Expert Interview: Rui Abreu

The award-winning Portuguese type designer discusses his work and tells us what he really thinks about Helvetica.

By Cat HowPosted in Ideas

Rui Abreu is an award-winning type designer living in Lisbon, Portugal. He graduated in 2003 from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Porto, where he studied Communication Design. Rui became interested in type during his student years. He set up his type foundry, R-Typography, in 2008 and his professional experience includes working in advertising agencies and publishing fonts, both independently and with other foundries.

Can you tell us about your design process – from inspiration or idea to research, development and testing?

In general, there is an initial stage, where I try to articulate ideas and make them work as a typeface. That's when I’m trying to define the concept of the typeface, its look and feel. That is usually done with the lowercase letters first, unless there are important ideas that have to be tested in uppercase too. It can take many weeks, a few months maybe, and it’s usually not something I work on full time.

When the design starts feeling like a functional typeface I start designing the rest of the glyphs, like numbers or diacritics, punctuation and so on. This is a slow process and can take a while for everything to work together. As time goes on, the typeface starts to dictate its own rules, and it becomes easier to make design decisions. Then I slowly start kerning, and that is also when the first testing of the fonts outside the font editor usually starts.

It sounds straight forward but there is a lot of back and forth in decision making, it can involve some research, and it can add up to a years work. There is a moment when I decide to stop trying to improve the design, that happens when anything I try to do to actually harms its integrity rather than improves it.

Then comes the production stage. That’s when I run all my production routines to make sure that there are no outline defects and that they are interpolating correctly, all measurements are right, all kerning pairs are there, etc. This phase can also take two or three months, although it always feels like it can be done in a week or so. This is what happens with our retail typefaces, with commissions everything happens much faster - if there’s a clear brief, of course.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

For me, typefaces usually start with ideas that I want to try and see if they work. They could come from type or lettering that I’ve seen somewhere, or from historical typefaces that I might have come across in books or specimens. I have to say that the tendencies going on in graphic and typographic design also influence me a lot in my choices.

Times are always changing, fashion and taste are in permanent mutation and Type Design is a funny case, because part of it has to do with intemporal conventions, but another part is much more superficial, which has to do with fads and trends. Some historical models become influential according to the current trends or aesthetic mood, and that triggers new interpretations. This is very similar to the clothing industry. There are conventions of what is acceptable to wear, and the human body is always the same, but still there is always place for invention and differentiation.

How long does it take to design a typeface?

It depends on the design: I usually have a main typeface project that takes around a year and a half, counting from the moment an idea feels to be worth working on. But while that is happening, I like to work on smaller projects that take only a few months.

What is responsive typography, and what does it mean for web design?

It’s typography that responds to the layout, or changes its appearance according to design decisions from the designer / typographer. As you know Variable fonts recently came out. This is a format that can carry several design masters, which will allow the characters to change, for example in width or weight.

Of course this is something very powerful, because it means you could have your fonts condense or widen according to the space you have to work with, or better yet, with fonts that have an optical axis, letters can be optimised automatically according to body-size to insure the best readability. The down-side of this is that it can require a lot of knowledge from the typesetter. For instance not everyone is aware of what optical sizes are. It's something worth checking out though.

What is your favourite typeface out there at the moment?

I don’t have one personal favourite. I like and admire many typefaces and foundries for different reasons, but I can’t point a single design as my favourite. 

Helvetica. Love it? Hate it? Spill the beans...

I don’t have a particular feeling about the actual typeface. What I don’t like is when it's used out of laziness, and that happens a lot. That’s what made it feel boring. I can say that I like to see Helvetica in iconic uses like the NY subway, or… well I guess that’s pretty much it. I can also say that as a type designer, I don’t look at it as an example, to learn from or to imitate. It certainly doesn’t have the coolness (and genius) of Frutiger’s Univers, but it does have a 19th century charm to it, but for that I prefer the actual 19th century grotesques. Having said this, it’s absolutely amazing how it got so ubiquitous to this day. It says something about typeface design. Don’t you think?

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