Exclusive interview with Stefan Claudius

Exclusive interview with Stefan Claudius


Stefan Claudius was born in 1971 and studied design in Essen and Wuppertal; today he works as a designer, typographer and university lecturer. Although Claudius was born and raised in Germany, he does sometimes refer to himself as a ‘Swiss German’ to draw attention to his actual nationality. This is because of his admiration for Swiss graphic design and the fact that he wishes to be “associated a little with it”. He goes on to explain: “For me, the best of Swiss design combines all the merits of Dutch design – the playful and experimental – and the merits of German design, such as meticulousness and diligence.” In 2002, the qualified graphic designer got together with Thomas Schostok to found the font foundry Cape Arcona through which they distribute their own fonts. As a joke, they decided to locate the home of their foundry on the coast of the fantasy state of Arcona, where the two have appointed themselves president and king. All the fonts of this foundry are available from Monotype – click here for more information on the Cape Arcona font library. Not all the fonts designed by Stefan Claudius have appeared through Cape Arcona. One such is the generously conceived Yalta Sans family that was published by Monotype in 2013. You can find out more about this font family in a detailed article that provides extensive information and examples of the font in use.

You taught yourself how to design fonts; this will doubtlessly mean that you have considerable freedom when it comes to the creative process. Do you consider that there are any particular advantages or disadvantages to this approach and if so, what are they?
I think that at first you definitely enjoy more creative freedom simply because you still have fewer mental barriers. But when I look back, I would say that this freedom also meant that I tended to overwork some of my earlier fonts and in certain cases this had a detrimental effect on the integrity of those fonts.
For a long time I was worried that the designers who had actually studied font design might know something that I don’t and that this would prove to be my undoing sooner or later. I am now much more relaxed about the whole thing and console myself with the fact that some of the greatest typographers and font designers were autodidacts – such as W. A. Dwiggins and Stanley Morison.

In the early phase of your font designing career, you undertook a lot of experimentation and created relatively simple bitmap fonts; you have since moved on to producing more complex, extensive text families that have a large range of variants, alternative glyphs, small caps and so on.
Was this transition to a more elaborate design concept the result of a sudden change of heart or a longer development process?

As far as I am concerned, my early fonts were the result of experimentation. They were usually conceived on the basis of a concrete idea or ‘experimental theory’ if you prefer and I learned a great deal from this. I can also imagine that this kind of learning experience is something that many of those who have actually studied font design lack. They are relatively quickly taught how to create the perfect font.

A typeface is only capable of assimilating a certain amount of capriciousness …

But over the course of time, I lost interest in this form of font because it is simply too idiosyncratic and I now wanted to overcome the challenges that the more subtle aspects of typography offered. A typeface is only capable of assimilating a certain amount of capriciousness. Its character is not defined by a single glyph but by its overall effect when used to set text. It is much more difficult and demanding to create this overall effect than it is to design individual ‘eye-catching’ letters for a display font. My conversion to creating more extensively developed fonts was thus the logical consequence of a conscious decision. After all, you do want your fonts to be suitable for use in all contexts.

Is there any font designer or other person who has inspired you or who you see as a role model?
I can’t at the moment think of anyone in particular who I would say has provided me with artistic inspiration. However, I am full of admiration for the two punchcutters Pannartz and Sweynheym who I see as true pioneers in the abstract skill of converting handwritten antiqua to printed text. You really should see some of their texts dating to the 1470s. The evolutionary progress that occurred within just a few years was amazing – several revised versions of their antiqua appeared and each of these was increasingly less like a direct imitation of handwritten calligraphy.

I have a particular fondness for imperfection …

What has had a considerable influence on me is predigital design. I am constantly surprised at what was achieved in the 19th century. There are books in which half a dozen different typefaces are used – each of them to emphasize something – and yet the result still looks very impressive. And what about those title pages on which they employed a good dozen different fonts – simply superb! I also like the fonts of that period. I have a particular fondness for imperfection; the typesetting, the printing, the letters – all of this was not quite perfect – but taken together, they create a striking effect.

