Mike Abbink – “A type designer caught up in doing graphic design”
Mike Abbink is one of those rare designers whose careers successfully straddle the worlds of typeface design and graphic design — two disciplines that are actually further apart than most people think. He also straddles another chasm: the Atlantic Ocean. With strong ties to a Dutch heritage, being born in America has never kept him far from his roots, both physically and culturally. It could be argued that it is Abbink’s ability to draw from these diverse experiences that has made his FF Kievit thrive. It’s perennially on the list of FontFonts that are best known and used. Now the family has a Slab partner as individual yet interrelated as its designer’s divergent backgrounds.
Mike Abbink: FF Kievit Slab has its origins in early 1998 when Nike asked MetaDesign to revisit its original script logo and make a more modern version. One of my ideas was to use FF Kievit and add slabs to it. This was even before FF Kievit was even finished and a few years before its release by FontFont.
FF Kievit is rooted in the proportions of a serif and it only makes sense that it should have serifs and in this case slabs as well. This led to the exploration I did to determine what the slabs should look like. The obvious first sketches were straight forward Egyptian-style block slabs but these ultimately felt too clunky for FF Kievit. They needed to have some elegance and a finesse to match what I think is inherent in some of the typeface’s forms. The slabs have a heaviness to them but they also taper and have a subtle wedge-like quality in the ascenders.
When Method rebranded Autodesk they used FF Kievit as the corporate typeface but wanted the logotype to have something different about it. The designers had been sketching using slab serifs and it was only natural to try one with FF Kievit to keep the link to the typeface. This is where I really spent more time trying to determine what a FF Kievit Slab would look like and what changes needed to be made. Unfortunately, Autodesk recently changed the identity again so they no longer use FF Kievit or the logotype I did.
A few years ago the agency responsible for the rebrand of WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, a German broadcasting institution) asked me if I had any slab sketches or serif sketches which I did have but were not totally worked out. This is when Paul van der Laan and I really started working out the details and presented to them what these could look like. Luckily for us, the WDR decided to go for it and we have spent many hours together designing the serif and of course finalizing what is now FF Kievit Slab.
Adding the weight of the serifs also meant that the contrast needed to increase. The horizontals and thin joints got a little thinner across all glyphs. In addition, many of the forms needed to be made wider and accommodate the slabs. You’ll really see this in the lowercase k, s, v and x for example.
FF Kievit underwent a painstaking transformation in order to
gracefully accommodate serifs.
Stephen Coles: So FF Kievit Slab began “way back” in 1998. In our rapid release tech startup culture it’s unusual to see creative projects with such a long timeline. What are the affects of a multi-year gestation on a design?
MA: The duration lasts long for me since I’ve always worked full-time as a designer working long hours already. You can imagine working the late nights and weekends can get exhausting. The ongoing years can affect the typeface but overall I would say very little. The early FF Kievit Slab sketches for the Nike logotype had a slightly different purpose than say the Autodesk logo which came years later. The prior was meant to connect to the original Nike script logo, so the slabs had round bottoms and it was using italic forms.
For the Autodesk logotype the letters were roman but in either case the top slabs were already pretty much defined and they in turn defined the bottom later on. I knew early on that I did not want the slabs to be straight up block serifs. They needed to have a bit of finesse and continue the inherent humanist qualities that FF Kievit already had in it. If I continued exploring too much it would extend my already very long design process as it is.
SC: Commissions and special requests often lead to new typeface designs. Since FF Kievit Slab began as the answer to specific needs (from Nike, Autodesk, WDR) I wonder how much they are responsible for this design’s existence and how they influenced the final product.
MA: In all the above mentioned cases FF Kievit (sans) was a finished design with an already strong vision for what it should be moving forward. I always wanted it to have a slab and serif (oldstyle) as part of the family. The Nike exploration was done even before FF Kievit was finished. The slab version was sketched out and pretty refined but across a limited amount of glyphs. The slab got more refined years later when Paul and I began the development on the WDR project three years ago. Early decisions like increased contrast and width adjustment were fairly obvious and took a lot of time getting right across all the weights. We also have different designs for certain characters in the bolder weights. But we really got excited when the WDR asked to add a serif to the mix. I knew my earlier sketches were not right yet and this gave us an opportunity to really develop the serif properly along with refining the slab.
The serif as a whole really went through a change from my original sketches, and that’s when Paul van der Laan and I got a chance to collaborate more than ever. It also influenced some decisions that required adjustments made in the slab version, like the bottom of the leg in the capital ‘R’. It was a great project because we were able to really focus on extending the FF Kievit family the way I had always envisioned it to be. I definitely look forward to finishing FF Kievit Serif because to me it represents my end goal of FF Kievit as a type family after well over a decade in the making.
