Long Distance Saving

by Peter Hall

A new Dutch typeface may send Bell Centennial a wake-up call.

What is the distinguishing trait of a typeface from the Netherlands? “It has something to do with flat land, a very compelling horizon, a lot of sky,” the Dutch type designer Gerard Unger has said, “and the Dutch character – almost too much common sense”. If this whimsical critique is true, then Telefont, the new typeface of the PTT phone book, slides into the lowlands lettering landscape with unquestioning ease. Designed by Martin Majoor, with help from designer Fred Smeijers, Telefont brings a distinctively Dutch elegance to a design that must be as practical as possible to stand up to the rigorous needs of a phone book.

The new Dutch phone book: formerly a hunting ground of lowercase Univers type,
now a faster read, courtesy of Telefont List (left) and Telefont Text (right).

Majoor’s list of Telefont’s sensible attributes is dutifully long; it is a sans serif (no room for flourishes) that is narrow (in order to fit more characters on a line), with a large x-height (for better legibility at small sizes), short ascenders and descenders (for less leading and therefore more lines), small capitals (to fit more characters on a line) and a sharp contrast between regular and bold (for better retrieval when reading). Flowed into Majoor’s original four-column grid for the phone book, Telefont would have used 25 percent less paper and ink, and saved equal amounts of binding, storage, distribution and disposal costs. As it was, the PTT decided to use a three-column grid for advertising space purposes, and saved itself 12 percent.

Variations on a theme: the compact, simplified workhorse Telefont List (bottom) for the phone booklistings, and a flowing, slightly expanded text version (top) for the introductory pages.

But to demonstrate that there’s more to Telefont than commonsense economics, Majoor compares it to Bell Centennial, the typeface of the American phone book. “Bell Centennial has all these strange ink traps and spikes for old reproduction techniques,” he says, but Telefont, since it is typeset as a PostScript font (rather than bitmapped) it has more room for aesthetics, for “openess and sharpness.” Two versions were created by Majoor as he and designer Jan-Kees Schelvis worked on the redesign of the phone book (a one-and-a-half year project): Telefont list, for the listings pages; and Telefont Text, a slightly wider face, with longer ascenders and descenders, non-lining figures and ligatures, for the information pages at the start of the book. Majoor describes the contrast between the two with a deceptively philosophical footnote: “The most-used typeface has the least possibilities; the least-used typeface has the most possibilities.”

And therein lies another Dutch characteristic; even the letterforms look like philosophical observations.

© Peter Hall. Published in I.D., The International Design Magazine, May/June 1995