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The typographic Times
Jonathan Hoefler


[October 2005]
“We’d always rather begin a conversation about a new typeface by talking about application rather than history.”
Jonathan Hoefler

You’re known as a specialist of revival typefaces ? Why this specialisation ?

It’s funny; I do think of myself as someone closely involved in historical revivals, but most of the work I’ve done in the past ten years has been outside the historical continuum. This has been especially so in the last five years, during which Tobias Frere-Jones and I have worked together. We always keep an eye on history, but we’re ever more interested in designing new typefaces rather than interpreting old ones.

The typeface history, before the 20th century (and even) is very European. Do you find historical materials to design typeface in the American printing heritage ?

KnockoutAbsolutely! I suppose the most obvious example is my Knockout typeface, which is an interpretation of specifically American forms. Tobias and I are both really interested in late 19th and early 20th century American typefounding - the organization of the American Type Founders company (ATF) at the turn of the last century being an especially important event, as it pitted an old approach to typefounding against a new one. (Where 19th century typefounders anthologized as much as possible, 20th century ones tried to organize and rationalize what had been done.) The work of Morris Fuller Benton is especially interesting in this regard.

That said, most of the great movements in typefounding have taken place in Europe, and these are indeed inspiring. (I don’t know whether typefounding in the Americas has ever produced a period as fertile as 16th century Flanders or 19th century England.) But a great wellspring of American type design is its vernacular lettering, rather than its typefounding. There are distinctly American styles to everything from show-card writing to neon signs, which I find heartwarming and endlessly fascinating. Tobias did a great study of some of these for his Gotham typeface, and there are surely others to be discovered.

What are the other factors, except history, you take into consideration when you design a typeface ?

History takes a back seat to the most important thing we consider, which is application. By this I’m talking not only about a typeface’s material considerations -- at what sizes it works best, in what sorts of media it will be rendered -- but what it’s for in the first place. We’d always
rather begin a conversation about a new typeface by talking about application rather than history: the person who wants "a nice Bodoni" is probably going to be well-served by a typeface that already exists, though the one who wants a more legible stock listings page may actually need something new.

You have developped also some headlines typefaces. Is this work to design this kind of typeface similar or different from the text fonts ?

It’s similar in that it has an equal number of challenges, one of which is how to evaluate a design’s success. At this very moment, our designer Jesse Ragan is working on a typeface that’s intended to be used at 144pt and above, and he’s finding it tough to put together proofs that evaluate
the font’s spacing. Many of the projects he’s worked on in the last year have been for text sizes and smaller; looking suddenly at page-size letters seems to call for a whole different set of eyes. I think Robert Bringhurst put it best when he said that typography is an art where the microscopic and macroscopic constantly converge.

You have the reputation to design some very beautiful typeface specimens. Like the punchcutters of the past...

Thanks very much! It’s nice that you noticed -- I do labor over them quite a bit. One of the reasons I decided to start the business back in 1989 was that I was disappointed to see how typefaces were presented. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than spending years of your life working on a new design, only to see it showcased as nothing more than an alphabet at twelve point. I really love using the typefaces that we produce here at H&FJ, and there’s nothing I look forward to more than getting to work with the fonts that we have in development. Mind you, as the library grows, it’s increasingly difficult to find novel ways of presenting new typefaces, but figuring out a solution is one of a designer’s great satisfactions.

When did you have the idea to buy the domain name "" ?

I think I registered it in 1994. Oddly enough, "" was my first choice, but it was taken!

With Internet, a lot of young type designer have tried to sell their types directly on the web. Is it now easier or more difficult to make known its work ?

I don’t think the Internet has really changed things that much. The web is a great channel for finding what you’re looking for, but you still have to know where to look, and googling "fonts" yields 19,800,000 pages. In the final analysis, I think that creative people are still facing the same challenge they always have, which is letting other people know they’re out there. Plenty of good restaurants go bankrupt because nobody walks by them; plenty of excellent typefaces are available to buy online, but no one knows they’re there.

What the Internet has changed, though, is the progress of improvement. Someone starting out in type design today has access to countless resources, and can often find answers to arcane questions through sheer application. I think this is to everyone’s benefit!

Related article: Hoefler Text typeface portrait (October 2005).