Crossroads of Typographic Personalities

Posted on 5 October 2004 in:

A brief report on the 2004 conference of the Association Typographique International, September 28–October 3, 2004.


During the past week, I was in Prague for the annual ATypI conference. Having never attended an ATypI event, my only point of comparison was Typo Berlin 2004. Although FontShop’s renowned conference had about three times the number of attendees, I found the ATypI to be an incalculably better personal experience. This review will summarize a few, but not all, of my experiences in Prague, and will present an opinion that is—at best—only subjective.

As I have already betrayed the positive spin that I will paint over the week’s events, I rest assured knowing that other attendees will post their own experiences in various sources over the coming months as well; many of them will surely express more critical outlooks than my words, which follow below.

The Trip

From Frankfurt, I traveled to Prague by train with my girlfriend, Anke, and with Attila Korap and Thomas Caldwell from Linotype. The train that we rode was an Austrian one, whose final destination was Budapest—but we only took it to Nuremberg. This may give you some idea of what the new Europe is like. In Nuremberg, we transferred onto a Czech train. Shortly after crossing the border into the Czech Republic, we heard an announcement that—due to work on the tracks—we would have to get off of the train and take a bus to Plzen, where a new train would wait for us. This detour took about an hour, and the bus only traveled on local roads, avoiding the highways. This may give you another idea of what the new Europe is like.

Detour aside; we came into Prague smoothly, getting our first glimpse of the city. Prague is very beautiful, certainly more visually interesting than many other Central European capitals—especially Vienna. Anke and I did not stay in the Park Hotel—the conference’s hotel, which was a communist-era behemoth; not centrally located yet centrally expensive. Instead, we rented a small double room in a private hostel, which exceeded our expectations. For about $40/night, it included its own bathroom and kitchenette.

The Type Tech Forum

The Type Tech Forum began the next day. This two-day training event was held in the Park Hotel preceding the main conference. During most of the Forum’s first day, I attended the FontLab training sessions (FontLab repeated the same seminar on both days). Ted Harrison gave most of the introductory talks. I had never seen him or Yuri Yamola. Ted Harrison looks like a cross between Santa Claus, and that sort of aged uncle who you aren’t sure whether to love or fear. He is also a medical doctor, which goes to show that all sorts of people are attracted to our industry. FontLab used the Forum to unveil their new logo, which I haven’t developed feelings about yet. Sadly, I can’t find an image on the web to link to here.

On the second day of the Forum, I attended the more broad-based, advanced technical sessions. These related mostly to Unicode encoding. Many of the topics covered were well over my head. But even as a novice, I could tell that Letterror’s SuperPolator was super cool.

All in all, I learned several important things over these jammed-packed two days: First, Veronika Elsner, of Elsner und Flake does not like FontLab as much as Fontographer. She thinks that Fontographer still can do many things better, although E+F do use FontLab for most of their production, as Fontographer cannot do OpenType, and 10% of its TrueType exports have been buggy in their recent tests! Also, if one Hungarian glyph does not appear in one—recently obsolete—version of one Microsoft Office program on MacOSX, Linotype will ignore the problem and ship the font anyway (as would every other foundry). This little resignation is enough to insult
a single Hungarian designer, though! He was also upset that most foundries don’t test their fonts in CorelDraw (and why should they… I mean, really). Lastly, although Microsoft’s present support for OpenType and Unicode leaves much to be desired, Longhorn will support them quite well. It is the future. Hell, even Quark is planning to support OpenType eventually, probably even in its next upgrade (this is much more than can be said for Macromedia’s Freehand). Microsoft is also dedicated to providing functional support for all of the Indian sub-continent’s writing systems. Yeah!

On Thursday afternoon, before the official conference opening, most attendees went to the Museum of Decorative Arts to view the last day of a special exhibit called e-a-t (Experimentation and Typography) [read my review]. This was a gathering of recent Czech and Slovak typeface design, which was much better than your average type design exhibition (if there is such a thing as an average type design exhibition). For instance, the Museum of Design in Zurich’s recent Fresh Fonts show was much worse. Josef Tyfa, Zuzana Licko, Frantisek Storm, and Peter Bilak all had work included in the show.

