Autumn 2002

The ABCs of J-FP

Petra Cerne Oven
Jean-François Porchez
Profile: Jean-François Porchez

A passion for classic typefaces drives Porchez’s innovative fonts

Next time you’re in Paris, consider adding a short typographic ‘Porchez Sightseeing Tour’ to your itinerary. You can see the work of Jean-François Porchez everywhere: when you are travelling to Paris by Air France (letterforms), on the Metro (typeface for information design for Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the Paris transport system) or when you are driving a Peugeot (he designed the corporate typeface). Whether you are making a telephone call (France Télécom) or sending postcards (La Poste) you cannot avoid Porchez. Buy Le Monde or Charente Libre newspapers, or go somewhere with the Costa travel company and you’ll see his work.

Porchez (b. 1964) says his fascination with letters started very simply: he studied graphic design, discovered letterforms and calligraphy and then he designed his first typeface, Angie, in 1990. He became type director and type designer at the agency Dragon Rouge and in 1994 established Porchez Typofonderie so that he could focus entirely on type design.

Porchez is clearly obsessed by typography. I recall him and some other speakers at a typography conference in Thessaloniki stopping in their tracks when they spotted letters in the shop window of a local jobbing printer. The group started to chat to the astonished printer, handled some lead types, printed a keepsake and off they went. Porchez says: ‘When you design typefaces every day, you see letters everywhere and you look for them all the time: in a car, on the street, on an advertisement…’

Porchez is aware that people understand forms and letters according to their cultural background: ‘German fonts are angular, constructed and heavy. Completely rigid, as we would say in France. Spanish fonts are like toreadors. Strong, powerful, upright, proud. Italian fonts – they try to give too much at once. Very rich, playing – too much of everything …Evaluating English fonts is more difficult. They combine classicism and tradition, which is very important in England. But there is another element present, a sort of creativity maybe.’

His view of the character of Dutch typefaces is that they are only copies of French: ‘It’s a fact. What did Dutch printers do? They took Garamond and made a bigger x-height, bigger counters and heavier glyphs. But they took out all the art. They kept only the necessary parts without feeling – without emotions. They kept the rationality of French typography.’

That doesn’t mean that Porchez doesn’t value Dutch type designers. ‘I had long discussions with Gerard Unger about culture, about type, about everything. The exchange of opinions about common problems is very important for me. It helps me look at typefaces in different ways. I want to be influenced by others. I don’t want to be somebody else, but I need interaction’. It is probably not surprising that his typeface Le Monde had a similar concept to Unger’s Swift – it looks big but is actually a ‘space-saver’.

Although a contemporary of the Fuse projects, Neville Brody and Emigre, Porchez cannot be pigeonholed into the same group. This is perhaps connected to his education in typography and calligraphy as opposed to pure graphic design. He is critical of the older generation who taught him: ‘For them, composition was more important then meaning and they played with texts as though they were grey columns in a layout. Many teachers are still using the same methods to teach typographic layout that they used in the 1970s!’

The most prominent project in Porchez’s portfolio is a typeface designed for the leading French newspaper Le Monde in 1994. The project was prompted by an editorial note announcing that it was undergoing a redesign. Porchez wrote to the editor proposing a new typeface. His original idea ‘was to design a typeface with three starting points: a typeface that was culturally more appropriate for Le Monde readers; better legibility in small sizes, with an adjustment for technical demands; and better readability with the most economical use of space.’ This last element was very important for the paper.

Le Monde invited Porchez to show them his proposal. His approach was smart: ‘I tried to open the door of typography to them and help them understand what needed to be done. I didn’t want to go in saying, “ok, I will bring you a new typeface, this one is better than the one you have and you have to believe me.” No. At the first presentation I didn’t show them my typeface at all.’ Porchez’s approach was to give Le Monde’s staff a short course on typography. Porchez’s passionate, didactic approach and his respect for his clients helped to win them over. He finally presented his typeface, comparing it to other typefaces and composed texts with different sizes, and with white reversed out of black. He was well aware of the nature of his audience. ‘Typographers always look at the form of the letters and journalists always try to read texts,’ Porchez says. In the end, they announced that they were interested.

At the time, the newspaper was losing money and its last hopes were pinned on the redesign. Reader figures usually fall by ten per cent after a redesign, but Le Monde’s actually rose by twenty per cent. ‘Of course that’s not because of the typeface. It was because of the layout. The typeface is only one of the elements, not the main one,’ says Porchez.

Le Monde, as the typeface was named, was a particularly appealing project for Porchez as it had a very precise concept (which Porchez defined himself). Porchez is not one to moan about too many constraints: ‘The more rigid the restrictions are, the more focused the whole project is – the features are stronger if the concept is more precise.’

