Typecache Interview #03: Jean François Porchez

November 20, 2012

Jean François Porchez is the founder of the independent type foundry Typofonderie and the bespoke typefaces company called ZeCraft. He is one of the most remarkable type designers in France. He has created many custom typefaces including the Le Monde family for the French newspaper Le Monde and the Paris Metro typeface Parisine. ZeCraft has been producing award-winning fonts such as Deréon, Parisine Office, Vuitton Persona, AW Conqueror and Retiro. Typofonderie’s latest release, Geneo, a collaboration with Stéphane Elbaz won them the TDC2 in 2009. Typecache had the great opportunity to spend some time with Jean François Porchez and asked him about his work designing typefaces and the evolution of his business.

Photo: PaulDimalanta.com
For the AIGA event in Los Angeles, Feb 2012

You’ve recently updated your website design and changed the name from Porchez Typofonderie to Typofonderie, what was the intention behind the major changes?

I quit my job and launched Porchez Typofonderie in October 1994 to finish my first bespoke typeface, Le Monde – which had just accepted by the newspaper of the same name. In the middle of the 90’s, selling fonts meant building Type 1 fonts for Macintosh and TrueType fonts for Windows. Selling fonts wasn’t easy: you receive a call, send back a price list + license by fax, double check the fax, receive the order, add the licensee info to the Filemaker database, prepare the invoice on QuarkXpress (well‚ that’s what I had!), proceed to manually enter credit card info, create floppy discs, and then finally send the package by post or international express courier.

With my website launched in 1997, the process was similar until direct payment and download options became prevalent in October of 1999. I still recall the amazing changes in term of sales that very month. In 2003, the Typofonderie website was revamped in XHTML + CSS (as noted by Joe Clark, ours was among the first compliant with the W3C in the type industry).

In the beginning, a foundry for me was simply a place where a guy can perform his skills: working on bespoke typefaces, piece of lettering, logotypes and directly selling his own typefaces (as digital fonts). The development of web retailing and immediate downloads has changed the course of the type industry. The proliferation of independent foundries is a telltale sign that we’ve reached an ‘age of reason’ – typefaces are marketed by the same people who designed them. The past five years have seen an accelerating profusion of typeface designs released – new typefaces are released every few hours now! I do not belong anymore to the current generation of young designers, having become active in the 90’s. As younger designers look to the work of myself and my peers, we too learned much from preceding generations.

Typofonderie Website

For years, “Typofonderie” was the main name under which I was personally active for fifteen years, but in 2009 I took the time to think about the future of the foundry and what changes could be made. How could I move forward from my years teaching young designers; giving time to Rencontres internationales de Lure and then ATypI; helping as many people as I could to pursue typeface design as their principal activity; and acting as a consultant suggesting reputable foundries for worthwhile type designs of others? The answer was more easy than expected: changing the nature of Typofonderie – shifting from the model of one-person foundry to a foundry that represents other designers, as well. My hope is that the individuals I choose to work with gain from my reputation for high quality and exacting standards. For years, I accumulated experience and built a vision of what quality and creativity means in type design, as well as having learned how to sell typefaces with a degree of acumen. The time seemed right, though there is no guarantee of success.

We developed this new strategy for Typofonderie with a few close friends and decided to completely separate our activity crafting bespoke typefaces, lettering and logotype activity from the foundry, operating under the name ZeCraft. Véronique joined me as principal associate and I gained immensely from her excellent management and organization skills. Our objective is to build a future as a team. Now, ZeCraft has a number of bespoke typeface projects underway and this activity is being undertaken independently of Typofonderie.

ZeCraft Website

Geneo has been released in May 2012 and it was the very first font designed jointly with another designer, namely Stéphane Elbaz, under the name of Typofonderie. How was the process of making it and how did you collaborate?

I meet Stéphane in 2003 as one of the students at my typeface design course at ENSAD. This course was a type design class open to anyone interested in this school. Between 1997 and 2004, the course was split into two parts: the first semester was dedicated to learning the basics of typeface design, and the second semester to a group project. As the course developed, the second semester was generally dedicated to a revival of an existing typeface, but in 2004, we built the brief for the course’s second semester around TypeCooker, an incredibly interesting Python script. Stéphane was a major contributor to this project, the outcome of which was a typeface called Cooker Black – a double reference to Type Cooker and the influential 1930s typeface Cooper Black. Stéphane showed an incredible ability to understand counterforms, shapes and beautifully crafted letterforms.

We weren’t in contact for a few year after that project, as Stéphane was focused on building his own design career. However, in 2007 he sent me some specimens of various typefaces he had been working on and I proposed that he join Typofonderie for the summer in order to help finish some of his designs for release. Geneo was one that he worked intensively on and was later recognized for in the TDC2 type design competition. It was clear to me that Stéphane had many skills and I was happy that I wasn’t alone in recognizing his talent. We spoke about my intention to open the foundry to external designers. He was interested and influenced me to as to how Typofonderie could develop.

Between 2009 and 2012, Stéphane sent me test proofs of Geneo monthly and I gave regular feedback, pushing the quality of Geneo to the Typofonderie standard. It was an interesting experience on both sides – he learned a lot about typeface design and production, while simultaneously pushing us to develop a clear production process – something which is never-ending!.

Tom Grace began working with us in the middle of the 00’s and we decided to switch to English as our main language from design to production. The objective was to increase productivity, using the best skills of people at the right time of the process. Mathieu Réguer, another team member, was also a crucial contributor in that he is well organized, possesses a good working methodology and has great design skills. Internal production for Typofonderie and ZeCraft are completely different. We have different goals and methods for working with external designers.

Geneo (for more details see here)

How do Typofonderie’s designers work on each project?

ZeCraft problematics are different, in a sense, as we have to meet client-driven deadlines. With Typofonderie we build our own range of typefaces, are much more flexible, and the result is based on our own internal strategy. Depending on the period, our team works either on Typofonderie typefaces or on ZeCraft projects. Last winter, we had to completely rebuild the Typofonderie license agreements, pricing system, and the whole typeface library. While this initiative seemed like bad news, the final result was 400(!) updated fonts available from a new website designed by the fabulous Paravel team. Designers worked on a particular aspect of the project in regard to their abilities and skills. Senior designers gain independence, take responsibilities while the youngest designers needed more guidance but learned more everyday. A young member of the team generally needs a year or so to understand the basics of our design and production process.

On the Typofonderie side, several new typefaces will be released soon. External designs generally require only a few days at the very final production stages. Still, there is a lot going on there to move our existing designs to renovated PRO versions. For example, Le Monde Livre Classic PRO is now finished – we have added a lot of OpenType functionality and features. A new sans serif design with multiple caps and lowercase characters is almost finished, and a new newspaper typeface is under production, as well.

Le Monde Livre Classic (for more details see here)

For ZeCraft, I’m always involved in the early stage of new projects, from the quotation phase through initial design presentations to clients. As our designers gain experience, I’m able to act as type director. As of summer 2012, we have several projects underway: A multi-layered typeface for a cosmetic brand, featuring Greek and Cyrillic variants. A large family, including Sans in 2 axes, Serif, Graved, Script variants, etc. Another sans serif for a major French retailer in two weights. Plus, a few others projects going on.

Sometimes, I have the feeling that the custom type design industry is at a similar stage as it was for design industry back in the 60’s. We have to invent new processes, from client interaction to production, keeping costs as low as possible to be competitive, while always keeping in mind high creativity, quality and ethics.

Various works from ZeCraft:
1: Logotypes and lettering,
2: Singulier for Yves Saint Laurent Beauté,
3: Retiro for Madriz magazine,
4: Henderson for The Boston Consulting Group,
5: Vuitton Persona for Louis Vuitton Malletier

How do you like teaching at Type@Cooper? Is it different to you comparing teaching at Reading University?

This summer experience at Type@Cooper was formidable. Cara di Edwardo built few programs together in a creative way: Extended, Condensed, and workshops lectures. It’s a new vision and not at all in competition with international master typeface design programs like at KABK or Reading University. The Type@Cooper Extended program is a year-long but it’s an evening program, so people can continue to work as they usually do as graphic designers. I was invited to participate to the Condensed program as it was in its second year. The first group was in the good hands of Just van Rossum and Hannes Famira. They both learned at the KABK – we called them “The Dutch Team” while my group was a joint adventure with Stéphane Elbaz, referred as “The French Team”.

When Cara proposed to me to join her team few months ago, I tried to find out what was the most effective way to teach a group of students from all over the world for only five weeks. I came to the conclusion that building a team with two persons with a similar vision would be more effective. Cara and the type design master Sumner Stone have built the Summer program with the idea of exploring multiple visions of the type design learning process. During the program, our students gained from exchanges with the Dutch team and reverse. Many external skillful designers have been invited as guest critics including Erik van Blokland, Cyrus Highsmith, Sara Soskolne, and Jesse Ragan. Sumner delivered very good lectures on various aspects of history of writing and typography. I describe him as our “Type Jedi” – always ready to resolve difficult problems that students may have with their designs. Every few weeks, Cara organized visits to eminent places in New York – from The Lubalin Center to The Grolier Club, as well as other libraries and collections. It’s clear that the interaction and the openness of the faculty is the key to the success of this program. It’s a rich and unique mix of clear methodologies developed by faculty as to how to learn type design alongside the valued input of a number of external individuals, each bringing different visions.

It’s interesting to compare the Dutch method of type education with the French version, as each has its base in writing with a nib pen as its foundation in creating letterforms. While France and the Netherlands are not so far apart geographically, how each team’s course was structured created unique insight while simultaneously providing the individual faculty with insight and inspiration. Personally, I learned much in terms of methodological approaches to teaching – it was so powerful and there was so much energy that this “condensed” course felt “extended” to me.

Photos from CooperType 2012: Final (for more details see here)

Can you tell us little bit about the current Type Design situation in France?

When I was in charge of the organization of the ATypI conference in Lyon in 1998, we published Lettres Françaises, a publication that included almost all of the digital typefaces published or unpublished from designers living in France at that time. Several designers have appeared on the scene in France since, and its fantastic to see how students at that time – like Xavier Dupré – have designed so many great typeface over the past ten years. Xavier remains my favorite French competitor.

In the 90’s only François Boltana (1950–1999) and few others like AinsiFont were directly distributing their typefaces. Signum Art remains today the unique local font distributor, as FontShop France closed its doors a few years ago. In recent years, a few small foundries have emerged in France – some more interesting than others, though it’s impossible to list them all here. I can’t wait to see what Typographies.fr, Bureau 205, and the recent LongType will become in ten years time!

Regarding typeface design courses, the École Estienne course still remains an important place in France, as a lots of people discovered type design here. Some other courses at various levels have opened in Amiens, Lyon, Paris and Toulouse. It takes time to see the results of these courses in professional life, but it’s clear that they are contributing to the growing interest in typography in our country.

We have many books published about typography and very well-made books on type designs by few independent publishers, such as the Atelier Perrousseaux, Ypsilon and others. More and more these books have been published in French and English. The best consequence has been the publication of two books about Roger Excoffon!

The Ministère de la Culture has also organized few events and publications to promote type design in recent years. As for French design awards, The Club des Directeurs Artistiques launched the Typography category in their annual competition two years ago. The first TypoCamp was organized in June 2012 and they announced a larger event next year. In general, the French type design scene is going well!

Jean François at his office / Photos by Pascal Béjean

You have custom fonts that support Greeks and Cyrillic – do you design those character set by yourself or with other designers? There has been much demand for type that supports many languages – do you think it’s best that each extended language set is created by a designer whose mother language is the target?

At ZeCraft, when we have to design Greek and Cyrillic, we take advice from colleagues from the respective region. It’s clear that the common roots with Latin makes the design relatively easy. However, with others cases, such as Arabic, we need strong advice from the start and continuing throughout the full process. For these cases, we hire designers specifically for this goal, whole also constantly checking with other colleagues specialized in said visual language. It’s crucial for bespoke typefaces which are used as a core branding element of a new product that will be launched by our clients. The recognition of the underlying base shapes should be immediate and in total respect of the tradition underlying each regional orthography.

Jean François’ sketch book

How do you get started with designing type? What software do you use to design? Additonally, are there any features not available in current software which you yearn for?

Software is a reflection of the development period. I started designing complete typefaces on paper in 1989, used Agfa Copy Proof for my artwork and tests, then proceeded to design using Ikarus at that time. Since then, Fontographer, Robofog, FontLab, Superpolator and others recent tools have come into play. A tool should never dictate the design – it is more the reverse – when a tool doesn’t permit what we desire as an outcome, we have to switch tools and find alternative solutions. As designers, we have to resolve client problems, which are in essence, design problems. A client comes with a precise (and occasionally not) idea of what he or she wants, but there is always another way to look at a problem. Approaching problems from different perspectives pushes us all toward innovation and ultimately, creative solutions. Software and tools are just a piece of this everyday creative puzzle. Asking questions and seeking undiscovered territories is the best attitude we can have as designers.

The Morisawa Type Design Competition resumed this year. You won one of the Jury’s Special awards more than ten years ago. What has changed regarding your approach to type design since then?

Actually without the Morisawa Award, I would not be a practicing type designer today. I was a poor student in my third year of Graphic Design study when I submitted my initial typeface, Angie, back in 1990. As a student, one is full of doubts about one’s future and capacities. Sending a project to a professional and qualitative competition such as the Morisawa competition is extremely useful. It helped me to understand what to do with my future, and confirmed my love with the next next Morisawa Award, won with my Apolline. I wish the best for all participants and winners this year. Let’s see what these people will become in twenty years. It should be really interesting.

Angie original drawings, 1990, before Morisawa awards and Morisawa award certification

Thank you Jean François for the interview!

Interviewed by Taro Yumiba and Akira1975 / edited by Ian Lynam (Info.)