University of Reading’s Gerry Leonidas Talks Type Design & Education

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As associate professor of typography at the University of Reading, Gerry Leonidas has taught students in its Master of Arts in Typeface Design (MATD) since 1999. Leonidas was interviewed for HOW magazine’s spring 2017 international issue where along with other experts, he spoke about the challenges associated with designing Latin and non-Latin scripts in “A World of Typographic Opportunities.” In this complete interview, Leonidas shares his opinions about typography and the importance of culture, history, motivation and research when it comes to designing type and teaching type design.

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Lettering by Kaja Słojewska, inspired by the first typography book that she checked out from the MATD library.

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Letterform drawings by Nathan Willis.

Q. You’ve taught type design, written about it, and given presentations for years. You’ve successfully trained a number of type designers who design typefaces for languages they do not read. Since beginning this work in education and reflecting on it in “A Few Things I’ve Learned About Typeface Design” has your stance or approach to type design and type design education changed in any way?

One positive, one negative. The positive: I think I am stronger in my view that this is not something that people can pick up on their own, and that a specific framework is required. The experience has helped clarify the balance of the various activities that go into building the knowledge and skills in a new script, and strengthened the requirement for building a broader understanding of the culture. In other words, it has shifted the balance of the task towards research-informed, reflective practice, in that sequence: first research, then reflection on design processes and the role of the designer, then making shapes. And by “research” I mean not only in letterforms and typeforms, but also primarily in documents: the kinds of texts produced, the agents and means of producing them, and the communities these texts were made for. The negative: not everybody can do this well. It’s a demanding, time-consuming process that requires guidance to navigate primary and secondary resources (when they exist) and to provide guidance through targeted questioning. There is no easy way, no shortcuts.

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Critique day at MATD, with associate professor Gerry Leonidas in the background, photo by Nathan Willis.

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Calligraphy exercises by Nathan Willis.

Q. I’ve read about typefaces that can take 3–5 years, or even 10–20. Is there an average time to delivery when it comes to creating and releasing a font with support for multiple scripts?

That’s a difficult question to answer. It depends on the conditions. Is it a project building on an existing typeface? Is there a branding deadline? Is the typeface to be a saleable product itself, or a service (e.g. for OEM typefaces)? And crucially: how many people are working on the project? Most big jobs are team efforts. OEM typefaces can easily take more than two years, but most branding projects are counted in months—although since these are team projects, the person-hours will add up to years. The major unknown factor is the combination of scripts, since the scale of the character sets and the complexity of production differs hugely. Whatever the case, serious multi-script typeface design is an entirely different world from the display market graphic designers usually associate with typeface design.

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An x written by Kaja Słojewska during a calligraphy workshop with Ewan Clayton, where students learned about movement and speed in italics.

Q. From your perspective, do some of your students at Reading naturally gravitate to designing for languages other than their own? What helps them to naturally “get it” for lack of a better word?

Several applicants have a clear interest in learning about other scripts, and a small number have interests in specific areas or scripts. Others, through our workshops and seminars, develop an interest in scripts they had never seen before—this is a particularly rewarding experience. Reading attracts people who are willing to take on such challenges—this is very clear from how we describe the course, and the way graduates talk about their experience. A high level of intellectual curiosity is a requirement for learning to design for scripts you can’t read.

However, it is difficult to predict whether people can transfer form-making skills they have in one area into another. This means, for example, that you might get a superb graphic designer who finds it very difficult to translate their confidence to the small scales in which a type designer works. Equally, someone may find it more difficult to think of a script in systematic terms, separate from any familiarity that comes with reading. But I don’t think there is a clear method to test people for aptitude in designing across scripts: at its heart, designing across scripts is an intensely intellectual activity: people who welcome this, tend to do well. People who focus on the practice only, tend to come up short.

Having said that, almost all students underestimate the learning curve, regardless of their level of experience: this is for many of them, without exaggeration, the most challenging year they will have had in their professional lives so far. Some thrive on this, some go through cycles of frustration and discovery, and some deal with it by being ruthlessly selective in what they absorb. Having said that, I am regularly impressed by the effort people put into their learning, and their perseverance. It is a privilege to witness people scale such a steep learning curve, for which the only appropriate response is respect for their commitment.

Q. For those in your program at Reading who will not naturally gravitate there, and are less inclined to design for other and cultures than their own, how do you motivate them and encourage them? Is it a matter of encouraging them to understand the typographic form language, and then go beyond form? Such as your closing remarks at Eye, “An engagement with the history of a script, the technology of typesetting, and the development of design for texts are central to achieving high quality in practice.” Does historical immersion and deeper context help them see things so they will eventually recognize that they can do it now that they know the subject matter?

