Apple font “beautiful as typeface, totally sucks as an interface” — insights from a famous designer

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Session: Typeface on Screen: The Invisible Building Blocks of Brands

Katie Fehrenbacher
Chris Albrecht
Jeff Veen
Erik Spiekermann

Katie Fehrenbacher 02:59
Please welcome your MC Chris Albrecht back to the stage.
Chris Albrecht 03:08
Yeah, a little bit country. Everybody have a good break? Yeah, alright. Good to hear. Just a couple of housekeeping kinds of things, we’ve got people coming in so please just make room for them. Mute your cellphones. Wi-Fi, join the network GigaOM. If you are just joining us today, that’s GigaOM and the password is “RoadMap2013”, pretty easy to remember. Also, follow us on Twitter. We are @GigaOM if you want to follow us and you can hashtag your discussion topics from the show. You guys have been doing a lot of great Tweeting, so thank you for that. #RoadMap2013. Up next, we have Erik Spiekermann – he’s a designer for Edenspiekermann – and Jeff Veen – the Co-founder of Typekit and VP of Products for Adobe – are going to be discussing Comic Sans: The Misunderstood Font.
Chris Albrecht 03:55
No, they’re going to be discussing Typeface on Screens: The Invisible Building Blocks of Brands. Please welcome Jeff and Erik to the stage.
Jeff Veen 04:09
This is so fun. Sorry, where are my manners? Please.
Erik Spiekermann 04:12
Thank you sir.
Jeff Veen 04:12
Yeah, sorry about that.
Erik Spiekermann 04:13
Yes, I am the older person, that is very true.
Jeff Veen 04:14
Hello everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here and, honestly, an honor to be on stage with Erik Spiekermann who, if you’re not familiar with his work, you’ve brought some examples.
Erik Spiekermann 04:28
I didn’t physically, but I put them on the screens.
Jeff Veen 04:31
Why don’t we have a look at those now. Why don’t you play the video. While we’re looking at this, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what we’re looking at up here. I see a lot of letter As.
Erik Spiekermann 04:42
Apart from the fact that it is significant for the beginning of the alphabet – that’s why the alphabet is called the alphabet, by the way – in case you didn’t… okay. I thought we wouldn’t have to do anything like this, but then I suddenly realized yesterday after I just got back from Europe, it might be a little arrogant that I presume that everybody’s seen what I do. I threw together this keynote presentation and made a video, which is the safest way to present it. I’m not a video maker, as you can tell. Neither am I much of a keynote maker. This is basically the typefaces that I’ve been involved in designing for the last what 25 years, maybe 30–
Jeff Veen 05:22
25, yeah. You started in the late 70s with typefaces?
Erik Spiekermann 05:27
Yes, I’m afraid so.
Jeff Veen 05:28
What was the first medium?
Erik Spiekermann 05:31
Jeff Veen 05:32
Erik Spiekermann 05:34
I can still draw. These are digits. They’re called digits.
Jeff Veen 05:37
But there were no computer graphic systems that you were designing for them?
Erik Spiekermann 05:41
Yes. The first ones were photosetting, so you actually did artwork. Pen and ink, or in my case cutting that red foil which you guys call Rubulus. We used to call it Yulano, it’s the brand name. You did pen and ink stuff, white out, and scraping, and all that stuff. It was easy because there was only like 126 characters to a font, not like today where you have 600. Then we progressed to the Icarus system, which meant you plotted your drawing with a little loop. You had three different points: counter-points, tangents, and– you guys know all this stuff. Then we had drawing on screen, which I’m lousy at. That’s why I commission all these cool young kids who can draw on screen like I can draw on paper, but more quickly.
Jeff Veen 06:28
The technology has changed dramastically– dramatically hasn’t it? Excuse me.
Erik Spiekermann 06:32
It has changed drastically and dramatically, yes.
Jeff Veen 06:34
Both of those things were true.
Erik Spiekermann 06:37
This is not my first language, sorry about that.
Jeff Veen 06:41
Barely mine. But it continues to. So one of the reasons we got to know each other was because we were both bringing typography to the web for the first time, which remarkably was sort of 2009 – just about four or five years ago – when we finally were able to do that sort of thing. You being sort of a luminary in the field and having one of the best collections through FontShop, and FontFont, and those relationships were very quick to move to the web, to embrace that technology. Why was that?
