Where does a character designer find inspiration to create a new font? How is life in Brooklyn? SWI swissinfo.ch spoke to Nina Stoessinger, Swiss character designer and speaker in New York.
This content was published on July 14, 2021 – 10:56
Isabelle Bannerman, Text and Andrew Lichtenstein, Images
SWI swissinfo.ch: You are designing new fonts, as one of the contenders for the new standard font for Microsoft. What prompted you to get started with character creation?
Nina Stoessinger: I had a very roundabout path towards character design. For a long time, I didn’t know it was a job. In fact, I wanted to be a journalist at the beginning. The text has always been what interested me. My father is a theater actor and my mother is a writer, editor and journalist. So growing up, texts and books have always been important in my family.
I always wanted to live in New York.
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At one point I realized how much I love design, so I went to study multimedia design in Germany. And then in my first semester there, we got an introduction to the proportion of Roman capital letters and we drew them on paper. And I just fell in love. I was taken to the idea that it is the interface between form and language and narration. For me, it was the hook.
SWI: How did you get to where you are now?
NS: I did postgraduate training in character creation at the Zurich University of the Arts. A few years later, I closed my own design studio for a year and got a masters degree in character design from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, one of the few places in the world where you can get a diploma in character creation. I found character design to be quite a complicated discipline to tackle. Now I have been doing this full time for about five years at Brother Jones typeExternal link [a font design practice in New York].
SWI: How was it for you to move to New York and start a new life there?
NS: I always wanted to live in New York. It is my favorite city in the world. But moving here was also more difficult than I thought. I had visited New York before and had friends here. I had a job in sight. So I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. But the reality of living here in such a fast-paced environment, in a big city like New York, is far more intense than my life in Switzerland.
But the point is, when you’re in a big city like New York, the neighborhood you live in is where your connections are. You know the people, say hello, chat. I go to the same store and to the same bars all the time. You’re building your little ecosystem and especially here in Brooklyn, it doesn’t really seem overwhelming. Going to Manhattan from Brooklyn now feels like a trip to New York! I love the city, especially now that life and dynamism has returned.
SWI: Is the city also a source of inspiration for your work?
NS: Absolutely. Letters are all around me here!
I spend a lot of time looking around at all the signs, graffiti and all the various shapes of letters that cross my path. It is very interesting to me here that there is such a wide variety of polished and “professionally made” lettering and signage here. And then, on the other hand, there are things that are just really crass … kind of an extension of the hand lettering tradition. And then of course there are unexpected places like garbage trucks and oil trucks which are also very inspiring.
But I guess it’s still the kind of change from just moving somewhere else and then everything looks different. Now when I go back to Switzerland I notice things that I have never seen before just because I was too immersed there.
SWI: Is there a “typical day in the life of a character designer”?
NS: It depends on what stage of the design process of a new font we are in. Right now I’m drawing new fonts which means I’m spending my time drawing. When you draw a typeface, it’s basically a back and forth between drawing the letters individually, and then you have to test them out, print them out to see things in context and see what actually works. The other part of my job is more technical, where the fonts have to be produced in all the different formats for our clients to use.
And I also teach a character creation course at Yale School of ArtExternal link. I alternate semesters with Tobias Brother JonesExternal link, our design director. He’s been teaching the class for a long time, and it was always overwhelmed. It was very rewarding, especially since I had a lot of trouble discovering this profession, to be able to pass it on to new interested people.
SWI: If you come up with a new design, how do you distinguish it from all the other fonts that already exist?
NS: If you’re designing a font for continuous reading, the challenge is not to make it stand out too much. Otherwise, it will be distracting for the readers. And it is quite difficult. This is also, I think, a reason why many of these serif text fonts often look to the untrained eye.
On the other end of the spectrum, when you’re creating something for a headline or poster, it’s just a small amount of text in a larger size, so it can be a lot more creative.
Fonts are “the clothes the words wear”
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There is a historian by the name of Beatrice Warde who coined the phrase that fonts are “the clothes that words wear.” I often have students who worry that a typeface is boring and that they have to inject their personality into it. The thing is, it’s going to happen anyway because you are you and you have your unique set of inspirations and inputs that you carry and bring to this task.
SWI: And when your new font family is ready, how do you come up with a name for it?
NS: We have a whole set of criteria that we think about when looking for a new name.
One thing we’re trying to do is pick a name that looks good in the font itself. Ideally, then, you want to have a word that shows some of the important key letters that illustrate the design, for example an uppercase “G”.
As for where the inspiration comes from, I often try to think of what a certain design reminds me of. For example, if it was a physical object, what would it be made of? Some character pieces feel like they are made of old wood or metal, and this can be a starting point for finding a name.
In the case of Seaford, which was the one we did for Microsoft, the process was easier because they had a briefing for the working title, to use a location in the Pacific Northwest. So, we just put together this huge list with all the place names, and then we filtered it by length and how the words sounded. We ended up with “Seaford” because it sounded generic and at the same time it sounds great and is easy to remember and pronounce.
SWI: When will you know if Seaford will be chosen as the new standard font for Windows?
NS: Probably in 2022, but at the moment it’s hard to say. They are currently collecting user feedback, fonts are already available in Microsoft Office. We’ve also received feedback, so we’ve made some additions and changes.
SWI: Do you have a favorite font?
NS: There is a joke among character designers that if you ask us something, the answer will be “it depends”. And in this case, the correct answer would be that I don’t have a preferred font, as it depends on what I would recommend it for.
But there are some typefaces that seem like great feats of craftsmanship and creation to me, and one of them is a very old typeface. It was invented by Nicolas jensonExternal link in 1470. So it was shortly after [Johannes] Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable letters which seem very old to us. And then comes Nicholas Jenson and creates the first Roman typeface. And in terms of proportions and in terms of the balance of forms, it still seems quite plausible today, half a millennium later, and it is no small task.