Typeface designers Bigelow & Holmes are husband and wife team of Chuck Bigelow and Kris Holmes. I first meet Chuck and Kris at RIT during 2010 at the conference Future of Reading and meet up with them again in 2012 at the conference Reading Digital: what will the future of reading on screens be like. They are best known for their contribution of the Lucida type family, the Apple type family, and Wingdings—most famous of each is Lucida Grande and Apple Chancery. They began their professional careers during the early 1980s in Portland Oregon. Kris Holmes is widely known for her contributions to calligraphy while Charles Bigelow is recognize for his influences of typeface for digital application. Holmes received her B.A. from Harvard University and her MFA from UCLA Film School in Animation. She has taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the Graphic Design and Film Departments, Portland State University, The Museum Art School (Portland), Rhode Island School of Design, Santa Monica College, and the Otis College of Art and Design. Bigelow attended the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982. In mid-2006, Bigelow accepted the Melbert B. Cary Distinguished Professorship at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Print Media. After my recent interview—an exchange of dialog with Chuck Bigelow (Bigelow & Holmes) via email technology that offered a “less spontaneous but more focused” (Bigelow) results—I’ve acquired an appreciation towards the advice and support of an experienced typeface designer for the greenhorn type design enthusiasts within.
The partnership of Bigelow and Holmes has a backstory as unique as each typeface that was designed within the studio. The meeting of this expressive husband and wife team has its foundations in mime, of course. And course is exactly that—a mime course, of course. Bigelow recalls where it all began, “Kris and I met in a mime course taught by an Italian comedian, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, who in his youth had worked with Marcel Marceau and studied with famed French mimes, Etienne Decroux and Jacques Lecoq, and later worked with the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, where the art of Commedia dell’Arte was revived. I had known Carlo through Jack Stauffacher in SF, so when he came to teach at Reed for a semester, I was working in town, but had graduated some years earlier, and I spoke Italian in those days, having studied for a summer in Italy, so Carlo and I hit it off, and he let me audit his classes in mime and commedia dell’Arte, in return for me teaching juggling, which I could sort of do. Kris Holmes was in one of those classes.” They mostly talked about mime, explained Bigelow, not about typography and after the class seen little of Holmes. Four years later Holmes visited the small offices of a political magazine Oregon Times where Bigelow was art director. Holmes was a strong calligraphy artist with a portfolio to boast and was seeking work that matched her appetite for calligraphy. “Her calligraphy portfolio was very fine, but the magazine didn’t need calligraphy. What we needed was a paste-up artist. Kris had done paste-up when she had worked as a lettering artist at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, so I hired her to do paste-up for the magazine,” recalls Bigelow. After a very quick eight months Holmes left the magazine and headed of to New York to study modern dance. However Holmes found herself again fervently studying lettering with legendary type designer Ed Benguait. It was just one year after attending the San Francisco lectures of Gürtler that Bigelow invited Holmes back to work together on type design. Bigelow believed combining their skills in typography and calligraphy would bring tremendous outcomes to type design. The studio partnership of Bigelow and Holmes then began in year 1976.
We have all arrived to this infatuation with typeface design one way or another, for each of us the road looks very different. I think I discovered my obsession through ugly type found almost everywhere I looked. Bigelow found his path through academia. When asked to elaborate he had this to add, “I went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and in my senior year (1966-1967), I studied calligraphy and graphic arts with Lloyd Reynolds, famed in the Northwest for his calligraphy and his teaching of the subject. He was later named Calligrapher Laureate of Oregon, the first and so far, the only one to receive that honor. Lloyd was a charismatic teacher – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, skilled, and demanding, as well as understanding. After Reed, I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I took a course in typography taught by Jack Stauffacher, a noted San Francisco fine printer and typographer. He liked my work, and the next year hired me as his teaching assistant. That set me on the road to typography.” Some time before, Bigelow had studied perceptual psychology and vision science with scientist Gerald Murch; with a base theory in visual form the interest in typography seemed inescapable. Several years later Bigelow learned Swiss designers André Gürtler along with studio partners Christian Mengelt and Erich Gschwind were coming to San Francisco to lecture about their work. Gürtler gave such a clear talk about their work and the type design process that Bigelow was motivated beyond simply understand it, but realized he could do it too. This was the major influencer for Bigelow to migrate from his typographic passion to the design of type. Bigelow adds, “Type design seemed like a fascinating combination of science and aesthetics, so I was attracted to it. It still is, and I still am.”
