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ATypI 2011 Reykjavík

By Dan Reynolds

Founded in 1957, the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) is a worldwide organization dedicated to type design and typographic-related themes. Reykjavík/Iceland hosted this year’s annual ATypI conference. From 14–18 September, about 250 local and international guests gathered to hear presentations on writing systems, design history, and font production. I attended with the Linotype/Monotype Imaging company contingent, and was fortunate enough to give a presentation on the final day of conference. While this write-up doesn’t cover every lecture or activity, I hope that it lends readers a good feeling of the event’s flavor.

This year’s conference was held in the brand new Harpa building on Reykjavík’s harbor. Photo by Frank Grießhammer.

Reykjavík is a beautiful city, and the conference location was outstanding. All regular activities took place inside the recently completed Harpa Reykjavík Conference Hall and Conference Center. Harpa has a contemporary, nebulous appearance. Although the building is without a specific profile, it still features a prominent façade, created by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. While Reykjavík may be a small town, as far as European capitals are concerned, Iceland seems immensely large upon arrival. Many conference attendees took advantage of the easy opportunity to drive out into the landscape and experience more of the island’s natural wonders.

Font editors & a book steal the show

The five-day conference began rather informally on Wednesday, 14 September. Attendees could sign-up for optional workshops; the most interesting of these may have been Indra Kupferschmid and Nick Sherman’s Define: type matters round-table discussion on typeface classification, or Mike Duggan’s ClearType hinting for webfonts workshop. Indra and Nick are hoping to publish proceedings from their workshop on the ATypI website soon; this will give the wider community the benefit of their work at the conference. As for hinting, Mike works for Microsoft, and I think that it would be great to see more workshops with him at future design conferences.

Over the past few years, I have experienced several design events where the new, star products were all typeface releases. As far as I recall, no new typefaces were released at this year’s ATypI. Instead, talk of four new font editors filled the air. Days before the conference began, FontLab issued the long-awaited public beta version of FontLab Studio 5.1, a re-write of FontLab Studio that enables the application to run under MacOS X Lion.

This slide from Frederik Berlaen’s presentation shows node manipulation on a glyph in the new RoboFont application. Photo by Frank Grießhammer.

Before the conference, much of the online buzz around this year’s ATypI revolved around RoboFont. So, many attendees must have felt relieved when Frederik Berlaen took to the stage on Thursday to demonstrate RoboFont publicly for the first time. RoboFont – already used by some of the world’s best typeface designers – is a Mac-only, UFO-based glyph drawing application, originally commissioned from Frederik by the Font Bureau. RoboFont was officially released during the conference. Later on during the conference, I saw several designers in the audience with their laptops open, already designing in RoboFont. For professional type designers, the €400 price is really a steal, especially if they have already purchased other UFO-workflow applications, like Metrics Machine and Superpolator. A 15-day trial version of RoboFont is also available.

Screenshot Drawing in RoboFont

Drawing in RoboFont.

There were other font editors shown during the conference: Georg Seifert presented his Glyphs font editor, which he had demonstrated in beta at last year’s ATypI conference. Google’s Raph Levien previewed a new, spiral outline font editor he is developing; this cloud-based application is apparently not yet ready for release, however. Will it help make 2012 be ‘year of the font editors’?

Fred Smeijers lecture

Fred Smeijers discussing a close-up photo of a sixteenth-century matrix from the collection of the Museum Plantin–Moreutus in Antwerp. Photo by Frank Grießhammer.

Another release was Hyphen Press’s announcement of the second edition of Fred Smeijers’s Counterpunch, and a few advance copies of the book sold out quickly in Harpa’s bookstore. Fred had a lecture of his own on Friday morning, in which he showed incredible close-up photos of sixteenth-century matrices from the Museum Plantin–Moretus collections; some of these matrices were struck with punches cut by Claude Garamond, Robert Granjon, or Hendrik van den Keere. Counterpunch itself was originally published in 1996, and Fred’s lecture focused on his research into punchcutting since that time. According to Fred, Counterpunch’s second edition is primarily a reprint, not a sequel, although he then teased the audience, remarking that his additional findings may some day be published in a follow-up volume, which he jokingly referred to as Counterpunch Two. I know that this is a text that I would eagerly read.

