Swiss Typefaces: “We don’t design typefaces for type designers”

A conversation between Ilya Ruderman and Swiss Typefaces’ Ian Party and Emmanuel Rey on Formula 1, the Porsche 911, their studio’s fonts, and what all these have in common

February 7, 2017

A conversation between Ilya Ruderman and Swiss Typefaces’ Ian Party and Emmanuel Rey on Formula 1, the Porsche 911, their studio’s fonts, and what all these have in common

Ilya Ruderman: As usual, I’m starting this conversation with a main subject. The main idea is to somehow summarise everything about type today, everything about its aesthetics, technology, trends, movements, and everything that can be described as type today. All of my questions basically relate to this main thing. I would like to start by asking if you have any personal observations about what is type today exactly?

Ian Party: What is type today? My initial response would be that type today is the typeface that we are currently designing. It’s a simple answer, but it means a lot. It means that we have to think about what we should design next. How is the world of design now? How was that world before? Must we redo the same things done before? Do we need to do revivals or not? Do we need to create new fonts? What is a new font? What is a classic font? I think there are a lot of different answers to these questions. I think for us the type of today are the typefaces that we are now designing. This is our answer to the question. If you want to design anything for a document or whatever, there are already a lot of typefaces, so why design new ones? That is the question. And the answer is that you want to have the typeface of today, and that’s what we are designing.

Emmanuel Rey: That’s the same thing for a car or in the fashion industry. We don’t have the same car design than 20 years ago, so we also need new type designs for our current aesthetic moods.

Emmanuel_and_Ian_portrait Emmanuel Rey and Ian Party

IR: Quick question on this point: type design is a long process. Everything that we are doing today we cannot use immediately. Most of the time we spend at least two months on production to make an actual, working typeface. How do you manage this?

IP: If people want to design a new computer or a new car, it’s a five to six year process. So, in terms of design, a typeface is quite quickly done compared to that. We can be more reactive. Now, with the tools that we have, such as the computer, etc., it’s a six months to one year process to design a typeface. And it could be less, depending.

IR: And you consider this quick production compared to other areas, right?

IP: If we just think about graphic design, most of the time it’s a process of four months to one year, so we are on the same length. Type design used to be quite long. In the time of Didot, it took quite a long time to design a typeface. There is a text by one member of the Didot family – I can’t remember which one – in the period from 1810 to 1820 that said that the process of creating a new typeface for a special purpose was so fast that they could create a new typeface for each book. It took something between three to four months for them to create a new character set. So, it’s not too long.

IR: I expected longer, yes.

IP: Yes, for some people I think it was, but with the process Didot used at the time, he could do it quite fast.

IR: You’ve mentioned it already, but all of us think a lot about novelty. We accumulate everything around us from different aspects and parts of culture – sometimes music, sometimes art, sometimes architecture – and put it into our graphics and typefaces. From a visual point of view, what is truly novel these days?

IP: You mean what visually inspires us?

IR: For each of you, where are you finding novelty? We touched on it before and you mostly focused on a certain historical period.

IP: Currently, my main inspiration is everything fast. I like fast things and how technology can make things fast. I like Formula 1. I’m not a big fan of watching the races, but I like how Formula 1 cars are designed. I like new boats, motorbikes… Everything. I also like cycling a lot. I like everything that is built to be fast and efficient. I like what is efficient. Perhaps this is the word. The main rules for us are the rules of nature, the rules of physics, the rules of organic curves, and an organic way of thinking about shape. This is the organic way. I think this is how we think about the whole design process.

IR: Can you be a little bit more specific and mention any of your typefaces built on this concept? Because, from my point of view, some of them are quite the opposite. They are breaking those rules. They provoke.

