New faces | Telefont

by Emily King

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with an interest in graphic design. On May 25, 1995 she visited my studio in Arnhem for an interview about Scala and Telefont, to be used in a chapter for her PhD ‘New Faces’.  The part about Telefont can be found here.


Martin Majoor’s most significant type design project of the early 1990s has been the creation of a new font for the redesigned Dutch telephone book, a face that came to be called Telefont. The overhaul of this directory came about at the initiation of Majoor and his partner in the project, the graphic designer Jan-Kees Schelvis, both of them realising that, in the wake of privatisation, the Dutch PTT needed to rethink certain aspects of its design programme. Previously the phone book had been designed by Total Design, who had revised their original 1977 version in 1983. In 1992 Majoor and Schelvis’s task was to replace the Total Design’s mechanically-driven index with something that appeared more humane. In that year they began to collaborate upon a proposal for a new format, Majoor concentrating upon the typeface and Schelvis upon the layout. A little over a year later, after initial trials, they were given the go-ahead to redesign the directory.

Rather than immediately considering the forms of the Telefont alphabet, Majoor approached the task by first considering the rhythm of the typeface on the directory page: “I wasn’t sure about the boldness of the name and the boldness of the street typography, but I knew there must be a big difference. What I did was to use another typeface, Multiple Master Myriad. I interpolated lots of weights of this typeface and made a mock-up of layout for a telephone directory with this typeface, allowing me to see fairly quickly see how the bold/light combination should work.”

In this way, Majoor used recent type design technology to allow him to experiment in a manner that had not been accessible to designers of a previous generation. Possibly the facility for constantly checking designs encouraged Majoor and Schelvis in the formation of their quietly radical approach to the overall layout. Standardly the telephone book has been considered as no more than a mass of information, and former designers of directories have appeared to believe that these books are navigated in a mechanical fashion. Majoor and Schelvis’s approach is novel in that they appear to have considered the phone book almost as a block of continuous text and, as such, have offered readers typographic clues to guide them through the information that it contains.

Set within the columns of the phone book, the sans serif typeface Telefont displays a character and rhythm that carries the information seeker along. This is achieved not only through the contrasts between bold and light that Majoor used as his starting point, but also through the letterforms themselves. While not being complex or contrived in its construction, the alphabet of Telefont is invested with a number of subtle but distinctive attributes. Through features such as the extension of the lower case f below the baseline and the swooping upper case J, the face manages to strike a middle way between being either too bland or too intrusive.

Majoor and Schelvis’s design, which became current in 1995, humanised what had formerly been the starkest of pieces of information design. Majoor has said that his approach was determined by the need to offer “the people the best way of understanding”. Presenting readers with the kinds of “contrasts” with which their eyes are already familiar, Majoor believed he had arrived at a genuinely “more communicative” solution.Robin Kinross has described Majoor’s mode of practice as “modern traditionalism”.* This term, which gives the designer credit for combining the pursuit of progress with a respect for established values, has been enthusiastically adopted by Majoor. Since the late 1980s, Majoor has used the type design technology that has been available to him to pursue a distinctive typographic project. Majoor’s solutions to the typographic problems which he has undertaken have been unfailing rational, but also decidedly humane, a combination of qualities that fit well with the commonplace characterisations of the concerns prevalent within Dutch design culture.

          * Kinross, Robin, ‘Critical Spirit of a Telephone Book’, pp.6-7, Eye, 16/1995.

© Emily King, 1999. ‘New Faces – type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)’.