An interview with Gerard Unger
Michail Semoglou


Keith Chi-hang Tam
Hong Kong

  I met Gerard Unger around six o’clock in the center of Thessaloniki. We walked along the historical center before reaching ‘Ethnic’ for a beer. The weather was rather sunny and swifts were everywhere. Gerard loves swifts. He also seemed to be quite amazed by an old city like Thessaloniki. “It is interesting to walk in a city like Thessaloniki.” He said, and then he admits, “Thessaloniki is a very difficult city to hold on. I am exposed to an entirely new set up. It is a very different culture…much more Mediterranean, much more Eastern.”

This was his first visit to Greece. However, Gerard feels like a full-time traveler. He travels a lot, and he has always something to say about every place he has been to. He believes that “when you travel you learn a lot.” A while later, when we were discussing cultural influences upon his work, Gerard remembered his trip to Mainland China in 1979 “That was a very impressive trip but I did not make any Chinese European letterforms after that. That is not how it works. You simply get a richest view of the world and you probably become a little bit more tolerant of different cultures, civilizations, and viewpoints. I like to think that it works in such ways. Letterforms are terribly abstract forms. You can not attach all kinds of illustrative details to them.”

Gerard Unger was born in Amsterdam during the World War II. He comes from a large family. His father was a commercial man, with a self-taught interest in design and the arts. His father did the publicity for Rayon, a textile manufacturer, from 1935 until 1940 and then for a number of years after the war. Gerard reminisces: “There were always publicity materials from that firm at home, designed from rather famous designers. I was lucky because my father understood that I was interested in these, so I was always had copies from him at home. Another thing was that my father had bought many interesting publications. One of them was Arts et Métiers graphiques. It was wonderful; each issue was printed in different paper. Imagine that in one issue you could find all kinds of different printing processes, lots of different typefaces, illustrations etc… It was a kind of showcase of what French graphic industry could do.” Gerard continues by saying, “I could not get enough of those publications. Those publications have been the very early influence. They showed me that there were differences between typefaces. I think that this has been imprinted upon my mind at a very early age. So, when I was a small boy there was a period when I was very busy designing money for the most exotic countries. I can remember designing Korean banknotes. I knew nothing about Korea but this did not matter at all.”

Gerard was into design at a very early age. He thinks that this was a rather natural choice. “I always had the feeling that I had no choice except to be a type designer. I am not so much of believer of predestination but I pretty much get the idea that I was born as a type designer.” He was a gifted boy as his Protestant teachers used to say. Gerard spent most of his youth in a Protestant school. Although, he confesses that “I am not a religious person at all. I read the Bible because I thought that there was an interesting book but I never took part in the pray.” In spite of Gerard’s attitude, his teachers taught him that “when you have a talent you have to use it…do not hide it. God gave it to you and you have to use it!” After all, Gerard thought that it is not Gods but his responsibility to use his talent. Therefore, in the age of sixteen, Gerard imitated the work of Jan van Krimpen, a Dutch type designer, without actually knowing that he was imitating Jan van Krimpen’s work. Later, Gerard mentioned to me: “I could have made worst choice but I think that I made some good choices at the very beginning already.”

Gerard studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam from 1963 until 1967, “It was a four year course and I was one of the very few in my class who knew exactly what he wanted to do after graduation. One day, one of our tutors asked us what do we like to be after college, so I said that I like to be a type designer. Although everyone laughed it turned out to be right.”

Since 1970 and 1994, Gerard has taught at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and at the University of Reading respectively. He feels fortunate, as teaching has been a great influence upon his work. He thinks that “teaching is a great thing to do and you should always remember that you should never tell to your students to copy you because you will get nothing back, only copies.” However, “how can you avoid that?” I asked him, “Very easy… You simply have to observe them. Then you should be able to recognize their talent, and of course, you should be able to help them to cultivate it.”

In 1972, Gerard designed Markeur, his first professional typeface for Enschedé and two years later he designed Demos. Gerard says about Demos that “was the first commission although was a typeface I had already designed, and I had already proposal at my own initiative to Dr-Ing Rudolf Hell GmbH, now Linotype Library. They accepted it and I had to redesign it to suit a particular system, the digital technology of that time. I regretted it afterwards, because I did my type design for a particular technology, which was updated one day. After that, I decided to become more technology independent. Luckily, about two years ago, I was approached by German design agency. They said that they have chosen Demos as the typeface for the German government. So, it was not chosen because of its technological qualities but for its design characteristics.”