IP: Yes, but if you look at designs that are supposed to be efficient, for instance if you look at the new time trial bikes, there are some really curvy shapes and then suddenly there are huge, broken straight lines. It’s the same with Formula 1. You have that round shape and suddenly you have an element that breaks everything, which is really straight. I don’t understand why there are those kinds of things, but they are calculated to make it efficient. So, this is how I think my design. My design is not efficient in terms of speed, because the typeface doesn’t move, but it has to inspire this movement, the movement of the XXI century. I think if you put the design of a Formula 1 or a bike next to one of our typefaces, it makes sense. It should make sense. This is how I imagine the curves.

swisstypefaces_TheW_2 swisstypefaces_TheW_1 TheW typeface

ER: I think it’s important that you’ve mentioned the speed of curves as a rule. For us, it’s important not to stick to these boring type design rules they try to impose on you at school. There are no rules in type design and your eyes are the only referee. You can do anything, as long as the visual result is interesting and working for the purpose you’re designing for. I’m inspired by street, graffiti and nightclubs culture. I’m also interested in the music industry, because they had a similar change between something physical and something digital with the arrival of the MP3 format. They have to adapt to the digital world. To me, this is a really good example for type design, because we have to invent the new business model of the digital era for type design.

IR: Can you mention any specific graffiti artists? Because graffiti could be quite different and, in this case, I’m imagining a very wide area of inspiration.

ER: I have no precise references, I’m not looking for what could be considered as nice graffitis. I like to feel different energies and ambiances, different ways for people to express themselves by writing on walls or trains with an adrenaline rush: this is interesting and inspiring, not the graffiti in itself. I’m interested in the free movement of the hand, without rules or guides.

IR: So, it’s more about those kinds of graffiti which are written and not balloon lettering or that kind of thing?

ER: Yes, mostly tags, it’s more spontaneous.

IP: As he said, I think it’s something really important for us that in type design there are no rules. You can do whatever you want. If you want to have E with a calligraphic structure and S with no calligraphic structure, and if it looks really good – do it. I don’t think anybody can say, “No, the S doesn’t have the same structure.” You don’t care. If it works and creates something cool – do it.

IR: Do you think you are alone in the market or in the industry in thinking that way about freedom and how wide open it is?

IP: I don’t see a lot of people designing things as we do. I think a lot of people while presenting their typefaces like to talk about a lot of references: “I did this typeface because of this specimen.” “I wanted to reference this or that.” When I think of how we create typefaces, and the last typeface that we released, people said: “What is your model?” We don’t have a single model. It’s a mix of a lot of things that we like and try. I can never say that I tried to do something based solely on this or that.

ER: This links to the previous question about what is the type of today. For me, there is no reason to build a new typeface based on old models, because there are already very good typefaces from the past and now we have to imagine the typefaces of tomorrow. This sounds like an evidence to us.

IR: Since we are speaking about this, what do you guys think about revivals?

IP: It’s hard to say. Personally, I’m not very interested in revivals. I have done some revivals in the past. For me, the revivals are interesting when you’re learning, but I don’t really see the point in doing revivals anymore. We never do revivals now. I’m not interested. I prefer to go out or go cycling. I don’t get the point of doing revivals now.

ER: I agree. If today you buy an old car, this is because you are a collector. It’s just for fun. You can like it and be passionated, which is good for you, but it’s not useful. It is not adapted to the world we are living in.

IP: It’s interesting to think about old structures. The A should be the A. When a letter doesn’t look like the letter it’s supposed to be, it’s not a letter, so it’s not a type design. Type design is to stick to the fact that the A should be the A and the E should be the E. This is part of the culture, because people have to read it. NewParis (Text, Headline, KingSize) started as a revival, but then we modified it. But there is still a lot of inspiration from the past in this typeface. There is the interesting part that we think was really actual and we had to keep it, but the typefaces that we are designing now we won’t do them in the same way that we did NewParis, for example. This was part of our creative process. It’s an old thing for us and we’ll never do something like that again. We are interested in future typefaces. The upcoming SangBleu typeface is a huge project. It will be something totally different and unlike anything else. Of course, we have our own inspiration. The French XVII century is very important to me, because it’s a period when they tried to rationalise everything. They tried to synthesise everything into a circle or a square. There was the utopian architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée. It’s amazing how he could reduce the entire world into only circles and squares. The Gardens of Versailles had trees cut into circles and only other geometrical figures. It really is an inspiring period for me, because they really tried to synthesise nature. So, we have inspiration, but we try to do everything our own way.

swisstypefaces_newparis_skyline_1 swisstypefaces_newparis_skyline_2 NewParis Skyline typeface (one of the new weights to be released in 2017)

ER: Yes, now with our years of experience in type design we are able to understand our own style and desires. We can express ourself the way we really want to. It’s far easier today to do exactly what we want, what we have in our heads.

