Interview by Chang Kim (2011, FontClub Korea)

Chang Kim Could you tell us a little about yourself and your design / teaching background?

Many years ago in Greece, it was not possible for me to study typographic design. I took a degree in Business Administration and a Diploma in Print Journalism, while working on any typographic project I could get my hands on. I did a lot of publications design, print production, and editorial work, while accumulating the frustrations of a small, conservative market. After some years of this I had the option to study for a postgraduate degree in Reading, and found here an approach that recognised the depth and complexities of of typographic design. I started working at a time of change in design education, and was fortunate to be part of the team that gave the Department its current strengths and focus, particularly in typeface design. I now run the MA Typeface Design, teach on the BA Graphic Communication, and help supervise research students. My professional work, now carried out entirely as University consultancy, focuses on Greek typeface design and typography, but I try to bring the world of industry into teaching as much as possible.

CK Who has been the most influential mentor of you and why? And also whose work do you admire the most recently and why?

Mentorship probably works best with mimetic apprentices, or at least along established paths of progress, which might explain why I never had one. But I am privileged to count amongst my friends Klimis Mastoridis, a typographer and historian whose ethos, untiring efforts, and vision are a constant inspiration. The most illuminating challenges have come from the texts of Richard Southall, whose examination of typeface design through models and patterns (roughly, design intentions and their encoding in technology) I consider fundamental to discussions on design and technology beyond typography. Michael Twyman’s more theoretical texts and his wide view of visual communication stand out, as does his grand narrative of the “long” nineteenth century. Robin Kinross has, from a different perspective, impact on my thinking about typography.
It is easy to single out specific projects to admire when the passage of time offers the benefit of hindsight (for example, Letterror’s Beowolf, Matthew Carter’s webfonts and the Walker typeface). It is more difficult to identify admirable work as it happens. I generally expect to be surprised in very good ways by Cyrus Highsmith and Eric Olson, and I am very keen on Tom Grace and Patrick Giasson (both under-appreciated designers of the first order, in my view). There is also a lot to be said about House Industries’ re-definition of display typography, the scripts of Ale Paul, and the singular vision of Gabriel Martinez Meave. Lastly, I have a lot of time for anything Richard Kegler sets his mind to, be it a typographic non-profit or a film on Jim Rimmer.
CK I know it may not be easy to say, however how do you define “British style of design”? And what makes British design different from German and Swiss style?

I don’t think it is very useful to talk about national styles. The style of a few persons or an institution may become emblematic through contemporary critique, although more substantially through highlighting in design histories. In other words, we tend to elevate the strands of design that stand out or survive into the mainstream, but often neglect the less prominent or durable styles, even if they might have been dominant for a time. Especially within the sphere of European design there is a tendency to see neat, overwhelming trends rather than parallel, sometimes conflicting regional developments, which is a more difficult story to weave. The style of Brody, Oliver, and Barnbrook is not British, it’s just the style of Brody, Oliver, and Barnbrook. A more interesting question would be to ask what was it in the British design market at each time that allowed designers who were exploring new forms to break into the mainstream and establish a trend? Conversely, you should ask why the German market, arguably the strongest internally in Europe, is so conservative and under-represented internationally? (Was the style of Wilberg and the Hermann Schmidt Verlag so “good enough” that there is little room for innovation?) As for the Swiss style, it only makes sense as a politically neutral solution, historically equidistant from alternatives, and stylistically objectivist. Of course, this assumption is somewhat naive and a-historical, not to say a formal dead-end. But it is representative of its time, which is what ultimately makes a rather dry style interesting.
CK What makes University of Reading has become one of the the most influential typography (especially typeface design) program last few decades?

The Department of Typography benefits from operating in every respect within a research-intensive university. Our BA and taught postgraduate courses run alongside a suite of PhDs, staff-driven research, funded research projects, Research Centres, and an substantial exhibitions and publications programme. Our engagement with industry through enterprise and consultancy underlines the currency of our work, and strengthens our network. Our dedicated Collections and Archives support many of these activities, providing a world-class resource for designers and researchers. Indeed, it is our integration of research methodology into design that gives our graduates a wider set of skills that make a difference in the workplace. I should also point that we have relatively small class sizes. And, although staff time is always in demand, contact hours are very high.