Erik Spiekermann 07:15
Isn’t it pretty obvious? It was obvious at the time. A lot of people it didn’t seem obvious. A lot of people were fighting this rear guard battle like, people will never read on screen, it’s bad for your eyes, you’ll turn blind – although that was something I actually turned blind from – you remember, you know what I mean. It was all these stupid arguments and it was obvious you don’t have to be a fan of the screen to realize people will be reading on screen. When I heard about Typekit and I knew you way back from the old wire days, I knew that you guys were to be trusted and that if we wanted people to use different typeface – I say typeface and not fonts by the way, I’ll explain the difference next year.
Erik Spiekermann 07:57
We have a typo conference coming in April by the way. Then you can come there, and that was my plug. Next April here, we can talk about the difference. It was obvious that the stuff has had to move somewhere and people were getting a little bored with using Arial, or Helvetica, or even Georgia, or Verdana. They’re all great typefaces, but it’s like drinking water and eating dry bread all day long. If you want a little more spice in your design life, you need to type on screen and you guys offered it. I’m forever grateful because without Typekit, we wouldn’t be here.
Jeff Veen 08:30
That was my plug, thank you. Yeah, you’re right. It was a little controversial. In the typeface design industry, there’s been a strong desire to protect the value. Whereas in our sort of connected and networked world, the digital goods are sort of devaluing when you look at music, and entertainment, and things like that rapidly approaching very small subscription fees. I remember that when we were launching Typekit we realized to do this at scale and to do it quickly, we would need venture capital. We would make this pitch to the VCs and say, “This is a great industry for disruption and there’s a tremendous technological opportunity.” Spotify of typefaces, that sort of thing. I remember one VC turning to me and going, “That is amazing. People actually pay for the shapes of letters.” Like it was baffling to him, that that was a business and an industry.
Erik Spiekermann 09:37
It is baffling to me. I’ve made a living off it for the last 25 years – part of my living at least – but it is very much like music. 90% of the music is probably not paid for, but the 10% that is paid for – is it 10% are or 10% is? Either way, right?
Jeff Veen 09:53
It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. It’s fine.
Erik Spiekermann 09:54
I know it doesn’t matter. That seems to be enough. I’d rather have 10% of the 99 cents that iTunes pay, than the 100% of $99 that nobody pays. Essentially, if you want to try out a new typeface on a product, say on a website, I can’t expect people to pay $400 and then say, I didn’t really like that very much. People don’t do that, and I don’t blame them. If you can have some sort of other model, either you’d only pay 99 cents, or loaning it, renting it, whatever makes people use it. I want people to use different typefaces like I want to go to different restaurants, and try out different food, and try different spices. Then I’ll choose whatever model is possible. No type designer’s died of starvation yet. Not many people make a living of it either anyway, but it seems to be a human need to– like we make music, we paint pictures, we write books, so we design typefaces. Why not?
Jeff Veen 10:57
You raise an interesting point. While the video was playing, you focused just on the letter A and you showed a tremendous number of them. You show all these different flavors. Some looked very old fashioned, some looked very contemporary and new, fun, relaxed, formal. I think a lot of people don’t really see the nuance that’s in the expressiveness of type. Why do you think that is?
Erik Spiekermann 11:27
You’re not supposed to. Type is very much like you turn on the tap and water comes out – in our countries. We breathe and it’s air. Type is very much the same. It’s there, it’s a commodity, you’re not supposed to think about it. If you start thinking about it, it’s disruptive. Reading is not supposed to be disruptive. To a degree, we read long copy because it’s pleasant to read. The type adds that 2% or 3% of aesthetics, added pleasure that we could do without. There’s nothing wrong with reading everything in Georgia forever content wise, but who says that we can’t enjoy it at the same time. It’s very much like – I keep saying this – food is for me a good example, or why do people need a thousand different vineyards? I drink white and I drink red. Of course I know the difference between the varieties. The same goes for type. People like to see it differently. There is research that people may even respond to it, but we don’t really know. We didn’t really know whether people respond to different ways of layouts. Does the line have to be 45 letters long or whatever. Some of that stuff is in the in-between, it’s aesthetic. This may be a first word problem that we want more typefaces, but who needs all these different models of cars, or bicycles. I have 13 bicycles. Why the hell does anybody need 13 bicycles?
Jeff Veen 12:48
You have 13 bicycles?
Erik Spiekermann 12:49
Yeah. At least. I don’t ride them all at the same time, I’d like to. I also have more than two pairs of socks. By the way, I’m wearing the OM’s sock color here as a shirt today. So is he.
Jeff Veen 13:03
We’re all on brand, aren’t we?
Erik Spiekermann 13:02
We are having a cyan moment going on here. Whatever this is, I have no idea. It’s 80% cyan and CMYK.
Jeff Veen 13:10
It’s like a disease.
