Akira Kobayashi is a solid, world-renowned type designer. His diverse typefaces cover the gamut of display type, historic revivals and a whole lot of rock-solid text typefaces. Over the past two decades, he’s racked up numerous prizes in type competitions and also completed typefaces for innumerable foundries, taught type design and has collaborated with the best type designers in Europe, Japan and the Americas.

I was lucky enough to catch up with the Japanese expatriate and talk shop about his history, prolific output and do a little counterpoint about cultural differences in typography.

Akira, when and why did you make the decision to jump from co-designing Japanese typefaces to designing Western typefaces? And where does your interest in calligraphic letterforms come from?

Japanese uses a couple thousand ideographs plus two kinds of phonetic scripts. Having chosen type design as my career, I began working in the type design department of the Japanese phototype manufacturer Sha-Ken Co, Ltd. , where I had to draw a couple dozen characters a day. One day – feeling rather exhausted – I picked up this small book by Hermann Zapf I found in our design department. I must say that it was the first book I ever read in English and it took me about six months to finish. But I then became very curious about the Latin alphabet and I taught myself western calligraphy.


How has Japanese type design education and typographic education changed since your time in school?

I took lettering and typography courses at Musashino Art University in the early 80s, but naturally they are focused on Japanese script. There was no proper textbook about western alphabets: things like the relationships between stroke thickness and the angle of broad-edged pen were never mentioned in books on lettering in Japan. “Ruling pen and compasses” theory (what the European scholars did in the renaissance period) was the one and the only principle.


What do you recommend how to get an understanding for western letters then?

The forms of the Latin alphabet can be easily explained when using a broad-edged pen or brush. There is absolutely no need to become a good calligrapher, but it is essential to spend some time to get good control. That is fun and far less complicated to understand for a beginner. Otherwise – how can you learn that the left diagonal stroke of the A should be thinner than the right? Or why the spine of the S should be the thickest part of the letter?

You actually taught lettering at a design polytechnic institute in Tokyo for several years. What examples did you use to bring your students closer to western fonts?

When I teach them Latin alphabets, I start with just showing them a word in Japanese in Mincho type, but with some Japanese characters printed back-to-front. Of course some students spot those mistakes and I let them explain why they think that this letter is mirrored. Typical answers are: “The horizontal strokes run in the wrong direction”. Then I explain to them why they could spot the mistake: because they all know how to draw Kanji. That little experiment teaches them the importance of understanding the characteristics of brush-strokes.


Then I show them a similar example by using the Latin alphabet, where the “A” is back-to-front. Students can spot that the letter A is wrong, but cannot explain why. Then I explain the characteristics of Latin letterforms using flat brushes held at a certain angle and the students understand the left diagonal stroke of the A should be thinner than the right. After that I let them try drawing roman caps freehand on their own. They seemed to enjoy doing the exercise, simply because they liked doing something with their own hands rather than trying to understand theories.

That is also what I wrote in my book Oubunshotai, chapter 1 “Throw the compasses and rulers away”.

Ah! You have already discovered my next round of questions! I have been analyzing your book and wanted to ask you more about it! I picked it up right after it was published and got very excited about it. What made you decide to write it in the first place?


Early 2004, Miyago-san, an editor of Design no Genba (Designers’ Workshop) LINK magazine asked me to write an article about western typography. Meanwhile, I visited New York as one of the jurors of the Type Director’s Club annual competition. The submissions exhibited there were anonymous but I could tell that some of them were from Japan since they used Japanese characters. I was rather shocked to see that some of them looked good on the whole, but were rather poor in the detail, due to “dumb quotes” or other typographic mistakes. * Eventually that made me accept an offer to write a twelve-page article for the April 2004 Issue of Design no Genba. The article included topics such as “How to use smart quotes” or “How to use italics”… the basics of western typography! This article then continued as a series of four-page articles. When Miyago-san proposed the idea to collect the articles and eventually publish them as a book, I happily accepted! I had always thought there should be a better book on western typography for Japanese graphic designers.

