Berlin-based Philipp Neumeyer doesn’t speak any Cyrillic-based languages, but still manages to design a decent, and surprisingly interesting, Cyrillic set. Ilya Ruderman has talked to Neumeyer on accessibility of type design, tolerance and curiosity for the non-perfect things, his favourite Cyrillic characters, and the variety of font licensing issues.
Ilya Ruderman: When I say type design, which typeface do you imagine?
Philipp Neumeyer: It’s hard to think of one typeface, there are so many good ones, of course.
IR: Normally people reply with the one they are working on.
PN: I’m not very constant with my work. Seems like I work on too many to get any one finished.
IR: What person it would be then?
PN: Probably all of my teachers. The first that came to my mind, I think, was Erik van Blokland. He’s been so prominent for me as a teacher.
IR: You consider Albert-Jan Pool the person who taught you first. Is it correct?
PN: Yes, he taught type design during my bachelor’s degree and he introduced me to type design.
IR: I actually did an interview with Albert-Jan more than 10 years ago. How different was the way he explained theory, practice, and everything compared to what you saw later at TypeMedia?
PN: With him I first started using brush or ink pens, just making lines and stuff. Later on we had some bits and pieces where he taught us some theory — Gerrit Noordzij’s cube and everything. I’m afraid at that point I was not really completely open to this kind of stuff, so I don’t remember how all these things were. Albert-Jan was very different from the other teachers I had back then. The details he looked at and how he tried to explain letter forms to us was very interesting but back then maybe not as catchy. At that time I just wanted to use type and making it myself. Besides that I don’t remember contradicting theories or points of views to what was taught at TypeMedia.
Source: Selective Wreckage / Outtakes from the type design process, Philipp Neumeyer’s tumblr blog
IR: After TypeMedia you met another student of Gerrit Noordzij, Lucas de Groot, right? How different was his understanding of type from the others?
PN: Obviously, Lucas is very pen-driven too, I would say. He was also there for critique in my TypeMedia class, and he talked about so many things that no other teachers mentioned before, certain details. The first time he looked at my stuff and told me things, that was the moment something just opened up to me, that none talked about before. At that point that was really… maybe not eye-opening, but it was like some sort of input that I haven’t had before. It was really interesting, very specific, I would say.
IR: Later, you spent a couple years at the LucasFonts. I know, you’ve been more busy with developing already existing font families, rather than working on something new — but still, you got an idea of how Lucas’ views on type. What were his main techniques and how did they change your way of working?
PN: I’m not sure if it was so much different from what I’d been taught before. I think with time you acknowledge some things as your base, and then more and more stuff is adding up to that. It seems, I’m now more open to different things. If I enrolled at TypeMedia right now, I would learn a lot more — things I was not able to comprehend back then, being limited in my understanding.
There are quite some things I’ve learned from Lucas.
His approach to proportions, his way of making smaller things work with each other or how to draw proper fat condensed typefaces for example. As well as; how special FontLab 5 is, was and probably will be the next thousand years.
And I’ve learned that nothing will ever get done.
IR: After all this experience learning and practicing, what is type for you now?
PN: I think, when it comes to my own type design, most of the time I explore how things work and how things are done. You always ask me why my cyrillics look the way they do. I don’t know, I never knew they were so abnormal. And it’s the same with everything else I do.
Today the world of type feels like another area of graphic design, because it’s super easy to do type. I mean, there’s a reason why I’m in it, since I’m a rather lazy person. That it’s easy, it means that people that don’t go to fancy type schools also make type. I think it took me a while to acknowledge their right to exist. Because they often don’t play by our rules. Some say their work looks crap, because it’s not made properly. But I guess you have to accept that everybody can make type. It’s really interesting to see how it evolves and where things are going. After all, who am I to decide what’s good and what’s not?
IR: Was there a point when you were not okay with seeing so many imperfect fonts around you?
PN: Yeh, I guess I noticed things look unprofessional to me. But what is unprofessional? I think it felt unprofessional to me because some things looked the opposite of what I have been taught. Lots of stuff are made crappy or quirky on purpose and even if not, it has a right to be.
IR: What is your personal understanding of your own work?
PN: I think it’s a good mixture of everything that I’ve learnt, and everything that I’ve seen, and do consume on a regular basis. I try to make sense of all these things. I also change my mind on things, constantly.
IR: Do you do anything besides type? Do you collaborate with some graphic designers, or web designers?
PN: Not really. I have some friends who do typography or graphic design, I always give them my typefaces for testing in hope of getting some feedback.
IR: In a talk you gave a couple years ago at Typetersburg, you’ve been promoting your Tumblr, Selective Wreckage, in which you share sketches, design process and everything. Today, Future Fonts looks like a perfect fit for your beliefs. What do you like about Future Fonts?
