The Peoples Font: An Interview with Franz Hoffman

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , typography

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, Koilinen, in 2006. Now, in collaboration with programmer Marc Escher, they've embarked on a mission to create an egalitarian type tool aptly named Fontself. Hoffman discusses the project's origins, intentions and challenges.

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 discrete?

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 needs?

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 design.

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 with type.

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 hurdle.

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.