Q&A Fred Smeijers

On 3 June 2023, the Now23 conference will take place in Paris. On that day, more than a dozen graphic lecturers, artistic directors and type designers are expected on the stage. Join us at Now23 and listen to international speakers talking around graphic design, web design, motion design, publishing, visual identity, communication and type design. If you haven’t done it already, register now to take advantage of the best rates.

As the event approaches, we’d love you to discover our truly multifaceted speakers. Following up next: our interview with Fred Smeijers.
Biography Fred Smeijers is a Dutch type designer, researcher, educator, and author. Educated at the school of art in Arnhem, he worked as a typographic advisor to the reprographic company Océ, then became a founding member of the Dutch graphic design practice Quadraat, which provided the name for his first published typeface (FontFont, 1992). Among the most versatile contemporary type designers, Smeijers has a whole range of distinctive typefaces to his credit, such as: Renard (TEFF); Nobel (DTL); Arnhem, Fresco, Sansa, Custodia, Ludwig, Monitor, and Puncho – first published by OurType, the font label that he co-founded and led as creative director from 2002 to 2017, and now part of TYPE BY collection.


Fred, could you describe your typical day?

Fred Smeijers There is no such thing as a typical day, really. Perhaps, a few activities that come with regularity…

As a proverbial Dutchman, I ride a bike and I travel frequently: I teach at HGB Leipzig, Type and Media at the Royal Academy in the Hague, and the MATD program at the University of Reading. Next to getting there and back home again – which was not an easy thing over the past few years – I give my students both lectures and project critiques. Such lectures represent a practical knowledge transfer. And all this requires preparation.
 Preparing academic lectures takes a considerable amount of time. It’s an immersive process, which means they are constantly in the back of my mind. I create and collect multiple illustrations and perpetually update, expand, and improve my material.

I also write new lectures – especially those with a historical theme do require a considerable amount of old-school research: working in archives, connecting all the facts and artefacts in a historically and factually coherent and accurate way. After all, finding new answers and refreshing conclusions comes from asking the right questions. Examining the subject matter and findings from different perspectives is probably my most important activity and one that is the least planable, or with a predictable outcome.

Then, equally important is the work for clients. Creating proprietary typefaces often requires very narrow timeframes or periods of highly focused work: then, I find myself working on one project for days or weeks at a stretch.
 I am constantly working on several retail designs. Once the design concept is clear, I step into a lengthy process of gradual maturing and countless incremental changes. Even discarding new designs is again a continuous theme. 
In between all of this, I also do a sizeable amount of analogue work: cutting punches and designing, producing, and improving my punch-cutting tools: I love to evade from one world to another within the same day!

Whenever I carve the time and reach conclusive research findings, I continue the work on my next book – the follow-up of Counterpunch. Usually, I write at the end of the day, at night even, when no interruptions, no calls, no requests, and no travel, come in the way. Writing, and good writing especially, requires a clear head. A mental bandwidth that is unavailable if you are busy with a myriad of other tasks. This is the reason why this book is not there yet. But, it is coming…

Researching typographic history at Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp.

And how about your hobbies?

Fred Smeijers Having hobbies is important. I like to cook. From sourcing to preparing, it can take nearly as long as editing outlines.

Making my own punch-cutting tools and a piece of functional furniture now and then – I so enjoy doing that! Then, my oldest hobby is simply drawing and keeping my notes in order – unfortunately, just as with making my own furniture, this happens far less than I wish it did.

And then, on a completely other note, there is Luna – the foundry’s little black Cocker Spaniel. She eagerly reminds me that she exists when I seem to forget about her.

“What is slightly different or has become more apparent to me, as we moved on into digital typography, is the wish to make sure that certain things are not that easily forgotten, even if they are not always used that much or even not trendy at all.”
– Fred Smeijers

What is your work environment?

Fred Smeijers When I am travelling, I do work in trains, planes, airports, cafe’s and restaurants – in short, the public places available. The work I do then has to be suitable for these circumstances, writing e-mails, checking outlines’ corrections, general writing, etc. I was often told that I could concentrate on my work in the most unimaginable of places, which is largely true.

For my design, punch-cutting, and all other work, I have a dedicated studio place – a true werkplaats – as we call it in Dutch, with room for all sorts of analogue and digital design activities.

Favourite kind of music to listen to while working?