PN: I do like Future Fonts because you can test the waters with designs. In theory, you can also get feedback for the typeface that is not completely done. Designers can tell you that whatever you were trying to do with this, doesn’t work. Or just say “I need an Italic of that” or “this combination doesn’t work”, “I wanted to set a headline, but it didn’t work”, or “That’s illegible”. This would make a great motivation to keep going, especially for me, since these are, more or less, my first font releases.
So far, I haven’t gotten so much feedback on most of my stuff, which is a shame. I hope that is still to come.
IR: We didn’t receive any feedback yet as well. Do you see any kind of disadvantages of this way of distribution, do you have some skepticism towards it?
PN: I heard complaints from one or two people, who wanted to distribute their, now completed, fonts through a foundry — they wouldn’t publish it. Because it was already published at Future Fonts. Which I think is a shame. But I also kind of get it: their product is not completely exclusive and it has been in other hands before.
In the beginning I was just super interested how this works in general. If people would participate at all. So far, it’s growing super-fast, and I’m still interested in where it’s going. It seems like it could become a proper type foundry at some point.
IR: Okay, now I’ve got some questions about your design process. You’ve become interested in italics after a project for which you were not ready. Now italics is your thing, isn’t it?
PN: I think I have a very strong love-hate-love relationships with italics, in general. It’s just so hard to make them, and I still wonder how to get it done properly. The project you’re talking about, was a small logo job right after TypeMedia. I was in desperate need of money, so I agreed right away. They wanted a scripty, cursive logo, something that I had never done before. But of course I claimed to be an expert in doing that. The end result is okay, I think. It could have been better but also way worse.
IR: Is this the same story with Cyrillic and Greek?
PN: Maybe just with Cyrillic. Greek only came recently, actually. In Greek, it seems like even they don’t know where to put the contrast, so how the hell should I know. We had classes at TypeMedia with Peter Biľak and then I did some Greek at LucasFonts and Playtype. Recently I took a deep dive into Greek, its history, how forms were translated, how forms are made today; all of a sudden it seemed more interesting than before.
With my latest release, Theodor, I was interested to put that newfound knowledge to work. It was the first time I enjoyed doing Greek.
IR: Did Cyrillic also start from TypeMedia classes?
PN: Unfortunately not. I really wanted to do Cyrillic back then, but we didn’t do it. We only did Greek.
IR: How did your interest in Cyrillic start?
PN: I think I was interested in the whole Russia thing for quite some time because of all stereotypes, like; Russia is the enemy of the west. Everybody and everything is bribed. And it’s always cold in Russia — I do like cold weather. I was given an assignment at LucasFonts, to do Cyrillic and Greek for fonts that hadn’t had those scripts. There was Aleksandra Samuļenkova that helped me out and taught me some stuff. Later on, I met Daria Petrova and Maria Doreuli. For whatever reason there was something that really caught my interest and when I discovered Cyrillic italics I was hooked.
IR: What do you feel when working with Cyrillic? How is it different from Latin?
PN: I mean, I know all the letters that I have to draw. By name and how to at least almost properly pronounce them. But I still find details that I’m not doing right, apparently — or, at least, people often try to explain where these details come from and what kind of proportions they should have. I use a lot of reference: old specimen, new specimen or work by other people. Also I have been to Moscow and St. Petersburg a couple of times and always walked with my eyes wide open, reading and looking at every letter.
I try to understand where things are coming from but at the same time, I mix it with whatever I think it should be. It’s more or less my interpretation, how I think things might work. I don’t necessarily try to make it weird or different, though.
IR: Do you have any favorite glyphs? Or some glyphs that you struggle with the most? Can you highlight any letterforms you like spending time figuring out?
PN: I think one of the favorites is, of course, the б — it seems like one of the most difficult ones and I might not ever get it right, although I try to. (laughs) It’s also a character that can have a lot of personality, it’s lots of fun to draw.
Ф and Ж might get tricky, since you have three verticals, more or less. And everything with diagonals can be tricky, too. Of course, Я is awesome, because it’s about the same letter as R. And you often have the same letterforms for the lowercase, which is awesome!
IR: Do you have any observations on the type industry in general? You mentioned that we see a lot of fonts releases by graphic designers, which may be very different in terms of style. People experiment a lot. I mean, it was not the same in the age of metal type, nor right after most type turned digital, thirty years ago. The industry still remained quite conservative, but today I feel as if all boundaries are disappearing. You can do whatever you want, can’t you? What do you think?
PN: Right now everybody can do type, you don’t need a fancy degree or anything like that. You just need a computer and software like Glyphs, which is super easy to use — you quickly make some letterforms, press Cmd+E, and here you go.
