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Imagine every clichéd reference to “design-it-yourself” font
menus and desktop publishing. The design community has come a long
way since the days we feared design in the hands of the masses.
Certainly there's a lot to figure out about our relationship to
design in this new environment, but it's undeniable that with
greater visibility and accessibility comes greater interest.
This new relationship may in fact break down to granular
distinctions within our wide-reaching areas of expertise. Take, for
example, typeface design. It's only a matter of time until font
design joins its familial disciplines of typography and layout in
the increasingly distributed buffet of design tools.
A trio of Swiss designers is pulling that point tantalizingly
close. Franz Hoffman and Pierre Terrier met as students at ECAL
University of Art and Design Lausanne. They started their studio,
2006. Now, in collaboration with programmer Marc Escher, they've
embarked on a mission to create an egalitarian type tool aptly
Hoffman discusses the project's origins, intentions and
Hunt: Fontself is a proposal for software that allows
anyone to make fonts. How does someone use it?
A handwritten character set.
Hoffman: That's right. They're able to scan
elements and translate those into a working font. Right now, it is
a research project, and it is evolving.
Hunt: Tell me about your team's roles in developing the
project. Is this an example of much-lauded cross-disciplinary
design? Your team consists of a typographer, a graphic designer and
a software developer. Do the roles overlap or are they
Hoffman: I'm a graphic designer and Pierre is a
typographer. In fact, we both work with typography and graphics.
The third member is Marc, who is a hard-core software developer. I
sometimes make the link between the two very different worlds of
type and code.
Hunt: Don't we already have accessible software for
making fonts? Isn't that what propelled the typeface surge in the
late '80s and early '90s?
Hoffman: The existing software is not so easy
for many of us. If you have ever worked on a font, you know it's a
tedious process, especially with OpenType features. We would like
to interest many, many people in the project—both a graphic design
audience and a much wider audience.
Hunt: How is your software different and what makes it
accessible to a wider audience?
Fonts in any style you wish.
Hoffman: Fontself relies on existing basic
concepts: drawing, scanning, and grids.
Hunt: You're bringing font creation closer to the
processes people are already familiar with. Is this the primary
impetus of the project? Did you begin the research out of
frustration, recreation or to suit a specific project's
Hoffman: There was no client project to begin
with. We started it purely as a private experiment. Our first idea
was to produce “lively” fonts and texts. Now it's also about easy
font creation, realistic handwriting and interactive writing
behavior. Most of all, though, we want it to be easy for ourselves
and for everyone else.
Hunt: When you say “lively,” are you referring to texts
that vary and are inconsistent?
Hoffman: I use “lively” to describe
realistic-looking fonts. They have colors, reflect their drawing
tool, show hand jitter, and of course they don't repeat the exact
same signs. We're also experimenting with text that you can
interact with online as you draw. For example, you can consider
colors and how they blend and mix within the font. Also, we're
considering photos and even video as font tools.
Hunt: Are you suggesting that photography and moving
images could be associated with keystrokes? Then reading a text
would be like watching hundreds of little movies?
Hoffman: It could be animated fonts, but we can
also consider the possibility in interactive software, for example
in games or chatting environments. The text of a game's
“battlefield” could get very interesting. This hasn't all been
fully explored yet. Most important to us, though, is the ease of
type production in reproducing existing handwritings.
Hunt: My initial reaction to Fontself was, admittedly,
accompanied with childlike glee—it felt like a playground. It seems
that designers could use more spaces or frameworks that require
play to figure out how they work. We get so comfortable with tools
that we use them in boring ways.
Hoffman: A playground, yes! That's exactly
where design tools should go. Type is regarded as boring media by
many, but I personally think it's because of the heavy tradition
and tools. With online tools and communities I believe—I know—minds
and approaches are changing. Fontself is proof of this: in just a
few months you can start projects that would have, in the past,
required massive programming skills and resources to share them.
Now we can share with anyone around the globe.
Fontself exhibiting variation in color and letterforms.
Hunt: The public is often introduced to a rudimentary
idea of design through acts such as selecting fonts on their
computer, but the tools don't afford them the opportunity to learn
that there is more room for creativity than picking from a menu of
choices. The fact that your software allows a person to create
their own font, rather than selecting from what already exists, is
a pretty big step for democratizing more advanced techniques in
Hoffman: It will be more difficult to show that
Fontself can produce “serious” fonts for a very traditional area,
especially here in Switzerland. But as more people are able to use
more aspects of the project, we believe it will start to emerge on
its own. I believe, as you say, that you can educate people if they
are able to easily try something out for themselves.
Defining individual character positioning.
Hunt: In the last 10 years there has been a resurgence
of hand-work in graphic design. This was a reaction to tech
graphics and the veneer everything acquired by being done on the
computer. Now you're mashing up the technology with the hand-made.
What does that mean to you?
Hoffman: I must admit I learned a lot about
type during this project. I first read about the whole history of
printing from Gutenberg forward. They had first tried to reproduce
handwritten Bibles. Fontself attempts to do this too, but without
limiting the forms of type creation. They could be handwritten with
pencil, ink or tomato juice. We have been taught in school to
respect very well done types, the famous ones and almost sacred
ones. Now, we want more freedom. We want other people to interfere
Hunt: What kind of feedback have you gotten from the
professional design community or otherwise?
Hoffman: We've had very cold feedback from our
type professor, but such warm feedback and joy from family and
non-designer friends—not only about the tool, but also about the
results. Colored fonts are very popular! Designers of all
specialties already love the idea. I hope we can create a tool that
appeals to children as well as to designers.
Hunt: Does the tool work with international character
sets? I'd imagine that's another huge technical
Aiming to capture the lively quality of handwritten text.
Hoffman: Right now we work with Latin
languages, but it shouldn't be too much trouble to prototype for
other languages. The full workflow will be a challenge though!
Hunt: Now that you've let the prototypes out into the
wild, what comes next for Fontself?
Hoffman: There is so much to be done now. It's
all in the beginning stages, so we hope we can find enough support
to pay the bills and grow the project. The bad news is that you
will have to wait for the complete tools. We're evolving them as we
realize the project's full system. The good news is we'll give you
a toy to play with in the meantime.
It seems that just about everyone is using the word “font?” when they are referring to a typeface. “Fonts” and “typefaces” are different things. Graphic designers choose typefaces for their projects but use fonts to create the finished art.
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