Don’t Be Afraid of the Ugly

An Interview with Graphic and Type Designer Dries Wiewauters

This week, I interviewed Dries Wiewauters, a Belgium Type and Graphic Designer about his typeface ‘MAD’ released by Colophon Foundry. Dries also talks about his reinterpretation of a monoline font, his approach to type design and why it pays not to be afraid of making things that are just a little bit ugly.


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Ulrik Hogrebe: Hi Dries! Great to have you here.

Dries, I first discovered your work because I stumbled across your typeface MAD on Instagram and immediately fell in love with it. Since then I have been poking around your website and I really enjoy your style and take on type design. But before we get to that, maybe you’d like to lead the dance by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

© Olmo Peeters 2017, http://www.olmopeeters.be/

Dries Wiewauters: Thanks for having me and for the compliment. In terms of intros, well… I was born and raised in Belgium. Which is also where I reside. I studied at the LUCA: St Lucas Academy in Ghent, where I got a Masters in Graphic Design. Afterwards I continued the enrichment of the mind at the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, the Netherlands. At St Lucas I was experimenting with type. At the Werkplaats the experimentation evolved and manifested itself into “comments” on historical sources, which I feel is something that often happens in my type.

Currently I work as a designer in Belgium, with type design as a side dish. So type design is not my only occupation or even my main one. Really, I am a graphic designer and on top of that, I teach Type Design at the KASK, another Masters course for design in the city of Ghent, Belgium. Besides work I spend my time running and training for Ultra-trail marathons in the Alps or Spanish Pyrenees.

UH: So graphic designer, teacher, type designer and extreme runner? That’s a serious calling card. OK, we’ll need to focus though! Tell me a bit about what attracted you to type design? How did you find out that this is something you are passionate about?

DW: Well, at school we had to do a Masters project and I thought; since I am interested in type, why not try and spend this “free” year experimenting with this fascination of mine? So I made up the excuse of starting a private press and worked on a text face and some accompanying display cuts for a year.

MAD Sans

I really liked the balance of making type and then using it in my own designs but felt that I needed some more time and space to develop a proper “language”—my own style or voice in terms of type. I was a big fan — and still am to this day — of Evert Bloemsma and heard that he had an aversion towards “The Hague” school and the theories of Gerrit Noordzij — although he still respects them immensely. So taking a page out of his book, I decided to go for a school which was less about type and more about the boundaries between disciplines.

I like to construct the puzzle that is a typeface by using other elements as the binding factors.

UH: That’s really interesting. So what are the differences between the Werkplaats approach and “The Hague” approach?

DW: The Werkplaats really isn’t a type design school. It has a broader field of focus than other, more specialized, programmes. So there was very little help with the craft aspect of type design. Luckily there was a participant — Hyo Kwon — who was in contact with a few Type & Media people that advised me on those things.

The KABK in The Hague on the other hand is a pure type design course that in one year shapes type designers based on historical references as the basis of their design approach. So using calligraphy, stone carving, etc., to explain the theory of type and why certain things are the way they are — i.e. the theories of Gerrit Noordzij’s The Stroke. Although I believe their approach is valid, I feel that all the Type and Media stuff has a similarity in vibe that I wanted to avoid creeping into my work. I like to construct the puzzle that is a typeface by using other elements as the binding factors. Does that make sense?

UH: Yes, totally. And I think that’s what I really like about your work. It has a sense of freedom and experimentation to it, which sits on top of the craft. And at the same time, you often have a strong conceptual frame. Maybe we should use an example for our readers? Do you want to talk about MAD a bit and how that came to be?

MAD Serif

DW: MAD (Man Aided Design as opposed to Computer Aided Design) was a big project to finish. It was based on a holiday job that I did, where in the course of a few summers I digitized the entire floor plan of an automotive-factory. Quite tedious work, but it had me looking at AutoCAD drawings for the first time and opened up my eyes to the idea of old plotters and how line thickness was only fixed in the final stage of the production process — so you create an object and then you decide a line weight, which is this really weird and janky workflow in AutoCad. So I fiddled with some of these things and started sketching and just kind of had all these sketches lying around on my hard drive.

Later, at the Werkplaats we did a pitch for a furniture Biennial for which I wanted to use MAD to render different versions of their identity—the parallel being that furniture designers also render their idea of a chair. Something that this Biennial was filled to the brim with. The curator wanted to work with us but for all sorts of reasons it ended up not going through. However the sketches ended up on my site and caught the eye of Alex Lin from Studio Lin who asked me to do some different versions for a client of his.

