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Interview with Type Designer Mark Simonson

Interview with Type Designer Mark Simonson

Grant Friedman

March 23, 2009

GF: Tell us a little about the process of creating a new typeface? What sort of research goes into the initial planning stage? What sort of tools do you need to begin (ie paper, pencil ruler, types of pens, etc.)? What software is needed? How long does the entire process take?

MS: Ideas can come from anywhere. Once I have an idea, I may do some sketches or collect examples from books or online, if it is based on some existing lettering or type style. Then I do more sketches.

The main purpose of sketching is to get the ideas down on paper before I lose them and to work out and plan the details of the design. It’s usually pretty loose, but tight enough to capture the thoughts and shapes I have in mind. I find it’s difficult to do the design and planning stage on the computer, but it’s easy on paper, where I can rely on a lifetime of experience drawing.

Refinement happens on the computer, mostly in FontLab Studio. The computer is much more forgiving for doing precise work. I’ve become very comfortable with FontLab’s drawing tools and often it’s not even necessary to scan in my sketches. I can just look at them as I work.

It usually takes at least a couple of months to make a font. A very simple font may take less time. A family of fonts can take several years. I’m usually working on several fonts at a time. Most of the work happens in FontLab Studio, but I also have a bunch of other font tools that are more specialized. Lately, I have started working with Adobe’s Font Development Kit, Python, and RoboFab to streamline my production process.

GF: Many of your fonts seem to be inspired by earlier periods. What is it about fonts from earlier time periods do you find so appealing? What do you find most challenging about reproducing fonts from earlier periods?

MS: I like the challenge of getting inside the head of a designer from a different period, to create something new that didn’t exist, but could have existed, in an earlier period. I don’t think that period fonts are for everybody or every job, but I do enjoy making them. I love purely functional, minimal design, but I think the world would be a dull place if that’s all there was. The past is all around us and I think it’s okay to acknowledge and celebrate it. In any case, the way the past is interpreted says as much about the present as it does about the past. For me, it’s not simple nostalgia.

GF:You have been designing fonts and letterforms since the late 1970s. Can you tell us a little about how technology has changed the industry? How have you benefitted from your experience using different technologies? Do you believe that younger designers could benefit from learning the same way you did?

MS: When I started doing lettering (and trying to draw typefaces), everything was physical—ink, paper, illustration board, pencils, ellipse templates, French curves, velumn, knives, and rubber cement. The process was unforgiving, and it took a lot of patience and practice to make things look good.


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