Letters are the only true revolutionaries

Lili Zentai’s interview with Amondó Szegi, one of the founders of Fontanatype

I read in one of your interviews that you had studied to be an electrician in Szentes, and only later did typography and font design become a part of your life, which are now absolutely determining fields in your professional activities. When and how did your love for letters start?

Originally, I wanted to become a painter; I had several exhibitions in both Szeged and Budapest. Then a friend of mine came and said that I should work in applied graphic design instead and lay off all this painting. Later, the exact same friend became the CFO of the magazine Délmagyarország, and said they were looking for a deputy art director – and well, I was hired as such. Of course, I didn’t have the faintest idea about the whole thing. They gave me a typometer and a piece of paper with modular grids and told me to design the layout of the pages on that. It was pretty scary at first, but I got the hang of it very quickly. Just as quickly as I learned the ropes of the world of Mac at Winter Fair Studio – this is where I first met Gábor Kóthay and where the story of Fontanatype began.

Oszkár Boskovitz also mentioned Fontana in my interview with him – two guys from Szeged who designed tons of fonts. What was it like back then? As far as I know, this was the first Hungarian digital “typefoundry” that became internationally acclaimed.

The birth of Fontana roughly coincides with the spread of the internet. Suddenly the materials from the font libraries that were considered very significant back then appeared in Hungary – Emigre, T26, and PSY/OPS. We were amazed by that. We started working together with Gábor, but it was a big project that really brought us together. A friend of mine got a job at Sun Microsystems at the time, and suggested that the Eastern European version of the company’s newly purchased Open Office software could feature fonts designed by Hungarian professionals. That was where Gábor and I fit in. We divided the fonts among ourselves and designed them quite decently, but in the end, this project was called off. Nevertheless, our work was not in vain because these fonts were passed on to the US later. My design, Glosso, was distributed by T26, while Gábor’s fonts were sold by both T26 and PSY/OPS. At that time, our names were better known in San Francisco and Chicago than in Budapest. This changed later on, of course, thanks to my friend Zsolt Czakó, among others.

How do you design your fonts? What was your first font?

First, I make plans in my head, and once it all falls into place, I almost don’t have to hand-sketch anything, I continue the process right on the computer. If I do draw by hand, I like to experiment with pens with angled pen nibs. I used to be a huge fan of the Mayan civilization, and I designed my first composable font set inspired by Mayan reliefs. Once, I wanted to use it when designing a catalogue for sowing seeds, but they replaced it with Futura instead. My first genuinely usable font was the Telegdi Old Style, which was first released by P22/IHOF and was renewed a few years ago, and to my great delight, the last time I saw it was on the cover of a 2014 Suzanne Vega album.

In addition to graphic design studios, you always had a connection with theatre as well. As a leading graphic designer, you’ve been designing posters for Hungary’s National Dance Theatre for several years. Where does this relation come from?

 I come from Szentes; it must be the spirit of the place. It’s an emblematic city, as many esteemed actors came from there, such as Lajos Őze and Sándor Gáspár. But it also has a high school with a renown theatre department, where Tamás Hevesi, Enikő Börcsök or Róbert Alföldi studied. Sándor Badár was my classmate in primary school, and I went to drawing class together with András Szőke. I studied to be an electrician, but painting attracted me, and I usually prepared some kind of musical or dance performance for exhibition openings. Plus, my first wife is a theatre historian. I believe that people find the way designated for them sooner or later. Maybe that’s how I was hired to the Dance Theatre as well – they advertised a job opening that I “accidentally” applied for.

In 2015, you developed an educational game for children based on your font Sorry. That’s Blendraw, a drawing and writing board that develops abstract thinking, memory, concentration, and vocabulary – it prepares children for school learning and also comes with a mobile app. What’s the story of this?

