Christian Schwartz: “It’s pretty funny when type designers become celebrities”

A conversation with Christian Schwartz, in which he rejects celebrity status, notes several important tendencies in contemporary type design, and gives his answer to the question: “Which font would you name if todayness were the main requirement?”

August 25, 2016

A conversation with Christian Schwartz, in which he rejects celebrity status, notes several important tendencies in contemporary type design, and gives his answer to the question: “Which font would you name if todayness were the main requirement?”

Ilya Ruderman: Concerning type as it stands today, how do you explain to yourself all the current trends and could you mention any examples of typefaces which you regard as truly “todayness”?

Christian Schwartz: Well, I think the biggest trend right now is fragmentation. Many years ago you had different kinds of type for different things. So, there were book typefaces that were only used for books, there were newspaper typefaces that were only used for newspapers, and signage had particular lettering styles that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. And then towards the 1970s and 1980s, especially as digital type became more popular and came to be the way that type was delivered and used, there was kind of a flattening out. So then you would get ITC Garamond and it would be used to typeset books, to typeset magazines and the headline in a newspaper, and it would be on a vinyl cutting machine, so it would be in signage, and on television. And it’s all the same typeface, the same forms for all these different media. And I think that what we are seeing now is that things are coming apart again. So now the cost of producing new typefaces is reduced so much that you can afford to make a typeface for a specific use again. We just finished a display typeface for W magazine in the US; a woman’s fashion magazine, kind of large format, and Miguel (Reyes) was able to draw a custom headline typeface that maybe they’ll use just for a couple of years. And it captures a particular moment in fashion in a particular way and doesn’t have to last forever, and the cost of producing it is low enough that it doesn’t have to last forever.

W_Aug ‘W’ magazine cover with typeface by Miguel Reyes

W_Aug 2016 spread Double page spread from ‘W’ magazine with typeface by Miguel Reyes

So, I think that’s the biggest trend in type design right now. The in things can be hyperspecific again. You can make a typeface for reading poetry on screen for the Academy of American Poets and still, of course, make typefaces for things like newspapers.

IR: When we see new type releases, we’re kind of trying to understand how modern the project is, how it illustrates 2016. Can we use any criteria to do that? Can we come up with any criteria for contemporaneity in type design?

CS: I think there’s a kind of a pendulum that swings back and forth. The ‘90s were all about self-expression and then it swung back, so that, in the early 2000s, it was like international Modernism again. And now we’re back in a more expressive time. Graphic designers can rely more heavily on a typeface to do a lot of the work of making something distinctive and interesting. So, something like Dala Floda or Pilar. I think that, even though it’s a few years old now, it still feels very much of today, because it’s taken history and yet looks at it sort of sideways, looking at it in a different way and finding something new by recontextualizing something old. And I think that recontextualization is something that’s really popular right now, that feels like one of the main things. Would you agree with that?

dala_floda_cyrillic Dala Floda Cyrillic (upcoming release)

DalaFloda-microsite Microsite of Dala Floda

IR: I do agree with that, but I would probably add something like “simplicity” in a way of… sometimes it can be different: simplicity in ideas, simplicity in the forms or simplicity in how the project was born. Somehow I feel that simplicity has also become a contemporary value. Would you agree with that?

CS: Simplicity… I think… I think graphic design and web design have started to diverge in such a way that, on the web, you see more and more simplicity with people wanting to strip everything back and it’s all flat colors and flat shapes and simple type. And in print and out in the physical world, simplicity, yes, it’s a major thing and that’s why people love Graphik. But also we’re starting to see more and more quirky forms and I think decoration is coming back. And ornament is a difficult thing, because you can’t really be objective about it. When it comes to ornament, you like what you like and it’s hard to be more intellectual than that.

IR: You also mentioned Dala Floda because that kind of project was in the same way, in the structure, the idea behind it… the historical roots were quite simple, because the analogy was quite obvious, but at the same time the forms, the details, all the decorations are quite complex. So that was a project which looks modern while looking quite complex and simple at the same time. That’s the project which kind of argues against my simplicity.

CS: Though the ball terminals on Dala Floda do have that Modern with a capital M character because they’re just circles.

IR: Right. But then you came up with Dala Prisma which made everything even more complex. So, that’s kind of interesting.

CS: And Dala Prisma is the kind of typeface that, if you put it on a poster, you don’t really have to do anything. Just choose the typeface and make it big enough that people can see it. And that is the graphic design.

