I met Jack Yan many years ago. A photographer friend of mine introduced us via email and the rest, as they say is history. This is a man of many talents. One who seems to fit more in a day than most fit into a lifetime. When I was searching for an expert to talk about fonts and their importance to content creation, he immediately came to mind. He is a font creator, fashion publisher and much, much more. Here, he gives us a little insight into the wonderful world of font warfare. — ANGELA GILLTRAP
Firstly, can you explain a little bit about all the things you do? I started a little business in 1987 and I was contracted to do basic jobs like calligraphy, proofreading and graphic design. It grew, so now I work in a slightly larger business that does brand consulting (http://jya.co), font software ( http://jyanet.com/fonts), and publishing (which includes Lucire, New Zealand's first commercial online fashion magazine). I also co-chair the Medinge Group (http://medinge.org), a Swedish think-tank on branding, and am one of the directors of Miss Universe New Zealand ( http://nextmissnz.com).
How did you get involved with font creation? I've had a lifelong love of typefaces, and I still remember when I started school in New Zealand how the alphabet stuck on the wall had a lowercase j that didn't have a tail: it just went straight down (It was in Futura). In 1979, The Lettering Book, which had different type styles printed on a grid, was offered for sale at my school, but at $4·99, I didn't want to ask my parents for it. Actually, not having it was a great thing, because it forced me to come up with my own styles. The legendary typeface designers like Hermann Zapf were my heroes as a teenager, and taking a leaf out of their book, I started doing hand-lettering with a pen first. I also developed some bitmap fonts in 1985. I always knew I would wind up creating type, at a time when there was no one in New Zealand doing it digitally.
How on earth do you create a font? You always have an idea, and you do a bunch of sketches. Typeface designers tend to use a word like Hamburgerfontsiv to start with, as this shows most of the character variations, the x-height, the ascenders (letters with bits sticking up, like b, d, f, h, l) and descenders (e.g. p, q, y). You then draw them a bit larger and more tidily, digitalize them into outlines, manipulate the outlines on a font-editing program till you're happy, space them and then come up with thousands of kerning pairs (adjusting the spaces between characters), and generate the font into something that can be installed on to a computer. Then you repeat the exercise for italic, bold, bold italic, etc.
How important are fonts in our world of content creation? Let's turn the question on its head. What if there was only one font? Everything would look really dull, and we wouldn't communicate the nuances that different texts try to convey. A passage of text from a novel and a passage of text from a brochure have different purposes. They have different tones. Consequently, they need different typefaces to communicate them. Which typefaces depends on how the audience responds to them: an audience may be socialized into thinking a sans serif type is informal and a serif type is formal. The choice is made accordingly. That's at a very simple level. There are many sans serif and serif types, each with a different nuance. A bit like wine: there are reds and whites, but each has a different character.
What's your biggest pet peeve when it comes to people's use of fonts? This is real font geekery here, but I dislike it when certain films and TV shows try to convey a particular period, and use a typeface and a production technique that were not around in that period. Mad Men comes to mind: the use of types that were not around in the 1960s, typeset by modern computers. This tends to spoil the effort made by other parts of the production to keep things faithful.
Where do you buy fonts and what kind of copyright to people need to be aware of? Ideally, you should buy straight from the designer or from a reputable retailer such as MyFonts.com. Peter Bilak has launched a new venture called Fontstand, which has some independents on board. Type is very much like music: it is worth something, and pirating fonts means that a designer misses out on income. Read the licence agreements, and make sure that whatever fonts you license stay with you, on your computer(s), and don't share them around.
What's the best font for reading digitally? These days, monitors and sub-pixel rendering are so good that the considerations for on-screen reading aren't that different from print. Years ago I would have said something like Georgia or Verdana were best. I'm still of the mind that a serif typeface with not too much contrast between vertical and horizontal strokes would be great for more formal settings, such as Plantin or perhaps ITC Legacy. For sans serifs, familiarity may be the key, but I'd avoid Arial; it's simply not that good a design to start with. Dalton Maag's Ubuntu Sans is a very nice sans serif with little contrast between the strokes, and holds up very well on different devices.
What fonts can we expect to see in the future? We've been seeing a huge rise in digital type, now that font linking is commonplace. Expect that to continue, which will lead to continued growth in type created first for the screen. There are a lot of public domain fonts out there now, and the general trend is that they have a relatively limited number of weights. The ones you have to pay for have a greater number.
I haven't noticed prices change too much in two decades, although the feature-rich fonts of today can fetch higher prices than the more basic ones that were around when I started.
A FONT PLAYLIST
We name the song, you name the font
Taylor Swift | Shake It off: There's a certain upbeat feel to this song, and Taylor's used a lot of retro visuals. I'd go for FF Prater, by Henning Wagenbreth and Steffen Sauerteig in 2000.
Beach Boys | Good Vibrations: This is a bit easier, because we can find something that is almost stereotypically retro, Pump Triline comes to mind: the multiple lines remind me of the Beach Boys' harmonies. There is a typeface called Good Vibrations, but that would have been too easy.
MC Hammer | Can't Touch This: This came out around the time when people were discovering desktop publishing, and squeezing and extending fonts electronically, uglifying them. The album cover actually used this technique. I'd take the album cover's lead and opt for different weights of Helvetica and Serifa, but used very badly, with these faux condensed and expanded modifications. But if you remove that 1990 context, URW Urban (2013) by Michael Hoffman and Anita Jürgeleit probably conveys the urban mood and style of 'Can't Touch This'.
Katy Perry | Dark Horse: This is haunting and magical, but Juicy J.'s bits contrast the rhythm hugely. For Katy's vocals, I see something flowing; for Juicy J.'s, I see something more stunted. Gorod Volgograd by Katherine Shipovsky and Igor Shopovsky probably conveys both at the same time.