Bruno Maag sits on the ninth floor of an office block above a Nando’s by the shuttered Brixton Academy. Beside him is a panoramic view over south London but he is the only one able to enjoy it – the employees of his font-design studio are largely working from home because of the pandemic, and the rows of computers are blank. A poster of Bengali and Tamil characters in a font designed for Nokia hangs nearby as he recalls the moment four decades ago that brought him here.
“I spent a month in San Francisco, at a studio that was working on Steve Jobs’ Next computer. I went back to Switzerland and I told my father, ‘Dad, I need 12,000 francs. I’ve seen the future.’ My dad was an ordinary worker, not wealthy. He said to me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do.’”
The Macintosh Classic that Maag bought with his father’s money, with 1Mb of memory, a 20Mb external drive and a nine-inch black-and-white screen (although Maag also treated himself to an external 19in monitor), was influential in many fields. But it created a revolution in typography, the industry that Maag, then a student at the Basel School of Design, was about to enter.
“Is all this yours?” his father asked him years later, gazing around his Brixton office on a visit. “This is what your 12,000 francs bought,” Maag replied.
Bruno Maag is a giant in the tiny world of typeface design. Goldman Sachs, the US bank, asked his studio, Dalton Maag, to create Goldman Sans, the font that it unveiled in June (“Approachable without being whimsical. Neutral with a wink”). Dalton Maag made the Reith family of fonts for the BBC to replace Helvetica and Gill Sans. It has designed fonts for Netflix and Airbnb, and the Bookerly typeface on Amazon Kindle. Everywhere you look, even if you don’t notice it, there’s a Dalton Maag font.
The 20th century saw the rise of corporate branding and the adoption of visual trademarks such as those of Shell and Starbucks, led by graphic designers such as Raymond Loewy and Paul Rand. Rand, who created IBM’s famous lettering, called the trademark an “illustrative feature of unappreciated vigor and efficiency”. But the phenomenon of companies having their own type as well as their own insignias is recent.
Jacobs, a US consulting firm that works on infrastructure projects, commissioned Dalton Maag when it relaunched its brand in 2019. “I had never thought about fonts as a big deal, but the further we got into it, we realised that if you’re creating a brand, a font makes all of the difference in the world,” says Marietta Hannigan, Jacobs’ chief strategy and communications officer. Its new font is named Jacobs Chronos for “time and timeliness”.
Despite having only 50 employees, Dalton Maag is among the world’s biggest type-design studios, just behind the industry’s behemoth, Monotype. “This is very much a cottage industry,” Maag says. Fonts used to be expensive to design and mostly came with printing machines (studios are still known as “type foundries” after the days of hot metal). But as Maag grasped when he was a student, the personal computer changed everything: fonts could be shaped on screen, rather than chiselled in metal.
The man who helped to forge the modern world of typeface design still has a boyish enthusiasm for his craft at the age of 58. He is also a showman in a business full of introverts, equally at ease with designers and corporate executives. Many companies are persuaded by his eloquence (as well as hard financial logic) that they not only need their own fonts rather than licensing standard ones but should have them in many writing systems, from Arabic to Chinese.
When Maag dislikes something, he is prone to saying so bluntly, knowing that it will attract attention. One of his targets is Helvetica, the famous font that is owned by Monotype and can be seen everywhere from the New York City subway to museums. “It has become a lazy choice – if you can’t be bothered to think, pick Helvetica,” Maag says dismissively. “You know you can get away with it. You’re not putting yourself out there.”
Despite Maag’s provocative views, even his rivals admire his drive and flair for business. “Font designers can live quite monastic lives and they’re often not good at explaining what they do, but he has embedded himself very successfully in the corporate world,” says Paul Barnes of Commercial Type, which has made fonts for The Guardian and The New York Times. “He’s from a Swiss typography background but I wouldn’t say that he’s typically Swiss. There’s an element of the salesman in Bruno.”
