This is the original English text of an interview conducted by the Danish calligrapher & typeface designer, Allan Daastrup, in March 2002. It was published in the Spanish-language, digital-format journal conceived and edited by Daastrup, TypoRed. (To read the spanish version, download a PDF of TypoRed no.3.)
So where do think primarily that your interest in lettering comes from?
It's difficult to say. I've always been interested in drawing, and perhaps more in what you might call technical drawing than artistic drawing. I am not very good at figurative art but I always used to draw things with straight lines, which naturally led me on to letters. So, before I did any training as a typographer, I had drawn quite a few letters without really knowing what I was doing; I always used to have a drawing pad on my lap drawing something. And parallel to that I have always had an interest in making language itself, in writing - what language means as well as how it looks. I suppose that is kind of an ideal combination for becoming a type designer: you're interested in the form of the letters and also how they compose to form words.
I like writing as well as designing; they often seem to me to be two quite similar activities, in that writing is a kind of designing language, if you do it right. So I have continued both interests in the writing I have done about typography as well as in the type designs I've done.
So you're driven by a kind of desire to give shape to your own words...
It's not just my own words, but as someone who has ambitions in writing myself, likes to do it and cares about language - that it should well treated in its visual form - that's the kind of feeling I have about type design and this is basically why I design typefaces for text, which is where my specialism is, I guess. My main interest is in designing type that is very legible for text, because I like printed language.
When did you realize that you were to become professionally engaged with typography, and what contributed to this realization?
Well, I finally ended up doing a BA degree in Typography and Graphic Communication which naturally leads you on to become a professional in that area, although I didn't feel that I was entirely limited to go in that direction. That's where the basis of my professional capabilities are I guess, in the education I had in typography at Reading University. So yes, I have practised as a typographer, but in terms of work in my professional career I have always kind of mixed the three - writing about design and typography, practising typography and designing type; they are in reality difficult to separate for me. Becoming a type designer was something that I developed on my own initiative alongside being trained as a typographer. I didn't have any specific education in typeface design while training to be a typographer, but I think an education in typography is a very good basis for being a type designer, because, apart from the basics you learn about type - how it has worked historically and should work - you develop a visual awareness of typefaces. When you look very hard and in detail at what's available to you, not only does it make you a good typographer but it can make you a type designer as well because you know what there is and where you can contribute something different.
So formally, you have had no tutor in type design?
Who has had the strongest formative influence on your work?
In terms of typeface design?
Well, I mean sometimes you come upon a teacher who may direct you towards a particular attitude or lead you into certain fields of practice...
Well I think the education in Typography and Graphic Communication in the department of that name at Reading University was a formative period for me, and that there's a specific kind of philosophy there, which at times I have thought of it as a traditional-modernist philosophy about functional design, and which now I find that in some points I disagree with, but it was a very influential way of approaching design for me at that time. What I learned there has been fundamental in the way that I've approached design. I learned a lot about typography there; I can't point to a specific teacher but the whole education I received was very stimulating. The man who originated that department, and was kind of the guiding light of the place was Michael Twyman. He's written a lot about several aspects of typography and printing history, and is a man of many talents and strong opinions. It was quite unique for a number of years...
He actually developed the curriculum?
Yes, and the founding philosophy and lectures were all mainly down to him. It grew out of the sixties when the profession of modern typographic design was really maturing; you could see that there were people who were typographers who weren't also printers and weren't artists. I think probably that moment has already passed and that the whole scene has changed again, and now a lot of typography is done by office workers because they have the same equipment as professional designers.
Obviously it is an interesting place, from what I have seen and heard. I think it would be interesting to know, which was your first attempt to design letters for typographic use and what made you start designing type?
I think it was in my third year of this four-year course in typography when I had a large, self-directed project to define and achieve for the final assessment, and I chose to do a typeface design, which wasn't a very common thing to do. I was the only one doing it at the time...
What year was that?
1990 or '91 - and that project is eventually what became Celeste. So the beginnings of that project was the first attempt I had made at designing a typeface: I was really starting from zero because I had no formal tutelage in how to do it, so I just started drawing and my first attempts were as bad as anybody else's - trying to invent some completely new form of letter which had never been dreamed of before, which I think is almost impossible now - and they didn't work obviously...
That was the attitude with which you started - some sort of desire to invent?
Yes, I guess it's the idea that a lot of people have when they come to type design in the first place - perhaps not you coming from a calligraphy background where you know an awful lot about the history of letters. But let's say someone, a graphic designer in general, who has some drawings for a new typeface: it's is often a really strange and wacky thing, based on their own handwriting or something, because they think that the idea of type design is to do something really different. They know normal typefaces, they've used them and see nothing special about them, so they think they need to make something new. I was trying to work within variations of the tradition in letterform style, so it was always a legible letterform from the beginning, but I had some strange ideas which meant that it didn't work.
Like what for instance?
Oh, I wouldn't want to go into details. At that time we had an old Ikarus system with a digitizing tablet and I made some first proofs of a few letters then made some text proofs and it was immediately apparent that I wasn't doing the right kind of thing; so then I carried on and just started to relax a bit, drew letters without any big plans of inventing the ultimate typeface, but just something that was a bit different. And that eventually turned into what is Celeste, which has some subtle differences and originalities within the tradition of text types - elements and combinations that had never been done in that particular way before.
Like for instance...?