Then the boys from Colophon Foundry asked if I wanted to expand it into the multi-weight family it is today with all the bells and whistles. But to get all the details how I wanted them, my perfectionist tendencies took over and it took a few years to finally get it finished. We ended up adding filled versions, which turned out to be some of my favorites. It gives it a friendly feeling when it is used for body copy.

UH: It’s funny that it took so long to perfect since the font is so loose and has all these quirks that make it look quite rough. But I guess that is the hard part? Retaining the imperfect feel, while making it perfect?

I believe that in design it is better to have something which is slightly ugly but has character than something that is overly bland.

DW: Well, you can’t really make a font that has no fill, as the CAD fonts do. So I wanted to make the font as slim as possible so that designers could add a stroke if they wish to do so. But to obtain the uniformity in the lines, it takes a lot of fidgeting on the 1000 UPM grid that all fonts are drawn upon.

There are a lot of differences between the original sketches of the AutoCAD fonts and the final forms, since a lot of decisions were made to improve legibility and the overall feel of the family. That is also the reason why I don’t see this as a revival but more as a re-interpretation of the formal style of monoline fonts.

But on a related note, I always prefer any font that I design –or use as a designer– to be slightly wrong. You could even say uncomfortable looking. I think when a font is too polished it looses it’s appeal to me. I believe that in design it is better to have something which is slightly ugly but has character than something that is overly bland. The risk is that it takes a good designer to spot this intended ugliness and use it in the correct way. Just like with my previous Colophon release — PDU — it is exciting to see how people use it. Some people will use the font for it’s formal qualities. And there is nothing wrong with that, but some people will also recognize the ugliness and use that to their advantage in an unexpected way. I am really looking forward to see some of those examples popping up in the near future.

Plaque Découpée Universelle

UH: Im glad you mentioned your PDU font. Is this what you mean by making ‘comments’ on historical fonts? I believe it’s based on the idea of the Plaque Découpée Universelle (ed. a typeface based on a single stencil, originally invented by Joseph A. David in 1876). Can you explain that for us?

DW: With PDU I was intrigued by this seemingly universal grid by which you could create every letter of the alphabet. And even though the resulting shapes are ugly and lacking a lot of optical adaptations that one would normally make, it does have a certain flair. I wanted to explore the limits of the PDU grid and how far it could be pushed. Where are the extremes? But fair enough, I found that even many mathematical symbols can be made with it, although some minor bending of the rules was used to get a full character set.

When I met Eric Kindel in the UK and told him that I wanted to make a version of the stencil, he wanted to add one to his collection too, since the original that he based his article upon was broken. So we ended up doing a historical replica of the object itself as well.

In the end, the idea of the stencil proved to be a valid thing, but I see it more as an idea then a formal success. The final font can be seen as a strict historical recreation, but inside the open type features there lurk some quite quirky glyphs that can be activated.

UH: Cool! I guess I want to end with perhaps your take or your advice for people who are making typefaces out there, and what you’d like to see more of in the future? Does that make sense?

But some great designers seem to be able to cross the boundaries of design and pure type design. Granted, some only make type, but they have a background and an eye that enables them to see what is missing and what could be a great addition to the typographic landscape. Instead of just making yet another Times, Helvetica, Futura…

DW: Totally. Well, I like how in the current age a designer has the tools to do whatever they feel like. Custom fonts are almost ubiquitous now. Together with tax evasion, it’s something most big companies indulge in nowadays. But some great designers seem to be able to cross the boundaries of design and pure type design. Granted, some only make type, but they have a background and an eye that enables them to see what is missing and what could be a great addition to the typographic landscape. Instead of just making yet another Times, Helvetica, Futura, … as many type designers do. I.e make another version of a font instead of creating something unique.

So my advice would be to study the classics and see what makes them great, but to not get stuck in doing what everybody else does. See what you personally feel a need for and if it doesn’t exists, quickly whip something out for your project. If it ends up being a full font, great … if it is only used for one job or gets put on the back-burner? Fine either way.

For example, I am currently working with Ruud Ruttens for the design of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent and we ended up making a font that feels classic at first glance but then is also totally friendly and at the same time totally aggressive, quirky but classy. For the simple reason that we couldn’t find a fitting voice for the museum in the existing typographic landscape. And there is a big chance that you will see it coming out with Colophon somewhere in 2019.

UH: Amazing! I am looking forward to that. Thank you so much for talking to us! And best of luck in the future.


Available for purchase on typethursday.org

Check out MAD and PDU in all their glory over at Colophon Foundry: MAD Sans, MAD Serif and PDU.

And have a gander at Dries’ other work on his portfolio here: drieswiewauters.eu

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