There also seems to be a sort of type hype right now. Everybody is hanging lettering works at their apartments, not just type nerds — it looks like some sort of fashion.
I think type design will eventually become easier and easier. I remember reading an interview arguing that Bézier curves are going to become obsolete. David Březina studies the future of type powered by neural network, a theme that gives me a weird feeling in my stomach. So maybe sooner or later no one would need us anymore. We’re talking about type tomorrow, right?
IR: Partly, yes.
PN: That’s both interesting and scary.
IR: What do you think about today’s distribution — the classic purchase model, and renting?
PN: When it comes to Fontstand, I think the concept is really interesting. It’s so much easier for users to actually test a whole range of fonts — and if they decide to actually rent one, it would only be a fraction of the normal price. I don’t make money from Fontstand, because I’m not there. From what I heard from other people, they didn’t lose any clients that would actually buy their typefaces available on Fontstand — they test them and then they go over to their website to buy them. I don’t know if it’s always the case, though.
I think FontStand is a good way to make your product visible. You have a bigger outreach with them, compared to your own website which no-one might know about. It’s not the case with MyFonts, for example — there’s just so much stuff there, that you are likely to get lost. Except for when they have their 90%-off sales — that is a way to learn about some new product. Typekit is nicer, in a way — you have everything available through the menu, you can get things tested. That’s from the customer’s perspective. I don’t know about their royalty policy, to be honest.
I don’t know if the normal way of selling type would disappear completely, at some point. Do you lose any big clients because of the subscription model? Do people still care about buying proper licenses?
IR: Quite a lot of people do, especially companies, which need to report their operations to the tax authorities. Basically, I would say half our retail revenue comes from corporate licensing. There’s always a lot paperwork, because of the Russian bureaucracy. And lots of negotiation, naturally.
Our record negotiation period so far is eight months — it was about 140 emails, sent and received. Sometimes you end up talking to the whole law department — they check each word in the agreement, simply as a justification for their existence. “Is this term correct?” “Should we add some explanation to that term here?” Suddenly, the whole text is being written anew.
These are usually some substantial contracts, so that you know why you are doing all that. Allright, stop interviewing me! (Laughs)
PN: I feel like all foundries should agree to one short, understandable EULA. So that everybody can read it and it’s not like twenty pages of lawyer language. What I hate about licensing in general, is the fact it’s different everywhere. It’s confusing and annoying for many type users.
IR: Do you think there should be a separate license for using a font in a logo?
PN: I actually know people who are thinking of a separate logo license — or already have one. I mean, if they don’t touch the letterforms, then it’s still just your type. Whether they typeset a book cover, or print stickers, or cover large buildings with your type… I don’t know whether it’s all fine.
To be honest, I still haven’t made up my mind because there’re so many use situations that look fair — but, on second thought, they don’t. When this FutureFonts thing started, everybody had to make up their own EULA, and I also had to get into it and I had to read so many other EULAs — which was quite tedious. Some only allow to modify small details, others let you do all you want. I still don’t know where I should put myself — but then again, who is really reading that stuff? Many people use the font improperly and I should probably sue everybody doing a logo with it.
IR: Actually, quite a lot of people do read it, including some professionals who are not afraid to modify characters.
PN: The modification, oh! I have some friends doing graphic design or typography, and they sometimes ask me, “Is it okay if I do it?” “Everything is in the EULA.” “Okay. What’s EULA then?”
IR: That’s a complicated matter.
PN: Do you never get that?
IR: We receive a lot of questions about everything, but we are running the distribution project. Today in the morning, I received a call from a young woman — basically, I helped her install the font on her PC. She was ready to buy a license but she didn’t have any idea. Basically her question was, “How do I put the font into my PowerPoint presentation?” Some people have questions like that. It’s okay. I explained it while having my morning coffee.
PN: Was she Russian?
IR: She was from Russia, yes.
PN: What about the EULA? Are you confident with yours? Do you think it’s the best version possible?
IR: I’d seen quite a lot of different EULAs. Some people just put it super-short, like, “Guys, I am giving you the rights to use the thing which I invented. It’s my intellectual property. Be respectful. Do this freely and don’t do that, because that’s my part.” Basically, that’s the way RoU (rights of use — Editor’s note) are usually written.
My main problem with all those documents is different, it’s the language itself. Lawyers force us to write in the lawyer kind of way which is an anti-human way to describe anything. That’s my main issue, because instead of that, I would prefer to have the same document describing the main ideas nicely, in normal English or Russian. “We did this. We are allowing you freely to do this amount of things, but please do not touch that because those are the things which we take care of.”
PN: Do you have a special license for logos?