For instance... I suppose the idea of Celeste is that it's a certain kind of modern type - I mean modern in a sense of type classification - it has a vertical stress; it is not based on calligraphy, but it has a notion of certain calligraphic terminals and - to use the terms of Swiss type theorists - it has the combination of the static and dynamic principles; and also that particular form of serif - I've never seen it used on that particular category of type.
Which features in particular do think are calligraphic in Celeste?
There are certain terminals in which are kind of reminiscent of a broad-edged pen, calligraphic terminations - let's say on the top curve of the lowercase 'a', and also in letters like the lowercase 'e' where the termination at the bottom doesn't curl right around and close in a circle like it does in a Bodoni type, for instance, but shoots out a bit towards the right: it creates a left to right direction - that was the idea. At that time I was, and still am, quite an admirer of Baskerville types - I always thought that they are very solid text types, and I like them from a visual point of view as a good historical example of a solid British type, and I suppose I was trying to make a solid new British type, although not consciously, simply because I happen to be British. Consequently I have recently described Celeste as being on the way back to where Baskerville is: a retrospective transitional type, if that is possible. Who knows what Baskerville was thinking when he was making those letters, we now call them 'transitional', but in his time he was not transitional because he didn't know what was coming after him. So he was kind of working - or his punchcutter, I don't think it was he who cut the types himself - on the basis of the old-face tradition of types. You can see elements of Garamond in Baskerville - but it has a different kind of principle and aesthetic to it. We hear that Baskerville was a writing master in the pointed nib mode, and there's that kind of logic to his construction, and there are certain elements of that kind of principle which you can probably see in Celeste - it is not particularly conscious...
Yes Celeste struck me as well as having a kind of Baskerville type flavour - but returning to the question of calligraphy and calligraphic principles - I always tend to think of calligraphic principle as more related to the modulation of stroke rather than actual terminals of letters...
Yes, that's because you're a proper calligrapher and I am not. When I say calligraphy, I am talking from a very inexpert point of view because I have never been a calligrapher - I don't really know how to do it. Well I know how one should probably do it, but I can't do it because I'm lazy and don't really have the skill. So perhaps when I sometimes say calligraphy, I simply mean hand-written movement, and I am talking about a dynamic in the letters. In the same way one might say that there's a certain calligraphic dynamic in a typeface like Syntax because of the structure - basic structure instead of stroke contrast. In terms of stroke contrast, I wanted Celeste to have a noticeable difference between thick and thin parts, but I also wanted the thin parts not to be too thin. That's the thing about Baskerville, perhaps; I think the Monotype digital version is not too bad, but there isn't really a very good digital version of Baskerville, and that was part of my intention: to make a type in that category of, let's say, transitional/modern, which was entirely suited to current technologies, which didn't have parts that were too thin and didn't dazzle the eye.
I actually had a question here which relates to that: speaking of contemporary text type and technology, there is great variety of books in my house of which a great part is set in lead type and then another part with type from the digital era - and my point is that with the supposed improvements in printing technology, I don't really see a general improvement in the quality of book production. Do you think that we have gotten our priorities a bit mixed up in these first years of digital type?
I don't know, I mean the priority of the type manufacturers initially - the big type manufacturers like Monotype and Linotype who were still powerful in those first years of the digital (type) revolution - was to make available in digital form the classical lead type faces, which they did, and it wasn't always done too intelligently or too well; some of them got ruined in fact - I find them unusable in digital form, some of the classical lead types.
Some versions of Garamond for instance...?
Garamond, Bembo... they become too thin because there wasn't a proper process of adaptation. Whether it was entirely intentional with lead type, I don't know, but there's this thickening up of the type image which makes it kind of sturdy and I'm sure adds to legibility in certain cases, and this was missed out in a lot of the adaptation to digital technology. But there have been some intelligent adaptations since and I think that after, let's say, fifteen or twenty years of digital type there have been some quite decent basic text types designed now.
This makes me think of the fact that you designed first Celeste, as far as I know, and then afterwards Celeste Small Text. Was it the experience of having used your own type that contribute to the necessity for developing another perhaps sturdier version of Celeste?
Yes. When I was designing Celeste, as I said, I was kind of making it up as I went along and, because I was learning in the process, I made many mistakes, and it took me quite a number of years, but I think it came out okay in the end. I think I was intending it always from the beginning for ordinary, normal text sizes for books, say 10-11 point and it's really optimized for that kind of size. It is a relatively light and open text face and when I came to design the book that I wrote about Paul Renner, I was obviously wanting to use my typeface, and as someone who has always been sensitive to optical scale in typefaces, I instinctively knew that Celeste, if I scaled it down to 6 or 7 point for footnotes, wouldn't work too well - that it wouldn't be too legible - and so I immediately started to make an optically compensated version of the typeface for the footnotes in that book. There's a very good article about optical scale in type design by the great scholar Harry Carter, with some useful illustrations, where he sets out the principles of how it used to be done during five hundred years of typefounding - that type designers would make things a bit bolder for smaller sizes and perhaps the proportions of the letters a bit wider, and the x-height would proportionally be a bit bigger - something that they probably wouldn't even articulate; it's just that working literally in those sizes, carving physically on small pieces of metal and having to proof them to be functional in those sizes, that's the way they came out, and it seemed to work. I think observation shows that this is the way it should be done, so I'm kind of following those principles. I adapted Celeste for footnotes and it eventually became known as Celeste Small Text. So, it's a version of the same typeface just compensated in various ways.
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