Report of ATypI 2006 (by Luc Devroye)
October 5, 2006


In the Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1495 by Portugal and Spain, Spain was to get all the undiscovered territories between the Pacific Ocean and a north-south line drawn through the southern point of Greenland. Portugal was to have the rest (principally Africa and Asia). Japan, Kazakhstan, Iceland and Kamchatka would belong to Lisbon, while Texas, Alaska and most of Brazil would be Spanish. Those were the glory days of the conquistadors. To relive those moments of Portuguese grandeur, Mário Feliciano and his red-shirted Portuguese staff organized the 50th ATypI meeting in Lisbon under the theme Typographical journeys. Type designers and typographers from both halves of the world took possession of Lisbon from September 27 until October 1, 2006.

The Faculdade de Belas Artes of the University of Lisbon is located in the heart of Chiado, which is up the hill from the rectangular Baixa district, which was reconstructed in a baroque style after the earthquake and tsunami of 1755. The opening talk was in the beautiful Cinema Sao Jorge. The Last Dinner was at the historic Casa do Alentejo. Just for choosing these three fantastic venues, Spain should cede Feliciano the state of Georgia and the city of Olivenza.

When I sat in the airport of Lisbon Monday morning after the conference, Sander Neijnens noticed me and came over. I asked him for his impressions, as he had attended many ATypI meetings in the past. Mijn hoofd is niet vol, he said. Sander kerned it correctly. Maybe it was due to conference and web log saturation, maybe it was due to our own learning curves, but I too had the impression that I did not learn as much as in Prague, Copenhagen or Rome, to name three excellent past meetings. But making up for that were controversy, entertainment, showmanship, elegance, and ambiance. The conference was preceded by a Type Tech forum, about which I will say nothing---I am on a hunger strike against OpenType. It was followed by Jornadas Atypicas which featured recent Portuguese type design. So, on with the report of the typographic journey! I also have a picture report.

Bashing Baltimore

Ellen Lupton, the keynote speaker, saw her flight canceled in Baltimore. Delayed by 24 hours, she spoke about her Free Font Manifesto: What if each foundry would give away an excellent font family? In a well-articulated talk and associated web page, she managed to address a sensitive issue in a balanced and courageous manner. Predictably, there were some disagreeing voices in the session on "The Business of Type", but there were no daggers or machetes---these were all confiscated by airport security. Travel is not what it used to be.

The newspaper tsar from New York

Give the guy a microphone, stage lights and a full auditorium, and he will entertain you for an hour without ever looking at a piece of paper or a computer screen. I am talking about Roger Black of Roger Black Inc, the master newspaper designer from New York. Confidence oozing from every bowl and one-liners hiding behind every serif, Roger gave a grand performance in his talk entitled Custom type for American newspapers. He pleased his hosts by declaring that Spain and Portugal have better-looking newspapers today than the United States. And he is on a mission to change that: Every town could use a different typeface. For example, Roger and David Berlow (Font Bureau), who is more than a production cat, started work in 1999 on a Kis for LA (the LA Times). He took the opportunity to shower his friend with accolades and exclamation points: Berlow is a good type designer. His Kis is as good as it gets. He especially lauded the color of the Kis typography. After seven long years, the Kis has made it to the front page of the LA Times.

Cheltenham has a certain mystical musty feeling to it. [...] The New York Times looks presbyterian. And so he raised the issue of the web version of the New York Times. With new technology (WPF, Vista) to be released soon, we may see personalized web versions of this and other newspapers in their own type palettes. Roger predicts that the next twelve months will be very interesting. We may even witness an Adobe versus Microsoft type war. For a guy like Roger, the web is another possible goldmine, so he decries the conservative nature of many webbies: there is a kind of HTML 1.0 nostalgia.

