I Love Typography

Face to Face

An interview with Jean François Porchez

You’ll see his typefaces on the Paris Métro, gracing the pages of France’s premier newspaper, Le Monde, in magazines and books; even Beyoncé uses them. He was awarded the Prix Charles Peignot for excellence in type design, was president of ATypI, designed one of the best modern-day type revivals, and…. Well, there’s so much more that can be said by way of introducing this great talent of type, but I think John D. Berry sums him up best when he writes, he is one hell of a type designer.

Why and how did you get started in type design?

It was during my time at graphic design school (1987-89). At the time, I felt that there was an opportunity to do something different in a field that was already full of illustrators, graphic designers and so on. And remember that this decision was made before the ‘computer age’, making it all the more unusual.

Frutiger and Zapf, my two heroes at that time, helped me to understand what type design is. In my second year at graphic design school, I started my first real type design, mostly lettering, and soon started to do freelance work while still at design school. During my third year, I began work on Angie which later won the Morisawa Award in Japan.

ptf_angiesans_angieff.gif

I learned to draw typefaces by hand on tracing paper (1988), then moved on to digitization with Ikarus (1992), making minor modifications on screen. Next, I began to use Bézier Curves in illustrator and Fontographer; and shortly after, circa 1994, I began to design directly on screen without any prior drawings on paper.

What do you like most about type design?
Which part of the design process do you enjoy the most?

I have great difficulty designing fonts without a function, a brief. I can’t create new forms, simply for the pleasure of those forms. In fact, it’s more the reverse: the function or brief inspires me to search for new forms, Indeed, there are exceptions, and that’s no doubt why I make so few rough drafts. What I mean is that, generally speaking, the concept comes to me upon lengthy reflection in my head, rather than from a couple of hastily drawn sketches on paper. For example (and remember that I learned type design from calligraphy and drawing on paper), I wanted to experiment with a new way of designing typefaces: so with Anisette (1996) I started from a central line to an outline.

Anisette

The difference between the Thin and Black weights is considerable; the interpolation/blend doesn’t work well in all cases. Anisette is a good example of discovering the limits of a technology, to better understand how to work; to be able to apply what you learn when you again reach the limits of technology, and adapt your designs accordingly.

Moreover, I always imagined one day that the lowercase would be added to the original double caps width Ansiette, but without doing any research. The morning after the completion of Ambroise, in May/June 2001, I started to create some forms directly on screen. Less than a month later, the family appeared ready for sale on the web site. It takes a long time to develop the idea intellectually. The design process is only a small part of the finished product. Type design, then, is an intellectual rather than a manual job; and the tools have no direct influence on the forms; it’s more about what your own brain, culture and influences and reading brings to it that really makes the difference.

angie ff specimen

Sometimes there is some personal inspiration, but most often it is more a question of problem solving than simply inspiration. Typefaces have a strong function: to be read. And more and more their connotations (the typefaces) help designers to create efficient, communicable documents for such varied applications as corporate identity, newspapers and magazines. Typefaces are major players in these ‘games’.

ambroise

Whether I create my own brief, or it’s supplied by the client, it’s by following it that I can create new things; the more restrictions I have, the more creative I will be. The revivals, in some respects, are an exception, but nevertheless it is still a matter of problem solving, albeit with some historical considerations.

What do you like least about type design?

Probably kerning despite its importance for the finished product. It doesn’t take so long, but it is really boring and repetitive. It’s sad that the true design, the drawing of the letterforms takes perhaps 20%(?) of the total time in typeface design.

parisine-specimen1.gif

And it’s probably the best part, especially during the early days of a project, when the forms begin to appear on screen.

Which work of other type designers do you like?

