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Underware came to my attention last summer when Posterous announced that users could customize their blogs using Web fonts through Typekit and Underware’s cheery and voluptuous Bello charmed me at first glance. Founded in 1999, Underware’s designers Akiem Helmling, Bas Jacobs and Sami Kortemäki all work from different cities—Den Haag, Amsterdam and Helsinki, respectively. In addition to their collaborative designs, they also teach workshops and are cofounders of Typeradio.org, which features interviews recorded at various conferences worldwide. Recently Jacobs gave me a virtual tour of this very 21st-century virtual studio.

Browse Projects

Click on an image to view more from each project

CA: What are your backgrounds? Did you each study type design?

All three of us got our art education somewhere else (Akiem in Mannheim, Sami in Lahti, myself in Maastricht) and afterwards went to the Royal Academy of Arts in Den Haag to study type design. That’s one of the two schools worldwide fully dedicated to teaching type design. We met there and started working together on projects while studying, which was so much fun that we just continued our corporation after we graduated. It was a very natural process and all of a sudden Underware was born. After we graduated, Sami returned to Finland and, after another couple of years, I moved to Amsterdam—that’s how we ended up in three different cities. Working self-employed allows you to live where you want to live; the work itself can be done anywhere on the globe, as long as you have an Internet connection.

CA: I assume you collaborate using e-mail and chat?

There’s no standard procedure and there is no standard division of roles. Our process has a strong natural drift and swings differently every time. It's hard to explain, but it's very logical to us. However, there is one condition for our process: it should always create synergy. For example, when two Underwarriors have been working damn hard to get from A to B and are very happy with the end-result, you can bet that the third person will react, “Hey, cool, looks nice...as a starting point.” The first two take a deep breath and then we all continue our road from B to C, might end up at S, or somewhere else. Who knows? So, if collaboration makes sense, the outcome is always something nobody could create individually. I believe that’s always the case with us.

CA: Do you regularly get together in person?

Not often enough. Every now and then we take a weekend off, get together, warm up the sauna and drink a beer. We try to plan this a couple of times a year, but easily it gets postponed because of (enter any good reason here). Thanks for reminding us!

CA: When did Underware start to earn enough money for you to each live on?

In the beginning we worked 24/7. Sometimes in night shifts, just to get our self-initiated projects done. Nobody was waiting for them, nobody knew us, but we desperately wanted to do them. We had just finished studying and hardly needed money, therefore we had the freedom to spend massive amounts of time on projects that didn’t bring us any. Nowadays, kids and mortgages don’t allow this anymore. Luckily we still spend most of our time on self-initiated projects. The only difference is that we can make our living with them.

CA: I would think it would be difficult to become millionaires being type designers!

Name one type millionaire...(I don’t know any).

CA: Let’s talk about some of your fonts. Bello is a script typeface, very much like jolly sign painting. What was the initial inspiration for Bello?

Bello derived from our own logotype. Sexy sign painting to the max. Bello was meant to be eye-catching, sexy and damn well-crafted.

CA: I am guessing Bello has been a very popular typeface?

It’s funny that once a typeface has been released it starts to live its own life. A life you couldn’t imagine. Packaging, posters, billboards, magazines, publications, logotypes.

Very recently there have been lots of articles about Ireland’s economic crisis in the European newspapers. I saw a couple of these articles in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, NRC (the Netherlands) and some other publications, all using a picture of Maser graffiti as the main editorial illustration. Maser is an Irish graffiti artist, based in Dublin, who creates massive pieces of text in public spaces. His texts vary from “Your back streets are my pride and joy” to “Greed is the knife and the scars run deep.” Apparently these texts are poetic and metaphoric enough to represent the current economic crisis. A coincidence is that Maser really loves Bello and uses it in almost all his artwork. Therefore Bello has been very prominent in recent European newspapers and has become the visual representation of Ireland’s economic crisis, which is weird and something we couldn’t have imagined a couple of years ago. Hopefully Irish designers won’t blame us or start to hate us soon...

We might get our inspiration from yoga, Karelian pies, riding bikes and waves, watching clouds, Spätzel, culture in its broadest sense, any kind of subculture, jumping into a hole in the ice, German sausages and a relaxed sauna."

CA: Your newest typeface Liza takes OpenType architecture even further towards evoking a hand-drawn quality. You call it a “live-script typeface,” with over 4,000 characters and automatic features for varying repeated characters in a string, for example, the word dawdle will have two different drawings for d...

And if you would continue...“dawdledydee” has four different ds.

CA: ...or generate multiple, custom ligatures. How intensive was the creation of Liza?

