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The typographic Times
Jack Yan


[October 2000]
“As people become more aware of identity and branding, type designers will get more work.”
Jack Yan

Jack Yan
& Associates

Can you tell us more about how you, your educational background, your professional resume ?

Of course. I was born in Hong Kong but emigrated with my parents to New Zealand at a young age. I did most of my schooling in New Zealand, but most people are surprised to hear that I never studied design. After Scots College, I read law and commerce at Victoria University and hold three degrees in those areas. But I always loved type, even when I was young.

At age five I was fascinated by scripts; in my teenage years I was very moved by the Swiss sans serif typefaces. I was still at school when I started Jack Yan & Associates (JY&A) in 1987—I had no desire to be a paper boy or work at McDonald’s! It seemed better to run my own outfit.

As the head of a growing design practice, I have done work for many organizations, from UNICEF and Knight-Ridder to the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand and the Hillary Commission (a sports and recreation body in New Zealand).

More recently, my work has taken me online: I designed the first digital version of CAP in 1994 and launched Lucire, now one of the world’s leading online fashion magazines, in 1997.

Is the Yan Series 333 your first commercial typeface ?

Yes, it is. For some of my earlier years I was a calligrapher and the Yan Series reflects my actual hand-lettering. Therefore, you see imperfections which I chose to maintain in the finished typefaces. The f, ff, ffi and ffl are all very different in strokes, for example. Consequently, it maintains a hand-drawn feel although at the same time it is relatively legible in print. It’s only now becoming more popular and has been adopted even by some web-design companies.

I worked on the Yan Series from 1987 and first digitized it in 1993. We released it in 1994 through Precision Type. It was never intended to be a display typeface though: the sidebearings are quite small but I used to write very tightly. It is quite a faithful reproduction of my hand-lettering. Maybe in 70 years’ time someone will revisit it and tidy it up, like they did with Frank Lloyd Wright’s hand-lettering. I think that would be most interesting as a project, provided I was asked first!

The JY Aetna is a revival of the typeface used by Alde Manuce for Bembo’s De Aetna in 1495. What is the challenge for a modern typeface designer to recreate one of the first famous typefaces in history ?

Finding source material! I couldn’t afford then to fly to Italy and relied on reproductions in books. However, that was useful enough for my purposes. Like Yan 333, I wanted to keep some of the imperfections: not to the extent of Hoefler’s HTF Historical Allsorts but enough to make it look a "hot-metal" on a 2,400 dpi imagesetter. I didn’t need perfection, nor did I see Ætna as a replacement for anything Griffo or Monotype did.

The second challenge was completing characters that I didn’t have in the books’ images. I had some idea, of course, from Bembo: I would have been foolish to ignore that altogether. But I felt I redrew them in the spirit of the original; Bembo was created for metal; I had the freedom of digital. This allowed me to work on the numerals, for example, as I thought Griffo might have done and digitized them.
I was trying to break new ground by introducing imperfections without making it very obvious. I think I succeeded when I first saw Ætna in print.

I was flattered to see ITC Caslon in 1998, which was approached with a similar theory. Like Ætna, it preserves some of the imperfections. That was not to everyone’s tastes but I appreciated the theory behind the revival.

Third, there was no italic in the original face. I drew this independently, inspired by the Monotype and Linotype cuts, but never copying from them. I had different weight and optical size considerations. Also, I drew it without reference to the earlier versions, because I didn’t want anyone saying I had copied them. I know Zuzana Licko’s Bodoni revival, Filosofia, was a modern reinterpretation that she drew without copying; Ætna Italic was exactly the same. Filosofia looks very different yet similar to Bodoni; I think Ætna Italic has similarities to Bembo Italic but it has a flavour all its own.

Stanley Morison and the Monotype Company produced in the ’30s their own version, called Bembo. What are the main differences between Bembo and JY Aetna ?

Their version was perfect and you can see that even more in the digitized version, based (I believe) on the 10 pt masters. There’s no denying it’s very beautiful. Mine was consciously imperfect. Not only that, the original examples I had was a 14 pt version so Ætna works best at that size. Therefore, the ascenders and descenders are taller, there is more contrast, it is narrower and the x-height is lower. Finally, Monotype included a lot of the quirks and proportions that had been introduced to the design over the centuries; I tended to target what I saw in the specimens. Look closely at their n and r: there are beautiful and subtle curves on these. Mine are not subtle at all: they are more symmetrical, but that is what I saw in Manutius’s texts—and what I drew.

