Emigre No. 15

Interview by Rudy VanderLans. Published in 1990.

The typeface that you are now reading is called Triplex Bold and was designed by Zuzana Licko (pronounce Litchko). Although initially designed as a rational/geometric font, it developed into one of Licko’s most intuitive typefaces. It’s first extensive use was in Emigre magazine #14, a special issue devoted to Swiss designers. Triplex was intended as a friendly substitute for Helvetica. The name Triplex refers to the three versions that make up the entire family; Triplex, Triplex Serif and Triplex Italic. Each version of the typeface comes in light, bold and extra bold. The italic was designed and drawn by type designer and sign painter John Downer, and was designed to work with both the serif and sans serif versions. The following interview with Zuzana Licko was conducted at the Emigre office in California on February 12, 1990.

Emigre: Unlike most commonly produced typefaces, your type library seems very specific to the technology you have at hand.

Zuzana Licko: Yes, especially my bitmap type designs, created for the coarse resolutions of the computer screen and dot matrix printer. Part of this is because the early computers were so limited in what they could do that you really had to design something special. Even if it was difficult to adapt calligraphy to lead and later lead to photo technology, it could be done, but it was physically impossible to adapt 8 point Goudy Old Style to 72 dots to the inch. In the end you couldn’t tell Goudy Old Style apart from Times Roman or any other serif text face. However, computer technology has reached a point where any typeface can be device-independent. This is because of the device, not because of the design of the typeface. The computer, even the Macintosh, which is one of the lowest end, and most popular computers, is at a point where it can faithfully reproduce just about anything. You no longer have to concern yourself with how a typeface is going to reproduce, technologically. You can design whatever forms you like without much limitation from the medium.

E: So you can now produce completely characterless typefaces, right?

ZL: Right. And if we no longer have to be concerned with the technology, then why don’t we just reuse existing type designs? We can use those just as well as design something else that doesn’t have to be concerned with technology.

E: Are you saying that only typefaces that come naturally out of a certain technology have validity?

ZL: No, although personally I think that those typefaces often do look most powerful, because they were created for a very specific purpose and show real intent. I am bent on making the medium work to the advantage of the design because I find pleasure in that; no other reason. I don’t necessarily think that a device-independent typeface, like Stone (Sumner Stones’ typeface) for instance, is invalid. Although I don’t think that a typeface like that accomplishes anything new, I could be wrong. It’s all a matter of opinion. It’s just that I don’t find pleasure in what those type designers are involved in. I’m very much interested in the device. That’s where I get my creative energy from. And I guess other people don’t. A designer like Gerard Unger, for example, loves curves. To him it doesn’t matter whether the curves are drawn by pencil or by the computer as long as they are the curves that he’s looking for. He has a vision. I don’t have that.

E: But you do have a certain aim when you design type, don’t you?

ZL: Yes. My aim is to explore two things. First of all, I like to experiment with what the computer can do with things that were not possible with other technologies. I like to design letterforms that work well with the computer, both for pragmatic reasons and stylistic reasons. Because sometimes, not always, but sometimes, you do need something that works well on the screen, like Emperor 8 (renamed Lo-Res 12 Narrow). If you do a lot of editing on the screen or you use the ImageWriter printer, you do, for pragmatic reasons, need a coarse resolution typeface. But then, some of my other typefaces look geometric or coarse for stylistic reasons. For instance, Matrix could just as well have had more traditional looking serifs, but for stylistic reasons, for making it look new, I use a shape that the computer is good at generating. My other aim when designing typefaces is to see how much the basic letter shapes can be changed and still be functional, like the lower case g in Matrix or some of the Variex characters. I am always very intrigued by experimental alphabets that either have no capitals or mix upper and lower characteristics, like Bradbury Thompson’s Alphabet 26, or his typeface that has only lower case and uses boldface characters for caps. This is actually what Matthew Carter at Bitstream suggested I do with Variex, since there is no upper or lower case in Variex. I like that, although it is not always applicable.

E: How did the computer give you creative inspiration specifically for typefaces, as opposed to graphic design?

