He’s probably Germany’s most prolific type designer. He worked at international advertising and packaging design agencies before setting up shop in Munich, Germany. Just the same, he likes to go diving in Hawaii or can be found browsing the Paris flea market for samples of handwriting and lettering. Meet Gert Wiescher, a man of the world.
Gert, your biography tells a fascinating story of wanderings around the world, of meeting Salvador Dali in Paris and designing dog food packaging in South Africa. But how did you get into type?
While I was a student in Berlin, I met Erik Spiekermann one evening in a café. Erik was still at school then but he was already a total “typomaniac.” I must admit that at first I had no idea what he was talking about. To me in those days, uppercase and lowercase were drawers in my kitchen cabinet, and capitals and small caps were big cities and not so big ones. But Erik’s enthusiasm was, and still is, compelling. He sparked something in me right there and then in that coffee shop on the Kurfürstendamm. And then — maybe two years later — I moved into the same house with Erik, wife and kid. This guy had a complete printing shop in his basement, uppercase and lowercase, a press and what have you. That place was “type,” period!
Did you get an academic education in lettering or type design?
I was at the Berlin Academy for Fine and Applied Arts, and of course we had calligraphy classes and very good typography courses. I learned a lot about tension, about inner and outer space, about proper letterspacing. But again — without Erik’s constant advice and knowledge, all the well-intended typography classes would have been in vain. Erik taught me what to do with those theories in the real world. It was like having my private tutor right at home.
Your career as a type designer proper began much later, when your first commercial fonts were released in the early 1990s. What took you so long?
Sure, I started publishing fonts very late in my life. For a decade I was traveling: my friends were not surprised to get mail from me out of some obscure country. But all that time I had — and still have — this little black book in which I made notes about ideas for typefaces (and other things) in the form of little drawings or written descriptions.
After my traveling years I became a partner in an advertising agency, but I secretly kept drawing in that little black book.
Then along came the Apple LISA and the Mac. I realized that the times of sketching headlines for ads, which then had to be ordered from a typesetting firm, were over. I immediately adopted the new technology. I converted the fonts I needed into pixel versions using a forerunner of Fontographer — can’t remember the name [probably Fontastic – ed.]. In that way, I could simply type the headlines, which made life as an art director much easier.
One day in Paris I stumbled onto the Bodoni problem. All Bodonis that were on the market in those days had square serifs. But Giambattista Bodoni never designed a typeface with a square serif! After all those years, I wanted to give the world its first real Bodoni. Erik again helped by lending me Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico. And I adapted everything Bodoni had ever done, bringing his outstanding designs into the digital age. Some years later I added some decorative designs to my Bodoni Classic family.
When the first of Wiescher’s Bodoni Classic fonts came out in the 1993, there was nothing like it. Up to then, virtually all Bodoni revivals had been given clear-cut forms and square serifs. But Bodoni’s originals from the late 1800s were never as straight and simplistic as is often assumed: they had rounded serifs and slightly concave feet.
Wiescher digitized a wide range of Bodoni letterforms, including a wonderful script-like family called Chancery and a nice series of Initials. Having accomplished his mission twelve years later, he began making personal additions to the family, such as the more decorative Bodoni Classic Swashes.
Recently a useful little family was added to the clan: LaBodoni is sturdier and less optically delicate than most Bodonis, and therefore more usable as a text face.
When and why did you start your own foundry?
As could be expected, I published my early fonts, such as New Yorker and Bodoni Classic, at Erik Spiekermann’s outfit FontShop International as part of the FontFont library. I never cared much about what happened to the fonts once I had finished with the design. I just kept making new typefaces and stored them on my hard disk where they simply collected virtual dust. So I had been designing typefaces for many years before I started publishing them myself. Besides the Bodoni Classics, there were only four or five of my fonts on the market, while I was running my advertising and design agency in Munich.
Then one day, about five years ago, I became a victim of globalization. My biggest design client concentrated all his European design business in London and I was stranded with just a few small accounts that barely kept me afloat. So I had to change the way I earned my living — fast!
I remembered all those typefaces on my hard disk and started preparing them to be sold commercially. Amazing how many typefaces I found on my hard disk! I started offering the business through my usual channels, but there was not much enthusiasm. I figured that I had to start doing my own font marketing — regain control over my work. That is what I did and never looked back once I had sold my first font through the MyFonts platform.
Now I am the guy with the global business!
A few decades ago, you settled in Munich in southern Germany. What is so special about working in Munich?