IR: How is the work at the studio organized from this point of view? Do you consider todayness as a valuable argument while you are thinking about future releases?

CS: For most of what we release through the Commercial Type library, todayness is one of the keys to it. We’re trying to make typefaces for contemporary use. Not necessarily following the trends we can see now ‒ because once you identify a trend, that means it’s probably already peaked and is almost over. And it takes so long to make a typeface that if you’re following trends, you’re always going to be behind. So, we just sort of… it sounds very abstract and maybe it will make us sound crazy, but we try to just listen to that inner voice in the back of our minds: what are you interested in right now? What are you curious about right now? What do you think would be an interesting thing to see in graphic design? And that was where Canela came from, which was one of our most recent releases. Our studio is structured so that Paul and I are always working on variety of things: both custom projects and typefaces for release. But for Miguel and Greg, our designers, they work four days a week on Commercial Type work and on one day per week they’re required to work on a personal project: something that is their idea with the intention of putting it in the library as a release. And to come up with an idea for that when you have a blank sheet of paper in front of you and you say “Draw anything. Draw what you’re interested in”, that can be a really difficult challenge. And so, both of them had managed to listen to that inner voice in the back of their head to say “What’s an interesting thing that I would like to see in graphic design?” And Canela came out of Miguel’s interest in Caslon, but trying to make something that wasn’t just a Caslon revival. And it ended up turning into him exploring his own identity from where he grew up and where he’s lived and worked, and where he studied and where he is now. So, it’s Caslon as interpreted by a Mexican designer who studied in the Netherlands and now lives and works in New York. And so, that perspective - I can’t say exactly how that informs the shapes but it certainly informed the narrative of how he came up with the idea and drew the typeface.

IR: How is collaboration with different designers organized? For instance, how did Erik van Blokland’s Action typeface become a part of the Commercial Type collection? How does this happen?

CS: We like ideas, and Action had a really compelling idea. How do you make a typeface for interface design? Interface design is usually done with typefaces like San Francisco and Verdana and Arial and Yandex Sans ‒ really stripped back, plain, non-expressive typefaces that don’t get in the way of the interface design, that don’t get in the way of the content. They’re meant to really be in the background and just be read. Nothing less, nothing more, not adding a lot of additional personality. And Action was the opposite of that. It’s a typeface that is really condensed and has a strong personality. But it’s built in such a way that it’s perfect for interface design because the grades can be used for all of this. And so it has the clarity that it would need to be effective for interface design. But it has a really distinct personality. So we thought that this was an interesting idea and Paul (Paul Barnes, cofounder of Commercial Type) and I are both friends with Erik, so when he showed it to us, we immediately said “Yes, we want to publish this. And we will figure out a way to get it in front of people and make people understand it”, which we’re still working on, because so far it has primarily been licensed for print design, which we didn’t expect at all. So now we’re working on a mini-site to show it off a bit better to interface designers.

IR: Actually, you have quite a big collection of very condensed sans serifs right now. Giorgio Sans, Druk has various styles with condensed…

CS: Well, it’s a big part of graphic design. Graphic designers love condensed sans serifs, because editors always have a lot of words, graphic designers like big words and so… do the math!

IR: Speaking about graphic design, editorial design, and typography in general, do you have any feel of current trends in it? I mean, of course, we’re living in the era of postmodernism, but it could be different. So, how will we remember 2015-2016? Is there anything specific?

CS: It’s funny, there are two threads at the same time where things are pretty conservative right now, and that’s why you see so much of typefaces like Graphik and why the popularity of Helvetica never goes away. But also things have gotten weird. There’s a lot of really weird editorial design going on right now and I think Bloomberg Businessweek was a big part of this. They redesigned five or six years ago. It doesn’t look like a business magazine but it’s made of parts that make sense in a business magazine. And I think the success of that redesign gave a lot of other creative directors permission to be weird again, to use type in illustrative and expressive and sometimes shocking ways, weaving the type and the illustration together in such a way that they’re really all part of the same thing ‒ not separate layers just next to or on top of each other. I think editorial design has gotten a lot more expressive again.

