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Akira Kobayashi
A Storied Career

by Allan Haley

Two non-collaborative, but totally original, typeface design projects followed Kobayashi’s work with Zapf and Frutiger. Kobayashi’s next design projects would be solo revivals of two Linotype typefaces.

The Eurostile typeface was first drawn as a cap-only face by Alessandro Butti, with help from his assistant—the then quite young Aldo Novarese—for the Nebiolo type foundry. The typeface, when released in 1952, was called Microgramma. The original design was in use for the better part of ten years, at which point a more mature Aldo Novarese decided to add the missing lowercase to the typeface. The completed design, renamed Eurostile, was released in 1962.

When Kobayashi began to study Eurostile, he found several design flaws and inconsistencies in the phototype versions that had been perpetuated in the succeeding digital interpretations of the design. The result was that the once elegant and stylish Eurostile had become downright frumpy—and was in need of a makeover.

Counters were designed more open and Eurostile’s original slightly curved strokes were reinstated in Eurostile Next.

To begin the process, Kobayashi disregarded the digital and phototype versions, basing his work on specimens of the original handset metal fonts. “Novarese carried the curve of the shoulder in characters much further into the straight stroke in his original designs,” explains Kobayashi. “Regrettably, the technicians that developed the first digital fonts allowed straight lines to dominate their work. The digital Eurostile had rather awkward curves. It was poorly rendered with too many straight lines. This was not Novarese’s intention. The version I drew has fuller curves, which are faithful to the original design.

“The capitals were also noticeably heavier than the lowercase in the original Eurostile,” continues Kobayashi. “These created uneven typographic color when more than a couple of words were set. I adjusted the cap stroke weight so that the capital letters no longer dominate and have a better-balanced relationship with the lowercase.”

Developed during the early 1900s, din is the original “industrial strength” sans. Its name is an acronym for the Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardization), and it was first used to identify railroad cars. Although DIN was the standard typeface for highway signage, house numbers and engineering applications for decades, it was not popular with graphic designers until the late 1980s.

Kobayashi’s design, DIN Next, is much more than an enlarged version of the original family. He included several subtle, and a few not so subtle, enhancements to the basic design. He rounded the corners as a nod to DIN’s past (many of the signs set in the original were cut with routers) and also drew a “rounded” version of the design. “I have always had a weakness for round sans,” he says. “Maybe because I grew up in Japan, where hand-drawn round sans serif types used to be very common...the default choice for public signs when I was a schoolboy. Hand-painted messages like ‘keep off’ or ‘staff only’ were usually drawn in a round sans style in Japan—probably because Kanji characters with rounded edges are easier to draw than squared endings.”

Although he is thoroughly immersed in digital technology, Kobayashi starts the design process with pencil and paper. “I always draw sketches on paper, normally drawing about ten to twenty characters by hand before I begin working on my computer-then the rest are designed on screen. When I’m satisfied with the control characters, I sometimes scan the drawings and trace them digitally. Just as often, however, I'll design directly on screen, referencing my sketches as I go.”

However, letter drawings are only one part of Kobayashi’s design process. The space surrounding the letters is also of primary importance. “When I am more or less satisfied with the letters,” he says, “I group them together to form words. If combinations of letters appear awkward, I adjust the spacing through character redesign or kerning adjustments. Both are time intensive, manual processes. Sometimes it seems that I spend more time worrying about white space than I do designing the letterforms.” Kobayashi believes that the success or failure of a typeface is a question of a good balance of white space inside and outside the letters—as well as the letters themselves. He designs type with an eye on its end use as typography.

Kobayashi’s latest typeface design is clearly not the result of collaboration—nor is it a revival of an existing typeface. In 2010, he began working on a new, original typeface family. “It started out as a sans serif type with an ‘out of focus’ look to the letters,” he recalls. From there, the design evolved into two families, Akko, which is robust and structured, and Akko Rounded, which is softer and friendlier.

Kobayashi reflects, “Akko is a melding of several sans serif typefaces I designed in the past. My weakness for Cooper Black had shown up in ITC Woodland. When I drew TX Lithium, in 1999, I had aimed for a new form of a ‘techno’ look. I also liked the ‘industrial strength’ appearance of DIN. I was thinking of these earlier designs when I began to sketch Akko.”

Both Akko and Akko Rounded have simple, compact letter-forms, making them economical in terms of layout space. Kobayashi also paid particular attention to the design of the character counters and places where strokes joined. The subtly curved diagonal strokes of characters like the A, V, K, v and y ensure that there are no “dark spots” in text copy.

In addition, Kobayashi drew a suite of ligatures to accompany the standard characters. “I made c-t and s-t ligatures to add a historical context to the family. I also drew c-h, c-k and s-c-h ligatures for the setting of German.”

When asked about present and possible future projects, Kobayashi said, “I’m working on a custom design that requires a plain sans serif. The client has been using Helvetica and other sans serif typefaces, but now wants a new solution so that they can have a unique—but still conservative—typographic tone of voice. I also have a handful of sketches for new designs. Some of these ideas have been around for a while, but I haven’t had the opportunity to develop them. It is high time to review these. If one or two look promising, I will explore them further.”

Kobayashi’s work with Zapf and Frutiger, and his explorations of classic sans serif designs, produced important, valuable typeface revivals. Now he is moving on to the next phase of his storied career. CA 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.