Interview by Jan Middendorp. Published in 2016
Jan Middendorp: Zuzana, you grew up in the United States, but were born in former Czechoslovakia — which technically makes you an “émigré”. Do you feel your European roots have influenced your attitude and approach to design?
Zuzana Licko: Yes, I was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, when it was still under communist rule, and I was seven years old when my family emigrated to San Francisco, California. When I entered grade school in the US, I was learning a second language and customs in school, while maintaining the Slovak language and customs at home. This made me aware of the differences and has given me the perspective of an outsider. This probably formed my tendency to question things, and this questioning of preconceptions is what drew me to the design profession.
JM: You were one of the very first graphic designers who who became interested in digital type design, and one of the first type designers to use the Mac. How did you get there?
ZL: Growing up, I loved drawing, building with Legos, and math. So, I thought I wanted to be an architect, and got into the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley. When I got there, I realized that I had more interest in all the related classes, such as photography, letterpress and typography. The college had just discontinued their Visual Studies program, but many of these classes remained in the offering to broaden the horizons of the architecture students.
That’s when I realized that I really wanted to be a graphic designer, with an emphasis on type. I was fascinated by experimenting with type as illustration. But I was piecing my major together from the fringes. I remember telling a classmate that I had signed up for the typography class. We were a couple of minutes into our discussion before I realized he had misunderstood, and had been talking about topography (mapmaking). Thats how marginal these classes were.
When I began my college education, there were no type design programs at universities, and computers were large mainframes, that usually lived in the basement. Taking a computer class would give you access to a terminal, which would allow you to type up your program, which would then be batch processed overnight. In my last year, I managed to get into the computer graphics class, which generated primitive line drawings through hard coding.
That same year, the Macintosh computer was introduced, and I pre-ordered one with my student discount. I still remember picking it up on campus, in a large ballroom which was stacked to the rafters with these machines.
Up to this point, I had only been able to use typefaces, not create them. That changed with the Mac. Through the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, I got a public domain bitmap editing program, and began experimenting with bitmaps, which could be printed on the Imagewriter dot matrix printer. Laser printers and Adobe’s PostScript outline technology were still years away.
JM: Your first fonts became a crucial element in the design of Emigre, the magazine founded and edited by your partner Rudy VanderLans. How did the magazine come about — and whose idea was it to make it a showcase for your typefaces?
ZL: The magazine was started by Rudy and two Dutch artist friends who all lived and worked in the Bay Area at the time, and they thought a magazine would be a great vehicle to publish their own work and the work of their friends as a shortcut to fame and fortune. Originally, it was to focus on Dutch artists, but the goal was soon expanded to feature the work that was in some way influenced by travel or working abroad. That’s where the “Emigre” name came from. To make a long story short, after only a few issues, Rudy’s friends realized it was difficult to make the magazine profitable, so they moved on and left it in our hands. I had already started providing a lot of the typesetting for the magazine, using the bitmap fonts I had created on the Mac.
The first time we used the Mac for Emigre, in 1985, there were no page layout programs. Postscript and Laser printers didn’t even exist yet. We printed out low resolution type on an Imagewriter dot matrix printer, on paper, as large as we could, and then we reduced the type using a stat camera and pasted it down on boards. But the magazine didn’t start out as a showcase for our typefaces. We used the Mac and the bitmap fonts simply because it was a cheap alternative to having professional typesetting done, which was quite expensive in those days. However, designers started asking if the fonts we used were available. For a while I was actually doing typesetting for other designers, since very few designers had computers in those days. They would send me the specs and I would sell them typeset printouts using my fonts. Then, when more designers started using computers, we started selling the font data on floppy disks. That was the start of Emigre Fonts. It was only then that we realized the magazine was a great vehicle to feature and promote the fonts.
JM: You were probably the first designer of digital type who was interested in the low-resolution screen and print resolution of the early Macs as a visual element. You drew a big series of pixelated fonts that later became the Lo-Res family. What attracted you most in those jaggy shapes?
ZL: When I first got my hands on a Mac, the process of designing typefaces was a mystery to me, and the early Mac computer was very primitive, so it was a perfect starting point. I loved the building block approach of bitmaps. It seems trivial today, but it was magical to see the changes on screen instantly; so much faster than coloring in blocks on grid paper! From then on, my experience and skill with ever more sophisticated typeface designs evolved along with the Mac’s ability to support more complex font programs.