Besides the difficulty of handling western fonts for Japanese – the real difficulty occurs when having to combine Japanese and western fonts. Do you have any recommendations for all-inclusive typefaces that include both?

Try TypeBank Gothic and the Axis font. I designed both Latin alphabets and they look good enough for mixed settings.


Do you have any tips for designers and typographers who are just beginning to use Japanese character sets?

In Japan, the price of a font reflects its quality. A proper Japanese font requires approximately 10,000 characters. Developing a family of decent Japanese fonts takes several years and more than a handful of skilled type designers. Don’t ask for a lower price, if you really need a good looking font. Pay for them and you will be rewarded.

Any tips for designers and typographers who are just beginning to use Western character sets?

Try before you buy. Now almost every font publisher allows you to create your own type samples online.

Do you have any favorite type recipes in terms of mixing Western and Japanese character sets? (for example: Univers and Hiragino Kaku)

I have to be careful about that: the recipe for body text should be different to the one for display text. Also there are too many exceptions, which makes it almost impossible for me to answer. However, I can recommend mixing Linotype Univers (the new one) and Axis. The weight scale matches very well.


You worked for a couple of companies before joining Linotype in 2001. What kind of aspects of your craft did you strengthen during that time?

I learned a lot in both Sha-ken and Jiyu-Kobo. I really loved working with them because the fonts they were producing were of the highest quality. My third employer, TypeBank gave me a good position in which I could concentrate on developing Latin glyphs to accompany their Japanese fonts. It resulted in the TypeBank font series, which have well-proportioned and legible Roma-ji (Latin alphabet). They are proud of it and so am I. My book is set in TypeBank Gothic.


Besides those companies you worked for, do you have any favorite Japanese type foundries?

Yes, Jiyu-Kobo and Type Project. They are both very small type foundries, but what they create is great. Take any character from their fonts and enlarge it to 300 point. You will not see any mistakes or any awkward curves.

You now work in Germany as the Type Director of the Linotype GmbH. Can you tell us a little about how Linotype works, since those foundries are a mystery to most people who are outside of the type industry!?

Linotype GmbH consists of approximately fifty full-time and part-time employees. About ten font engineers belong to the Product Quality Management department, to which I also belong, and the other forty colleagues take care of the sales and marketing, the shipping and supporting, IT and E-commerce and financial activities. I am the only full-time type designer. Our general manager Bruno Steinert says that we used to have more than ten type designers sitting in front of computers, but when he became the manager he changed the structure. He started to think that we should be like publishers and produce fonts submitted by external type designers just like book publishers – and now we are.

Linotype has absorbed other well-known type foundries over the years, such as D. Stempel, Haas, Olive and so on, which means you have the rights to publish a great many classic types including Helvetica, Palatino, Optima, Univers and Mistral. What are the goals of the Linotype Platinum Collection?

The goal is to revive our classics, originally born in the pre-digital era, to adapt to the digital age. The Univers, the Frutiger, the Syntax, the Sabon had been re-tooled or were being re-tooled when I joined Linotype. I have re-crafted the Optima and the Palatino with Hermann Zapf and the Avenir with Adrian Frutiger.

They were, and still are, our bestsellers. The original design had to be redesigned several times to serve the needs of the industry, and each time the details of the letterforms had to follow technical restrictions. The drawings for the photocomposition types were the bases of the early digital fonts, because there was not enough time to redraw or to review them in the rush for digitization. That means that the early digital fonts, published in the 1980s, inherited all the compromises of the past.

Our message is: “try the better versions”. Computer hardware and software from the 1980s will hardly function in today’s environment. The old fonts do, but not well enough for professionals. Now a font can have more than 256 characters, almost unlimited number of kerning pairs, and so on, so why not take advantage of these new opportunities? It is a good chance to revive the classics to serve the new needs of the digital era.


You collaborated with both Zapf and Frutiger, legends in the field of type design. What changes were made in redesigning Avenir with Adrian Frutiger?


The old Avenir family had six weights, but it was not easy even for a type designer to differentiate its Roman from the Medium weight. It also lacked a real heavyweight. The contrast between body text and the words set in a bolder version looked somewhat weak, so that weakness had to be corrected.