When asked which typeface designers Bigelow most admired, or whom he found inspiring and applauded, he elaborated, initially, as a student and beginning typographer, I admired the work of designers that Jack Stauffacher liked, Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger.
I still greatly admire their work. The type we used in Jack’s course at the Art Institute was Bembo, and that got me interested in Italian Renaissance typography and in the writings and typographic career of Stanley Morison, who was not a type designer in the sense of actually drawing letters himself, but was more an art director and extremely influential in motivating others. The Times New Roman, drawn by Victor Lardent and “art directed,” we might say, by Morison, is rightly regarded as Morison’s most famous and successful design.
The actual origins of Times New Roman remain somewhat murky, and there are various theories of what historical or contemporary types it was based on. I favor the view that Times is a sharpened up re-working of Monotype Plantin 110, produced in 1913, and that Plantin 110 was created by Frank Pierpont, head of the Monotype works and Fritz Max Steltzer, his lead drawing artist, from specimens of types cut by Robert Granjon circa
1570 and preserved in the Plantin Moretus Museum, which Pierpont visited. John Dreyfus advanced this plausible history in an article in the Penrose Annual. However, some other Plantinian types, cut by Hendrik van den Keere are also possible as the model for Plantin 110, so to my mind, it is not certain exactly who cut the antecedent for Times, though probably the fonts were in the possession of Christopher Plantin around 1585 and are still in the museum that bears his name. Mike Parker, former director of typography for Linotype, has argued for a very different source for Times, namely a design that Starling Burgess, who was principally a yacht designer, not a typographer, made for the American Monotype corporation. The evidence for this hypothesis is skimpy, and much of it has been lost, if it ever existed, and several notable scholars have disputed it. I dwell on Times not because it is my favorite type – it isn’t —but because it is one of the most interesting, important, and controversial typefaces of the 20th century, and it is still going strong in the 21st century.
Speaking of Robert Granjon, I was deeply impressed by Matthew Carter’s revival design of Galliard for Linotype, based on types cut by Robert Granjon that were acquired by Plantin. I wrote a review of Galliard for Fine Print, a journal of the book arts, in 1979. I particularly admired the sharpness of Carter’s design and his imaginative creation of bold and ultra bold weights. Historical revivals of types often seem to me to be murky and hesitant, in large measure because the printed specimens and books that often survive long after the physical historical types are lost, are distorted by ink squash, type wear, paper surfaces, and so on, so it is hard to fully grasp what the original punch-cutters’ intentions were. Carter’s revival of Granjon was, in contrast to tentative revivals, sharp, crisp, assured, and assertive. I like many of Carter’s other types as well, including Skia, an inspired sans serif that is, alas, under-used. I once saw a science fiction paperback with text set all in Skia. I didn’t much like the content of the novel, so I didn’t buy it, but I wish I had. It may have been the only novel set in Skia. I can’t recall the title or author, and neither Amazon nor Google Books can search a book solely by typeface and genre.
In 1979, Kris Holmes and I studied calligraphy and type design with Hermann Zapf in summer courses at Rochester Institute of Technology. That was a wonderful opportunity to learn from Zapf himself. He inspired me and Kris, and also two of our fellow students who became notable lettering designers, Jerry Kelly and Julian Waters. Kris and I later worked with Zapf and Max Caflisch on the design of types and marketing consulting for a German firm that was planning to sell its digital typesetters in the U.S. The firm eventually abandoned the U.S. market and got out of the typesetting business, but Kris designed a dazzling script face for them, Isadora, named for the dancer Isadora Duncan. It is still widely used today, marketed by ITC, now part of Monotype.