And I think a big part of how we stay connected to what’s current and what’s going on today is through the work that we do for clients. And yet the budgets are not nearly what they used to be and it would be hard to run our business just on that alone these days. It seems that every year the budget for a custom typeface is half of what it was the year before. But we still put a lot of emphasis on doing custom work for publications. Partly because it’s why we got into this in the first place. All four of us are graphic designers first who became type designers. And Paul and I ‒ Paul more than me ‒ both worked in editorial design and have a real love for it. And so we want to stay in that world, and figured out a way to do so. And some of the most interesting things we come up with… like I never would’ve come up with Stag if it hadn’t been for David Curcurito and Darhil Crooks at Esquire, because we’d just finished up Guardian Egyptian and I had zero interest in drawing another slab serif. I’d just been there, I had figured out what I wanted to say about the genre and then I said it and I felt “Done!” But then David and Darhil came along and they said “Well, we want a slab serif and it needs to do these things and it needs to put a lot of ink on the page in a certain way.” And that was an interesting enough idea that it led to a different typeface. That push and pull with the client, I think, is a really great place to get something interesting.

IR: Speaking of which, as soon as we came back to talking about the collection, I wanted to ask you: How do you think, which typeface from your collection has more of the contemporary to it? Or perhaps list three of them.

CS: I think Graphik really sums up what people are really interested in in graphic design right now. And it’s the Helvetica/Univers genre, it’s a Modernist European sans serif. But I think what appeals to people about it is that they can use it in these Modernist kinds of ways without it having the baggage of Neue Haas Grotesk or Helvetica. And so I think that that’s something that people are really interested in today. But it’s 20th century shapes and so how today is it really? I think something like Dala Prisma is much more a typeface of today, even though it comes from Renaissance shapes. Graphik is a typeface that you could’ve made for hot metal or it could’ve been for handset metal, it could’ve been for phototype. Dala Prisma is really hard to make without the assistance of a computer. Frederik Berlaen made a custom tool for RoboFont that allowed us to get Dala Prisma kind of 90% of the way there, and then Ben Kiel had to do a lot of additional work to finish it. But I don’t know if it really would’ve been possible or practical to make six styles of that without the assistance of digital tools. And so I think that, even though the shapes come from the Renaissance, the execution of it was a very current thing.

IR: Okay. But besides these, if I narrow your choices down to the serif typefaces, what would your answer be from among the serif typefaces part of your collection?

CS: Probably Lyon. Even though it was one of the first typefaces that we released it still makes a strong statement, because, again, it comes from French Renaissance typefaces, Robert Granjon, but the funny thing about type is that when you see a typeface from the 16th century, it’s not the same as looking at clothes or paintings or music from the 16th century. It still feels normal. So, Lyon is a perfectly normal-looking typeface that you would want to read in a book or in a magazine. But the way Kai (Bernau) drew it, he left the fingerprints of the tools that he used. So it feels digital in its finish, even though the basis is in forms from hundreds of years ago. And I think that updating history in a way that kind of shows how the work is done, that shows the tools and the materials it was made with, that feels like a very today idea to me.

IR: At some point you started to invest quite a lot in extending the language support of your collection. Can you explain why?

CS: Well, a lot of that came from working with publications that have a lot of international editions. Austin Cyrillic was originally drawn for InStyle magazine, because they used Austin worldwide. They used it in the US first, and then Britain and Poland and Spain etc., etc. And so, when they went to publish a Russian edition, they wanted it to look like the brand and the voice of InStyle, so they commissioned Austin with Cyrillic. And we’ve gotten more into the complicated world of corporate typefaces—something which really took a while. And it’s really different from working with magazines. It feels very asymmetrical. We’re a company of seven people. And so, dealing with a corporation where they have more than seven people just in their legal department dealing with software licensing, we feel a little overwhelmed sometimes. A multinational corporation needs to have the voice of their brand wherever they are. For example, KPMG, the massive consulting and accounting firm somehow decided on Giorgio Sans as the new voice of their brand, which was a really bold choice and it really makes their identity much more interesting than you would ever expect from a multinational accounting firm. That’s a fashion typeface originally drawn for a fashion magazine. And here it is in Power Point presentations about how Brexit is going to work. And so, this distinctive voice of their brand needed to be extended to the rest of the world and, again, that’s where Giorgio Sans Cyrillic and Greek came from. Hopefully soon some other languages as well. But realizing that not all these clients have the time and the budget to commission the extensions, we try to be proactive and extend some of the more popular typefaces ourselves. So, Stag, Graphik and soon Guardian Egyptian and Guardian Sans will all have Greek and Cyrillic support.

IR: But are you doing that just because you believe that they’ll be welcomed by local designers?

