Several Reading University classmates of mine from the typeface design programme share a small house. On the dining room wall is a poster that reads:
To be blunt, and it is good advice to serious newcomers: do not make the mistake of being afraid to be labelled ‘conventional’, ‘traditional’, or any other such dusty term.
If someone is compiling recommendations for aspiring type designers, include this one. It comes from Fred Smeijers’ 2004 book, Type Now: A Manifesto. Eight years earlier, Hyphen Press — Type Now’s publisher — released Smeijers’, Counterpunch. A book about typeface design, Counterpunch is also about possible lessons that sixteenth-century punchcutters from France and the low countries have for all of us today.
Fred Smeijers, Counterpunch: making type in the sixteenth century, designing typefaces now. London: Hyphen Press, 1996. 220 × 145mm, 192 pages. At the moment, only for sale at Typotheque.com. Typeset in Renard, which may be licensed from the Enschedé Font Foundry. Printed on really nice paper.
Writing a review about Counterpunch is a daunting task. It feels a bit like travelling back in time to review Laurence Olivier on stage. Moreover, Smeijers is alive and well, teaching, designing, and moving our consciousness forward; since his book was published, it has been widely discussed, at least in typographic circles. My review comes 12 years late.
There has been much discussion about “recommended reading” on iLT as of late. After the recent review of the Logo, Font, and Lettering Bible, John asked me if I would write an article of my own. No single book can act as a complete introduction to typeface design, but everyone may have their own favourites — so sharing the titles can be a good idea. Counterpunch is one of these for me.
A bit like The Elements of Typographic Style, Letters of Credit, or The Stroke, Counterpunch can have a sort of messianic effect. When I was in college, I saw one student inspired to start cutting his own punches. It took me longer to move toward typeface design, but once I did, I was lucky to come across Counterpunch again. The note on my halftitle page reminds me that I bought it in March 2004. My copy has been well-worn ever since.
Most common typographic literature seems to be written in English these days, even by writers with other first languages. Whereas aspiring designers in continental Europe or other parts of the world may have problems parsing the lyrical texts of say, Robert Bringhurst, Smeijers writes with a direct, beautiful clarity. Is this a trait of his native Dutch? In many regards, if you aren’t a native English-speaker, Counterpunch might be a good first typography book; or at least your English-language one.
Smeijers’ commentary on written strokes, how these relate to letters or words, and the different kinds of letter-making are worth the price of admission alone. This book, and much of his work itself, seems to have arisen out of a need to describe typography to engineers — but they are both more than just simple explanations. Each chapter could stand alone as a single lesson on a given topic. They work together, but separately form a collection of references that may be revisited individually at any time. I will spare you a repetition of Counterpunch’s contents and highlights — that would be like giving away the ending of a film. This is a review, not a summary.
Just as one cannot become a photographer by reading a book about Photoshop, typeface design is not about learning how to use FontLab, or even about learning how to control vector outlines. Many aspirants become seduced by flashy help guides, and think that simple software knowledge will take them to their goal. Smeijers explains how the masters of the past made type in actual size, at a “resolution” of c. 2540 dpi. Only a few names are mentioned in this book; that might be because these characters have each shaped the way that writing in the West would appear for centuries. The ways by which sixteenth century punchcutters thought is what must be comprehended, not the newest key combinations in the latest software programmes.
Software itself will offer no help — it is just a means to an end. This book hardly mentions font creation applications at all. Counterpunch could have been written today, or at any time since the mid-1980s. It doesn’t matter, because it gets to the root of typeface design rather quickly. Typeface design is about the interplay between black and white shapes. I know that this idea might sound cliché because you can read about it in every type designer interview. If you’ve seen the Helvetica movie, then you have heard it there, too. Isn’t there a clip on the Internet somewhere where Erik Spiekermann mentions it? This repetition is the truth. So take that clip of Erik’s voice and turn it up to 11. Then play it on auto-repeat.
Toward the end of Counterpunch, Smeijers’ tone takes on the timbre of a Jeremiah in the wilderness, a message that extends into Type Now. The methods we use in our work may not include the best possibilities, and it this reminder that can only be of benefit to us. Smeijers’ work illustrates tendencies that may be followed in word and deed. How many of us today are better, quicker, and more deliberate because of this book?
Counterpunch is more than a book. It is also a love letter to Hendrik van den Keere and a type specimen for the Renard family. The reader will find much to discover, such as sound definitions for a few old terms, a narrative of a father–son relationship, commentary on a Harry Carter translation of a Pierre Simon Fournier tract; or information about the French punchcutter Pierre Haultin, who is more obscure than he deserves! Over 12 years, Counterpunch has meant many things to its readers. What it means to me today is an unsettling feeling, deep inside my gut. The feeling asks me, “Is Smeijers serious? Should I really turn a working method on it’s head? Is it a better to draw the counters first?”
I think so. Draw your letters from the inside out – they will be better.
[Dan Reynolds is a postgraduate student in typeface design as well as a foundry
copywriter. You can see his personal blog at www.typeoff.de]