For dead guys, for a long time, Claude Garamond and his ‘friends’. Of contemporary type designers, I admire several of them for various reasons. Matthew Carter comes to mind first because for years he came through most of the new technologies with great talent. He is a model in the sense that he demonstrated very well what a type designer should be—resolving new type problems without losing type’s roots. Long ago Hermann Zapf wrote that new technology demands new typefaces. Matthew Carter showed us that, with the help of the type designer, old typefaces can survive any new technology. It’s admirable to be able to design Galliard, Verdana or Walker as good examples of different animals; the first as a skilful revival from Granjon type; Verdana as an incredibly legible type for use on screen; and fun to use Walker, with its snap-on serifs. We should also recall that Matthew Carter, like Sumner Stone and several others were the guys who launched independent type foundries, doing freelance custom fonts for clients (early 1990-93).

More recently, there are many young competitors creating formidable types: Xavier Dupré’s recent designs are amazing; he demonstrates great freedom without abandoning sound references. Christian Schwartz’s new designs are fascinating by their ability to adapt to many different situations. I’m glad to see other serious type designers from all over the world; for example, the recent boom in non-Latin typeface design from the Hague and Reading, type designers from Latin America, together with the Khatt network and the Typographic Matchmaking project.

Of your own types, which are you most pleased with?

With no real surprise, the last big project. I will say, that I’m not particularly proud of anything. Different aspects of projects help me to discover new things; they help me to think more about a particular aspect of typeface design. There are many past projects that pushed me to change my habits without losing my original focus. Designing typefaces for clients is very interesting because it furnishes one with the opportunity to do something that one might otherwise not have attempted.

henderson-serif-specimen.gif

For example, Henderson Sans, created in 2006. I had never envisaged designing a Transitional Sanserif until I was asked to do a Sans version from a sort of Baskerville interpretation—Henderson Serif. Before there was Humanistic Sans versus Grotesque Sans competition. It’s easy enough to imagine a Sans built on handwritten forms using historical roots, strange forms like those found in Renaissance type, more or less standardized depending on the aims of the designer; the forms and details used in Humanist serif typefaces, extrapolated to a Sanserif version, in order to bring a very particular colour to the Humanist Sans. It’s also easy to compare the various Grotesque Sans like Univers and Helvetica, and fun to mock Arial as a bad cover version of Helvetica, etc. However, what’s not so clear is what is a Sanserif that is not built and controlled like Grotesques, built as a system, but something already more controlled like Romain du Roi or Baskerville…compared to Caslon or Garamond. With Baskerville and Romain du Roi this sort of system begins to emerge, though traces of the humanist type are still visible. By the time we move on to Didot, that influence has all but disappeared, and when we think of Sanserif versions then we are into the Grotesques.In fact, there are already a few Sans from this category beginning to emerge, like the recent and very good National by Kris Sowersby, mentioned on iLT last December.

What advice would you give to aspiring type designers?

Practise calligraphy and read a lot on type history. Then draw and draw every day. Don’t copy others, but try to be yourself; use your own cultural resources and background to create new trends in type design. You are unique. When the above is achieved, the next steps are (and these are equally applicable to life in general):

• Respect tradition;
• Clear analysis of the problem, because as designers our work is problem solving;
• Finally, utmost respect for the user/reader.

What is your proudest achievement?

Sabon Next created in 2002 for Linotype is a revival of Sabon, which in turn is a revival of Garamond, created by Jan Tschichold in the 60s. It was a fascinating challenge to try to understand the effects that technological limitations imposed on the design; and to attempt to disentangle this from the actual design decisions of the master himself, Jan Tschichold. It was a challenge too because of Sabon’s Garamond roots, a style that many of us consider the golden age of type design. I started from the original drawings for the Stempel version and extended the family to six weights, their accompanying italics, small caps, old style figures, alternates and so on.

sabon next specimen

In early 2006, I then extended the initial family of 2002 into an OpenType version, with various additional features. This new version was finally published by Linotype last December! (2007). In 2002, under my direction, an extensive type specimen was produced in three languages, accompanied by a study of Jan Tschihold written specially for us by Christopher Burke, the author of the very good Paul Renner (designer of Futura) book. In fact, during this project, I tried to reclaim what the big foundries, like Linotype, lost during the seventies and eighties—something that small foundries do every day now: publish good specimens with comprehensive content, not simply a few commercial visuals.