CS: Well, yes. And that’s why we work with local people to do the localization. So, we’re not attempting to draw the Greek and Cyrillic ourselves, because… I learnt the Cyrillic alphabet and though I can’t speak Russian I can now look at a page of Russian text and sound out what all the words are. But I haven’t been fully immersed in these forms since learning to read. So I can learn the correct structures are for the letters and know a lot of possibilities, but culturally I don’t know which options go together to feel a certain way to a local designer. If I were to draw a Russian typeface, it would speak with a thick American accent. And if I’m selling to that a multinational corporation who’s based primarily in the US, that’s fine. All they care is that it ticks off the Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian on their list of languages that they need to support. But we want to make something that’s a little more interesting than that for local designers and something that feels more native and more legitimate. So that’s why we work with designers like you to make our Cyrillic.

IR: Several years ago we got used to seeing the release of new typefaces in huge families: many styles, super wide code pages. But in the last few years this trend has changed to one of finding a new idea, novelty, or originality (sometimes in very well-known and researched areas). Do you agree? Has creativity became a value again?

CS: I think initially with digital type there was a real push for legitimacy, because when digital type first came around a lot of people didn’t really believe that it was here to stay and that there was going to be a transition over to that and that all type was eventually going to be set in the most part digitally. Even in the ‘90s, when ITC put out their U&lc magazines, there was a little badge somewhere in the back of the magazine that said “phototypeset for quality”. And there were ads in the back for Adobe Fonts and all of these different new digital foundries, both large and small. And ITC was still typesetting their magazine photographically. So I think there was an idea that yes, this digital stuff was going to be interesting and Emigre and bitmaps and maybe something with vectors, but this is going to be a novelty and it’s not really here to stay. So, initially they had to get all the popular typefaces into digital format, Helvetica, Times, Univers; so that digital typesetting had legitimacy, so we could all see that they could do the same things. But as the technology matured type designers wanted to show that we’re not just going to make digital versions of the old things. We’re going to make new things and these digital tools are just as good as all the tools we’ve ever had. Look at these giant families we can make, and isn’t interpolation amazing? And those families are still around. We still have the Interstates of the world, which are as useful as ever. And since we have that base of large, functional typeface families in place already, we can all start doing a lot more work that expresses more specifically the time that we’re in.

IR: How does it feel, being a rock star?

CS: It’s funny that such an anonymous profession is getting the attention that it is. Because usually you see a typeface out there in the world but your name isn’t on it. The name of the designer is not on the typeface. You see it on a poster, in a magazine, or on a website. So, this idea of type designers being rock stars… people are being ironic about that, right?

IR: Not always. The industry is really growing and we’re living in a time when everyone is starting to choose typefaces and actually feel the typefaces even more than they used to. There are many more new releases than ever, I think, so sometimes some of the most brilliant designers do become rock stars.

CS: I think a part of that came from the ‘90s, when graphic designers became rock stars for the first time. Herb Lubalin was well known among other graphic designers but somebody like David Carson, I think, became a real cultural reference that was seen outside of the graphic design world. So I think that could go over to type designers. Maybe not average people but certainly a lot more people than before have heard of Tobias Frere-Jones.

IR: I see. Actually my question was more based on the last conference at the Cooper Union in which your name was mentioned in almost every lecture. So, that kind of gave me the idea that you’d really become a rock star of the type industry.

CS: That was very flattering and it was also kind of embarrassing.

IR: I would be proud probably.

CS: It feels good but it also… it’s a little embarrassing, because I went to the conference in order to see what these other people have to say. I don’t know, it’s embarrassing. I like the anonymity of type design!

IR: I was really surprised to hear because some of the people were saying things like “Christian gave me this idea and I looked into it and researched in this direction because of that” or sometimes people were just mentioning the project… So, it was different too. It’s not like everyone is just saying good words about you. They were giving their lectures.

CS: When I was starting out, there were some people who were extremely helpful to me and really generous with their time and with their ideas and their knowledge. People like Erik Spiekermann, Tobias Frere-Jones, and David Berlow. So I really want to try to do the same for people coming up now. I mean, it would be terrible to have some success and then try to kick the ladder out behind me and make sure that other new up-and-coming designers couldn’t do the same. And it’s a community and also it’s also a craft and a profession that’s been around for 500 years and I want to do what I can to keep it going for 500 more.

IR: That’s a perfect ending for our interview. Thank you very much!

CS: Thank you!

Mentioned fonts