fr/en Martin Majoor
conducted with Tobias Holzmann
As a type designer, you could easily be asked, ‘why do you design typefaces, aren’t there enough already?’
There are never enough typefaces… it has to do with fashion, technique
and with tradition. I mean, why are new shoes still being made? Not because the old shoes are worn-out and you have to buy new ones, but mostly because it is fashionable. And you see different shoes than you would a few years back. But still the shoes are the same sort of thing: you have to walk in them, the inside of the shoe never changes, only the outside. With typefaces it is the same. Over the past 650 years, typefaces have never changed because an ‘a’ has to look like an ‘a’. There are new techniques from metal type to phototype to digital type but the letters don’t change. There is also a fashion: some people ask for more light or more sans serif versions because it is fashionable. It will always be like this. There is always a need for new typefaces like there is always a need for new shoes.
You said about the use of a typeface that ‘it has to do with the quality of the graphic designer, not of the type designer’. Then, what is the responsibility of a type designer? What challenges does he face when designing a typeface?
I said this because I know that if you are a very good graphic designer you can make beautiful things with Helvetica. But if you are a very bad graphic designer, you can take the most beautiful typeface, I always say Scala — it is a joke of course — and you can still mess up the design. But I cannot forbid a very bad type designer to produce fonts, neither can I forbid graphic designers to use these fonts. So, I think the type designer just has to provide the best quality type fonts that he or she can. When somebody wants a good font I provide them with the most necessary toolkit. And what a graphic designer does with it is not my problem. I cannot influence them and I don’t want to. I am happy when some graphic designer makes beautiful things, but I cannot blame graphic designers for messing up my typefaces. If you make a typeface you decide to give it to the world, and you must be prepared for really bad things to happen to it.
According to your type design philosophy, a sans serif typeface always derives from a serif typeface. When doing a sans serif typeface, does it have an impact on your serif version? We mean by changing elements or details?
So you would consider your serif version as complete?
For me the logical way of designing a sans serif is to design a serif first.
In my head I know what a serif typeface looks like, its construction, so I can easily make a sans serif without actually having drawn the serif typeface on paper. But usually, what I think happens too often in the type design world, is that people start designing sans serif because they want it to look like Helvetica or whatever, but without understanding where it comes from. I cannot accept that. For me, there is nothing worse than the typeface Arial which is a copy of a copy. I joked about this with Erik Spiekermann who made Meta Sans typeface. Twenty years later, Meta Serif was made. I joked with him ‘Erik, you cannot make a serif from a sans serif’. We have to laugh about these kind of things of course. He can because he has enough knowledge to be able to do that. But it is not logical. It is much more logical to spend three quarters of your time making the serif and one quarter making the sans serif.
How then do you make the most of your experience in your work?
All the experience you gain, you will use for a new typeface. Like now,
I’m working on Questa with Jos Buivenga, and all the experience I have, I put into this project. And Jos does the same. We hope therefore it will be a very good typeface. When I designed Seria I wanted to make a more literary and warmer version of Scala. But, I also had other ideas. You can design Scala and you can say in ten years I am going to change Scala because I have new ideas. But I don’t think this is a good idea. If you create something afterwards, it is a new creation. A type designer should never consider making a plus or a next or a whatever version of an already existing typeface.
Concerning your way of working, what sparks the design of a typeface, is it a shape or an intention?
It all depends on the specific context. When I am creating a new typeface and can work freely, then the starting point is the intention to make the best possible typeface I have in my head at that moment. The shape follows automatically. But if I get a commission, for example in 1994 for the Dutch telephone company, it is more based on the limitations you have to follow. It has to be printed in very small letters, it has to be readable, it has to withstand a very fast printing process. You can use all these sorts of limitations to make a typeface fit the brief. And then shapes become more important somehow. Technical constraints may force you to create shapes that you don’t necessarily like.
So theoretically, it could be possible to design a typeface with no intention.
Yes. A lot of type designers just start with an empty sheet of paper and doodle something and later they think: let’s make a typeface out of it. Without any purpose. Maybe it does not sell but it does not matter because it is nice to do it, it is fun.
In graphic design, there has always been a debate about the relation between form and function, is it the same in type design? In our school, we especially concentrate on the concept of a project. Beauty for beauty’s sake, that is too easy.
