Étapes magazine (France)

Interview conducted between 2007-2009 by Pascal Béjean. Published in 2010.

Étapes: Rumor has it you no longer design typefaces. Is it true?

Zuzana Licko: On the contrary. For the past couple of years I’ve been preoccupied with expanding upon and fine tuning my earlier typeface designs. This was prompted by OpenType. In the process of doing this format conversion, I’m adding features which often require the design of additional characters, such as small caps and alternates. I’m also re-examining each design and making subtle improvements, in response to having seen the fonts in use over the years.

I just finished a remake of Matrix which will be released in late July. I’ve also been working on a narrow version of Mrs Eaves.

É: Rumor has it that you do pottery. If so, could you tell us more? Do you connect it to type design?

ZL: To balance out the methodical OpenType work I’m exploring more spontaneous endeavors, including fine art prints and Ceramics.

Earlier this year I completed a series of limited edition digital C prints based on my Puzzler patterns. With these geometric constructions of abstract elements I explored how the application of color can add to their illusions. It’s actually the first time I’ve used my own fonts to make something else, something new. I had exhibitions of the work in California, and we’re selling limited edition prints on our web site.

Ceramics began for me as a distraction to the tedious aspects of typeface design work. The making of objects is something I enjoy, and which I greatly miss about the digital medium. Over the years, I’ve discovered that pottery and type design are connected in many ways, some of which are contrasting.

Of course, both disciplines deal with creating visually and structurally balanced shapes. Both deal with the duality of inside and outside form. And both require resolving transitions of curves. When throwing a piece on the potter’s wheel, the conceptualization of the shape can be reduced to a single line of curve transitions, which represents one half of the symmetrical cross section. These curve transitions and balance of form have much in common with constructing curves in letter forms.

The differences between these two disciplines, however, are equally intriguing. The making of a ceramic piece is finite, relatively instantaneous, and exists in the physical realm, while a typeface design has no physical boundaries and can be reworked endlessly. In fact, a typeface design requires a meticulous reworking of elements over a long period of time. Often I must put a typeface away for weeks, even months, in order to resolve problems that seem unsolvable at the time. Ceramics, on the other hand, presents time, space and material restrictions. Particularly in wheel throwing, a piece can not be worked and reworked for very long, as the clay becomes water logged and stressed. A piece of ceramics ultimately exists as a static entity, whereas each letter in a typeface is designed to work in conjunction with the other letters, in virtually any combination, and so, the appearance of the typeface in use will differ, depending on the particular letter combinations and typographic setting.

É: Can you go way back and tell us about your childhood? Where were you born? What made you an émigré?

ZL: I was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, when it was under communist rule, and I was only seven years old when my family emigrated to the US. So I don’t remember very much from my pre-US childhood. However, this background has given me a different perspective, and perhaps this is what gives me a tendency to question things. Or maybe questioning preconceptions is just in my personal nature.

É: When did your interest in typeface design begin? Where did you study? Did you then start a typeface design training?

ZL: I entered the University of California, Berkeley as an architecture student, but then changed my major to graphic design, and I soon realized that typography interested me the most. I was fascinated by experimenting with type as an illustration. But there was no program at UC Berkeley specifically for type design, so at that point, I only got to use typefaces, not create them.

In my last year, I took a computer graphics class as part of the architecture curriculum, which was on very primitive equipment by today’s standards. We’d write a program, and the code would then get compiled at a main frame in another building. I found it fascinating. The Macintosh computer was released the year I graduated, and we (Rudy and I) ordered one with our student discount. I still remember picking it up on campus, in a large ballroom which was stacked to the rafters with these machines.

É: What was your first typeface design commission?

ZL: I have done very few commissions because I have found that I don’t create my best work this way. If I have to rush a design to meet a deadline, then my work suffers. Sometimes I have to put a design away for months, even years before being able to see it with fresh eyes, which is sometimes required to solve a problem. Commissions do not allow for this germination process.

É: Can you tell us when and how you met Rudy VanderLans?

ZL: Rudy and I met at UC Berkeley around 1982. He was studying photography, and we met in the halls of the architecture building. We were formally introduced at a group show which included his photography work. Somehow, I knew there was something special between us. When I got to know Rudy during that summer, I learned that he had already completed a very traditional education in design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, Holland, which included an emphasis on typography and type design. I was intrigued by the projects he showed me. I thought I’d like to have gone through that education, but at least, I was able to tap into Rudy’s experience, which helped to fill in my lack of formal type design education as I constantly get input on my type designs from Rudy.

É: Can you tell us the beginning of the Emigre adventure, from your own side of the story? Can you tell us more about the aspect of the magazine we know very little about, before it turned more towards graphic design?

