Ten or so questions with Fred Smeijers of OurType

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Fred Smeijers is the co-founder and creative director at OurType, a European foundry that creates fonts tailored to contemporary needs while respecting traditional values. They consistently meet their stated goal of delivering high quality, durable, and attractive fonts.

OurType has made 41 typefaces available through WebINK. See them at WebINK.com.

Mr. Smeijers is thoughtful, well read, and well written. He is the author of Counterpunch: Making Type in the 16th Century, Designing Typefaces Now (Amazon.com link), described variously as “the perfect book for students of type design,” “the best,” and ”the most important book a type designer will ever read.” Fortunately, a second edition is due this summer.

I posed a baker’s dozen questions to Mr. Smeijers, some flighty and some fairly serious. He took them all in stride and gave me considered, thought-provoking, and informative answers.

In the mid-1980’s you worked with Océ, the printer manufacturer. What did you do for them?

Océ is a copier- and related machinery manufacturer. They have soon realized that laserprinters were going to be important for the office-equipment market. So in the beginning of the eighties Océ developed their own laserprinter based upon one of their copier engines. The quality of fonts, namely of bitmap-fonts has become a priority for Océ.

I started as a bitmap font editor, working with Toolbox of Bitstream, back then the only commercial digital foundry. Those bitmap fonts were tailored for Océ laser printers, as in those days on-the-fly-rasterisation was still a dream. Soon I began to train other people , future font editors. My tasks included specifying and controlling the workflow, quality and production, as well as supervising the output of a small team educated and trained by me.

Next to that, I was working closely with engineers, tackling problems such as screen fonts and mapping out the potential of Océ print-engines. For example the standard resolution for a laser printer in those days was 300 dpi or even less, while Océ printers had already reached the resolution of 542 dpi. When we developed a printer suitable for spotsize modulation [manipulating the size of printed dots to create smoother images, a major feature of today’s printers] , the quality of the output was good enough to eventually compete with the low-end of the typesetting market. This never happened but my colleagues and I made it clear that it could be a possibility.

In those years, technicians and designers were not trained nor used to working closely together. Frequently they perceived one another as a threat, which more often than not led to uncooperative attitudes. Somehow, I have never had this problem; I thought, and I still do, that technically trained people can be very creative in their own way. I was always curious of how would they approach certain problems and they were very curious to know what I thought of it and what I could tell them about typography, type, the quality of a certain output. Within Océ’s Research & Development I have become “a bridge” between graphic designers and typographers on one side, and the engineers on the other. Looking back, those were, in fact, very exciting and interesting days.

What got you interested in type design?

I did not get interested in type design straight on, it first started with being interested in lettershapes in a more general way. This was triggered by the pages of one of Arrighi’s writing books which were first shown to me by one of my teachers—Alexander Verberne. How could anyone write so regular and neat? It opened a whole new world to me, I’ve got really intrested in writing letters myself and through that, a little later, developed a keen interest in typefaces as well. This was a little step to take (so it seemed) and things got even more serious after Alexander Verberne arranged a meeting with his friend Gerrit Noordzij.

What is your most recognizable work?

I think one of the most recognizable pieces of my work is the book Counterpunch. In a way, this is a result of my “bridge” function at Océ. The book has become a classic of sorts by now and with a reprint due this summer.

Another must be the recently redesigned Philips wordmark—a nice evolutionary step from the iconic, somewhat quirky and rational design from the ’30s to a new, more humanistic, resolutely contemporary image. [See Philips: History of the Brand.]

What’s your favorite typeface in the OurType library?

I’m afraid I do not really have one, I think I even do not have a favourite typeface altogether anymore.

Lately, I’ve designed some small forms for internal administration and, as strange as it might seem, I enjoyed doing it with Lirico.

A few weeks ago, I’ve re-designed my personal telephone and address list, which is quite long, but the whole thing must fit into my Filofax-slimline. With rather compact and very small typesetting demands, I used Meran for that. The brisk and sturdy forms of Meran function extremely well in small sizes, especially for little bits of information which you have to scan in a quick and short moment.

These days, I am testing and playing arround with Fayon-Display—it is nice to see lettershapes meant for continious reading skillfully adapted for display use.
I enjoy such moments and I assume a lot of OurType customers have a similar experience.

So to point out one design which outranks all the others, is quite difficult.

What do you love most about your work, and why?

Winston Churchill wrote in Painting as a Pastime (a homage to the usefulness of a hobby, worthwhile reading for anyone who works too much), ”It is no use doing what you like, you got to like what you do.” I completely agree with that and the older you get, the more true this seems to be. If you really want to do something in a proper way, you have no time for trifles and then the bigger chunks of the “not-so-nice” things to do simply become a part of the job. They become one with all the so-called “nice” things to do. So, in the end, it becomes much more bearable because you have changed your attitude towards the awkward tasks. (This does not mean that one cannot distinguish between the two.) What I probably like most about my work is not so much a certain activity but the fact that nobody tells me what it actually is, this thing we talk about, my work. Nobody told me to design Quadraat or undertake such a book like Counterpunch. For the larger part ‘my work’ consists of various yet my very own initiatives.

What aspect do you like least about your work, and why?

What I do not like is the fact that the discipline of type design increasingly fails to be self-critical. As far as I am concerned, we are close to the point that we hardly can call it a discipline at all. This is not true in essence for the real quality but we are well on our way to turn the lie into the truth; this especially counts for the exposure towards the bigger public. Mediocrity is the thing to aim at. It is encouraged, honored and rewarded, as if any action is justified to let your voice heard. Doubtful type design is replacing the competitive one.
Next to that, nowadays, armchair experts are rife. And it is not hard to miss their appetite for [imagined] power and personal publicity. The ever-growing influence of amateurs is alarming and is not limited to the field of type design alone, I fear it’s becoming representative of our society and values in general. Type design used to be known as a serious and self-critical discipline. Consequently, one could expect some resilience and ability to protect itself from such “takeovers.” Unfortunately, this is no longer true.