I thoroughly enjoyed the limitations of the early technology. Paradoxically, it allowed for more free exploration than today’s limitless possibilities. There was something to react against, a puzzle to solve, or a problem to overcome. Stripped of our familiar tools, we had to reconsider basic assumptions. This way of working leads to unusual forms that might otherwise not be explored.
JM: In 1990 Adobe made their PostScript code public for use by independent type designers; you could finally produce serious outline fonts on your own Mac. Was that a huge turning point — a moment of euphoria?
ZL: It certainly opened up possibilities and was a great source of inspiration. I developed several high resolution designs based upon my earlier bitmaps. These include the Modula, Matrix, Narly, Citizen, Triplex and Base designs. There were many different approaches possible on this road of discovery, and each of these families explored a different one.
JM: Many of your typefaces from your early period seem to explore meeting points of technology and history: Blackletter fonts and digital processing in
Totally Gothic; oldstyle shapes and straight-lines-only in Journal, etc. How did your thinking work at the time — did you make lists of themes to explore in type design?
ZL: The themes emerged orgainically, as the technology changed, or new software or hardware became available. Many of the designs were inspired by asking: what if…
For example, with Oblong, the goal was to make a bitmap design that did not show “jaggies”. So this design has no diagonals or curves, only right angles.
Similarly, Journal has no curves, they are approximated by segments of straight lines. I had wanted to try my hand at an old style stress design, but found the curves difficult to draw with the relatively primitive font tools of the day. The geometric arc curves employed in Modula, Matrix, and other designs that I had designed previously were easier to create with these early tools because arc curves are more predictable from a construction standpoint and therefore easier to envision. In fact, it was not so much the drawing tools that were the problem, but the preview display. The screen display was not very faithful to the mathematical digital drawing, nor the laser printout, due to the primitive screen rasterizer, and the coarse resolution screen on the monitor. Remember, this was before anti-aliased screens and stochastic ink jet printing came to personal computing. Taking a magnifying glass to the 300 dpi printouts, I studied how the curves were represented by a series of stair stepped lines on the black and white (non-aliased) grid of the laser printed page. This inspired me to construct Journal with straight line segments instead of curves; approximating each curve by a series of tangent polylines. This not only solved the screen display preview problem, but gave Journal a rustic look, which nicely complimented the old style stress. The subtle crudeness is reminiscent of the irregularities that appear in letterpress printed specimens, and evokes informal qualities, making Journal suitable for correspondence.
Another design that employed segment of straight lines to approximate curves is Citizen. With the introduction of laser printers, the “smooth” printing option was provided as a shortcut to increasing the resolution of bitmaps from screen to printer. This smooth printing option seemingly polishing stair step pixels into smooth diagonals. I enlarged the structure of the smoothing geometry, and this became the inspiration for Citizen.
With Triplex, I explored taking the rigid structure of Citizen and adapting it to a humanist text face.
Modula was my first high resolution headline typeface. In 1985, the computer was very crude as far as being able to produce subtle curves, but it was outstanding at producing perfect geometric elements. As a guide, I used the proportions of my earlier Emperor Fifteen bitmap design and applied the precision of the computer’s geometric elements.
Totally Gothic started as an experiment with auto tracing. One of my experiments began as a blackletter bitmap, which was not so interesting in itself, so I played around with auto tracing it. Due to the crudeness of the bitmap and the primitive tracing technology, the results were unexpected, and lead me to play with the automatic PostScript curves that it generated.
Narly also started with a bitmap. I converted the square pixels to circles, and then proceeded with various effects. Outlining, then turning corner points to curve points, all of these effects, newly available in font creation software at that time.
The Base families explored the proportions of the various bitmap masters, and kept the spacing true to the grid. Rather than deriving the screen font from the printer font, I decided to derive the printer font from the screen font.
Yet another design that was inspired by technology is Variex, designed in collaboration with Rudy. The early PostScript fonts were in Type3 format, which allowed monoline drawings, of a single weight. Variex was conceived as a stroke design; each character is defined by center-lines of uniform weight, from which the three weights are also derived. Varying the weight of a stroke typeface changes the thickness around the center line and thus alters the alignment of some characters. Variex incorporates these variations of alignment in its design, making adjustments to the center lines unnecessary when changing the weight. As a result, the x-height varies among the three different weights.
