Interview with Gerard Unger

13 May 2015


Gerard Unger


Irina Smirnova


Tatiana Kolganova

er­ard Un­ger’s typeface Delftse Poort named after the twin towers that are the tallest build­ings in Rot­ter­dam and per­haps the en­tire Neth­er­lands (151m)—story about Delftse Poort can serve as a suc­cinct in­tro­duc­tion to this in­ter­view. Un­ger de­signed the typeface for nav­ig­a­tion at the re­quest of the towers’ own­ers, a na­tion­al in­sur­ance com­pany, and it is not used any­where else. Delftse Poort in­cludes one style—a kind of sten­cil type, be­cause, as Un­ger writes on his web­site, “the build­ing has two strik­ing towers, so wherever pos­sible I split the let­ters in two”. The Dutch love sten­cil type and know how to cut it—so what’s the big deal? But in a strange way, Delftse Poort and Un­ger’s in­genu­ous ex­plan­a­tion of his concept seem to con­ceal the whole es­sence of three ma­gic words: Un­ger, Neth­er­lands, ty­po­graphy. The towers could have got an “up-to-date” sans serif with fif­teen styles or the in­sur­ance com­pany could have chosen an­oth­er typeface (a more “cor­por­ate” one) from their home­land’s rich ty­po­graph­ic se­lec­tion, but they just agreed to settle for this slightly weird, dis­arm­ingly simple sten­cil type from Un­ger. That’s the Dutch for you—res­id­ents of a coun­try with an ad­vanced visu­al cul­ture.

Ger­ard Un­ger (born in 1942) be­longs to a gen­er­a­tion of de­sign­ers who have gone through fire and wa­ter when it comes to tech­no­logy. They star­ted their work with met­al type, later de­signed pho­to­type­set­ting fonts, and saw the cap­ab­il­it­ies and lim­it­a­tions of each in­ven­tion first hand. From the mid-70s on­wards, tech­no­lo­gic­al change happened at tre­mend­ous speed, and de­sign­ers had to re­spond: new type forms were born, and their ap­proach to the design pro­cess ad­ap­ted too. Un­ger is primar­ily a cre­at­or of ex­cel­lent text typefaces that have had a strong in­flu­ence (and still do) on the gen­er­a­tion of de­sign­ers who star­ted work in the di­git­al type era. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Un­ger con­trols our per­cep­tion of text with his typefaces: noth­ing is there by chance. They are well thought out in re­la­tion to where and how they will be used; their form is pre­cise in its pro­por­tions, sat­ur­a­tion and out­line as a whole. Un­ger has many years of ex­per­i­ence in readability stud­ies and is the au­thor of many stud­ies about the read­ing pro­cess, news­pa­per design and typefaces in gen­er­al. You will be able to read about these and many more oth­er as­pects in the in­ter­view that he kindly agreed to give to our journ­al.

When you were young and start­ing your ca­reer, could you ima­gine the present day and the cur­rent state of tech­no­logy?

Look­ing back, what you can say is that you have ab­so­lutely no idea at all of what the fu­ture had in store.

I’ve al­ways been a bit of an op­tim­ist. No idea where that comes from. I was not a bril­liant sec­ond­ary school pu­pil, I ac­tu­ally don’t have a fi­nal dip­loma from sec­ond­ary school. In 1963 I entered the Ri­etveld Academy, which was not the Ri­etveld Academy yet, back then it was Kun­strijver­heidschool. Com­pletely new world. And sud­denly, in­stead of very low marks, I had very high marks on my re­port, even 10s. I thought I was in para­dise and I’ve ac­tu­ally still got that feel­ing. Throughout my edu­ca­tion as a de­sign­er, type­set­ting was still hot met­al, which was used every­where in the early and mid 60s. Just about that time pho­to­type­set­ting was be­gin­ning and a while later di­git­al type­set­ting—in 1965. So I already had some in­form­a­tion about the changes that were about to hap­pen, but I still think nobody knew where ex­actly it was go­ing to end. With the op­tim­ism I already had and the en­thu­si­asm that my edu­ca­tion has giv­en me, the whole peri­od which was about to hap­pen was an end­less series of op­por­tun­it­ies. 

