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The typographic Times
Akira Kobayashi


[May 2004]
“Type director at Linotype Library does mainly two things: controlling the aesthetic quality of in-house typefaces, and selecting types submitted from external designers.  (...) The decision is made chiefly from an aesthetic point of view, but the typeface has to be original in the first place.”
Akira Kobayashi


All about Akira Kobayashi (Official Bio)

The Japanese type designer Akira Kobayashi was born in 1960. He studied at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo from 1979 to 1983, and six years later followed this up with a calligraphy course at the London College of Printing. His first work experience in type design was at Sha-Ken Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of phototypesetting machines, where he was employed from 1983 to 1989. This was followed by three years at Jiyu-Kobo, Ltd. where he designed and digitized the Japanese font Hiragino Mincho for Dainippon Screen Co., Ltd. He also designed the six-weight Latin variation Hiragino Roman. From 1993 to 1997 Kobayashi worked at TypeBank Co., Ltd. where he designed Latin alphabets to accompany all 17 of TypeBank’s digital Japanese fonts.

From mid-1997 to 2001 Kobayashi worked as a freelance type designer, during which time he has won a number of awards: in the 5th Morisawa International Typeface Competition for Socia Oldstyle (Honourable mention--font not published). in the 1998 U&lc magazine type design competition--for Clifford (Best of Category and Best of Show); in the Kyrillitsa’99 competition--for ITC Japanese Garden; in Linotype’s 3rd International Type Design Contest--for Conrad (1st prize); in the Type Directors Club’s type design competitions of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001--for ITC Woodland, ITC Japanese Garden and ITC Silvermoon, FF Clifford, and Linotype Conrad, respectively.

Since May 2001 He is the Type Director at Linotype Library GmbH. He recently completed the Optima nova family with the original designer Professor Hermann Zapf.

Typefaces published to date are: Skid Row (Letraset, 1990), ITC Woodland (ITC, 1997), ITC Scarborough, ITC Japanese Garden, ITC Seven Treasures, ITC Luna, ITC Silvermoon (all ITC, 1998), ITC Magnifico and ITC Vineyard (all ITC, 1999), FF Acanthus and Clifford (FSI, 1998/1999), Calcite Pro (Adobe Systems, 2000), Linotype Conrad (Linotype Library, 2000) and TX Lithium (TypeBox, 2001).

Can you comment this bio…

I took lettering and typography courses at Musashino Art University, but naturally they are focused on Japanese script. There was no proper textbook about western alphabets: things like the relationships between stroke thickness and the angle of broad-edged pen are rarely mentioned in books of lettering in Japan. ’Ruling pen and compasses’ theory is still widely accepted.

My first work experience in type design was at Sha-Ken Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of phototypesetting machines. As you may know, a set of proper Japanese font requires approximately 7000 characters. That is too much for a single type designer to complete a set. Designing a Japanese font usually takes a couple of years and several skilled designers. I was involved in several projects of Japanese fonts and I gradually improved my skill in drawing lines with a pointed brush. Eventually I was able to draw a dozen very fine lines in one millimetre.

Occasionally I designed Latin characters and arabic numerals, and I felt that I needed to learn more about latin alphabets. Then I realised that I had to have a better handle on the English language. First, because the books available to me on the Latin alphabet were almost always written in English. Second, I knew that if I was not very familiar with the western alphabet, I could not know if the characters I drew would be acceptable to a western reader.

There were a couple of books on western type design in the design department. Among them I found a small book titled About Alphabets by Hermann Zapf. It took me six months to finish reading, then I had a strong urge to practice western calligraphy. Zapf mentioned that he started with Johnston’s Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering, so I followed his footsteps. I ordered a paperback copy of the book through a bookshop overseas, and I started to teach myself calligraphy.

Later I left the company and went to London, and enrolled an evening calligraphy course at the London College of Printing. As I had never been to a foreign country, everything was completely new experience to me. I read books on typography and history of type (to me it was a great surprise that an ordinary library had number of books on typography). I also met a number of designers and craftspeople and learned a lot from them.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the Japanese typographic landscape ?

Do the Japanese read from left to right, or from right to left?’ It is one of the most frequently asked question about Japanese script. We read both ways. To be more precise, we have two directions of writing: horizontal and vertical. Most of our glyphs are designed in a square, and can be set either horizontally or vertically. When the text is set horizontally, we read from left to right, as the Western people do. When the text is vertically set, we read from top to bottom, beginning from the line that is at the right end of the column. Thus I can say that we read from right to left.

The second question will be, ’how big is the Japanese personal computer keyboard?’ The answer is: we have as same size and same number of keys as a Westerner has in his or her office. Then how do we manage typing all 7000 characters? It is not too difficult: imagine that you need to type a ’%’ symbol but there is no key for % available, but you know how to spell it. What you need to do is, type ’p-e-r-c-e-n-t’ and then hit the ’return’ key. The computer converts the word written in phonetic signs into another symbol in a fraction of second, then the ’%’ symbol appears. Sometimes it is as easy as it is, sometimes you have to find the right symbol among more than ten possible candidates that have the same pronunciation but separate meanings. Usually word-processing software automatically choose the right candidate by the context, or select and show characters by order of frequency of appearance in a normal text.

Japanese is a complicated system of writing. We have basically three scripts. Chinese ideographic symbols called Kanji (that means Chinese letter) and two sets of phonetic symbols called Hiragana and Katakana. Hiragana is for depicting things ethnically Japanese, Katakana is for rendering foriegn words or names. We use daily a couple thousand Kanji symbols and about eighty each Hiragana and Katakana glyphs. I’m not even sure how many characters I can read and write. Certainly there will be hundreds of kanjis that I can read but cannot spell correctly.