IP: You were asking about revivals: we have another typeface that started as a revival. It’s not exactly a strong revival, but it’s a revival: the Romain. We are going to take it off the market soon. We are going to redesign it our own way and the name will be changed. We don’t want a revival in our library.

IR: If you truly understand now who you are as professionals, can you describe it somehow? How would you describe the Swiss Typefaces foundry to someone who is unfamiliar with type design? How do you describe yourself?

IP: I never say that I’m a type designer. I just say to people that I’m a designer. I describe myself everywhere as a designer. I don’t like to present myself as a type designer. I’m just a designer. I design shapes.

ER: We see it as selling design, not type design.

IP: Yes, we say that we are a design agency. The first thing we ever said was that we create and sell design, that’s it.

IR: I also usually say that I’m a graphic designer and a type designer. I don’t consider myself solely a type designer. But sometimes the next question is, “What exactly do you design?” And you have to go a little bit further to explain.

ER: I don’t think we’re that interested in explanations. When I said that we understand what we are doing today, I meant that it’s easier now, but that doesn’t mean that we can easily put it into words. Some other people are writing about design, it’s their job…

IP: …our job is to design stuff and create shapes, and maybe there are people whose job is to talk about what we do. A lot of people ask me to explain, but I say that the best explanation is my work itself. Look at my work and it tells you everything about how I see the world. Sometimes I think we are doing design because we are not good at speaking.

swisstypefaces_sangbleu_works_1 SangBleu Works typeface, to be released in 2017

IR: Last time, Ian was completely clear that he would probably prefer not to visit some other design studios and get any extra information about the design world around him. Can you talk a little bit about it? Emmanuel, do you agree or do you have some favourite graphic design studios?

ER: No, I agree totally. My favourite designer is Ian.

IP: And my favourite designer is Emmanuel. It’s simple. This is the only designer that I really look at his job. You know there are always all those type designers that have huge shelves with a lot of books of specimens or whatever. I have no specimens whatsoever. It’s the same for Emmanuel. We are going to have a new studio place next week. The only books we’ll have in our studio are the books using our typefaces. Just to show to our guests how our typefaces look.
Mmh ok… That’s wrong. I do have one book that I sometimes look at. That’s the book Le Romain du Roi for when they created that typeface and tried a modelization of the typeface. I have the facsimile of how they did that.

Le Romain du Roi

IR: That’s a good one.

IP: Yes, it’s a very good one and it’s the only book that I ever look at. I also have the Frutiger one, but I read it only once. I stopped buying books, because when I have a new book I only look through it once and then put it on the shelf. It’s a waste of money, so I prefer to put my money somewhere else.

IR: Okay, let’s talk about your collection of typefaces.

IP: Another thing about other designers really important to us: we don’t want to put one special designer up front, because we are selling stuff to people.

IR: You don’t want to have any preferences.

IP: Exactly, because as a fonts distributor we have to be neutral with the graphic designers. Everybody has to feel confortable when buying a typeface. We don’t want to put one designer up front. We are selling designs that everybody can buy and make a good use of it.

IR: Which typeface from your collection do you consider to be the most current, the most representative of 2016?

ER: The next one.

IP: Always the next one.

IR: No, one from a collection published already.

IP: The last one. It’s the SangBleu King. The next SangBleu collection has been announced and is also something really important for us in terms of how we design, think and rethink some of the shapes. We’ll send you some of the images of the new SangBleu family, but in the SangBleu family we have a lot of things like in TheW typeface.

IR: But you are sometimes updating your old typefaces, such as Euclid Flex. You are adding extra styles and extending others. From this point of view, sometimes it’s not really clear what the latest typeface is.

