An interview with type designer Kunihiko Okano

Ian: How did you first cultivate an interest in Roman lettering? When was it that you first became interested in lettering?
Kunihiko: While I was a student at Kyoto City University of Arts, I often made posters for the regular weekly curriculum. For type choices, I often referred to overseas type specimens, such as Letraset and The Monotype Type Library, but it was always hard to find one I wanted. I didn’t want to choose typefaces that would not go well with the graphic design that was already in progress. I thought it would be better to design the letters I wanted myself as I created all of the other materials for the poster – taking photos, illustrating, and creating symbol marks. Unfortunately the course didn’t provide type design or typography curricula at all, but fortunately, there was a Mac iicx with Illustrator 3 and Fontographer 3.1 in one of the classrooms. I started using it, drawing draft sketches, scanning them, and tracing them with Adobe Illustrator 3.1, then pasting outlines into the glyph box of Fontographer. I would revise outlines and apply kerning values, then generate fonts as needed. I can remember clearly when I saw a typeface I created on the screen for the first time. I could get all of the words whenever I wanted with my ownLatin typeface, so I plunged into making typefaces rather than posters. As my graduation work, I designed three typefaces with Fontographer and it won the Mayor’s prize in the graduate works exhibition.

I: What were your first steps commercially?
K: I am now working for a handful of Japanese type foundries as a freelance Latin type designer for Japanese fonts, but it took a long time to reach this position as a commercial type designer. I graduated from Kyoto City University of Arts, and unfortunately, couldn’t find that type of job when I graduated from the college. I took an examination for the postgraduate course but failed, and the economic situation there was worsening so there were few job offers. After a few months passed, I managed to get a job working for a small design office in Osaka as a packaging designer. While I worked in packaging, my love was to make logos for the packaging projects I was assigned. I had some ideas for different logos, then expanded them to font format. After working in the office, I spent my time designing typefaces every night at home. It was a very rewarding time for me. One day, I happened to get a copy of the issue of AXIS magazine that featured its redesign using the AXIS font that was exclusively designed for the magazine. It contained a small article on the background story of AXIS font. I was really interested in the article and the featured type designer, Isao Suzuki of Type Project. I emailed him and joined the type forum he’d opened on his website. After about one year of communication with him through the forum, I sent him my type design work to evaluate. He was interested in my work, and coincidentally was looking for a type designer who would be able to make Latin character sets. Akira Kobayashi, the type designer who had made the Latin character set for AXIS font basic had just left Japan to join Linotype and Suzuki had a plan to make the AXIS compact family – including condensed and compressed styles. It was a milestone in that the Axis family would be the first digital font that had width variations in Japan. Suzuki proposed that I design the Latin character set for the compact series. I continued working for the packaging design office, and after my regular work, I worked on Axis compact’s Latin character set every night, staying up until the early morning. During that time, I felt more and more that I should concentrate more on type design as a fulltime profession. Due to this, I left the packaging company and moved to Tokyo to join Type Project in 2005. It took around ten years to become a type designer, but I have no regrets. During my time working as a packaging designer, I accumulated a lot of know-how on the methods of making logotypes.

I: When did you become interested in calligraphy?
K: When I entered junior high school, my aunt gave me a Sheaffer’s calligraphy cartridge pen set in celebration. She seemed to think it was a standard fountain pen. The kit had a small reference sheet and showed an introduction on how to draw letters with a calligraphy pen that referenced ITC Zapf Chancery. I was really impressed – I’d never seen such beautiful letters before. Of course I didn’t know it was called ITC Zapf Chancery at that time. This is my first memory of calligraphy. After about a decade passed, I finally found ITC Zapf Chancery in the Macintosh and procured Hermann Zapf’s book. I wanted to know more about calligraphy.

I: How has it affected your work?
K: I learned a lot from the calligraphic method and techniques – just forming of letters, letter spacing, proper counter spacing/shaping and the necessary rhythm of vertical strokes. I learned the true relationship between pen strokes and letterforms and I always take care with that relationship when I design lettering and fonts. Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue calligraphy lessons due to an increase in workload, but I still practice calligraphy to improve my design skills.