Maag’s first taste of the discipline he was to transform came as a 16-year-old apprentice for a Zurich newspaper in 1978. He had tried an engineering company but hated it and found his spiritual home at the Tages-Anzeiger. “You could go into the bowels of the building and when the big rotation presses started up, everything would vibrate. It was fantastic.”
Although Maag loved it, hot metal was about to become obsolete, thanks to computers. Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, was also a font enthusiast, having dropped in on a calligraphy class as a student. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating … Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” he later recalled.
After his apprenticeship, Maag went to study typography in Basel, bought his first computer and got a job with them in London. Following a spell with Monotype in Chicago, he returned to London to found his own studio, named after him and his former wife Liz Dalton, an illustrator. From the start, he focused on the nascent field of custom typefaces, working for companies including BMW and Nokia.
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he recalls.
Thanks to Maag and others, there are hundreds more typefaces today, from Goldman Sans to Nokia Pure. “When I was a student, I was a font geek and I could identify one at 50 paces, but now it is near-impossible, there are so many variants,” says Paul Luna, an emeritus professor at the typography department of the University of Reading and former head of corporate design at the Oxford University Press.
Money is the main reason so many companies and organisations want their own fonts. Commissioning a new type used to be prohibitively expensive but the price has fallen from hundreds of thousands of dollars to as little as $10,000 for a single style. That is still expensive, but the investments can repay within a few years from savings on having to license a “library font” such as Times New Roman from Monotype or others.
The costs of licensing have risen sharply because type is now needed for many different uses. Print overtook calligraphy in the 1450s, when Johannes Gutenberg used moveable metal type for his Bible, and 20th-century newspapers were typeset in hot metal on Linotype machines. But print has given way to online images, and fonts are deployed on devices from phone apps to smart watches. If augmented reality takes off, people will see letters from studios such as Dalton Maag projected on their glasses.
“If you license a typeface, you pay additional fees for every technology [on which it is used] but a custom font is yours. The appeal is, ‘Ooh, this is an asset we own, it’s intellectual property,’” Maag says. Many companies that used a library font have switched to custom ones in the same style. “Corporations want to look different – but they also want to look similar,” says Barnes. “Bruno is very good at creating enough individuality, so everything does not end up looking like Helvetica.”
This is also a legal necessity. Monotype, which owns its former rival Linotype, holds the rights to 2,500 “font families” and 22,000 fonts, and also designs custom fonts. Font designs and software are protected by patent and copyright, although European and US laws differ. A company cannot ask for a near-replica of Helvetica without checking which version is still in copyright. “There is a myth that you can just open a typeface and tweak the code but it is a no-no. The moment you mention an existing design, it’s risky,” Maag says.
The long history of typeface design allows room for manoeuvre. Helvetica is in the style known as grotesque (grotesk), the origins of which date back to the 1890s; the most influential example is Akzidenz-Grotesk, made by the Berthold Foundry in Berlin in 1898. A new font can draw on it without breaking copyright.
In practice, there are few disputes among foundries because flagrant abuses would be easy to spot. “It is a small and open world and we call each other up all the time. Most foundries do not copy each other’s work,” says one competitor.
Having made a financial decision, companies want a font to portray something about them. “No client wants an unfriendly typeface. Friendly is always part of it,” says Bianca Berning, a Dalton Maag creative director who was lead designer for Goldman Sachs’ new font. The bank wanted “clarity of communication, confidence and precision but with a touch of humanity and sincerity”, she says. The latter led to a typeface with “a bit of roundness and not many sharp edges”.
The BBC needed to avoid rising fees for Helvetica and Gill Sans as it moved into online and mobile. But it also had emotion in mind; the Reith family it commissioned is in the humanist tradition (one with higher contrast between thick and thin lines and open character shapes, rather than the geometric structure of the grotesque style).
“We initially thought of Grotesk but a humanist font felt more inclusive. Rather than a robot spitting out information, we wanted to convey humanity,” says David Bailey, the BBC’s UX principal for visual design.