The British armada

They came out in force from the UK, all cannons afire, to tell us about the redesign of The Guardian, which started in 2003 and ended with the publication of the September 12, 2006 issue. The in-house effort was choreographed by Mark Porter. Calling the competition in England McNewspaper, with tabloid-sized information-starved papers now the norm, Mark decided on a 5-column Berliner (narrow but tall) replacement of their broadsheet. Lots of new type families were developed for the occasion, and the title was replaced by a bi-colored lower case title without any spacing between the and guardian. I heard Gerard Unger once thrash this way of compressing displays. On a personal note, I find the redesign, type families excepted, disappointing: too much color, huge blocks of white space, oversized ads and pictures, ragged text, overemphasis of names of contributors, and so forth. Long live the Frankfurter Allgemeine!

Joining the armada were Paul Barnes and a top American mercenary, Christian Schwartz, who live by their motto, We run a 24 hour type design service. They described the painful process of the design of a new type family for The Guardian, starting with a Guardian Grotesk (based on Neue Haas Grotesk) and a serif called Hacienda, to replace Miller. These were rejected (Houston, there is a problem) and they embarked on the design of Guardian Egyptian, from which Guardian Sans was derived. Porter wanted a cousin of the Egyptian, not a sibling, and the Sans was further modified which led to new types such as the Guardian Agate Sans, and a Herb Lubalin-flavored Guardian Modern Titling. The final palette has 200 typefaces.

From Sao Paulo to Berlin

Sao Paulo and Berlin each had a 45-minute talk dedicated to them, and both presentations were absolutely delightful. François Chastenet, a French architect and occasional type designer, headed for the favelas of Sao Paulo, and described the graffiti created there in the mid 1980s, commonly called pixo or pixacao. These are grid-designed man-sized tar-based letters spread on fronts of buildings by teenaged pixadores, often necessitating incredible acrobatics.

Verena Gerlach, a type and graphic designer from Berlin, who has made numerous typefaces at FontShop and Primetype, blended her own life story with that of the lettering in East and West Berlin, both before and after 1989. The air at Belas Artes was thick with cold war tension. She looked at building and street signs, discovering lots of Fette Bravour (1912), Bernhard Antiqua (1911), Einfache Block (1910) and Erbar (1926), but also nameless leprous state-owned monstrosities. She and Ole Schaefer made several types out of what was discovered.

That could have been it, but no---Verena turned up the personal crank, and started revealing more and more of her own life. Langetype (2006, Primetype) was a project with Karl-Heinz Lange, a type designer for the former East-German Typoart based on his designs for the East-German telephone directories. That led to digitizations of types found in the building in which Verena lived. That led to descriptions of her friends. More type from the basement of her new apartment. Hacker friends. Parties. Crescendo. The hackers wire a tall building in Berlin so that each window is a pixel and the building emulates a screen that can be controlled by cell phones and from keyboards. People put messages on it or played pong. And then Verena's own message projected on this gigantic screen: no war. Massive applause.

Fribbling with French stencils

There was a shortage of French speakers at this meeting. Maybe Feliciano got back at them for the December 1, 1807, capture of Lisbon by Napoleon's army, led by General Junot. This also explains why there is no Rua Junot or Avenida Napoleon in Lisbon.

There was no shortage of discussions of French type, though. Fred Smeijers and Eric Kindel dug up the stencil proposal by Des Billettes in the late 1700s, and the stencilled specimen of Parisian Gabriel Bery from the 1780s. I am sure that many listeners were surprised to learn that Gabriel Bery lived on the Pont de Notre Dame above the Seine---the bridge actually looked like a regular street. Stencilled letters were the vogue for fine liturgical and other texts from those early years until about 1880, because of their high readability. They did not look like stencil type, in which the black ink cannot make white islands. Instead, stencils were ingeniously moved over the page to compose ordinary letters in parts. Fred, who likes to get his hands dirty, took a successful crack at reconstructing the stencil process of Des Billettes. I was ready for a standing ovation but I did it privately, because my hair was a mess.

Spanish oranges

Several Spanish type historians and type designers forced their way back into the heart of Lisbon, exactly 205 years after the War of the Oranges in which Portugal lost the city of Olivenza to Spain. As if ordered by Carlos III, all Spanish presentations dealt with the glorious past of Spanish type, mixing pride and nostalgia. It was clear that Olivenza was not going to be returned to Portugal, no matter what.

