Critical spirit of a telephone book

by Robin Kinross

The new Dutch phone book is a national event. Modernist lowercase has yielded to the subtle “Modern Traditionalism” of Martin Majoor.

Since privatisation in 1989, the Dutch PTT has tried to resolve its strong tradition of support for art and design with the new commercial imperatives. These forces led PTT Telecom to a reconsideration of its phone book, which since late 1994 is being issued in a new format. The pure list of subscribers is now combined with a commercial section (on pink paper) and these two parts are prefaced by an extensive information section. The whole becomes a quality reference work rather than a meagre list. Fifty regional books cover the country. Advertising is being sold by TeleMedia, a daughter-company of the Swedish telecom business, Telia. With these “combined books”, PTT Telecom now competes on superior terms with the Dutch Yellow Pages (published by ITT), and is in a position to sell elements of its new design internationally.

The Dutch must have been the first to use professional designers for the page layout of phone books. These were Wim Crouwel and Jolijn van de Wouw, working within Total Design, who for the first fully automated books (of 1977) radically rethought the typographic conventions. 

PTT phone book by Total Design, 1977 (left)
PTT phone book revised by Total Design, 1983 (right).

Numbers were placed before names: the two vital components were then next to each other, and no dot leaders were needed to join them. The typeface was a condensed Univers: a real designed letter in place of the vernacular grotesques that had been the norm. And – most astonishing of all – no capital letters were used. Crouwel argued that the very limited character-set of the CRT typesetting machine left a choice of either capitals or punctuation to distinguish surnames from initials, and he preferred the latter. So the Modernist dream of single alphabet typography could at last be authentically realised. There were complaints about the small size of type, and whines from people who “didn’t want to be known as numbers”. A few years later, some aspects were softened in a redesign by Crouwel and Total Design: type-size was increased, three rather than four columns per page were used, a set of more open numerals was designed (by Gerard Unger and Chris Vermaas), and phone numbers were put at the end of lines. But, strangely, the all-lowercase typography was maintained.

After privatisation, there was a growing feeling within PTT Telecom that something needed to be done about the phone book. But the project of redesign started informally in 1992, as an initiative of two designers, Jan-Kees Scheivis and Martin Majoor. Schelvis had been designing covers for the phone books for some years, and realised that the whole book needed a rethink. Majoor said to him jokingly “then I’ll make a typeface for it”. They went to R. D. E. (“Ootje”) Oxenaar, then head of the Art & Design Department at the PTT, to explain their ideas: inclusion of post codes, capital letters at the start of proper names, space rather than punctuation, numbers before names again, and a typeface that would save space and offer new features. Oxenaar, very open to all this, asked them to put their thoughts on paper. After doing that they got a budget and three months to develop these ideas into a workable visual form.

Although the new books are new in respect, of every design element, they are most interesting for their microtypography: the letters, word spaces and organisation of text, within the line. Here, Martin Majoor played the leading role, finding that the design of the characters and their treatment in the lists had to go hand in hand. Majoor, aged 34 and one of the horde of “young Dutch type designer”, broke into typeface design with Scala, the first serious text typeface to be issued by FontShop – and now one of its best sellers. That was in 1991, and two years later he followed it up with Scala Sans. The new phone book typeface, Telefont, continues this line of thinking. “Humanist sans serif” is the best technical description for these last two typefaces – which means that the forms of the letters follow the lines of pre-industrial romans, that the italic is a real italic (not a sloped roman), that the character-set includes small capitals and has non-lining numbers as a norm.

PTT phone book, 1994.

We are dealing here with a new spirit in typography. Let us call it Modern Traditionalism. This means that traditional values, of skill, subtlety, and an embrace of the full resources of typography, are deployed in thoroughly modern contexts. It also means that the old dichotomy of “Modern” versus “traditional” is swept away: any means are used, as appropriate. No wonder that this approach should get along so well in the liberal and open Dutch society. Having got the go-ahead to work up their ideas, Schelvis and Majoor worked intensively to meet a March 1993 deadline. A trial printed specimen from that time shows their early ideas intact. Numbers were still before names, though this idea was later reluctantly discarded at the wish of the client. Final approval came at the end of 1993, after a presentation to PTT Telecom and TeleMedia.

