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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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A Font of Wisdom

For many people, typeface is not much more than ink on paper, pixels on a screen. Communication is in the words that are selected, not in the form of the words themselves.

Sure, most would think twice about submitting their CV in graffiti script, but the subtleties of font can prove more difficult. Perhaps you have contacted an employer in the typeface equivalent of jandals, submitted a seminar paper that reads like an Hawaiian shirt or accepted the default font option as naturally as you would wear slippers out of the house. These are not major social blunders considering that the general ambivalence of typeface selectors is matched by that of their readers

Not so for typeface devotees. There are those who have never seen a poem as lovely as Helvetica, and who believe that typeface is to text what accent is to speech. To find out more about typeface from those involved in its design, Salient spoke with Jack Yan of JY&A Fonts and Elaina Hamilton and Duncan Forbes of The International Office.

Jack Yan

Jack Yan is a man of many trades. He established his own typography business in the mid 1980s when he was 15, designing a Christmas menu while all of the other design firms were closed for the festive season. Yan’s typeface endeavours helped him pay his way through a double degree in Commerce and Law at Victoria University.

His business, Jack Yan & Associates now includes consultancy and media initiatives as well as typeface design. Last year, an already busy Yan lost further allocated sleeping time (he often works from 9am until 2.30am) with his campaign to become Mayor of Wellington.

The Lucky Book Club at St Mark’s Primary in Wellington offered Yan an early exposure to typography, publishing a lettering book for schools which Yan describes as “the book to get in 1979”.  Not wanting to burden his parents with the princely sum of $4.95, Yan could only watch enviously as his classmates copied and traced the letters from the book. Without the book for guidance, Yan began to imagine his own typeface styles.

“I remember it being this great book I would have loved to have had it, but I think actually not having had it was better.”

Yan believes that typography is comparable to fashion in the way that trends change. For this reason Yan does not have a ‘favourite’ typeface but believes that typefaces will be effective for certain purposes in certain periods of time. He uses the example of someone who has a favourite wide-lapelled shirt, “if you love that, then I’m sorry but you’re going to be stuck in 1973 for the rest of your life. It has to evolve”.

Although Yan is hesitant about choosing a font that he admires most, he has little difficulty selecting his least favourite typeface.

“Arial is by far my least favourite typeface family and I don’t think anyone should ever use it. If they do, I think the font police should come by and arrest you.”

Yan explains the story behind the depth of his dislike for Arial. The type-face company, Monotype, effectively put their own design in Helvetica’s silhouette and named it Arial. Yan says that this method of stretching designs is flawed because the hybrids are a strange mix of different design heritages. The Grotesque typeface was of English design heritage while Helvetica comes from a background of Swiss modernism.

“You can’t say, ‘Oh, I like the look of a Mini but actually what I want is something the size of a Commodore’. You can’t go, ‘Right, let’s just take the Mini design and scale it up to Commodore size’, because that would just look absolutely stupid.”

The strong stance that Yan takes on typeface issues seems to indicate his genuine concern for the design form.

When asked how he became interested in type, Yan replies, “It must be something inside you. There wasn’t one incident that brought me to love type, I’ve always loved it. I think these things you are born with.”

The International Office

Elaina Hamilton and Duncan Forbes established the International Office in 2007 after perceiving a lack of good, bold typography in Wellington graphic design. Duncan explains, “We used to walk down Cuba Street, and all the posters on the bollards were a mess—we thought, “We need to clean this up”.”

Elaina and Duncan, design graduates from Canterbury and Auckland Universities respectively, set about pioneering a more typographically pleasing city. Their initial strategy was to redesign material and then send it back to the offending institutions (including yours truly, Salient). Understandably, there was a mixed reaction, with some viewing it as unsolicited criticism, but the initiative also had the effect of recruiting The International Office its first clients.

The International Office is now an established design firm with a variety of small- and medium-sized local clients including the Adam Art Gallery, the Goethe-Institut, The New Zealand Film Archive and fashion designer Lela Jacobs.

When asked if there is a story behind the company’s name, Duncan points to the irony of describing their studio (which employs three designers in total) as an International Office. Elaina also notes how the name is relevant to the style that the company works in, which is the Swiss Modernist style—also known as The International Style.

The International Office produces typographic work that is inspired by modernism, but Duncan does not think it can be characterised as purely modernist.

“Modernists were trying to not have any meaning in the design piece itself, and we do put more meaning into the design—it has more warmth.”

Central to the company’s work is the idea that a small range of high quality typefaces should be favoured over the use of superfluous and poorly designed work. Duncan and Elaina believe this does not impose any restrictions on what can be communicated.

“There’s a lot of expression within just one typeface,” says Elaina. “Just within Helvetica—there are so many layouts to express different things.”
Duncan believes using too many typefaces is a trap that many New Zealand design students fall into.

“They’re [design students] going through university using a billion typefaces and they just need to get good at working with just a couple—because then they’re focussing more on the concept.”

Ruben Doornweerd, a Dutch intern working at The International Office who recently graduated from ArtEZ Art & Design in Arnhem, points out that a designer’s role is broader and in some ways separate to the typeface they use. The final quality of a typeface design will be determined by the skill of the designer, not the selection of typeface.

“A typeface does not make a design good, I think. It is the job of the designer to make it look good, to communicate it well, and it doesn’t matter what the typeface is.”

What Type are You?

With a recent rise in the number of initiatives that put font in the limelight, it appears that typeface design has accrued an increasing crowd of followers. A local example is the Fringe play earlier this year aptly named Typeface, about an office worker who categorises her colleagues into fonts according to their personalities. Then there’s Simon Garfield’s book Not My Type, which explores the evolution of typography through a series of stories that are more fireside in tone rather than that of a lecturing historian. For those with a few moments to spare on the Internet who would like to find their typeface twin, there is Pentagram’s ‘What type are you?’ webpage.

However, you don’t need to read a book, attend a play or complete a quiz to become involved in typography. Typography is everywhere—it is on the street signs you walk past, on the menu you browse and the bus timetable you scan. You cannot hide from typography. A familiar typeface is waiting to greet you in every country.

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