The typeface, and designer, that most influenced my thinking, leading to the Lucida family, was Syntax, by Hans Ed. Meier. He was an instructor in design and lettering at the School of Arts and Crafts in Zurich. Syntax was his 10-year effort at rendering humanist handwriting and typography into the sans-serif idiom. His explanation of why and how he did it involved deep insight into the history and aesthetics of letters and legibility, so the study of the design of Syntax is like a master class in the subject. Kris and I worked with Hans Meir on adapting his Syntax design for phonetic characters for Native American languages, and we learned a great deal from him. In 1978, I arranged for him to tour the U.S., giving talks and calligraphy and lettering workshops. He came first to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I was then teaching, and later travelled to California, where, among other adventures, he went to Disneyland, which he found wonderfully well designed, in a kitsch sort of way, but “perfect kitsch,” as he said. My Rhode Island colleague, Malcolm Grear, was already a big fan of Syntax and used it in the design of several books, and even in newspaper headlines, so it was gratifying to see Grear talking with Meier about the face.
Syntax came out in 1968, and over the next 45 years, several other typefaces have been obviously influenced by it. The genre is often now called “humanist sans-serif.” Of all of them, I still think Syntax is best for continuous reading of body text.
As a Swiss poet said, “Reading a page composed in Syntax is like walking through a field of flowers. Reading a page in Helvetica is like walking through a field of stones.”
Almost 50 years after its release, Syntax remains a great improvement on its successors.
Often finding inspiration is a designer’s most difficult task. Searching new forms and discovering fresh techniques is what keeps a designer exploring. Bigelow is no exception in the quest for inspiration. As a matter of fact he even shared that it is difficult to pin that down. Bigelow tells us, “Sometimes history, sometimes technology, sometimes vision science. Sometimes looking at current trends and extrapolating to what might be needed in the future. The transition from metal type to photo-type, and from photo to digital typesetting, and from reading on paper to reading on screens.” Technology seems to be a driving force for Bigelow as his many conferences are themed around technology. In 1983 he organized the conference Computer and the Hand in Type Design a few years before the first laser printers were introduced. Most recently Bigelow co-organized the conference on the Future of Reading and organized the conference Reading Digital – what will the future of reading on screens be like. Bigelow attests, “I enjoy thinking about what might come next, but as the quantum physicist Niels Bohr warned, Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
The list of typefaces that have been introduced by Bigelow and Holmes are numerous. They include: the Lucida Sans; Lucida Calligraphy; Lucida Blackletter; Apple Capitals, Apple Chancery, and other sets within the Apple family; Isadora; and others. Among the many typefaces that a type designer creates it is often difficult to judge which is their most successful or most famous type designs. The question should be asked in terms of how well it expresses whatever aesthetic or functional goal the designer had in mind. When asked this of Bigelow he replied, “In terms of sheer numbers, Lucida Sans, and its sibling, Lucida Grande, which differs mainly in the character set, not the design, are the most successful. Some 70 million copies of Lucida Grande are the system font for OS X Macintosh computers, and a billion copies or so of Lucida Sans Unicode have been distributed with Microsoft Windows, and a few hundred million more with Microsoft Office. As for most successful in terms of aesthetic goal, I’m not sure.”
When asked about the designs of Bigelow and Holmes, concerning their influences or whether they were created ‘from scratch,’ Bigelow declares they are all from scratch with a few exceptions. Bigelow elaborates, “Modifying or translating the designs of others is a tempting but pernicious practice.” In the exception, Bigelow opposes his from scratch rule through the exemption of modifying one of their designs for another function. From Lucida Sans they designed Lucida Sans Typewriter, which is a mono-spaced typeface that became widespread in programming. Lucida Sans Typewriter shares the same weight, x-height, capital height, and most features with Lucida Sans. The variance, states Bigelow, is, “the letters and characters have been re-proportioned to all have the same advance width.” Another exception may be when asked to modify or upgrade a design for its owner advises Bigelow. “We did that in 1990 for Apple when they asked us (Bigelow and Holmes) to create digital outline TrueType fonts for four original Macintosh bitmap ‘City’ fonts: Chicago, Geneva, New York, and Monaco,” says Bigelow. Susan Kare, at Apple, completed the original bitmap typefaces for Macintosh and was released in 1984. Shortly after Susan Kare left Apple, Apple wanted a TrueType variety of those typefaces for the Macintosh System 7. The City typeface family introduced on-screen scalable fonts as part of that operating system. Irrefutably, Bigelow states when they work on a digital historical revitalization of a typeface begins by studying examples from old books or other specimens. In a case such as this, “the intent is to revive a fine design, or at least an interesting design, from the metal era, often hundreds of years ago,” enlightens Bigelow. “It is always an act of interpretation, however, and the designer is usually starting from some fairly murky evidence, so in terms of actual drawing, whether with pencil, pen, or digital tool, it is like starting from scratch, though the goal is to bring something into the modern world—The Sleeper Awakes.”