I am a very restless guy, I love to be in a different place every four weeks, but I have two beloved sons in Munich who tame my roaming ambitions. My favorite places in this world are Munich, Nice, Paris, Hilo and Zürich, in that order! Munich is great in summer, Nice warms me in winter, Paris gives me lots of new input, Zürich is for that little extra bit of luxury and Hilo is where I meet good friends and do some diving.
Much of your work is based on historical material. What steps do you take in adapting and digitizing them?
Sometimes I find an entire alphabet, but that is rather rare. Mostly I find two or three letters, maybe a word or a headline that intrigues me. Then I make little drawings with overlapping forms to get a clear (or not so clear) picture of how that font could look. Then, bingo!, I sit down in front of my computer and design the basic 52 letters mostly in a single throw (usually right on screen). And then I forget about that font! It collects dust on my hard disk, gets overgrown with mold and starts to virtually smell. But all the time I think about it, juggle curves in my imagination and change weights. Then at some point, on a rainy day or at three o’clock in the morning, I sit down and try out all these workings of my subconscious mind. And then either I am satisfied or the whole thing starts over again. I never (or almost never) just digitize a given font. It is not a very interesting thing to do. The “almost” applies to some ornaments which I found I had to save from getting lost.
Bend it like Bickham! Ellida was inspired by the elaborate scripts of 18th-century English calligrapher George Bickham, with additional influences from 19th-century American calligrapher Platt Rogers Spencer.
Wiescher put a lot of effort into making the letters join in a natural flow: he called it his most brain-consuming script font so far. It combines well with his series of elaborate ornaments, especially Fleurons V. For those who like the font’s swirly elegance but prefer a rougher look, there is Xylo Script, a font based on the same sources but with a weathered woodcut look.
Gert Wiescher describes Cimiez as a “classical nineteenth-century French engravers’ typeface.” For a 19th-century face, Cimiez looks surprisingly modern. It has subtly flared strokes, which technically makes it a “glyphic” face — a latter-day Optima. However, it has a structural logic all of its own. Abrupt corners and disconnected joints lend the family an unconventional, saucy look; but when used in all-caps, it has a much more classic appeal. Cimiez comes in two variants: sans-serif and demi-serif.
You don’t seem to be the kind of person who spends years developing a huge, all-purpose text family. Do you envy designers who do have that kind of patience? Do you currently have any plans for text typefaces?
I want to develop “Pura” into a real big family; I already have a dozen new cuts in the works. My problem is not the actual design work, but the production. Naming and generating the actual files, spreadsheets, ads, font sample PDFs and all the rest is such a hassle that I simply prefer to make single cuts. But just yesterday I made an attempt at getting more know-how in the production field by attending a private class with someone who knows his way around FontLab. Very interesting. I learned a lot! Maybe one day I can talk my youngest son into doing that kind of stuff!
Since you began working as a designer in the early ’70s, a lot has changed, typographically speaking. Do you have moments of nostalgia for certain aspects of the good old days? Or wouldn’t you want to work in any other era?
I would really like to work in the future. I am very curious about what is going to happen to the world in general, and especially to type design in fifty years. Some things in type design and design in general were easier in the past, less complicated, more straightforward and not so time consuming. Today there are unlimited possibilities to change forms or make alternative weights — and they are sooooo easy to implement — it is no longer necessary to think first and design later. A designer can produce an endless number of variations and then choose what looks best. The problem seems to be that this process takes long and consumes a monstrous amount of time. Lost time, I call it. If you work that way, computers steal a lot of your time instead of saving time.
John Ayres was a 17th-century English calligrapher who produced superb, acrobatic calligraphy, samples of which were collected in instruction books such as The Accomplish’t Clerk from 1683. Wiescher digitized Ayres’ initials and combined them with a lowercase based on his elegant Ayres Royal. When less elaborate initials are called for, use Royal Plus instead, or check out the Royal Bavarian series.
In picking out what kind of design to work on next, are you guided by market behavior, by “fashions” that you perceive? In other words, do you sometimes choose to work in a specific genre because it is what the public wants?
Well, to put it quite bluntly: I live off type design. So of course I react to the market. If I design, for example, Fleurons and customers buy those all of a sudden like crazy, it is only natural that I give those clients more Fleurons. Other than that, I simply design the typefaces that I fancy. Or like I said earlier, I finish ones that have ripened. I pretty much do what I want, one day it is a blackletter and maybe in the evening I work a little on a text face, the next morning I finish a script or whatever. Only in cases when I really experience an explicit demand in the market do I try to fulfill that demand. MyFonts fortunately gives me enough information to immediately see which font picks up in sales, which makes it easier to react.
