Type-design education: its importance and (future) role

Although this topic started as a job offer, at some point it became a discussion on the importance and role of formal type-design education. This as such is not new: the same happened in this topic. This made me post the text below on my personal Facebook page in July of this year. This subject deserves its own topic on TypeDrawers, I reckon, and I will make a start here by cross-posting my Facebook text.

FYI: I am Senior Lecturer at the KABK, where I teach calligraphy and type design at the graphic department since 1987, and I lecture type design (and related technology) at the Plantin Institute of Typography in Antwerp since 1995. My daily business is producing digital type and developing font tools (together with URW, also for educational use [LeMo]) at the Dutch Type Library (since 1990).


Obviously there are different opinions about the advantages of type-design education on TypeDrawers and it is interesting to see that the supposed restrictive effects on the creativity of type designers are enlarged by those who lack formal education (this is not criticism but a finding –please correct me if I am wrong). I must admit here that I enjoy the discussion and sometimes find the arguments intriguing. However, I am wondering what the future of the type design metier, which I have always considered an exponent of delicacy and exquisiteness, will be now it is hardly exclusive anymore.

The TypeDrawers forum is a platform for those who are active or interested in the fields of type design, lettering, and typography. There is no balloting and everyone can join. This means that experienced, often older, type designers exchange ideas and share knowledge with youngsters –and there are many youngsters who make type nowadays (again, this is not criticism but a finding –please correct me if I am wrong). After all, font-production software is extremely affordable or even available for free today and hardware is fast and inexpensive, especially if one compares this with the power and the pricing of font-production systems in the past. The result is a large amount of fonts that are available for comparable low prices, or even for free in case of Open-Source fonts.

A big difference with the period before the introduction of desktop publishing is that there is no filtering, i.e., everyone can publish typefaces without a reviewing process. Big distributors are eager to put all fonts on the market, because at the end a lot of small profits make a big one together. Of course, it is also possible to publish a typeface by oneself, like one can publish (print-on-demand) books and music directly via the web.
        Before the rise of desktop publishing the big typesetting machine manufacturers produced a handful of typefaces per year and it was not easy to get a new design accepted (I know that from experience). Roughly forty years ago ITC (International Typeface Corporation) was probably the most prolific company, because it was only focusing on font production, i.e., ITC did not produce hardware. There was a special team at URW that manually digitized the ITC typefaces with a lens cursor + tablet in the IKARUS format.

One would expect that in a rapidly expanding profession the need for formal education would proportionally increase. However, that seems not to be the case. In the related discussions here on TypeDrawers, a repetitively recurring argument against education is that it potentially can stunt the proper development of one’s original voice. Because of the easy to acquire software and hardware for the production of digital type in combination with the fact that almost everything is released on the end-user market, the ‘original voice’ argument is indeed an attractive one against education.
        However, education as such should not be blamed if some tutors apply a sort of one-sided conditioning or perhaps might even try to indoctrinate students. It is flattering for an educator if students embrace his/her ideas, but the primary task of education is to provide a solid foundation for further development and for enhanced reflection. For type design this means that education should result in technical skills combined with knowledge of the historical developments in the profession (including the changing esthetic preferences during the different style periods) together with insight in (the influence of) technology.

I should emphasize here that being an autodidact is as such not a bad thing. After all, there are quite some famous type designers from the past, such as Eric Gill and Jan van Krimpen, who were basically self-taught (although Gill had lettering lessons from Edward Johnston). However, these designers were almost always working together with experts in the field: for example Gill worked together with Monotype’s Type Drawing Office (TDO) and with the punchcutter Charles Malin when he was working on Perpetua. Van Krimpen worked together with the punchcutter Paul Helmuth Rädisch and also with Monotype’s TDO (although JvK was not too pleased with what happened with his designs there). One may question whether a forum as TypeDrawers can function as a surrogate for direct professional assistance, as sometimes is suggested.

By marking the historical and technological boundaries of the type designer’s profession and by stimulating a critical and analytical way of thinking, students should be able to find their own place in the profession and to develop their unique personal ‘hand’. Although craftsmanship formed and still forms the basis for the type designers’ metier and conventions define its boundaries, educators should always be careful that their training does not suppress the natural desire of designers to trespass IMHO.
        Without an in-depth knowledge of the history of type design, insight in what was produced in the course of time, control over the applied technology, and above all knowledge of the basics of the type design, it will be hard to prove that a new typeface, of which the production was not hampered by formal education, is introducing an original voice.

That being said, I do realize that formal education is not within everyone’s possibilities, if only because of the required investment in time and money. Especially if one knows that the diluted font market in combination with the low pricing does not by definition guarantee a proper return on the investment.


  • Where type design is concerned, I’m what what could best be described as a rank amateur and I pretend no expertise whatsoever, but I did want to chime in on the topic of formal education more generally.

    I have worked in academia and in my experience, autodidacts can often develop a very good understanding of specific topics which interest them while still having gaping holes in their knowledge of which they are completely unaware.

    Within my own field there are very many areas in which I don't know nearly as much as I ought to (and the more I study my field the more poignantly aware of these deficiencies I become), and it seems to me that this is common among academics. But those with formal educations in a given field tend to at least be more aware of these existence of those holes.

    There's an old adage that as the circle of one’s knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of one’s ignorance, but I’ve become convinced that this is wrong — knowledge isn’t a circle; it’s some sort of weird fractal shape where the perimeter keeps getting larger while the area stays the same.

    I’m not claiming that self-trained individuals cannot excel in type design (or in other fields, for that matter), but I think it is a mistake to dismiss the value of formal education even if one has successfully managed to “go it on one's own”.

    Just my $0.02

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