Winter 2008

Talkin’ ’bout font generations

ATypI 08: The Old · The New

Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, St Petersburg<br>17-21 September 2008

Do you guys always talk this much about yourself in presentations?’ asked Vladimir, a Russian, after listening to several speakers from the West. With the Russians in one room often citing other people’s work when talking about the Cyrillic alphabet, and English speakers in another room often showing their own work when talking about the Latin alphabet, Vladimir’s question pinpointed the difference between the presentations given by Russians and by visitors at the ATypI type conference in St Petersburg. The conference appeared divided between two alphabets and two languages (though the organisers had arranged for professional translation of all the Russian talks and of a couple of the English ones).

With the theme ‘The Old · The New’, several speakers focused on type revivals. Jerry Kelly presented a scholarly overview of the practice applied in the first half of the twentieth century; Frank E. Blokland demonstrated, through the use of classical music, how the culture and the designer’s personal style always will end up influencing the look of a type revival; and John Downer argued that no typeface should ever be revived until 100 years after its creation.

Gerard Unger showed inscriptions of Romanesque capitals from churches around Europe. As always, he delivered an inspirational presentation, showing how these early type designers had no problem mixing letters of different shapes in one word, to add personality and playfulness to the overall picture.

Robert Bringhurst and Erik Spiekermann having both pulled out, Akira Kobayashi filled in with a lovely talk on his collaborations with Herman Zapf and Adrian Frutiger, and his discovery, after working with them, that they are in fact not gods, but ‘human beings like you, who love letters.’

On the practical side, Tim Ahrens delivered two very useful presentations, one on different design approaches to optical scaling, the other – given at TypeTech, the two-day font technology event leading up to the main conference – a demonstration of a series of macros for FontLab Studio called Font Remix Tools.

The Tuner macro seemed especially interesting: it appears to radically ease the design process when working on harmonising the weight and width between glyphs. Another macro he is developing, which will open or close apertures without distorting the character’s shape, brought spontaneous applause.

Last year’s ATypI in Brighton had loads of tracks to choose from. Although there were many interesting presentations in St Petersburg, I did miss having more options. In spite of the risk of wanting to be two places or more at once, I am hoping the options will be back when ATypI goes to Mexico City next year.

Sofie Beier, designer, researcher, educator, Copenhagen, Denmark

First published in Eye no. 70 vol. 18, 2008

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.