Constructing a story around a typeface is important to me, and that’s why I loved what happened before the 2nd World War, with publications like the Fleuron in the UK, Arts et métiers graphiques in France, or the amazing specimens from ATF in the US. How can one appreciate a typeface without knowing something about it?

What plans do you have for the future? Are you working on a new typeface?

To stop typeface design and finally start my own cider farm in Normandy.

More seriously, I dream of one day being as I was in my early days, without too much work to do and thus with plenty of time on my hands for personal ideas and projects. It can be a little frustrating sometimes, though it’s not a major issue, as commissioned work is fantastic—because like any designer, I like to solve design problems. From time to time I work on a still unfinished Sanserif I began in 1999. I’m also trying to finish another Sanserif for Linotype—started in 2003. Right now we’re working on some OpenType conversions of existing typefaces, like Le Monde, together with a very recent project commissioned by a design agency. So, yes, as usual, I’m working on a new typeface.

You can learn more about Jean François Porchez at Porchez Typofonderie.
Further Reading: Dot-font: Talking About Fonts. John D. Berry. 2006.


Tags:       

  1. Interesting interview. I thought this section here gave a lot of insight into how great design works.

    “I have great difficulty designing fonts without a function, a brief. I can’t create new forms, simply for the pleasure of those forms. In fact, it’s more the reverse: the function or brief inspires me to search for new forms”

    Also, that’s a pretty interesting ligature with the S + T in Henderson. I can’t recall ever seeing that combination before.

  2. Chris
    Thanks. That ‘historical’ ligature is not so uncommon—just not used as frequently as the standard ligatures, ff, fl, fi, ffi and ffl. For example, Feijoa is one of hundreds that has an ‘st’ ligature (see page 4 of the PDF specimen); there’s even a nicely executed ‘im’ ligature on page 3 of that same specimen.

    See also this Typophile node on the different types of ligature (e.g. discretionary and standard ligatures).

  3. @Chris:
    Yes, I also found that interesting. In addition, his comment

    Whether I create my own brief, or it’s supplied by the client, it’s by following it that I can create new things; the more restrictions I have, the more creative I will be.

    gave me some important insight into my own creative process. I’m exactly like that - I find it incredible hard to design something without boundaries. I suppose these boundaries help us to focus on what is important.

    I also found that ligature quite interesting. My favourite one is usually the ‘ff’ symbol, although I’m not too familiar with many others. Are there any resources listing common ligatures? Also, how does one ‘type’ these in software? Will they appear automatically in the correct software?

    I really like Henderson Serif. It strikes me as a very modern and powerful font that is really stylish and classical at the same time. It would look fantastic for an inline quote in a publication.

    Interesting post. Thanks a lot.

  4. Roger
    I mentioned using discretionary ligatures in this article (applies to the Abobe Creative suite). I’ll dig out something more comprehensive—unless anyone else can beat me to it. I’m a fan of Henderson Serif too.

  5. Aaron Levin

    I have done numerous projects with Jean-François, and I consider him to be the greatest living French typographer today, and also one of the best in the world. I greatly admire him and love his thinking. This interview captures him completely: his vast typographic culture, but also the emphasis he puts on culture in general as a source of knowledge and inspiration; his sense of function and problem solving. As Roger Tallon recently stated in an interview to Magazine magazine (issue 42, APC, 32 bd de Strasbourg, 75010 Paris France, no website), we designers are “problematicians” (problématiciens).

    Vive la typographie! Vive Jean-François!

  6. miha

    Oh, I love interviews! It was very interesting, there are numerous interesting aspects of this interview, but I especially like this quote: “Type design, then, is an intellectual rather than a manual job.”

  7. Wonderfully enlightening interview, John. Really enjoyed it.

    Jean François has worked on some really fantastic typefaces, a role model for any typographer, I should imagine.

    Item #356 of things to do when I’m rich and famous; have someone design a typeface just for me. Hehe.

  8. Read this article with interest. The Frutiger has been one of my favorites for many years - of course I am influenced because when I went to art school we had calligraphy under Adrian Frutiger himself. The person and the lessons where character forming and inspiring, even though a torture for me, a “lefty”.

