Sea Change – Dave Foster

Published:  November 26, 2012
Sea Change – Dave Foster

As part of the Sea Change theme running through the past issue of desktop magazine, we asked a series of ex-pat designers to reflect on their decision to move abroad, as well as the challenges faced and inspirations gained from working in a new space and place.

Next up is Sydney designer Dave Foster, sharing thoughts on type education, having recently spent a year studying typography in The Hague.

Sydney > Amsterdam

What sparked your love of typography, and what drives it today?
My love of typography developed gradually. I have recollections of trying to copy a classmate’s handwriting in primary school and dabbling with graffiti in high school, but it wasn’t until I studied graphic design that I realised there was a whole world I had no idea about. In my case, discovering the world of letters was like opening Pandora’s Box. One question led to another and it’s that curiosity about typography and letterforms that has always propelled me forward and continues to do so now.

Can you talk us through the events that led to you studying overseas?
Since about 2007 I’ve had a serious desire to get better at drawing letters. In 2009, after repeatedly stumbling across the Type and Media Masters [course], I set my sights on it. I filled up sketchbooks, read as much as I could find, contacted people I thought could help and began planning. I applied for the Design NSW Travelling Scholarship in 2010. It’s a single scholarship awarded every year to one designer or artist from almost any discipline. As a type designer, this was the only possibility for funding I could find. Among seven others, I became a finalist, but missed out on winning. At that stage I hadn’t applied to the course.

In 2011, I applied to the Royal Academy of Art (KABK, Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten) in The Hague, the Netherlands, where Type and Media is held. They have around 150 people apply every year and their intake is 12. It takes a long time, the deadline for applications is February, with notification of acceptance in May and the course begins in September. I reapplied for the scholarship and I was fortunate enough to win and also be accepted to KABK.

Typography class

Obviously there are very few opportunities to gain the type of education offered by KABK in Australia, but what makes the institution special on the international scene?
Type and Media is a small part of the Graphic Design faculty within the Academy. There are only a handful of places in the world that offer a thorough education in type design, but, as far as I know, only two that are intensively fulltime and year-long. The other besides KABK is the Typeface Design MA at the University of Reading (UK). There is also another course, which goes for less time (around seven months) called Type@Cooper Extended Program, which is run out of Cooper Union in New York City. Obviously, every school has their own theories, history, lecturers, approach to learning and teaching, curriculum, price and location. The course is special because of these combined attributes. After researching the topic, it was clear that Type and Media was the best fit for me.

Receiving training in such a broad spectrum of skills, from people I respected because of their skill, not only as practitioners of the craft, but also as teachers, among talented classmates from around the whole world, was a unique opportunity. We had a class comprising many nationalities, including Croatian, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indian, Latvian, Mexican, Spanish, Swiss, Tajikistani and Taiwanese.

Do you think there is room for a similar program in Australia, and if you were in charge of setting the curriculum, what would you do to make it unique?
Type design is picking up in Australia, and I think if it continues we may have the means to make a course like this in the future, but whether it’s needed, I’m unsure. Less intensive learning formats such as workshops might have a more useful and interesting gap to fill.

If they could nurture the interest of Australian designers in pursuing type design by informing them what it’s about at the core, it could allow them to gauge their interest. Dan Milne, a Type and Media alumnus from 2009, currently teaches at Monash University and has run workshops through AGDA. One of his students, Vincent Chan, recently got hired at Commercial Type, a successful type foundry in New York. I may try to organise similar workshops in Sydney.

What’s the idea behind Blanco?
The idea behind Blanco was about creating a learning experience for myself. Creating a text workhorse could be considered the most difficult task in designing type. Making Blanco, I learned skills that will flow through to less technically demanding genres of type. After deciding to do a text typeface, another layer of complexity was added by asking my classmate, Hrvoje, to collaborate in creating a pair of typefaces that could work autonomously, but also together. It seemed to be a good direction to make the most out of the opportunity.

