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Interview with Jens Gehlhaar

Jens Gehlhaar

Jens Gehlhaar is creative director at Brand New School — a production company based in Los Angeles and New York. The prolific and talented type-designer’s typefaces may be visually exciting, impactful, and a bit oddball, but few of his fonts are available commercially.

They are nonetheless ubiquitous, popping up in his on-air identity work for VH1 Classic, Fuel TV, and IMF. Before Brand New School, he worked as an Art Director at Wieden+Kennedy, ReVerb, Imaginary Forces and Dreamworks. He has taught typography at both CalArts and Art Center College of Design and received a myriad of awards: from an Emmy for television graphics, an ADC Gold award for directing, a TDC award for type design to an MVPA award for Best Effects.

Gehlhaar’s typefaces echo one of Eric Gill‘s sentiments about letterforms: “Letters are things, not pictures of things.” His often rough-hewn alphabets reflect their purpose — they are tools designed to communicate. Gehlhaar’s encyclopedic exploration into the form of the sans serif Roman letter in his MFA thesis at CalArts stands as a milestone in contemporary type design and is a testament to his work ethic.

His latest typeface, Capricorn was just released by Die Gestalten Verlag.

A gallery of Gehlhaar’s typeface designs are here.

When did you first begin to take an interest in lettering?

As a kid, I was always drawing stuff. My dad is a civil engineer with a passion for architecture, so by the time I was ten, I was designing houses as well as cars. When he brought home a Letraset catalog one day, I was hooked, and I realized that I had more fun lettering the captions than drawing the illustrations. I started to draw typefaces for my school’s newspaper and hand-letter posters for my band. I was going to be a graphic designer, specializing in typography. I had no concept that type design could be an end in itself: I simply designed type because as a graphic designer, I had no access to proper production means. Later on, I designed type because at the beginning of the desktop publishing era, there was only a severely limited amount of fonts available. Still later, I found myself designing type because all available fonts seemed to be overused or inappropriate. In all cases, I made typefaces for my own work, not necessarily with the intent of publishing them.

Where did you go to school?

I went through a program called Visual Communication at FH Niederrhein in Krefeld, Joseph Beuys’ birthplace. My undergraduate thesis was conceiving, editing and designing a culture magazine, for which I also designed two typeface families, Westpark and Blindfish (both 1992).

What made you decide to go to graduate school?

At the college in Germany, I felt intellectually under-challenged. There was one class I was crazy about — Design Theory — but that was all. It took me seven years to graduate, because I spent a lot of time making music, and because I had been asked to design the school’s catalog and wanted to finish that job before attacking my thesis. And the catalog ended up taking two years to get made. After I graduated, I went on to work for the little design studio I had founded with two friends. So, for the last few years in college, as well as in my own studio, I was always the most senior designer, and again, didn’t feel challenged by competition (certainly not by the kinds of jobs we had: regional advertising and a few magazines and album covers).

As for a bigger picture, I also felt that German design, with the exception of a few people in Berlin, lagged behind Dutch, British and American design, and I felt I lacked the conceptual abilities as well as the context to make the kinds of leaps that were happening in those countries at the time. I am describing the period between 1988 and 1994, when Dutch designers started to dominate the type design market, when English design generated stars such as Peter Saville, Neville Brody and Vaughan Oliver, and when American design from Cranbrook, Emigre and CalArts started to be known in Europe.

So after I had finished my undergraduate thesis, after I had broken up with a girlfriend, after I had visited a friend at CalArts, I applied there. While I was waiting for September to roll around, I saw an ad for a senior designer position at MetaDesign in Berlin, which at the time seemed like a dream position to me. I applied and was one of a few to be invited for an interview. When I got rejected, it was with the advice to go to California.

What were the biggest epiphanies of discovery before and during your education?

