Reviving lost Bauhaus fonts
PROFESSOR, TYPOGRAPHER, DESIGNER AND WRITER ERIK SPIEKERMANN ON SKETCHES, PSYCHOLOGY AND PUSHING YOUR TYPE FORWARD BY LOOKING BACK
“You have to make a certain amount of mistakes to find out how it doesn’t work...”
How do you finish someone else’s typeface designs? And even more intimidating, what if those initial type sketches were, in fact, 90-year-old relics of typographic treasure unearthed from deep inside the archives of legendary German art and design school Bauhaus Dessau?
That was exactly the challenge faced by a team of five leading design students earlier this year, when they set about recreating five undiscovered Bauhaus typefaces as part of Adobe’s latest Hidden Treasures campaign. Guided by renowned typeface designer Erik Spiekermann, the students started with hand-drawn letter fragments, typography sketches and – in one case – just a few characters from a poster, before painstakingly dissecting the lettering and developing it into five beautiful working typefaces.
The key was to put themselves into the shoes of the Bauhaus students. But first they had to discard the weight of history and expectation. “It’s difficult when you pick up artwork that’s been around for 90 years,” explains Spiekermann, adding that one student initially didn’t dare to improve the mistakes of the original version. “It’s sacrosanct in a way,” he adds. “We had to say ‘forget it’. Imagine what the designer would have done if somebody had given them Font Lab or Glyph or Adobe Illustrator. It would have been easier than just using a circle and set square.”
The goal of the project was to adapt the designs for use today, while staying true to the original idea and keeping some of its handmade feel. “Whenever you recreate something from the past, it’s lame if you simply redraw it,” explains Spiekermann. “You have to consider what the purpose is and how you would print it these days. If the technique is different, the results will be different.”
For Spiekermann, immersing yourself into another culture or style of type is a useful exercise for pushing your own craft forward. As he explains, an element of modesty is involved. You have to try and feel like the original designer did, and to think of the reader. It’s also a good way to better develop your understanding of the psychology of type – which, he warns, there’s no shortcut for.
Different fonts convey different messages, but the psychology comes in how the font is used. “You can make round corners, which will make the type a little blunt. You can have spiky edges, which will make it more aggressive,” he says. “Narrow and thin will be faster, and creates a different impression from wide and fat, which will be slower. All of this comes into the design, but ultimately the typeface doesn’t exist on its own – it’s always put into a space.”
He continues: “As a type designer, you can’t decide how people will use your type. If someone uses an exciting typeface on a blue background, it becomes quiet. If you use a boring typeface on a yellow background, you make it urgent. The psychology of the message only comes from the combination of an arrangement on the page.”
And the only way to develop your understanding of this is through practice. “You have to make a certain amount of mistakes to find out how it doesn’t work,” he says. “You just have to be active and do it again, and do it again, and let it sit there for a few days and look again, and realise it’s all crap, listen to lots of different comments, and then you have to make your own mind up. There’s no shortcut, it just takes time.”
That’s why Spiekermann says it’s a good idea to start by recreating something that’s happened before. “Put yourself in someone else’s mindset,” he advises, “because then you have something to compare to later. I think it’s a useful method, rather than starting from scratch and reinventing the Latin alphabet. That’s a tall order.”
Right Adobe Hidden Treasures (from top to bottom) Bauhaus Dessau: Xants, by Luca Pellegrini; Joschmi, by Flavia Zimbardi; CarlMarx, by Hidetaka Yamasaki; Alfarn, by Celine Hurk; Reross, by Elia Preuss. www.typekit.com/fonts/hidden-treasures