SC: What are other catalysts for new designs?
MA: It varies a lot for each typeface I’ve been working on. For FF Kievit it was finding that spot on the scale that was somewhere between Frutiger and Garamond. For Brando, which will be released with Bold Monday in the next few months, it was trying to think of what a contemporary serif might and should be and balancing humanist and mechanical traits within each letterform. FF Milo was also meant to be universal, contemporary but very compact, with very short ascenders and descenders. Each project has a different set of goals, whether it’s my personal typefaces or commissioned ones for clients.
SC: Some type designers work best in isolation and find it very difficult to work with other designers on a single typeface beyond quick auxiliary feedback, but it seems like you and Paul van der Laan collaborate in a deep way. How did this partnership begin?
MA: I think collaborating with the right people is great and makes for stronger results. Paul and I started working together when Autodesk asked me to make additional light weights and also Greek and Cyrillic for FF Kievit which they were using as part of their new corporate redesign Method was responsible for. This was a pretty big project and I was super busy at work as a design director at Wolff Olins. The light weights were the first phase and that’s where I gave a lot of feedback, but Paul was able to tackle the project and really own most of the development, especially the Greek and Cyrillic. We again worked together in a similar fashion to add three additional light weights for FF Milo.
By this time we had a great working relationship and started a friendship that has been going on for over ten years. Paul also helped with FF Milo Serif on spacing, kerning and interpolations, as well as collaborate on NBCU Rock for NBCUniversal along with Pieter van Rosmalen. We are now all three working together on extending the GE Inspira family.
SC: How do you divide the workload? What are your respective strengths?
MA: It’s different for each project. For the FF Milo weight extensions (FF Milo 3) it was mostly Paul, but for FF Milo Serif I drew the forms and Paul helped refine spacing and kerning, and interpolate the additional weights. It’s a lot of work and he is better at it than I am anyway. In the case of FF Kievit Slab we divided and conquered. For instance, I started work on Regular and Black and then Paul jumped in on the Black and continued with Black Italic. We pass the weights back and forth until all the glyphs and refining is done. Then Paul really owns the files and does interpolations, final spacing, and kerning. We look at proofs together until we feel all the details are covered. It’s real team work, immersive collaboration. I prefer to work that way.
SC: FF Kievit (and the Slab) feels like it has a strong Dutch influence. Does that seem true to you? What does that come from?
MA: I would say it’s both American and Dutch! I’m a first generation American from parents who are both Dutch. I have been going there my whole life since the rest of my family lives there, and my Mom even moved back to Amsterdam seven years ago. This background plus my design education has definitely influenced my design taste and sensibilities. I also learned early on in school about the great history of Dutch type design, as well as the new generation that has developed over the last two decades. FontShop International (with its roster of Dutch designers like Martin Majoor, Evert Bloemsma, Erik van Blokland and Fred Smeijers) also attracted me early on and I wanted to be part of that by trying to make typefaces that were well crafted and functional.
SC: Of course FF Kievit Slab is more than FF Kievit with slab serifs attached, and readers can see evidence of that in the samples. The most obvious adjustment made to the new family is the opening of apertures to make room for the serifs. But I noticed other lettershape changes too, such as a smaller upper bowl on the ‘g’. What accounts for that? What other structural changes did you make?
MA: After FF Kievit was released in 2001, the larger upper bowl in the lowercase ‘g’ started to stand out a bit too much to me. This was primarily in the lighter weights. I’ve been wanting to change it ever since then. So the Thin and the Regular poles were adjusted to have a smaller upper bowl and I left the Black as is with the exception of making contrast adjustments. The sans version of FF Kievit is now updated with this new ‘g’, too. The counters in the slab got even smaller, so it was an obvious change I wanted to make. That’s the only real structural change to original FF Kievit shapes besides some problem glyphs like the lowercase n, k, v and x which lost their inside serifs to get some negative space inside the tight counters. The comma and parentheses are different, too. I thought the originals were too vertical so we used the ones from the italic.
SC: I assume you would call yourself primarily a graphic designer who happens to also design type. How does the perspective as type user influence your typeface design?
MA: That’s a hard one for me. Recently I’ve been thinking of myself more a type designer caught up in doing graphic design. I hope to spend more time doing type design in the future. I do think my design thinking has influenced my type design. I tend to be very straightforward and minimal about my type just as I approach graphic design. FF Kievit, FF Milo and the upcoming Brando are great samples of how I try to reduce, but at the same time I like to maintain humanist qualities to showcase a kind of craftsmanship.
SC: Have you used FF Kievit Slab in any of your own projects yet?
MA: Not yet, but I plan to. I do find it weird to use my own typefaces, but I really like the Slab and the upcoming Serif which I think I’ll use a lot.