For the last week, students in Karen Chengs class have been studying type fonts with French typeface master Jean François Porchez — and even creating their own fonts.
The students were asked to bring in photographs of font designs they had seen around Seattle, and then proceeded to design complete alphabets from those beginnings. They started the old fashioned way, drawing their characters on paper, and ended the week transferring them to computer programs for final spacing and design touches.
They had a true international expert to consult in Porchez, who was at the UW for a weeklong residency. He is best known for designing typefaces for the French newspaper Le Monde and logos and type for the Paris Métro, Louis Vuitton, Peugeot, Renault and even singer Beyoncé Knowles’ House of Deréon. He is also an honorary president of the Association Typographique Internationale, the worlds leading organization for type design.
Porchez and Cheng answered a few basic questions about this week of design work with students, and the nuances of working with type.
Q: Youve asked the students to bring in photos of signs that represent a design idea and to create their own complete font from that. What are the fundamental difficulties in this process?
JFP: When you ask a student to design a new font, they dont know what to do — they are lost. Design is art with a purpose — you need an objective. By using letters that exist, it expands the brief — you have a story to communicate. The photograph is a starting point. It makes the process easy, since the difficulty is not having a brief.
KC: One of the main challenges is to analyze those letters and to determine what formal aspects give those letters their character/personality. Those formal aspects include proportion, contrast (the ratio of thick to thin strokes), serif style, weight (boldness or lightness) and structure.
The students then have to find a way to systematically measure and apply those formal aspects on all the letters (including those that are not shown).
In observing the students, I think one key difficulty is the level of precision that is required. When drawing a letterform, it’s easy to make errors that are only 1 or 2 millimeters off, but even that level of imprecision greatly disturbs the balance and clarity of the final shape.
Another key difficulty is the patience and long-term view required in the design process. One needs to first design basic letterforms and then use those shapes to make other letters.
For example, one first designs the E and then creates the F and the L from the E (with some adjustments). Similarly, one first designs the O then makes the C and G from that basic form. Therefore, it takes quite some time (and again precision) before an entire alphabet can be created.
Q: When designing a new font, which is more important – clarity or creativity? That is, I imagine if a font gets too fancy it stops being a good tool for communicating.
JFP: We need both! It’s the balance between the two. If you are making a typeface for a corporation, you need to have a certain style. If you use Helvetica or DIN (acronym for the German Deutsches Institut fur Normung, or the German Institute for Standardization), no one sees the difference!
But if the typeface is too fancy, the style can be too much. For certain audiences (such as young adults, or fashion), one can put more emphasis on style.
But for the Metro, or for tax forms — don’t be fancy! So, there is no conflict — the two fit well together. It depends on the subject.
KC: I think most new typefaces/fonts have a wide variety of objectives. That is, some fonts are designed to solve specific technical problems — for example, there are fonts that are designed to be more legible on mobile phones, or on computer screens. There are fonts that are intended to be easier to read (by older populations, children or people who have specific perception issues, such as dyslexia). And there are fonts that hold up well under difficult printing conditions (such as facsimile, newspaper or phone book printing).
Other fonts are designed to communicate a specific feeling or personality — often for use by a magazine, or corporation/organization. For example, Jean François recently designed the typeface Retiro for “Madriz” magazine.
Q: Serif or sans serif – is one easier to work with? Is one easier on eyes for reading?
JFP: Sans serif is good for titling, signage. We are in the habit of reading serif fonts (in books) for more than 500 years. Legibility depends on many things.
KC: In terms of reading, it’s difficult to have a blanket rule about legibility. On signage, there is some consensus that sans-serif letters facilitate reading. (There is an interesting typeface designed for the US government called Clearview that has improved highway signage legibility.)
In long texts (i.e., books), there is a tradition of using serif fonts. However, studies have not shown definitively that serifs are indeed superior to sans serifs. Legibility in use depends on several factors — the medium (on-screen, on paper, on signs) and the details of medium and environment — the type of paper, the color of the type and the background, the lighting conditions (day or night), etc. Additionally, how type is set (the letter and line spacing) have a great impact on legibility. And the details of the type itself (the x-height, the contrast, the structure of the letters) effects legibility in different ways.
Q: More simply, what makes a great font, a great typeface?
JFP: Its more about having the right font for the right project. Nobody likes Comic Sans on signage, but it might work for primary schools!
KC: This is a difficult question — it’s a bit like saying what makes a great piece of music, or a great piece of art, or a great work of literature. Some designers (like Erik Spiekerman) are famous for saying that there are no bad typefaces, just badly used typefaces.
A typeface could be considered great because it is beautiful and distinctive (such as Bodoni or Didiot), or it could be considered great because it is neutral and therefore “invisible” (people often say this about Helvetica). There’s an interesting new magazine called “8 faces” — the magazine interviews several prominent type designers and asks each one to name their eight favorite typefaces.