‘I decided to work only with typefaces designed by FLINTA* designers, a group whose work has been consistently overlooked’ – in conversation with Elisabeth Klement
Since the beginning of 2022, a variety of experimental fonts have been featured in the magazine of Metropolis M. With this series of interviews, we shed light on the design practices and innovative ideas behind these typefaces. First off, a conversation with our graphic designer Elisabeth Klement: ‘The typefaces I work with have a lot of character; they bring a vibe to each theme.’
Could you start by telling us about your process and considerations when you started designing the magazine?
‘I first encountered Metropolis M when I came to The Netherlands around 2008. It was quite impressive how the world in which you are studying was represented in print, at that moment it was designed by Julia Born & Anne-Sofie Thomsen. When I was approached by the editorial team about potentially designing the magazine, I was wondering whether I was the type of designer to work on a magazine. I have worked on long-term projects before, but never in the form of a series, which means you are constantly revisiting your design and working things out within it. It brought a lot of things to the surface for me about how I work and how I want to work. At the time my practice was shifting a bit already. I had been thinking about the power I have when it comes to what I bring into the projects I work on. From 1977 to 1992, the Heresies Collective [a group of feminist artists from New York] published: “HERESIES; A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics”. I was reading through one of their issues and in the introduction there was a part about architecture and space that particularly touched me:
Be it acknowledged:
The man-made environments that surround us reinforce conventional patriarchal definitions of women’s role in society and spatially imprint those sexist messages on our daughters and sons. They have conditioned us to an environmental myopia which limits our self-concepts […] which limits our visions and choices for ways of living and working … which limits us by not providing the environments we need to support our autonomy or by barring our access to them. It is time to open our eyes and see the political nature of this environmental oppression!
This really resonated with me and made me consider what building tools I use when making my design work. So when I started designing I was considering how to make a shift from what the magazine was in the previous years. Metropolis M is an institution that has a way of reinventing itself by working with designers that are quite exciting, but over the last years, it had become quite fixed in its form and position from a design point of view. So I wanted to invite my world into it.’
How were you able to do that?
‘Immediately one of the most important aspects to consider was: who are the people that designed the letters through which the magazine speaks? At this point, in my practice, I had made a decision to work only with typefaces designed by FLINTA* designers, a group whose work has been consistently overlooked in the narrative of type design practices. It took some time to build an archive and research what is out there and it is still an ongoing task. But it has been amazing to support people’s practices through using their typefaces and also how the editorial team at Metropolis M has included writing around the typefaces as part of the magazine now. I took quite some time to build an archive and research what is out there. At times it was pretty hard to find fonts. It has been great to be able to buy typefaces and support people’s practices.’
‘As a female student, I felt very excluded from the practice of designing typefaces. Now, as a teacher, I truly believe in the power of representation’
How come it is hard finding these typefaces?
‘I feel so much of the narrative of type design practices and education has been male-dominated. Thinking back to my studies in Estonia, the typography classes only featured typefaces by men, with only one example I now so clearly remember as a typeface designed by a woman (Zuzana Licko whose typeface I used in issue 5 2022 and the supplement in issue 6). As a female student, I felt very excluded from the practice of designing typefaces. Now, as a teacher, I truly believe in the power of representation. Seeing someone making work who you identify with is so powerful; it makes you realize that you could work in those ways as well. That is something I’m trying to do through the magazine design, as well.’
How is the archive of typefaces applied in the design of the magazine?
‘I realized that every magazine has a theme so I thought could it be interesting to tie a different typeface to each theme. Two set typefaces are used for the body and details in all the issues: Equitan by Diana Ovezea and Pirelli by Jungmyung Lee. Both of them are type designers living and working in The Netherlands after moving here for their studies. Then I use also a third feature typeface that changes with each iteration of the magazine, and supplements. It’s been really cool, but also a bit puzzling. There have been quite a few times when I’ve used typefaces that have an experimental nature. Of course, each typeface comes with its own set of rules like letter height, or spacing. This means you can’t format the layout too much, and each issue has to be specifically designed around the feature typeface with many adjustments. Coincidently, I felt that the contents of every magazine are so different that it needs to be hand designed anyway. Even though using all these different typefaces results in a lot of manual labor it suits my way of working. I often don’t use a baseline grid, for instance, as I think it closes down my thought process and makes designing less organic. One of my colleagues gave me some feedback on this project. They said that it was very inspiring to see that something that is usually perceived as concrete and rigid, can be developed into something so open. I think that growth is not always about becoming bigger or a more solidified institutional space, growth can also be the idea that something can take different shapes and open up to change.’
You are making room for the unexpected to happen. When it comes to working with experimental typefaces what were the considerations in terms of readability?
‘When you are making a magazine you have to make sure that it is accessible to the reader. The start-up scene has had an impact on visual culture making things look a certain way, more homogenous round, and evidently boring. Everything has to look extremely accessible and neutral, up to the point that everything ends up being pretty much the same without much identity. Some of the feature typefaces I work with could at times be considered difficult to read. However, they do have a lot of character and bring a vibe to each theme. When it comes to their legibility, this is something that the reader can take some responsibility for. Of course, I consider that it might take people some time or effort, but it is similar to figuring out someone’s handwriting. Once you made out how the letters are formed, you will be able to read them, perhaps just not at first glance. There is also a lot of learning and understanding of literacy happening through using these typefaces. This makes sense for a magazine like Metropolis M, which is not a thing of the first instance either. There is time you need to dedicate to reading it, and it can be with you from day to day.’
‘Once you made out how the letters are formed, you will be able to read them. There is a lot of learning and understanding of literacy happening through using these typefaces’
You also work as a teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, what are things you have noticed when it comes to type design practices?
‘There has been a shift towards what some people like to call “amateurism”. Students today realize that they have the power to design letters without necessarily having to adhere to the classical rules and history of type design. As long as you are a reader and a writer you have the potential to create a typeface. That is why I see many students engaging with it in a very open way, not only making new typefaces but making adjustments to existing ones, designing only parts of typefaces, or bridging illustration with type design. I think this is due to the fact that there are more and more places in which these typefaces can exist, and have validity to exist. While the professionals in bastions of type design might look at these developments with disgruntled reactions, I believe a more amateur approach to making typefaces should be taken as seriously as someone who dedicates ten years to making a single typeface. There is a nice movement happening around type design practices that are not according to the old narrative, with strong ideas of identity, history, and politics seeping through the letters that we use to write and read with.’
*FLINTA stands for Female, Lesbian, Intersex, Trans and Agender. It stands for anyone who is not a cis man
Elisabeth Klement works as a graphic designer and educator, and runs the Amsterdam-based art and design bookshop San Seriffe together with Pieter Verbeke since 2012
Ruby van Vugt
is graphic designer and writer