A usefull instrument

by Jan Middendorp

The new telephone guide is introduced, in a new design by Jan-Kees Schelvis and with a new type – Telefont – from the Arnhem type- and book designer Martin Majoor, who also took care of the typography. The new guide is intended to be a usefull instrument. After all, average dutch citizens must be able to find the information they want, even if they are impatient, in a rush, or having forgotten their glasses.

When this article comes off the press, the presentation of the new Dutch telephone guides will have taken place and the first of the books in the new design will have been distributed. There is reason to believe that the guides will meet less resistance than did the present design, which was developed by Total Design in the middle of the 1970’s as part of a largescale computerization operation. Then the introduction of the telephone book, with its distinctive layout without capitals and its uniform page image, led to a storm of protest, particularly from ‘average’ telephone book users. This instinctive resistance was perhaps not exclusively inspired by conservative impulse. More than many other designs, the Total Design guide embodied the paradox of functionalism that Wim Crouwel so subtly skirted in the interview in Items 5/6, 1993: the paradox that many functionalist designs are developed out of a narrowly defined design principle rather than out of function. For a long time, functionalist design has not been functional.

Martin Majoor in 1994, mirroring the bold ‘a’ of Telefont List in his glasses
(photo: Nienke Terpsma).

The type that Wim Crouwel chose for the guides in those days was a standard type in Total Design's repertoire: Frutiger’s Univers. Definitely not the ideal type for telephone books, which should have very specific qualities: small and yet clear, perfectly readable in small point sizes and in variable printing quality. The major concession to usability was the replacement of the Univers figures with a new series drawn up by Gerard Unger and Chris Vermaas. The telephone book remained its distinctive self for about 15 years: a modernistic piece of design that placed rather high demands on the user's powers of concentration.

If, as you can assume, Jan-Kees Schelvis and Martin Majoor were reacting against the Total Design guide, it was primarily for the fast reason. The new telephone book is first of all intended as a useful instrument, geared to daily use by average Dutch citizens, who must be able to find what they are looking for, even when they are impatient or in a hurry, or are leafing through the guide without their reading glasses.

That the project would be entrusted to Jan-Kees Schelvis was obvious: since 1990 this resident of Groningen had been doing the design for the cover and the information section of the ‘old’ books. The project for a new guide was a direct consequence of the privatization of the telephone company.

‘In the course of 1992 I understood, from informal contacts with people at Telecom, that there were plans for a new, more commercial guide,’ says Schelvis. ‘Then I said, please use a designer, and don’t get started with some advertising agency. I went to Ootje Oxenaar of the Art and Design department and let him know that I would like to make a proposal. In the meantime I had spoken with Martin Majoor during a meeting at the Academy at Arnhem, where we both taught. A bit in fun, we came to the conclusion that he would have to make a new typeface for the telephone book. I suggested Martin to Oxenaar. He asked himself immediately why, in the land of Gerard Unger, he should set out on a project with a less known typographer. But after a presentation he was quickly convinced. Subsequently we received a study-contract for a preliminary design. Our plan succeeded because of the usability and because layout, typography and type design all were fully coordinated with each other. Furthermore, the design saved space, and was thus more economical.’

 Fragment from the new telephone guide, 1994

If you consider the new generation of book and type designers in The Netherlands, then Martin Majoor indeed seems the obvious man to draw up a new type for a telephone book. He couples a thorough knowledge of the typographic tradition with wide experience with large computer systems, obtained at the graphics software firm URW in Hamburg and at Océ in The Netherlands. He has attained international stature thanks to Scala, a typeface issued by FontShop. He produced Scala Serif about five years ago for the printed materials from the Vredenburg Music Centre, in Utrecht. The type was developed to meet strict functional demands.

‘Vredenburg worked with Macintosh computers,’ explains Majoor, ‘and in those days the typefaces available for Macs were very limited. There were no typefaces with small capitals and old-style figures, although those were precisely the things which would be necessary for programme brochures. Moreover, it had to have clean, open letters that would come out well in laser printing and photo copying. Then I got the time to make up a new typeface. For one year, Vredenburg had exclusive use of this type, before it went commercial.’