    Reading this article, it also shows J.F. Porchez having a lot of this special ‘quality’ or attitude which can be observed in highly… professional, artists like e.g. A. Frutiger. Fonts like the SABON NEXT are a treasure as they allow reading with ease and aesthetics to the eye.

  9. North American readers can get a good look of Parisine Plus in action by checking out HOW magazine, which was redesigned a few months ago and uses the beautiful family throughout.

    Jean François mentioned Xavier Dupré. For those wanting to know more, we covered his typefaces in a newsletter last year.

  10. nice header — en français!

  11. That header is absolutely amazing. I actually couldn’t pick the face out because I had never seen the courrier version of Le Monde before! Another one to add to the list.

    I really enjoyed this interview, insightful responses from Jean and it was great showing his fonts throughout the article. Kind of puts a voice to the font samples.

    Great great stuff!

  12. I don’t know what was about this interview that made it so alive for me - it’s almost like I was listening to Jean’s talk, and hearing his voice. Thanks for this great read, John.

    I think Jean is the first type designer that I read about who draws letter forms right on screen with no prior sketches on paper: “the concept comes to me upon lengthy reflection in my head, rather than from a couple of hastily drawn sketches on paper.”

    That’s how it usually is with my designs.

  13. Aaron Levin
    Yes, it must be quite something to work with him.
    Problématiciens—what a wonderful word. I’ll try to get hold of a copy of that issue of Magazine.

    Stephen
    Thanks for the newsletter link; I missed that one first time around.

    gemma
    Bien sûr :)

    Cody
    Yes, I like this header too. In fact Jean François designed 4; it was really difficult trying to choose just one. I think I’ll post links to the other headers. Would be a shame not to use them. What do you think about using that flavour of Le Monde for the default header?

  14. Vivien (inspirationbit)
    I somehow missed your comment first time around. I’m fascinated by those who design on screen. I just can’t do it. Almost everything I do (even my writing) starts on paper.

    Cody
    I’ve used one of Jean François’ headers for this French-language article. Will show the others soon.

    gemma
    Another Ambroise fan :) Be sure to print the Ambroise Specimen. It’s a small one, but looks gorgeous in print.

  15. Johno
    I would love the see the 4 different ones that he whipped up for the article. The French one is nice as well. It’s really interesting to see that the treatment of a French header isn’t so different from an English set one. Although, it’s probably because he is creating it inline of the iLT scheme.

  16. RogueJunkie

    Not much left to say. I agree with all here. Great read and very insightful!! I too loved the fact that JF needs a brief to set his way into a great design; although it’s hard to believe that he does not doodle letters like crazy just for the fun of it, like many of us do.

  17. Christian (neu)

    Great interview!

    Type design, then, is an intellectual rather than a manual job; and the tools have no direct influence on the forms; it’s more about what your own brain, culture and influences and reading brings to it that really makes the difference.

    I found this very interesting as I was under the impression the form was greatly determined by the tools historically used in type design.

  18. Johno,

    Yes, I pretty much always base writing or drawings or projects of any sort on paper first. I always thought this was because I only had paper for such a long time, as a kid and into my teens, rather than computer technology, but it’s also probably got something to do with just being that sort of person. Or, more likely, the two influence each other in an inseparable way.

    Great interview! I feel like I’ve been away for ages…

    Also, I found the intellectual-rather-than-manual quote interesting because I have felt, so far in my self-induced typographic education, that it is a mix of both. That it is not completely intellectual (as writing academic papers might be), but not completely manual. This is a large part of what attracts me to typography—dealing with words and language but not in a sterile, academic environment.

    (I know, I know, academia doesn’t have to be sterile. But I often felt it was.)

  19. Really interesting i like the article very much

  20. well i like the interview,
    wish you put the some part of the interview to this side to
    many people could not find the link and the content probably

previous post: Sunday Type: Frodo Type

next post: Sunday Type: sponge type

November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts January Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts december Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March 2011 Fonts February 2011 Fonts January 2011 Fonts December 2010 Fonts November 2010 Fonts October 2010 Fonts September 2010 Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February 2010 featured fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts