He is one of those type designers who taught himself the craft by making experimental geometric fonts, then traveled a steep learning curve by continually challenging himself. Within years he was designing highly original, beautifully drawn typefaces, and winning awards. Several of his most striking faces were published by Fountain in Sweden. He still releases work with them, but some years ago launched his own one-man label, operating from Lisbon, Portugal. Among his side projects is a series of splendid videos he designed and directed to accompany his typeface releases. Meet the multi-talented Rui Abreu.
Rui, you studied graphic design in Porto, Portugal. Would you say that Porto’s visual and typographic culture has nourished you?
Yes, I am originally from Porto and I graduated there, though I live in Lisbon now. Porto is a very charismatic city visually. The city’s old trading activity is still visible on many storefronts, so lettering and type are part of the urban landscape. That probably did have some influence on my typographic disposition.
The Lisbon cityscape is heavy with history, too: the architecture, ornamentation and lettering reflect a past of trading and banking, but also government, baroque art and religion. Has this influenced your attitude as a type designer?
I certainly think I’ve been influenced by the city and its character. Many of its aspects are difficult to translate in typographic terms, but the city’s general aesthetics, specifically the late gothic and baroque ornaments, and the definite presence of literature and books that one feels in Lisbon, all have worked as stimuli for me. Lisbon’s trading connections with exotic parts of the world, its historical role as an important maritime gateway and a certain poetic inclination all contribute to an eclectic and peculiar cityscape. This shows up in architecture, in decorative arts and lettering, but if this points to a possible Portuguese sensibility in type design, or whether that is visible in my designs, I don’t really know.
Who taught you how to design type?
My beginnings in type design were very much self-taught. When I was studying graphic design, I did not have a specific typographic discipline, but in the last year of the course I did develop a type-design-related project. This was my first attempt at designing letters, and it got me interested enough to later try designing complete fonts and submitting them to T-26.
Abreu’s latest, Grafolita Script, is a casual script typeface that evokes a handwritten aesthetic yet doesn’t attempt to disguise its machine-made origins. The characters have been designed with a degree of uniformity so that seamless connections are possible without needing ligatures or special alternative characters, making it a great choice for web designers and users of office software. Its three weights have been carefully balanced so that different size settings will retain an even weight when set together.
Less than eight years have gone by since your earliest fonts came out. Your skills have developed very quickly since then, resulting in a diverse range of high-quality, highly original fonts. What did it take to get from one stage to the next?
The early fonts that were released by T-26 in 2006 form the basis of my learning how to design type. I began with a modular approach and with geometrically constructed letters. It was a way of learning about letters, and getting a better understanding of the software. Around this time I started working as a full-time designer in an advertising agency, so my interest was in making different and expressive fonts that might enrich my graphic design. I wasn’t embracing type design yet, it was merely one of my interests related to communication design.
There was probably an increase in my dedication to type design when I moved to Lisbon, although I was still working in design and advertising agencies. I designed Orbe (among others), which was released by the Swedish foundry Fountain.
Orbe was a very different project from the previous ones. With the earlier fonts I felt I got a grip of the tools, and made attempts at complete families; with Orbe I challenged myself to design the most beautiful letters I could. It’s a single display font, and so I wanted to take all the time to achieve the best possible shape for each individual letter. It was with Orbe that I first learned about the importance of the counters of the letters, the “white space” — which is the biggest epiphany I remember having since my first designs. Orbe also got me wandering through typographic history, not entirely consciously, since the design was made very intuitively.
The awards and praise the font received made me want to persist with that same level of craftsmanship and quality. I continued working with Fountain, wanting to do good work for a good foundry. With the typefaces that followed, I learned a lot from Fountain’s founder Peter Bruhn, whose opinions I value very much. I guess this helped me get increasingly serious about type, and designing new typefaces.
Aria, Catacumba and Orbe are all very striking and lively font families that seem to reference some historical style — although there is no specific model or example. How are these typefaces linked to typographic history?
Of those three typefaces, Catacumba is the one that is most directly linked to a specific model. The inspiration came from the catacombs of the São Francisco church in Porto. This is most noticeable in Catacumba Excelsa, a tuscan, while the other styles of the family are didones, or modern face, and are freer interpretations of the letterfroms in those inscriptions.
The motivation for both Orbe and Aria came more from living in Lisbon than from specific historical models. I guess the city itself — the monuments, museums and old book stores that abound in the streets I walk every day — all had a significant role.
