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Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

Four characters thread their way through time and north-west London, each embodied on the page via a different technique – sometimes feeling like nothing so much as the author’s own stream of consciousness about creating the story. This book was reviewed from an advance copy that hadn’t been finally edited and had typos in it. Interestingly, this added to the already disconcerting feel of the narratives in the novel: lives made on the run, and living at the loss of being a clearly defined person, becomes overpowering and chilling. The humanity of the characters are reduced to the two-letter code that defines their geographical location, and as they find their way, N-W is not a weight, but a blade and a cypher. Compelling.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2012


Just because I font to

Architect and writer Andries Samuel was so engaged by Simon Garfield’s book Just My Type (read the review here), that he designed his own font.

Does Garfield explain how to design a font in the book?

No, he doesn’t. He does tell the stories of how many fonts came about, though not in detail. The book is not technical in that sense. The background stories do illustrate what a complex undertaking it is and I found this intriguing.

So, it’s not a how-to guide. Why did you want to make a font?

Probably because the book is not technical, it makes it appear straightforward. But it is really hard work, like a puzzle. You have to set some aspects and proportions, then design the principal letters, then revisit them all when they push against this framework as the letters take on a life of their own. It is really easy for the whole thing to become a formless collection of knuckle bones.

Not an easy job then?

No. Though judging by the number of sites that provide basic tools for designing your own font, many people are enthusiastic about it and persist enough to build a decent font. I did not get that far. When I realised I would also have to get into the diacritical signs I felt the experiment had gone far enough. There seems to be a completeness level for a basic competent font and I did not get that far.

How is designing a building and designing a font similar and how is it different?

In a way it is similar to designing a building. Architecture is about space and font is a lot about negative space around the shapes of letters. Also legibility, clarity, simplicity and a set of conceptual principles that structure the design. Buildings are about how they are made, their materiality; fonts are the same, although where their materiality used to be related to carved or wrought or cast letters, this materiality is now being made superficial by digital making. Architecture suffers from the exact same problem.

Have you named your font?

No. I would say it is too unfinished to require a name.

Think you’ll ever try and design another one?

Probably not. It is really time consuming. I am now more considerate of the existing fonts I use and would definitely consider tweaking an existing font next time I am faced with a line of text that needed more definition. Just considering spacing and kerning already makes a difference too.

∫ Ahem. What is “kerning”?

How close the letters come to one another. When pages were laid out by hand, someone could kern the letters using their eye. Nowadays, with computers it is automatic and sometimes disturbing. Designing the font includes setting rules for how the letters relate to one another so designing a font requires the consideration of all the possible letter combinations next to one another. ∫

The alphabet and sentence used here are Andries Samuel’s© design.



REVIEW: Just My Type by Simon Garfield


Just My Type – A Book About Fonts

Simon Garfield

Profile Books

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

After finishing this book, you might rush off and design your own typeface – you have been warned. This is a book about pleasure and delight; in the union between eye, hand and its modern partner – process. Printing presses can be called the first modern machines and their lubricant, type, the first test of the evolution of handcraft.

Just My Type is an attractive book, with much thought given to its design and layout. The cover seems unnecessarily attention-seeking, since the title is laid out in a jumble of different and rare fonts, but here the central thrust of the book already becomes clear: for a typeface to be successful, it must not draw attention to itself. This sounds simple but the enormous scope for interpretation of this stricture forms the bulk of the story.

It is also a book-lover’s book. The smartness of the design runs throughout the hard cover edition. In spite of the transfer of fonts from the type foundry to the software studio, which the book does not shy away from, this reading experience is immersed in what the printed page can be. The structure of the chapters does as much to educate as to draw the reader through the delights of all the major typefaces. There is the role of Gill Sans in the branding of 20th century London, the Swiss takeover of the world by Helvetica, the development of Transport (designed by a South African woman) for Road Signs, Barack Obama’s capture of the White House with Gotham, and the never named serif on the base drum that accompanied Beatlemania.

The development of the book is tightly paced and holds together throughout. However, its just as useful as a reference work and any chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece. The driving force is always the inquiry about why and how typefaces work, what makes them beautiful and how they are made. This last point is particularly important, as the book never abstracts its subject matter. The craft of letter-making is real enough to make one catch a whiff of printing ink.

Garfield also discusses many issues related to typefaces and printing, some humorous and some verging on pop-psychology. But how else does one discuss “Why not to use Comic Sans?”? Many of the designers of contemporary fonts are still alive and the author reports on extensive correspondence and interviews with them: what does the creator of Comic Sans have to say for himself? What is the world-view of the creator of the latest default Microsoft font, Calibri? Further discussion relates to licensing and piracy of fonts, designers ‘borrowing’ ideas from each other and the rise and fall of Letraset. Without getting too technical, Garfield remains authoritative.

It should be essential reading for architecture and graphic design students. And if you have even the faintest interest in the fabric of the cultural world around you, you’ll enjoy this immensely.

Read here how this book inspired the reviewer to design his own font.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2011.