Ger­ard Un­ger in his stu­dent days, 1965. Scanned from a news­pa­per art­icle. Every year, the Boek­en­bal is held in Am­s­ter­dam—a get-to­geth­er of book pub­lish­ers, book­sellers, au­thors and every­body else in the book trade. The event takes place at a spe­cially dec­or­ated City Theatre of Am­s­ter­dam. In 1965, Un­ger and his fel­low stu­dents did a large part of that dec­or­at­ing. From left to right: Ger­ard Un­ger, Ber­til Aren­ds, Mariet Nu­man and Franka van der Loo. The por­traits on the wall be­hind de­pict Aart Cler­ckx and Harry Ver­meu­len, who could not be there for the pho­to­graph.

The mo­ment I was con­fron­ted with the new tech­no­logy, I wondered what the es­sen­tial char­ac­ter­ist­ics of this tech­no­logy were. I was al­ways very good at find­ing out the es­sen­tials and then I would be­gin to in­vent. So in the early 70s I was one of the first de­sign­ers who were in­volved in di­git­al type design. At that time there were pixelated let­ters, so you were mov­ing pixels around. The only lit­er­at­ure in the world was on weav­ing. So it was an ab­so­lutely great peri­od for a young de­sign­er in­ter­ested in tech­no­logy and equipped with a lot of curi­os­ity.

The only thing is that this has happened a few times since then, and I thought: “When is it ever go­ing to end, all these changes?” Be­cause as soon as di­git­al type­set­ting was there and you thought, “Ah, now everything is settled, we can fi­nally build up routines”, the Macin­tosh ap­peared—1986—and a short while later Post­script, Fon­to­graph­er… and my whole life changed again. But the same en­thu­si­asm, the same curi­os­ity, the same op­tim­ism were still at hand. I de­cided to go with it and it has giv­en me a lot of fun.

Ac­tu­ally, it still hasn’t stopped. The only thing is that it seems as if the pace of change has not de­creased, but only in­creased. The way changes now come over in type design, graph­ic design, ty­po­graphy—not only do these waves of changes come in ever faster suc­ces­sion, but they also seem to be of much big­ger in­flu­ence.

For ex­ample, my whole life I’ve been en­gaged in work­ing for pa­per-based me­dia and only re­cently New­s­week, the Amer­ic­an magazine, ceased to ex­ist as a pa­per-based pub­lic­a­tion and went totally di­git­al. And I think many oth­er pub­lic­a­tions will fol­low. I am firmly rooted with both legs in pa­per-based ty­po­graphy. I have no dif­fi­culty what­so­ever read­ing from the screen of an iPhone or read­ing from an e-book. And I think that by now we can come to the con­clu­sion that the res­ol­u­tion of screens has grown so quickly that you don’t need to ad­apt type designs any­more, save for very spe­cif­ic in­form­a­tion.

Un­ger’s fa­vour­ite de­tect­ive nov­el on the iPhone (The Big Sleep by Ray­mond Chand­ler).

Oth­er­wise, you can bring any design on the iPhone, iPad and sim­il­ar ma­chines. I think there is no dif­fer­ence between pa­per and screen, the read­ing ex­per­i­ence is the same. Ac­tu­ally, at the mo­ment I am try­ing to read a very big and heavy book in bed, be­fore I go to sleep. It is much more com­fort­able to read from an iPad, but this book is not avail­able on the iPad.

