Open-source: on letters, business and politics.
Velvetyne Type Foundry is a perfect source of free and surprising typefaces. They are in use in graphic design projects all over the world. The design activity of Studio Triple, led by Jérémy is pushing the boundaries of what was already done with letters and shapes. When preparing for the interview for Formy Magazine on “Open-source” I was sure that Jérémy should be my interlocutor about the type design industry, creating tools and politics.
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First of all, how did it even happen you are in the typographical world? Was it via graphic design on the other way around?
I entered the typographical world in a very classical way, through my graphic design studies. Our teachers had us deliver a 60 pages type-dedicated sketchbook during the first holidays and it hooked me. I couldn’t stop drawing type once I started.
The best first step to learn how to design fonts?
I find that observing and drawing by hand what you are seeing is one of the best ways to learn and understand a lot of type concepts. Some things are better taught by others, but for this first step you can be quite self-sufficient and still learn a lot!
What’s the most exciting thing about letters-making?
Since I released my first open-source font I realized the very most exciting part of drawing letters comes afterwards, when people use your fonts and you discover these uses. There are few things comparable to discovering a book featuring your font in a bookshop.
Are you able to design and code your own tools for type design?
I’ve learned some basic Python coding with Roberto Arista passed “Coding for designers” class and loved it. Since then I customized or hacked some existing scripts a few times, but never really created a proper tool from the ground up. Still, some of my projects would have been such a pain in the ass, or just would have taken way longer if I hadn’t created/modified these simple tools.
How much of that, meaning digital tools making, do you think will be important for the future of graphic design and will we ever be able to even consider type design as a fast industry?
Regarding how the industry is evolving, and how people are keen on jumping from one proprietary tool to the new one, I don’t think that the majority of designers are keen on making their own tools. And maybe that’s not sad. We can see today that this utopia, shared a lot in the open-source world, of every user making/modifying their own tool is not going to happen at a large scale tomorrow. That being said, type designers are a special crowd and are more keen on having control over their tools. And I’m very much pleased of how even proprietary type design softwares became more and more hackable and have a galaxy of open-source tools surrounding them.
Sliders, axis, masters – how do your clients experience these?
Some clients are confused by the new variable fonts paradigm and prefer to stick to the fixed instances concept, while some other ones really like to finer control or the animation possibilities brought by VF. I guess it’s a very case by case question and depends on the individual.
How do you approach clients for custom typography?
Where is the point of – aha, my company might have it’s own letter shapes and this will be great – does that happen?
I have to say that I (too) rarely approach clients in general, and even less for custom type. But when I did or do it, it’s often through a graphic design mission, very much if it’s for a brand new identity. Then it’s quite easy to state that drawing a custom font would make sense in the broader corporate identity project. Easy to state but harder to convince and to find a budget for it. Still some companies understand how having a custom font do the heavy lifting for their identity will save so much energy and work in the future.
Since 2011 you are contributing to the Velvetyne Foundry, how would you sum up these 12 years of experience?
I think that Velvetyne is the backbone of my type career. I regularly think that without Velvetne, and without the person of Frank Adebiaye, I might not have stuck to type design. The beginning of my career, like for many young designers, was not easy and type design was not fitting there as a way of earning money, which is a crucial question when you are young and poor. Having Velvetyne allowed me to keep the practice and also consider it besides economic questions. Type is time consuming, so it’s never profitable from day one. Evacuating the question of money (at first), allowed me to keep the fun parts of type design, e.g. the drawing process, but also the releasing phase. Velvetyne also helped me build and belong to a community which still follows me today and is one of my biggest support in my professional life. And my entering into the bigger professional type design community happened through Velvetyne at first too.
Did you ever encounter anger due to the open-source activity of yours or the Foundry?
We did way more in the first years. People were way more afraid of free things back then, and piracy too. Now they understand that discounters can cause as much economical damage as free options do, and that big actors of the market have much more power over them than we do. It’s been a while, I think, that I didn’t receive a direct critique for what we do at Velvetyne from someone else in the type industry.
Open-source fonts as a marketing solution?
Yes and no. Maybe when there were so many of them it was true, but nowadays there are so many (open-source) fonts than releasing one won’t necessarily bring any light upon its author, and then any marketing profitable consequences. At Velvetyne we own quite a big audience due part to our longevity, and this can lead to some beneficial consequences for our authors. But again, most of the time these happy moments happen a long time after someone releases an open-source font, so I wouldn’t count on it.
Digestive is probably one of the most extraordinary and outstanding typefaces in contemporary graphic design. After its release, would you ever experience the “oh-no-they-used-it-again” moment and do you have the most surprising/unfitting usage of the font?
Haha thanks!! Honestly I haven’t stopped experiencing surprise each time I see Digestive being used. I’ve flabbergasted by how wide was the spread of this font that I thought as something very personal. I never thought it would talk to so many people. The lesson is gave me was that I should try to be as true to myself and create very personal things as it seemed that people liked them.
I think the most surprising uses I got for it were evangelical churches and christian rock bands in the US deciding that Digestive was the perfect font to tell their message. And there were quite a few of them. As a non-believer myself, I found that very funny.
Are typefaces political and how much of it is storytelling?
The answer to this question is simple: everything is political, so typefaces are too. There is no way to create anything outside of context, outside of our society, and our society is political, so everything created among it, is political. Now fonts can be political for plenty of different reasons and some fonts might be more political than from other ones. Among what can make a font political, I can think of these: who is making fonts? who can access type design education? who are made fonts for? who have access to fonts, and who use them? who and what is a font inspired by? What are fonts used for (the message)?