Yes, but what is wrong with that? I don’t agree, I think when you want to make something beautiful, just go ahead. Why not? And if only you think it is beautiful who else has the right to tell you that you cannot do it, I think this is stupid. The conceptual part is taking over too much nowadays. If you make something which is not conceptual (whatever conceptual means, I don’t know), if you don’t put the word conceptual in the briefing or whatever, then it is not good because it must be ‘conceptual’. For example, I don’t believe in conceptual art. You can make a concept and that’s it. You don’t have to make the art then because if you already made the concept, the art is not necessary anymore. When somebody wants to make something without any reason, without any concept, please let him go ahead. It can lead to something more, to other things, to more beautiful things. I think a lot of people who are promoting this more conceptual part are afraid somehow, because they don’t have the belief in themselves. They need a concept otherwise they are lost.
An interesting point concerning the design of the typeface Seria: Hector Obalk asked you whether it is possible to design something like a slanted italic and you said no. But you had the idea of an upward italic. Why, on the one hand do you think it was not possible but on the other hand, your version was possible?
Because it has to do with the construction of a typeface. When you talk about roman and italic, most people think roman is straight and italic is slanted. That is not true, that has nothing to do with it. You can make a slanted roman but you can also make an upright italic. But if you make a slanted italic, which is usually done, it is even uglier to make a very slanted italic. You should stay within zero to 15 degrees slant for an italic.
For the Questa project, you designed a reversed ‘y’. In which cases do you decide to break typographic rules?
We do things because we want to, it is as simple as that. We took this freedom because nobody told us how we should do it. It is not logical but if you like it why not? You have to know how it should be done, according to calligraphy or rules or history, but if you don’t like that you can do things differently. And it is even more interesting once in a while. We can create a very classic typeface but sometimes we might add something quirky which makes it recognisable. It is somehow very innocent. There are examples in history of letters which are so weird but still are readable. It is not only about the structure of the letter. For me, if you have a text or words and you can read it, it is okay. If you have a text and change the ‘a’ for a weird sign, most people will read it because you know from the context that there is an ‘a’. If people tell me ‘you cannot do that’ I just tell them ‘Ok so, what should I do now? I am not going to change it, should I go to jail? Am I not allowed to be type designer anymore?’ We live in a free world!
What stimulates you outside type design?
I am a very lazy person first of all. Really. If I can do things faster to have more spare time to just sit on the couch and do nothing, I’ll do it. But I never have time for this because there are so many other things to do! So, being lazy is my favourite pastime.
Are you concerned about not giving too much personality to a typeface while designing it?
When I design a typeface I don’t think about whether I am putting in my personality or not. If something of me is in this typeface, it is okay, if not, it is also okay. I just design what I like to do. I am undoubtedly putting in a bit of me. But I am not deliberately thinking I am going to make a Martin Majoor lookalike typeface. Of course I have my preferences and influences. That is what defines what I want to do.
In designing typefaces, what value do you see in handwriting skills? (Calligraphy, sketching…)
It is very important. It is the starting point for a typeface. Certainly, for people who are beginning with type design, they start with calligraphy. It is only then that you can understand why a typeface is like it is. But as a type designer myself, I am now experienced enough to not need a lot of sketches to express what I want, but start quite quickly working on the computer. If you make an ’n’, you also have an ‘m’ and an ‘h’, and a ‘u’, the ‘i’ and the ‘j’ and so on and on. It is a very fast process. It can take years for me to make a typeface. I see young type designers around me who can program like crazy, they make typefaces every month, whole type families and everything. But a lot of these typefaces are not really crystallised. They are not ripe, they haven’t been pampered enough. I think time is needed for typefaces to mature. Only with experience and time can you make a finished thing. Type design needs time.
Do you have any advice for a young designer?
Take time [laughs]. This question provokes staple answers such as ‘follow your heart’ or ‘don’t let other people tell you what to do’, ‘fight against the teachers, don’t believe the teachers’… I know for myself that when I studied we had always big discussions and fights with the teachers. I studied in Arnhem, in the Art school, it was the time when Bauhaus was still the dominant school. You had to be a photographer and an illustrator and a typographer and a designer. My whole life I had been drawing and then, I discovered type. I wanted to make typefaces. They said ‘no you can’t’ but I was determined enough to just do it. I don’t want anyone to decide what I should do. You have to be strong headed. But not everybody can do that, because a lot of people don’t know what they want. It is much easier to achieve things when you know what you want.