ZL: I enjoy things that are like puzzles; anything that is tremendously restrictive, where there are very few choices but you have to make it work. If I get too many choices I become overwhelmed. I just don’t have the time and patience to look at every possible scenario. This is the problem I have with graphic design. I never got the feeling that I found the final solution to a problem. Although today I can more easily design a typeface like Triplex, which is a bit more traditional and less modular, than I could have five years ago, I still get most of my creative energy out of solving these puzzles. When nobody is able to make something work, I get inspired to find out what I might do with it. Ever since I was first introduced to graphic design, I heard everybody say how bad digital type looked and how it was impossible to make it look any better. This really intrigued me. Whenever anybody makes a statement like that, I have difficulty agreeing. I was reading books on the history of graphic design and in the final chapter they would always mention something about digital type and show the same typefaces like OCR A or B. Some of them were actually interesting but never really good, especially for setting text. Then I read Chuck Bigelow’s writings on the subject of digital type. I was fascinated and agreed with a lot of the things he was saying, but when I looked at the visual results I was a bit disappointed with how traditional his type still looked. So I saw that there was something unexplored and interesting there and I wanted to try my own hand at it. That’s when I got involved with designing my first low resolution type in a computer class that I took at U.C. Berkeley. But every time I asked for advice, people kept telling me it was really a lost cause, that it couldn’t be done. So I thought that anything I would do would be better than what was out there.

E: When you look back at your early low resolution type, do you feel you succeeded?

ZL: For myself, yes. But then later I discovered quite a bit of material that I should have seen before I started. Issue number 6 of Baseline magazine, which was edited by Erik Spiekermann, was very good and informative. But then again, if I had read it beforehand, I might never have tried to explore the really basic ideas that I had.

E: You mentioned that after five years of working on simple bitmap type designs you have acquired some confidence doing more humanist designs such as Triplex. Have you ever considered designing type entirely by hand; more calligraphic type?

ZL: I’ve never been very attracted to calligraphy. With calligraphy there was such a set way of doing things that unless you could technically outdo the next guy it became just a matter of production. How many hours could you spend doing this? That to me was more therapeutic than creative. I’m very concerned with maximizing our resources and not fighting with the medium. We do it in our design work as well. For example, we like to overprint offset colors, instead of knocking them out, in order not to kill ourselves in the stripping process. And that’s not just a matter of money, it’s also that things look better that way and are easier to produce. Why do it the difficult way, or why do it backwards? Simply because that’s the way you happen to think and you haven’t taught yourself to see things in a more direct way? When designers do things that don’t come out of the medium, such as reproducing Goudy Old Style or Optima with postscript, or reversing six point red type out of a composite 20% blue and 60% yellow screen, when people do that, it’s usually not because it’s absolutely the best way to communicate the message. I think it is because of their disinterest in understanding the possibilities of the tools, or how these tools can possibly be used better. It’s just that they don’t think. They can only work within this narrow range of what they’re used to. It’s all preconceived. Look at typeface designers. They think that typefaces need to look a certain way because they are calligraphers, and that’s the way type has always been for them. They’re content to continue designing the same type styles regardless of the medium they’re using. And that’s plain stupid. Why do something that goes against the grain of the medium that you’re using? That’s why I still like to design low resolution typefaces. It has something to do with elegance. When something emerges naturally, it sits right. You don’t feel like you’re beating against the current. And that’s a feeling that I enjoy.

E: Which of your typefaces do you like best in this respect?

ZL: Low resolution typefaces like Emperor 8 or Oakland 6 (renamed Lo-Res 12 Narrow and Lo-Res 9 Wide Bold), they really work well at every level on the computer. You can use them in high resolution programs and you can use them in MacPaint and they feel just as comfortable.

E: Sure, they feel comfortable to you and me and in relationship to the medium, but how are people supposed to understand this, and link that to print? It still looks very uncomfortable to people who eventually just want to read it.

ZL: But why is that? It’s because they’re not used to seeing low resolution type, I think.

E: Right! Not everybody is used to staring at a low resolution Macintosh screen all day like you. And your type is eventually used in print, people very seldom read it off the screen.

ZL: I know! But why did letter press type start to look a certain way, and why was that eventually accepted? Not because people were reading the type off the bed of the letterpress. They were still reading it off the printed page. That didn’t have anything more to do with casting lead than it does with computer chips today, but that’s where it comes from, and that’s what we’ve gotten used to. It’s the same with Blackletter, which was at one point more legible to people than humanist typefaces. That’s a shocker. I agree with the fact that if you are setting books and other things that just need to be read and understood easily, you need to use something other than Oakland Six. In those cases you need to use something that is not necessarily intrinsically more legible, but that people are used to seeing. This is what makes certain typestyles more legible or comfortable. You read best what you read most. However, those preferences for typefaces such as Times Roman exist by habit, because those typefaces have been around longest. When those typefaces first came out, they were not what people were used to either. But because they got used, they have become extremely legible. Maybe some of my typefaces will eventually reach this point of acceptance, and therefore become more legible; two hundred years from now, who knows?