So there have been all these tech­no­lo­gic­al changes, but the far big­ger change, as far as I am con­cerned, is that throughout the 70s and in the early 80s I was work­ing as a type de­sign­er—I could make a very good liv­ing as a type de­sign­er and I was one of the very few. There was Mat­thew Carter, Ad­ri­an Fru­ti­ger, Her­mann Za­pf; they were older than I was. I did not have many con­tem­por­ar­ies. And sud­denly in the mid 80s, early 90s, there was a wave of young de­sign­ers from the Hag­ue, Arnhem, and then Bri­tain, Ger­many… and the pic­ture changed com­pletely. Since type design has gone di­git­al, the num­ber of type de­sign­ers has mul­ti­plied un­be­liev­ably. But I don’t think about all my young col­leagues in a neg­at­ive way at all. It is great to have a large num­ber of col­leagues, to meet and dis­cuss how dif­fer­ent the products we make are or how sim­il­ar they are when it comes to a neut­ral sans serif.

There is a lot to dis­cuss. One of the big un­re­solved is­sues is type on the web copy­right. When I was much young­er, if I wanted to dis­cuss something with my col­leagues I had to wait un­til the an­nu­al ATypI con­fer­ence, so once a year I could see some col­leagues. In this way life has be­come more ex­cit­ing and at­tract­ive. Huge, very very big changes.

What is your view of the Dutch type design?

I live here and work here, and I have trav­elled a lot, so I can com­pare. The Neth­er­lands is still a kind of cross­roads cul­tur­ally. In many ways, the Neth­er­lands is a very at­tract­ive place to work, be­cause everything is very close to­geth­er, every­one is close to­geth­er, all the ser­vices you need are very nearby and there are no long wait­ing times. So if you have an idea and you want to de­vel­op something, and you need in­form­a­tion on the sub­ject, it is eas­ily avail­able, easy to find. Everything is here, we know about each oth­er. There is a col­lect­ive en­thu­si­asm.

Sans serif Flora (1984) was ori­gin­ally re­leased by Hell with the act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion of Swiss ty­po­graph­er Max Caflisch (then a con­sult­ant at the foundry), and later re-re­leased in di­git­al format by ITC—with a sig­ni­fic­antly changed design. Ger­ard con­siders the first ver­sion of the typeface for Hell to be the more suc­cess­ful one. Flora is charm­ing and light, its let­ter­forms in­flu­enced by the style of hand­writ­ing. Un­ger ex­per­i­mented with an or­din­ary ball­point pen and even­tu­ally ended up with the reg­u­lar hand­writ­ing that the type was based on. A Cyril­lic ver­sion of Flora was re­leased in 1995 by the Type De­part­ment at Para­Graph (de­signed by Emma Za­khar­ova and Vladi­mir Efimov). The typeface has two styles—nor­mal and bold.

But there is also a nice Dutch tra­di­tion which stems from in­dus­tri­al design and graph­ic design. Dutch type design and graph­ic design have al­ways been pushed in the dir­ec­tion of fine arts. There is a thin line between design and fine arts. There are fre­quent cros­sov­ers. I have many col­leagues, es­pe­cially at the Ri­etveld Academy, who treated design as art, and some­times took it too far, in my opin­ion. But some­times they came up with sur­pris­ing res­ults you would not have got in any oth­er way.

This at­ti­tude ori­gin­ated in the 20s, when people like Theo van Does­burg, Vilmos Husz­ar and Ger­rit Ri­etveld straddled a very wide field of in­terest. When you open Jan Tschich­old’s book on Mod­ern Ty­po­graphy the first chapter is about re­cent de­vel­op­ment in the arts: ab­strac­tion, Malevich, Lis­sitzky, and how it in­flu­enced ty­po­graphy. So they took dir­ect in­spir­a­tion from the arts and that went on for quite a long time. After the Second World War one of the first who did it was Willem Sand­berg, then the dir­ect­or of the Stedelijk Mu­seum. He de­signed posters and cata­logues him­self.

I was edu­cated by the whole gen­er­a­tion of de­sign­ers who com­bined a ca­reer in art with a ca­reer in design. For ex­ample, my teach­er for let­ter­ing, type design and ty­po­graphy, Theo Kur­per­shoek, was a paint­er, a mod­ern clas­si­cist in his paint­ings and a tra­di­tion­al­ist in his ty­po­graphy, but he com­bined two ca­reers. I think you see it much less nowadays. A lot of de­sign­ers have gone very con­ser­vat­ive, look for ex­ample at the Rijks­mu­seum and Stedelijk Mu­seums’ iden­tit­ies. But there are still many people around who ex­per­i­ment and want to do things dif­fer­ently.