After working on the font for three years, Sami sent me an e-mail with the “final beta version” attached. After that, it still took us two years to release the final font, so that beta wasn’t really beta. Altogether the development of Liza took five years. I have 2,000 e-mails in my Liza mailbox and the folder with all Liza files is almost 1GB (a typeface is ± 300KB, so calculate the amount of beta versions yourself). Crazy. We’re very bad at finishing stuff, as we always keep developing new ideas. This project just never seemed to come to an end. When we were almost done, we got the idea of the “out-of-ink” feature, which simulates that you're out of ink while sign painting and you would have to dip the brush into your inkpot again. Cool feature, but it meant we had to draw new glyphs for all letters and rewrite the code of the complete typeface, another two months of extra work. As long as we think a new idea really adds value to the final product, we do it. No matter the stage of development.
CA: Your Web site offers lovely PDF specimens for each of your fonts, but the ones for Liza are especially tasty, perhaps because your subtitle for Liza is “lettres d’amour.” Even your specimen PDF “Liza Pour les Connaisseurs”—in which you explain in nerdy detail how to do a GREP search in InDesign—is like a sexy billet doux. Did this project bring out your feminine sides?

Well, la langue d’amour is of course French. Once we start to write French, well...it’s inevitable that you write sexy, charming, lovely and sometimes erotic words. It's not in us, it’s in the French language. Vous parlez Français?

CA: On your site, each font is profiled in text and image, from the “making of” story to final features and specimens, including a few case studies–further in-depth articles about the process. In “Randomness vs Cleverness,” you write a bit about creating Liza’s OpenType variants. In the end, is the OpenType magic as much fun for the type designer to create as it is for the end-user to use?

The end-user doesn’t need any knowledge. The user can install Liza and directly start working. Everything works automatically. Easy and simple. The reason we wrote this case study was that nobody actually knew what exactly was working automatically. There are always people/freaks/appreciators interested in this. We spent those five years on the development of Liza and people asked us often: What were you doing all that time? Only when we explained the details of all the OpenType features and how they interact with each other, did they understand what kept us busy so long.

CA: Dolly is a beautiful serif typeface. It reminds me of Trump Mediaeval, although Dolly has a cursive italic and not an oblique like Trump. But like Trump, it is very readable in small point sizes, with strong serifs guiding the eye easily across a line.

There are aspects of Trump Mediaeval that I really adore, like the exaggerated serifs and shapes. However, I think they weren’t always applied in the correct place and right way (like the lowercase “e”), and therefore the typeface could have been much better. Dolly also has some exaggerated shapes, but applied on different places, therefore supporting the readability much better I believe. And yes, it’s very readable at small point sizes, because of its relatively dark body combined with its low contrast.

CA: Where do you get the inspirations for your typefaces?

Inspiration...mmm, we get this question more often and sometimes I wonder if a musician gets this question as often as a type designer. Maybe it’s because, for an outsider, it looks like there is little room for creativity within type design?

We might get our inspiration from yoga, Karelian pies, riding bikes and waves, watching clouds, Spätzel, culture in its broadest sense, any kind of subculture, jumping into a hole in the ice, German sausages and a relaxed sauna. We also appreciate our daily chocolate, especially Nutella. All this keeps us going. Yesterday I went to the Botanical Garden and saw two very beautiful plants, with unbelievable shapes. Unheard of. Really amazing.

Regarding type design, all this matters. Call it inspiration. But of course, within such a conventional area as text typefaces, you also need to have knowledge about the history of type design and typography. I won’t deny that this knowledge can also be inspiring.

CA: Underware runs type design workshops at typeworkshop.com, giving attendees very creative projects. In the one held in Bergen, Norway, in 2008, for example, the assignment was to "make letters out of liquid" in five hours. How did you get started holding these workshops and how do you come up with the assignments?

Mostly we get invited by an art academy or conference to host a workshop. Depending on the amount of time and participants, we define a project for a workshop. We try to come up with a new project every time, to keep every workshop interesting for ourselves as well. The starting point is always a personal fascination. This we convert into a workshop project. They are always lots of fun.

For example: segment numbers are interesting. We do some custom jobs for big corporations every now and then, creating custom segment fonts for very specific cases. But we also took this once as a starting point for one of our workshops: Segmentwriter. Although the outcome of our workshops looks maybe more playful than our own work, there is always an overlap because it starts with the same fascination.

CA: Underware designed new logotypes for MyFonts.com and Daimler AG (formerly DaimlerChrysler). How did those projects come about and what was it like to work on them?