He started with an apology: I will speak with a Spanish truck driver accent, but throughout his 45 minutes, Andreu Balius was simply brilliant. He gave a comprehensive overview of 20th century Spanish type design, which was dominated by the likes of Joan Trochut (1940s), Ricard Girald-Miracle (1950s), Enric Crous-Vidal (1950s), Jose Ausejo Matute (1950s) and Enric Huguet (1960s).

Raquel Pelta Resano provided some background on the avant garde era in Spain, and showed beautiful posters and art by type designers Enric Crous-Vidal and Ricard Girald-Miracle.

Albert Corbeto took us back even further, a few decades before the War of the Oranges. He spoke about Geronimo Gil's work at the Imprenta Real, aided by the calligrapher Palomares, ca. 1766-1774. Gil's move to Mexico, where he died in 1798, the sparseness of qualified punchcutters in Spain, and the rising popularity of Didot and Bodoni in the years following the publication in 1788 of the Manuale Tipografico, precipitated the end of a period of magnificent Spanish type design. I swear that I could see a tear trickling down Corbeto's cheek.

One can't get more Spanish than Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who penned Don Quijote in 1605 and 1615. That book was republished in 1780 by Joaquin Ibarra, perhaps Spain's most famous typefounder, who also worked at the Imprenta Real. Numerous projects have attempted to revive the types used by Ibarra: these include the group of Sandra Baldassari at the University of Zaragoza, Ibarra's birthplace, Andreu Balius (in his Pradell types), and Ibarra Gans. Today, a young Spanish type designer, José Maria Ribagorda, is attacking the windmills all by himself in his Ibarra Real Project. He showed us the details of his revivals, but what I remember most is his first screen, in which he showed Ibarra's letters floating down like leaves from a page of Don Quijote.

Portuguese posturing

It is silly of course, to write a report such as this one, and categorize things by country. Just one look at the famous type design schools of Reading and KABK shows how small the world has become. National labels should be out. We should classify presentations by emotions: exciting, inspiring, blah, take-me-to-the-nearest-bathroom. Maybe next year.

Anyway, the Portuguese galleon was defended by Dino dos Santos, a young type designer from Lisbon, who spoke about Calligrafia Portugueza from the 18th century onwards. He takes inspiration in his designs from the old Portuguese calligraphers and handwriting instructors, primarily Manuel de Andrade de Figueiredo (1670-1735) and Joaquim José Ventura da Silva (1777-1849). The former deconstructed characters logically and wrote an influential book on handwriting in 1722. The latter wrote a calligraphy manual in 1802 to teach the bastards the bastarde, bastardinho and cursivo styles of writing. Da Silva was more exact, and tilted his letters 20 degrees instead of 15. He connected his letters, while de Figueiredo did not. According to dos Santos, da Silva created a truly Portuguese style. Not everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed. Portuguese style or not, Dino developed his Andrade and Ventura typefaces according to the specimens from those calligraphers.

As in Corbeto's talk, I detected a certain nostalgia and lost pride. Clearly in agony, Dino showed us a handwriting manual sold in Portugal in 1908, and lisbonized on for ten minutes about the decline of the Portuguese character. Cheer up, Dino---I think that the Portuguese are genetically incapable of making bad type. The Jornadas Atypicas, which featured the work of Bárbara Alves, Dino himself, Jorge dos Reis, Mário Feliciano, Ricardo Santos and Rubén Dias, and which followed ATypI in the same location, are proof of that.

