11 Jun 2019
Dan Reynolds is a type designer at LucasFonts in Berlin. He’s also a design historian, with a focus on foundries from Germany’s imperial era. In January, Dan passed his doctoral examinations at the Braunschweig University of Art. He previously graduated with a Master of Arts in Typeface Design from the University of Reading. In terms of old work, he spent seven years at Linotype and then freelanced as a designer or writer for clients like FontFont, Indian Typefoundry, MyFonts.com, Photo-Lettering, and Typejockeys. More importantly, Dan cofounded the first branch of the modern Typostammtisch meet-ups movement Offenbach, Germany 15 years ago. He has since taught typography or type design at universities in Berlin, Darmstadt, Halle, Hamburg, Saarbrücken, and Zhuhai/China.
Dan will be speaking at the first #tptalks session on Thursday 13 June 2019 at Le Tank. Registration will open on 30 May 2019!
My research hasn’t made me a better type designer. If anything, it may have even made me worse.
You’ve recently published your research project about the distribution of sans serif type designs in German-speaking foundries during the 19th century. Has this investigation influenced on your current practical work as type designer and vice versa?
Dan Reynolds I haven’t published very much yet. Since I received funding for that project, I had to send in a report last month explaining what I’d done. Having written that up, I published this report on my website, too. During my research, I think I uncovered some things that will help designers better understand the way the foundries operated during the nineteenth century. I still need to write a proper article, which I hope to bring out in print someday. I’d also like to give some conference presentations on the topic, like I’ll be doing at TypeParis. A lot of designers are more receptive to information when it’s presented to them that way. In presentations, I can also include more images.
I hope that it doesn’t sound too disappointing, but my research hasn’t made me a better type designer. If anything, it may have even made me worse. Over the last few years, the time I’ve spent researching and writing has greatly eclipsed drawing. Designing letterforms isn’t like riding a bicycle (there’s the old saying that, once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget how…). Creative activities are much more like muscles. If you don’t keep practicing, you lose a bit of your strength. Maybe it will help if I say that I never expected for my research to make me a better designer. I think that historical research has value in its own right, and doesn’t have to be conducted with specific outcomes in mind. Despite this, it would make me happy if my research helped make other designers better.
On the other hand, re-entering a type design office full-time has definitely made me a better researcher —at least when it comes to differentiating between similar historic typefaces. At work, I look at the fine details of curves more than I used to, or at least more than I had done for nearly a decade. This past March and April, I was able to notice small differences between competing products that I hadn’t seen a year earlier, like how the contrast in two similar-looking lowercase e’s differs in various typefaces, or how big or small the apertures in two similar lowercase a’s were.
By far the best thing about working in an office with a team of people is those other people themselves.
It’s been a year since you started working for LucasFonts after several years of self-employment as a type designer and font marketer. Which are the main changes you have noticed between freelancing and working full-time for a foundry? Advantages/Disadvantages?
By far the best thing about working in an office with a team of people is those other people themselves. Aside from wanting to learn from Luc(as) de Groot’s eyes —which are some of the best in type design today— I applied for a job at LucasFonts because of the other type designers in the office. There are three of them: Thom Janssen, Jens Kutílek, and Daria Petrova. They are all better type designers than I am. I have a feeling that our interns are better than me at type design, too. That is an incredibly stimulating environment to work in. You want to work with people who are better than you. Now, whether it is to the company’s benefit to keep me around for very long, that is an entirely different question and I can’t answer it for you.
I loved working freelance while I was doing it, but I’m also glad that this period of my life is over. Being a freelance designer and working in someone else’s foundry each take up more of your time and energy than you’d probably prefer. I have two children and employee life takes me away from my family for more hours per week than freelancing did. But my psychological health improved tremendously after I no longer had to worry so much about where the next project was going to come from, or deal with clients who were late with payment. That, let me tell you, is awful. It’s an experience I don’t wish on anyone. One of the biggest changes to my professional life is that —unlike the years between 2009 and 2018— I’m not regularly teaching anywhere at the moment, and I do miss that.
He flipped through my pages quickly and asked me if I wanted to be a type designer. (…) I am definitely a type designer today because of him.
Do you remember when did you decide to conduct your career to the letter world? What made you choose that?
I kind of stopped sucking at typography during my second semester of the subject at RISD, which fell in the fourth of the eight semesters that my degree course had. This doesn’t mean that I was suddenly good, but I developed the feeling that it was a subject I understood something about, and I got really excited about that. This was during the winter and spring of 1999, so just a little more than 20 years ago. A bit later, I was in a relationship that brought me to Germany, and I decided that the best way to work my way into the design community there would be to study design again at a German art school. Back then, in 2003, the average age of students was still higher in Germany than in the US. So even though I had a BFA and a year of real, post-graduation professional working experience, I was only about as old as a German student halfway through their degree course. I applied to a number of schools and ended up enrolling at the HfG Offenbach —which I liked a lot, even though I was not a student there for very long. During the application process I got to show my portfolio to Klaus Hesse, the professor for corporate design in Offenbach. He flipped through my pages quickly and asked me if I wanted to be a type designer. I muttered something in terrible German about not being sure whether I had enough endurance. Type design projects are often long-term: longer than a lot of real-life identity redesigns or book design projects. But I knew that I was bullshitting myself. A light went off. I am definitely a type designer today because of him.