Fred Smeijers Over twenty years ago, Onno Bevoort – my fellow Dutchman, a graphic and type designer – was my assistant. A very good one. Onno’s father was a Dutch sixties rock band drummer before turning to graphic design, and he once said: “When looking at Quadraat and designing with it, I can tell right away that Fred Smeijers really likes the Beatles!” – There is truth in that. However, I also enjoy the early Kinks, and perhaps even than the Beatles. No Rolling Stones for me, however.

In the nineties, I liked editing outlines under the rhythm of the Pet Shop Boys. By all means, in combination with the Ramones. An uncomplicated, solid rhythm helped back then. Nowadays, I rarely listen to music while working. Instead, I enjoy listening to the radio: BBC is very good at it! In the meanwhile, listening to music, whether pop, soul, jazz, or classical, has become a dedicated activity: music is a powerful art form. Whether it’s a gentle, fierce, joyful, or soulful rhythm, all of it can carry the power to communicate and transport us to new shores.

Lettering for Amsterdam Central Station: IJ Terminal, 2014. With Erik Vos (het lab) for Benthem Crouwel Architects.

What drives you to create new typefaces?

Fred Smeijers In the early eighties, I was just starting to get interested in creating my own typefaces. And, back then, it was important to create things in the most precise way possible — remember, there were no computers, at least not widely available to graphic designers.

Those were also the last days of photo composition and, as students and young designers, we were a bit fed up with the material available: not many good new designs made between 1960 and 1980 were available. And, although the type industry did its best to make us believe that that was not the case, I simply had to create something like Quadraat, to prove that things could be otherwise!

Then suddenly, the personal computer was there: the Apple Macintosh became very attractive to graphic designers. Petr van Blokland had created Mac-Ikarus, so all of a sudden, transferring Quadraat into an actual digital typeface had become a real possibility.

But, all in all, the very root of that development was not technical: WE were just not entirely satisfied with the designs available. We were sure that things could be different and that is why Martin Majoor came up with his Scala, Evert Bloemsma had his Balance, Lucas de Groot his Thesis, and Mattias Noordzij – who was a forerunner – designed his Caecilia. I was not the only one, so it’s appropriate to say WE instead of just I.

Of course, digital technology made these typefaces available for every graphic designer who would work digitally. However, the roots of these new type designs were pre-digital, design- and attitude-wise. Technology had little to do with it. The wish to change our typographic palette had everything to do with it.

We also had good role models and they were nearby: Gerard Unger, Bram de Does, and Gerrit Noordzij are designers who kept the idea of type design very much alive in the pre-digital days.

Today, for a significant part, things are not that different for me. What is slightly different or has become more apparent to me as we moved onto digital typography, is the wish to make sure that certain things are not that easily forgotten, even if they are not always used that much or even not trendy at all. For example, the creation and the naming of Custodia is an early example, as well as Renard.

I feel very much like someone who can embody conventions and traditions as they are and, if necessary, also give them an up to-date-twist – I think Arnhem is a serious proof of that. At the same time, paradoxically, the wish to depart from the historical model is also a strong urge, Sansa and Fresco are good examples of such an urge.

Reinventing, or even improving on the traditional canon is best supported by a deeper understanding of it. But such knowledge, understanding, and reflection come from true praxis and experience. And that requires time.

Proprietary typeface for Porsche: Porsche Next, 2017. With Hendrik Weber.

“In many ways, it seems as if the public still perceives digital type and type design as something that hardly changes, but much has and is changing, in my view: technology, attitude, ethics...”
– Fred Smeijers

For years, collaboration (as well transmission) was at the centre of our designer life, we all keep in mind OurType built with FontShop Benelux. How is TYPE BY different?

Collaboration is important – at least, that is my personal opinion – since you rarely have the time and the talents to do everything at a high standard yourself. OurType started with me as a type designer and most other OurType partners were busy selling the designs and making sure that our customers received the actual fonts. The online selling of fonts was still very much in its infancy back then. We started with an own online boutique relatively quickly, which was an A-ha moment for independent font publishing. It was a true eye-opener for us, too.

OurType grew out of already existing personal relationships and conviction that these collaborations would result in a successful venture. We had creatives and we had the selling team. This worked quite well for a while.