For the typeface design, Majoor relied significantly on collaboration with Fred Smeijers, designer of the full-blooded sixteenh/twentieth-century Low-Countries typeface Quadraat. Schelvis worked on the overall “information-wayfinding” design of the book.

True to his education, Majoor first drew the letters in pencil on paper – still the best way to think visually. Smeijers helped with digitising the letters and so naturally provided Majoor with necessary critical dialogue. A starting point for the new design was the wish to maximise the difference of weight between names in bold and addresses in medium. Majoor interestingly cut a corner here by testing degrees of weight with another typeface: the Adobe Multiple-Masters font Myriad. From satisfactory experiments with this typeface, he could read off stroke widths and apply them to his new design.

Telefont List drawn by Martin Majoor.

Here we should step back and contrast this project with its predecessors in the Netherlands and elsewhere. There is one large difference. Martin Majoor was working in Ikarus and then Fontographer to produce PostScript Type 1 outline fonts – for typesetting on Scitex machines that also use PostScript. So there was nothing in between the designed and the output forms. The last landmark in phone book typefaces, Bell Centennial (designed by Matthew Carter in 1978), is a low-resolution bitmap typeface for CRT typesetting machines. It incorporates all the “spikes” and “inktraps” necessary to appear untouched by the double ordeal of this typesetting process and high-speed weboffset printing on short-life paper. After tests, Majoor found that such compensations for formal distortion were hardly necessary. This and the effectively unrestricted character-set – by contrast to the severe constraints that Crouwel suffered and enjoyed – gave Majoor and his colleagues much greater freedom. But now some new constraints of content appeared: post codes, fax and mobile numbers, advertisements.

The new phone book typography follows a complex, double-pronged course. For the list itself, Majoor made a robust and simplified “industrial” typeface (Telefont List) which does without the refinements of small caps, non-lining numbers, ligatures and kerning pairs. Initial capital letters and word-spaces are deployed rather than the lowercase and punctuation of the Crouwel design. Turnover lines are indented, a procedure that helps meaning but offends tidy-minded Modernist dogma. Post codes are set in reduced-size capitals. But in the typically flexible Modern Traditional spirit, for the introductory pages Martin Majeor designed a variant typeface for continuous text: Telefont Text. Here, characters are a little expanded in width, capital height is larger, x-height less, and the full resources of small caps and non-lining numbers are provided.

The typography of the new Dutch phone book certainly possesses an air of visual assurance that is lacking in books still conceived in the vernacular-grotesque tradition. Any doubts that one has are connected more with its editorial conventions. Thus, the heavy visual emphasis given to names and initials runs counter to the habitual Dutch practice of ordering strings of the same surname according to alphabetically listed street names rather than a person’s first names. Could punctuation have helped to sort out and clarify the letters that follow on from a surname – especially complex in Dutch orthography? In these conditions of space-scarcity, and given the boldness of the typeface here, one can understand the designers’ wish to do without extra marks. Majoor’s intentions are set out in a specification that runs to 60 pages of A4.

The issue of the first book, for the Utrecht region, has met with some criticism from users. People and businesses have been left out of the book, and there is considerable inconsistency in the conventions of presenting and ordering entries in the list. This is a data preparation and coding fault, and will be corrected by the PTT and TeleMedia.

The new phone books will survive these teething problems: a very workable typographic foundation has been laid. So it is clear that responsible and lively public design is still possible in the age of privatisation. At least it is in the Netherlands.

© Robin Kinross. Published in Eye – The International Review of Graphic Design, No. 16, vol. 4, Spring 1995