface do you like most?

Always my next project. I am not much of a connoisseur of typefaces and my preference definitely lies with the creating and not with the application of type.

What else would you like to try other than working as a type designer?

Live in a warm climate.

How has the computer affected your work?

I am probably the first generation who had a computer at their disposal during their design education and it's been love at first sight. The Mac feels like an extension of my heart and brain much like a pencil would to a draughts man I suppose. I couldn't picture myself working in the design business without this friendly calculator. I'd probably be flipping burgers. So, I am sorry but I have no idea what my work would be like without the computer.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

The trance like place you sink into when you are focusing on a supersimple task like fiddling with beziers for hours. Time flies by and then there is the gratification when something that didn't exist just a few hours ago now almost like a new found friend has it's own personality and maybe kind of works for the purpose it was created for too.

When did you decide to found your own agency?

In 1999. It seemed a logical step. After studying at the Royal Academy I did Internships at Studio Dumbar in Den Haag and the Font Bureau in Boston. Then I worked at the Buro Petr van Blokland in Delft. After one and a half years I just felt ready for the next step.

What are your plans for the future?

No plans. It'll happen.

What kind of person are you?

Pretty average in most respects I'd say.

Is your field open to new-comers?

Sure, you bet. All you need is a lot of time and a little help.

What is the key difference between print and film typography?

Film typography like in movie titles? I have never worked for film so I couldn't tell you.

How much of your time is devoted to design and to business matters?

Everything I have to do I tend to turn into designing. When I do my accounting I try to come up with a form for it that is easily understandable and beautiful. Each time my accountant opens a new ring binder of mine I find the look on his face very gratifying.

What hobbies do you have?

I am not sure what exactly a hobby is because the term seems to draw such a distinct line between work and privat life which for me just smoothly blend into each other.

How do you feel about having a specific style?

How can a designer not have a specific style? Every design process consists of a spiraling chain of decisions between alternatives. It really doesn't matter what makes you favor one option over it's neighbor but it remains your very decision. How personal this makes your design is a fact you can hide but that won't stop it from being true. Lending visual appearance to information is a translation process that cannot exist without interpretation. This interpretation is a form of comment that is present in every designers work. So when you talk about having a specific style the question is: What do you think would be the alternative? Maybe mimicking other designer's styles? Like in: "Please make this advertisement look like this skate board magazine". Or attempting to create design without a flavour of it's own? That idea is not only pretty dated but a strong statement in it's own right. Right?

What role does the style play in your work?

I must confess that I am a little at a loss with that term style. I guess what you call style is some sort of Zeitgeist filtered through my person or my personal reaction to my socio-cultural environment, right? So that would be a major role then.

What would you like to accomplish in your career?

I must say I don't think of it as a career. Designing is something I enjoy doing. If it ceases being fun I hope I'll have the guts to stop doing it right away. At the moment there are tons of projects waiting to get tackled but no big plans. Except maybe world domination and the ultimate pasta sauce.

How would you describe a good work environment?

Imagine a quiet study -or make this a living room cause that puts a couch into the picture- mostly filled with seriously loud music. No deadlines, a wickedly fast Mac and friends to come over, have coffee and discuss work with.

Have you ever had any interest in doing another form of design?

Sure, always. I don't think of myself as a pure-bred, mono-cultural typedesigner. Type design is just one of the many things we do here in the studio.

What is your opinion about the future of typographic/graphic design?

It'll be there.

How do you design?

Sketch, draw, think, play around and review. Start over again and on sunny days much better.

Are you concept-driven or does what you do depend on the project?

This is not necessarily a contradiction when your concept is something along the lines of "form follows function". No honestly, I am neither much of an intellectual nor particularly prone to following set believe systems. So I wouldn't have any idea how to answer that question without running the risk of boring you blind.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a type designer?

Move to Den Haag. If you can't do that buy LetterLetter by Gerrit Noordzij and read it many times. Then find like-minded people to discuss your work with and most importantly, spend absurd amounts of time drawing type.

is there a secret for good design?

No (make sure to tell me in case you find it anyway!).

How do you teach?

It's a bit of a juggling act to rush through the simple gymnastics of the basic education and get to a creative design process as fast as possible and on the other hand install in the students a solid foundation of knowledge and skills. The class I teach is only a two year post graduate course and there simply is not enough time to make type designers. However it's a start and when you are teaching grown people with an interest in the subject you can really get places. My understanding of type was shaped by my own education which in essence is the type theory of Gerrit Noordzij. I was a student of Frank Blokland, Peter Verheul, Matthias Noordzij and Petr van Blokland. These were great teachers. If you want to know more about the ideas behind all this I recommend you pick up that book I mentioned, LetterLetter. There are more books about the subject but they are written in Dutch.

What should the students definetly learn from you and what is your influence on your students?

You would really have to ask my students that. What I hope to have given to them by the time they graduate is the ability to continue their studies of type without my assistance and the enthusiasm to actually go do it.

When did you decide to teach?

Even in college fellow students would come over to work on their designs sitting in my living room. In return they would for instance help me out with my painting. The desire to teach came naturally and at the moment I am very glad that the SfG puts me in the position where I can do this.

What do you like most about teaching?

I really enjoy talking to people about type. I learn so much.

What do you like the least about teaching?

Playing the teacher.

Last sentence?

Like I read on the wall of some public bathroom: nothing good ever happens except if you do it.



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