New fonts from a legendary designer

We talk to a famed type director about what inspires his work and take a look at his latest typefaces

Topics: Imprint, Design,

New fonts from a legendary designer

Akira Kobayash

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Akira Kobayashi’s tenure as type director at Linotype. Born in Tokyo in 1960, he studied graphic design at Musashino Art University. Kobayashi began his career in type design at Sha-Ken Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of phototypesetting machines just at the cusp of the digital age. In the late 1980s he left Sha-Ken to study English and calligraphy in England in further his knowledge of Latin letters. Upon his return to Japan, he worked for Jiyu-Kobo and then TypeBank. At the latter he put his newfound knowledge to good use, creating 17 Latin typefaces to accompany Japanese fonts. In 1997 Kobayashi became a freelance designer. His work was immediately recognized by the international type design community with awards for  ITC Woodland (1997), FF Clifford (1998), ITC Japanese Garden (1999) and Conrad (2000). Since joining Linotype in 2001, he has worked on the redesign of many of the company’s prime legacy typefaces by Adrian Frutiger, Hermann Zapf, Aldo Novarese, Georg Trump and others. Now he has returned to designing original faces with the release of Akko Pro and Akko Pro Rounded. Akko Pro and Akko Rounded Pro are available from Linotype and

What follows is an interview with Akira Kobayashi and a review of Akko Pro and Akko Pro Rounded.

What induced you to enter the type industry?

When I was an elementary school student, I learned Japanese calligraphy. I actually won prizes in competitions. I also loved to paint watercolor pictures and posters for in-school campaigns. Drawing posters requires certain skills like layout and lettering techniques. I don’t think I knew the word “lettering” back then, but I loved to make posters because I felt I was doing something useful with my pictures. Posters for an elementary school pupil usually consisted of two elements: a graphic image like schoolchildren crossing a road and a speeding car, and a message like “Watch out for traffic!” One day, I realized that a poster with big, good-looking lettering was far more attractive and effective than others. That excitement led me to study more about letterforms. To start drawing a poster I would collect Kanji symbols required for the slogan, usually cut out from newspaper headlines. That is how I learned so-called “lettering.” Later I bought a guidebook on Latin alphabet lettering. One of my favorite Western types was Cooper Black. I was in an art circle in my high school and I still remember a poster for the group using Cooper Black in white on a bright red background.

Why did you take time off to study calligraphy and English? Whom did you study with?

Designing a single Japanese font back in the 1980s usually took a couple of years and several skilled designers. I was involved in several Japanese font projects. I gradually improved my skill at drawing lines with a pointed brush. Eventually I was able to draw a dozen very fine lines in one millimeter.

At Sha-Ken I occasionally designed Latin characters and Arabic numerals, and I felt that I needed to learn more about Latin alphabets. Then I realized that I had to have a better handle on the English language because the books available to me on the Latin alphabet were almost always written in English. I also knew that if I was not very familiar with the Western alphabet, I could not know if the characters I drew would be acceptable to a Western reader.

There were a couple of books on Western type design in the design department. Among them I found a small book titled “About Alphabets” by Hermann Zapf. It took me six months to finish reading it. Afterwards I had a strong urge to practice Western calligraphy. Zapf mentioned that he started with [Edward] Johnston’s “Writing and Illuminating and Lettering,” so I followed his footsteps. I ordered a paperback copy of the book through a bookshop overseas, and I started to teach myself calligraphy.

Later I left Sha-Ken and went to London, and enrolled in an evening calligraphy course at the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication). As I had never been to a foreign country before, everything was a completely new experience to me. I read books on typography and the history of type — to me it was a great surprise that an ordinary library had more than a dozen books on typography. I also met a number of designers and craftspeople there and learned a lot from them. Annie Moring taught me calligraphy at LCP, Sally Bower took me to one of the Letter Exchange meetings, and at the meeting I met David Holgate who later taught me to carve roman caps on stone.

How did you become the typographic director at Linotype, now part of Monotype Imaging?

I was lucky enough to win the grand prize in two international type design contests. The first was the U&lc Type Design Competition (1998); the second was Linotype’s Third International Digital Type Design Contest (2000). In December 2000 I received an email from Otmar Hoefer, marketing director at Linotype, inviting me to join the company. I must say that it took me a couple of months to make the decision, for I did not speak German at all, and my second son was born that summer. At the first job interview at Linotype in February 2001, Otmar told me that Linotype was planning a project with Hermann Zapf, which turned out to be Optima Nova, and they were looking for a type designer who could control the aesthetic quality of the production for them. As an admirer of Hermann Zapf, the offer was simply irresistible.

Why, for your first new design in nearly a decade, did you decide to design a sans serif typeface?

Our marketing research showed that we should develop a new sans with very open counters and a tall x-height, a sans with a “tech” look, such as the Eurostile Candy family I designed in 2008 and the DIN Next I did the following year. They were so successful that it was quite reasonable to design an original type in that direction.

The Eurostile Candy family is a kind of spinoff from the Eurostile Next project. I liked its simple form, open counters, and general roundness. The DIN Next family has two variations, sans and rounded. For the DIN Next project, I wanted to create the rounded version because the original drawings made by the Deutsches Institut für Normung (the German Institute for Industrial Standards) simply looked very cool. The DIN Next sans version also has slightly rounded edges. This rounding-off of the corners was my solution for making the DIN design friendlier to the eye. I did not want it to appear too sterile.

So, when I was asked to design a new typeface, I immediately thought to blend elements of what I had designed to date: the Eurostile Candy and the DIN Next, plus some ingredients from my earlier designs back in the ’90s, ITC Woodland (1997) and TX Lithium (1999).

