Article: Multiple Baselines Edo Smitshuijzen

Type Design Education 
in Reverse

Interview with Yanone (Jan Gerner), Graphic and Type Designer


Part of the Multiple Baselines series

Yanone is a Dresden-born German type designer. Yanone is a one-man type design studio specialized in high quality Arabic and Latin type design, logotypes, and type production.

00_Yanone_Ayla Font - Yanone

My father was a mechanical engineer. I was born in Dresden which until 1990 was part of Eastern Germany, but grew up in then-socialist Ethiopia for nine years due to a professorship of my father at the capital’s university. Around 1993 or 94 my father got his first PC for work and was doing gear calculations with it. He couldn’t do much programming, but he taught me the first steps in programming at 13, which I quickly picked up. It was also the beginning of a professional education, that with me always started with educating myself first up to a rather sophisticated level, followed by pursuing a formal professional education, which obviously was for a part redundant. Although I never got a degree in software engineering, I still managed to work in the specific field of font technology. For example, I have developed plugins and I am contracted by Google to help them develop the many fonts they issue each year to a high technical standard.

So, this is how my professional education developed: in 2000, I received a university-entrance diploma from the Gymnasium Dresden-Cotta. Two years later, after the then-still mandatory military service which I served as civil service in a boarding school for special-needs children, I decided to study Visual Communication at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, but my application was rejected twice. So in order to fill the study gap, I registered myself in the department of Computer Science instead, but quickly learned that I need to keep applying to Visual Communications, as creative development was more apparently missing in my life than programming skills. So, after one year, I already took courses at the Visual Communication department to get my foot in the door. In 2004, I was officially accepted to the Visual Communication Department, but I skipped my first year there to work in Amman, Jordan, as a trainee. During that same year I released my first typeface design, Kafeesatz, that was well received by the design community. Seven(!) years later I completed my formal type design study in The Hague in The Netherlands.

01_Yanone_Kaffeesatz_SpeedPunk - Yanone


Visual Communication at The Bauhaus-Weimar University

Type design had been a very blurry interest of mine since before I applied to Weimar, but found next to no support in that field in Weimar. I was not determined enough at the time to search for a degree somewhere else with a stronger type design profile, and I liked Weimar. In type design, I was mostly self-taught. I used to design a monthly student publication at Weimar for which I had designed an uninteresting Antiqua and used each print run to improve on its appearance—which was a lot of fun. Coincidentally, I took over the design of that publication from Georg Seifert, also a type designer and best known for his type design application Glyphs which he started in Weimar and which we discussed together since the early days.

Honestly, I did not learn much at the Visual Communication department in Weimar. Universities in Germany are quite different from the Art Academy in The Hague, for example. There is no fixed curriculum, no division into years, no exams. I learned the hard way that university education in Germany is basically time you are given to teach yourself. I'm not sure if that's the original concept, but that's how it was offered. The Bauhaus in Weimar today is an art school embedded in a university structure, with a complete lack of guidance, for better or for worse. You need to gather a certain amount of credits in order to graduate, and how you earn those credits is entirely up to you. This also necessarily meant that some students dropped out, moved to design schools embedded in the Hochschule system which is positioned slightly under universities in terms of academic level and provides more guidance and curriculum. For me it was paradise. I could do whatever I wanted. I didn't learn much, except for how to teach yourself. In the end we taught ourselves how to be creative from scratch and I'm very thankful for that.

I had always known that self-taught type design isn't enough. A temporary guest professor of ours in Weimar, Alexander Branczyk, had invited some of the teachers from KABK (The Royal Academy in the The Hague), namely Erik van Blokland and the Underware guys, over for talks several times. They knew each other from the early FontShop days in Berlin in the 90s. Branczyk was responsible for FontShop’s iconic black/yellow branding in collaboration with Spiekermann at Meta, and he was the only teacher in Weimar who  provided us with guidance, inspiration, and connections into the industry. I owe him a lot, as do other students who attended his classes. He also ended up inviting Ahmad Humeid, from Syntax in Amman.

02_Yanone_FFAmman_DIN - Yanone


The Amman Project

In early 2004, and after a visit of Ahmad Humeid as guest speaker at Weimar, I did my
first one-semester internship during my study time at the local branding firm Syntax in Amman. I made an Arabic pixel font out of curiosity for the Arabic script. Otherwise I worked on branding related stuff as part of the actual internship requirements. I stayed in touch with Ahmad, I visited once or twice privately afterwards, and in 2008 I proposed to make the Amman typeface for the branding project that I had then just learned about. I then returned for another couple of months in 2008 to design the typeface. Syntax got the commission of rebranding the municipality of Amman on occasion of their centennial celebrations. The timing coincided with the end of my studies in Weimar, so I proposed it as my thesis project and went back to Amman another time in 2008 to pull it off. The project has earned much criticism in Amman for the fact that a foreigner was brought in to do it as opposed to a local type designer. But the truth is that this typeface was entirely my own idea and initiative. This is just not a widely known fact. Also, other than Cairo or Beirut for example, I don’t think Amman had digital type designers at the time. We’re living in a totally different situation today, 14 years later.