In retrospect, Orbe was a concretization of a certain interest in medieval letter forms. The letters I had designed in school, years before, resembled the carolingian minuscule found in medieval manuscripts. Also, the book covers that most caught my attention in Lisbon’s second-hand book stores displayed lots of blackletter and Lombardic capitals, probably as a way of referencing the historical importance of Portugal. I also looked at pictures of medieval manuscript pages for the capitals and titling letters in order to design a complete alphabet.
Aria also had a historical basis. It was initially inspired by the epigraph of a nineteenth-century painting by João Cristino da Silva. The transitional-style capitals in that frame made me want to design a lyrical display typeface, probably reflecting the bucolic feeling of the painting itself. The lettering was in the transitional style, so it was natural to use Baskerville as a reference throughout the design process.
During the first years of its existence, Gesta was a mainstay of our Bestsellers list. A clean, economic yet friendly sans-serif, it stills stands out among the competition. Gesta comes in four weights with matching italics; its features include small caps and oldstyle figures, making it very useful for demanding editorial work. The recent Semi Condensed adds to the family’s versatility.
The basic shape for Foral Pro is the rounded square from which so many recent sans-serifs are derived; but in the context of a slab serif the feeling is not one of déjà vu. The squarish ovals lend the face a sutbly humanistic touch, resulting in a balance between cool, clean clarity, and friendly readability. Like its sans-serif cousin Gesta (the two work well together), Foral Pro is well-equipped for demanding environments.
A long term interest in medieval manuscripts and Lombardic lettering inspired Orbe Pro. The font is composed of decorative capitals that will be best suited to short texts or initials.
Those exuberant fonts all came out at Fountain. The families you published under your own label belong to more familiar categories: Gesta is an elegant sans-serif with a squarish silhouette; Azo Sans is a geometric sans with a humanist touch; Grafolita a stylish connected script. Each is a very sophisticated take on a popular genre. Is there an element of calculation in this? Or a personal challenge perhaps — how to add something personal to a populated category?
You’re right. Gesta, Azo Sans and Grafolita are takes on very popular genres; and yes, there is an element of calculation in that. Back in 2008 when I started Gesta I wanted to release a commercial typeface on my own, not only because I wanted to make a living with type design someday, but also because good sans serif typefaces are really hard to design. I think they present a great challenge, and if I wanted to get serious about type design, I would have to design sans serif families. There is something appealing in working with simple conventional forms. This could seem limiting in terms of artistic expression, since they come with conventions you can’t break. However, the challenge of designing a good typeface is to somehow exceed yourself and achieve something good within tight limits. Azo Sans, which is a geometric sans, is an example of such a challenge. Grafolita Script is probably a return to a more expressive work, since this would go well with the brand it was originally designed for, nevertheless had to be very legible and somehow conventional.
The exuberant display typefaces that came out with Fountain are freer designs with more space for expression, but their usage is much more specific. Nevertheless, Gira Sans, also a Fountain release, was a take on a popular genre as well.
Azo Sans is a delicately balanced geometric sans with fine optical adjustments and humanist details that soften the disciplined construction of the letterforms. Thanks to its alternate lowercase shapes (see the two ‘a’s in the first line above) the typeface’s look and feel can be varied considerably. Azo Sans is well suited to editorial publications, particularly when paired with its weighty titling companion, Azo Sans Uber.
You made a series of wonderful videos, some with your own music, for most of your typefaces. Have they worked for you as marketing tools?
I normally make a small promotional video for my releases. Ideally it’s short and simple, and can either be a sort of video specimen, or just a conceptual piece that at least delivers the name of the typeface, how many styles it has, OpenType features, and so on.
The idea is to have a new piece that can be quickly watched and shared. Since the business of type design essentially functions on the web, and the visibility of a release depends a good deal on its viral effect, it seems to me that an audiovisual piece is well suited to this. Another advantage I came to notice is that the videos continue to be watched on my Vimeo page, even when there’s no new release, which means that new people are getting to know my fonts, which is good even if they are very few. This is the theory, although I make the videos for fun rather than for objective goals.
Those videos suggest you have a broad range of talents — as a video director and editor, animator, 3D artist, printmaker, composer… so why has type design become your main occupation?
Until recently I’ve been working as an interactive designer, so those skills are connected to that. This interest in several fields has accompanied me since when I was studying communication design. I think my design course encouraged us to be multidisciplinary and develop a broader view.
Following graduation I kind of kept myself from specializing, but with type design I have started to focus my energy towards one thing, and trying to be good at that. The fact that I increasingly got more interested in type design, and eventually started working on it full time, has to do with my tendency to build things, and above all to draw. It seems to me that type design is a good thing to focus on, since it is a microcosm of everything else.
