Designing Typefaces

Interview by David Earls. Published by Rockport Publishers in 2002.

David Earls: Why do you work primarily digitally? Is it purely historical accident or do you find the medium more conducive to your style of type design?

Zuzana Licko: I’d say it was mostly historical accident. I’ve never designed type any other way, so my style of type design developed out of using the digital medium. But I suspect that if it wasn’t for the digital medium, I might not be designing typefaces for a living. Without the computer, I wouldn’t have been able to produce my own fonts and build an independent type foundry. If I’d lived in the pre-digital type era, I may still have come to design typefaces by hand, but I doubt that many of them would have been licensed by the existing font manufacturers. It’s hard to imagine, but true, that before personal computer technology, fonts required proprietary equipment and the economies of producing and promoting fonts had to work on a larger scale.

DE: Do you feel that working this way gives typefaces a certain quality?

ZL: Probably, but since I haven’t designed type with any other tool, it’s difficult to say exactly how this has affected my work.

As it is, I do virtually all of my design and production directly in the computer. Usually, the only hand drawing I do is on laser printouts, to mark areas that need adjustment, or to sketch alternate forms. Then I eye-ball the corrections on screen. As a result, my typefaces do not contain traces of calligraphy or other media. Instead, all of the forms come right out how I construct the letter forms in the digital drawing plane.

DE: In the past you have made reference how you started off with bitmap typefaces - do you feel that this has influenced your approach to typeface design as you have progressed through your career? I am particularly interested in if this had any effect on your approach to your revivals such as Mrs Eaves and Filosofia.

ZL: To a great extent, the gradual sophistication of my type design abilities have been matched by advances in the Mac’s capabilities, so it has continued to be the ideal tool for me. Some 16 years ago, the Macintosh computer was unveiled at the same time as I graduated from college. It was a relatively crude tool back then, so established graphic designers looked upon it as a cute novelty. But to me it seemed as wondrously unchartered as my fledgling design career. It was a fortunate coincidence. I’m sure that being free of preconceived notions regarding typeface design helped me in exploring this new medium more to the fullest.

So if you’re asking whether the earlier bitmaps have anything to do with the way I’ve drawn Mrs Eaves or Filosofia, I don’t think there’s a direct relation, except that I may never have drawn the later types had I not started with the bitmaps and developed my type design skills from there.

DE: Emigre has now extended beyond being purely focused on visual expression into music - are there any similarities between typography and music as artistic expression?

ZL: I’m not sure if there is any direct similarity, but I don’t think that’s a requirement. Rudy addressed this in his Emigre #60 intro when he wrote: “It’s like asking what the relation is between type design and eating. There is no relation, but both are important to us.”

Emigre magazine functions as a context for presenting our typefaces and other projects that we might be involved with or interested in at the time. The particular context that it provides is driven by our interests, which may not necessarily be reproductions of design work because inspiration often comes from things that are not logically connected.

DE: How do you judge the artistic and experimental worth of typeface contributions to Emigre?

ZL: That’s very subjective. For one thing, it depends on the intended usage. It also depends on what criteria you define as being important in your definition of worth; longevity of usage, intensity of usage, influence on other designer’s work, etc. It takes the perspective of time to determine which typefaces remain classics, which become icons, and which fade away. Moreover, these perceptions also change over time.

It is the continual changing of these perceptions that drive our desire for new type design solutions. Over time, different solutions may be required to address the same design problem because context changes over time and results in shifting of meaning. Thus, the “same old solution” tends to become boring over time and leads the audience to lose interest.

In addition, new technologies and environments arise to present new problems for the designer to address. The most successful experimental typeface designs are often those that address the new needs of a new, yet unchartered technology.

But if you’re asking how we decide on which typefaces we release, it’s as simple as: “we know it when we see it.” We don’t have a preconceived idea about what constitutes a good typeface design. For sure, it has to contain some originality, but originality in itself is not enough.

DE: Do you feel your background has influenced your approach to your work? For example, did your father’s profession as a mathematician influence your outlook on visual culture and typography?

ZL: Definitely. I enjoy solving puzzles whether they be math, logic or visual. Having a mathematician in the family probably fostered this to a great degree, which in turn made me receptive to using the computer as a creative and problem solving tool.