Andrea Tinnes makes type families — functional or ornamental — that quickly acquire a life of their own
There are roughly three kinds of type designers today. There are type specialists, who produce huge numbers of display fonts and/or superbly crafted, function-driven text type families; and graphic designers, for whom type design is a means of self-expression, who produce type that is original or playful, but often lacking depth and sophistication. In between there is a third, smaller group, combining the best of both: cutting-edge graphic designers who are also accomplished type designers. Andrea Tinnes belongs to that rare breed, creating coherent, functional, innovative type families, and using them within a design practice that includes identity design, decoration, personal work, and teaching, with typefaces that range from the bizarre Haircrimes to the relatively sensible Skopex.
The problem of problem-solving
Born in the Saarland region of Germany in 1969, Tinnes studied communication design at the University of Applied Science in Mainz. The city and its school have solid typographic credentials – from Gutenberg’s workshop in the fifteenth century to the present day, with the university’s design department being home to the impressive Decodeunicode project (see ‘The United Nations of type’ in Eye 64). Like many students of her generation, Tinnes had no clear picture of what graphic designers do when she embarked on her studies. ‘My decision was born out of the rather naive notion of the designer as an illustrator, especially of children’s books. Fortunately the curriculum in Mainz allowed me to explore many areas within graphic design and so I discovered typography.’
As part of her course in book design, she was initiated into the finer points of typography by an exacting taskmaster: Hans Peter Willberg (1930–2003), the author of such classic textbooks as Lesetypografie and Wegweiser Schrift. Although she values the technical education she received at the Mainz academy, Tinnes found the curriculum ultimately unsatisfying, and the pragmatic, problem-solving approach to design overly ‘uncritical’. Having encountered a similar attitude in the Frankfurt advertising world during her occasional stints as a freelance designer, she decided that pleasing corporate clients was no goal for someone as inquisitive and analytical as she was, and decided to take a break from the German scene. In 1996 she was granted a scholarship that allowed her to move to Los Angeles to study graphic design at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
It was at CalArts that Tinnes caught the type design bug. Her type design teacher was Jeffery Keedy, designer of the seminal postmodern font Keedy Sans and a prolific writer and theoretician, who introduced her to such diverse predecessors as the American typographer W. A. Dwiggins and the sixteenth-century proto-mannerist calligrapher Georg Bocskay. After graduating from CalArts in 1998, Tinnes went on to become Keedy’s assistant at his type design studio, Cipher.
Tinnes cites Keedy and CalArts as her strongest influences. ‘CalArts has had an enormous impact on my perception, and still very much informs my definition of design: to combine critical thinking with joyful form-making, to develop an individual voice and style, to reflect history while exploring new ideas in visual communication, to work independently and cherish spontaneity and effectiveness.
‘Many designers whose work I admire come from the CalArts Design community: Jeffery Keedy with his critical analysis and judgements; Ed Fella with his brilliant doodles and visual inventions, as well as his enthusiasm and obsession for any aspect of visual culture; Gail Swanlund with her playful form-making, and Anne Burdick [see ‘An online drift’ in Eye 64] with her critical writings – to name just a few.’
Although she left Los Angeles in 1999 to live and work in Berlin, Tinnes has maintained strong links with the southern Californian design scene. Her typefaces have found a wide use among CalArts-related graphic designers; for the ReVerb studio in Los Angeles she has created custom fonts for architectural environments such as Broadway Hollywood (2005) and Eastern Columbia (2005). Under the art direction of ReVerb’s Snow Kahn, she is working on a new house font for Santa Monica’s Viceroy Hotel, an extensive OpenType font developed in collaboration with Berlin colleagues Verena Gerlach (design) and Andreas Eigendorf (programming).
A handful of clients
Having founded her one-woman design studio in 2000, Tinnes has a hybrid practice, dividing her time between client-based and self-imposed projects. She also teaches part-time at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts (khib) in Norway. As a graphic designer, she works for only a handful of clients. ‘I try to keep everything small and manageable, and leave enough room for designing my own typefaces and for my teaching commitments. So the list of my clients is quite short. Luckily, this has put me in a position where I have been able to establish a close and friendly working relation with my clients.’
