In June 2013 Ampersand conference hosted an exhibition of work by students of typeface design courses, there were submissions from over 30 countries: a reminder that typeface design is an international endeavour, growing in recognition as a career with path for study and recognised professional norms. As with other professions, this maturity brings increasing competition for new designers.
Eighteen months ago Monotype initiated a Mentorship Program for designers under 30. Yesterday, Type-Together announced their Typeface Publishing Incentive Program, for graduating students. This initiative, open to all designers currently studying typeface design, recognises the pressures on designers who may have promising projects alongside financial loans, and the very real stress of “what happens after graduation?”
Like in any established profession, the careers paths of typeface design graduates are not uniform, and the demand by the market and potential employers may not match exactly with the skills and experience of graduates — this is normal, and it is one of the correctives that allows outliers to enter the profession, as well as feedback to education institutions so that they evolve. But anyone with a good understanding of the sector will regret the small number of exceptional projects developed during study that never, or very late, make it onto a foundry’s catalogue.
Type-Together and Monotype are putting their money where their mouth is, and are offering support to a promising designer for those crucial first months after graduation. This support can make the difference between a typeface with potential being developed properly, and it being lost between the Scylla of “I’ll do it when I have more time” and the Charybdis of some “free” service, for peanuts.
People will object and say that this is too little for a growing profession. I’ll counter that this may well be the beginning of a trend in companies supporting new professionals, parallel to many schemes in other sectors. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that most major foundries might soon have a similar scheme: this would allow them to get in early on potentially great typefaces, and check out a new professional (who may well end up being hired, or contracted). More widely, it allows foundries to send a clear message that they recognise and support excellence in typeface design, and — through their selections — what is innovative and worth exploring.
Fifteen years after the centenary Monotype Recorder (published in time for the ATYpI 1997 conference in Reading) the title was revived, this time to celebrate the four-decade long career of Robin Nicholas. There were copies available at the shop of the Pencil to Pixel exhibition, but they have not yet circulated worldwide. This text was my contribution.
Forty years is a long time, by any measure. In typography and typeface design, the last forty years are aeons, encompassing tectonic shifts in the industry. From stable, verdant summers to tumultuous storms and heavy winters, to hesitant then blooming springs, the type industry has seen more change and upheaval in the last few decades than in its previous centuries combined. We know of large companies that ceased to exist, others that transformed into very different entities, and of new ones – small and sometimes getting larger – that are growing into a new environment. And yet, the core principles of typeface design somehow persist, mutate, adapt, and survive the changes.
The company that Robin Nicholas joined is probably the most interesting, and certainly the most persistent survivor. At the time of his joining Monotype as a young draftsman, the industrial behemoth smelting heavy but precise machinery for dispatch to a global market must have seemed like a mountain of granite, immovable through the scale of its commerce and the confidence of its technology. Indeed, expanding his letter-making skills from two to three dimensions in his first years pointed to techniques handed down to apprentices for centuries before his time. And yet, before long, accelerating changes started introducing new ideas in typemaking. The swishes and squirts of pumps gave way to the clicks of flashing lights, and soon after just the hums of cooling fans and the low buzz of electronic devices. The process of making letters lost a dimension: from drawings to ink, the miniscule ridges and valleys of carefully cast metal gave their place to letters cut out of light (more changes were yet to come). New collaborators brought very different skillsets into typemaking, to be replaced in their turn by a dispersed, localised, and by comparison chaotic community. This story is often told, and well-known by all typeface designers and typographers, and we do not need to dwell on the details. Yet, it is only marginally a story of typeface design: it is one of typesetting, of documents in front of readers’ eyes. These documents responded to the seismic industrial upheaval by filtering typography through the new technologies: a great part of their conventions survived, at the level of the letter, the word, and the paragraph. Many more changed, most visibly in layout, and document structure. Primarily, and from our point of view, the technological shifts have been a story of ideas about typefaces surviving across technologies, like a vessel floating from a river to an estuary to an open sea.
Robin’s career has almost entirely coincided with these fundamental transitions in the way typeface designers capture their intentions, and then encode them for production. Precise paper drawings for the letter shapes, specific for each range of sizes, survived across technologies more than people would expect. The delicate pencil outlines captured details in ways that it would take decades for screens to match, even if they gradually lost a lot of the formality of their earlier years (for a brief period of time making beautiful rubylith transparencies the apogee of flat encoding: in many ways, the most pristine form that letters have ever been stored). Downstream of the sheets of paper, however, the story is very different. Once drawings could be stored on a computer, it is not just the direct relationship to the rendered sizes that is missing (away from a punchcutter’s desk, this was never really present).
Letter shapes stored as digital constructs abstracts them from a rendered reality, and makes the drawn letters only a beginning in a process of shape manipulation on a scale that twisting lenses or rheostats could not begin to hint at.