IP: Yes, because something that is very important to us is that we don’t want to offer a lot of typefaces. We think that having a smaller number of typefaces is better for the customer. For example, we have the Suisse Int’l. It’s our grotesque. We are not going to design another grotesque like that. It’s a basic grotesque like Vinegar or whatever. If we think that we can do another grotesque that fits better with the market or with our intentions, we simply update this one or change that one. If we think that the A is no longer a good A or doesn’t fit the current mood, we change the A or we make it more or less geometric. It’s like with the Porsche. Every five years, they release a new Porsche.

ER: It’s always the Porsche 911, but every two or three years there’s a new design.

IP: All of our typefaces will change. It will be similar to what we’ve done with the SangBleu family. Now we are going to release a new SangBleu family. Before it was the SangBleu family of ten years ago and now it’s the SangBleu family of today. Then we’ll do a new version of Suisse Works, because I’m not happy with it. I think I will design a new version of Suisse Works. So, it’s not an update. It will be a new design.

ER: We are just looking for the perfect typeface for the perfect time. If we think that something can be better than it is now, we will create something better.

IP: For example, we’re now working on NewParis Skyline. We’re making new weights for it, but we’re also changing a lot of things in the design because we think that we can do better. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good before. It just means that if we think it could fit better with the aesthetic environment today then we should change it to make it more fitting.

IR: It can be different. That’s the point.

IP: Our design is always alive. It’s something that should change. Nothing should always remain the same.

IR: Swiss. I have several questions about the country and the Swiss part of the name of your foundry. Actually, my angle of interest is that for people who have their preferences in type designers and are watching what’s going on in graphic design, we are feeling this trend of popularisation of Swiss graphic design, such as Swiss old school graphics reopening in new studios with new projects. Quite a lot of Swiss graphic design studios have become relevant. We are experiencing this Swiss trend. We discussed it last time with Ian, but I would like to repeat this part because it’s still interesting to hear what you guys are seeing from the inside. Do you consider yourself a part of this larger trend?

IP: Our name, Swiss Typefaces, is something very important to us. So, we can’t say that we don’t care about the word Swiss. If I were to say that, I’d be a huge liar. It’s the name of our company. But to be honest, when we chose the name Swiss Typefaces it was just to hack the name. We know that in the rest of the world Swiss design is something really important. Is it true or not? That’s another question. But it’s clear that everybody around the world talks about Swiss graphic design, Swiss style, Swiss design history, Swiss typefaces – and so here we are. So, we chose the name of our company by saying, “Okay, so many people on the web are trying to look for Swiss typefaces, so the best way to be on the top of the list in Google is just to have the name Swiss Typefaces.” I think that’s an answer to what we think about Swiss type design or Swiss graphic design. For us, it’s just a normal way to do design. It’s not something special. It’s our life. It’s how we grew up surrounded by Swiss graphic design, the design of the train company (CFF SBB FFS) which is a monument of Swiss graphic design, and every poster in the street. For me, this is just how the design should be or has to be. It’s only been since I started to travel around the world that I’ve said, “No, design is not always like that.” From our perspective, it’s just the normal way to design. But we understand that everybody thinks that it’s important, so we think it’s important too.

IR: But you don’t feel like you are a part of the larger trend happening right now?

IP: If Swiss graphic design is the story of graphic design created by Swiss people, we are, of course, a part of that because we are Swiss people creating and working in Switzerland. If it’s something other than just that, I’m not sure we are. Once again, it’s not our role to say if we are Swiss or not. That is for the rest of the world to say. They like to talk about whether or not we are Swiss, but I have my Swiss passport so I’m sure that I’m Swiss, geographically speaking.

IR: From a studio in Moscow, I can say your collection looks Swiss enough.

ER: Like you said before, as far as the name of the company is concerned, this is our business choice. If you are saying that you see us as Swiss or that we are part of this Swiss scene, then I think that the name is also a play on this.

IR: Probably, yes.