Designing Arabic Fonts and Cultural Transformation

As a type designer, it’s my professional responsibility to learn to speak the visual language even of writing scripts that I’m not native to, in the same way that you can learn a new spoken language. I don’t speak Arabic fluently, and I don’t speak all of its dialects. I’m particularly emotionally interested in the Naskh script. I can’t explain it rationally beyond saying that its proportions speak to me. I see it as the equivalent of the Latin Antiqua: written with a broad nib pen and dominantly used for contemporary printed correspondence. It’s the most widely used style of Arabic script today in the Arabic-speaking world. I’m much less familiar with Ruq'a, which I tried to graft onto the Naskh as an “Italic” companion for FF Amman, to mixed results, and I’m even less familiar with the remaining multitude of Arabic scripts. I don't have any particular source of inspiration. I walk around and immerse myself in the visual culture of what became my second home thanks to my wife. Sometimes we would go into old bookstores in downtown Amman and she would find interesting books. We bought a few of Abdulkader Arnaout’s children's books there, for instance, that my wife remembers from her childhood. I quickly fell in love with them and was particularly delighted to see the designer of the book about Arnaout, Huda Abifares, typeset her book about him in my typeface. The only thing I can say is that I’m inspired by the Naskh script heritage much more than by any of the other Arabic scripts, and I can’t really explain it well. It could be a sense of authoritativeness that it radiates that speaks to my German heritage.

I learned technical skills for developing Arabic fonts during my second study-time internship, at the Technical Department of FontShop International in Berlin under Andreas Frohloff—Frohloff became my mentor and also co-judged the FF Amman thesis project which later got published in the FontFont library. At the time, I developed FF Amman in FontLab 4 or 5, for which none of the automations existed that exist today in apps like Glyphs that take so much of the technical font development off the designers’ shoulders. I should have learned these proper professional type design skills before making the Amman typeface. It was naive of me to produce the fonts considering my skill level at the time.

After the type design course in the Hague, I returned to Amman in 2014 to design FF DIN Arabic, which I didn't need to do in Jordan. But I wanted to get out of my comfort zone in Weimar, long after my studies finished, and see more of the world. Since the typeface I got commissioned to design was also Arabic, I chose to return to Amman and wanted to take it from there. I didn't travel any further, as I met my then future wife a mere 10 days after my arrival and got married half a year later. I converted to Islam, and while I’m not religious in general, underwent a cultural transformation nonetheless that goes beyond appreciating a foreign culture as a visitor. I lived permanently in Amman for five years between 2014 and 2019.

After I finished work on FF DIN Arabic, I continued to work on various freelance projects, among them Ayla, the typeface that is now being finished. My concept for FF DIN Arabic was to boil down the Naskh script to its skeleton and the engineer’s grid that DIN was originally based on. But already during the DIN work, I felt very restricted by that grid and started to develop the idea for Ayla which was basically a near-monolinear humanist typeface based on Naskh but with much more adherence to the calligraphic tradition of Naskh than was impossible with FF DIN Arabic. I had self-studied and practiced Naskh calligraphy to a certain limited extent to get a feel for the letter proportions already for DIN, so I felt much more secure to begin this project. I used to have a desk at Syntax for this work and continued to discuss the new typeface with the local designers there. My wife had a job in Amman as a program manager for a newly established art foundation, and so my income wasn't too important at the time.

03_Yanone_FFAntithesis - Yanone


The Type&Media Masters Course in The Hague

I went to Royal Academy of Art in The Hague to receive my formal type design education at the Type&Media Masters Course in 2010/11. I had actually wanted to do that earlier, but since Type&Media is a post-graduate degree and my studies at Bauhaus started and finished under the traditional German Diploma degree system as opposed to the serial Bachelor/Master system that was gradually being introduced at the time, I needed to finish the Diploma (equivalent to the Master degree today) before I could apply to The Hague. That was a bummer for me for a long time but all went well in the end.
Type design is a craft maybe more that it is art, and you can’t teach that to yourself. That's exactly why a master class like the one in The Hague needs to exist. Letter proportions, adherence of digital drawings to the stroke of the pen, visually evenly spacing letters, just to name a few, are some of the essential font design skills. Type design is often about applying minute optical illusions to create a certain desired visual appearance. Many of those details aren’t apparent and should be taught by experienced masters.