One of my favourites is still the Bembo that Linotype produced for the old Linotrons and I recently used the nearest relative of this, Bitstream’s Aldine 401, for a book project. I combined this with Ætna and the effect worked very well. I modified the Bitstream fonts greatly, however, incorporating old style numerals based on those in Ætna (they were a pain to get right), and also added double-f ligatures. I chose Aldine 401 over Monotype Bembo because of its short R; the current Monotype cut has a long one which is hopeless for regular text work. 

What’s your latest project ?

My latest project? I’m working on a wonderful sans serif family with a designer in southern Europe. This should see the light of day in a few months. My most recent release was JY Décennie Titling Italic. I drew Décennie Titling without an italic complement in 1997. In fact, Titling was done pretty much on screen without physical drawings. However, I found myself resisting using my own typeface because it didn’t have an italic—and I figured my customers might be turned off by that, too.

So early in 2000 I set to work. I was reviewing FontLab 3.0 for Mac and Fontographer 4.1 for Windows for Desktop magazine in Australia and decided that to write a unique review, I would subject both to a proper font-creation job. That’s how it started. Thus, it’s a more complete typeface because I had the benefit of both programs. And I use it a lot these days: it’s become one of my favourites.

NZ is very far from Europe. Can you tell us the specifics of the Australasian typography market ?

It’s an odd market because we still have many people buying foreign typefaces. I don’t know of many regional corporations opting for locally designed type families for their corporate identities. It’s not like France, where there’s enough awareness of branding for Peugeot SA to commission Lion; or in Germany where companies like Audi consciously use a German typeface (Rotis). Maybe I’m a hypocrite because I drive a Citroën and an Opel Vectra!

There are some examples of custom type, however: Jeremy Tankard was hired to create the new typeface family (Harmony) for Telstra, the Australian equivalent of France Telecom; and Décennie started off as a custom type family for an Australian newspaper—but these situations are few and far between. As people become more aware of identity and branding type designers will get more work. I’ve worked with many US clients, so I have no problems about designers from other countries working on type for clients here.

The courageous ones who go with local foundries such as Prototype Font Design or Type [A] Digital Foundry tend to be independents and smaller concerns. And I applaud them because they are often the ones encouraging the local industry. Even in the United States a lot of my customers tend to be independent designers. Yet technically what we produce is the equal or superior to whatever is made overseas.

Another quirk is the small population, which explains why we haven’t a large body like the Type Directors’ Club celebrating local typography. There have been some very notable efforts at promoting typography Down Under, including Stephen Banham’s QWERTY series of books, and my own work in the typeface design community through making contacts internationally. However, the attempts tend to be sporadic and not always organized.

I do take my hat off to Desktop magazine for allowing me to write about typography regularly. I think this has helped the local type scene and apart from my byline, I tend to write about other local designers like Lewis Tsalis, Monib Madhavi and Damien Mair!

You are the media contact of Typeright outside the US and a member of the board of this organisation. Can you tell us what is the goal of this organisation and how you become so involved in this cause ?

TyperightWe were set up to promote typeface designs as intellectual property. The specific mission statement is on the site, but that was our driving force when we (Brian Willson, Zuzana Licko, Clive Bruton, Chris MacGregor, Ralph Smith, Don Hosek, Don Synstelien, Si Daniel and I—I hope I haven’t missed anyone) created Typeright. I was as annoyed as my colleagues in the United States about the anomaly in the law saying that typeface designs are not copyrightable, when they are everywhere else. Having studied law and having come top in my intellectual property class, I thought I could help the cause.

There was enough precedent under US law for typeface designs to be copyrightable: the most evident parallel is music. One of the common arguments we hear is, ‘You can’t copyright the alphabet!’ But no one is copyrighting that. We are only seeking protection for individually authored expressions of the alphabet. You could say that we shouldn’t copyright songs because they all use the same notes, yet we allow music copyright. They use the same notes, but a differently authored expression of them.

This was all before the judgement from Judge Whyte in the Adobe and Emigre v. Southern Software and Paul King case, which does help the copyright status in America. While the statute in the United States hasn’t been substantially rewritten, Judge Whyte went as far, in my opinion, as the judiciary would allow in offering protection. I think any judge worth her or his salt in the future will read Judge Whyte’s ratio decidendi in the spirit it was intended and find in favour of the copyright holder.

There remains a lot of misunderstanding about fonts. A lot of people still pirate them thinking they are not protected, so our job is by no means done. We also get a lot of interesting questions about typefaces from users who aren’t clear on the copyright issue at TypeRight. As long as the confusion persists, I believe I will remain involved with TypeRight.

Related articles: Décennie typeface portrait (October 2000) and Typeright introduction (October 2000)

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