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ATypI 2003 conference, Vancouver, Canada, September 25-28. “Between Text and Reader”: meet, listen to lectures, view presentations and participate in workshops — all about type.

The Text, the Reader and a Lot of Fun: the ATypI Vancouver 2003 conference

by Adam Twardoch for*

ATypI’s conferences, held annually in cities throughout the world, give typographers and type lovers a chance to meet, listen to lectures, view presentations and participate in workshops — all about type. The 2003 ATypI conference was held on September 25–28 in the wonderfully located city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The conference program was put together by John Hudson and Ross Mills — two Canadian type designers who run their company Tiro Typeworks in Vancouver where they are, in the words of poet-typophile Robert Bringhurst, “living out Frederic Goudy’s dream”. The keynote speech and four plenary sessions were addressed to all 260 participants and took place in the Westin Bayshore hotel. Three remaining days of the conference, divided into three parallel lecture tracks, were hosted at Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. The conference organizers were certainly lucky with the weather — they could not remember such a warm September.

The main theme of the conference was “Between Text and Reader”, and that theme was a very well-chosen one. It was no less than the same Robert Bringhurst, who held the keynote speech on Thursday evening. He drove the audience to a state of contemplation with his strong sonorous voice, when he talked of “tangibility of meaning”, his lyrical, metaphorical definition of the “book”, and how we all lose by declaring as illiterate those forms of discourse which are not literally books.

Two design giants started Friday morning’s plenary sessions: Erik Spiekermann and Roger Black enjoy a rock star-like status. Both do large projects — Black designs newspapers, magazines and websites while Spiekermann excels in corporate identities and complex signage systems. So it was no surprise when both stars gave spirited and fascinating talks about what they do best: Black about newspaper typography and Spiekemann about “information design”. Scheduling Spiekermann after Black had a practical advantage — in the event of Roger running overtime, the organizers could count on Erik’s unique ability to deliver the same speech in half the time by simply doubling the speed (without losing any content).

Given that the everybody’s favourite young-rebels-on-duty, Dutch designers Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum of LettError, seem to have settled down a bit, time has come for the new generation to emerge. In another plenary session, international design team UnderwareBas Jacobs (the Netherlands), Akiem Helmling (Germany) and Sami Kortemäki (Finland) — presented their experiences of a workshop they organized: “Do it yourself type design.”

The last plenary session was delivered by the most elegant among type designers, Dutch typographer Gerard Unger. He attempted to discover the essence of the national character of individual typefaces. He analyzed the style of typefaces in already established typographic tradition (in France, Germany, the Netherlands, USA/California) and drew particular attention to the new trends (in Denmark, Mexico, Poland, the Czech Republic).

Friday evening could not come without an entertaining annual tradition: the ATypI auction, charmingly run by ATypI president Mark Batty, where conference participants bid for books, posters and other typographic paraphernalia donated by ATypI members. The income from the event supports ATypI’s budget.

On Saturday morning, Shelley Gruendler’s speech about Beatrice Warde, one of the most prominent women of the 20th century typographic world, attracted great interest. But Saturday’s hit was Kevin Larson of Microsoft Corp., who presented the scientific analysis of the way the brain and eye transforms information when reading text. The speech stirred up enormous interest among participants and led to a subsequent stormy discussion that continued after the conference on the members’ e-mail discussion list.

The problem of typographic conferences is the need to make painful choices between which lectures to attend: all the time, I had to decide which of three simultaneous tracks to attend. On Saturday afternoon I chose a series of lectures on Arabic typography, during which Yasmine Nashabe Taan, Nadine Chahine and Thomas Milo introduced the audience to the historical, cultural, graphical and technical aspects of this field. This series ended with a very lively discussion about Arabic typeface design.

Wrong is he who thinks that ATypI members attend conferences only because they want to listen to the lectures. Equally important is the opportunity to meet friends, chat, laugh and enjoy time together. An annual ATypI tradition is the gala dinner, which this year was held at the Bridges restaurant on Granville Island. Conference visitors enjoyed the excellent light food, and wine. Some engaged in discussions, others danced on the parquet floor. Later, the gala evening slowly moved to other parts of the city, to pubs, bars. The Westin security guards were rather unhappy to find as many as thirty people in one hotel room — I only had a short sleep that night, from five to eight in the morning.

On Sunday morning, new software applications were presented: Adobe’s all-new Illustrator CS, loaded with Unicode and OpenType, and new font applications by FontLab Ltd: TransType Pro, FontFlasher and Photofonts. Later, I enjoyed some lectures on international typography. Victor Gaultney of SIL International took me on “a journey through the world of accents”, when he compactly and convincingly showed the results of his research into diacritic characters. Gerry Leonidas of the University of Reading explained the problems in polytonic Greek design. Finally, John Hudson and Martin Mendelsberg allowed the audience to enter the mystery of Hebrew typography.

At the end, I felt that the Vancouver conference was an exceptional event — but in fact, I have the same feeling after every ATypI conference. Each time, it broadens my horizons, injects me with fresh knowledge and energy, but above all, helps me to make new friends as well as meet old ones. And, there’s always a “goody bag”, too! It includes a lof of printed material and special keepsakes, which made the loss of my luggage on the flight back all the more galling! This year’s hit was the conference mascot Shamus, a wild-looking guy inspired by early Canadian art, cast by Jim Rimmer on a block of 48 pt metal type.

I think time has come for ATypI to come to Central Europe (my own region of origin). In September 2004, ATypI invites you to Prague — the exciting capital of the Czech Republic!

Founded in 1957, Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) is a worldwide organisation dedicated to type and typography. ATypI provides the structure for communication, information and action within the international type community. More details can be found at

Adam Twardoch is typographic consultant at He specializes in international typography and OpenType font technology. He is ATypI coutry delegate for Poland and member of the ATypI Board.

* An extended version of this article was published in print in the Czech TYPO bi-monthly magazine issue 05/2003.

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