The Conference

The conference’s opening reception was held in the Café Imperial, a perfect example of a building whose interior exhibits a style of a run-down decadence that must have some proper architectural name. This was my first opportunity to see all of the attendees at once, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was within arm’s length of all of my type heroes. Nametag surfing had already begun in earnest. Unfortunately, mine only read »Daniel Reynolds, USA.« Odd, as I both live in, and registered from, Germany. Extra saddening was that my employer’s name (Linotype Library) was also missing from the tag. This deprived me of two cool things to silently brag about. I later learned that many other delegates had either their names misspelled, or the incorrect country on their nametags.

In contrast to Typo Berlin, I found most of the delegates in Prague very approachable. But that doesn’t mean that I had the guts to approach all of them. Even though I passed by Zuzana Litcko and Rudy van der Lans, several times, I never had the guts to try and speak to them. I just had this »I’m not worthy« feeling, and I didn’t have anything specific to say or ask. I just would have blurted out something embarrassing like »I love your fonts, they made be wanted to become a type designer myself… except that unlike you, I suck at it. Blah, blah, blah…«

The main portion of the conference was held in the ARCHA Theater, which had a sort of stripped-down, black po-mo feeling to its main halls. Rick Poynor gave the keynote speech, which sparked more controversy than the rest of the conference put together, and sparked at least 45 minutes of questions. Many in the audience interpreted his speech as being condescending to Eastern European designers, encouraging them not to sell out to western commercialism, but conceding that if they don’t, they will most likely remain impoverished and ignored. He also made enormous generalizations as to what Western design actually was in the first place. But this is a matter for an other discussion.

I don’t think that it is necessary to give a lecture-by-lecture summary in this review. As the conference had a three track program, I wasn’t able to attend all of the lectures anyway. However, all of the lectures that I attended were very good; they were all given with a least a tangible level of quality. Some of the lectures, such as Cyrus Highsmith’s »Hitchhikers’ Guide to Typography« or Gerard Unger’s »Bundesschrift« were not new; Highsmith repeated his Typecon 2004 lecture, while Unger gave a repeat of his Typo Berlin 2004 speech (although in Berlin he gave it in German). Most of the lectures were even entertaining, and in this regard I particularly enjoyed Highsmith’s talk as well as Christian’s Schwarz’s »The Accidental Text Face.« I had heard neither of them speak before.

My two favorite lectures in the program weren’t talks as such, but rather discussions. The first of these was an informal, but scheduled, discussed over Saturday’s lunch about the “Value of a Font.” This was lead by Carima El-Behairy from P22, and was sadly not attended by very many. El-Behairy wanted to talk about circumstances in which fonts add value to products—e.g., when the typeface that the font represents becomes the bulk the actual product being sold. A stamp set made from a font and sold by a third party would be a good example of this. P22’s EULA requires that these licensees, who use their fonts in such a manner, pay extra fees. But exactly which customers must buy additional licenses is gray. As Tiffany Wardle pointed out, a company making shirts with the phrase »Girls Rule&laquo out in a P22 font would not have to pay for an additional font license, while another company making shirts printed with just a single P22 glyph (and nothing else) would be required to. After reading through Linotype’s EULA, I expressed my doubts about such a policy actually working. Linotype’s EULA, for instance, does not stipulate that users pay an additional fee for printing shirts that would display only single glyphs (or anything else in this arena). P22 and Linotype also seem to different ideas about what exactly makes certain fonts more valuable than others in the first place. One could assume that Helvetica is Linotype’s most »valuable« typeface, since they sell so many copies of it. By restricting customer use of the font, i.e., by charging customers for using it as the sole element of a logo, Linotype might loose customers. How many corporate logos the world-over are just a word set in Helvetica or Univers?

I also stated that I read something completely different into the phrase »the value of a font.« For me, certain things about a font themselves make them more valuable than others, i.e., the number of OpenType features, small caps and old style figures, or character sets.

Another interesting lecture/talk was the Education Panel, given by Gerry Leonidas, Jean-François Porchez, Cyrus Highsmith, and Erik van Blockland. These 45 minutes were made enjoyable mostly by the various comments that came from both within the panel, and from the audience during the question and answer period. Leonidas said in a passing remark that there are only about five new jobs in Type Design every year (I’m not sure if that is an understatement or an overstatement). Reading graduates more than five type designers per year, and the world has other programs as well. Obviously, many—if not most—of the students who study type design will not work as type designers, so they need to learn transferable skills as well. Later, a member of the audience later asked what I think might be the world’s first stupid question: he asked the panel who they didn’t change they name of their programs to »Font Design« rather than »Type« or »Typeface Design,« since most people just call typefaces fonts nowadays anyway.