The first one would be art and music history classes in high school and design history classes in college. I am not sure whether this was the case in other decades, but at a time where postmodernism ruled the cultural world and every new wave seemed to carry references to older ones, cultural histories seemed to provide an endless supply of ideas to be inspired by, to rip off, to pay homage to, or to translate into another medium. This momentum hasn’t really stopped, in spite of a tiredness in the postmodern conversation. Of course, the idea to look at history for inspiration is not a new one. What’s new is the way we reference the old stuff — with techniques such as pastiches, irony, sarcasm, but first and foremost with a general disinterest in the cultural background of the reference.

In college, we also had a class called Design Theory, and it was by far the most inspirational one. It taught us some of those techniques, and it was at the height of the postmodern debate, the mid-’80s. At the same time, Neville Brody’s work with The Face magazine was canonized by publishing a cleverly written monograph. It tried to show how in conceptual design the concept dictates the outcome, not the visual taste of the maker. At the same time, it was obviously written as an afterthought, and it was clear that Brody did whatever he found cool, and Wozencroft analyzed it after the fact. The beautiful thing was that I realized that it didn’t matter, that the work can be both playful and imaginative, as well as smart and thoughtful.

Brody’s work also had a healthy attitude towards craft. Normal magazine art directors commission basically everything, from typefaces to illustrations to photographs. Brody did a lot of it himself – primarily type design – in spite of a certain lack of traditional skill. It taught me that it is really crucial to make some of the elements I am using myself, whether those are images, typefaces, patterns or simple graphic elements.

I really only realized most of this after I had gone through grad school.

What were the most influential pieces of instruction and advice given by your faculty?

Both came from Mr. Keedy. First, he taught us the methodology to use concepts as devices, not as end goals. If a concept drives the form-making, it should lead not to an avoidance of form as in so much “generic” design, but to innovative form. It’s also not worth a lot if the concept is visible — all it does is make its designer look smart. What’s cooler is if new form seems to come out of nowhere, and one way of achieving this is to use an invisible concept. I got this insight from Mr. Keedy, but also from Brian Eno’s scenarios for the making of Bowie’s “Outside”.

Another quote by Mr. Keedy has become my mantra, especially when fighting the revivalist tendencies of the last ten years. He said something like “Don’t imitate the present. Invent the future.” It is as important for students – who at first only try to make work as good as the stuff out there on the streets – as it is for mature designers, who might have given up searching for new visual languages and essentially reiterate what they’ve done before. Of course, conveniently, the idea of newness also happens to be the driving economic force behind capitalism.

What was the premise for your thesis project?

This is the original description of the project:

The CIA Compendium project is inspired by one of the basic questions of type design: How do the skeletons of the Roman alphabet really look like? What makes a G different from a C? Why are some lowercase [g]s double-storeyed and some single-storeyed? How much can you depart from the letter concepts learned in school and still remain legible?

A quick glance in a type specimen book shows that type designers have continually, and for a variety of reasons, tried to reinvent or to distort the shapes of the Roman alphabet. This is not just true for the obvious attributes like weights, contrast, presence of serifs, sloping angles or decorative elements, but also for the basic skeleton. With the Compendium project, I have tried to map out this manifoldness of skeletons, not in order to find an archetypal or universal form, but to celebrate the richness of our typographic heritage.

To be able to compare and contrast the skeletons of drastically different styles of typefaces, I had to remove everything that makes them so obviously different. I established a process of redrawing existent letter forms in the easiest way I could think of: as monolinear, upright sans serif letters with moderate optical adjustments to line widths. This separation of skeleton and flesh is pretty much the same process that led to the development of the sans serif in the 19th century. It also has been employed by Edward Johnston, when he based his London Transport typeface (1916) on Renaissance proportions, but rendered it as a monolinear sans.

I collected between six [I, H] and eighty [g] sketched variations of each letter of the alphabet, their sources ranging from 15th century italics to geometric display faces, from Art Nouveau oddities to Apple system fonts. The factor of interpretation in redrawing has been kept as small as possible to maintain the spirit of the original source. In some cases the character is still recognizable (which is part of the fun), in others the adaption led to a form far remote from the original.