One such client is Merz, a Berlin platform for artists and designers, offering limited editions of design, art and fashion items as well as organising exhibitions and performances. The store’s concept, Tinnes explains, reflects the idea of the designer as author – ‘a combination of craft, self-expression and cultural ambition’. Its name refers to Kurt Schwitters, who used the word Merz (‘sampled’ from the name of a bank) to designate his assembly-based practice. Like Schwitters’ typographic fragment, Tinnes’ logo zooms in on language, striking a balance between abstract design and legibility. Although the letterforms are her own – based on her Switch typeface – she uses them as if they were samples, dissecting them with an analytical eye.
Tinnes sees her work for the production company Medea as epitomising her graphic design practice. Medea, founded by Irina Kurtishvili, a Georgian film artist based in Cologne, ‘to foster the cultural exchange between Georgia and Germany, between the East and the West’, has been running an annual German film festival in Tbilisi since 2002. Tinnes’ evolving visual identity has been one of its constant factors, though she has had to adapt her designs to deal with decreasing budgets. ‘Here I see my role as mediator between two cultures: with my design work I engage in a mutual cultural exchange. Each year I’m faced with the creative challenge of combining two entirely different language systems: the Latin and the Georgian alphabets.’
Practically all the graphic work Tinnes has created for cultural and commercial clients, from print to websites, is built with her own typefaces. The promise of total visual control, Tinnes admits, was what made her turn her attention to type design in the first place. ‘It was an attractive idea to be able to create all visual elements myself, from the micro level of type to the macro level of layout, illustration and photography. It’s a way of making graphic design into a means of self-expression.’
Tinnes has a knack for using type as image without losing sight of its functionality in communicating language. Text faces such as the recently released Skopex represent a more subtle level of self-expression. Its shapes are functional and, to a certain extent, conventional; only at large sizes does it reveal the strong personality of its details.
Maximal effects from minimal means
‘Although my initial interest in type design was driven by usage, over the years my interest has shifted to alphabetic forms and systems as such – type for type’s sake. What really attracts me is the challenge of working within the constraints of precisely defined shapes, balancing cultural conventions with individual expressions. It’s fascinating how minimal alterations like variations in weight and space, straights and curves, starts and finishes, ascenders and descenders can have a maximal effect.’
She has also discovered the pleasures of seeing her fonts used in unexpected ways by designers she respects. ‘In contrast to a static finished piece of work – for example, a poster – typefaces are highly dynamic. When used by others, they assume a life of their own, which I cannot predict. It is especially rewarding when others bring out aspects of a typeface of which I wasn’t aware when I created it. In that sense typefaces act as interfaces, connecting me with other graphic designers.’
For the past three years Tinnes has been making available her display fonts through her own type label and website Typecuts; however, she decided to publish Skopex through Primetype, the Berlin foundry of the prolific Ole Schäfer (who was Erik Spiekermann’s assistant at MetaDesign in the 1990s). ‘In type design there’s a trend towards high specification. As type technology and software are getting more complex, the production of a large type family has become almost too much to be handled by a single person,’ she says. ‘My practice as a designer and teacher is very demanding, so I decided to release the Skopex family with Primetype. This allows me to continue focusing on the design process itself, while experts are taking care of all the technical production, marketing as well as distribution issues.’
The organic and the geometric
Tinnes’ type covers a wide range of genres: from experimental and ornamental display and dingbat fonts to functional and extensive text faces. What they have in common is an extraordinary combination of playfulness and exact thinking. In a contribution to an as yet unpublished Taschen title, she mentions the Fibonacci sequence as a source of inspiration – or maybe a metaphor – for her way of thinking: ‘The Fibonacci sequence embraces some of the aspects [of design] that are essential to me: signs, codes and alphabets; symbols and metaphors; the abstract and the concrete; pattern and rhythm; harmony, form and proportion; detail and complexity; process and change; density and opulence; and the way in which organic forms relate to geometric structures.’
