Monday, June 22, 2009

Yves Peters - Rock & Roll Typographer

I'm writing this blog in Verdana, a serviceable font created in 1996 by Matthew Carter at the behest of Microsoft. It was designed to be legible in various sizes on a computer screen. Verdana is a coined word derived from 'verdant,' suggesting the lushness of the Pacific Northwest home of Gates and company, and 'Ana,' Matthew's daughter. I bet you knew that already though.

For the benefit of those of us in the communications world who might not be sufficiently s
chooled in typography, I recently interviewed Yves Peters "the most feared type critic of the Northern hemisphere," typographic designer extraordinaire and drummer in the band, Troubleman, on his views about type in a digital world and what communications directors and planners need to know about it. Because Yves is in Belgium I did the interview via email.

Here we go...

Hi Yves… I like the definition of typography as designing a communication using the printed word. Yet the typographic function is often handed to a graphic designer to work with or it is an obscure function within an agency that one contracts the work to. How distinct are these roles? How should a communications director evaluate the capacity of a design firm and its typographical team? Does it matter?

Although it pays off for communications directors to have a good basic knowledge of type, typography is a specialized area in graphic design, so it is best left up to professionals. Thanks to the omnipresence of the computer and the average users’ increased familiarity with fonts, people are now more aware of typography and often succeed in judging whether a specific typographic solution looks and feels right. This should help communication directors to decide whom to work with. However, once the job has been assigned to someone they are best served by trusting the graphic designer/typographer’s know-how and experience. It is the latter’s job to correctly analyze the content and give it the appropriate typographic treatment.

Given the tendency to default to something appalling and the prevailing view that content is the crucial element…
how important is type in a digital setting? Why does typography matter in an almost post-print world?

The choice of the typeface(s) and the typographically correct usage of the font(s) greatly influence how the text is perceived by the reader. People are much more visually oriented and design-savvy these days, so they definitely will notice if the type looks good and reads well or not. Poor setting of the type will result in the content simply not being read. In that regard type is extremely important if content is the crucial element. Further
more screens with their comparatively low resolution are notoriously poor at representing text matter, so it takes experienced graphic designers/typographers to get the most out of this difficult medium.

Online there seems to be a tyranny of Helvetica, Verdana and Times New Roman. And common self-publishing tools like blogs are driving conformity. How can we circumvent this given the default fonts of browsers and the need for functions like key-word searchability? Are we just taking the lazy person’s way out?

I think we are now at the threshold of a new era of more typographic refinement on the Internet, with embedded open type (EOT) and @fontface and so on ready to be implemented widely. There are still some hurdles left to clear, but I’m pretty confident things are going to work out for the best. Personally I have never had any real problems with the restrictions of online typography, because there are enough parameters that can be controlled to ensure maximum legibility. I’m a very pragmatic person, and as such accept that text is represented in a default font in online communication. Just like I took peace with the fact that the first photocopiers were only black and white, and that a logo has to work in one single flat colour. There are no restrictions, only challenges, and a good graphic designer can turn those so-called restrictions into assets. Give a poor designer an exquisite typeface and you’ll still get a mediocre end result. A good designer on the other hand is able to achieve a silky-smooth text setting with any plain default font.

Communications directors often come from non-arts backgrounds – business, marketing, journalism… and, if there are type components to the visual identities they have for their organizations, they are usually devised by external consultants and presented as a fait accompli (some even inherit identities). How should they school themselves in typography and develop sensitivity to, and appreciation for, it?

I wouldn’t go as far as to try and convince them to read The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst or Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy – although I highly recommend it – but a primer like Erik Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep or Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type are perfect introductions to the wonderful world of typography in graphic design. Plus nowadays there are countless online resources where one can read and learn about type and typography in short bursts, in a both relevant and entertaining way. “Best of” lists of recommended type and design websites are frequently posted online, and there usually is something for everyone in there.

Favourite font? Least favourite?

That’s a tough one – as I write about type and typography on The FontFeed and Unzipped, and occasionally review new typefaces in my Bald Condensed columns on I am constantly exposed to exciting new designs, so my preferences shift a lot. I prefer my type less obvious, not too slick, and it needs to have some bite to it. I want to be surprised by a new typeface, like Fred Smeijers’ Ludwig or Jack Usine’s Vidange. But if I had to pick one off the top of my head, let’s maybe take an outsider – the lesser known FF Hydra, for its slightly squarish, compact shapes, its tense outlines and its gutsy ink traps.
Talking about professional type design I used to say that there are no such things as bad typefaces, only bad typographers, but of course there are more than a few appalling designs out there. It would be unfair to single out certain designs that have aged poorly or which are being used inappropriately. If there’s one typeface that massively gets on my nerves – mine and countless others’ by the way – that would be Comic Sans. Some people try to rehabilitate it by saying it is overused or used for things it wasn’t intended for, but that’s plain rubbish. It has nothing to do with children’s writing nor comic book lettering; it just is a poorly designed train wreck of a script that is impossible to use well. And it’s everywhere [ed. there's a movement to ban this font, check out Ban Comic Sans] .

How quickly can you identify a specific font? Is it intuitive at this point like a connoisseur tasting a wine and being able to name the vintage and vineyard?

It does feel intuitive since a couple of years, and the overall “feel” of a word or sentence often is enough to set me on the right course. Yet I’m pretty sure I still identify typefaces by recognizing key characters. Let’s say that half of the typefaces I can identify almost immediately, and some more I can track down with a minimum of research. And if I can’t pinpoint it straight away sometimes I can deduct from the structure of the curves or the flavour of the typeface who designed it or what foundry it is from.

How does playing in a band shape your work as a typographer, if at all? Or are they two different worlds?

There are many parallels. Graphic design is mixing different elements like images, colours, shapes, type, and so on – arranging and balancing those elements, and making them work in harmony, just like the different instruments in a band. And being a drummer helped me appreciate rhythm is vital to typography. It’s in the baseline grid, and how you can subdivide and multiply the base unit to find new related grids. There is an internal rhythm in words and characters, and character spacing, kerning, and word spacing ensure it is not disturbed. And specifying different type sizes in a design works best when there is a logical relationship based on multiples.


Yves seems to be everywhere on the web. You can learn more about type and Yves Peters at Fontfeed, Unzipped, and a few other sites like Typophile. You can also follow him on Twitter as 'BaldCondensed.' And check out his band too.

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