ITC Woodland’s heavy weight is as black as Cooper Black. For over a decade, I have been thinking about how I can design my own interpretation of Cooper in a sans serif, without being too similar. Of course, none of the individual letters exactly matches Cooper. I wanted to design a display type that is massive yet somewhat friendly. With TX Lithium, I searched for a new form of the “tech” look, and with Akko I wanted to develop it further but in a sans form. All of these influences came together in Akko.

How did the rounded version of Akko come about?

In fact it was the other way around. I actually started by drawing the rounded characters, and the “standard” sans variation was a byproduct. I have always had a weakness for round sans, maybe because I grew up in Japan. When I was a schoolboy, hand-drawn round sans serif letters were commonly used as the “default” choice for public signs. Hand-painted messages like “Keep Off” or “Staff Only” were usually drawn in a round sans style in Japan — probably because Kanji characters with rounded edges are easier to draw than squared endings.

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Akko Pro and Akko Rounded Pro Review

Akko Pro and Akko Rounded Pro reflect two current trends: squarish sans serifs and sans serifs with softened features. A quick online search came up with Klavika (2004), Etelka (2005), PF Beau Sans Pro (2006), Sentico Sans DT (2008), Gesta (2009), Sone (2009), Great Escape (2010) and Vinkel (2010) in the first category; and Cashback (2006), CR2 (2006), Houschka Rounded (2008), Sommet Rounded (2008), Tame (2009), Apex Rounded (2010), and Museo Sans Rounded (2011) in the second one. Both of these trends suggest a quasi-return to the 1970s, the decade that gave us both the techno fonts of Letraset and the soft, friendly types from ITC. Of course, that was also the period that produced VAG Rounded, the granddaddy of many of these new typefaces.

Despite this crowded field, both Akko Pro and Akko Rounded Pro manage to avoid appearing as clones of existing fonts. Kobayashi has somehow carved out a distinct niche of his own. Of the many influences that he cited in the interview, only DIN and Eurostile seem obvious to me. I also see some letters with features that hark back to Gill Sans and FF Dax.

For the most part, I am not enamored of either squarish or rounded sans serifs but I have to admit that Akko Pro and Akko Rounded Pro are among the best fonts in their genres. Certainly, Akko Rounded Pro is heads above the weird Eurostile Candy.

Akko Pro has a tall x-height and a narrow profile. It is a monoweight face with some obvious weight adjustments at the crotches of v, w, et al. The round letters are closer to rounded rectangles. Most of them pleasing but the and Q, although consistent, are a bit jarring. Following the lead of Gill Sans and FF Dax, x-height letters with bowls have no crotches where the bowl would normally meet the stem. The joins are fairly horizontal which avoids a dark spot in letters such as band h. These features suggest that Akko Pro might be usable for signage, a notion that is supported by the presence of a hooked l and the inclusion of directional arrows in the font’s glyph set.

The quality of Akko Pro varies from weight to weight within the family. It seems a bit scrawny in the thin and light weights but becomes friendlier and less egotistical as it gets heavier. The regular and medium weights are the most satisfying. Here the subtle modulation of stroke weight takes hold without being obtrusive, enlivening the design.

Although Akko Pro has a repetitive look, Kobayashi has actually mixed a variety of character widths to achieve visual harmony in the design. This is why the with a short vertex — in the manner of Gill Sans — is jarring. The large open counter that is created is immediately noticeable in a word. It seems to serve no purpose in narrowing the to more closely match the width of the majority of characters. Even the extremely wide seems to fit better.

There are a number of odd characters in Akko Pro whose presence seems to stem from notions of book types that are not applicable to this style of design. For instance, there are ch and ck ligatures, a feature of German types derived from blackletter which serves no purpose other than a reduction in keystrokes. But this is not as substantial a benefit as one gained in the days of hand composition. The extra curve needed to join the to the and throws the balance of the ligature out of whack. Even more peculiar is the presence of quaint ct and st ligatures, characters that never had any practical purpose in type but which have become trendy in the age of OpenType. In Akko Pro they seem to actually worsen letterspacing. It is not even clear that the f ligatures in the font — with the exception of the ff – are really necessary given the narrow design of the f. Kobayashi would have done better to include an alternate f and t without a crossbar on the left side of the stem. These would solve kerning problems and be in keeping with the overall look of Akko Pro. Another option would have been to design capital ligatures such as HE, ND, TH, TT, etc. that can aid fitting text to a narrow measure.

The inclusion of old style figures in Akko Pro is another nod to book practice, but something which has become de rigueur today. Smartly, there are two 1s, one with a serif for tabular purposes and one without for all other situations.

The same comments made about Akko Pro apply to Akko Rounded Pro. The latter’s rounded stroke endings and corners give it the friendlier look that Kobayashi was seeking. An unanticipated aspect of the roundness is that the stroke junctures in the two lighter weights are visibly thickened so that there is the sense of letters that have been weathered or worn down. The medium and bold weights are reminiscent not of Cooper Black but of early 20th century “publicity” faces such as Block and Berliner Grotesk.

Akko Pro and Akko Rounded Pro should find a ready use as display and advertising faces, and may even prove suitable for wayfinding systems.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

Salon is proud to feature content from Imprint, the fastest-growing design community on the web. Brought to you by Print magazine, America’s oldest and most trusted design voice, Imprint features some of the biggest names in the industry covering visual culture from every angle. Imprint advances and expands the design conversation, providing fresh daily content to the community (and now to!), sparking conversation, competition, criticism, and passion among its members.

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