IP: Either way, we don’t design typefaces for type designers. We don’t create our typefaces for them. These are the only people who would never buy our typefaces, so we totally don’t care about their opinion. We create typefaces for graphic designers. This is the only thing that’s interesting for us – graphic design. What kind of typeface does the graphic design scene want or should have? And what we see is the Swiss graphic design scene around us. I want to see my typefaces on the trains here. I want to see my typefaces on the posters that I see every day on the street. I want to see my typefaces on planes. So, if I live in the Swiss environment, I can say that we produce design that would fit with that. In this way, we are Swiss and we produce Swiss graphic design because we react to our environment. If I was working in Brazil perhaps I would be doing a totally different design.

IR: Since we are speaking about different languages and different countries, my next question is about multilingual extensions and language support. We noticed several typefaces that support Cyrillic and our audience would like to know how you came to create those. Should we expect more of those from you?

IP: We are currently designing some typefaces in Cyrillic and Euclid Flex and Suisse Int’l will arrive in Cyrillic in about one month.

ER: For Euclid Flex, we have designed more than 1000 ligatures and alternates for the Cyrillic alphabet.

swisstypefaces_euclid_flex_1 Euclid Flex typeface

swisstypefaces_euclid_flex_3 Euclid Flex typeface

swisstypefaces_euclid_flex_2 Euclid Flex typeface

IP: We will also release Suisse Int’l Cyrillic at the same time with the Arabic alphabet included, all in the same font file. It’s something important for us. Everything will be in the same file, meaning that the price won’t change. If you buy Euclid Flex, you get everything included. It’ll be one file with Cyrillic, Latin, and in a year we’ll have Arabic, too. So, your question is if we are going to do more than these? I think it’s people like you who will determine the answer to that. If we see that the market is interesting, that people buy it a lot, and that it brings in a lot of money, we will do all of our library in Cyrillic, of course. It’s always a question of money when it comes to how much time you spend on something and how much money you can spend on it. Especially if you’re creating something in a new language, it’s naturally creating a new design. It’s an extension of a style. So, it’s a lot of work, of course, and we don’t do that simply for our pleasure. If the people using Cyrillic alphabets buy or like our typefaces, of course we are going to do a lot more. If nothing happens, we will wait and focus on our new Latin designs. That’s the same for Arabic. I know it sounds like I’m not really answering the question, but I know that to sell to the Cyrillic market is harder than to sell to the Latin market because of the way people buy, and especially don’t buy, typefaces. It’s not the same way here. So, we’ll see how things happen.

IR: We have different habits. That’s for sure, but this is changing over the years.

IP: That’s what we’re hoping.

ER: Creating Cyrillic characters is not only for the Russian market, but also for large multinational companies that want to cover that market. For me, that’s the main point of creating multilingual characters.

IP: Especially with Arabic, because we can’t sell typefaces to Arabic countries. You have to speak the language to be able to sell to Arabic countries. Most of the clients will send you an email in Arabic or whatever. So, our main customer are the brands that need typefaces. For example Suisse Int’l already have Cyrillic and Arabic and it will be coming out in about one month. It’s more a question of being super competitive with typefaces like Helvetica, Vinegar, or whatever. The grotesque market is so concurrent with everyone else that you have to find a way to make your typeface better than the others. You can’t do it only with the design. The grotesque is the grotesque. Sometimes even I can’t see the difference between Suisse Int’l and another typeface: “Oh, it’s my typeface!” But then it’s not. I think it’s just a way to make it better than Vinegar or Helvetica. You can do it with a better price. You can do it with a better character set or a better weights graduation or a better application. So, it’s a way to make it better than the competition, but it’s not about entering, for example, in the Arabic market, which is quite impossible for us I think. We are developing the Arabic with Pascal Zoghbi. We created typefaces for 29 Letters, which is an Arabic type foundry. It sells typefaces in Arabic countries and I think that’s perfect.

IR: Yes, I like this form of collaboration. From what I understand, Pascal is offering you to work on the Latin part and you are offering Pascal the chance to work on the Arabic part. It’s a perfect collaboration.

IP: We exchange designs in fact. Every time he designs an Arabic typeface for us, we design a Latin typeface for one of his designs, and vice versa. But for us it’s really important to work with somebody who knows how to design an Arabic type and who speaks Arabic. In my opinion, it’s impossible to create a good typeface if you are not able to read the language.