If you could sum up your design sensibility in one word, what would that word be?

Originality is a difficult word to use within the discipline of type design, for there is no type designer who does not lean heavily upon the work of his predecessors. So perhaps type design is excluded from being really original altogether. In the end we all incorporate and make use of the fruits of our forbears. Today these words count for some type designers, including myself.
For all the other type designers the above statement is true only if one swaps the word “incorporate” with the word “borrow” and replace “forbears” by “contemporaries.” I do not think these words are ill-chosen, too much of my work and that of a few others is currently over-“quoted” or simply copied; from this point of view my work is probably original enough.
In order to avoid the problematic term “original” all together, it’s much easier for me to define my work terms such as quality and diversity. Since quality can include originality as well as diversity, this words wins. My work has quality.

What is the most memorable real-world use of one of your typefaces?

A visible sample is the bespoke sans serif family I once designed for Canon Europe, they use it on all packaging, advertising, printed matter and commercials. In Europe “Canon – you can” is everywhere. [Vocabulary lesson: “bespoke” means “made to order.”]

Another bespoke sans serif family—far less obvious maybe, but extremely widely spread—is the Philips Screenfont family. For more than a decade it is being used in countless pieces of equipment produced by Philips from telephones to TVs to high-end medical equipment.

What are some of the less obvious places you find inspiration?

I do not really know how much less obvious that actually is, for I suspect that it counts for many people. But often is the next problem a trigger to either a very focused search for a solution of the problem in question, or the problem to be solved makes me do something completely else.

A serious problem (of any kind) nagging in the back of my mind can make me do all kinds of experiments which I absolutely not need at that very moment and only take up time (which I do not have). I could call them ‘a very attractive distraction’ excepting that, more often than not, these in principle ‘ill-timed’ actions result into things which proof to be very worthwhile later on.

Sheer happiness is of course the best thing you can have for inspiration, fortunately, as the above words have made it a little bit clear, you do not have to depend on it.
But if I have to be honest, I think the word ‘inspiration’ is a rather problematic word, it connotes too much a certain uncontrollable force, the lightning of God or a mysterious muse, who suddenly made you come up with the right thing and such. I do not like that, inspiration whatever it really is or how you might call it, is always a result of a certain activity, or in most cases just work.

What talent do you most admire?

That is the talent you need to balance out all other talents which you posses in order to reach the right, or a good and effective mix between all those talents. A talent can be as much positive as a negative thing. And former positive talents when being young might turn out to have a negative effect in later life.
For example, someone can have the talent to work hard for longer periods of time. At the same time he has a talent for being sloppy. If he does not have the talent for controlling his sloppiness this probably will affect in a negative way his talent for working hard.

Being extremely focused and only putting one or two things forward in their lives can be good for young people who are working on a strong development in a certain area. On the other hand, when older they should be able to put this aside or at least manage to control and suppress this strong urge of satisfying all the time the same overdeveloped talent which has them turned into these acknowledged specialists.

The talent to cultivate all other talents in the right way at the right time is by far the most important talent, at least that is my personal opinion.

What do you wish every designer knew about type?

If you mean by designer a graphic- or a type designer, then it would be good that they realize that the most important “glyph” is the one that does not contain any black—the word space.

Do you have a favorite type ‘era’ or ‘genre?’

The sixteenth century (the “Garamond-class” genre) has always a special place in my mind, no matter what I am working on. This is also a result of the activities and research described in Counterpunch. I have actually never stopped researching and since a couple of years I am working on Counterpunch 2, a kind of follow-up of Counterpunch.

On the other hand, the more “professional” you get, the less space there is for personal preferences. Over the years, experience will teach you to see the advantages and disadvantage of a certain era, genre or your personal preferences altogether. If that is not the case, then I think there must be something fundamentally wrong.

What advice would you have for someone aspiring to be a type designer?

It is not easy to give a fictitous person serious advice, so let me take myself as a starting point. With me there was always this problem, should he put his head into books or should he reach his hands out to the toolbox?

My mother chose the books while my father said that the toolbox was a better choice. So what to do? When this all really became a problem back in the seventies as a 13-year old, I had no say in the matter, and in the end my mother won. So I spent much of my young days on all kinds of proven theories which have to be absorbed by the bulk of the next generation of young adults in order to keep society, as we know it, running.

But my dad was not wrong either. The talent to make, do and create things with hands and head is a talent I had to forcedly neglect. However, it was strong enough to pop up at the right time, when I needed it. Luckily for my type design career, ’cause without this talent it certainly would have looked very differently, if it would have happened at all.

Now, let us turn the things around and suppose my father had won and I would have enjoyed an education where practice and theory would go more hand in hand right from the beginning. You might assume that I would have turned out to be a good furniture maker or at least a good craftsman. Personally, I do not think so, I imagine that I might be working for some environmental friendly foundation developing things like easy-to-construct-wells-from-waste-material for Africa, for example.

So, if Fred Smeijers would advise Fred Smeijers concerning a career that would suit his talents best, he would tell him to forget about type. The world is far bigger and contains a lot more interesting problems which require simple, effective and sustainable solutions, problems no matter how basic but when solved effectively, can make a difference. A far bigger difference than any type design could do.

2 Responses to “Ten or so questions with Fred Smeijers of OurType”

  1. Wei

    Fred Smeijers telling Fred Smeijers to forget about type?! We might as all forget about it then…

  2. Tom

    Thanks WebINK for interviewing Smeijers. Not only he sets standards for serious serifs but also keeps bringing up thought-provoking content. Thanks again!


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