Tools and shapes of shared authorship

What routines do designers need to establish to implement Variable Fonts? And how could a new model of shared authorship support creativity and knowledge exchange? Verena Gerlach, Malou Verlomme and Fred Smeijers joined forces on a panel at TYPO Labs, hosted by Gerry Leonidas. The four discussed the current state of the industry, new tools, and working methods, collectively expressing their longing for the “good old” manual processes in a fully digitized world.

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by Matthias Kliefoth

Variable Fonts challenge work routines

In a time where digitization runs through every vein of our work routines – be it Design, VR/AR, Games – new technologies like Variable Fonts challenge the way we think and organize processes. Verena Gerlach, joined TYPO Labs with an insightful presentation on how to let students step into the universe of variable fonts. “I get lost intellectually at the moment with all the aspects and shifts being debated,” she confessed. But for Gerlach this isn’t a problem, “I see it as a chance. It’s a new time and we have to use the new possibilities of collaboration between font design and programming.”

TYPO Labs 2018

Panel discussion hosted by Gerry Leonidas (left). On stage: Malou Verlome, Verena Gerlach and Fred Smeijers (left to right), photo: Norman Posselt

“Let’s hand it over to the next generation.”

– Verena Gerlach: Type Designer and educator

During the panel on day three of TYPO Labs Verena Gerlach called for a shift in attitudes, for more freedom to reach new ways of collaboration when developing Variable Fonts. The type designer is well known for her open and inclusive educational approach, declaring: “Let’s hand it over to the next generation. It’s a question of attitude.”


Shared authorship: Holy grail or doomed utopia?

Fred Smeijers’ first job was at the dawn of the digital era, editing bitmaps. Nothing variable at all. With his artistic approach to type he created acclaimed fonts like FF Quadraat and was highly influential in moulding the first digitisation wave of the font industry during the 1990s. To release a font back then could be very lonely, he explained during the panel. But those times are definitely over. He agrees with Verena Gerlach, rubbing salt further into the wound. “It’s not easy to switch our mindsets. But I indeed think that this world of new type is more than just about the design. It’s about comfort in very particular processes, like kerning. Let’s open up to other disciplines – you cannot do it on your own any more like back in the days.”

TYPO Labs 2018

Fred Smeijers, photo: Norman Posselt

In contrast French type designer Malou Verlomme, who recently published Madera at Monotype, looked at the processes from a different angle and scale. “If you look at it from a historical point of view, the designer and producer was united in the same person.” Going on to describe how modern digital production methods can also help to maintain autonomy, observing that “with digitisation, routines and duties were reunited, from design to production to distribution. If you want, you can handle all this on your own. It’s still fairly accessible. Some people like to have all strings in their own hands.”

“It’s not easy to switch our mindsets. But I indeed think that this world of new type is more than just about the design.”

– Fred Smeijers: Type Designer


Fred Smeijers, who in 1996 published an in-depth examination on manual techniques of type production in the 16th century, drew a descriptive comparison by observing quality alongside workload. “If you want to be really good you cannot do everything on your own. You get lost. It’s like every email in a corporate context being answered by one person. That’s not possible. You would never sleep!” Fred points out that it is therefore necessary to decide when a process is shared and set up collaboratively. He argues that doing a sketch cannot be a common action, that shared authors cannot create the ideal shape. Here Smeijers looks to the figure of the artist as genius, and supports individualistic standpoints of the singular creator and his/her handwriting. Reminding us that “the designer has an idea about the right shape or detail, unless a group shares upfront authorship.”

TYPO Labs 2018

Malou Verlomme, Verena Gerlach and Fred Smeijers (from left), photo: Norman Posselt

Right(s) or Wrong?

Other parts of the creative industry have already experienced a shift in attitudes towards project and product ownership. Be it the shared knowledge production of Wikipedia with new Creative Commons models, or the rise of Netflix and music streaming services like Spotify that blur revenue models and authorship. These cases underline that creative industries constantly undergo massive changes in copyright organization and laws.