When it gets to the technology of typeface design this almost seems like a matter of course. Technology is one of the driving forces in typeface design as Bigelow has already established early on in my interview. When design type Bigelow and Holmes calls upon many different technologies. A sampling of software they have used comprises: Ikarus, Ingredients, Fontographer, FontLab, TypeTool, and other programs. Much of the choice is dependent on what platform they are using, and what they are working on. The design of type for screen display, such as those designed by Bigelow and Holmes uses a technique called font hinting. A known and identifiable form of hinting is found in the TrueType font format. To further clarify, hinting in TrueType calls upon tables of data used to render them correctly during display on screen. Bigelow shares that they seldom hint their typefaces. “Kris hinted the very first TrueType font for Apple, Lucida Sans, by hand, writing the TrueType hint language assembly code. After that experience, we decided to focus on design, not hinting,” voices Bigelow. “Hinting had a long life for screen displays, but now, higher resolutions have made it mostly unnecessary on high resolution displays like the iPad and iPhone, so we think it is gradually becoming obsolete,” explains Bigelow. He also shared that hinting is a common practice, many of their typefaces are, however others have hinted many of their typefaces by hand.
Bigelow expressed resourcefulness in type design is important, yet challenging. When asked about what resources; i.e. websites, mentors, books, etc., could be recommend to learn more about programming typefaces he attested, “this is difficult!” He discloses he learned from doing calligraphy, from reading books and articles by Zapf, Frutiger, and other designers, and from practicing. He added in that they have designed numerous types and styles, more than have been released commercially. “Those efforts constantly taught Bigelow and Holmes something useful that could be used in the next design that did get released,” revealed Bigelow. “There are many more books about type design today than when we started some 36 years ago, plus web sites, visual presentations, digital tools, and so on,” says Bigelow. It’s true, it’s much easier to learn and practice type design now than in decades past. “The real question is,” imparts Bigelow, “what do you want your design to accomplish? Once you know that, then you can use any tool or method that helps you achieve it.” Bigelow clinched the subject with one of the most attentive responses that I have heard yet concerning type design. Bigelow, “I once asked Adrian Frutiger a related question: When you design a type, do you think about how it will look when printed, how the technology influences it, or what? His answer has always been a most useful guide. He [Frutiger] said: I think about how it will look in the mind of the reader.”
What has been your biggest, or most enjoyable, client in creating new typefaces?
Bigelow reminiscing over his career declares almost all their clients have been enjoyable, which encompasses everything from Andrew Hoyem, for whom they designed the initials for his limited edition of Moby Dick, the first big commission for Bigelow and Holmes, to Apple, in which they licensed Lucida Grande for OS X and includes the re-designed of the City fonts for System 7, to Microsoft, which they licensed a great number of Lucida fonts and the design of Wingdings. Much of the work by Bigelow and Holmes is for large technology firms. However, today the on-line font stores, such as Monotype and its subsidiary companies, like FontShop and other firms, provide opportunities for designers to market their fonts. Bigelow suggests a new designer marketing their typefaces should create printed specimen booklets, write their views in blogs, or even start their own on-line font shops. He provides more consideration saying, “some go for an avant-garde look, others a classical look, to appeal to the tastes of various segments of the design profession. There are a lot of possibilities and opportunities now.”
In conclusion, Bigelow recommends to designer new to the discipline they must first understand what inspires them. He suggests discovering, “What you want your design
to express, to accomplish, to say. And then, start from scratch, so it is your design and
says what you want it to say.” In a comfortable testimony Bigelow declares, “A lot of type
design is extremely tedious, and there is no guarantee that it will be financially rewarding, so it is important that it be artistically rewarding to you, the designer. That is what keeps you going.