I’ve written several proclamations about how much letters mean to me. Not only the history of letter development is organic, but so are its structure and morphology. Letters have anatomy, physiology, psychology, and aesthetics, similar to living organisms. Not to mention, they are capable of communication with nothing but their shape – letters can whisper, shout, sing, and teach, not only with the words they spell out but also with their forms. Letters are loud, letters are fighters, and they’re the only true terrorists.

This was also the starting point for Blendraw. Inspired by the font of György Szőnyei, I designed a font called SOZ (Sorry) that goes against all kinds of optical rules. I created its structure myself, consisting of two shapes and four fields in which these shapes vary. My friend, graphic designer László Herbszt gave me the idea to use this font not only for writing but also for drawing. I took his advice and started working on it right away, and I designed a mobile app from the game later. Eventually, we created the entire concept with Imre Szögi, my friend from Szeged, and his wife, who’s a child development teacher.

In addition to the digital interface, we manufactured twenty-five boards and the colored letter components that go with them and ended up selling all the finished pieces. Wherever we took it, children loved it.

There were also many touching stories in relation to the game. At the Táltos Primary School in Szeged, for example, there was a little boy who didn’t want to talk. Teachers were working with him for two weeks using Blendraw, when at one point the teacher asked him, “What did you build?” And he suddenly began talking, saying “A dragonfly.” I think it was worth creating it if only for these stories!

Blendraw is now only available as an app, but there’s a faint hope that we will be able to start production again thanks to EU support.

You’ve been working in the profession since the Hungarian regime change, and you’ve tried your hand in quite a few areas within font design. What do you think about the last twenty years of typographic development in Hungary? What trends can be observed during this period?

With the advent of the Internet, more and more user-friendly design programs became available, and a kind of common knowledge was formed gradually. When I started working in typography, there wasn’t much background material available on the topic. We had the research of Imre Kner and Lajos Kassák, and the typefaces of Miklós Misztótfalusi Kis, Zoltán Nagy, and Edit Zigány, of course – but it used to be a marginal community back then. I’m very grateful to Róbert Kravjánszki, who tried to bring all this together and founded the Magyar Betűtársaság (Hungarian Font Society). We finally had typographer meetings, and we were able to show our work to each other. While everyone used to work in this trade guerrilla-style, type design has become much more community-based by now. There’s a small cloud of dust in which we move forward together.

Do you see a difference in the style of today’s creators and that of type designers from ten or twenty years ago?

It should be noted that this is an applied genre, and you have to design letters that can be sold later. You have to adhere to users’ needs and trends. Of course, there’s also an experimental style, which is more like fine art, and if you’re lucky, you can make a Blendraw out of it, or you can make interesting and cool typology posters for exhibitions. In recent years, the market has opened up quite a lot, which has many positives, but it’s also harder to stand out because of it. Major companies like Emigre no longer take on introducing fonts to the market because it takes a lot of energy and money, so people have to form their own studios, where the same responsibility falls to the designer, and many can’t clear that bar.

You teach at the KREA Design School, but you also give/gave courses at MOME and METU. What advice do you usually give to your students or to beginners who would like to work in typography?

At first, everyone is afraid of this profession a little, but they fall in love with it sooner or later. I think, for a great project, the first step is getting inspired. They should download their favorite typeface and take it apart, dissect it. Quoting Tibor Kálmán, I usually tell them that rules are good, but break them. At the same time, if we don’t know the rules, we can’t even know what could or should be broken. First, they have to learn the basics, and then they can practically do whatever they want. Sure, our hands are tied sometimes, the twenty-six characters are given, and they must be legible, but originality matters a lot. Sometimes it’s worth going ahead of trends, and it either goes well or it doesn’t. In fact, we are still copying the classic capital letters from Emperor Trajan’s column to this day, and trying to shape them according to our own liking, sometimes better, sometimes worse. To this day, type design is an exciting game of forms for me, but it’s also a job that requires a lot of discipline and perseverance.

Photo: Dánilel Babinszky