Blanco specimens

Blanco specimens

Blanco was designed as a companion font to Mote, also designed by one of your classmates at the KABK – were the two typefaces developed in close collaboration? Is type design better suited to a collaborative process or as a solo act?
Hrvoje and I had already worked together earlier in the year on creating the exhibition publication for the Gerrit Noordzij/Wim Crouwel exhibition. It was clear that we worked well together and shared a lot of common tastes in graphic design, but also type design. We worked individually on our own typefaces for the majority of time, but came together at key milestones to decide what it was that we wanted them to link the two typefaces together. It’s normally the case that if a companion typeface is made for another, one is already finished, and the same designer usually does it. It’s also common that the differences between them aren’t very large. We weren’t sure it would even work when we set out, so we made the project about investigating how to harmonise two separate designs into a useful combination while still maintaining their unique characteristics. In the end, we connected them by similar proportions, text-fit and our common tastes. Many of the proportions were the same, even though we didn’t discuss or compare them closely. The optical size, range of weights and darkness are identical, which makes using them together and trying different layouts with them in different hierarchical positions convenient. In an unrelated sans and serif, these attributes are rarely the same.

There are many solo type designers out there, but the act of making type always has, and continues to be, a collaborative process more than most realise. Back in the old days there were designers, punch cutters, justifiers, casters and whole groups of people completing tiny tasks like snapping the little bits of lead off the sorts and sanding them down. Nowadays, even if one person designs the letterforms, help is often hired to finish the large character sets, do the tedious amounts of kerning associated with them, make new tools that fix problems unique to that typeface or to complete non-Latin scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew, Greek or Devanagari. That’s not even acknowledging the massive help from the people who develop the tools necessary to make fonts. Of course, there are people that do all these tasks by themselves, but one only has so much time.

How different is the process of making a typeface compared to any other form of graphic design? Is it conceptually driven, or is it purely an exercise in functionality?
I wouldn’t say that creating a typeface is a type of graphic design. They are separate things; type is a craft about making a tool for graphic design/typography, but they have related attributes. I think being good at one doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other, but it can. The ability to systemise different forms into a coherent pattern and judge the balance and harmony of visual forms are crucial parts of both, as is the importance of refinement and repetition in the process. In my opinion, type can carry a concept, or be done for a conceptual reason, but in the end the letters must fulfil a utilitarian role and communicate a message.

When designing a typeface like Blanco, do you give much consideration to the end use, or is your focus purely on the letterforms? Is there a particular use to which you think Blanco would be best suited?
Having an end purpose in mind is a crucial part of designing type. The letterforms should reflect the end use. Having an application in mind helps in making the correct design decisions and gauging whether what you are making is appropriate. [As] a basic example, a typeface for book text will require less contrast (difference between the thickest and thinnest line) than a typeface for a large headline. If it’s for a newspaper headline, then it probably needs to be narrower and work with tighter letter spacing. Blanco was made for readability, which means not only that it is legible, but also the reader enjoys the process, encouraging them to continue. So I envisaged that this meant being suitable for extended reading between eight- to 12-point in print.

Blanco sketches

How do you see the Australian design education compared to what you’ve experienced overseas?
My comments relate to graphic design. I think that graduating projects at a bachelor level are held in a higher regard in Europe, by the students themselves, but also by the industry. I also noticed that graduates seem more confident upon graduating, often starting their own studios straightaway. But, on the other hand, internships are the norm. In the Netherlands too, it seems as though teaching is something with a higher priority placed on it by the top practitioners in the industry. They take the time to return and pass on the knowledge they learned themselves. I don’t think you see this as much in Australia. I think the schools also prefer to hire these lecturers with a reputable background and status in the industry.

What advice would you give to someone considering moving overseas for work or education?
Be aware of everything you need to do to make your goal happen, but try not to let red tape, bureaucracy or logistical pains like possessions, apartments, storage, visas, tax or planning become overwhelming enough to stop you. Things like that can always be sorted out.

What’s next for you?
Since taking a few months to decompress from the course, a rough plan has slowly formed in my head. I’m staying in the Netherlands for another year or so, working towards publishing Blanco and working at some type foundries. Meanwhile, I hope to establish some ongoing relationships with Australian studios, publications or agencies who are interested in commissioning custom type tailored to their projects. Custom type brings a unique edge to any project involving typography. Things like logotypes, advertising, packaging or editorial design are ideal examples. I’ll continue with graphic design while developing my specialisation and I hope to resume teaching in the future.

Thumbnail image: Blanco Specimens.

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