09 Jul 2019
Erik van Blokland could not choose between type design and programming and decided to do both. For many years he has focused on the technical aspects of type design and developed, among other things, the acclaimed type interpolation tools Skateboard, MutatorMath and Superpolator. Erik co-authored the Unified Font Object (UFO) specification and the W3C Web Open Font Format standard 2.
He is also co-organizer of the triannual Robothon Type & Technology conference 3.
Van Blokland consults on type design tools, logos, lettering and typefaces, with clients including HBO, The Government of The Netherlands, Adidas, and Adobe. He can talk endlessly about ancient digital font formats and currently dabbles in research projects on optics, digitisation, drawing and responsive type. More at LettError.com.
Erik will be speaking at the last #tptalks session on Thursday 11 July 2019 at Le Tank. Registration will open on 2 July 2019!
You’re the current head of the renown Type and Media master at KABK. In a few words, what makes this master as exceptional as it is?
Erik van Blokland I think it is a focus on the process, learning through making, lots of practice. A critical view on all the tools, digital and inky. And really good teachers.
We have the chance to learn more about the things we design by critically questioning the available tools and, if necessary, construct new ones.
How much a software and its fixed rules can determine a type project (in terms of letterforms, styles, families, interpolations…) nowadays? Should any wannabe type designer have a basic interest/knowledge of Python?
All designers should be curious about how their choice of tools determines the path and outcome of the work. We now have access to really complex tools that make lots of decisions without the designer. This tends to numb curiosity. But we also have the chance to learn more about the things we design by critically questioning the available tools and, if necessary, construct new ones.
Most of our TypeMedia grads do, one way or the other. I’m not sure how one can practice type design without an understanding of the technical processes that support it.
Do you remember when did you decide to conduct your career to the letter world? What made you choose that?
My parents had a design studio at home and so there were always lots of materials around. I think that had a big influence on choosing the direction.
The classes by Gerrit Noordzij were very influential.
When you started, who were the teachers or professionals who had the greatest impact upon you?
The classes by Gerrit Noordzij were very influential. Not just the letter drawing and type design, but also his approach to research and the designer’s responsibility for making tools.
What drives you to make new typefaces?
Sometimes it can be some sort of visual thing that is interesting, or ideas that flow out of a sketch. Or it can come of out reflection on earlier work, or sparked by some sort of technical thing.
What is your ratio of self-initiated typefaces vs. typeface commissions? Which do you tend to be more passionate about making?
I don’t know to count that to be honest. There is commissioned work because I have to run a studio and support a family. Research work sometimes gets folded into a commissioned project. And unused sketches for something can become independent projects again.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Get up early. Make breakfast, take kids to school, maybe have a coffee at my favorite coffee bike. Then either go to the TypeMedia studio for whatever needs doing, or to my own office. These are relatively close. My studio is in a space shared with nine other designers, with a growing number of type designers. There I keep my books and a big screen and printer. Try to get some drawing or coding done. Fix bugs. Answer emails.
What is your favourite way to start your day? What is the first thing you do when you sit down at your desk?
Hook up my laptop to the screen. Get the backups going. Check mail and slack.
Do you prefer a permanent/dedicated workspace, or do you like to keep mobile (i.e. cafes, outdoors etc)
I do work at home, but I am more productive with the bigger screens.
If I need to concentrate it might be electronica, or particular classical pieces.
Favourite kind of music to listen to while working? (or absolute silence)
In the shared studio it can be noisy so I have really good headphones. But it is a nice group and when someone asks for quiet this is respected. If I need to concentrate it might be electronica, or particular classical pieces.
I think there are easy patterns to fall into when designing type specimens. And it really makes a difference to hire a non-type-designer to do it.
As a user of type, are you always on the lookout for new typefaces? What are some things that grab your eye the most when you are searching? (e.g. marketing copy, in-use specimens, OpenType features, glyph set, language support etc).
Probably not as much as I should. But I do notice new type and I can give it a stern look if I have to. I think there are easy patterns to fall into when designing type specimens. And it really makes a difference to hire a non-type-designer to do it.
It takes time to learn to trust your eyes.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone wanting to become a designer / type designer / art director?
There are things in type design that may take while before you get them. Not because they’re necessarily difficult, but just because it takes time to learn to trust your eyes. Spacing for instance: it is the key to understanding proportion and weight. Also: take risks, draw things that you haven’t seen before. It is more difficult because it means you can’t immediately see if it good because you have to develop the criteria as well as the shapes.
Thank you very much, Erik!
– Interview by Gina Serret.