ZL: Rudy started Emigre magazine with two other Dutch artists with the goal to feature the work of artists who were in some way influenced by travel or working abroad. I was not involved from an editorial standpoint. I started contributing as the resident type designer, and contributed more content when the magazine turned it’s focus to graphic design. But I’ve been mostly involved with running the Emigre type foundry, whereas Rudy ran the magazine. You would really have to talk to him about the magazine.

É: We feel that the McCoys and Cranbrook were very important for you in the 80s. What influence did they actually have on your work?

ZL: Probably in an unconscious way, but I can’t say specifically what. I think it was mostly a general inspiration, as they exuded a genuine passion and openness of mind for design. And I think they were as keen to learn from us as we from them. I remember Cathy McCoy’s class visiting us in California in the late 80s and I showed my very early typeface designs and research. They were obviously interested in what we were doing and vice versa. But, again, it was Rudy who was in contact with Cranbrook. I was more in touch with other type designers at the time, people like Jonathan Barnbrook, Matthew Carter, John Downer, Jonathan Hoefler, Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, and Jeffery Keedy. We had all started designing type on the Mac and were often sharing experiences and trying to understand this new computer.

É: What was the cultural context on the West Coast when you first published Emigre? Did you meet other designers, especially the ones on the edge of the digital revolution, like April Greiman?

ZL: The mid to late 80s was an exciting time to be a graphic designer and type designer. The technology was growing before our eyes, and we could hardly wait to explore this unchartered territory. At this time, most designers were rejecting the Mac. So those of us who did like the Mac would find each other and we’d visit each others studios. Remember, this was before the internet and email, so sharing ideas was still done by meeting people in person.

In those early days everybody stopped by our office: April Greiman, Matthew Carter, Dan Friedman, Jeffery Keedy, Jonathan Barnbrook, Erik Spiekermann, Gerard Unger, Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, Wolfgang Weingart, Max Kisman, Ed Fella, John Downer... People either wanted to share experiences and knowledge or were curious what this new little computer was all about.

É: What is your process when you design a typeface? We understand that you don’t work by hand.

ZL: I do virtually all of my design and production directly in the computer. I’ve been using Fontographer since the beginning. Today I use RoboFog, a special version of Fontographer, which is scriptable with the Python programming language. The scripting allows the type designer to customize functions and streamline repetitive tasks.

While I work primarily on screen, sometimes I begin with rough thumbnail sketches, which may give me an idea of the proportions or a detail of a character. Then I start by trying out various shapes and serif details directly in the Fontographer drawing window. 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.

É: You designed your first font (the greek alphabet) on a computer, before your experience on the Mac 128K?

ZL: Yes, but it was more about learning how to use a computer than about the design. This was before I started studying design, so I didn’t know anything about letterform design.

É: Could we see it?

ZL: Sorry, I don’t have a copy of it - it was a simple stick-figure design, for a primitive pen drafting printer.

É: What is your perception of this pioneer time?

ZL: Perhaps ironically, the limitations allowed for more free exploration than with today’s limitless possibilities. There was something to react against, a puzzle to solve or a problem to overcome. This way of working leads to unusual forms that might otherwise not be explored.

É: These fonts were very graphic. In 1990, you seemed to be disappointed by the gap between the discourse of some people about digital type, and the designs they produced - you found them too classical (See Emigre #15). Is that why you started to work on revival fonts and create your own personalized versions of classic fonts in the “digital realm” such as Mrs Eaves for Baskerville and Filosofia for Bodoni? Or were you just tired of “novelty” faces? Or do you think it’s just a natural evolution that comes with maturity: your first experiment for a while, then time comes to go back to basics. Did you feel the Massimo Vignelli syndrome?

ZL: I began the Baskerville and Bodoni revivals when several events coincided. First, the technology had became more sophisticated. Large computer screens had become affordable, so I could zoom in and focus better on curve details. Computer processing speed had become fast enough to drive the larger screen displays, and the Fontographer drawing program had been updated and greatly improved. Second, my abilities as a type designer had evolved along with the technology.

And finally, this all coincided with Emigre magazine’s move to a smaller page format for publishing more lengthy texts, so more text type designs were needed.

É: In that same period your type foundry met a huge and fast success, as well as many negative reactions. Some of these reactions came from the modernists, such as the great Paul Rand, who thinks this new movement forgot beauty and harmony, and Massimo Vignelli who said that your designs were “garbage, lacking depth, refinement, elegance, or a sense of history.” Chuck Byrne explains these statements when he wrote that “In the last fifty years or so, making a reputation for yourself was basically a process of winning competitions, getting your work published, and going around pontificating to the world about how great you are. What drove the establishment crazy was that Rudy and Zuzana totally short-circuited this apprenticeship and became famous simply by designing for this international group of admirers.” How did you experience this sudden international fame and success, as well as this polemic about your work?

