Spring 2001

Sharp thinking takes the prize

LettError/Nypels prize 2000

The latest Charles Nypels Prize for typography was awarded last November to Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum – together, “LettError” – at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht. This was the sixth award of the prize, which is given in recognition of a significant body of work. The previous recipients have been Diter Rot (1986), Walter Nikkels (1989), Harry Sierman (1992), Pierre di Sciullo (1996), and Emigre (1998). Charles Nypels was a printer and publisher in Maastricht, and a notable contributor to the “fine printing” culture of the Netherlands in the first half of the twentieth century (he died in 1952). The prize given in his name followed the establishment in 1985 of the Nypels Foundation, by William PARS Graatsma, then director of the Jan van Eyck Akademie. So the prize is very much tied in with the local politics of that school, and with its situation in Limburg: that finger of Dutch territory that extends down into the Catholic and French-inflected heartland of old Europe, between Germany and what is now Belgium.

Just van Rossum (born 1966) and Erik van Blokland (1967) now have a solid ten years of work behind them. Soon after finishing at the Royal Academy at The Hague, they jumped into headlines of the typographic world, with their “randomised” font Beowolf. When it was presented at the “Type90” conference at Oxford, it was already causing some stir in the normally placid typographic waters, and was seen as provocation, a Dada joke, but with a serious core. Beowolf and other early typefaces from Van Rossum and Van Blokland – Trixie, JustLeftHand and ErikRightHand, Advert – were among the first typefaces to be published, on the FontFont label, by FontShop, the distribution company that Erik and Joan Spiekermann had established in Berlin in 1988. Through the 1990s, the progress of FontShop and LettError was to be intertwined: Van Rossum and Van Blokland did much behind-the-scenes work for the company, as well as for Erik Spiekermann himself and for MetaDesign. At the Nypels award ceremony this was acknowledged by Spiekermann in a touching and powerful encomium.

As their work developed it became clear that Van Blokland and Van Rossum – or better, Erik and Just (the least pretentious people I know) – are more than type designers. One can say that they are systems designers, and type has been just one of the systems that they have designed. The small book published to mark the prize gives the first overview of their oeuvre, and it lets us distinguish the one from another. Just is more interested in type design, and has done some quite straightforward and assured work in this field. It is clear that, if need be – and thank goodness it needn’t – he could make yet another humanist sans serif or the fortieth Garamond. Erik is less of a type designer, more of an illustrator. One suspects that his great gift for drawing would flourish if he had time for it: perhaps it is something for his retirement. Both are programmers, who came out of the culture of teenage-bedroom computer fascination, but went on to do something more serious with their skills. Their greatest quality is that they are sharp thinkers. It is this intelligence that sets their work apart from the many digital graphic designers who emerged through the 1990s with claims to be doing something new. It is clear now, if it was not already at the time, that much of what was published in the “New Typography” anthologies and surveys of the 1990s was very dull work, without a genuine idea in its head.

What are the ideas of LettError? Its attempt has been to take a step or two back and ask what the tools could do. While typography and design more generally has loved the definitive statement – the defined, described achievement – LettError has investigated how things might change, and how you might set up a system that accommodates and provides useful change. One can see this even in the progression from Beowolf, which had an excess of variation and to no great effect, to the Flipper fonts that followed. In these a limited set of alternative characters is deployed, just enough to give the impression of infinite variety; variations of position, just as important as character form, can be introduced. There is a pleasing economy to the way the pair thinks. This shows itself not just in the will to make drudgery routine – every computer geek proclaims this – but in such gems as the map of the characters of LettError fonts, sorted from narrowest and tallest to widest and shortest. With colour coding of fonts, one can see how the fonts cluster in their physical properties.

The Nypels award is a celebration, and an occasion for reflection. My sense is that Just and Erik have not yet found the material to match their intelligence. They have been good inventors, and often very funny deadpan critics. For example, their “Stamp Machine” is both a system for designing stamps (or any graphic item with those particular needs), and I take it also as a joke about the endless production of stamps in the designed-to-death culture of the Netherlands.

The potential for a system like this could be great, but the immediate application is slight. One can say the same about Erik’s Federal fonts: pleasant, but small beer. The real thing here is the scripting that makes possible this customised shading of imitation Americana, and one day it must find more worthwhile applications.

Designers only exist in the context of their culture and social circumstances, which they both help to make and are made by. If these remarks about a failure of application have any truth in them, then this must be partly a consequence of the larger culture, and especially the clients who might commission the work. Is this a request for Erik and Just to put on suits and ties and bury themselves in forms-design work for the Department of Social Security? Maybe they should go a little way in that direction, but without the neckwear. But it’s a perilous business, and the culture has shifted over the ten years of their activity. In this period the serious endeavour of MetaDesign has gone from a local involvement with public sector design, to a dispersed and hardly tangible servicing of global corporations. LettError is well out of that. But one hopes, very much, for their good client to materialise.