Two generations of generous Germans

First about my contemporary, Erik Spiekermann, whose tour de force left me in awe. On the opening day, he was told at 2pm that the keynote speaker, Ellen Lupton, could not make it, and he was asked if he could not be a substitute at 7pm. He graciously accepted. There were two themes to his impromptu presentation. The author of Don't Steal Sheep gave us six strategies for getting ideas without stealing. Amazingly, only one of them involved thinking. Perhaps subversively, someone in the audience asked what the name Spiekermann meant in German. Erik explained that spieken was north German for looking, so his real name should be Lookerman. Now, spieken in Dutch, which is close to North German, means abpinnen in regular German, that is, to cheat by looking, as during a high school test. Spieken was not one of Erik's six strategies for getting new ideas though. The second theme, constant during the talk, and throughout his life, was sex. The Sao Jorge public expected it from him, and it was delivered in spiekloads. The first clip in Erik's talk had two rabbits humping on a Bosch loudspeaker in the back of a car in a simulated ad that showcased Erik's Bosch Sans type. This was followed by the famous Brazil-Argentina lettering poster showing BA before a soccer game, and Ba after the Brazilians won---if you do not understand this, check Google Images with Brazil Argentina poster. After a deep analysis of penis enlargements and other things, Erik's microphone overheated and the Sao Jorge cinema had to be evacuated (to the reception area).

One of the most talented young German type designers was omnipresent thanks to his Litteratra typeface. Karsten Lücke's numerals and pee were used in the fabulous ATypI logo in its many guises. Karsten flew down to Lisbon for the occasion but stayed below deck. Johannes Küster has wrapped up a 4 optical weight-5 style Minion-like superfont with 2000 mathematical symbols each, including all Unicode math glyphs. He too stayed below deck, but not with Karsten. The most ambitious project outlined at ATypI was Global Type, by Lars Kähler and Gisela Will, who want to create on-line documentation of all types ever made.

There were, of course, tens of other Germans and Germanettes. Everyone was happy to see Otmar Hoefer, the gentle giant. Simone Wolf from Typevents did a fine job womaning the desk and the social events. Veronika Elsner served on the Business of Type panel. Bruno Steinert, who left Linotype a month ago, received a certificate of service from ATypI. And so it went. In fact, due to the continued German contributions to ATypI, I believe that the next president of ATypI should be German.

I will end the roll call with the generation before Spiekermann, Hoefer and Steinert. Even when they are dead, we cannot keep the Germans from attending ATypI. They traveled to Lisbon in the shipping crates of the Morris Antikvariat bookstore, direct from Sweden. Morris replaced Nijhof & Lee this year. It showed us beautiful books, booklets and specimens by Ludwig Wagner, Stempel, Ehmcke, Berthold, Klingspor, and others.

A dangerous Type Walk

The meeting ended with a Type Walk through the streets of Chiado and Baixa, led by Catherine Dixon and Phil Baines, who are the authors of Signs Lettering in the Environment. In the 1960s, Nicolete Gray, an expert on 19th century decorative type, and well-known for the book Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces (1976), made several voyages to Lisbon and published seventy photographs of type in Lisbon. Phil and Catherine made a couple of trips themselves to try and find what was left of the signs in the photographs.

There was joy with every discovery. But Phil and Catherine also stumbled upon a good deal of typographic rot. On Rua Carmo, in front of a ghastly Times-Roman inscription that read Edificio Grandella, Phil mumbled Massimo Vignelli would love this. Massimo Vignelli had made it to the conference to repeat once again that six typefaces suffice, Times-Roman and Helvetica included. He was not with us on the Type Walk, but a young Italian was. Phil: we love you, and each of us enjoyed your tour, and no one likes to find your body in the Thames with a concrete block around your ankle. So, please stay in Lisbon, and I will email you when the coast is clear.

And the awards  
go to  

Best presentation: Verena Gerlach tied with Eric Kindel & Fred Smeijers
Most tantalizing speaker: Roger Black
Prettiest visuals: José Maria Ribagorda
Best typeface: Karsten Lücke
Best track: Newspaper type
Best quote: Fleischmann is Mozart, Bodoni is Beethoven (Peter Van Lancker)
Best hair: Victor Kharyk     [In the nondifferentiable electrically charged hair category, only Dan Reynolds is close.]


Luc Devroye
School of Computer Science
McGill University
Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6