I’ve al­ways been very curi­ous, and I think curi­os­ity is a very fun­da­ment­al Dutch qual­ity. When you make a design, the first ques­tion you ask when you’ve made it is: What else can I get out of this? Is there any­thing more? Is there any­thing bey­ond what I have done so far? So that was an­oth­er thing that I’ve learned in the 60s as a stu­dent: nev­er be sat­is­fied with what you can do, but al­ways try to get a bit more out of your­self and to ex­per­i­ment. I think this is what I have in com­mon with many of my Dutch col­leagues.

Ac­tu­ally, I find that now when you look around you find the same spir­it in Ger­many, in Switzer­land, in Bri­tain and es­pe­cially in the US. Think of how far people pushed things in the 90s in the US, pushed the bound­ar­ies of design, tried to re­con­cile it with all kinds of ideas from art. The peri­od now seems to be a bit over, the situ­ation is very dif­fer­ent: it’s much more res­ult-ori­ented and I re­gret that a bit. So I hope that this nice Dutch way of work­ing, of com­bin­ing ex­per­i­ment­a­tion with prac­tic­al work, ex­per­i­ment­a­tion and prag­mat­ics, of let­ting the ideas from the fine arts seep in­to design and vice versa, will go on.

I went to the Documenta in Kas­sel in 2012, and I found it ex­tremely en­cour­aging. It was mainly about how art is con­nec­ted with how people think, how they form their opin­ion, how they work, how art can be con­nec­ted to the so­ci­ety. Apart from that, there was con­cen­tra­tion on form, on pure form. What they showed were a few of Morandi’s works. When I was a stu­dent, we had to do Morandi still lifes as well, it was one of the as­sign­ments. For me, it was very mov­ing to see the Morandi ob­jects. At the same time, the ex­hib­i­tion was about opin­ion mak­ing.

What is your “Ariadne’s thread” in type design?

First of all, I stud­ied cal­li­graphy as a stu­dent at the Ri­etveld Academy, which, of course, has an in­flu­ence on my work. When I was con­fron­ted in the late 60s/early 70s with all these new tech­no­lo­gies, I found that you have to ap­proach type design from a really dif­fer­ent side, to see it al­most as a part of in­dus­tri­al design. What we were taught as de­sign­ers is that when you are asked to design a product, you look around and ask a num­ber of fun­da­ment­al ques­tions: What meth­ods of pro­duc­tion are avail­able? Who is it for? How will it be used? Then you go out and re­search. And then with that in­form­a­tion you go and start work­ing. Then cal­li­graphy dis­ap­pears a bit in the back­ground.

Cal­li­graphy is still very much in the back of my mind. When I was a stu­dent, what im­pressed me was my teach­er of type design—look­ing at an etch­ing by Rem­brandt, he put a mag­ni­fi­er on it so that you saw a frag­ment much en­larged. And you saw how Rem­brandt with his hands, his brain, his eyes had made scratches. My teach­er then said: this is cal­li­graphy. The move­ment of the hand con­trolled by the brain and the eye. This is cal­li­graphy. And I thought: How right you are! It’s not just how to make prop­er let­ters, cal­li­graphy is a very liv­ing thing, and a very mov­ing thing, it moves with the times.

And there was an­oth­er thing—the ab­stract shapes of mod­ern­ism. For ex­ample, I am still very fond of sculptors like Con­stantin Brân­cuși (Константин Бранкузи) and Al­ex­an­der Calder (Александр Колдер) with his mo­biles, totally ab­stract shapes. The French de­sign­er Ro­ger Ex­cofon has been a huge in­flu­ence on my work. When you look at let­ter­forms as ab­stract shapes, you add a num­ber of design pos­sib­il­it­ies to your rep­er­toire. 

