Underware are German Akiem Helmling, Dutchman Bas Jacobs, and Finn Sami Kortemäki. They respectively reside in the cities of Den Haag, Amsterdam, and Helsinki. Their work is among the most popular of up-and-coming independent type foundries — happy-go-lucky, high-quality, text-friendly typefaces for both display use and comprehensive typesetting. Underware’s typefaces stand out thanks to unique aesthetics, finished quality, and a considered collective presence.
The trio met while attending the postgraduate type design and typography course at KABK Den Haag. Currently, they work as a “virtual studio” from each of their home offices. The members unite regularly in one of their three base cities to hold a series of type design workshops and work together on their collective projects.
Their typeface families Auto, Bello, Dolly, Fakir, Sauna, and Unibody are available for extensive viewing, trial, and purchase from their website. Underware’s typeface designs have been honored by the Type Directors’ Club and awarded the TDC’s Certificate of Excellence in Type Design. Their work has been published in numerous typographic publications and books.
They keep busy, to say the least. They recently unveiled a new commission: a brand new punctuation mark to indicate irony within texts. They have also created custom typefaces for Suunto diving watches, modified their existing fonts for a few banks, created custom type designs for assorted cultural clients, taught type design workshops, and held down a long-established squatted building in the Netherlands.
Along with Donald Beekman and Liza Enebais, Underware created the micro-FM broadcast/streaming mp3 radio and podcast station Typeradio in 2004 — a lovely thing to listen to if typographically inclined and nerdy as hell for those who aren’t.
This is where there’d typically be a line about how Underware are “not your typical type foundry.” To put it more pointedly, they are hyper-motivated, crazy-accomplished, and super-skilled. These three fellows are creating unique work that is totally idiosyncratic, yet highly functional. And they are making a huge impact in the world of type design today, and by extension, graphic design itself.
For this interview, we talked to Akiem Helmling.
I don’t think there was exactly a key moment, but more a developing interest. You go to school, then choose a course of study (for example: graphic design)… and yes, then some people become more illustrative, some become Photoshoppers, and some are more interested in type and typography.
What kind of type projects did you pursue at KABK Den Haag?
Making stone cuttings, and making a revival of a typeface by taking old drawings as a basis. Programming with Robofog and making your own design tools. Tech stuff like introduction in hinting, delta hinting, defining an idea/need for a typeface and drawing the type. Making monograms.
What were the biggest “Aha!” epiphanies of discovery in your education?
Discovering the school of Den Haag and the Den Haag way of drawing type. That we had met each other and experienced the pleasure you can have by sharing ideas, knowledge, pain and suffering.
How would you describe the Den Haag way of drawing type?
Basically it is about the idea, that designing type is based on writing with a pen. And basically there are two different kind of pens (broad nip & pointed pen) and two different ways of writing (roman and cursive, or you could also say interrupted and un-interrupted, or formal and informal) All of this is explained in Gerrit Noordzij’s book The Stroke. (Excerpt of the draft of the book is here.)
How would you attempt to define and chart the liveliness that informs and lives within the lineage of Den Haag lettering and typeface design?
I think the Dutch way of making and designing type is very defined. It is very much based on the theory of Gerrit Noordzij. At least it is in The Hague. Of course there are also exceptions, like the work of Evert Bloemsma, which was much more theoretically based and brings different results. It is a pity that he died last year, so now there is no chance to see any new examples of this approach applied. But of course you can also see this in Balance, Cocon, and Avance. I think Americans make/approach type in a different way. More in a theoretical way. So perhaps you could say the strong point (and in the same way, maybe the weak point) of Dutch type is the fact that they are strongly based on writing with a pen; so that they have a highly calligraphic approach. And this calligraphic approach has a strong impact on contrast, forms, serifs, endings, loops and lots of other stuff.
What were the most influential pieces of instruction and advice given by your faculty?
The writing theory of Gerrit Noordzij, the “make your own design tool” idea of Petr van Blokland, “humor=good approach” from Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, “it’s all about details” from Frank Blokland, “type can be done with lots of stuff” from Peter Verheull & Françoise Berserik, and finally, “take care of each other” from Jan Willem Stas.
How much have you implemented your own software in your projects?
Hmm, I use it now and then. Like the Bello ligature tester software on our website. However, we can not compete in this with Petr, Erik and Just. They are the make-your-own-tools masters, but I think everybody does somehow make his or her own tools. Some on a small scale and others on a larger scale.
What type of lettering do you look to for inspiration?
I think this varies a lot. From India to USA, from historical to contemporary, from done-in-a-second up to lifetime work. Sorry for this kind of non-answer.
What typographic design from history do you find exemplary?
I think the easiest to talk about is, of course, one which you have experienced. So, here is one: 1992. Blur. I experienced this type as the starting point for display fonts. As hot it was, and as un-hot as it has become since. I remember seeing this font the first time at art school. Something like… uh, what is this? This is hot. I need to have this. As soon as you used it, your design looked so contemporary. I think this is a experience lots of designers/students had.
Did you ever use Blur?
Actually, no. I was making zines when it was in vogue and was obsessed with Letraset and doing everything in the technophobe Luddite cut and paste fashion at that time, working outside of the profession of design. I was self-publishing zines, and my only real concern was punk, D.I.Y., and comics. I do understand that period as a historical moment, though.