Gerard considers the secret of his success to conceal behind his overall approach to type design. He believes that it was always been a mix of problems that was interested him. He admits that in 1980, when he started designing Swift, technology was still one of the problems. “When I started designing Swift, newspapers were still not very well printed. Newspaper technology was like a cross-country cycling. It was like cycling through the mud. Nowadays, newspapers are printed well. That is the difference between Swift and Coranto. Then, I decided to give Swift a number of characteristics that will make it survive in the printing technology of that time. In the same time, I tried to use these characteristics in such a way that Swift will work perfectly well in a different kind of technology.” Swift turned out to be a very successful typeface that even Gerard was quite amazed by his own success. “It is one of these things that you can not really predict. You hope, of course, that something like that will happen.”



In one of his latest projects, Capitolium, Gerard had three problems to solve. “First of all, I had to design a typeface which would connect with the Roman tradition, which worried me because I am entirely of the Northern European tradition. They believed that I could do it, which was absolutely great. The second problem, on the other hand, was worst. The whole thing has to be designed in about five months. It was particularly no time of doing any research. I had to go back upon research that I had done much earlier. I knew about Cresci. I had looked at his work plenty of times already. Cresci came through the process of modernizing the Roman letterforms and brought them into harmony with modern times, so Cresci had already done the job half way and I could start from there. Another problem was and is that when you start designing a typeface you normally spend a couple of months experimenting, although in this circumstances you have to go straight into production. There is always a danger to redo one of your earlier designs. I am very grateful that this did not happen to me because I think that in a way Capitolium is a very modest type design. It is not an imperial and imperious typeface.”


However, Gerard’s main problem seems to be legibility. Therefore, he was always greeting so much about legibility and legibility research. “I am here at this conference discussing about legibility with Mary Dyson and other people because I still have lots of questions to ask.” So, “Is familiarity the answer?” I asked him. Gerard thought about it and replied “I am trying to make the basis of my type designs as conventional as possible. The problem with legibility research is that gives you no clues as a designer to improve the letterforms. Thus, the only thing that you can simply do is to experiment with the shapes. You should try to puss it yourself; stress the envelope as the expression is. You simply have to try out empirical design and research. Subsequently, research will confirm your ideas or throw them out of the window.”

His two approaches are firstly to enlarge the counters of the letters, and secondly to accept from the outset complete conventionality when it comes to the basic shapes. In the same time – it is almost a conflict – he is trying as much as possible to experiment with letterforms. Gerard remembers: “In the beginning of the eighties, a famous Dutch designer had said that serifs are ornaments. We can throw them away. Hence, I wanted to design a typeface, which has such big serifs that if we throw them away nothing will remain. Unfortunately, nothing had come off. It was a typeface named Cyrano, serifs like Cyrano’s nose! It has also been a version of Gulliver that was so experimental that it shaved space as no other typeface ever could. Imagine that compared to Times 10pts you could set 7pts Gulliver. It was amazing! It saved thirty present. At that time, Gulliver was so ugly and ungainly that nobody would ever use it. Consequently, I started to move backward to more conventional shapes while preserving as much experiment as possible. In Capitolium, on the other hand, I gave a slighter bigger x-height that I originally intended to do. In the beginning, the first version was rather dry so I made it a bit juicier. I gave it a bit more joy but then the Roman tradition is mainly imperial and authoritative so it had to be some of that in the letterforms. The lowercase also had to be Roman. Imagine my dismay when I was already quite far advanced and then I went to Reading to teach. I decided to take my sketches with me and show them to James Mosley. James said ‘yes, nice but there is some northern angularity in the curves’ and he was right. During that night I went through the whole design and smoothen the curves and made them much rounder.”

Gerard feels that most of his designs are very much Gerard Unger. “When I had already finished Capitolium I showed the result to Matthew Carter. He said, ‘very nice, very Roman, but also very Gerard Unger.’ You see I cannot escape from it! It is like your own personal handwriting. It is your own character, which comes out.” However, he believes that his next project will be invigorating and different. Besides, he has been thinking about it for a very long time. “I like to design a shapeless typeface. If you take some ink and drop it on a sheet of paper…reshaping it a little bit…ah!”

Michail Semoglou © 2002