A di­git­al ver­sion of Un­ger’s icon­ic typeface Swift, with the suf­fix “2.0”, came out in 1995. In 2003, Para­Type re­leased a Cyril­lic ver­sion with eight styles (de­signed by Ta­gir Safaev) for pub­lic use. This is how Vladi­mir Efimov de­scribed Swift in his book “Great Typefaces. Book Two. Serifs“: “This typeface has strong and wide (like wings!) tri­an­gu­lar or wedge-shaped serifs. In the head­er styles, they al­most merge to­geth­er some­times, as if passing the bat­on from one let­ter to an­oth­er. The flat arch of the lower­case h, m, n and the bowls of b, d, p, q are tapered when they join ver­tic­al strokes. The ter­min­al of lower­case a in the Ro­man styles ends with prom­in­ent wedge shape. The open aper­ture and ten­sion of the ba­sic forms clearly brings out the spaces in­side and between let­ters, which in turn seem to con­sti­tute their own in­de­pend­ent forms. Just like a bird catches the wind with its wings, caus­ing the air to yield and sub­mit to its will, Un­ger’s typeface makes the space between let­ters and with­in them work.”

So if you talk about an Ariadne’s thread, it’s fun­da­ment­ally to see type design as in­dus­tri­al design com­bined with er­go­nom­ics, in or­der to ad­apt the hu­man product to the ca­pa­cit­ies of the hu­man body, in this case to the ca­pa­city of the eyes and the brain and the hand. This is what sup­ports my work.

I am very fond of curves. I’ve al­ways liked curves. It’s nev­er a simple curve, they are very com­plic­ated curves very of­ten. It starts rather flat, it makes its turn, it stretches it­self, makes its turn again and sud­denly goes up… There is an out­side curve and an in­side curve do­ing something dif­fer­ent, you cre­ate a sil­hou­ette this way, this is how shapes come about. That’s the trick. That’s all there is.

How did you ap­proach design­ing Cyril­lic?

I’ve al­ways been too care­ful, I think, with hand­ling dif­fer­ent scripts. For ex­ample, when I was a stu­dent, I de­signed some Greek, but I nev­er took it any fur­ther. Gerry Le­oni­das in Read­ing has al­ways been ur­ging me to do a Greek typeface. I hes­it­ated. I know the Lat­in script with all its sub­tleties and all its ins and outs. But I’ve al­ways had a feel­ing that I did not know the Greek and the Cyril­lic script with all this in­tim­acy. With the Lat­in script, I know ex­actly how far I can go with ex­per­i­ment­a­tion, and when I am cross­ing the line where read­ers will be­come aware of my ex­per­i­ment­a­tion. And I go one step over that line on pur­pose. But I have no idea where this line is in re­la­tion to the Greek or Cyril­lic script.

But then I was study­ing the Romanesque cap­it­als, and there are three kinds of let­ters in­volved: the usu­al cap­it­als which ori­gin­ally come from Rome, the second set of let­ters, which is called un­cials (AE­DH­NQ), and there was a “wild” group of let­ter­forms that are ori­gin­ally In­su­lar, or Celt­ic, and come from Ire­land and Eng­land. And there are an­gu­lar ver­sions of round let­ters, for ex­ample, the square “C” which looks like a cap­it­al “E” without a cross­bar, and a square “S” that looks like a re­versed “Z” and poin­ted “O”, and poin­ted “Q” and a square “G”.

The mo­ment I got con­trol of the me­di­ev­al forms and real­ised how they worked, I had a look at the Cyril­lic and I thought: this is the same thing, just an­oth­er com­pos­ite al­pha­bet like the Romanesque let­ter­forms. Great fun! Some let­ters which are round in Lat­in are an­gu­lar in Cyril­lic, and you have a re­versed “R” in Cyril­lic—me­di­ev­al stone carv­ers mirrored let­ter­forms quite reg­u­larly. The mo­ment I star­ted look­ing at Cyril­lic with me­di­ev­al eyes, I could design it. 

