• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Do You Know the Women of Type?

For the better part of the 20th century, designing typefaces was mostly a male-dominated profession, but according to Yulia Popova's research (with the help of Alphabettes website article by Indra Kupferschmid), there were, in fact, a handful of women in Germany designing faces from 1912–1954. Popova found even more—not a majority, but more than you'd have imagined. In the 1990s, during the early digital age, gender roles began skewing toward more women (designing one-off alphabets and complete type families).

Popova's engaging new book, How Many Female Type Designers Do You Know? I Know Many and Talked to Some! (Onomatopee), is not just an academic survey of today's women of type, it is a history of type design in the 21st century from an untold perspective. The title itself is a playful quiz. Popova's illuminating interviews and biographical portraits smash some stereotypes (no pun intended).

The book: Part 1 provides research on gender in type design, including statistics, data and an overview of some works. The biographies of late 19th- and early 20th-century female type designers offer insight into women who contributed to the industry, yet are rarely acknowledged. Part 2 features contemporary interviews with 14 women who are either currently working as type designers or are deeply involved in type and typography. Their respective type specimens completes Part 3.

This is not a coffee-table book (although it could be) but rather a handy, compact guide to the art and craft of the typographic language. The interviewees include an international group: Only a few designers whose work I know well, and, refreshingly, mostly others I do not -- Gayaneh Bagdasaryan, Veronika Burian, Maria Doreuli, Louise Fili, Martina Flor, Loraine Furter, Jenna Gesse, Golnar Kat Rahmani, Indra Kupferschmid, Briar Levit, Zuzana Licko, Ana Regidor, Fiona Ross and the dedicated TDC director, Carol Wahler. Ultimately, this is a must-read volume. Purchase it here and here.

I recently asked Popova, a senior designer at MetaDesign in Berlin, about her book and the need for deeper, inclusive research into type history.

All photos by Axel von Wuthenau

What inspired you to create How Many Female Type Designers Do You Know?

In 2017 I attended the TYPO Berlin conference. I could not help but notice that the percentage of female speakers at the conference was under 30%. I became curious about it and wanted to find out if there are in fact fewer women in type design or not. Further, I was interested in possible social, cultural and historical factors that might have had an influence on the lack of women in type design. When I started my research it was hard to gather information. The only book I had found at the time was Women in Graphic Design, published in 2012. After having trouble collecting information, I wanted to put everything I found in one place to make the work of upcoming researchers easier. And of course I wanted to create a work of reference of female type designers, as this is what I was missing on my bookshelf.

Left page: Table Gothic, Veronika Burian & Jose Scaglione. Right page: Ten Mincho, Ryoko Nishizuka and Robert Slimbach.

Left page: Abhaya Libre, Sol Matas. Right page: Als Dereza, Elena Novoselova.

I love the title. Is there a backstory to it? Did you try different titles or did this just pop up full-blown?

There is actually a backstory. It is quite often that covers need to be changed when the book is being published. Publishers know what book covers [sell] better. In my case, the publisher offered to think about an alternative cover, but did not insist on it. [Publisher] Freek [Lomme] was always respectful to my work.

The old title was TypeFaces. The word was split into two parts: “Type” on the back cover and “Faces” on the front cover. So if you would open the book and look at it from the back you would read “TypeFaces.” Probably no reader would do so, but someone else could see the reader holding the open book. This title was really conceptual from my perspective. The book is not only about typefaces, but mostly about faces (people) who designed these typefaces.

The first part of the book contains a lot of information about designers as well as interviews. Each interview starts with a portrait. That is also why the title seemed very fitting. The last part of the book is more about the type. It is a showcase of works. That is why the word “Type” was fitting to be on the back cover. If you start from the back you start with type. However, I do understand that most probably from the first sight people would not understand it. Also I was told that these minimal typographic covers [do not sell] very well. This is why I [changed] it. Still, I wanted to keep the typographic cover. In the end it is a book about typography. My aim was to have something more interactive, a bit provocative and speaking to a viewer. I wanted to make a person who reads this title think about the topic, even without opening the book. Throughout my project I have asked this question so many times: “How many female type designers do you know?” Putting it on the cover was the great chance to continue asking this question.

Left page: Base 900, Zuzana Licko. Right page: Bega, Sabina Chipara, Diana Ovezea.
Left page: SST Arabic, Nadine Chahine. Right page: Stolzl Display, Mariya Pigoulevskaya.
Left Page: Seol Sans, Minjoo Ham. Right page: Silverspoon, Diana Ovezea.

What was the basis for your selection?

You probably mean the selection of people I have interviewed. I have to admit that in the beginning I had no plan. I started this project as a journey, and every conversation brought me further. My first talks I had with women in the industry as well as women who are active in this discussion. The aim was to learn more about the issue and to prove my assumptions. If the topic of conferences and unequal share of speakers came up, I would reach out to organizers to learn more about the selection process. [It was] important to include different perspectives. I wanted the reader to make up their own mind.

And when it comes to the selection of the work in the showcase part, I tried my best to have designers from all over the world. But it seems to be not enough, as I was criticized for having interviews with mostly Western women. If I have a chance, I would like to edit the book.

Left page: Gebran2005, Nadine Chahine. Right page: Hefring Slab, Mariya Pigoulevskaya.

Were you surprised by how many women are designing letters?

Yes. I was surprised by how many female type designers I found. Even more, I was surprised by the fact that I knew so little about women in type before I started actively looking for them. During the course of my studies and in the typographic literature that surrounded me, there was definitely a lack of female designers and I did not notice it until now.

What is Onomatopee?

Onomatopee or Onomatopee Projects is the name of the publisher that is particularly known for their self-initiated and transdisciplinary projects. It is also a curating and editorially led public gallery. They host the projects of progressive individuals, as well as artist-run and institutional organizations. It was founded in 2006 by Freek Lomme. I was introduced to Freek and he liked my project. It was a pleasure working with him, and I am glad I published this book with them.