Of the vast amount of this analog archive, I chose about 700 characters to digitize. This led to a typeface system comprising between five and ten different versions of each alphabetical and an-alphabetical character. All of them share the same physical proportions, thus making them ultimately mixable into single, extended or multiple alphabets. Beyond these basic values, there is no other consistent thread that connects the letters: neither a formal quality derived from a writing tool, nor a set of pre-conceived rules or technical restrictions, nor the unifying power of an individual designer’s expression — just a vast quantity of not connecting, discreet approaches.

For technical and practical reasons, the 700 characters were organized into five fonts, according to a variety of strategies. One font, CIA Humdrum, unites all the earmark characters of widely used sans serifs; another, CIA Earthworm, includes typefaces specially designed for Optical Character Recognition, for space-saving printing or for use with mechanical typewriters. CIA Dictator collects lettershapes oppressed by their designer’s desire to apply simple geometric principles to type design. CIA Dogsear is an upright monolinear version of the italics of traditional book typefaces, while CIA Antigill comprises anti-classical shapes taken form Art Nouveau faces, Letraset and phototpye display catalogs.

The structure of this family mirrors the same incoherent and nonsystematic relationship of the letters within one of the fonts. This leads to another set of questions about the notion of secondary types like italic or bold versions. Just like true italic fonts share the weight with the roman, but not the forms, can there be an even more drastic departure from the formal vocabulary determined by the roman? What if the “italic” font would not be an inclined and somewhat more casual version of the roman, but a more geometric one? And what if there wasn’t even a so-called roman, but just a bunch of bastards, of second cousins?

What type of lettering do you look to for inspiration?

Anything, everything. Ever since my graduate thesis, and certainly since I have been teaching, I look at any type that could be of inspiration. Even when drawing modular, geometric typefaces like the Pretension fonts, it’s good to know where the ball-shaped terminals are in Baskerville’s Romans. As a creative and commercial director, I obviously look at tons of visual material daily and constantly discover new old stuff. While all cultural history can serve as inspiration, over the course of my career, I have been mostly fascinated with popular culture from the 1960s and 1970s. My favorite type designers are graphic designers like Roger Excoffon and Aldo Novarese. Of all the traditionalists, of the ones who exclusively do type design and mostly revive or re-interpret, I like Matthew Carter the best, primarily because of his Bell Centennial.

What typographic design from history do you find exemplary?

Akzidenz Grotesk. Monotype Gill Sans. Antique Olive. Eurostile. Frutiger. I think that all five of these looked incredibly futuristic, modern and hopeful when they were released. Yet, in the best sense of Raymond Loewy’s MAYA formula, they were hugely successful as well. To me, that’s as good as it gets.

What are a few big typeface projects that you have taken on — in terms of size (for example the Laika family)?

In 1996, all graduate students at CalArts were invited to design an issue of Offramp, a journal edited by students at SCIArc. The issue’s theme was “Vernacular.” For the body copy of the journal, I offered to make a family that collects all the odd characters in Frederic Goudy’s 123 typefaces. Of course, Goudy isn’t particularly Californian (although he made the type for UC Berkeley), but at the time I associated vernacular with anything Americana, and Goudy is to me more un-European than even Morris Fuller Benton or Herb Lubalin. Anyway, starting the family from scratch, it turned out to be quite a challenge, since my classmates were waiting for me to finish the type so they can design their spreads. It didn’t help that I, for the same project, also reprogrammed a version of Alfasans (then called Cree Sans). I designed the accompanying italic more than a year later.

Laika had a more relaxed schedule. I had drawn a few sketches in 1994 when a friend asked me to design a font for a techno magazine. Over the next few years, I spent a few nights making the sketches into fonts and ended up using them on a few posters, as well as for ad agency BBDO’s worldwide website, designed at ReVerb in 1996. In 1998, Michael Worthington and Geoff McFetridge approached me to discuss a custom font for the next CalArts catalog. I showed them the old sketches from 1994, a squarish, not quite Humanist sans serif with a few signpainter-inspired quirks. They commissioned me to make it and gave me around three months to finish. The two of them started designing the catalog with FF Scala Sans. Although they would have been happy with two weights and their italics, I decided to draw a light and black and interpolate a few more weights in-between.