They were both very different. MyFonts was very free, very open, very wide-angled. Basically we had carte blanche, and anything was possible. I remember some proposals where the logotype was built-up out of sausages. This is nice, because it stimulates us to go beyond the ordinary, beyond ourselves actually, and not only surprise them, but also try to surprise ourselves—which we really like to do. Daimler was the opposite: Our proposal was part of a pitch, the complete process was very streamlined into conventional paths, big agencies and many internal departments pushing the proposal into more mainstream directions. But the scale and the kind of organization connected to those big scales was definitely an interesting experience.

If you translate a visual medium into an audio format, black-and-white information gets transformed into spoken language."

CA: Can you tell me about some of your favorite clients for your custom work? Recent ones would be good, too.

Unfortunately I can’t tell too much about our current projects because of non-disclosure agreements. I can mention two previous jobs that are very much opposites. We did a segment number job in the past, for Suunto’s extreme sport watches. I believe we succeeded there in finding a right balance between the technically maximum amount of segments (less segments = less possibilities), but still having a visually strong, unique style. Suunto also applied these segment numbers in their other products, which makes me believe they were convinced too. Segment letters are always a nice typographic puzzle. With a certain, limited amount of elements one has to be able to create every letter and number. Additionally, these segment letters should have their own style and identity, being different than the average, mainstream, classical segment numbers. These segment numbers will be an important part of the client's brand, so having a distinguished style is very important. For a designer this is a big challenge because it has so many limitations.

That project was a very nice job to work on; it had strong limitations and it was concrete. It’s almost the opposite from creating a logotype for MyFonts for example. That was open, very intuitive, and actually really nice to work on as well. We’re in the luxurious position that we also say no to projects if we think they don't fit us. We only work on projects we like and we believe we have an added value. If other people can do this job better, we tell them and guide them to other designers. That’s a true pleasure and much more worthwhile than becoming type millionaires... ;-)

CA: Underware cofounded Typeradio.org, which features interviews and lectures about design that are recorded at various conferences around the world. You have a motto: “Type is speech on paper. Typeradio is speech on type.” What inspired you to start Typeradio?

In 2004 Underware approached Donald Beekman and Liza Enebeis with the idea of setting up a radio station at the Typo Berlin Conference—72-hour micro FM station and live-streaming broadcasting. We had no idea of the format except that the subject of broadcast was type design. We also had no experience in radio broadcasting or interviewing, but that was never an issue to stop us from going ahead (to say the least it made us a bit nervous).

In advance, we researched the speakers that were invited to the conference and devised a set of questions. Jingles were specially created for Typeradio, we had 200 small radios with the Typeradio logo and 20 hand-drawn posters by Underware with slogans inviting people to listen.

At the conference we were given a room with an Internet connection where the makeshift radio station was set up. We set ourselves up for live streaming through the Net and with the use of a transmitter also broadcasted through a micro FM station which meant that everyone attending the conference and within 500 meters could listen to us. About twenty radios were placed around the building, including toilets, and they were all tuned in to Typeradio 92.7 FM. This meant if you were not in one of the lecture rooms, you could still listen to our interviews. We also sold the small radios so you could sit outside and still listen. One of the best compliments we received was that one designer said he didn't want to leave the men's toilet because he wanted to listen to the whole Mathew Carter interview.

We made appointments with the speakers and started interviewing—our first interview was Stefan Sagmeister. Between each interview, we played music that had some relation to the alphabet, e.g., “Alphabet Street” by Prince or we asked designers to give us a list of their ten favorite songs.

We had such a positive reaction from the listeners. We kept receiving e-mails about how they really enjoyed listening and how could they get a hold of the interviews (podcasting was not yet available).

Typeradio is not only interviews. We also have organized a number of workshops with students. And in 2006 we began doing live performances-which we like to call shows: a mixture of interviews with special guests, performances including the Legendary Colour Girl, Electric Mustafa, the translating Bear, typeface impersonators and more. In 2007, we introduced the first column by Lidewijde Paris and are always on the lookout for more contributors.

These shows and workshops gave us the opportunity to work different people, which makes Typeradio a lot more enriching. Interesting collaborations are always welcome. Regarding the future, Typeradio is always evolving, we never imagined, in 2004, its current state. We are continuously thinking of new ideas for projects. At the moment apart from regular interviews, we are planning the next project: Type Legends, a series of in depth interviews with designers that have made an overwhelming contribution to design.

If you translate a visual medium into an audio format, black-and-white information gets transformed into spoken language. “Yes” and “no” gets translated into “maybe, “not sure,” “let me think.” Defined language turns into personal interpretation, written signs get replaced by human personal language. This brings new perspectives for visually-orientated people. If you haven’t got anything to look at, but only audio information to listen to, you are automatically forced to make up your own images. ca

Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at designsharp@angelynngrant.com. In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.

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