The only low-light that struck me from the conference was the Kerning Party—it just wasn’t good. The party was hosted by students from the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design Prague (VSUP—pronounced veh-shoop) in their building. Their building was large and impressive, as was their work along that of the students from The Hague in the Prahaag exhibition on the first floor. But the party was held in an upper room on the top floor on the building. This room was too small, with music that was too bad and too loud (or too loud for being so bad). The beer-line was also too long, and the students ran out of beer cups an hour or so into the party; we had to wait beer-less while they retrieved more. Almost all of the conference attendees did come to the party, at least in the beginning, so the party crowd spilled-out into the halls and stairways, where one could manage to mingle and chat. There was no dancing though (again, the music…), and everyone started to leave after about two hours.

What I would really like to use this space to recap are the experiences that I had with certain individuals. While hearing the lectures was great bonus, it was not the main reason that I attended the conference, and I am relatively certain that they were not the primary reason for a lot of the other attendees, either. I had the opportunity to meet many designers who I had previously only known via the Internet (particularly over Typophile), and this experience was positively worth the conferences’ cost. It was particularly thrilling to meet Thomas Phinney and John Hudson (at whose behest I attend the gala dinner), both of whom I also had dinner with. Before this conference, I had never met a Microsoft employee in person, and I must admit to all of my fellow designers and Mac users that they didn’t have horns or tails. While I didn’t spend enough time with them, I was able to speak a bit with Simon Daniels, and I hope that they all come to TypoTechnica.

TypoTechnica is another added incentive that I had to meet many of the people at the conference as possible; aside from Thomas and Attila (who were just at the Type Tech Forum, not the conference itself), I was the only Linotype employee in Prague for all of the events. This was mandate enough for me to evangelize about the previously unannounced TypoTechnica conference, which will be held at the St Bride Printing Library in London in February 2005.

I met several British designers for the first time, including Sebastian Lester, Miles Newlyn, and Jeremy Tankard. Sebastian, who works for AGFA Monotype, is also the first designer that I’ve met from this, umm, competitor. Miles Newlyn sells over Émigré and Veer, and his designs include Missionary, Democratica, Sabbath Black, and Ferox (which looks good enough to eat). Miles said in a passing remark that he has been thinking about writing a personal thank you letter to each designer who has bought Ferox, set in Ferox of course. Sadly, very few have bought this masterful blackletter. Everyone reading this should go out and buy Ferox immediately.

The only downside to meeting so many of these new people was that seemly all of them asked me why Linotype was not at the conference. Since I am really just an intern with Linotype, I’m not privy to most of their decision-making process, and I can’t repeat much of what I do hear. All I could really say was that Linotype was no longer an ATypI sponsor, and decided not to have any representation at the main conference. I attended the conference on my own accord.

Joshua Darden, Cyrus Highsmith, David Berlow, and Christian Schwarz were all American designers that I was just dying to meet, and finally managed to at this conference. Joshua and Christian seem to be big supporters of newspaper type, we discussed the different views of newspaper face design thats that many American designers are taking, in relation to what Linotype had done in the past. To my knowledge, Linotype is not devoting any present energies exclusively to the design of newspaper type, even though—as Christian pointed out—newspapers used to be Linotype’s main customer base (and in addition to book work, practically their sole reason for existence). My understanding of Linotype’s current business plan is that they want to extend their webshop’s reach throughout the design and publishing market, and that they want to keep their corporate deals and OEM solutions growing. Well, something has to feed 50 people and their families; although Joshua found it unbelievable that newspaper type and custom solutions couldn’t do this better.

I also met a lot of students from Reading and The Hague. All in all, I liked the Reading students better, but found the work coming from The Hague to be superior. This is an interesting duality: Reading is certainly a fabulous experience, clearly one of the best places to study type design in the whole world. And the students really love the stuff. They sit around and crack jokes about em-units and optical kerning. But the exercises at The Hague are broader, and lead to better results. Reading seems more devoted to the idea of non-Latin typography and has a strong theoretical component, while The Hague seems to have more industry-level support.

Next year’s ATypI conference will be in Helsinki. It is too early for me to be certain whether or not I will have the financial resources to attend (so many conferences, so little Euros), but I already know that if I don’t attend, I’ll be sad. I don’t need to know what the theme, content, or speaker list will be to know that; I’d miss the connections. How often can you joke about font licensing agreements over a beer?