Iceland’s special letters

This year’s conference theme was ‘eth’ – or ‘œŧħ’, as the conference designers wittingly spelled it. The ‘eth’ name represents the Ð/ð letter of the Icelandic alphabet. The lowercase ð form seems to have come to Iceland via Anglo Saxon texts, while a ‘barred D’ type of uppercase form is used in the diacritics of other contemporary languages as well. Today’s Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters, including the Þ and the Ð, an Æ, six letters with an acute accent, and an Ö. The letters C, Q, W, and Z are not used. The Þ and the Ð share a similar th sound, at least to non-Icelanders; but the Þ only appears at the beginning of a word, while Ð is an inter-word letter only. In keeping with the special-letter theme, several papers on diacritics from various European languages were presented during this year’s conference, particularly on Friday.

Icelandic street sign with eth

This street sign in Reykjavík illustrates how common the diacritics are in written Icelandic. Unfortunately, Icelandic presenters during the conference mentioned that including flat-stroked bar on the letter ð is not the best way to draw the character. Photo by Frank Grießhammer.

One of my fondest memories of the conference will surely be the panel discussion on the design of the lowercase ð, which was the penultimate Friday afternoon presentation; it is a pity that this was not filmed for later release to the general public. Panel participants included Anton Kaldal Ágústsson, Gunnlaugur SE Briem, Veronika Burian, Steinar Farestveit, Gerry Leonidas, Gerard Unger, Gunnar Vilhjálmsson, and Ian Watson. Albert-Jan Pool lent a hand, too. Early on in the discussion, Gerard Unger remarked that, ‘it can be tricky to design an ð for a typeface. If you don’t want to design an ð that matches your typeface, you can design a nice ð and then design a typeface around it!’ This comment set a light-hearted tone; yet, despite all of the laughs during the 30-minute time-slot, I think that there was a lot to be learned during this part of the programme.

After the presentation had ended, Adobe’s Frank Grießhammer told me that the problem type designers had about not knowing how to properly design the ð is now over. By convening in Iceland, the ATypI ensured that more than enough photos of Icelandic signs will make their way onto Flickr.

President of Iceland at atypi

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the president of Iceland, addressed the ATypI during the conference’s official opening on Thursday, 15 September. Photo by Frank Grießhammer.

This year’s ATypI conference included a new element: a ceremonial opening on Thursday evening by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Iceland’s president. Although there have now been 55 ATypI gatherings, this is the first time a head of state has addressed the organization.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s talk was a treat. With great humor and insight, he explained the role that he saw for languages with smaller numbers of speakers, both in Iceland and abroad. For instance, Microsoft once had a policy of only supporting languages with over one million speakers. Although Icelandic is the national language of Iceland, only some 318,000 people are estimated to live on the island. However, Windows does now support Icelandic, thanks to a personal letter the president sent to Bill Gates. This was only one of several anecdotes he used to captivate his audience.

The presidential address was followed by a keynote lecture from Gunnlaugur SE Briem, author of the English-language instruction guide for type designers eager to learn how to properly design the Icelandic characters thorn (Þ/þ) and eth (Ð/ð), and likely the most well-known Icelandic type designer.

One of five short videos put together by Iceland’s ATypI volunteers. This one, from the conference’s last day, is my favourite. Aside from shots of many aspects of the conference, it also features short interviews with several attendees.

World scripts

If Saturday’s daytime activities had their own theme, it would have had something to do with non-Latin design. This year’s conference programme included talks on – at the very least – Arabic, Devanagari, Khmer, Korean, Latin, Meeti Mayek, Mongolian, and Tamil scripts. Aside from the annual TDC and TDC² exhibitions that have long been part of the ATypI conferences, this year saw the first World Scripts Exhibition from the collections of the Typography and Graphic Communication department of the University of Reading. Fiona Ross and Alice Savoie curated this fascinating glimpse into the resources available to students and researchers at Reading; many of the items included traveled outside of the archives for the first time in order to be part of this exhibition.