Still, the Japanese language is expanding--we have already included the Latin alphabet and arabic numerals in our characters, and it has been standard for decades. I assume that an average 7-year-old in Japan can at least read both Hiragana and Katakana, Arabic numerals from 0 to 9, a handful of Kanji and a few words of English splashed across his or her T-shirts.

Like Kanji, that we borrowed from China a couple thousand years ago, Latin alphabets are now crutial part of our writing system. We use them in our text in Japanese, often to describe a name of an organisation such as IOC and OPEC. Replacing them in kanji to describe them in full is possible but rather inefficient. A news presenter says ’sekiyuyushutsukokukikou’ for OPEC and nearly bites his tongue. Japanese are very fond of contractions. Generally Kanji is very efficient. In newspapers, ’Japanese-American relationships’ requires only four letters. But as for the OPEC, the western alphabet is preferred because that is shorter, and probably easier to pronounce.

MomaSo, here we have four and half different scripts (three Japanese systems and laitn alphabet that includes Arabic numerals) , two directions of writing, and all can happen at once on a page. In this example we see Japanese text in Kanji and Hiragana phonetic symbols, a Western name ’Guggenheim’ transcribed into Katakana phonetic symbols, and ’MoMA’, that is a contraction of ’Museum of Modern Art’, set vertically. We have not only included the Latin alphabet in our language, but we also have a special set of latin alphabets in order to avoid collision in vertical typesetting. I must emphasize that they are not designed for setting words, but rather for the contractions that require letter-by-letter recognition.

There is another reason that Latin alphabets are so common in Japan. Businesspeople and manufacturers consider that something in a Western word sounds more sophisticated, or something superior in quality to an eastern equivalent, even if the product is meant only for the Japanese market. We buy things if it sounded western, even if it did not make any sense to us. In Japan, people use Western alphabets any way they like.

On the other hand, in recent years, western design has shown great interest in Asia. Very often I see graphics that use Japanese characters just to achieve ’exotic’ effects, but usually it looks strange to a Japanese eye, because the text there does not make sense. I once saw an advertisement of an apron, on which Chinese characters were printed back-to-front. In Western countries people use Japanese or Chinese symbols any way they like, and I find it amusing.

You have been rewarded several time (Morisawa, TDC, Ul&c, Linotype). What is for you your most important award and why ?

The presentation of Linotype Library’s 3rd International Digital Type Design Contest in Mainz (June 2000) was for me the turning point. Prof. Zapf was one of the judges and he was at the presentation. (though it was not the first time we met: I first met him in June 1997) I told the audience how his book changed my life as a type designer. Two days later I visited his house in Darmstadt and spent the whole afternoon talking about type design, especially his Optima. Linotype Library was seeking for a good director for their Optima nova (the re-design of the Optima typeface) project, but I did not know it.

In December 2000 I received an e-mail from Linotype Library asking if I was interested in joining them as their type director, and I accepted it.

You’re now embarked on a new adventure as Type Director of Linotype Library. What is your job ?

Type director at Linotype Library does mainly two things: controlling the aesthetic quality of in-house typefaces, and selecting types submitted from external designers. ’Aesthetic’ is by no means concerning only the shapes of each letters, but also the shapes of words and sentences that the type may form. Technical quality is checked by our engineers. I also select typefaces to be published in the future. We hold ’type selection meeting’ once or twice each quarter of year. Several colleagues from different departments and I form a type selection board, and I am capable of making the final decision. The decision is made chiefly from an aesthetic point of view, but the typeface has to be original in the first place. I have to reject if it appears too close to an existing design, even if it is well-designed.

A lot of young type designers create their own foundry to distribute their creations. How does Linotype Library deal with this situation ?

We publish not only the classics, but also innovative hip fonts at a reasonable price. The "TakeType" collections from us contain typefaces chosen from the entries to Linotype Library´s contests and the type selection meetings. Categorized into Text, Display, Fun and Symbol fonts, the TakeType Library contains fresh, new, experimental, freaky and above all contemporary fonts. The fonts are tested and proofed by our font engineers, which means that the quality is guaranteed by Linotype.

The TakeType sells very good, and the TakeType 5 is now in the pipeline.

Is the art of typography different from a German point of view than from a Japanese point of view ?

No, we only have different writing systems. Also there is no German- or Japanese- point of view, but there are a lot of different individual point of views.

By the way, I think the education on type design in Japan should be improved. We are taught western alphabet and English language at the age of ten, so Latin alphabets do not appear too exotic for us. However, it seems difficult for us to design a decent Latin typeface. More and more Japanese graphic designers tend to design logotypes and posters with Latin alphabets. Interesting logos and display types are designed by Japanese designers. However, it seems difficult for us to design a decent Latin typeface. Our writing system is completely different from western one. A Kanji or Chinese character we use is a “word” by itself. We design a Japanese character in a complete square, because it can be set either vertically or horizontally. Because of that, most Japanese graphic designers think as if a foreign word or words can be read if they can be read letter-by-letter. It is a common misunderstanding. As Matthew Carter puts it, type designers ’are really word-shape designers’, but it took me several years to understand it.

Have you still time to create typefaces ? On which project are you working on ?

At the moment, very little, but soon I will start working on my own type designs for the future release from Linotype Library.

I have just finished the Avenir Next typeface, with Adrian Frutiger. It is again the re-designing of the Avenir typeface. The Avenir Next has completely revised weight variations. also 6 weights of the Condensed variations will be added to the family.

The italics are not in cursive form, but rather “sloped roman”. However the letterforms are fine-tuned and better latterspaced and kerned. Moreover, Small Caps will be added to all the wieghts (roman, italic, condensed, condensed italic). The total number of the family will be 48. It will be released by the end of 2004.

Related article: Clifford typeface portrait (May 2004).