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Five Young Typeface Designers and Their Former Careers
by Allan Haley

You don’t necessarily need to start your career as a typeface designer—to become one. Erik Spiekermann, for example, had been an internationally-known graphic designer for many years before drawing ITC Officina and Meta. Max Medinger was a salesman prior to creating Helvetica. Ed Benguiat was a critically-acclaimed drummer, and Adrian Frutiger a promising sculptor, before they began drawing letters for a living.

Today, Julia Sysmäläinen, Rob Keller, Cristóbal Henestrosa, Hannes von Döhren and Berton Hasebe are all young designers who have already created some exceptional typefaces. Four of the five will tell you that they had other plans before embarking on careers in the typographic arts.

Berton Hasebe studied graphic design at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. “I was fortunate to be able to take a few undergraduate level courses in type design,” he recalls, “but it was only after working for two years as a graphic designer that I realized I wanted to design type. I applied to the Type and Media master’s degree course at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague.”

Berton Hasebe’s typefaces were designed to fill stylistic gaps. Alda is a unique soft-serifed old style design while Platform, a sans serif, takes its cues from Art Deco letterforms.

Rob Keller’s decision to pursue typeface design came to him at almost the last minute of his college education. “Although I had used type in my graphic design projects, the idea of creating typefaces never occurred to me until the day before graduating from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana; Hermann Zapf was being awarded an honorary doctorate and he gave a presentation to the graduating graphic design students. Something in his talk made me realize that typeface design was for me. It was an epiphany moment. I began drawing letters, reading every book on type that I could get my hands on, collecting type specimens and spending hours on type-devoted Web sites. I was hooked.”

Cristóbal Henestrosa studied graphic design at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and says that his studies helped him to appreciate beautiful forms—but not necessarily letters. It wasn’t until he began searching for a topic for his bachelor’s thesis that typeface design came into his life. “I was researching the history of Mexican graphic design,” he recalls, “and I discovered a man named Antonio de Espinosa who was a type designer in Mexico in the sixteenth century. I knew about the work of Baskerville, Bodoni and Garamond, but did not know there was a Mexican counterpart to these important typeface designers. My thesis focused on Espinosa and I even made a digital version of his typeface.”

Berlin designer Hannes von Döhren studied graphic design in college, and his first job was in a large advertising agency. “I began to create fonts just for fun,” he says. “None of them were good enough to sell, yet neither were they so bad that I trashed them-so I began distributing them for free. After a while, I figured that I should learn to make good typefaces so that I could sell them.”

Julia Sysmäläinen is the exception. She has been fascinated with type since childhood. “I grew up in a bilingual Finnish-Russian family and learned to read and write Latin and Cyrillic script. It was just natural for me to explore the similarities and differences between the two writing systems. Years later, when I went to college, multilingual typography became my main focus.” Sysmäläinen now works at a Berlin branding firm that specializes in typeface design.

“In addition to my client work, I am interested in pushing the boundaries of typeface design,” Sysmäläinen continues. “I am studying the interplay of language, handwriting and digital type. I see this as a challenge and I’m looking forward to exploring new typographic territory.”

Henestrosa also works in a studio where type design fills his day, but he prefers client work to experimental projects. “I like commissioned projects because there’s a brief you can refer to,” he says. “If I am working on one of my personal typefaces, I need to make myself a set of guidelines. I work better within limits. I begin by finding a theme, a genre or an idea that interests me. I can get somewhat obsessed with these ideas—thinking and reading, talking about them—and looking for existing type designs with a similar feel. Eventually, I sketch a few characters to see if the concept has a future. If it does, I continue.”

Gemma, from Rob Keller, is an informal sans which, in addition to the standard Latin character set, has Greek and Cyrillic letters, small caps, ligatures, a suite of dingbats and a bevy of additional typographic features.

Hasebe takes more of a business and marketing attitude toward his new designs. “I try to fill stylistic typeface gaps,” he says, “or to come up with a design that can bring a new tone or character to an application.” This has been a good tactic for Hasebe. His typeface Alda was awarded the 2008 Judge's Choice from the Type Directors Club in New York. In the same year, Alda was also selected by the Tokyo Type Directors Club for inclusion in its annual publication. Haley
Allan Haley ( is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.