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Akira Kobayashi
A Storied Career

by Allan Haley

Akira Kobayashi worked as a freelance designer at the beginning of his career, drawing original typefaces for the likes of Adobe, ITC, FontFont and TypeBox. The first chapter of his career ended a decade ago. In the spring of 2001, Kobayashi joined Linotype as the company’s type director. For the next several years, he devoted much of his time to three different sorts of typographic undertaking. He collaborated with Adrian Frutiger and Hermann Zapf in modernizing their earlier typeface designs; he created digital interpretations of typeface families in need of renovation; and, he drew custom typefaces for corporate clients. Kobayashi’s skill and design sensitivity contributed to the success of these designs—though the end commercial products were not solely his creations.

It is the dawn of a new creative decade for Kobayashi. For the last several months, he’s been working on a new, original typeface family—a dynamic fusion of organic and industrial design traits. More about this later.

Kobayashi knew that his first projects for Linotype would not involve drawing new typefaces. “I was told in one of my first interviews that I would be collaborating on updating Hermann Zapf’s Optima typeface family and perhaps other designs,” he recalls. “Of course I was delighted by the opportunity to collaborate with Zapf on a typeface design. It was his book, About Alphabets, that had first inspired me to draw Latin typefaces. To actually work with Zapf was a dream come true.”

Top: Two of Kobayashi’s favorite typefaces, DIN and Cooper Black, provided some of the inspiration for the shapes and proportions of Akko. Bottom, from left: Akko’s slightly curved diagonal strokes help to reinforce the design’s contemporary—yet friendly—nature. Akko’s capital letters are more space efficient than either Helvetica or DIN.

Kobayashi did not, however, anticipate that he would also get to work with another modern master of typeface design. “I was a bit surprised when I heard about the Avenir Next project and learned that I would be working alongside Adrian Frutiger,” he says. “This project went so well, it led to two additional collaborations with Adrian.”

For Kobayashi, a long-time admirer of Zapf and Frutiger’s work, his collaborative projects with the two designers were the highlights of his first years at Linotype. “I knew that Frutiger and Zapf were not entirely happy with the digital rendering of their classic typefaces,” he recalls. “Some had first been released as metal type and then the designs suffered from the constraints of later technologies.” Because he was so familiar with the original versions of the typefaces, Kobayashi was able to make suggestions in the early stages of the design projects that would take the existing versions to a higher level of design. He then carried out the massive task of recreating complete typeface families under the watchful eye of their respective creators.

The first collaboration, which became Optima Nova, was followed by the design of Palatino Nova and a companion sans serif, and then an enlargement of the Zapfino family that resulted in Zapfino Extra. Following these designs, Kobayashi began working with Frutiger in 2004, producing Avenir Next—which led to his work on Frutiger Serif and Neue Frutiger.

The focus of Kobayashi’s collaborations with Frutiger and Zapf was reinterpreting their classic designs, but he also had opportunities to draw complementary original character suites and to help develop a new typeface family. “During the Palatino Project,” says Kobayashi, “Otmar Hoefer, marketing director at Linotype, asked Herr Zapf to consider designing a new sans serif. Without hesitation, Zapf’s answer was ‘Why not?’” Decades earlier, Zapf had experimented with the idea of a sans serif typeface based on Palatino and his initial sketches served as the foundation for the new Palatino Sans design. “I was surprised that the design went so easily,” recalls Kobayashi. “Herr Zapf already had some ideas, and we used these as a starting point for the new design. The finished family, however, was quite different.”

Although well into their senior years, both Zapf and Frutiger were active participants in the reinterpreting of their designs. “Herr Zapf knows exactly how a character should be rendered,” says Kobayashi. “He would draw sketches for me to help visualize his ideas, and I would transfer these into digital renderings.

“Adrian, however, takes a different approach. He uses scissors to cut apart large proofs of the characters on paper. Then he rebuilds the letters using the pieces. Based on his reconstructions, I would modify the characters on my computer screen.”

The radiused stroke terminals in DIN Next Rounded softens the original design's industrial strength demeanor.

Kobayashi also recounts that neither master had lost any of his ability to visualize exceptional design, or to spot even minute discrepancies. Kobyayashi tells the story of one such incident. “At the end of the Neue Frutiger project, I was sitting with Adrian, with my laptop between us. Adrian was checking a final 24-point proof on paper and said ‘Akira, I do not think the lowercase o is centered.’ I checked it on my computer and he was right! The character’s left side bearing value was 61, while its right side bearing value was 60. At age 81, Adrian was still able to see the tiniest spacing difference!”

What did Kobayashi get from committing so much time to these collaborations? The answer is really pretty simple: the experience of being privy to the creative process of two masters of the typographic arts. Consider how it would be to work with, and learn from, a John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackson Pollock or Ansel Adams.

Kobayashi’s typefaces prior to working with Zapf and Frutiger were award-winning designs. His collaborations with these masters of modern typeface design, however, instilled a depth of understanding of letterforms and a level of sophistication that took his subsequent designs to new levels. Kobayashi has a mastery of the art and craft of typeface design that is shared by few of his contemporaries.

It’s also relevant to note that Kobayashi is Japanese. His cultural heritage, unlike that of the “newer world,” reveres their elderly and seeks knowledge and wisdom from its senior citizens. While Kobayashi hadn’t expected to work on so many modernizations with Zapf and Frutiger, he continued to learn at the side of these masters. 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.