Among your design projects are commissions you have undertaken for customers who required you to create fonts that met their specific needs – to what extent does the necessity to comply with such stipulations make the design process more difficult for you?
I don’t find such projects onerous at all. On the contrary, I am particularly excited when a client approaches me with a concrete problem or specific wish. Of course, when you are designing a font for yourself you can do what you like, but I also thoroughly enjoy finding a way around concrete problems. With Thomas Schostok I not only run Cape Arcona but also Capital, a custom type studio, through which we have produced fonts for customers such as Deichmann and Davidoff. But working for smaller clients can also be fun. A company that does grave inscriptions recently contacted us: they hoped that by improving the form of the letters they use they would be able to facilitate and simplify the work process for their employees. They now save 10–15 minutes per inscription and the result actually looks better than it did formerly. I would be only too pleased if more customers would realise to what extent typefaces can be used to make life easier.

It represents the underlying syntax of earlier grotesque typefaces applied to today’s square sans fonts …

Together with Thomas Schostok, you distribute your own fonts through your Cape Arcona Type Foundry. But you have decided to let Monotype publish one of your more recent type families, Yalta Sans. Why was that?
I had the feeling that Yalta was not really compatible with the Cape Arcona range. It represents the underlying syntax of earlier grotesque typefaces applied to today’s square sans fonts. So it’s a font based on an original concept but that is still within the mainstream. That’s why I thought Linotype would be an appropriate distributor of this font. I also wanted to see what difference it would make when a font is published by a large rather than small company. When Monotype publishes a font, many more people get to hear of it than when Cape Arcona launches a new typeface. But perhaps, in the end, there won’t be so much of a difference after all. Let’s wait and see.

Die Cape Arcona Type Foundry is going from strength to strength and it now has a diverse typeface library that includes sans, serif, script and display fonts. Have your priorities changed or has there been some form of personal development on your part? Or perhaps the needs of your customers dictate what kind of new fonts you create?
Well, happenstance influences a lot of what we do. Some of our fonts, such as Oskar and Postal, originated as commissions and we then developed them to the point where we could sell them commercially, while in other cases our fonts are the result of an original special idea or flash of inspiration. But we always consider the commercial viability of our fonts in advance before we spend time on fully knocking them into shape. At the same time I must admit that so far I have been unable to predict what will appeal to customers. Although that makes it all the more exciting every time, it would of course be great if you knew in advance what you had to do to make a font into a best-seller.

You not only work as a font designer but also teach typography and font design at various institutes of higher education. Has teaching and the contact with young designers who are in training changed in any way your attitude to the creative process of typeface design?
I really enjoy working with students; it gives me the opportunity to consider the world of graphic design through other eyes than my own. Lucky for me, because you often tend to think that your own world view is the only viable one.

…I am really impressed by what our predecessors managed to achieve …

Are there any principles or values you’ve grasped through experience that you try to teach your students?
I try to show them that good design is not merely the result of one brilliant idea but generally involves a long, labour-intensive process; while it is true that you do need to input ideas into this process, even the very best idea will come to nothing if it is not correctly implemented. Once you’ve understood this, you are less inhibited when undertaking a project because you’re not thinking all the time: “I absolutely need a brilliant idea right now”. At the same time, I am really impressed by what our predecessors managed to achieve. Concepts that might appear to be old-fashioned to us now could well have been revolutionary in their own day. I think in general it is always best not to jump to conclusions – and that is something that I also hope I make clear to my students.

Are you also interested in calligraphy?
I’ve studied calligraphy a little so that I can teach it to my students but I am certainly no master in the discipline and I marvel at people who are skilled in it.

What would a Yalta Serif look like? …
Is there any aspect of font design that you have yet to try out or that you would like to experiment with?
What I would really like to do is design a gigantic font family that incorporates all the main font design trends of the 19th century – from classicistic fonts, through Scotch Romans, serif-accentuated variants, to the Italiennes and the grotesques. They would all be compatible so that it would be possible to combine them one with another. That, at least, is what I dream of doing. But, I suppose when I’m in a more realistic frame of mind I think about things like: “What would a Yalta Serif look like?” or “How do I go about creating a new classicistic font that would be suitable for the year 2014” or even “How do you design an Italienne so that it doesn’t look puerile?” There is still so much to do …

What other professional and private interests and passions do you have outside the areas of typography and font design?
As you have already pointed out, I am more than just a font designer. I love corporate design and books – you only need to look at my office to see that that is the case. I also play guitar in the band Volvopenta; we play a kind of post-krautrock music.