I: Why did you choose KABK as the site for continued study (versus Reading or another type design program)?
K: I often get this question. There were some different reasons for applying to KABK. As much of my training is calligraphically-based, I wish to know more about how to develop letterforms by hand and how the strokes can be formed. I was interested in how KABK Typemedia teaches type design methods informed by the theory of writing. Second, to make digital font as a free- lance type designer, it requires not only design skills but also engineering techniques and acumen. When I made the AXIS Latin family last year, I had to do everything – from designing the letters using FontLab Studio to scripting Python to build the fonts with AFDKO. It was really tough and made me annoyed, especially the engineering process. I would have been unable to finish making the AXIS Latin family without some engineers’ help. I’d heard that the KABK Typemedia curriculum covers not only design skills but also engineering techniques such as programming and engineering processes. Some of the professors have developed font tools, and I thought that I should give myself the chance to learn these things. And last, I’m curious about the Netherlands. Few years ago, I got the Jan Middendrop’s remarkable book Dutch Type. I was very surprised to find that the Dutch had such a great history of type design and versatility of typographic form. The Netherlands generate such great design work and architecture, and I’ve always loved to see Dutch art, from Rembrandt and Vermeer 16th century still life paintings to Miffy (incidentally called “Usako-chan” in Japan) by Dick Bruna. I’m really interested in watching design work and fine art, and want to live in the Netherlands to get to know its culture and design more deeply.

I: What are you working on presently?
K: I’m going on making Latin parts for some Japanese type foundry but I’m afraid I can’t say anything about it due to client confidentiality, though it will bereleased next year. I am currently collaborating with Yoshihide Okazawa of Yokokaku, who previously worked for Jiyukobo, making a limited character set typeface (Japanese Kana and Latin alphabet only) to replace an existing Japanese font with a full character set. Our collaborative team is gearing up to promote this bespoke font and customize fonts for companies. If any companies overseas are seeking to open a Japanese branch, we welcome inquiries for custom Japanese fonts to complement corporate Latin font aspects of branding.

I: Chris Palmieri and I were recently interviewed by Web Designing magazine about @font-face and the future of fonts for the web. We were asked which Japanese type designers we thought would contribute most to shaping screen-based letters and creating fonts for the web with improved readability. Right after we were asked, Chris and I just looked at each other, nodded, and said “Kunihiko Okano” simultaneously and unequivocally. Have you thought much about designing fonts for screen?
K: I think screen-based media has infinite possibilities for displaying lettering and fonts dynamically and has a lot of unrealized potential. That doesn’t mean that a screen media is superior to the other media, as every media has specific intrinsic merits and characteristics. I continually hear people argue as to which media is better – screen or paper, but I think this is nonsensical dispute. I’m glad that you said my name but there are other, more innovative foundries more likely to develop type for screen-based media. Of course, that being said, I hope to be a type designer who contributes to type for screen media.

I: What correlations do you see between designing fonts for screen and the Driver’s Font project?
K: I have to say this is not solely my project. Driver’s Font was directed by Type Project in collaboration with Denso. I was just one of the project members when I was working at Type Project. The most remarkable feature of Driver’s Font is that the letterforms change based on the driver’s position and car speed. This function would be unable to work without using screen devices and it’s a great example of finding needs that previous media couldn’t accommodate. In this way, I believe we will develop new fields and appropriate fonts for increasingly sophisticated screen-based media. If you’d like to learn more, please check AXIS magazine vol.136.

I: What were your goals with Shotype Slab?
K: This font is originated from one of my graduation works. I’ve been designing this typeface for more than a decade. The Shotype Slab family is designed for magazine, advertising and packaging use. I hope to finish it as soon as possible and submit to type foundries/distributors overseas for retail sale at some point.

I: The Axis type family is considered by many to be the best current Japanese gothic font on the market today – what were your contributions to the Axis family?
K: After the AXIS compact family came out, I proposed to Suzuki that I make an AXIS Latin Pro family, as I felt that Japanese designers needed to have italic, small cap, and old style figures to set Latin-based texts with proper typographic aesthetics. With the rapid progression of internationalization and development of the Internet, we need to provide graphic design in Japan that covers Japanese and other countries’ languages in an integrated format.The result is that the AXIS Latin family is the first independent Pro Latin font set which came sprang forth from a Japanese font.

I: What are your favorite Japanese typefaces?
K: My favorite Japanese foundries are Jiyukobo and Type Project. In my opinion, they have completely different styles and activities. Jiyukobo aims for conservation and Type Project shoots for innovation. These two are the leading companies in Japanese type design, particularly in terms of design quality. I’m proud of having had opportunities to work on projects with both foundries.

I: What are your top 5 favorite Latin typefaces?
K: My top five favorite fonts will change in time. Currently, they are Trinité, DTL Dorian, FF Clliford, Mantinia, and FF Quadraat. Though, I’m sure the list will change soon.

I: What are your hopes for the future? What would you like to be doing in 5 years?
K: For starters, I’ll join the KABK Typemedia 2010/11 class this September. I hope to get great experiences and find some clues for the next stage in my progression. I hope to contribute to improving the design quality of Latin character sets within Japanese typefaces. Also, within these next five years, I hope to make a full Japanese font with Okazawa, then release it via Shotype.

This interview with Kunihiko Okano was conducted by Ian Lynam end of July 2010 in Tokyo for Slanted Magazine.

March 26, 2011

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

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