Then, at a certain moment, OurType – as a concept, as a team – had simply lived its life. But that did not mean you just stop what you do, stop being who you are. And, from that perspective, our latest foundry – TYPE BY – is both, a continuation of OurType and yet a different font-publishing project. Back in 2002, we went on to propel to the limelight type designs of 17 designers and counting… Fast-forward 15 years and the accent changed: we wish to stay small. At TYPE BY we present to the public our type designers / authors in the first place, and their collections and designs come closely next. For most of TYPE BY designers, you can find all of their designs under the same roof… Next to that, we share a very similar view on the rigours of our profession, craft, and quality. This makes it easier – indispensable even – to navigate together.

Despite living in these fast times, at TYPE BY, fonts do not come out of thin air. The individuals who create these designs are worth knowing. Not much less than it is the case with fashion designers who have a signature. Inspiration comes from such different places! Humour, areas of interest, strive for perfection, to name a few – are all different for Thomas Thiemich, to Pierre Pané-Farré, to Maurice Göldner, to Merel Wagner, to Hendrik Weber and back to myself – and all that, I believe, is worth discovering. To me, it’s evident that interesting work most frequently comes from small-scale collectives. That is something that proves true again and again.

In many ways, it seems as if the public still perceives digital type and type design as something that hardly changes, but much has and is changing, in my view: technology, attitude, ethics…

I was often labelled “a young digital type designer”. Well, both characteristics are wrong today: I am no longer young and I am surely not only digital, pure and simple. True, I do design and produce digital type designs, but I am just part of what I would call the first transfer-generation. This generation started building a bridge from analogue to digital in the late eighties, and only a little more than that.

Meanwhile, we went from a typewriter to a smartphone (with a 24/7 connection) in just one generation. The leap is enormous: the world we live in nowadays is both, fascinating and sobering. In the early eighties, you would be happy if someone offered you a contract – in those days, we were still very naive and frankly “in the dark” about all things legal. Even if you wanted to be very well informed, it was still difficult – those were simply different times. Nowadays, you can access knowledge from the internet, even proper knowledge on nearly any topic, if you genuinely wish to and know where to look.

On the other hand, in this overflow of information, many interesting individuals simply cannot be heard, while an impressive number of those who make themselves heard, prove to have so little – if at all – interesting in tow.

The process of designing type and the nature of projects have also evolved or outright changed. Custom-type projects quite often come with strict planning and hard deadlines. Of course, there is time allocated to the design part, but after that, it is usually only a little more than down-to-earth corrections and production. The aesthetic wishes of the client must be met, so designing custom fonts is channelling one’s design experience into the aesthetic needs of your client. After that, the deadlines come to the forefront. The reward for this process is, of course, a financial payment.

But it’s worth remembering that the design stage *is* actually what the clients pay for – and no matter how you look at it, for the vast majority of projects, that is simply the most critical part of a custom font job – a lot depends on the client’s experience versus the type designer’s experience. During my career, I’ve been, and am, fortunate to work on many custom-type design projects, with highly discerning clients – these are clients who keep giving the design room. When all the stars align like that – it is a joy to create, although, don’t get me wrong: I like to roll up my sleeves and solve problems. And I know the value of time.

When designing retail fonts for your own foundry, the dynamic is entirely different: we have – more or less – a total Carte Blanche. You might say: “Carte Blanche! That sounds very attractive!” Yes. At first. But freedom always brings challenges. For example, there is no guaranteed payment. You can choose to release one good font family per year, or you can join the race to publish just every outline that comes from your hand… and the faster, the better. It is all about choices… and here I speak from the perspective of someone who has a seasoned number of custom-type designs out there, many of which have been in constant use for a decade or two by now. But, I also speak from the position of someone who has first-hand experience in retail font design and publishing, spanning over the past nearly forty years.

Yes, I do realise that my views might differ from someone new on the scene or aspiring to become a type designer… yet, as much as I am drawn to solving problems, would I like to work solely on, say, custom fonts? No. Only retail fonts? That would be too narrow, too… So, the key lies in a good balance between the two. But that “good” balance will always differ from one designer to the other.

The time has come to think about how our profession will look in the future. Because the future has arrived as we are conducting this interview and, with AI learning models quickly proliferating, the whole discussion about balance (I am referring to above), originality, performance, value, and ethics in type design, in design, and in artistic professions as a whole, is quickly acquiring a totally new meaning… This discussion is not about alarmism. It’s about reflection and next generations. Quo Vadis type design?

Thank you very much, Fred!

– Interview by Yi Shen

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