To provide a more concrete example of what I learned in The Hague: I would certainly rework FF Amman and the most prominent change, which I have illustrated below, would be to create wider capital letters. A better feeling for letter proportions is one of the most important skills I learned in The Hague, among many others. I've reworked only the capitals in proportions, spacing, and mild outline adjustments. These wider capitals are much closer to the classic Greek proportions and constitute significant improvements in my view. The previous capitals are way too narrow compared to the lowercase letters, which are already leaning on the narrow side, and feel very claustrophobic and immature.

04_Yanone_AmmanSerif_Before&After - Yanone

For my graduation thesis for The Hague, I was bored by the prevalent conduct at the time of making font families as generated instances from a light and a heavy weight. The computer can spit out any number of interpolations, and Lucas de Groot’s Thesis font family took that concept to an extreme, or at least it was the first and dominant example of its kind in the 90s, with 144 available styles including separate Small Caps.
I named my typeface “Antithesis” because it was conceptually doing the opposite of Thesis. Three is by coincidence the minimal number of styles that comprise a successful graduation project at Type&Media, but it’s also the minimal number of poles required to form a two-dimensional tension field. Conceptually, this is best explained by the philosophical concept of Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis itself: A Thesis on its own isn’t really worth anything in terms of authority it can claim over the stated content. Neither is an Antithesis, as it disproves the Thesis, but can’t prove itself. Visually speaking, these two exist as two poles on a one-dimensional plane. A one-dimensional plane is essentially a line in space. Only the third concept, the Synthesis, puts the two previous Thesis and Antithesis into relation, therefore usually proving either one correct. As a third pole is introduced, the tension between the three now forms a two-dimensional field, a triangle.

More straightforward, I just wanted to create the smallest possible font family with the biggest possible amount of visual tension between them while retaining recognition of each of them as belonging together. Again, the exact opposite of Lucas’ Thesis. So it became a somewhat slab-serify Regular, a sans-serif very heavy Bold and an Italic that is a connected script. The idea was that each two of the three possible combinations look good to use together because they each have an equal amount of visual tension between them.

Lucas and I are now waiting for someone to make the “Synthesis” typeface.

Lacking a great business sense, I made typefaces that were conceptually interesting, namely my The Hague thesis project “Antithesis”. I got awards for that, and maybe, just maybe, I have altered the trajectory of thesis typefaces made in The Hague with it. If I look at the results since, each year, more and more typefaces are being made that follow my concept of diverse appearance, complementary opposites that together form a unit. Today we have Future Fonts that gladly takes all these quirky experimental fonts and sells them to an appreciative young designer audience. We didn't have that back then. Antithesis never sold well at FontFont, because it's too complicated, too artsy, and embedded in the wrong place and maybe time.


The Google Project

In 2019 my wife was ready for a change in her life and so we decided to move away from Jordan where I had lived with her for five years. We moved to Dresden to support my parents who are both well into their 80s. But Dresden is not the most interesting city in the world, nor is Germany as a whole, so it’s totally possible that at some point in the future we’ll explore even further places on this most interesting planet. But with this move came the need for a more steady income, and Dave Crossland at Google took care of that part.

Google offers many free-of-charge fonts, and in many scripts. In the past I think they also accepted fonts without paying any commission to develop them, and those fonts have questionable quality, at least in the drawing. In recent years, Google has invested in commissioning type designers and firms around the world to contribute high quality typefaces, but the lower quality fonts of previous years are still there and I think water down the library. From a Eurocentric perspective, many Latin fonts there are unnecessary. But like Latin script users, users of the Malayalam or Khmer script, just to pick two random examples, may be thrilled for any free-of-charge alternative they can get their hands on. I think Google Fonts is indeed in the business of saving marginalized scripts from extinction by making fonts for those scripts available publicly. Others are, too. Typotheque for instance takes the high quality approach while being slow because of their care for quality, while Google Fonts often (but not always) follows the "release early and often" approach which leads to worse quality initially — though arguably more successful in helping a wider range of marginalized communities faster. You decide what’s better.

05_Yanone_Runya - Yanone

I think Google Fonts does help to save marginalized scripts, but also I suspect it is not totally altruistic – it might also bring those communities to the Google ecosystem of services, sell Android phones all with its promised future ad-revenue, or benefit Google in some other ways. But the side effect of helping marginalized scripts is undeniable, and I appreciate the work I do for them because everything we do is released as open-source, whether fonts or software tools, and will therefore be available for everyone to use for free, even commercially, for all time to come.