The panel also showed that the wish for more and better collaboration is facing challenges on how to document and handle those new shared ideas and products. Host Gerry Leonidas makes the point: “Collaborative tools are just aiming at the end user. How about making software that assists this during the creation process?”

“Collaborative tools are just aiming at the end user. How about making software that assists this during the creation process?”

– Gerry Leonidas: Typographer and eductor

TYPO Labs 2018

Panel discussion hosted by Gerry Leonidas, photo: Norman Posselt


“The more you are in a learning curve, the more you have to document.” observes Malou Verlomme. “The more experience you have the less you are required to follow your paths” agreeing with the other panel members that to document processes is difficult. It can be frustrating. Maybe it has to be frustrating? But designers and engineers want to focus on solving problems, not having new ones due to complicated process documentation. What has to be discovered – and the discussion at events such as TYPO Labs has to be pushed further to find this – is how to draw the fine lines between creation, authorship and usage to connect design and programming, font designers and engineers, and creators and publishers in a way that helps to nurture new innovations such as variable fonts.


Block the ‘undo’. Live with your decisions.

At the core of the lively debate on variable fonts and working routines was the question: What makes an innovation force us to change routines, and when? According to 677 Corporate Strategy Executives and a recent study named “State of Innovation”, effective innovation must be ad-hoc, slow, short-term and insular. At the core of the study lies a realisation that is taught in many well paid marketing degrees: disruption – the quick and massive 360° turn in routine – is mere wishful thinking when it comes to the reality of innovation in markets and businesses. Does that include the design world? And how can we create a culture that is open to innovation and new routines, that might disrupt a market?

TYPO Labs 2018

TYPO Labs 2018 Panel

Verena Gerlach might have a solution. She is asking for a tool to block the ‘undo’ function, so that designers have to do less trial and error designs. Reaching decisions not just by trial and error, but arriving there consciously, is a key to success. Limitation is part of the design process.
In a world where everyone can follow hundreds of paths in their decision-making process at almost the same time or at least a few clicks apart, keeping limitations at the core of your design strategy does sound somehow relieving. Especially if you think of the design of multi-dimensional variable fonts.

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Panel discussion: Tools and shapes (video: 1h 12min)



Gerry Leonidas

Gerry Leonidas teaches and researches typography and typeface design at the University of Reading, UK. He supervises MA and PhD research, and lectures widely. He consults on publication and typeface design, reviews bodies of work, and runs knowledge transfer projects with a twin focus on global business development, and new education initiatives. He is the president of ATypI, a founding member of Granshan Foundation, and helps organise ICTVC and other conferences. He is the Director of the MATD, the TDi summer course, and the new MResTD, a new hybrid programme on research in typeface design.

Verena Gerlach

Type Designer (Berlin, Germany)

1998, Verena Gerlach founded her studio for graphic design, typedesign and typography in Berlin. Since 2006, she has been working as a freelance book designer for art book publishers alike Hatje Cantz and Kerber. She started lecturing in type design, and typography in 2003, and she now gives lectures and workshops all over the globe. Beside designing corporate fonts for global companies, she also is working on the typographic production for international, contemporary artists. In 2013, Verena published her book “Karbid—From Let­ter­ing to Type Design”. Since 2016 Verena is working as freelance type designer for Monotype. Selection of released typefaces: FF City Street Types, FF Chambers Sans, FF Karbid Pro, FF Sizmo

Fred Smeijers

Fred Smeijers is a Dutch type designer, who specializes in typographic research and development for product manufacturers. Among his typeface designs are Quadraat and Quadraat Sans (FontShop), Renard (The Enschedé Font Foundry), Arnhem, Fresco, and Sansa. The last three are available from OurType, the font-publishing label that he established with Rudy Geeraerts of FontShop Benelux. Fred Smeijers is the author of “Counterpunch“ and “Type Now“ published by Hyphen Press, London.

Malou Verlomme

Senior UK Type Designer (UK)