Erik Spiekermann 13:11
I know it guy, I know the CMYK style. Essentially, I’m involved in a business that is totally superfluous. It’s partly economical in most of this country. People like choices.
Jeff Veen 13:23
That’s right. There is a tremendous amount of fashion involved in typography as well. That changes all the time. Probably everybody is familiar with what has been happening on these devices, with the latest operating system taking a sort of a bold statement with the fonts that they’re using. I think I read it was Business Insider–
Erik Spiekermann 13:51
It’s not bold, it’s Ultralight actually.
Jeff Veen 13:52
It’s Ultralight. It’s not bold. It was in Business Insider I read a quote from you saying that the typography in IOS7 was the folly of youth.
Erik Spiekermann 14:03
Jeff Veen 14:03
Tell me a little bit about that.
Erik Spiekermann 14:05
You walk into any– you know where London is. London England that is, not London Ontario. There’s a place there called Clerkenwell, where all the studios are. It’s like Southern Market here. You walk into any of them and there’s these 21 year-olds – they come out of school at like 21 or 22 in Britain, and they discover Helvetica. They think this is the most amazing invention. No one knows it’s been going on for 50 years and designed by some old Swiss guy who’s been long since dead. They rediscover it like you would discover salt. You’ve been eating without salt all your life and suddenly you put– oh my God. My food tastes so good. They discover Helvetica. Then they discover that you can reduce it to like two pixels. It’s beautiful, and it’s pleasant, and it sucks as an interface for a device like this. You’re so taken away by this beauty that you forget that the user may have a different task. It’s a beautiful typeface, it totally sucks for an interface.
Jeff Veen 15:05
The difference between something that’s beautiful and something that’s functional doesn’t always need to be there, but you feel like it has been in the way that we’re treating it on screen right now?
Erik Spiekermann 15:15
Unfortunately, a lot of times when you’re a user interface designer, you have to forget your vanity. It’s not about you showing the world how great you are as a designer, it’s making the product work and making people use it. For a young designer, when you’re fresh out of school, of course you want to change the world. You want to make beautiful things. You forget that you actually run a service. You’re supposed to design things for other people, not for yourself or for your mother. A lot of that stuff is done for people’s mothers, or girlfriends, or whatever, or boyfriends for that matter. That’s all I’m saying. To design type – to get back to that topic if I may – requires a certain amount of modesty that I’m not personally known for.
Erik Spiekermann 15:57
What it means, as you pointed out, you have a character A. A is always an A. If it goes too far to one side, people won’t notice it anymore, won’t see that’s an A anymore. What we design is maybe a space of 5%. 95% is there, the A to Z – or A to Zed as I would say – is not changeable. It’s a given set of rules. Another one for Kanji, another one for Arabic, but all Latin alphabet, or Cyrillic, or the Greek has these givens, these constraints.
Jeff Veen 16:37
The shape of an A is not something you might innovate on.
Erik Spiekermann 16:39
In a way, it’s like music. You have eight notes in all western music, right? It’s amazing the variety because not only do we have tunes, we also have sound. Essentially what we do as type designers, we design the sound of a word. Not the actual the word is the word is the word, but it can sound so different. It can be a word played with strings, or a word played with brass. It’s still the same word, but it sounds differently. That’s all we do, and you have to be fairly modest to do so. If you’re showing the world what a great designer you are, it’d probably become illegible or get on your nerves. There is room for that, as you said passion. I’m talking about the stuff that we would read in a book or a newspaper.
Jeff Veen 17:18
One of the things that I really enjoyed when we were starting to work on Typekit was meeting type designers, which I hadn’t had a lot of history with in the past. That craft is honestly very esoteric, very difficult, rarefied. There aren’t a lot of type designers in the world.
Erik Spiekermann 17:41
I don’t know how you would qualify that. If you look at the numbers of licenses that FontLab has for example, is a couple of thousand, maybe even 10,000. There’s certainly a lot of people who’ve used the program. What makes a type design? I don’t make a living as a type designer, I design type on the side. Most of the type I design is for clients, not for your market, but for large corporations that are trying to streamline their communication or trying to avoid paying a license to Typekit by having their own stuff made. That’s often a motive. Type designers that actually work full time as type designers, probably a couple hundred. I’m not sure whether many of those actually make a full living out of it. It seems to be a bit of a sideline.
Jeff Veen 18:26
But it’s hard. A typeface can take a year or more.