Majoor himself describes Scala Serif as ‘based on a humanistic model with influences from different periods of style.’ Since then, the Algemeen Dagblad has adopted it. Last year, the Scala family was completed with Scala Sans, a sanserif with the same humanistic qualities. Scala Sans has been acclaimed internationally as fully the equal of Gill Sans, more substantial and, especially, more beautiful than comparable new American types such as Stone Sans and Lucida Sans. In contrast to other sanserifs such as Univers and Syntax, which just employ a slanted version of the roman face, it is important that Scala Sans (just like Lucida and Stone) has a real italic that refers to handwriting. This principle was also important in the design of the telephone book type: after all, a real italic differentiates itself better from the roman, and gives a clearer image.

Says Majoor, ‘The principle difference between the old telephone book and the new one is the contrast. The city names at the top of the pages are a bit larger, there’s more contrast between the names and the addresses. Because we use capitals for the initials, we could do without all the periods and commas in the old guide. The second line of every entry is indented, so that it’s easier to concentrate on the initial letters when looking something up.’

Telefont List and Telefont Text. Economy and readability in small point sizes were the criteria for the development of Telefont List. Telefont List was also used for the headings throughout the guide, in which its space-saving character works well. For Telefont Text on the other hand, the designer wanted a full text type, including ligatures and small capitals. Here economy was not so much an issue, the user-friendliness of the type was more important.

Before the final decision had been made to design a new type, Majoor and Schelvis did extensive research on existing designs. ‘We looked at all kinds of foreign telephone books,’ says Schelvis. ‘There wasn’t a single one we found wholely satisfactory. We found the Canadian guide that made use of Matthew Carter’s Bell Centennial, a real telephone book type, very attractive. But there too we still had enough things to find fault with. So in the end that brings you around to your own design. I think Telefont is very successful. It’s a very striking, advanced type.’

Majoor designed two type families exclusively for the new guide: Telefont List for the listings pages and Telefont Text for the information section. Telefont Text, a pleasing sanserif text type, is the most complete family, and in addition to roman, italic and bold, contains small capitals and kerned figures. List was created first, and Text was derived from it. ‘Contrast and clarity were the most important values for the creation of the types too. In order to prevent the letters looking too much like each other, we sometimes chose to give some of them a divergent shape. The lowercase ‘f’, for instance, has a small descender, a bit strange in roman, but it gives it a very special image. But in the first place I did that in order to distinguish it from the t’. Some letters have a small serif, such as the ‘a’ and the ‘s’. That was in order to get more sharpness, a sort of reaction to the woolly image that I have of the present guide. In other cases it was a matter of achieving a good balance and not leaving any holes. That’s why the I, the J, the 1 and the 7 have a small serif.’ With an eye to saving space, the capitals of Telefont List are unusually small; that is not the case with the Text version.

Despite the unusual shapes, the relation with Scala Sans is evident. Was Scala the jumping off point? ‘No. When drawing up Telefont, I started with a blank page. But I think that the agreements were unavoidable. I ultimately have preferences for certain shapes and properties. Even when you begin from clearly described technical requirements, such personal, aesthetic aspects still play a role,’ explains Majoor.

In both the type design and the typography, they strived for the greatest possible simplicity. Thus the design involves no kerning tables, which are used for spacing of specific pairs of letters. Because of the imperfections of printing techniques, Majoor examined ‘spikes’ or ‘inktraps’, adaptations to the shape of the letters to prevent them from inking shut. For instance, the 1978 Bell Centennial is known for its characteristic inktraps. ‘I did tests with inktraps,’ says Majoor, ‘but the difference seemed minimal. Typesetting and printing technology has improved enormously over the last 15 years, and such interventions are less necessary. Thus I opted for the simplest shape. The larger a project, the more your thinking must be industrial.’

Spikes and inktraps. In working out Telefont, Majoor got computer support from Fred Smeijers, himself a type designer experienced in the technical aspects of typography. Thus, a number of possible ‘spikes’ and ‘inktraps’ were tested, but ultimately were not used because of improved typesetting and printing techniques.

Telefont was developed exclusively for the Dutch telephone company, and thus can not simply be sold to a foreign telephone company, for instance. In Majoor’s view, that wouldn’t work anyhow. ‘The type and the typography for the new telephone book were developed together, and completely geared to Dutch circumstances. For instance, in The Netherlands almost everyone is in the guide with their initials, while almost everywhere in other countries the names are spelled out in full. The postal code is also given in the new guide, and that is quite specific for The Netherlands. If I were to design or adapt a type for a foreign country, it would have to be a totally new project. Once again, I would want to work very closely with the designer, or I would want to do the typography myself.’

© Jan Middendorp. Published in Items – Review of design, visual communication & archtecture. December 1994