These transitions placed unique challenges for a designer whose career spanned such changes. Superficially, the designer would participate in changing the ways of doing things: new units of measurement, new equipment down the line, new production processes. More visibly, a new class of professionals joined the companies, with a language for describing the making and rendering of letters that would seem alien only a couple of decades in the past. But fundamentally, the changes in typesetting technologies forced a reflection on the key skills of a typeface designer. At the beginning of Robin’s career it would be easy to assume that the typeface designer was inseparable from the making of pencil renderings on paper. The only distinction one could make would be between the degrees of seniority (a draftsman, a designer, the Head of the Drawing Office), to which different levels of privilege for making changes would be assigned. But from when the locus of the designer’s decisions became fluid and transferable across type-making technologies, the contribution of the designer needed to be more carefully articulated. A – not at all rhetorical – ‘what is it that I am really adding to this process?’ has been central to deliberations on typeface design from the mid-sixties onwards (neatly overlapping with Robin’s career). The loss of directness makes this a critical reflection: letters are not anymore perceptible in any approximation of their true form as they travel though each process, but only witnessed indirectly though human-friendly compromises – as every digital technology demands.
Faced with this question, the typeface designer will invariably return to the fundamentals that survive the technological shifts: the designer’s craft involves decisions about typographic patterns and shape details at a level abstracted from the encoding of the shapes, and the mechanisms of rendering. In other words, the designer imagines an idealised visual and intellectual experience by the reader that is derived from a particular typeface, and will strive to make this a reality through – and around – the technology at hand. Robin’s work offers some particularly good examples of this three-way dialogue between the designer, the ideal model of a typeface, and the technology used to capture it, none more so than the revivals of historical types. Is a true Bell, a Centaur, a Fournier, a Janson, a Van Dijk, a Walbaum one closest to the imprint of metal types in the sources – and, of those types, which? In these we see a masterly distillation of a whole range of possible appearances into a definitive set of shapes that have defined typographic reference points. Such digital classics defined not only mainstream textures for typographers and readers, but also an indirect basis for the digital explorations of the 1990s, which found a voice by negating the refreshed historical models. And the approach to the chameleon that is Dante, and the revisitation of Bembo in Bembo Book, show an exceptionally delicate adaptation of style to the digital medium. (Although we must admit that not even Robin’s skills can help the historical accident that is Pastonchi…)
Next to revivals, the other big challenge for typeface designers is a very tight brief for a text-intensive design, of which none more so than newspaper typefaces. These must meet extremely high functional parameters, in tight spaces and with requirements of economy and stylistic discretion that make the achievement of a distinguishing identity the typographic equivalent of hitting a bullseye blindfolded. Yet, the longevity of Nimrod, whose combination of gently swelling terminals and deep arches on the x-height, with an light, strong baseline set a much imitated pattern: directly in new designs even thirty years later, but also in hints that when applied to Scotch Romans updated a style that is one of the dominant styles for text typography to this day. The same pedigree of absolute control of a dense texture (and a familiar clarity in the horizontal alignments) can be seen in the more recent Ysobel, which updates the style with a more self-indulgent italic. Ysobel’s italic is not only a response to rendering improvements in news presses since Nimrod, but also an endorsement of the contemporary rediscovery of the potential of italics in text typefaces, and the gradual abandonment of historical models for the secondary styles.
Whereas revivals and text-intensive typefaces are most illuminating of the designer’s skill, Robin’s work with typefaces for branding and OEMs testify to a side of his work that is not possible to list in a type specimen. For those of us that have had the pleasure of working with him, Robin exemplified the quintessential collaborator: he combines mastery with humility, and confidence with a sincere willingness to discuss a design, and share his expertise. At the heart of his approach lie a deep respect for his fellow designers, and constant striving for learning and, in turn, contributing to the discipline. (I remember fondly sitting with Robin over a stack of printouts with an OEM Greek typeface, our discussion taking us from the shapes in front of us to a pile of books and specimens that would help us answer why a particular treatment of a bowl is true to the style and appropriate to the brief, rather than just formally pleasing.)
This combination of openness and respect for the discipline of typeface design points to two key aspects of Robin’s work, not directly related with any shapes he made. First, his nurturing of several designers that worked under his supervision at Monotype. And secondly, his dedicated efforts to support education in typeface design, not least through his involvement with the masters programme at Reading. As an External Examiner, Robin has directly influenced the direction of education in typeface design; as an advocate for the concrete support of promising applicants he has helped change the lives of a small number of people in very real terms.
I am leaving for last an area of Robin’s contribution that perhaps few people outside the company know much about, but has been paramount in supporting an extremely important trend, as well as foreground the unique nature of Monotype. Through his engaged stewardship of the Monotype Archive in Salfords, Robin has enabled numerous researchers in their work in Latin and non-Latin scripts. This has had a critically beneficial effect in the typefaces designed, and – even more importantly – in the documentation that is available to the next generation of researchers and designers. It is no understatement to say that Robin’s support for the integration of archival research into our postgraduate projects is benefiting in fundamental ways the skills of the younger generation of typeface designers from Reading, and, though them, the appreciation of a research-informed approach in the wider typeface design community. (We should note that Robin is far from alone within Monotype in his active support of education and research: the company is highly sensitive to the unique legacy it holds, the real value for contemporary design of the knowledge embedded in its archives, and the benefits of supporting students at a range of levels.) It would be remiss of me to omit Robin’s involvement with the first Knowledge Transfer project between Monotype and the University of Reading. The project, which demonstrated in concrete terms the value of the Archive in Salfords for the development of new typefaces for the Indian market, captured a key moment in the globalisation of typeface design and the shift towards screen-based texts, and, specifically, mobile devices. The project also enabled a marketing narrative of differentiation based on concrete and deep expertise spanning decades; arguably Monotype is the only active company able to make that claim with regard to the support of non-Latin scripts.