Also the old Avenir had no italic, but the Avenir Next has true “italics” or “properly designed angled letters”.

And Optima with Hermann Zapf?

If you compare the old digital Optima and the Optima nova, you will see that the Optima nova has less pointed stroke endings and some better-shaped letters. The special problem of the Optima type was the slightly curved outline of the stems. In the phototype era the curves had to be emphasized in order to counteract the rounding of corners that occurs during the photographic process, but such emphasis is unnecessary in the digital environment. The type should look elegant in display sizes as it used to do in the hot-metal era.


Hermann and I agreed to design real cursive forms for some italic lowercase letters. Please note the real cursive forms for the a, e, g and f. Now it is much easier for a reader to distinguish the words in italic.


Of your own typefaces, is there a favorite one?

Yes, the Clifford. In type conferences people seem to know me as “the designer of the Clifford type”.


Your typefaces are distributed by a number of companies, from the micro-foundry TypeBox to Fontshop and ITC. Why is it that you have utilized so many different companies?

I have submitted my display designs to ITC, decent text faces to the FontShop. I was trying to sort of “advertise” myself by submitting designs to several companies and type design competitions, and I was lucky enough to win prizes.


The TX Lithium is published from TypeBox, because I showed the early example of the type to Joachim Müller-Lancé, the co-founder of the Typebox and an intimate friend of mine, and he loved it.


What is the story behind your font Magnifico?

ITC Magnifico Daytime and ITC Magnifico Nighttime are inspired by decorated types I saw on bills printed in the nineteenth-century. Some of them were really small but had a certain charm. Usually three-dimensional decorated types are employed in gigantic headings in large posters, but I thought it would be interesting if such decorative types were used in small sizes as well, say at 12 point. So I made the outlines of ITC Magnifico robust enough to endure small sizes. Sometimes the angle or the shape of the ‘shadow’ had to be slightly modified or even made illogical, because the letterforms ought to look as simple as possible.

Magnifico as used in a page design for a feature article in Rap-Up magazine.

Recently I saw the Magnifico type on a CD cover of an English rock band called “The Dead 60s” and I had to buy it immediately. The music wasn’t bad, either.

Do you have any type designs coming out into the world in the near future?

Recently I have finished a series of type families to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the invention of the Linotype. They will be published in a few months. Currently I am working on a new sans serif typeface with Adrian Frutiger and I am really excited about that. It is going to be the most humanistic of his sans designs! Also, I have started to design a script typeface in collaboration with an English calligrapher. Working on two different typefaces is better than concentrating on one. While you are doing the script type, you can completely forget the sans and when you get back to the script you’ll see it with a fresh eye.

My typography professors stated that living in the U.S. was a typographic nightmare due to the misuse of typography: street signs are badly spaced and have jumping baselines and sign producers have no knowledge of the rules that underlay typographic practice. How is it to be a typographer in Japan? Do you get a similar feeling?

I think, if you are disgusted by typographic mistakes in the West, you should visit Japan to be really disgusted!

sign inside Shibuya station: a JR sticker on the left, another for a terminal change in the middle and a sticker on the far right to give some extra info about the Hachiko-exit

In Japan that problem is doubled because of our writing system set in vertical and horizontal direction. On top of that, texts are almost always accompanied by Roma-ji (Latin alphabet), which makes the problem four times as bad. Even worse – public signs should also be written in English which – besides the aesthetic/typographic problem – accompanies difficulties in spelling and grammar.

Plus – there are a lot of people in Japan who try to “improve” signs, but adding extra – mostly handwritten – information. Throughout Japan you will see millions of lettering applications by non-professionals with good intentions. And having said that: I love them.

How do you like living and working in Germany? What kind of Japanese things to you miss most?

It is very very quiet and I am happy to be in Germany. In Japan you cannot escape from loudspeakers and road construction noise in the middle of the night. Germany is a good place to bring up children, but if there is anything I miss from Japan, it would be hand-made signs and the good intentions behind them.