JM: Your next phase in type, so to speak, was to have a look at the historical models. In the mid-1990s, you made Mrs Eaves, made on the Baskerville types, and Filosofia, based on Bodoni. Two questions. What the your main motivations to turn to the classics? And in what way do you think your approach was different from the more conventional revivals?
ZL: Bodoni and Baskerville are two type families that I enjoyed using when I was a graphic designer and typographer in my earlier career, before I started designing typefaces. In fact, Bodoni was my favorite.
Once I felt my type design skills had matured enough, I was tempted to create my own versions of these two classics.
My early experience with using Bodoni was from the Mergenthaler photo version, and I often wished for a less contrasty version when it came to setting text. In many instances Bodoni would be simply too difficult to read for the given text, so I would switch to another typeface design, although I would have preferred the feel of Bodoni.
I suspected the photo version might be more clinical than the original lead version, so I started by researching Bodoni’s origins. I discovered that Bodoni spent his entire life building a large collection of over 400 fonts. He started with Fournier’s types as a model, and over time developed a personal style that tended toward simplicity, austerity and a greater contrast between the vertical stems and hairlines than previously seen, resulting in what we know today as the modern face. This variance in Bodoni’s design, encouraged me imagine my own interpretation.
I did not intend to follow any specific model. Instead, I wanted to capture the warmth of the original printed samples, while creating an updated version that would be appropriate for digital technology, and that would address my problem with the high contrast. My preparatory work included researching printed samples, amongst them the Manuale Tipografico, which I located at the Bancroft library on the UC Berkeley campus, which I was lucky to have nearby.
I aimed to distill an overall look from the varied qualities of the various printed samples. Then, I set out to draw the letterforms “from memory” so to speak. I let the impression and memory of the printed samples I had studied guide my drawings. This is the same method I used for my Baskerville revival, Mrs Eaves. Drawing a Baskerville “from memory” was suggested to me by Erik Spiekermann, which I thought was a great idea.
For Filosofia, a major design element became the rounded serif endings which aim to capture the ink spread effect of letterpress printing. I wanted to capture the softness of the letterpressed impression. Filosofia shows my personal preference for a geometric Bodoni, while incorporating such features as the slightly bulging round serif endings which often appeared in printed samples of Bodoni’s work and reflect Bodoni’s origins in letterpress technology. With each style in the family, my intent was to create a distinct texture which would differenciate, for example, the italic from the roman. I wanted each style to be somewhat idiosyncratic, to reflect the handmade quality of letterpress type. I wanted to explore the opposite of the “neutral” typeface. The more neutral a typeface design is, the more it will lack specific character, and I wanted to stay away from that.
Baskerville, being a transitional design, is less rigid than Bodoni. Using Baskerville as the model for Mrs Eaves, I intended to make a more fluid design. One of Baskerville’s intents was to develop typefaces that pushed the contrast between thick and thin strokes, partially to show off the new printing and paper making techniques of his time. As a result his types were often criticized for being too perfect, stark, and difficult to read. I noticed that revivals of Baskerville often continued along the same path of perfection, using as a model the qualities of the lead type itself, not the printed specimens.
Instead, I looked to the the printed samples which were heavier and had more character due to the imprint of lead type into paper and the resulting ink spread. I reduced the contrast while retaining the overall openness and lightness of Baskerville by giving the lower case characters a wider proportion, then reducing the x-height relative to the cap height to avoid increasing the set width.
An aspect of Baskerville’s type that I intended to retain is that of overall openness and lightness. I realize that other aspects of my revival probably contradict Baskerville’s intentions, but my point in doing so is to take those elements from Baskerville that have become familiar, and thus highly legible, to today’s reader, and to give these my own interpretation. I wanted the spacing to feel open, which gives the impression of a somewhat slower pace, making the reading unhurried. Then, years later, I revisited the Mrs Eaves family, and added “XL” and narrow versions with a larger x height, and tighter proportions, to expand it’s range of usage.
JM: It must have been around the same time that you began working with ceramics, “a distraction to the tedious aspects of typeface design work,“ as you wrote. What else did it mean to you, and in what ways does it relate to your type design work?
