Not the Typical Type

Type design serves the reader not only in good legibility but also in recognising certain objects. Typefaces offer orientation and identification. When you see information spread around the globe it becomes almost a world in itself. You have to find your way in the information world and typefaces give identity to objects, books, magazines, record covers. It helps people orient themselves if books look like books.

I would say typography is very different. It is less of a circus act, or none at all.

Typography has thrived since the introduction of typesetting technologies. It has evolved with the changing times and adapted to newer technologies. There are many type designers who have made a significant impact in the field of design and graphic activities. Gerard Unger is one such luminary from the world of typography.
Gerard Unger was born in the Nertherlands in 1942 and educated at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. His early inspiration was drawn from the hand-lettered book jackets before he entered a career in graphics. He is credited with creating fonts like Markeur (1972), M. O. L. (1975), Demos (1976), Praxis (1976),Flora (1980), Hollander (1985), Swift (1985), Oranda (1992), Amerigo(1987), Cyrano (1989), Argo (1991), Decoder (1993), Gulliver (1993), Swift 2.0 (1995), Coranto (1999) and Vesta (2001). His work appears in various newspapers and magazines besides doing road signs and typographic work for Dutch coins and postage stamps. Has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, USA, (1979) and at Stanford University (1985).

Unger was offered his first chance to design a complete typeface for a Dutch printing business, in the early 1970s. He went on to create a face for the signage system of the Amsterdam Metro. Unger did Dutch road signs with big counters where he stressed a lot of space within the characters for formal legibility tests. In 1974, Unger joined the German company Dr. Ing Rudolf Hell Gmbh. Here, he designed several typefaces for Hell’s pioneering digital typesetting system, the Digiset to become one of the most established professional type designers of that era.

Some of my favourite fonts are as old as 1782, while I must say that the best has not yet been designed

It is possible to define the kinds of letterforms with which Unger has been most strongly associated. The serif, sans serif and italic types have a common basic dimensions and a formal structure. Each of these typefaces employs a wide-open counter, which is further emphasised by short ascenders and descenders and letterforms are constructed in the most straightforward of manners. Amongst this family of faces, Flora has become the best known – an unadorned sans serif italic, it appears remarkably guileless upon the page.

Another typeface Swift, designed in the early 1980s, was created in the digital format for newspapers. Swift is robust enough to survive very poor production techniques and it is endowed with a lively rhythm that allows it to work in a fairly conventional manner within the context of a broadsheet newspaper. The London based design magazine ‘Blueprint’ began to use Swift in large sizes as a headline face.

Unger was an early adopter of the Macintosh computer, buying his first package of printer, computer, screen, scanner and software in 1986, after quitting Hell. Unger was very enthusiastic about the facilities Macintosh technology offered to the type designer, particularly the ability to make changes directly on the screen and to print out samples immediately. Unger took to desktop font creation very quickly. Unger’s first design to be released as an original PostScript font was the typeface Argo. The typeface, a chunky sans serif with a slightly chiselled edge, was undertaken as part of Unger’s sustained exploration of the generation of character and idiosyncrasy within the broader framework of conventionality.

A contented user of the keyboard, Unger has adapted to the software to the extent that, for the most part, he bypasses pen and paper altogether and goes straight to the screen. However, Unger has demonstrated a keen understanding of the continued importance of tactility in the digital age. Encouraging type design students to explore similar avenues, Unger has reported worthwhile combinations of radical typefaces and nineteenth-century hand-made paper. Juxtapositions of the new and the traditional are at the heart of Unger’s projects and the Dutch culture.

After releasing Argo through URW and Dutch Type Library, Gerard Unger made the decision to go completely independent. Unger’s fonts are relatively expensive and as such, mostly sold to professional clients. Unger has not relied solely upon his income from the design of original typefaces. Like other independents he has undertaken custom work, for example adapting Swift for a Danish customer, and has also done a quantity of more general graphic work, such as magazine design. As an independent, Unger has been responsible for initiating a large part of his own design programme. In the mid 1990s he was concerned with a project named Paradox, an exploration of the co-existence in eighteenth-century Europe of ‘modern’ and ‘old-style’ faces. In pursuing such projects, Unger has moved close to many of his younger type design colleagues. He is a Part time professor at the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication of The University of Reading, UK, and part time teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam. He is also the Board member of the Association Typographique Internationale and member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale.

Unger has envisaged himself as a historically informed designer. Unger sees typographic history as a development of a core of concerns and principals upon which his own designs are built. For his type design Hollander, he took elements from the seventeenth-century Dutch typefaces, like the Baroque contrast between thick and thin and the proportions of x height in comparison with total height. For Unger, exploring typographic history had become part of the broader task of addressing familiarity. Unger has witnessed several major shifts in typesetting technology and weathering these, he has managed to pursue a consistent, socially inflected typographic project.
Artyears.com had the privilege of contacting Gerard Unger for some quick answers related to the field of type design. We present an extract of what he had to say to us:

How and when did the world of art begin to interest you?
I was born in 1942, in Arnhem, Holland, where the famous battle (Operation Market Garden, the largest Airborne operation ever) took place in September 1944. I would play, as a kid, with ruined books from my father’s library. I also scribbled all over Piet Zwart’s famous PTT (Dutch Post Office Telephone and Telegraph service) publication.

To what extent does a Design school mould you into being a success in your profession?
My entrance to the Rietveld Academy was simply a doorway to the design world for me. I must add, that the teachers at the Rietveld were very generous.

What prompted you to choose typeface designing as a career?
I was inspired by popular publications like the French Arts et MTtiers Graphiques, which molded me for a career in designing. By the time I was 18, I was certain I would be a type designer and that came true, eventually.

Do you have any idols in the field of typographic design?
No idols actually, but there are designers and artists I admire, like W.A. Dwiggins and Ellsworth Kelly.

Which would your favourite alphabet be, if you had to choose one for its character?
Not one, but the entire set of ALPHABETS.

How would you differentiate typography from calligraphy?
Phew! I would say typography is very different. It is less of a circus act, or none at all. Typography is inseparable from the language and has so much more to it.

From among the varied work that you handle, can you speak about any recent project?
At present I am working on a book about reading, studying cloud reading (yes, it does exist!).

What qualities would you give to a serif and a san serif typeface?
The subject in question is usually treated as an aesthetic problem or as something concerning modernity. At present there is no definite say, but that is because research is, and has been inadequate.

Computers have given us access to hundreds of fonts worldwide. What kind of fonts would you choose as your favourites?
Some of my favourite fonts are as old as 1782, while I must say that the best has not yet been designed.

What tips would you offer to an amateur typeface designer?
What can I say! Put your money on Hairos Deux in the 2 O’clock race at Hilversum on Thursday. A certified winner!

With a hectic involvement in the field of typography, which includes lectures and writings, how do you relax?
As far as relaxing is concerned, I would say dining is great.

Do language barriers affect typography?
Not at all! Because typography itself is a language. But a language can create problems as far as communication is concerned.

What future do you foresee for type design in the years ahead?
A future as bright as ever

GERARD UNGER is a renowned Type Designer, Typographer, Graphic Designer and Professor from the Netherlands. His book about reading ‘Terwijl je leest‘ has been published in Dutch. Unger can be contacted at Tel: +44 (0) 118 378 6397 and Fax: 44 (0) 118 935 1680


2 thoughts on “Not the Typical Type

  1. rogerattlee says:

    If you have the time, you should read his book! Terwijl je leest. Available in English, German, Italian and Spanish versions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s