When you started, who were the teachers or professionals who had the greatest impact upon you?
In my first stint at Linotype, before I went to Reading, the Reading MATD course director Gerry Leonidas had a great impact on me. I saw him at some conferences, and we only had a few chats, but I carried what he said around with me for a really long time (even what he said, paradoxically, in his TypeRadio interview: that you should not have heroes). The impact he had on my during that time was probably greater than when I was actually a student on his course.
Also, while I was at Linotype, I shared an office for a few years with Hans Reichardt, who is a real typographic historian. In what was a boneheaded move, I almost never spoke with Hans back then, when I had the chance. There is so much that he might have been able to teach me, if I would have just asked. Later, in the research for my doctorate, his chronicles and the lists that he put together for the Klingspor Museum website were constant resources for me. And I do mean constant: I still pull up at least one of his PDFs every day… there must be about 9,000 of them up on the site by now.
In the time since I finished my MA, Indra Kupferschmid has had the greatest impact on my career, without a doubt. Even though I’m sure she doesn’t approve of all the career decisions I’ve made, or research interests I picked. Whenever you write, you need to have an audience in mind… a person or a group of people who you gauge your tone toward. For every historically themed blog post that I’ve made over the past year, I’ve written imagining that Indra is my audience. But I don’t think she actually reads those posts.
I hear that a coffee-bean addiction killed Balzac, and if that is true, then I am probably next.
What is your favourite way to start your day? What is the first thing you do when you sit down at your desk?
This is pretty norm-core, but I always sit down at my desk with coffee. I drink much too much coffee. I mean really too much. It cannot be healthy. I hear that a coffee-bean addiction killed Balzac, and if that is true, then I am probably next. I try to do a bit of work at home in the morning after I get up, before I take my son into daycare. Usually something research-related. I have coffee with me at my desk then, too, and my dog Laika will be underneath my desk. I’m not allowed to bring her into work. That is a shame because she would be an excellent office dog!
Favourite kind of music to listen to while working? (or absolute silence)
I’m a big listener of podcasts. I listen to them all the time, except when I am writing —then I do need silence. But while drawing, or filing, scanning, going through library stacks and searching for something, or while walking the dog, washing the dishes —you name it! While I’m doing that, I’m listening to a podcast. I “subscribe” to a number of podcasts, meaning that I get their feeds without ads and I can access extra content, etc. This is probably a model that could be applied to font licensing, too.
I get a kick out of listening to podcasts about a place, while I am in that place. For instance, there is a History of England podcast that I subscribe to, and a few years ago, while I was at a conference in Reading, I listened to a podcast episode while I was jogging through a park along the Thames. There I was, listing to The History of England in, well, England! I find it just terrible that I am going to be at TypeParis for one night, during a time when my favourite podcaster Mike Duncan is living in your city. He’s the author of The History of Rome podcast as well as a newer series called Revolutions, and he’s in Paris researching a book on every American’s favourite Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette. I mean, we do not know each other, so even if I would be in Paris for more than two days, we would not meet up. But I am still going to be kicking myself anyway. A few summers ago, I was vacationing in the Languedoc, and his Revolutions podcast was busy focusing on the history of the French Revolution. I went jogging in the heat through some vineyards listening to a few of those episodes.
Don’t let the inspiration for your practice just be photos from Pinterest, or thumbnails in a coffee table book on the history of graphic design.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone wanting to become a designer / type designer / art director?
The Internet is bad news. I don’t mean the whole Internet, of course! Instead, I mean that so many designers use the Internet as an image-researching/design-inspiration-finding device. Photographs of cool old designs are amazingly deceptive. They do not give you an idea of the scale the original object had (measurements in a caption are not the same!), or what the paper texture was like, you cannot see the vibrancy of the inks that were used in the printing either, etc. Books are not always better at this; however, it seems to me that newer “design history” books are finally getting good at showing their image reproductions so that they provide more details. This gives me hope. Decades ago, it was common to bleach out the color of the paper in the photograph, so that the background of the reproduction would just be the paper stock of the page in the book it was reproduced in.
I know that I am lucky to live in Berlin, a city with great libraries and fabulous archival resources covering printing, typography, and graphic design. I also know that my experience is not transferable to everyone everywhere. But please, whenever it is at all possible: go seek out physical object to look at! Don’t let the inspiration for your practice just be photos from Pinterest, or thumbnails in a coffee table book on the history of graphic design. The real world out there is so much more fascinating.
Thank you very much, Dan!
– Interview by Gina Serret.