We have a fabulous selection of international guests critics visiting us at TypeParis Summer23. We wanted to find out a little more about each of them, so have presented them with a series of questions which they have generously taken the time to answer. Discover Bas Jacobs’interview.
Biography Type designer Bas Jacobs is part of Underware, blending type design and progressive research projects. They introduced grammatography, publish about type, and initiate projects like Typeradio.
Regular speaker and workshop instructor. Lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Interested in languages. And dialects. And slang. And scripts. And alphabets. And type. Of course. Likes to ride a bike instead of a car. As fast as possible.
Personal motto: everything is mental.
What is your favourite way to start a day? And the first thing you do at your desk?
Bas Jacobs I have to admit that I do have a routine to start the day with handwriting. The first thing I do when I enter the studio, before I start up the computer, is to practice my handwriting. The goal is not to become an excellent calligrapher, but to wake up my brain, to understand letterforms better, to find unexpected constructions and liberated shapes, to find freedom. Executed sizes vary from very small to very big, writing tools vary from thin broad nib pens to large markers (7 cm). Sometimes mixing colours, often purely black. The combination of different sizes and various writing tools always delivers new results, often outside my comfort zone. Sometimes this routine takes 2 minutes, sometimes 2 hours, depending if the moment is fruitful or not. Once I’m finished writing, I’ll start up my computer and continue to work there. I cooperate with Akiem (Helmling) and Sami (Kortemäki) on a daily basis already for over 20 years, we’re often online for collective discussions or just quick hook-ups.
“The first thing I do when I enter the studio, before I start up the computer, is to practice my handwriting.”
– Bas Jacobs
By the way, mostly these written sheets end up in the bin after a while, because they are not made to exist as a creation, but are merely created to practise. Other people practice yoga, I practice writing. As you can imagine, I have a collection of various writing tools, a stock of various papers in different sizes, 2 different writing desks (one flat to sit at, one angled for a standing position), so I’m very happy to go to my studio everyday. I find this physical activity very liberating and inspirational, not only for my work as a type designer.
What drives you to create new typefaces?
Bas Jacobs Inspiration is multilateral, and has many many sources. It could be the daily handwriting practice I just mentioned, or something completely else. For a bit more than 5 years, we’ve taken the opportunity of giving lectures as a moment to reflect on our own practice. So instead of using a lecture to present the end result of a long process or project, we’ve turned it around and took the opportunity of the lecture to reflect on our process or project. That reflection brings again new ideas, which might lead to new experiments, thoughts or ideas which then again can boost an existing project to a new level, or even become the starting point for a new process. Since our lectures are often a “just thinking loud” experiment, they keep our brains sharp. Sometimes we decide to write and publish a small booklet that belongs to the lecture. Those booklets tell the same story in a different way, and are best understood by attendees but could be interesting for anybody interested in type, letters, design, or writing.
“Since out lectures are often a just thinking loud experiment, they keep our brains sharp.”
– Bas Jacobs
We are eager to learn about the so-called Grammatography approach. Which is the origin of this theory and its relationship with letterforms or typography?
Bas Jacobs There have been 2 ways of writing already for quite a while. Chirography, writing by hand, exists since 5 millennia. Typography, writing with prefabricated letters, exists since 5 centuries. If you look closely, you see that with chirography the letterforms are being made while the letter is being written. This is a big difference with typography, where the letter forms are made in advance, and only copied while writing. Current technological developments have made another way, a third way, of writing possible, where the letter forms neither are made while writing, nor being made in advance and purely copied, but where their dynamic shapes react to users and/or readers. It’s a kind of writing where the letter forms themselves are dynamic, which allows for a play with letters which is different than chirography or typography, and therefore needs a new term. This is what we call grammatography. You could say that chirography is writing letters, typography is copying letters, and grammatography is playing with letters.
“Current technological developments have made another way [...] of writing possible, [...] where their dynamic shapes react to users and/or readers.”
– Bas Jacobs
Now that letters have become dynamic – often the letters are already dynamic without that readers realise this, and that’s fine – this brings up new challenges of course. Since the introduction of OpenType 1.8 in 2016, better known as the variable font format, multiple dimensions can be added to the font files directly. So it’s meanwhile perfectly possible to add the dimension of time into a font file. This might be a bit challenging to imagine maybe, but the possibilities are amazing. Since then we’ve, for example, designed a small library of writing fonts, dynamic fonts which can be used to write texts dynamically. But those fonts we designed many years ago, and we started to design and add the dynamics later on. Our most recent release, the handwriting font Scribo, was designed with the dynamics already in the back of our mind from the beginning on. So instead of only capturing the static letter forms, we captured the entire action of how they were created, and included that action in the font file.
“Grammatography is playing with letters.”
– Bas Jacobs
Actually now that we can add multiple dimensions to a typeface – since the variable font allows this – we entered a new area of type design which is unexplored area. There are no type design tools yet to design in time, there are no applications yet which have the time dimension of fonts natively build in, and our entire typographic terminology is based on printing. As you know, printing results in static shapes, so all the terms we use are based on static usage. But we also want to define the speed of writing, for example. We introduced new terms and units for temporality at our presentation at the ATypI conference in Paris in 2023. The biggest challenge might be to get all these pretty amazing possibilities of dynamic fonts in the hands of users in an easy way. You can’t everybody expect to be able to program and build their own tools, but large software corporations can do this. However, these tend to move slow, so this is a process that requires patience. Therefore, we also made a new platform for accessible artificial writing which does not require any technical knowledge.
On this platform, Scribomat.com, anybody can write their own text, choose their font style, and then download the written text. Those people who are able to add a static image to a website, can now also add written text to their website. This is the easiest way we can imagine at the moment. The new platform is in development, we hope to include fonts from other designers as well, and add more of our own writing fonts in the future, so it’s definitely in progress. In progress, but alive.
When you started, who were the teachers, mentors or professionals who had the most impact on you?
Bas Jacobs Those teachers I remember are the ones who pointed me to a specific aspect or area I wasn’t aware of before at that moment in my life. At art academy, but also when I was younger. My music teacher at primary school for example, Nico van den Kroonenberg, a very unconventional, very inspiring man. He would show up, and then turned on classical music, gave everybody an empty piece of paper and color pencils, told us we were only allowed to draw abstract things, no concrete pictures or images. But he also told us to draw what we were hearing. Draw what you hear, but don’t draw anything you recognise visually. Mmm… this was my first encounter not only with classical music, but also with abstract art. Extremely mind blowing at the age of seven. I never did something like that before, a whole new world opened up, but it took me maybe 20 years to realise that. In hindsight, I’m even jealous of the simplicity of the assignment: “Draw what you hear, but don’t draw anything you recognize”. As this not only introduced classical music, as well as abstract art (!), but also directly forces everyone to practice abstract art actively unconsciously. Amazing.
Thank you very much, Bas!
– Interview by Gina Serret