Q & A: Mark Simonson
Welcome to the very first edition of “Q & A” — a series of brief conversations with members of the typorati. We ask a question, they supply an answer, and interestingness ensues. To kick things off, we talk with Mark Simonson about serial obsessions, the pains of kerning, and tools of the trade.
Mark Simonson is an independent typeface designer and font developer (not necessarily the same thing) working out of his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Periodically, he takes lettering assignments, custom font commissions, and very occasionally writes. But most of his time is spent making typefaces for the retail market.
Photo by Eben Sorkin, TypeCon Buffalo, 2008
What is it about type that gets you out of bed every morning?
I wouldn’t say it gets me out of bed in the morning. It sometimes keeps me up at night. I have trouble keeping focused on a single activity over time. I tend to have serial obsessions. I’ll become completely absorbed in one subject area — music, programming, movies, a foreign language — to the exclusion of everything else, and then completely lose interest after a few days or a week or two when something else comes along. Type is one of those areas. But it’s an area that I come back to more often than any other. What I like about type — type design in particular — is the combination of drawing, problem solving, and endless possibilities within a narrowly defined domain.
GH: Even when obsessions and projects progress serially, there’s bound to be some cross-pollination. Can you share an example of where type design and another one of your interests ended up merging in an exciting or unexpected way? An illustration of this that certainly sticks in my mind was your Lego film font scanner project.
Anonymous Pro — Mark’s free, fixed-width sans family designed specifically for coders
GH: Obviously, creating and constructing a typeface can be extremely rewarding, but the process also involves many tedious, repetitive tasks. What is your least favorite part of designing a typeface?
MS: Kerning. It seems like there ought to be a simpler way deal with irregular letter shapes than with kerning pairs. And auto-kerning doesn’t give me enough control. I think the problem is the idea of kerning pairs itself. It’s essentially a hack (literally in the case of metal type), but it’s part of every digital font format that exists. It works, but it makes for tedious and, perhaps, unnecessary work. Class-based kerning helps, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem. I’m not sure what the solution is, but if there is a better way, someone will think of it sooner or later. But, even if a new way of doing things is found, it may take a long time to show up in real fonts. We’re still using QWERTY keyboards, after all.
Coquette — Arguably one of Mark’s most popular and personable typefaces
GH: You started creating digital typefaces immediately after the original Macintosh was launched. Along the way, you’ve gone from hand-editing bitmap fonts with quirky developer tools, to drawing outlines in Fontographer, to wading through the bog of OpenType feature coding. Given the relative advancements in software and technology, has the learning curve for type design steepened? Or is it more like banging on the same nail with different hammers?
MS: Learning new tools has never been the problem. The problem is that I often would rather do that, as an end in itself, than use the tools I have. Part of the reason it took me so long to get into making fonts full-time is that I didn’t think the tools I had were good enough. The screen on the Mac was too small. Fontographer was too slow. You couldn’t make fonts with hints. I got a big screen, but it was too curved and distorted. My laser printer was not high-enough resolution. Letraset’s FontStudio was too buggy. I don’t like the pen tool in Fontographer. On and on, meanwhile not making many fonts. Eventually, I realized that the tools I had were more than good enough, had been good enough for a long time, and that all I was doing was procrastinating. I still get hung up about it sometimes, and I have to remind myself to get back to work.
Filmotype Honey — A classic from the 50s, injected with OpenType chutzpah
GH: I think most people would agree that dealing with hardware and software issues is just one of those annoying things that designers have to deal with. But let’s step back just a bit and forget digital altogether … what’s your favorite analog tool or device that’s still an integral part of your creative process?
MS: No digital drawing tool connects as directly to my brain as pencil (or pen) and paper, especially when I want to record a visual idea. It’s fast and accurate. If I grew up with computers, maybe it would be different, but drawing is as natural and direct to me as thinking or talking. I love the precision, flexibility and undoability of digital tools, but they’re indirect and impoverished compared with drawing on paper. You take something like a Wacom tablet, or even a Cintiq, and, even though the sampling resolution of the device may be very high, what you see on the screen is always the same low resolution of your computer screen. Even a small drawing on a piece of paper has much higher resolution than any computer display. Sure, you can create extremely high resolution images on a computer, but you can never see them actual size at that resolution on-screen. You have to make it huge to see the detail. It’s a different context. Drawing on paper doesn’t have that problem.
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