ZL: I have been experimenting with ceramics since my childhood, and spent many summer vacations in pottery studios instead of summer camp. I enjoy the satisfaction of creating objects, and I came to miss it after being preoccupied with the digital medium in my early career.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that pottery and type design are connected in many ways, some of which are contrasting. Both disciplines deal with creating visually and structurally balanced shapes. Both deal with the duality of inside & 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. In its finished form, 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.
JM: Let’s look at the bigger picture of Emigre. Almost from the start, you also became a curator of a unique and influential type library. I’d say you invited both people who were crazier than yourself, and people whose approach to type was more conventional. Please tell me a bit about your priciples and motivation as someone putting together a type collection.
ZL: I wouldn’t say any of us were “crazy.” We did release a number of conceptual fonts that were designed by people who were not type designers, they were graphic designers, who approach type design from a different perspective. The professional type designer is always concerned with tradition and established reading habits. Graphic designers have something else in mind. Their type is usually filled with contradictions, critiques and idiosyncrasies. Their typefaces are often an outgrowth of specific design jobs. They’re less restricted by tradition, which results in surprising and unusual letterforms. We always had a soft spot for these slightly more experimental typefaces when we were building our library.
Currently, we’re no longer seeking out the fonts of outside designers. When we started, we were one of a handful of outlets for new digital type designs, and we were deluged with submissions from designers around the world. We were also one of the first foundries to offer online font sales, and we aggressively promoted our typefaces through Emigre magazine and our type posters and specimens. So designers were eager to release their fonts through Emigre. But now, it’s much easier to either launch your own website to sell your type directly, or use one of the many type distribution channels available. So anybody who submits a typeface nowadays, we usually advise them to go directly to type resellers like MyFonts or Fontspring.
JM: From the late eighties until the early 2000s, digital type design and production was intense, but it happened on a limited territory. Almost each new typeface worth looking at got remarked and commented. Today, the production is so enormous and widely spread that it seems hard, even for “type geeks”, to keep track of all that’s being done. Does the current situation make you feel sorry, or puzzled sometimes?
ZL: In terms of new typeface designs, we believe we’ve reached a point that we refer to as “Infill-ism,” where designers are simply filling in the few remaining options left. Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need? We’re less interested in those pursuits.
We coined this term “Infill-ism” because it’s something that we’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s easy to imagine that with each addition, there are fewer type design options left to explore, since type design is restricted by the structure of the alphabetic characters. And, although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between designs. We’re left with filling in the gaps, and the gaps are getting smaller and smaller. We’re starting to question the point of adding one more variation. We think it’s a healthy thing to constantly ask yourself whether what you do has value, not just commercially, but also culturally, technically and artistically. It’s just a conversation we’re having with ourselves. It gets us out of a rut to explore other venues.
JM: Emigre seems to have reached a much quieter phase now. How do you see the future, for yourself and the company?
My personal interests are steadily moving towards creating textures and patterns, and we’re not even sure if we’ll release these commercially as fonts. Currently, I’m using font software to create sketches for my ceramic sculptures, which exist of modular elements. Each sculpture has a variety of shapes that can be combined to make different sculptures. The font software helps me go through all the possible variations. I’ve also been working on a pattern font, tentatively called Tangly, that I envision using for textile prints. But the idea is to sell the textiles, not the fonts.
Instead of endlessly adding to our library, I see ourselves more in a curatorial role these days, trying to safeguard the Emigre legacy. And instead of designing new fonts, we’re challenged by the idea of taking our existing fonts and showing them in new and different contexts and shining a new light on them. Rudy has focussed on this with our recent type specimen booklets like Historia, Sampler, The Collection, and Nine Literary Types.
JM: What would your advice be to young type designers today, who may come to you and ask what it feels like to have been a pioneer?
ZL: We were lucky. We were at the right place at the right time. Technologies were changing. There actually was something to pioneer. We had to figure out a lot of stuff with very primitive tools. We had to figure out how to sell type online from scratch when the internet was in its infancy. The situation is very different today. Young designers today, their bed has been made. The tools are there to do anything they like, which is an entirely different challenge.
Our advice to young type designers? Sit up straight behind your computer.