How many female type designers do you know?

Interview by Yulia Popova. Published by Onomatopee Projects in 2020.

From the book How many female type designers do you know?

Yulia Popova: In the email you said that you have always felt outside of the mainstream. What do you mean by this?

Zuzana Licko: I emigrated to the US with my family from Czechoslovakia when I was seven years old, so I started school not speaking English, which separated me from the rest of the class for a while. Later, I was in the minority as a girl in high school trigonometry class, and then again in college computer programming classes. So finding myself in the male dominated profession of digital type design did not feel unusual.

YP: When evaluating the statistics, one finds that there are twice more women applying for programs in graphic design and there are twice more men applying for programs in product design. Do you remember how it used to be when you were studying? Were there any fields that woman or man specifically preferred?

ZL: I do think there were fewer women in the architecture program, but I really didn’t pay that much attention to the gender balance. However, I did have a gender related realization when architecture students were being solicited to volunteer on a construction site. I thought this would be a great learning experience, and I wanted to go, but didn’t feel I could physically do the work. So I realized this would always put me at a disadvantage in understanding construction, if I ever expected any of my building designs to be realized. This was one of several reasons why I switched my major from architecture to visual studies.

YP: Do you believe that the typographic world was and still is male-dominated? Have you ever seen this as a problem?

ZL: The history of type design is rooted in the use of heavy machinery, and industrial materials such as lead founding, which have traditionally been considered men’s work. Today, of course, the discipline of type design is rooted in digital technology, so it has become available to any visual artist who embraces computer technology. But here again, type design is one of the more technical specialties within visual design. Specifically, a type designer does at times benefit from some understanding of computer programming; perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is another field that women traditionally seldom enter. But I think this may be changing with the current generation.

YP: Have you ever had difficulties or problems in your career because you are a woman?

ZL: I am often asked this question, and I’m never sure how to respond. There are all sorts of difficulties that each of us has to work through, and I never considered gender to be at the top of my list. Perhaps I had more immediate problems that were more within my control to solve. Looking back, I guess I managed to side step the gender issue because I have worked in areas that others were not so interested in, so I mostly worked alone, or with one other person. This was not intentional, but this was the path of least resistance, and it suited my interests. At the very beginning of my career, I teamed up with Rudy VanderLans to form the Emigre typefoundry, which allowed me to take fate in my own hands, so to speak. Neither of us was ever reliant on others to be promoted or to be told what to do or how to behave. I never had to hold out my hand for loans or investments. We built our business slowly and went our own way. I don’t feel that being a woman has particularly helped or hindered me. I just had to work really hard.

YP: How do you pick names for your typefaces? Do you have a specific approach?

ZL: While our typeface names often refer in some way to the design, those sources vary. The name may allude to an historical reference, a technical feature, an ornamental description, etc. The naming process is different for each typeface, as individual as the typeface design itself.

YP: Why did you name your Baskerville revival after Sarah Eaves? What was the intention behind it if there was any? When and how did you learn about Sarah Eaves?

ZL: I felt that naming it Baskerville would be misleading because this typeface design is not a strict revival. So I needed to find a different name, but one that would in some way relate to Baskerville. I read about Sarah Eaves in a book documenting Baskerville’s era, and thought “Mrs Eaves” had a lovely ring to it, so the name stuck.

YP: Do you know other examples of forgotten women in the history of type design?

ZL: I’m not sure she’s forgotten. I learned about her by reading the available literature, and I think you might be exaggerating her importance. To clarify, Sarah is the woman who initially moved in with Baskerville as a live-in housekeeper as he was setting up his printing and type business. She eventually became his wife, as Sarah Eaves, after the death of her first husband.

YP: Who were your idols or role models while studying?

ZL: Charles and Ray Eames were the first designers I ever heard of, when we watched the Power of Ten in high school. At the time, I didn’t know they were designers, I just knew they were the makers of that fascinating short film. Later, when I started studying design in college, I aspired to the work of Emil Ruder, Herbert Spencer, Jan Tschichold and Paul Rand.

YP: Are there any current type designers whose work impresses you? Could you name some?

ZL: The sheer volume of typefaces released these days has made it impossible for me to keep up with all of the new work. While not all of it is innovative, I’m amazed by the volume of high quality work. This is undoubtedly the result of highly trained graduates emerging from all the new type design programs and their access to today’s sophisticated tools.

YP: Do you think there are too few female role models ?

ZL: I don’t know. When I was entering the design profession over 30 years ago there already were plenty of female role models. I found the work of April Greiman, Lucille Tenazas and Kris Holmes to be inspiring. But my role models of women making their way, go back to my childhood when I witnessed women running their own shows and entertainment companies, such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas, and Mary Tyler Moore.

YP: What would you call your style of work?

ZL: Most of my inspiration comes from the particular medium that I’m involved with at the time. I search out a problem that needs to be addressed or a unique result that a production method can yield. My interest in making type was initiated by the need for legible and visually interesting bitmaps for the early Macintosh computer screen and dot matrix printer. Today, the Macintosh tools are so much more sophisticated, and are much more tailored to specific tasks. So it’s a very different environment, which is opening other areas of creativity. For example, after I design a pattern font, today I can also have it custom woven or printed on fabric in any quantity, via the internet. I never imagined being able to do that 30 years ago.

YP: Are you often invited to talk at conferences?

ZL: I am invited often, but I’m not a natural entertainer. I don’t enjoy it, so I stopped public speaking after several appearances early in my career. I’m a visually oriented person, so verbal communication is challenging for me.

YP: Have you ever applied to talk at any conference yourself?

ZL: No, because I don’t feel I am helping anyone i\t$f I force myself to do things I’m not good at.

YP: Over the last three years the topic of an unequal share of female and male speakers at design conferences became evident. What is your opinion about this? Do you believe it is necessary to have an equal share of female and male speakers? Why?

ZL: It seems there are fewer women than men in the spotlight. Maybe this is because women are taught to be less pushy than men, and are therefore less aggressive at self promotion. Or maybe it’s not as important for women to always be at the center of attention. It definitely is not important for me, I’ve always shied away from being in the spotlight. I’m perfectly happy to be in my studio, being creative. So I am probably not the right person to answer your question.

YP: What success means to you?

ZL: When I am happy and satisfied with my work.

YP: Do you spend a lot of time on promoting your work?

ZL: Emigre magazine, designed primarily by Rudy VanderLans, was a stroke of luck and a virtuous circle. It became the main promotional tool for my type design. The fonts were initially created to give us more control over the magazine design, to make the typesetting economical and more interesting. Then, when the magazine showcased the fonts, it created a market for making more fonts, which went back into the magazine. The magazine allowed us to test the new fonts in a realistic setting, using actual texts. Today we continue to promote the fonts with type specimen catalogs.