ZL: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t pay that much attention to it. It was amazing to see some of the reactions. I was flattered by even the negative commentary, especially when it came from the establishment. Just the fact that they were paying attention meant something. I think the reason it didn’t get me down is that designers kept buying our fonts. Not only did this provide us with financial independence to pursue our work, but that vote of confidence was very reassuring.

É: After the bitmap fonts, the outline-based-on-bitmap fonts (Citizen, Matrix, Totally Gothic), and the geometric fonts (Modula, Oblong, Lunatix, Senator, Variex), you turned to more sophisticated, more sensual and less conceptual designs. Triplex seems a turning point. Can you tell us about it, and how the italic turned out to be designed by John Downer?

ZL: Triplex was my idea of a humanist sans serif. I wanted to create a slightly friendlier Helvetica. John Downer came to visit us one day to show a collection of his designs, including bitmaps he had created without a computer. He had drawn them on grid paper - that takes dedication! We had a shared aesthetic in those bitmaps. John also had more traditional designs that showed his experience as an accomplished sign painter. One that caught my eye was an italic that was far less traditional than the rest. I thought it didn’t really match its roman companion, and noticed that the structure shared more similarities with my Triplex roman design. With some adjustments to the vertical alignment zones, and the weights, John adapted this design to be the italic for Triplex.

É: With John Downer, we would like to mention the other Emigre fonts designers. What was the artistic direction of the ensemble, which looks very consistent, like a family of “thinking"? What is the Emigre fonts philosophy? What qualities does a design require to be included as an Emigre font? Can you comment on these key fonts of the 90’s that were Barry Deck’s Arbitrary and Template, or Jeffrey Keedy’s Keedy Sans?

ZL: These typeface designs are snapshots of that time. Up until then, the manufacture of a typeface required access to very specialized and expensive equipment, which was only in the hands of a few type foundries. The production of a typeface was so costly that only a small selection of designs got produced.

Then, in the late eighties, the personal computer exploded the field of type design onto every designer’s desktop, and some took up the challenge. Many of them harnessed it as a way to add more of their personal vision into their graphic design work. But it took a while before we saw other people designing complete typefaces.

Except for Bitstream and Adobe, who were mostly digitizing traditional fonts, nobody was designing original fonts on the Macintosh. For a while, Emigre was the only company creating original typefaces. We started creating type in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1989 that Arbitrary, Template Gothic, and Keedy Sans were produced. We first saw these typefaces when a class of graduate students from CalArts came to visit our studio in Berkeley. At the time CalArts was one of the few schools, if not the only school, in the U.S. teaching how to design type on the Mac. We were immediately attracted to those typefaces and offered to make them available commercially through Emigre. Actually, it took us quite a bit of convincing to release Keedy Sans commercially. Jeffery never thought it would sell. He didn’t think people would be interested.

People often ask us about the Emigre design philosophy. But we never had a predetermined idea of our library when we started it. Obviously, there are certain personal preferences at work, but they’re difficult to pin down since they change. We have a fairly open mind when it comes to type, and we release typefaces accordingly.

É: In 1996 you released two fonts that are quite different in nature. They are Base 9 and 12 which appear to be a new version of Citizen, meaning you used bitmap fonts as a skeleton to draw outlines, and Mrs Eaves, a revival of Baskerville. Did you work them in the same time?

ZL: They were in the works at the same time, but I completed Base first. This is often how it works: at any given time, I may have several designs in progress sitting on the back burner. Sometimes I put a design away when I hit a stumbling block, and it may take months or even years to resolve some of these design problems. I revisit each of these typefaces from time to time, and when one of them reaches critical mass, I then turn my focus on that design until its release.

É: We think Mrs Eaves is the best revival of a great classic we’ve seen since Frederick Goudy, or his student Oswald Cooper. Its design has this same magical touch, hard to define, that we find in the work of these two designers.

ZL: Thanks, that’s a great compliment!

É: Why did you choose Baskerville?

ZL: It’s an epic design that I really respect. And, being a transitional face, it magically achieves the legibility of a very traditional design, without the old style stress of a Garamond (another one of my all time favorites which I have not yet dared to revive), while avoiding the legibility pitfalls of moderns, like Bodoni.

With Mrs Eaves, I wanted to reinterpret Baskerville in a warmer manner, with less contrast, so it would be more fluid. Actually, if Baskerville saw my design, he might not approve because he strived for the contrast. He even made white, crisp papers that would accentuate the contrast of the printed type. So I feel strange connecting my design to Baskerville’s, except to say that it was my model.

É: Who was Sarah Eaves? She is not known in France. We assume you’ve been asked a thousand times...

ZL: This typeface is named after Sarah Eaves, the woman who became John Baskerville’s wife. As Baskerville was setting up his printing and type business, Mrs. Eaves moved in with him as a live-in housekeeper, eventually becoming his wife after the death of her first husband, Mr. Eaves. Like the widows of Caslon, Bodoni, and the daughters of Fournier, Sarah similarly completed the printing of the unfinished volumes that John Baskerville left upon his death. We picked the name Mrs Eaves, because that is how Sarah was often referred to in the various books documenting Baskerville’s era.