Another family I made on the fly was Brand New Sans. I drew two full fonts within three weeks, during work weeks and over the holiday break. I designed it for the identity for IMF (The International Music Feed) — a music television network. We had about six weeks to design and produce their entire online identity from scratch, and the typeface was just one of the things I argued myself into.

What are a few of your bigger typeface projects that you have taken on — in terms of popularity?

My typefaces are not published, nor very popular. A few old Grunge fonts are published through DsgnHaus in the US, and I receive an average royalty check of $50 per month. One of those, Cornwall was used as the main text font in RayGun for about a year in 1994, in its heyday. Of all my other fonts, I probably sold as many copies of Laika as of Precrime and Alfasans.

In terms of visibility, Laika is currently the most popular font: TV Guide uses it as the main text font, particular for its listings.

The coolest back story is probably connected to Precrime. I was asked to first handletter the logo of the eponymous organization in the movie Minority Report, and then, to develop it into a font. They hardly paid me any money, so I requested a credit instead which I never received. The production designer, Alex McDowell, had asked me to draw a semi-serif. Unfamiliar with how to do that, I designed a sans and a serif, and then chopped a few serifs off. I had a month to do it. It’s used all over the place in the movie, as part of the sets, as well as part of the digital interface designs. I am now married to the movie’s graphic designer, Dianne Chadwick.

Is there a defined lineage in the evolution of your type design work?

Apart from a few one-off headline faces and one rather conceptual serif, all I’ve ever designed are large sans serif families and their slab serif counterparts. All of them have started with regular widths and weights, which might simply mean that I am more interested in reading written language than in looking at letters. In addition, in all of my artistic endeavors (whether that is identity design, music or film making), I am interested in large systems and structures instead of little self-contained pieces, so I would never think of a typeface without thinking how to build it out into a family.

How did you play out your role as “typographic consultant” for the book co-designed with Anne Burdick which won the Golden Letter at the Leipzig Book Fair?

Let me first set straight that Anne designed the book. I only acted as typographic consultant. She had gotten the job to design a structurally very complex reference book about a satirical periodical published around 1900 in Austria (Karl KrausDie Fackel). Anne didn’t speak any German, so she asked me to help her through the first steps of understanding the source material for the book.

It also turned out that I could be helpful in researching and interpreting the specific German typographic quirks evident in the publication. Apart from still existing differences between German and English typesetting (the double s character ß, a different set of quote marks etc.), the publication was typographically quite adventurous at a time when the official type in Germany and Austria was blackletter, not Latin.

I then consulted Anne about historically appropriate typefaces for layers of historic text. For the layer of contemporary writing, I suggested one of my typefaces that is a reinterpretation of turn-of-the-last-century serifs — Alfaserif — then still called Cree Serif.

Any current projects that you are very excited about?

For the last five years, I have been working for an artist collective called Brand New School, where we primarily write, direct and design things for television. During this time, I have been able to start a few type designs for clients and develop them into useable fonts, but generally lack the time to take them to release quality. The latest in that story is a geometric sans serif called Brand New Sans, currently used as the identity typeface for Brand New School. I have still to properly finish all weights. Currently, I am drawing the italic. I am excited about finishing it.

September 21, 2007

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.

5 Responses

  1. trevor Says:

    great post. love to see / read / hear more thing from the design / commerical side of the universe!

  2. Condor Says:

    A powerhouse!

  3. Ian Says:

    The Games for Musicians from Eno can be found here:

  4. Maria Says:

    great writing by Ian! Jens career is one to follow.

  5. Joseph K Says:

    Thanks for providing selections from his thesis. Looks like fascinating work.