CK What was one of the most challenging typography problems you have ever had to solve?

Recently I have been helping design a large Greek-English Lexicon for CUP. The entries need to balance typographically around nine strings of characters across two scripts, with typical genre problems such as bold headwords followed by italic abbreviations. All this has to happen at very small sizes, with a full run of Greek diacritics eating into the linespacing. And, this being a 1,400 page volume, the typographic specification needs to work across every spread, without the luxury of local adjustments. This challenge, to devise a system that works for given classes of content, but effectively unknown strings of text, is one of the key joys in typography (and, indeed, one of the main differences between typographic and graphic design).

CK Let’s talk a little about your teaching methodology and philosophy. In addition, how do you keep motivating yourself for being better teacher and what’s your favorite part of teaching at the school?

Although there is a layer of projects with clear outcomes and skills we expect students to develop, I teach by guided enquiry: asking questions that help students understand the wider context, appreciate the perspective of the users, and arrive at good solutions in awareness of the qualitative judgements they make. You would also want students to learn actively from this round of questioning to improve the process the next time round. For designers specifically, it is important to cultivate a T-shaped model of learning: deep skills in an area of specialisation, but an competent understanding of a wide set of related fields. All of this works if you can assume that students are driven by a persistent intellectual curiosity. (Indeed, design is a profession where you can never reach a plateau of knowledge and experience: perpetual curiosity and drive for improvement are fundamental qualities.)
Motivation is easy: it comes from the joy of interacting with a new group of people each year, each of whom is bringing a different set of experiences and ideas. It is hugely rewarding to work daily with people who are driven to learn, and seek to rise to the challenges you place before them. My absolute favourite part is when a student figures out the bigger picture in design, and a spark lights up in their eyes. I remember a very keen MA student a few years back telling me halfway through the year “So this course is not really about typeface design, it is about learning to see!”

CK How do you envision of the future of the typographic education approach?

For the second time in my career, typography education is at a crossroads. Wit some exceptions, as a community of educators we did a so-so job of integrating the lessons of traditional typography into the challenges of web design. The result was that many web designers had to discover themselves principles and processes that are the bread and butter of print typographers. We are now at a another cusp point: the confluence of portable devices capable of rich displays, the standardisation of content generation being separate from appearance specifications, and – last but not least – webfonts, offer tremendous opportunities for typographers. Some authors call meeting this challenge “responsive design”, but this is just a handy market differentiator: it really is just Good Design. Before long we will be assuming that rich content will be accessible from any medium (much more widely than just a smartphone, a tablet, and a TV set) but somebody needs to educate publications designers who can not only respond to the specifics of publishing a post-newspaper (whatever form that aggregated publication will take), but also lead the next round of innovation. A focus of constant, self-directed learning, solid methodological and research skills, and explicit qualitative evaluation processes should be central to any forward-looking course.

CK Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring young graphic designer/students who are serious about typography?

First: there are many good writers and commentators on typography: seek them out, and read them. Second: seek to see, as much as possible in originals, exemplars of good design, and get a feel for all aspects of the design, from the micro-typography to the material and the construction of the object. Third: practice, and do not respect your own design much: it is better to improve through many projects, rather than trying to reach some ideal for just one. And, fourth: be perpetually curious about the context of design: it is a social activity, responding to, and feeding back into society in a number of ways. Be conscious of both the limits and the potential of design to influence peoples‘ lives.

CK Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, and I wish you the best of luck with all of your ventures. Do you have any final words for the readers here at FONTCLUB? 

In recent years typeface design is experiencing very strong growth, both in the range and richness of designs published, and the countries of origin of internationally active designers. There is more competition, but there is also more room for new entrants with strong potential to distinguish themselves. Unlike other areas of design, typeface design rewards experience and depth of skills. For those interested in including typeface design in their career, this is a pretty good time to get involved.