Malayalam newspapers

Above: Two issues of the Malayalam newspaper Malayala Manorama, from Kerala in southern India. The single color issue is from 1983, while the other issue is more contemporary.

Drawing for a Tamil letterform, made at Mergenthaler Linotype. This image, and the one before it, is part of the collection of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. Several collection artifacts traveled to the ATypI conference for the World Scripts exhibition. Photos by Frank Grießhammer.

Saturday’s final presentation was from Hanif Kureshi, entitled Painter Kureshi, last street painters of India. I first saw Hanif’s HandpaintedType project during the Typography Day 2011 conference in Ahmedabad, India. His project has come a long way since then. Some time back, a free font named Painter Umesh was released via the website. Now, the first commercial font family is available for sale: Painter Kafeel.

This was one of two videos Hanif showed during his presentation. The second was produced especially for the ATypI conference, and is not yet available online.

Although the Painter Kafeel fonts cost $50, they are a tour de force worthy of consideration in a broad scope of headline and other display typography applications. A full half of each purchase will go directly to Kafeel, the sign painter in Delhi who made the artwork on which the fonts are based. The remaining $25 will be invested in the HandpaintedType project itself. Mumbai-based design studio WhiteCrow digitized the Painter Kafeel fonts. This studio’s bespoke typefaces can already be seen all over India, so seeing their support for HandpaintedType is a good sign. Hanif Kureshi mentioned in the Q&A after his talk that, thus far, very few copies of the Hanif font have sold. However, I have a feeling that this might be about to change.

Two of the fonts in the Painter Kafeel family, overlapping each other to create effects similar to those common in vernacular lettering styles the world over.

Not all work and no fun

Celebrating and socializing are important parts of any conference. Reykjavík’s intimate size made it easy for groups of conference attendees to meet-up in the evenings for pub-crawls or clubbing. There were also organized after-hours activities, including an exhibition opening at Reykjavík’s Spark Design Space, and a large Gala Dinner on Saturday night for all of the conference attendees, followed by an after party with drinks and dancing at the Iceland Design Centre.

TypeTogether’s Veronika Burian travels with several other ATypI delegates in a balloon-filled bus to Saturday evening’s Gala Dinner. Photo by Frank Grießhammer.

Everything ATypI related wound down quickly on Sunday, 18 September, as attendees began to leave for home. For those who remained through the end, the first order of business for the final day was the organization’s Annual General Meeting, which only about twenty percent of conference registrants attended. Several additional talks took place after the meeting concluded, including my own. Fortunately, these were much better attended that the General Meeting itself.

The highlight of this year’s Annual General Meeting was a series of presentations on possible locations for future ATypI conferences. The Board of Directors determines exact locations, but it seems very likely that next year’s conference will meet either in Yerevan, Armenia or in Hong Kong. ATypI conferences might be organized in any one of a long list of cities that presently includes Amsterdam, Antwerp, Reading/UK, Toronto, and Weimar/Germany. A proposal for a future ATypI conference in India is also being prepared.

Before we start planning for ATypI 2012, I would like to heartily thank Hörður Lárusson, Gunnar Vilhjálmsson, and all of the other volunteers in Iceland who made this year’s great conference possible. Thanks must also go to ATypI’s Barbara Jarzyna, whose organization throughout the year ensures that conferences like this one run smoothly. Birna Geirfinnsdóttir designed the conference logo, color scheme, and other collateral. The white/blue/orange combination was excellent, and the design in general was exemplary.

ATypI 2011 Flickr pool – http://www.flickr.com/groups/atypi11.
ATypI 2011 round-up videos on Vimeo.
ILT’s review of the first edition of Fred Smeijers’s Counterpunch.
Vikki Quick on Google webfonts presentation early on at the ATypI conference.
Yves Peters FontFeed on this year’s ATypI conference.

About the author:
Dan Reynolds is a type designer and typographic researcher in Berlin.