In general, how does MyFonts compare to other retailers on the internet?
I don’t normally tend to rave about anything. But MyFonts is absolutely f#@%$ fantastic!!! If it wasn’t for MyFonts I couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able to publish all of my fonts. Once I have finished designing a typeface I want it to be on the market as fast as possible. It takes MyFonts an average of two days to do that, whereas I have retailers that take a whole year for the same job — and I am not talking about small retailers in a remote African country. MyFonts is simply the best, friendly, reliable, fast, efficient and they give type designers a really fair deal.
When I mentioned to Erik Spiekermann that I was interviewing you, he wrote: “[Gert] is the fastest designer I have ever met. Whatever he touches — illustrations, photos, ads, fonts — he gets them done in hours.” Do you think of yourself as fast? Do you think your speed influences your style?
I try to excuse that “need for speed” I have in me, by saying that I generally am a lazy bastard who wants to get the job done as fast as possible just to be able to be lazy again. But the truth is that I am absolutely concentrated when I work. I don’t see or hear anything (for example I don’t listen to music while working) so I get results very fast. As to the influence on style: in some instances I make decisions a little too fast but I don’t see any effect on style. Since I have started to let my fonts “ripen,” speed doesn’t influence the design quality.
First digitized in the mid-1980s, New Yorker Type was one of Wiescher’s earliest efforts at redesigning a classic typeface. Based on the alphabet used by New Yorker magazine, it is an homage to the magazine’s seminal art director and illustrator Rea Irvin. New Yorker Type was made the traditional way — not by scanning it, but by having a close look at various printed samples and then redrawing it completely by hand. In other words: New Yorker Type is not a direct copy, but a reinterpretation of Irvin’s great headline face.
Both Annabella and Brigitta are based on letterforms written with a Japanese brush on rough watercolor paper. The two joining classical English scripts were first scanned and then finished by hand on screen, taking care to keep the “rough” touch.
Annabella and Brigitta are complementary fonts that can be mixed freely.
You recently created Autographis, a special foundry for handwriting fonts. Where do you find all those styles of handwriting? And why did you decide to create a new label?
I can write in many different ways. I can combine two or three scripts into one and I find old scripts that I change into a new one. It is good fun and I find script fonts easy to design. No kerning!!! I find old scripts in old newspapers and in flea markets. The Paris Marché aux puces is as good as any other market. Oh, and I look at the writing of friends and change that into a font.
As for the new label: when your name starts with a W, you get used to always being called last in school. So when you get older, you know it is a pretty good idea to have a second name that starts with a letter from the beginning of the alphabet. Hence: Autographis!
If you had a message to your colleagues in the type world, what would it be?
Like in every trade there are many people that take “their thing” too seriously. Type is very important to transport content, and it is a significant aspect of our culture, but it shouldn’t dominate one’s life. I have a friendly request to typographers who still dream of, and live in, the past of lead type, who keep repeating that the good old rules of typesetting are too often ignored: Give our young people a chance, accept them, teach and guide them, but please let them do their own “thing.”
That is a wise piece of advice, Gert. We’re looking forward to seeing that collection of Wiescher fonts grow and grow and…
Gert Wiescher has designed so many ornament packages that it is impossible to list them all here. One of the most successful is Floralissimo, based — like most of his other ornamental fonts — on vintage material from old books and catalogs. The flowery ornaments are an elegant addition to any design that is meant to exude romance, nostalgia… or subtle irony.
Who would you interview?
Creative Characters is the MyFonts newsletter dedicated to people behind the fonts. Each month, we interview a notable personality from the type world. And we would like you, the reader, to have your say.
Which creative character would you interview if you had the chance? And what would you ask them? Let us know, and your choice may end up in a future edition of this newsletter! Just send an email with your ideas to [email protected].
In the past, we’ve interviewed the likes of Christian Schwartz, Dino dos Santos, Jim Parkinson, Mário Feliciano, and Underware. If you’re curious to know which other type designers we’ve already interviewed as part of past Creative Characters newsletters, have a look at the archive.
The Creative Characters nameplate is set in Amplitude and Farnham; the intro image features Ellida and Bodoni Classic Chancery (also used for the pull-quotes); and the large question mark is in Farnham.
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