Erik Spiekermann 18:30
It’s boring. It’s incredibly tedious and boring. If somebody asked me– like the famous, as you guys say, ballpark. It’d take you about 100 hours to do one word. If you have a concept, and you sketch it out, and then you digitize it, for a type designer that’s a week, for normal people that’s 2 1/2 weeks because the day has 36 hours as you all know, at least. Especially if you travel, like I go back and forth, I add or subtract nine hours going back to Europe. I get a very, very long day that way. I’m 25, so it does wear on you. Plus tax.
Erik Spiekermann 19:08
So it is boring. It’s tedious, that’s why I share it amongst a few people. There’s the programming part, the production part, the QA part because you have to run stuff through the various tests, there’s the drawing part – they just draw – and there’s the designing part. I do the designing part, which basically I do paper sketches. I’m an art director, I guess. I have an idea, and I sketch it out, and then I get all these minions – two or three of them – or colleagues, who will do some of the stuff. Some of them get credit, in other words we split licenses or royalties. Some of them just get paid. That’s why there’s more people in the industry than you would see on the surface. They may not even call themselves type designers, but they’re necessary to get this product to ship. Then there’s guys like you that make it usable. Typeface is a bunch of bits that is totally useless on its own.
Jeff Veen 20:02
That’s right. To make it more accessible in a variety of ways. One of the things that we were eager to do was not just help professional designers, but also bring the quality typefaces to WordPress themes and things like that. It opens up a much, much broader market at a much, much different price point. That was one of the things that was relatively controversial among that community.
Erik Spiekermann 20:27
It still is.
Jeff Veen 20:28
I know. It’s just a very big chunk–
Erik Spiekermann 20:31
There are still two markets. People still buy typefaces– actually they buy fonts. I should correct myself. You design a typeface, you make it into a font, and that’s the thing you buy. You don’t buy a song, you buy an iTunes amount of bits, or whatever it’s called. It’s not a song really. People still print. There are still books, there’s newspaper, there’s a resurgence of traditional stuff in a sense. At the same time, you make some of those available for the screen, some you design especially for the screen, some you get for the screen. Now we have two or three markets for our typeface. There’s also the stuff that’s on television screens, which is still separate because that still is mostly bad. The way that Hollywood guys use type, they have their own totally different word. They have to be all caps, they have to go all squashed together, and they all have to use two or three typefaces. They’re not Verdana for once, or Georgia. There’s all these different cultures of markets and they’re all coming together.
Jeff Veen 21:31
I think there’s a lot of not professional, but more casual use. People use their font menu all the time in the things that they’re making. You talked about the analogy to wine, and I think a lot of people in restaurants can feel really insecure about choosing the wine. I think a lot of people feel the same way about typefaces. Can you help give people a little bit of confidence of what they should be thinking about, or looking at, and why they shouldn’t use Comic Sans?
Erik Spiekermann 22:01
Why shouldn’t they? People can do anything, I really don’t care. But of course I do, but if it’s not in my face, I don’t mind. We have the same issue at my office. There’s 60 people there, and I walk around, and suddenly within two weeks they all use the same typeface. We had a week where everybody used Stag from Christian Schwartz and then we had a few months where everybody used FF Glam. I go around saying, “Why the hell do you…?” It’s lazy. Essentially, the first thing is you only whatever typefaces or whatever fonts you have on your hard drive. If it’s not on your hard drive, you won’t use it. Nobody goes and checks them and buys them, except me and a couple of other idiots. Most people have what’s there or what the guy over there has. “What’s this? I’ll use it.” It’s very much like Spotify. You use what you’ve used before and then you use more of it, and it suggests more of the same.
Erik Spiekermann 22:57
I tell people to treat it just like you would treat any other design item. You wouldn’t use the same images for different jobs, you would go and research. You have a photographer take images for you, or you go online and find these in stock that people haven’t used before. You identify the project and say what’s the audience? What’s the medium? What’s the message? Do we need a muscular type face? Do we need something feminine? Pardon the words, but they do exist. There is a way you can brief yourself to what your typeface has to do. Do we read lots of words? Do we read small type, big type? Does it have to be a big family? Do we only need two ways? Does it need to be condensed because we have space issues? Does it have to exist in Cyrillic and Greek, or maybe in Japanese, and Chinese, and Arabic? All these issues. If you brief yourself properly, the choices are very much narrowed. Then you suddenly realize, “Oh my God, there’s only four choices because I am within this space.” Then you go and commission another one. Happens all the time. I’m surprised myself.
Jeff Veen 24:01
You mentioned something a few moments ago about paying for typefaces. I got my first internet account way back in 1989 and one of the first things I found was an FTP server on a public internet full of fonts, which of course I just downloaded it all and used in my work. It’s no secret in the type community that the second link in a Google search will be a BitTorrent site for the font that you’re searching for. It’s different than music, in that the font file itself is the full source code of the thing that the designer and the team worked on. It’s just rampant. I wonder how you feel about that as somebody who has practiced this for a long time.