When Dalton Maag is asked to create a new font, it starts by holding workshops at which the client explains what it wants and its designers give an insight into their discipline. “Most people do not notice type, so it can be difficult to explain what you do, but it is really effective at a subconscious level,” says Berning. Such meetings are also an opportunity for heads of design or communications in companies to show other staff the value of typography.
“Bruno and I worked our way round the BBC, talking about typeface design, and it got nerdy very quickly because it is a fascinating subject,” Bailey says. “Bruno is such a passionate, creative spirit that he is a great champion. People use type more often than they think, so it’s not a surprise that they got hooked.”
But a font has to do more than look good – it has to be readable. There is often a tension: a strong display font can be difficult to read when shrunk to a small point size. Goldman Sachs wanted one that could be read on financial documents and Bookerly, Amazon’s Kindle font, was shaped for speed. Maag says that Amazon found in testing that Bookerly is read an average of 3 per cent (seven words per minute) faster: “You will read the book quicker and buy another, but it also aids comprehension.”
One way to make a font easier to read is to eliminate ambiguities among letters such as O and C. As with tests at opticians, it can be hard to distinguish letters with similar shapes. Goldman Sans uses differently shaped terminals (the end of a line or “stroke” in a character from an alphabet) on commonly ambiguous letters to make them less alike. “A C can close up and look like O at small sizes. Characters have to be open and airy to get a balance between the black of the letter and the white space,” says Eleni Beveratou, a Dalton Maag creative director.
Library fonts are often updated, but one appeal of custom typefaces is being able to design in legibility. “[Helvetica and Gill Sans] were designed a long time ago and they do not function well on high-definition screens – we were having lots of issues,” says Bailey of the BBC’s decision to change to Reith. Readability is increasingly a legal requirement: every new font must be tested for accessibility to make sure that dyslexic people and others with reading difficulties are not excluded.
Reading can even be dangerous – scanning fonts such as Bodoni, with a high contrast between thick and thin lines, has been known to cause a stroboscopic effect in epileptic people similar to flashing lights and trigger seizures. Maag has researched the neuroscience of comprehension with Alessia Nicotra, a neuroscientist who is also his fiancée. “I’ve read a lot about it, particularly dyslexia,” he says. “I can now say to a client, ‘If you pick this design, it will affect legibility this way.’”
Typography can be a lonely discipline. “Fifty years ago, companies like Monotype had large offices with 50 or 60 people drawing by hand. We’ve gone from huge offices to people alone in their bedrooms,” says Barnes of Commercial Type. Most foundries employ fewer than 10: Dalton Maag, with its 50 employees, including 30 designers, is an anomaly.
It is possible to operate alone, or with a partner or two, because of the personal computer; a degree of solitude also suits many designers. “Type design is a specialist skill. You have to have great attention to detail, and not to mind working on the same thing for months, possibly for years, on end. [Designers] have a single-minded focus,” says Maag.
Despite his gregarious side, Maag has the detail-focused quality of a type designer himself. This emerges when he talks about Helvetica and his preference for the rival Univers, a face created by the Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger and released by the French foundry Deberny & Peignot in 1957. Maag calls Frutiger “the big man of type, my hero”, and cites a paraphrased version of Frutiger’s maxim that “the best typefaces are the ones you never see, you only read them”.
Helvetica was widely adopted by US publishers and advertising agencies after being designed by Max Miedinger at the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland in 1957, and then licensed by Linotype. “It has a lot of inconsistencies and I find the drawing quality quite poor,” says Maag of his bête noire. “There’s this idea that Helvetica is neutral and modern, when it was modelled on Akzidenz-Grotesk, which was released when Queen Victoria was on the throne, for Christ’s sake!” he exclaims. “That’s not modern.”
The other striking aspect of foundries is how global they are – Dalton Maag employs people of 20 nationalities and has German, Spanish and Portuguese speakers. Portuguese stems from its presence in Brazil – Maag opened an office in São Paulo in 2008 after attending a design conference and subsequently a workshop there; it has since shut, but six of his designers work there. Berning is German and Beveratou is Greek.