Skopex, her most ambitious type project to date, illustrates that synthesis. It doesn’t have the blunt geometry of some contemporary type families that try too hard to be cool; yet it is essentially artificial, or rather, as the Slovak designer Peter Biľak would say, ‘synthetic’. Skopex Serif is an interesting hybrid: it has some characteristics of the semi-constructed Candida by Jakob Erbar; yet its asymmetric serifs are a stylised reference to hand-written letters. With Skopex Gothic, Tinnes has achieved an overall text image that is quite original: it does not emanate the late-Modernist chill of a latter-day Helvetica or Akzidenz Grotesk, nor does it try to be ‘warm’ by conforming to the humanist model.
Among Tinnes’ display typefaces, Haircrimes (2000-01) stands out; it is probably her most extreme combination of exuberance and rationalism, or, as she puts it, ‘my German perfectionism versus the playfulness I picked up in the United States.’
Inspired by Bocskay, Haircrimes is a modular set of fonts that explore the ornamental potential of the alphabet. The name refers to Adolf Loos’ famous essay about ornamentation as a criminal activity, but in Haircrimes, however, the ornamentality is very disciplined. ‘I didn’t want Haircrimes to be a purely nostalgic interpretation of historical typefaces,’ says Tinnes, ‘so I introduced the principle of systematic repetition of modular elements to achieve a contemporary look.’
Decoration and ornamentation have become ubiquitous in European graphic design during the past five years; at CalArts and other cutting-edge schools in North America, these design strategies were already widely discussed in the 1990s (see ‘The decriminalisation of ornament’, Eye 58). Tinnes likes to refer to the concept of the ‘DecoRational’, as coined by Denise Gonzalez Crisp to mean ‘[engaging] the discourse of ornament with that of rational design’. Tinnes says: ‘In many of my experimental type designs I have been interested in the relation of geometric structure and organic form as well as pattern and rhythm. All my “DecoRational” typefaces are based on very rigid grids and use modular systems.’
Besides referring to ‘organic form’, Tinnes – who studied biology at high school – refers to the evolution of life in other ways as well. Her thesis project, Family Affair: A Family Album of Font Marriages, applied the basic principles of genetics – the breeding and crossing of dominant and recessive character traits – to type design. Both WeddingSans (2002), a sans serif text face, and Switch (2002), a unicase uppercase display face, are continuations of this project, exploring the idea of a family consisting of different ‘character traits’.
Games and lifeforms
Similarly, the Volvox project (1999-2001) was inspired by primitive lifeforms: sea urchins, jellyfishes, corals, sponges and the like. Reduced to abstract vector shapes, Volvox grew to become a complex, strictly organised system of concentric illustrations that can be superimposed to create wondrous, multi-coloured ornamental composites. One of Tinnes’ many collaborative projects, Volvox was brought to life by her Flash programmer neighbour Martin Perlbach.
Finally, there is a section on her website that Tinnes calls ‘Playground’. This includes fonts, patterns and illustrations that have come into being as personal speculations and experiments. Yet playful or not, each of these projects has led to a well-made tool that can be used in the real world. Tinnes used the Repeat Patterns to create the gorgeous wallpaper on the inside cover of Eye 58. Type Jockey (2005-06), her contribution to Rick Valicenti’s Playground Project, is a game to make letterforms by combining bitmap patterns on a grid; it, too, became part of a real graphic project when Tobias Kohlhaas of Weiss-Heiten Berlin selected it as the main typeface for an exhibition called ‘Megastructure Reloaded’, to take place later this year in Berlin.
One of the beautiful things about Andrea Tinnes’ work is that, even at times when it is meant to be pure self-expression, free from practical duties, it never stops functioning. It refuses to stop being design.
First published in Eye no. 64 vol. 16 2007
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