OK. As Fontographer got more and more popular, and more and more people knew how to work with it, it lost all it’s magic. Suddenly everybody (hmm… no, I should say more and more people) managed to do their own “Blur.” But in my point of view it was the starting point of the big trend for the display type movement — a trend which lasted as long as there was one Fontographer user in every agency who could make these types of fonts themselves. I find this design exemplary, because it changed a lot. Everybody got stimulated to put together their own stuff, which had a very positive effect on the whole situation. In the end, everybody knew more about fonts and finally understood why making a type like FF Scala takes more time then making Blur. It all gets more transparent and perhaps also more fair. In terms of “fairness,” I mean that people who spend more time on a typeface should also earn more than people who do spend less time with it. After people discovered that they can make their own Blur in 10 minutes, I can totally understand if they shout that fonts are too expensive. But of course font pricing is a long discussion. There is a lot of ambiguity which surrounds it.
What are the ideas behind the design of Sauna? What were your influences in designing the family?
Some years ago I was sitting in the cantina in the afternoon to have lunch with some friends. Out of nowhere came this Polish 1st year female student to our table full of guys and interrupted our lunch break by shouting to the whole table, “Akiem, do you know any sexy types?” Later on I found out that she had gotten this assignment from her teacher to find specific typefaces. But at the moment she asked the question, none of us could come up with an answer. That was the moment that Sami suggested creating a sexy type, and that was the moment when Sauna started.
How about with Bello?
Bello started with the idea to make type which is derived from writing with a brush. Bello has it’s origin in the Underware logotype.
How did you all come to two so very different formal results between the Bello Small Caps and Bello Script?
A script type is controversial to the idea of Small Caps. It is a question about how you treat the different styles of a font families. Are they all the same guys just with a different suite, or should they be brother and sister? As you can see in Dolly, the small caps are not just adjusted scaled capitals. The letterform shapes are different. Bello’s small caps, however, are very different. They come from the question, “What should small caps for a script font look like?” They have to be very different to work. Of course, you could also see Bello Script and Bello Small Caps as two individual fonts. We could have also named them Bello and Mello. (Perhaps we could have earned more money with this?) But naming them Script and Small Caps shows that they were designed to work together; it gives you more typographic possibilities.
When did you first start doing the type workshops?
The first one was in 1999 in Lahti. This was part of a type conference called Helvetivaextrabold organized by Ritva Leinonen. She did not ask any questions,and totally trusted us, that we could come up with something interesting. She was also the one who organized the big applied type workshops two years later. At this point in time, we started www.typeworkshop. com, and this was the moment when the workshops became more known.
What is your mission behind doing them?
The more you know about a subject, the bigger the chance that you get a narrow point of view on it. The workshop is a very nice experience. It wakes you up and refreshes your point of view. Perhaps there are some things which we know about type that the students do not know, but there are also lots of things that the students do that is totally surprising for us. Sometimes it is hard to accept their approach, but once accepted it can result in utterly unexpected and surprising work. For example I have to admit that I thought it would be a very stupid (childish) idea to make type with shopping trollies or books. But by the end I was totally convinced of the final result, and it is a very strong unique piece.
What have some standout moments been in doing the workshops?
Of course there are lots of them, but there are certain aspects, which I really enjoyed. In terms of the social aspect at the Signage Type workshop in Rotterdam at the Willem de Kooning Academy, when the students had to apply their sign-system type. They spontaneously decided to make a sign-system for the system operator of their academy. And even better, they also called the font after him: Cees. Looking at the picture will make it clear that the single style of the font had to be called Cees Bold. It was amazing what type can do to people. It was definitely a day in Cees life which he will never ever forget. Even now there is a smile on his face when I see him at the academie. And believe it or not, I thought it was a stupid idea to make a sign system for a system administrator… but now I’ve changed my mind. The power of cooperation at the Florence workshop was great! One week is very short to design a type and to apply it. Especially at art academies, these kind of projects tend to run for half a year or longer. Of course the types designed in these workshops are not final typefaces, more sketches than anything. But still… sometimes it happens that a group cooperates in a very euphoric way. And together they come up with these big public unbureaucratic works with a strong impact. Then there is the surprising aspect… Sometimes you are very, very skeptical about the things the students do. But if you shut up and give them the freedom they have the potential to come up with very individual convincing results. This was evident in the Stencil Type workshop in Detroit at the College for Creative Studies.
Why did you all, along with Donald and Liza, decide to start Typeradio?
Typeradio started with the invitation to TypoBerlin 2004. We were just really into work-shopping and thought TypoBerlin. The over 1000 type-interested visitors would create a unique chance for a huge type-workshop. A two-day type-workshop (or should I say project) where all visitors of the conference could join. To make a unique type work with the power of over 1000 type-nerds. But the more we thought about the structure and content of such a workshop/project, we came to the conclusion that there is little chance that people would attend — probably they would not feel like doing something or would not feel like joining such a project/workshop. They want to see lectures, get inspired, want to be entertained. This is what they pay for. They do not want to make the entertainment themselves. So thinking further about something which would benefit of this conglomeration of type-nerds brought us to the idea about making this radio station: to make a second subversive invisible layer, which is there all the time. Whenever you are sitting in a lecture and get bored, you could put on your headphones and check out what is on Typeradio.