They typically take design and communications courses before specialising at universities that teach typography: there are respected courses in the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as at Reading. “This is the best place in the world to study type design,” says Gerry Leonidas, who is professor of typography at Reading. “We’ve trained halls of people for Dalton Maag and for companies like Google, which do a lot of design that people are not even aware of.”
Beveratou studied typography at Reading after graduating in graphic design. “I used to be all about colours and the type world is black and white, so you wonder when you start, how much is there to learn? But I am still learning every day,” she says. She joined Dalton Maag in 2011 at a critical moment in its international expansion, when Nokia had ordered an array of fonts for various languages for smartphones. She immediately set to work on Kannada, one of 22 Indian languages.
“Nokia grew into an absolute beast, a monster,” Maag recalls. “It started off with three or four writing systems, then they told us, ‘Oh, we need Armenian and Ethiopian,’ then two months later, ‘Can we have Bengali and Kannada?’ I said yes to everything with no idea how we could do it. We were hiring graduates straight out of masters courses. They would come in on a Monday and I would say, ‘Here’s your computer, here’s your desk, you’re doing Tamil.’”
The Nokia contract led a wave of demand for fonts in global languages, driven by both technology and globalisation. This is very profitable for studios – buying a full suite of writing systems for a custom font can increase the bill from tens to hundreds of thousands. (Jacobs has so far settled for Latin script and Maori for its subsidiary in New Zealand). But it also raises questions about how faithfully to reflect a type design in characters with a different tradition.
“Some languages are so complex, with beautiful calligraphy, but they had no typographic history before the 1890s,” says Maag. “Western missionaries would go out and design a writing system to print their Bibles. They had no idea of culture and history, they just made it up. There are some weird characters.” Dalton Maag faces its own challenge in being faithful to writing systems that its designers do not natively use. “You have to go back to the tradition of the script and how it is used by people,” Berning says.
Maag says the aim is to “create a harmony between writing systems, so that when you see [different languages] together they have the same tonal density and rhythm. You might ask ‘How do we treat a stroke terminal? Or curves?’ They are subtle things that the untrained eye would not understand, but the brain recognises them.”
The challenge is greater for writing systems with thousands of characters, such as Chinese and Japanese. Dalton Maag has made Reith for Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic and Persian – the first two covering 114 languages – but the BBC has not yet embarked on Chinese. “It is a huge undertaking and very costly,” says Bailey. Some Chinese studios have tried to deploy artificial intelligence to create full sets of characters because the task is too onerous for humans.
But globalisation is not only an opportunity – it could be a competitive threat. Type design is among many industries in Europe and the US that now face Asian competition. Growing numbers of Chinese designers study typography at Reading and other European universities before returning to work at home. The complexity of the Chinese language is pushing them towards technology-based innovation while European foundries rely on tried-and-trusted methods.
“A lot of stuff from Chinese type foundries is student quality, but give them 10 years,” says Leonidas. “It was abysmal, now it is mediocre and five years away from being competent, and then efficiencies of scale and labour might start to make outfits like Bruno’s unviable. People do not want to hear it but rendering languages on screens will become a commodity.”
That would be a new world – yet quite like the old one, when type was bundled with typesetting machines. It would not mean the end for design studios, but they would be under heavier pressure. If so, the creative explosion following the invention of the personal computer would go down as a brief phase in the history of typography. Instead of occupying a niche between a studio and a supermarket, Dalton Maag would have to change.
For now, however, Bruno Maag’s insight in the 1980s into how the world of fonts would change beyond recognition still holds true. As he reflects in his Brixton studio, he is surrounded by Apple computers. “Steve Jobs knew from the start, when he took that class, that you can alter emotion with typography. Something must have clicked in him instantly.”
John Gapper is the FT Weekend business columnist
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.