When releasing a new font, you can decide to not talk about such topics, or you can decide to bring it to the front of your font “marketing”. So then, yes, it’s storytelling. And sometimes this storytelling can become bigger than the story itself. But I feel that we are far from having covered all the political intrications between type design and politics. This should be a dedicated article if you want my point of view.
If you compare designing letters to other activities, what would that be?
I don’t understand
What is contemporary graphic design about?
Is it about anything at all??? I feel that the field is too wide to be able to circoncize it in one single answer.
How do you explain what is your job?
It depends of the audience. The difference between the French and German general public understanding of type design is very different, for instance. But I mostly tell that I draw letters and then I sell the right to use them. And sometimes I draw some specifically for some clients.
Is sketching still part of your process?
Sketching is still definitely part of my process although I could sketch more. I find that a lot of original or surprising ideas come from sketching, or even better, brainless sketching. The particularity of my sketchbooks compared to some of my peer’s is that they are very messy and rough. They are merely a tool for me and my sketches don’t need to look good. They need to help me understand a shape, or discover one. Once this is done, I move to Béziers curves.
Is creativity about routine-making?
It is, it’s also about time, so about finding time, or making time. We don’t find new ideas without spending some proper time struggling. And that’s something painful, and also easy to forget. In our contemporary times fuelled with speed, novelty and medias, spending, or loosing some proper time to try to find some ideas and maybe failing is something difficult. That’s when a routine can help. When one frees some daily or weekly time dedicated to creativity, one might more easily find new things.
I remember at some point in time the foundry’s website was down to put some light on an ongoing issue in your country – can you tell the readers’ some more about this happening?
This happened twice. There were these big social movement in the context of the reform of the pension system in France, strikes, demonstrations, and we were asking ourselves what could be our contribution. The first time was in end of 2019-beginning of 2020 and the second time was at the beginning of 2023. As (precarious) freelancers, which most of Velvetyne members are, it’s hard to know how to be part of a social movement. Striking will hardly be seen. So we had this idea of shuting our website down to raise the awareness of our audience on this issues and show our support to the movement. If they really wanted our fonts, people could find them elsewhere on the net (on GitLab, on some font libraries websites…).
I will republish here part of the text we published on our blog after re-opening our website in 2020. It’s interesting to read it again today as it hasn’t lost any of its relevance, which is quite scary:
The social dialogue
If we have decided to be on strike for the first time, it’s also because it seems that the social dialogue is stuck in France as in a lot of countries worldwide. Strikes and demonstrations have been an historical part of the democratic dialogue in France for about a century. But our latest governments have started to repress these movements with an automatic violence.
In order to perpetuate this violence, the police is making good use of some (pretty recent) war weapons: hand grenades, tear gas, LBD40 (https://maintiendelordre.fr/). The use of these weapons by the police against the people is legal in France in certain contexts. We could question these laws. But that we see is that the Police is not even following their own safety rules for the use of these weapons. Rubber balls are being shot towards the protestors’ heads, hand grenades are sent above the crowd; the illegal use of these weapons has frequently resulted in demonstrators injured for life or sometimes even killed protestors or bystanders. For now, not a single of these illegal uses of the violence has been condemned by the justice system.
According to journalist David Dufresnes, since the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement (11/2018), the violence that the police has repeatedly exerted (against every public demonstration since then) has led to more than 870 reports of police brutality, leading to 2 deaths, 319 head injuries, 25 blinded eyes and 5 teared-off hands (source). Again, none of these acts have been condemned by the French Justice, while several international organizations such as the United Nations are condemning the French Government because of its use of violence against its citizens.
Even so, the French government is denying the existence of any police violence and it’s accusing the demonstrators and the society in its whole to be violent (see the point of view of president Macron about this question). This is not the point of view of the United Nations and of several associations like Reporters Without Borders, who have accused the French government or are suing it for its use of violence.
We are fully aware that France is not an isolated case and that this increasing of the violence of the states in so called democracies is a world-wide problem (Chili, Hong-Kong, Liban, USA…) and our strike fits in a global contest of a crisis of the social dialogue between states and their citizens. We would like also to acknowledge that these acts of violence aren’t exactly new and were already perpetrated in the past on the more vulnerable inhabitants of our country (POC, immigrants, women) without further reactions from us, the safe ones.
Any designer or artist you admire?
A very difficult question as I admire so many people and making a list feels always so reductive. (I’m a bit too lazy to answer this question, sorry)
Is Berlin the ultimate open-source-culture city?
Is it? If so, I have no idea about it! I’m still not connected to all the social spheres of this city I moved in 4 years ago and specially don’t know so much the open-source subculture here. Maybe I should!
What changes do you observe in the city?
There is a scary wave in the city, which I feel is also the case in a lot of others cities in Europe. To put it shortly, the staggering increase of rents, the housing crisis, and the increase of the cost of living is forcing a lot of artists to move away. Berlin, which was an eldorado for artists, creative people and musicians since the wall fell is now pushing them away. People just don’t manage to find flats anymore, or none they can afford, and are also kicked out of the flats they have, which has been my case 2 years ago. This is very crazy and is going super fast, and will cause great damage to the creative scene here if nothing is done.
Recommend a book or a musical album that could be a surprise?
The Argonauts from Maggie Nelson, a very musical book about becoming a mother. A true surprise.
Duistre Kamers from De Ambassade is an album I listened a lot in my first year here in Berlin and will always be linked to my moving here, this first flat and what happened there.
Jérémy, thank you for taking your time to answer these questions.
Velvetyne Type Foundry
Studio Triple – Fonts In Use