IR: We don’t. In our policy, using a font in a logo is covered by desktop license. Even with modifications, even if the person used our font, converted it to vector shapes and transformed it, I’m okay with that, as long as they paid for the license. Because that’s the same thing that happens in magazines, when they design a big headline in which, for instance, play with the descenders. They need an eye-catching headline and they need to customize the curves, otherwise it would be just the boring font. That’s okay.
PN: I get that, but I also get the point that it’s not fair buying a font for 70 euros and making a much larger paycheck for a logo.
IR: I was provoking you! I’m dealing with a lot of questions and requests on such matters. For instance, it’s still not clear how to license fonts for videos. Imagine a huge company, present basically all over Europe, a big brand. They buy one desktop license to put the font into their video ad which would be spread everywhere, get millions of views.
PN: Like a website? Which is usually paid in views?
IR: The Web is a bit different story. The case with the video is particularly interesting from the perspective of how they use it. They use it as a desktop font. They don’t publish the font anyhow, it stays within their After Effects or whatever. They put it inside one video, they publish that on YouTube, on Facebook, on Instagram. They receive millions of views, the size of the project is so huge, but the desktop use is, in fact, super tiny. They only render the video, that’s it.
I try to think of an honest way to deal with that. In this case, the honest way of licensing will be not by amount of usage, but the size of the project in general. If you’re working with something big — big money, big audience — then you probably should pay more than someone making a home video. Christian Schwartz, for instance, disagrees with that. He’s been working with a lot of publishing houses, like Guardian, he argues “How I should I license a newspaper with millions of copies daily? If I count the copies, the paycheck would be immense.”
Everything is borderline, in a way. People have different views on what’s fair, that’s why there are so many policies. I know some old-school designers who still have a logo license. “If you want to use my fonts in logos, please go ahead, but do buy a more expensive license.” I understand this logic as well because…
PN: We all do.
IR: Yeah. Again, it’s you interviewing me!
I believe, you want to argue how great it would be if all type designers agreed on one EULA. Well…
PN: I know it seems impossible, yeah.
IR: Coming back to the interview. You keep working on these three typefaces which are on Future Fonts, right? You’re probably busy with some custom font projects as well?
PN: Not at the moment, but sometimes I am.
IR: Would you open your own foundry or something?
PN: I might. No one knows.
IR: We’re recording an interview right now, you can tell the world.
PN: Ilya, you need to keep up the suspense.
IR: Tell me deadline. Until when?
PN: Well, you have told me I’m a dreamer…
IR: You are a dreamer, I think so. As we understood now you’re busy with your foundry website which would be launched this year?
IR: Oh really? So slow? Next year? (laughs)
PN: If everything goes great, maybe 2025–2026. I’m still dreaming about it.
IR: Do you enjoy being independent after several years working for studios?
PN: I am kind of semi-independent. I still work for the Playtype people on freelance basis. Apart from that, of course, it’s up to me what to be busy with. It’s exciting — sometimes scary, because the bills need to be paid, but I like it.
IR: Can you mention the studios that you admire?
PN: Maybe not necessarily studios but I do admire a lot of people’s work.
To mention some smaller but hugely talented names: my fellow contemporaries Loris Cyril Olivier, Inga Plönnigs, Bernd Volmer, Cristian Vargas, Marko Hrastovec, Minjoo Ham, Jan Fromm… I could probably go on forever, but I won’t.
I do like the work of the TypeMates a lot and I do admire that they apparently still believe in me. I was supposed to finish a typeface for them ages ago. I’m working on it!
I have nothing but respect and admiration for my colleague and friend — yes, Daria. I said friend — Daria Petrova. Not just for keep pointing out all my mistakes, but also for her eyes and taste in the unusual and macabre.
And I am a big admirer of Sir Stefan Ellmer. He is not only ingenious when it comes to drawing curves, but with his whole attitude and intelligence that he embraces his crafts with. This person is a whole different level.
I’m glad to say that I am befriended with the excellent typographers Teresa Döge and Björn Schmidt who studied in Kiel as well. They might not be known internationally yet, but they do a lot of stunning book typography with amazing microdetails. I do like their stuff a lot.
IR: And they are testing your fonts, right?
PN: Yes, sometimes. I have a Dropbox folder where I put some of my designs for some people to test and have fun with. I’m also very grateful for people who give me feedback.
IR: Is there anything you would like to say to the audience, or someone you want to address?
PN: Mom, dad: I love you! And everybody else, buy my typefaces! Trust me when I say I’m good at what I do.
Read more interviews with type designers:
Maria Doreuli: “I avoid any lists of criteria as much as I can”
Benoît Bodhuin: “Offering some kind of human filling in typography”