That pretty much nails it. We do not need to motivate people to design in other scripts: that is a narrow perspective, focusing only on the typefaces. What we need to do is raise awareness of the wider typographic environment and conditions for visual communication in other cultures: the way typography and design interact with the history of a community, and the meaning of texts that look and behave in specific ways. Then the need for typefaces emerges from an understanding of the communication requirements of real people, not a gap in somebody’s type specimen. Typeface design is an enabling discipline: it only has value through the communication it makes possible.

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The results of Kaja Słojewska’s work from a four-day Rapid Venetian Workshop with Riccardo Olocco and Michele Patanè in December 2016. Students worked in groups of five (each group had a different manuscript to work on), and designed a revival of a 15th century Venetian typeface in four days.

Q. How back should one look with regard to history when it comes to type design? A literary review could encompass months or years, or decades. Is there a point where you encourage type designers to draw the line, cut themselves off, and create an “historical zone” for their research that could help them focus?

Again, it depends on the design problem at hand. If you accept (as I have argued) that design is primarily a social enterprise, then you need to see it in context. Depending on what you are working on, your questioning will determine how wide your enquiry should be, in time and disciplines. In most cases the relevant events are not spread out evenly over time and space, but clumped in periods and locations of activity and change (I use “events” instead of “objects” to indicate that things are the product of actions by people with motivations and limitations). For example, innovation in the relationship between type makers and their tools is clumped in the 15th century, then there’s a blip at the turn of the eighteenth, then little until you hit the Industrial Revolution; the first half of the 20th is mostly barren in this respect (essentially an extension of 19th century trends) and is transformational again after WW2. So, you can skip through time by looking at chapters of change: then you can see how changing conditions generate new typographic forms. This is happening very rapidly now in Asia, as demographic changes, urbanization and technology enable new behaviors and change the demand for visual communication.

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A screenshot of Greek glyphs by Kaja Słojewska, after a Greek workshop taught by Gerry Leonidas, where students learned about Greek manuscripts, books, and specimens.

Q. Regarding this statement from Eye, “There is, however, one area in which I fear we will still not have made much progress: describing the global majority of scripts by a negative reference to a minority. Is it not time for ‘non-Latin’ to die as a term?” What about just saying script? Latin script. Greek script. Cherokee script. Or typeface? Latin typeface. Greek typeface. What else should we say that would do away with the Latin vs. non-Latin segregation, and would it catch on for others to use as well?

Well, you can say “Cherokee script” because the script is used for one language only, but you can’t say “English script” because the script used to document the English language is shared by several tens of other languages. Most scripts are shared by many languages, and therefore exist on a different level, separate from a specific use. Even for “simple” cases like Greek, there are at least four different versions of the language, and at least five versions of the script, depending on the historical period you are looking at. So, there is rarely a one-to-one parity between script and language.

Then, you need to be able to distinguish between written and typographic forms, because the conditions of their making place very different considerations on their shapes. Similarly, you need the distinction between a typeface (a specification of formal relationships) and a font (an implementation of a typeface in a specific rendering technology).

The distinction between Latin and non-Latin is based on two criteria: first, that most scripts maintain a distinct connection to their written forms, which the Latin has long ago demoted this to an optional, selective element. (This has to do with its development mostly during the “long nineteenth century” the role of lettering in 20th century art, and the use of language in ephemera.) The second criterion is that the technology of typesetting is still developed primarily for the Latin script, and subsequently adapted to others.

The case of “invented” scripts (like Cherokee and the IPA) and “imposed” scripts (like post-Petrine Cyrillic) illustrates these distinctions process very well. Similarly, the shortcomings of Unicode echo a very “north/western” thinking about scripts. (As for terminology: I don’t think Unicode has much of an impact in this particular case: it tries to list things by script.)

“Non-Latin” is bad for being a negative, but it remains useful. “Global scripts” is good for positively putting everything on the same level, but does not recognize the contribution of these two criteria.

Q. Where do you see emerging markets for type design in the next 5–10 years? What parts of the world will need typefaces more than others, either because they have little (or nothing) to choose from or have low quality typefaces?

In short: wherever you see urbanization and a middle class market emerging, there you will detect the demand for new typefaces. Then, the more intense the interchange with visual cultures that have mature typographic styles, the higher the pressure to develop similar refinements in each local script. This is a rule that applies globally, and can explain many developments.

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Greek alphabet drawings by Nathan Willis.

Q. What technological challenges are on the horizon for type designers? Will it be less about technology and more about better understanding cultures, histories, and writing systems other than one’s own so they can design typefaces for cultures other than their own?

I think that understanding how to design “design spaces” rather than specific sets of outlines will be an interesting challenge—variable fonts foreground this. My take on new environments is that VR is less of a new market for type, but AR and Mixed Reality will be huge. And, yes: understanding cultures, communities, and behaviors will be more important as the potential of technology increases, and as it becomes more pervasive.

Thank you to MATD students Kaja Słojewska for supplying her designs, photographs and photo caption information, and also Nathan Willis for supplying his photographs and designs.

Edited from a series of interviews with Gerry Leonidas conducted via email.


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