É: How did you approach more free and complex designs, such as Dogma, Soda or Narly?

ZL: Actually, many of these are based on various geometric systems that form the underlying structure. For example, Narly is based on a bitmap structure of circles that are heavily embellished. These are the kinds of designs that the computer excels at producing. I still enjoy letting the computer do things it’s very good at, and allowing for those strengths to give me ideas and solutions to create type.

É: Hypnopaedia looks like a comeback to novelty fonts, but it has a more political intent. Can you explain?

ZL: The catalyst behind developing the Hypnopaedia patterns was the lack of legal protection for typeface designs in the US. Typefaces are considered to be utilitarian and most utilitarian designs can not be copyrighted. This continues to be a big problem for typeface designers, and is due to the fact that people in general find it difficult to comprehend letters as abstract shapes. It is this inability to distinguish between the ornamental design of letter forms and the alphabetic characters they represent, which has resulted in the lack of US copyright protection for letter form designs. By turning letter designs into texture, the Hypnopaedia pattern illustrations allow us to make this distinction and appreciate letter shapes on a different level.

It occurred to me that taking letter forms out of their usual context of alphabetic word composition, would illustrate that letter form designs have value as independent forms, separate and distinct from their ability to represent alphabetic characters. When applied within the context of pattern elements, the stylistic messages of letter designs are allowed to surface.

Letter forms are constructed as shapes of positive space, but of equal importance to their recognizability as representations of alphabetic characters is their enclosure of negative space as well as the white space that separates letters from one another to facilitate the recognition of words. Within the Hypnopaedia pattern elements, on the other hand, the negative spaces of the original letter forms are altered by rotation and by the positioning or interlocking of adjacent shapes.

When viewing two different letter designs of the alphabetic character “A,” people tend to focus on the similarities between the two “A” s as they both represent the character “A.” Some people might even express difficulty in distinguishing between the two “A” s altogether. Within the context of these patterns, however, it is clear that the patterns created from various “A” designs, for example, are in fact each distinct and separate in visual meaning.

Each of the resulting Hypnopaedia pattern illustrations was created by concentric rotation of a single letter form from the Emigre Fonts library. When repeated, each Hypnopaedia illustration creates a unique pattern of interlocking letter shapes.

É: According to your current standards, what is your most successful font design? And why?

ZL: Usually the one that I just completed because it reflects my most recent thinking.

É: According to commercial standards, what is your most successful font design?

ZL: Mrs Eaves. I’m amazed by it’s success, and I love seeing it around every corner, on book covers, restaurant menus, everywhere. I’m really happy to see what designers have been able to do with it. It’s been our best selling font for years and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.

É: From the top of our heads, we can only list a handful of women font designers - Susan LaPorte, and uh... that’s it. Do you know some others? Do you think being a woman is an issue, or a handicap in this men’s practice? Do you think design has a gender? Do you have the feeling you brought a specific feminine touch to type design ?

ZL: Well, there’s Sibylle Hagmann, whose typeface family Cholla was released by Emigre. And there are other women working in type design. But maybe women are taught to be less pushy than men, and are therefore not as adept at self promotion. Maybe it’s not as important for them to always be in the spotlight. And maybe women’s careers get compromised when they take time off to make families. But I’m just guessing. You can ask yourself, whose fault is it that you know of only one female designer?

É: What is your opinion of current type design? After the explosion of the 90s, it seems to be more conservative. Is it a reaction to this explosion, as it always happens in art and design history? Or do you think it’s a reflection of the global insecure state of the world?

ZL: Perhaps there are other areas now where type design is going through significant changes and new ideas are taking root. The type creation tools and programs have become very sophisticated. OpenType, for instance, presents different technical challenges, and so the excitement has perhaps shifted to other areas. And maybe these areas are not as sexy to most people, which is why you don’t hear much about it. There’s a kind of superficiality to what people get excited about.

É: What do you feel about Emigre fonts and Emigre magazine’s impact on design? Now that the magazine has released its final issue, things seem to be more quiet. Do you think it was more of a “flavor of the decade” thing, or did it have a deeper influence? We have our answer, but what’s yours?

ZL: Emigre magazine ran for 23 years. That’s more than just a decade. And history will judge what Emigre’s influence on design was. I think Emigre magazine is a time capsule of an exciting time in design’s history that we were privileged to experience and participate in. We feel very fortunate to have been a part of it all.

But it’s difficult to address such questions about the value of our body of work because we’re still working. We haven’t retired. We are still full of energy, we’re looking into the future, and our days are filled with new, exciting projects and creative challenges of all kinds.