I hope that I have done justice, in the limited space here, to Robin’s long and diverse career. I have attempted to paint a picture of a consummate professional, adaptable to the conditions of his industry, reflective about his practice and the fundamentals of his discipline; an enlightened collaborator, keen to share expertise and support the growth of a younger generation of professionals; and – crucially – a Type Director with a clear vision about protecting and promoting the unique legacy of a very special company, actively engaging with research and education in ways that influence the future of the discipline. For all these, typeface design owes Robin Nicholas a debt of gratitude.
Reading has a long, fruitful relationship with Monotype stretching back decades. But, whereas “we” have known intimately what makes the company unique (and its uninterrupted presence in large OEM and branding projects), most of the type world held a perception of Monotype as a somewhat monolithic company, that made the transformation from heavy industry to the digital world without shedding the weight of the machinery it scrapped. The expertise of staff, the richness of its library, and the knowhow embedded in its archives (and the staff looking after them) were anything but common knowledge.
Monotype have also been helping fund postgraduate students in Typography through the Monotype Studentship (tip of the hat to Alan Haley and Robin Nicholas, who spearheaded the establishment of the award in 2006).
A big part of our teaching and research has been enhanced and accelerated by the donation to Reading, in 2003, of the non-Latin drawings held in the Linotype archives in Germany. Otmar Hoefer and Thomas Caldwell were instrumental in this. They shared our vision of turning a historical archive that was opaque to researchers and practicing designers alike into an accessible resource that would cater for different levels of engagement: teaching and research from introductory MA to post-Doc levels, to design support for revivals and new typefaces, and for wider narratives that help engage with the community. The Linotype non-Latin drawings sit well within our Collections & Archives, in the company of world-class collections in printing processes, manuscripts and early printing, ephemera, newspapers, nineteenth and twentieth century posters, type specimens, children’s books, Isotype, corporate and personal archives, and more. (And they are in the room next to one of the best libraries on typography and typeface design,itself an invaluable resource for students and researchers.)
In 2008 we started collaborating more closely with the UK part of the company on a two-year Knowledge Transfer Project. This aimed to recapture know-how embedded in Monotype’s library drawings for key scripts in the Indian market, with a focus on mobile devices, and – later – webfonts (Fiona Ross and myself from Reading, and John McCallum and Robin Nicholas from Monotype; and Dan Rhatigan as the Associate doing the heavy lifting).
Then things started to accelerate: as the company got bigger (muchbigger) it got more nimble, open, and imaginative. The same company that supported Doug Wilson’s Linotype the Film, put its weight behind events like the Beauty in the Making exhibition with GFSmith, and the popular BrandPerfect events, aimed at branding agencies. (They’ve also been developing some really neat services, which – I am willing to bet – point to the next big development in the font business.)
[End of preamble]
The opening of Pencil to Pixel yesterday made me think that this new confidence is now well embedded in the company. To begin with, the event was a superb example of exhibiting typographic material: just the right amount, and with a broad range of objects; drawings, specimens, books. A collection of films put these objects in perspective, and underlined the transformational effects of digital technologies. The object are not displayed with distanced reverence; on the contrary, these are intended to be seen up close, to help inspire and excite as much as to learn. The cases are shallow, allowing you to come very close to the material, and the lighting ideal for discerning textures and layers. You can easily imagine Bruce Rogers, Frederic Warde, and Chris Brand marking and correcting the sheets of Centaur, Arrighi, and Albertina a few centimetres from your eyes. These objects are typeface design as it really is: decisions and backtracks to get that shape in your head just right, because the inked sketches will turn into letters with the permanence of steel, numbering millions of impressions.
But alongside these are a mesmerising installation by Marcin Ignac, a series of twelve collectable booklets (like this), a tasty selection of specimens, and two very special publications: a celebratory issue of the Recorder, dedicated to Robin Nicholas’ career in the company; and a special issue of Eye, given over entirely to the unique place of Monotype in the type industry, and its contribution to typography. Dan and James, Well Done.
Postscript: I am going to be modest about the Recorder here: I’ve written a piece for it, and will be posting more in the coming weeks. But I will allow myself some hypebole on the special Eye: It is, quite simply, a tour de force of design for a periodical publication. It takes Eye’s established visual cues out for a drink and a spin, then sweet-talks them into all sorts of improbable contortions and surprising twists. Space, scale, contrast, and typography are turned into the best argument for printing things I’ve seen in a long while.
Normally I neither put words in all-caps, nor use “stunning”. So I’ll rephrase: this latest Eye mag is fucking awesome.