And then I thought: Now I could do the Greek as well, be­cause in the Middle Ages, earli­er than the peri­od I have stud­ied, Greek let­ter­forms were used in com­bin­a­tion with the later let­ter­forms as well. {2} So when I had done my Greek design and I showed it to Gerry Le­oni­das, he looked up with a broad smile and said: How of­ten have I told you that you could do it! Of course, Gerry made cor­rec­tions and showed me cer­tain things I could im­prove.

What are you work­ing on now? What kind of ques­tions do you re­search?

My PhD dis­ser­ta­tion sup­ports my pro­ject—21st cen­tury type design with me­di­ev­al in­gredi­ents. The typeface is called Al­verata, now avail­able from Type­To­geth­er. I’ve made a study of Romanesque let­ter­forms from the peri­od from 1000 to 1200. It’s a peri­od when a single mod­el for a set of let­ter­forms was used for over 200 years throughout Europe, from the Brit­ish Isles to East­ern Europe, and from Nor­way to Si­cily. These let­ter­forms were ap­plied with amaz­ing vari­ation. I’ve nev­er gone in­to his­tory as deeply as I’ve done now. Ex­tract­ing from that me­di­ev­al peri­od a num­ber of in­gredi­ents: not just shapes, but also the men­tal­ity be­hind the shapes that I could ap­ply now.

Two of my PhD stu­dents, Ann Besse­mans from Bel­gi­um and Nad­ine Shahine from Le­ban­on, have both gone in­to legibility research. And one of the su­per­visors for both is Kev­in Lar­son from Mi­crosoft. They are some­what pi­on­eer­ing in the way that they are de­sign­ers who have gone in­to legib­il­ity re­search. I closely fol­lowed their meth­ods, and one of the in­gredi­ents in the re­search is that they have de­signed their own typefaces for it. In their type designs, they made a num­ber of very subtle vari­ations, which can be eas­ily com­pared and give very valu­able in­form­a­tion that can be ap­plied to type design.

And my own 21st cen­tury me­di­ev­al design of­fers me the same pos­sib­il­ity, so I am already mak­ing a num­ber of very subtle step-by-step vari­ations. And I will go in­to legib­il­ity re­search my­self. Work­ing as a type de­sign­er for 40 years, I wondered about a num­ber of things. For ex­ample, I pay a lot of at­ten­tion to all kinds of de­tails in a type design. What do the read­ers see from all these de­tails? I think I can find out. Ac­tu­ally, the re­search meth­ods to make such know­ledge avail­able have only re­cently been de­veloped and im­proved. I am look­ing for­ward to a new ca­reer as a legib­il­ity re­search­er. I want to stop design­ing type, but I will def­in­itely go in­to legib­il­ity re­search.

Ann Besse­mans de­fen­ded her PhD thes­is “Type Design for Chil­dren with Low Vis­ion” at Leiden Uni­versity in 2012 (su­per­vised by Ger­ard Un­ger and Bert Wille­ms from Has­selt Uni­versity). Nad­ine Chahine de­fen­ded her thes­is “Read­ing Ar­ab­ic: Legib­il­ity Stud­ies for the Ar­ab­ic Script” in Leiden in 2012 (su­per­vised by Ger­ard Un­ger and Kev­in Lar­son).

doc­u­men­ta is a con­tem­por­ary art ex­hib­i­tion that was foun­ded in 1955 and takes place every five years in Kas­sel, Ger­many. Today, it is con­sidered one of the most sig­ni­fic­ant events in mod­ern art along­side the Venice Bi­en­nale.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are not too many fonts with the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet among them. We have Swift (au­thor of the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet—Ta­gir Safaev) and Flora (Cyril­lic—Emma Za­khar­ova, Vladi­mir Efimov), in ad­di­tion to last year’s Al­verata, for which the au­thor de­signed the Cyril­lic him­self

In 1995, the first edi­tion of his book about the re­la­tion­ship between type and its read­er, Ter­wijl je leest (“While You Are Read­ing” in the Eng­lish trans­la­tion), was re­leased. It was re­pub­lished in 2006.

Gerard Unger