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Q&A Martin Majoor

We have a stunning group of speakers and guests sharing with us this year at TypeParis. 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.

Martin Majoor has been active as a free-lance graphic designer since the mid 1980’s. He designed books, covers, stamps and posters, but he is best known for his type designs, like Scala, Telefont, Nexus and Questa (the latter in collaboration with Jos Buivenga). He worked as a teacher at the art schools in Arnhem and Breda, nowadays he conducts type design workshops throughout the world. As a lecturer he likes to show how the old analogue world of metal type can live on in contemporary digital type, as original typefaces rather then making revivals. Majoor wrote articles for magazines like Items, Page, 2+3D and Eye, as well as contributing to several books on typography.

Martin will be speaking at the fifth and last #tptalks session on Thursday 7 July 2022. Registration will open on 28 June 2022!

Since 1993, you have regularly returned to this idea of super families! The most recent one is Questa, does there is a limit on variations?

Martin Majoor The initial idea for the Questa Project was to design a classicist serif typeface from which we would derive a sans. But while collaborating on it we saw other opportunities like a display version with very thin parts and some more swash-like elements. We released these three version (serif, sans and Grande) in 2014 only from there to start adding a slab serif version.

We considered other versions, like a monospaced and a series of condensed, but in the mean time we both had moved forward and started working on our own projects again. The collaboration went very well only because we had developed a design attitude in which there was no room for making compromises. Most of the characters didn’t need any discussion, however with the more defining characters we tried to convince each other that certain details or features were the best. This game of giving and taking proofed to be quite fruitful and even essential to avoid weak compromises.

One version of Questa deserves special attention: in 2020 Questa Grande was cut into wood using cad/cam techniques, to be used on old printing presses. For me this means a lot, reversing things and creating a bridge, this time from the digital world towards the analogue world, much in the spirit of the revival of vinyl records.

“Questa Grande was cut into wood using cad/cam techniques, to be used on old printing presses […] reversing things and creating a bridge, this time from the digital world towards the analogue world.”

— Martin Majoor

Do you think without your background as a book designer your typeface designs would have looked different?

I worked as a book designer in the nineteen eighties. The metal type age was over and the digital age had still to begin. Photo typesetting was the magic word but I immediately saw that this technique produced too light type. Classic typefaces like Bembo or Garamond had become very weak in the hands of the engineers, it was awful to work with.

When I started to design Scala the digital age had just begun. I used to make enlargements of books that were set and printed in the highest quality of metal type. I then could ‘read off’ the values of stems, serifs and thin parts. When I applied these measurements to my first trials of Scala I thought it was way too thick. However in print Scala proved to be strong and clear, exactly like I had seen in well printed metal type.

Another thing I learned from my time as a book designer was to spent a lot of attention to the justification of the lowercase, and also to the combination of capitals and lowercase. There were designers that derived some kind of satisfaction from making a huge amount of kerning pairs. I was the opposite: the better the justification is, the less kerning pairs you need.

As a book designer I was also used to having small caps, ligatures and lowercase numbers. These were missing from the first digital typefaces so I decided to make them for Scala. This proved to be one of the key features to its success.

“I learned […] to spent a lot of attention to the justification of the lowercase and to the combination of capitals and lowercase.”

— Martin Majoor

During your creative process, which is the percentage of the traditional drawing on paper before switching into the digital workflow?

5% Traditional drawing on paper, 95% Digital workflow. In the very beginning (1985) this was more like 80% on paper and 20% on the computer, but gradually this turned around. So nowadays I hardly use paper anymore, most of what I know about type design is in my head. But I still use little pieces of paper, beermats and napkins from time to time, just to visualize ideas. Sketching is so much faster, it doesn’t matter if you use a piece of paper or an iPad, as long as you use some sort of pencil.

“Most of what I know about type design is in my head.”

— Martin Majoor

Do you have any words of wisdom for someone wanting to become a designer/type designer?

First of all I think it is important to learn how to write letter shapes using tools like broad nibbed pen and brushes (depending on which script is being made) . Not in the sense of expressive calligraphy, but just to get an idea where our lettershapes are coming from. The best is to follow some sort of course or training before you even consider to open a laptop.

Even though the technical side of designing a type design has become quite easy, the design aspect is something else. It could be very helpful to look into books on the history of type, and making a revival of a historic typeface could be insightful, but it shouldn’t be the end goal. And let me finish with a warning: designing type could be highly addictive!

“The better the justification is, the less kerning pairs you need.”

— Martin Majoor

What is your ratio of self-initiated typefaces vs. typeface commissions? Which do you tend to be more passionate about making?

In my life I have done much more self-initiated typefaces, like Scala, Questa and my latest typeface family Comma. But that doesn’t mean it is better than designing a commissioned typeface. The restrictions that are mostly put into place when designing a commissioned typeface (like Telefont, designed for the Dutch telephone book) are quite challenging. I am always proud when I have managed to overcome the restrictions and moreover to have turned them into useful features. And exactly those restrictions could later be an inspiration when designing a self-initiated typeface. But I think I can confidently say that I am more passionate about my self-initiated typeface.

“I am more passionate about my self-initiated typeface.”

— Martin Majoor

Do you prefer a permanent/dedicated workspace, or do you like to keep mobile?

I like to work in different places but not in cafes. Right now I am working from my two studios, in Arnhem and in Berlin. In both studios I have a similar set up of three very large screens, almost like a cockpit. I never got used to working on my laptop only, certainly not when it concerns type design. I am traveling quite a lot, this gives me the opportunity to take a break from my type design work, much needed when you want to take a ‘distance’ from time to time. Another thing I want to have around is my books on typography, this makes a permanent place essential.

“I want to have around my books on typography, this makes a permanent place essential.”

— Martin Majoor

Thank you very much, Martin!

– Interview by Gina Serret

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July 5, 2022
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