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.

Mark Simonson - Photo by Eben Sorkin, TypeCon Buffalo, 2008
Photo by Eben Sorkin, TypeCon Buffalo, 2008

Grant Hutchinson:
What is it about type that gets you out of bed every morning?

Mark Simonson:
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.

MS: That’s true. I got bit by the “home computer” bug in the early Eighties. About the only thing you could do with computers back then (besides play games) was learn to program, which I did, in several languages. For a while, I even wanted to quit graphic design and become a programmer. It never happened, but knowing about how computers work and about programming has turned out to be a big help when it comes to making fonts, especially with things like writing OpenType feature code. I still have spates when I read books about programming, even though I do very little of it. It comes in handy, too, for things like my Pangrammer Helper, or programming the font sample tabs in JavaScript on my website.

Anonymous Pro Sample
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.

  • 1. John Boardley’s avatar John Boardley Sep 28, 2010

    Simonson is a legend. Such a broad range, and so accomplished in each. A joy to read this.

  • 2. Jeff Fisher LogoMotives’s avatar Jeff Fisher LogoMotives Sep 28, 2010

    A great first installment of your ‘Q & A.’ I’m a long-time Simonson fan. Already looking forward to Typedia’s future interviews…

  • 3. Grant Hutchinson’s avatar Grant Hutchinson Sep 28, 2010

    Thanks for the comments, fellas … I’m pleased that you found this initial post an enjoyable one. And I have plenty of equally interesting folks waiting in the wings for future installments. You suggestions are welcome, as well.

  • 4. Andy van der Raadt’s avatar Andy van der Raadt Sep 28, 2010

    Keep ‘em coming, gents. I look forward to future posts.

  • 5. scottboms’s avatar scottboms Sep 28, 2010

    A wonderful inaugural instalment and a perfect choice for interviewee. Looking forward to many more to come.

  • 6. Richard Fink’s avatar Richard Fink Sep 29, 2010

    Nice. I’m hoping more and more type designers step out into view like Mark has. At ATYPI, I asked Lucas DeGroot why he didn’t have a picture of himself on his blog. I mean, why not? Put a face to the name, I say.
    (I’d like to read an interview with Lucas.)

    I had talked with Mark about doing an interview with me but then all kinds of craziness got in the way. You snooze, you lose. But in this case getting scooped is a pleasure ‘cause Mark is one of the nicest and, obviously, most progressive guys you’ll ever meet. Kudos.
    Keep the interviews and pics coming.

  • 7. Grant Hutchinson’s avatar Grant Hutchinson Sep 30, 2010

    I completely agree with Richard about putting “a face to the name” (or a face to the typeface, for that matter). MyFonts does a particularly good job of this with their Creative Characters newsletters. However, I don‘t want to tread on their toes. Whereas MyFonts delivers fairly in depth interviews — specifically with type designers — I’m trying to keep “Q & A” short, sweet, interconnected, and not necessarily focused only on designers of type. There are equally interesting people out there who use type and love type.

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