IR: I completely agree with this strategy.

IP: Even if Cyrillic is very close to Latin, there is still quite a gap between them. I need somebody next to me who is able to read it and to feel the little tensions and the rhythm of Cyrillic. I think it’s really important. I can’t do it.

IR: I think that over the years the industry has started to use this collaboration method more often to the point that it has become quite normal and usual for designers to collaborate in this way.

IP: When you’re getting a master degree in type design and one of the projects is to create a typeface for another language, such as Indian or Arabic, but you don’t speak the language… I think that’s nonsense! I don’t think you can do a good job. It’s just a gimmick, but you can’t do a really good Arabic typeface if you don’t speak the language. I’ve seen this in schools where you have to create an Arabic language typeface, and it’s clear that most of the students don’t speak or read this language. It’s not type design. It’s just an illustration. You’re just copying something and trying to make it fancy, but it’s not type design. Type design is a question of letters. It’s a question of words. So, it’s a question of reading. If you can’t read it, you’re not creating a type design, you’re doing illustration. For us it’s better to work with a guy in Russia than to have a Swiss guy here who speaks Russian. Most of the people here only speak and read our languages: German, French, or English. A lot of Arabic designers speak Arabic but speak English very well too. So if you speak languages from two different alphabets, you are able to work on both.

IR: But I’m still not 100% sure that my Latin is perfect.

IP: Yes, but if you are able to read, to understand the mood… I’m not sure that you need to be 100% fluent. I’m sure that you are 99%. I’m always jealous of Pascal, because he’s able to read and write in both Arabic and Latin. I think it’s something crazy. I really want to learn to read, write, and speak in Arabic. It’s a beautiful language.

IR: This is the guy from Switzerland speaking with three official languages.

IP: Yes, maybe it’s a part of our culture, even if those cultures don’t really speak to each other. It’s more complicated than people think to deal with different cultures. It’s not like a pure mix. Everything is grey and mixed. We don’t live with each other in a perfect harmony. It’s more complicated than that. Of course, we are used to having people who speak German here with us, but that doesn’t mean that we think exactly the same.

IR: Yes, I understand that.

IP: When I’m going to Zurich I feel like I’m going to another country.

IR: Let’s get back to type design and that kind of thing. My next question is about technology. As far as I understand, you are using RoboFont.

IP: Yes.

IR: Scripting, Python probably.

IP: No. We don’t script. As we like to say, we are designers, not programmers. I don’t do scripts. If I need something, I ask somebody to do it for me, but we don’t script. We don’t use technology. I think we are the worst people in the world with those kind of things. We know nothing about it.

ER: We just use the pen tool.

IP: Yes, and the arrow. Of course, we use softwares like Superpolator and Prepolator, but there are people who are definitely better than us to do these kind of things. I trust Frederik Berlaen 200% to create a good software and we are happy to use it. And when I have trouble, I shout, “Help me!” We have the chance to have an amazing type engineer, Christoph Koeberlin, who is working with us and every time there is something technological we need or any little problem he takes care of it. I think everybody has to work where they’re best. It’s specialisation. We don’t use any of these kinds of things. We never wrote a script or anything. Do you remember the scripting course at KABK? I never wrote anything inside the program. It was just too much, so I was doing other stuff.

IR: There should have been an exam or something.

IP: Yes, somebody gave me his code. There’s no question about it. I don’t even know how to do any of that. I’m lame.

swisstypefaces_krsna_1 KRSNA typeface, to be released in 2017

IR: But you guys have probably heard about Open Type Variables and this kind of new technology coming out.

IP: Variable fonts are one of the key of our future development. All our font will be released in this new format. We thought about a business plan. We already started to redesign the whole Swiss Typefaces collection to make it fit with those new possibilities. To have the complete control of our typefaces collection by designing everything internally give us the opportunity to redesign a typeface every time we need or want. As the Porsche 911, we will propose new versions of our fonts to fit with our time, or even better to give the tone of the future. It could be a new design, a new technology, or both. In this case for example the Suisse collection will have a new design and a new technology, a lot of new possibilities with a really attractive price and licensing model.