Unlike graphic designers who started to experiment predominantly with display faces when type design became a ‘cut and paste’ paradise, Porchez stuck stubbornly to projects involving legibility and economy of space. His ambitions towards display faces are perhaps concealed in the bold and black versions of the numerous families he designs for almost every typeface and the creativity in the extra features which he adds to their character maps. But his main challenges lie in ergonomics, economics, readability and technical constraints.

Porchez is well aware of the changes caused by the advance of digital typography of the last decade. ‘In the past, typography was a special profession and only a few people were able to draw letters. Now everyone can play with letters’

Be it a custom font for a newspaper (Charente) or for a transport company (Parisine) Porchez applies the same crafty execution. In his many ligatures, small caps, swash versions, non-lining numerals, alternate versions (and sometimes a few different versions of same glyph) he is clearly pushing back the boundaries. In this sense, his letters can be classified as original creations. To examine his glyphs closely is to sense the pure joy and passion for ‘black and white’ that prompts Porchez to create those ‘unnecessary’ characters so prolifically.

Yet for Porchez, type design is not an art: ‘When I’m creating a font, I am not an artist at all. Because I don’t change the shape of the letter and I am not creating something “new”. I reinterpret – as Fournier, Garamond, Baskerville and others did.’ But the line between craft and art is narrow. ‘You can reinterpret things in different ways and it is impossible to say what is purely technical. Here you can see the difference between a good designer and someone with no experience or ideas.’ Some look for precise rules for type design. ‘These people don’t know how to design fonts and would like to have useful information like: “if you follow this rule, you’ll get such and such results.” But it’s not like that,’ says Porchez. ‘There are no mathematical rules about kerning, for example. Some typefaces need more kerning pairs and others fewer. In that respect type design is art. The way to do it is craft, but the result is art.’

To live by designing typefaces requires entrepreneurial drive. International awards are a great help. Angie, designed in 1990, won an award at the Morisawa typeface competition that year (and was renamed ff Angie in 1995 when published by Fontshop). Apolline received the same award in 1993 and was published by Creative Alliance in 1995. Costa and Charente were custom fonts for Costa, the Italian travel company and Charente Libre newspaper, respectively. The former font received a Certificate of Excellence in Type Design at the tdc2 2000 in New York. In 1998 Porchez was awarded with a Prix Charles Peignot for his contribution to type design and was a winner at the 2001 international typeface design competition Bukva:raz! with Ambroise, Ambroise Firmin, Ambroise François, Anisette, Anisette Petite, Le Monde Journal, Charente, and Le Monde Courrier. As well as teaching type design at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris, he has written many articles on typography for Étapes Graphiques and contributes regularly to his website (

Though Porchez belongs to a new generation of designers, he understands the technical conditions that determined the setting and design of typefaces in the past. He is able to look at the old typefaces from the perspective of up-to-date technologies with ease, and he knows how to reinterpret them. That is probably one of the secrets behind his ‘revivals’.

For Porchez the definition of a revival is tricky. Talking about his Ambroise family (a contemporary interpretation of various typefaces belonging to Didot’s late style) he explains: ‘The topic of revival is subjective. Does it have to be reproduced carefully according to the technique and medium for which it was produced, or should it have something more? It is very personal. Ambroise tries to reproduce what we can see printed on paper in the nineteenth century – it is a true representation of Didot punches. The un-bracketed serifs are not true square forms but use tiny curves instead. On the page, the result appears softer and less straight, particularly in big sizes.’

Porchez’s continental character is traceable in his notion of French typographic history, which he transparently weaves into his designs. But as his current project for Linotype Library shows, the character of his typefaces is probably more international than French. For Sabon Next, a project ‘to revive a revival’, he analysed Tschichold’s original drawings, previous versions of fonts made for different composing systems (Stempel, Linotype and Monotype) as well as the later digital versions. Porchez proved that Tschichold’s original idea suffered from the production methods of its time. For this project, Porchez had to act more like a scholar than an artist. No library was too distant if it held important information for his practical work. ‘Old-fashioned’ research is important to him, but he also employs all the latest font technologies.

Porchez might appear to be a classical type designer with conservative tendencies, but he cannot be entirely pinned to that group either. Printed specimens of his type foundry are becoming collectors’ items not only for the actual typefaces, but also because of their presentation. And it is important for him that he does not design type every day: ‘I cannot only draw letters – I need to read books, and to try to understand other people’s views and opinions to extend my own knowledge.’

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