Erik Spiekermann 24:51
I haven’t quite made up my mind about it. On the one hand, I’d like as many people as possible to have as much access to as many typefaces as possible to spread it out there like music. At the same time of course, if you spend a few hundred hours on designing a typeface, that would be nice if that was honored, if somebody would actually pay for your work. At the same time, nobody’s asking you to do the work in the first place. It’s kind of like okay, it’s out there, it’s your own fault in a way. People do pay. Whatever the percentage is, I have no idea. I’m sure – and there have been numbers in the industry for years – that 9 out of 10 fonts have been copied, used, parodied, whatever you want to call it. I’m always looking for ways of – as I said earlier – for people to try it out, like there’s various plugins so you can try out. There’s various plugins where you can try out what it looks like in Photoshop without committing to even the $29 or whatever it costs these days. That’s one way.
Erik Spiekermann 25:49
The other way is just let people copy what they want to copy. But those people that realize that we’re in this together, that, this is my work that’s up there. What would you say if I copied the code for your website for my website? You would be pissed, quite rightly. It happens all the time, we all know this. I’ve had people bring in portfolios with work that I did 20 years ago because it was somewhere, and they copy pasted, and they don’t realize it was mine in the first place. There’s no credit for me. “Where’d you get that?” “I helped design this.” In other words, they made a coffee for somebody 20 years ago. It’s all over the place. There’s nothing we can do about it. I’m having this issue at the moment, we designed a family of typefaces called Fira, for Firefox, the Mozilla company.
Jeff Veen 26:36
I remember that.
Erik Spiekermann 26:37
It’s open source and it’ll be on Google, Google fonts. I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand, I think it’s great that people can use it because it’s a better typeface than Helvetica UltraLight for interfaces. There’s a monospaced version, which the programmers like. I’m proud to have my stuff out there and the Firefox guys pay for it. The danger is that because it’s open source, anybody can get a hold of it, mess around with it, sample it, I would say F-U-C-K it up but I couldn’t do that in public.
Jeff Veen 27:10
I bet you could.
Erik Spiekermann 27:11
Mess around with it, and make it worse maybe, and it will still be attributed to us in a way. It’s a little scary. Then I might get blamed for some horrible stuff that somebody’s done that fits under my name. Again, that’s the risk you take. You write a pop song and you can’t stop anybody from singing it in their bath out of tune. It’s out there. You’re not going to go send the police to them and say, “Hey guy, you’re out of tune.” Tough shit. I designed it, it’s out there, we’ll see. As long as you know, don’t blame me. What I did was great. I think.
Jeff Veen 27:51
There are an increasing number of open source fonts simply because it’s proven to be one of the best ways to add additional characters for all the languages in the world. Like you say, even getting the basic Latin character set can take a year. Having more of a group effort on top of the designs, but fair enough, it also goes in different directions. We only have a couple minutes left. I wanted to ask you about why you think we’re having this conference here. Om is a technologist and he looks for trends, and now one of his most popular conferences is about design. What’s going on with that in society, in technology, in our industry?
Erik Spiekermann 28:36
Isn’t it pretty obvious? What we as designers do, we are intermediaries. We’re translators, interpreters. The world’s getting ever more complicated for whatever reason and we’re the people, we’re the interface. We’re the people that may, at a certain point, make this world a little more comprehensible, easier to use. I’m saying the world at large. Whether it’s software or whether it’s hardware, things are hard. Not everything is as easy as a hammer and a nail. The tools have become more complex and we’re the people who make them not less complex, but we put another layer over the complexity, the interface as it were. Nobody wants to see green on black. Some people do, probably in this audience, but my mother wouldn’t want to see the green on black. She would want to see the black on white. That’s what we do. We make the world understandable and hopefully a nicer place, and easier place. There’s a lot of things out there that I would like to change. The interface for public transport, for example, sucks in this country – public transport sucks in the first place. There’s a lot of other stuff out there that we have a role to play in, and make it more usable. If we can be paid for it, that’s fantastic. What a great job we have. I’m getting paid to make things look good, isn’t that fantastic?
Jeff Veen 29:46
That’s fantastic. On that note, I think we’ll call it there.
Erik Spiekermann 29:48
That was a closing remark. Totally.
Jeff Veen 29:50
Absolutely. Thanks everybody. Take care.
Erik Spiekermann 29:52
Thank you.
Chris Albrecht 30:01
Only at RoadMap could a discussion about fonts be.