Look further: Three Questions for Lukas Schneider

January 26th, 2015

How does the extension of a font family influence the overall concept? Started as a graduation project in 2002,  FF Utility was entirely reworked and expanded towards the end of 2014 with the addition of two new thin weights. We spoke to Lukas Schneider about his reasons behind the extension.

Designing a typeface seemed like an obvious thing for Lukas Schneider to do. During his studies they “were dealing with type all the time”, and he had six precious months to spend on his graduation project. One day Lukas found a notice from Linotype on the bulletin board (“it was like a revelation for me”): Akira Kobayashi was looking for a student assistant. “I immediately grabbed that note before anyone else could see it”. This meant Lukas enjoyed the mentoring from the famous type designer while developing Gazoline, the typeface that would ultimately become FF Utility. But after graduating “it laid around for quite some time”.

Lukas Schneider

Lukas Schneider

Lukas, does the name “Utility” have any deeper meaning with regards to the design?

Not really. If I remember correctly Stephen Coles made a couple of suggestions for a name – to me Utility suited the design the best. Sometimes you approach this pragmatically. While designing I was reminded of those 50s faces seen on gas stations in the US. I found the image quite powerful. Unfortunately the name Gazoline was not available anymore – I guess it was already in use. Moreover, the aesthetics of the typeface had changed during the design process.

Lukas Schneider

Why this extension now? What was your motivation?

The extension – or more precisely the idea for an extension – was already floating around when FF Utility was released in 2008”. This sounds as if FontFont pushed you. “Well… yes.” (laughs) “For example they always want the four figure sets. We initially made five weights from light to black. Then I thought it would be nice to have something thinner for big headlines, or a condensed series. I did some tests in 2008, but these ideas ended up in a drawer. I felt it was time to pick those up.”

Lukas Schneider

Lukas explains “Now I can concentrate more exclusively on type. I realized that if you don’t, it simply doesn’t happen. Otherwise your project lays around for so long that you start questioning every single aspect. Earlier this year I said to myself: ‘Now you do it’. It helps that the people from FontFont are always looking ahead. Ivo keeps asking questions like ‘what about adding Italics?’ and so on. So we created two light weights – I drew a very thin one, and then we interpolated the extra light”.

The process turned out to be surprising on a conceptual level. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Back then I didn’t plan those two thins. This means that if I had simply drawn them following the existing concept, the overall proportions would not have been harmonious. This forced me to go back and rework the proportions of the original fonts as well, which I had not intended. I never planned to even touch the old weights”. Lukas chuckles. “You start seeing things you never saw before. And then you don’t want to leave the characters the way they were. I think the adaptations have made the font family more modern, and the extension of the character set – for example the addition of small caps – has also made it more versatile.”

FF Utility

Lukas, why not an italic after all?

“When writing about FF Utility some people think it doesn’t need italics because you can use a heavier weight or small caps for highlighting. Now that the latter is also available you can use both techniques”. Lukas’ reasoning is pragmatic – and honest. “For me it was simply too much work back then. You must not forget this was my very first typeface design after all, and it was not planned to have them. Maybe I will add italics at some point”.

Do you think there is a tendency to do without italics? “When I look around I must say I haven’t seen see any trend of that kind. Even current monospaced typefaces tend to have italics.”

Lukas doesn’t exclude the possibility. “Design-wise the family certainly is geared towards it. Also, in general I am very critical about my own work. I invested a lot of time reworking FF Utility. These days users expect a typeface to have at least 16 variations. However I think sometimes less is more. It makes sense to publish the upright versions first before looking any further”.

“I guess the planning of the family was maybe a little naive back then. For future typeface designs I would also plan italics in the initial phase, or at least consider them and make rudimentary sketches.”

We could leave it at that.

Lukas Schneider seems to be alleviated. “It is difficult for me to talk about a typeface – or maybe especially this one.” With FF Utility Lukas made his first steps into type design, which at that time he approached “without any conceptual motives”, without considering specific applications, basically making things up as he went along. Interestingly enough, his FF Utility carries its name with appropriate dignity.

So what does Lukas Schneider do when he is not creating? He seems surprised by this question. “Oh dear… that has become less and less frequent recently. I like to ride my bike; a little more intensely than most people: I have a racing bike, but … hm … that is always really difficult”. I am not sure if he means “always” these questions, or “always” finding spare time, and I don’t want to torture him any longer. Lukas concludes: “I like crafting, upcycling bulk trash, a designer sofa for example – I recently rebuilt an old plotter. And beyond that… much of it has to do with letters anyways. I walk around with eyes wide open, taking pictures, collecting.”

Lukas Schneider

We look forward to seeing him continue crafting and tinkering with FF Utility.

Thanks a lot, Lukas!

Interview by Sonja Knecht