What I do for Google is technical font mastering work. Each font undergoes an ever tightening set of tests that we keep defining and refining. The fonts come in all levels of quality from designers of all skill levels. Our work is to make sure that those fonts work in all modern browsers and apps, and we talk to the designers about changes or also make minor changes ourselves, mostly technical, to achieve those goals. The tools that we develop for this work are also released as open-source and a growing community of commercial type foundries is using these tools free of charge and also contributing back to these tool projects. I’m an external contractor, so I’m not officially affiliated with Google Fonts.

The main analysis tool is called “fontbakery”. It’s called “bakery” because it was originally conceived as a font production tool as well as a validation tool. But it became only the latter, while our font production toolchain is centered around a tool called “gftools”. Fontbakery reads in a binary font file and analyzes it according to a growing number of checks that are being continuously extended and improved upon. To my knowledge, other than its main contributor Google, also Adobe as well as the up-and-coming Berlin-based foundry Fontwerk contribute to the checks, and possibly more. The collaboration with Adobe ensures that the fonts that it analyzes conform to some good level of an industry standard in font production.

Specific checks include the analysis of vertical metrics to ensure that parts of the font aren’t clipped off in certain applications such as Microsoft Office, ensure that the naming table entries are set up correctly in order for the fonts to show up correctly in DTP apps' font menus. Others enforce a minimal character set or adherence to certain language definitions. Even others can spot common possible mistakes in outline drawing such as near-horizontal/vertical lines that are off by just a few units, or common mistakes with the usage of components. There are hundreds of checks by now and they grow at a rate I find staggering.

The checks are divided into a base profile that includes things that all participating foundries can agree upon. This profile represents the industry standard in font production. Additionally, each participating foundry can have their own profile with their own checks, and the three aforementioned foundries (Adobe, Google Fonts, as well as Fontwerk) currently do. These three foundry-specific profiles are still hosted within the same software package and are currently maintained by another Google Fonts contractor, Felipe Sanches. Since the idea of open-source software suggests that everyone’s findings are contributed back to the main software package, this could lead to the further discovery of mistakes even in foundry profiles that are at first not affected by one foundry’s changes.

07_Yanone_Ligatures Ayla font - Yanone

“Fontmake” is another tool project initiated and maintained by Google that produces fonts – a font compiler – of which Google’s aforementioned “gftools” is an abstraction layer. Through various third-party tools it can read the two most common open font source formats,  Glyphs and UFO, and produce font binaries from them. This enables an automated build process, as is common anywhere in software production, because both tools are command line tools and can therefore run on “headless servers” in the internet – as opposed to requiring a desktop computer with a screen, as is required when generating fonts from Glyphs, for instance.

Since open-source fonts are normally hosted on the code platform Github, Google Fonts has developed a basic file/folder data structure that inexperienced font designers may use where they simply add the Glyphs font source file that they worked on and subsequently the font binaries are automatically produced on the Github server using the most up-to-date available toolchain, hidden away from the designer, and the “fontbakery” analysis automatically delivered as human-readable text to notify designers of things they need to change in their fonts. In Google Fonts, each font submission is still analyzed manually by a skilled type designer, like myself, for obvious design shortcomings and other technicalities, but the automated build and analysis process helps reduce the number of issues to a minimum before the fonts even reach us.


The Future?

I sometimes describe myself as a multi-purpose artist. I build outdoor light installations intended for music festivals; I deejay. I will quickly feel restricted by any particular type of work and find balance in diversity. Type design and software development related to font production is surely an important part of my life, but I consider that to be work, and then there’s also hobbies and other interests and forms of expression. Until recently I used to co-manage my brother’s festival shop for selling fresh orange juice and espresso, for instance. In the future, I would like to start dancing and learn to play the piano, for instance, and basic music composition.

Only now, in my forties, I'm trying to turn my career around and publish a typeface in the category of fonts that are known to sell well — slick Grotesques — with Ayla, now eight years in development. Others have done that from the start and are now making a living from type design. I'm trapped in wage labour and can barely steal time to finish a typeface. But the publishing business model is very attractive to me, because the more you publish, the more overall steady income you will receive without having to invest in paid jobs. Eventually, the income can sustain you and you can take longer and longer breaks. I'm not there yet and not sure if I ever will. Maybe I do not have the knack to design fonts lots of people want to have. It could be that the experience in Weimar is partly to blame.

I make an excellent income at the moment with my other skills for Google Fonts, but it's not where I want to be.