You recently voiced your concern about the trend towards large introductory discounts for new font releases. While it’s been the small foundries that have come up with this, not MyFonts, we do see some benefit: many more people now buy large families instead of single fonts. Why do you think the discount trend is worrying?
I’m not usually that up to date regarding the font market, so it was a bit off-putting when I first noticed so many of these near 100% discounts. Although I had already offered discounts too, and am not opposed to it, I wouldn’t be willing to go so far in my promotions.
I think that the huge discounts trend is a complex matter, and it’s really a philosophical issue: should MyFonts interfere by regulating the promotions in a different way? This phenomenon, or something like it, was probably bound to happen sooner or later, it just so happens it took shape within MyFonts’ promotions mechanism — but this is not the only place where things are changing in the type world.
It isn’t necessarily all bad though, maybe just a new stage. Small foundries and solo type designers have a way to get visibility for their work. There is always a place for good new ideas, beyond the realm of the established and influential foundries who set trends and are looked up to by both type designers and type users.
However, for me the problem is that an effect of this trend may be a decrease in the perceived value of a typeface. It is true that more people buy large families since there are good deals on the prices, but that also means that a typeface is something cheap, that may be licensed for as little as 10% or less of its price. Since a good typeface isn’t cheap because it may take years to design, this devaluing of the type designer’s work is a bit unsettling. Again, it’s a really complex matter, and it is up to the foundries to decide on their own strategies.
Gira Sans is a modern grotesque with a relaxed, playful character derived from its roots in Victorian jobbing display type. The resulting family is contemporary and practical, yet immediately recognizable thanks to its subtly quirky details. Those delightful, freeform curves and hooks belie a seriously tooled up font whose array of OpenType features mean it is well equipped for substantial typesetting duty. The family comes in seven weights — ranging from a slender Thin to a joyful, chubby Extra Bold — all with matching true italics. Gira’s well-balanced character shapes, large x-height, and generous proportions make it perform well in extended body copy. When used big, its idiosyncratic design details like the rounded dots and oblique cuts make it a charismatic display face. This versatile type family lends personality to editorial design and headlines, and can be used for a varied range of other typographic applications.
Aria Pro is a luxuriously crafted display face, drawn from an inscription Abreu discovered on the frame of a nineteenth century painting. Abreu calls the typeface “lyrical” — it is a font for headlines that sing their content rather than recite it in a neutral voice. Aria is expressive and musical, yet without becoming loquacious or bombastic — its economic and modest ornamentation keeps it feeling useful. We await its companion text family with keen anticipation.
Portugal is one of the southern European countries that have been hit hard by the crisis, with a third of young people unemployed. How hard is this hitting the design world? Is it an advantage for you to be a type designer working on a world-wide platform?
Yes, we’ve been hit hard by the crisis, and indeed it’s particularly hard on young people. In the design and advertising world that is felt too, of course, since medium and small clients cut back on their communication, budgets are lower, design projects are cheaper, and there is less planning ahead. But for some big companies, the crisis probably doesn’t even exist.
For me, I feel it is an advantage to work in a world-wide platform, since it would be hard to survive designing fonts for only local users and clients, not so much because of the crises — big branding projects still exist, and the need for type — but also because Portugal is a small country.
Many young people are interested in a career as a type designer. What would be your best advice to them?
Even though I came into type design directly from graphic design, and relied a lot on intuition, I think that an education in type design is a good starting point. My advice to new people coming into the field would be to not look too quickly for results. Designing a typeface is really hard, and if it comes out too fast, if it’s too easy, it probably isn’t that good. It still takes a great deal of time, even with all the amazing tools available to us today. The nicest way to use your time is to keep yourself in the company of good books. That makes everything a lot more interesting.
Rui, thanks for your wise words — we hope your work will become more and more successful.
The Portuguese atmosphere that Abreu talks bout in his work is most apparent in Catacumba Pro, whose letters are taken from painted inscriptions found in the catacombs of the São Francisco church in Porto. Like other designs by Abreu, the Catacumba family has various gradations of usability and exuberance. The Regular and Bold weights with their respective Italics form a small family of text and display fonts with a nineteenth-century feel and quirky details; the Moderata font is an accompanying titling face with three-quarter caps. The icing on the cake is the eccentric Excelsa, a series of heavily ornamented, incised capitals. While its usability is limited to work with a very specific brief, its effect is spectacular.
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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 Michael Doret, Laura Worthington, Jonathan Barnbrook, Rob Leuschke, David Berlow, Ronna Penner and Jos Buivenga. 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 Grafolita Script and Azo Sans Uber; the pull-quote is set in Grafolita Script; and the large question mark is in Farnham.
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