Let’s Bring People Together and Share

An Interview with Bianca Berning of Dalton Maag

This week, TypeThursday sat down with Dalton Maag’s Skills and Process Department Head, Bianca Berning. We discussed her entry into typeface design and the importance of mentorship to foster community.


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TypeThursday: Bianca, thank you so much for being here for TypeThursday.

Bianca Berning: I’m very happy to be here.

TT: Yes. So I’m really excited to have you here because I saw in my research for you that you have a very unique background for type designers, particularly your background in civil engineering. I’d love to hear more about that.

BB: I studied civil engineering for a while, but I never actually worked as a civil engineer. I gave it up in favour of graphic design.

I ended up in this class as the oldest person, the only German, and the only girl. It made me very conscious about being a stranger, to a point where I didn’t feel that comfortable with my choice anymore.

TT: Okay. It’s something that you’ve had interest in. Correct?

BB: I was interested in civil engineering and knew it’s what I wanted to study; I had always wanted to do that. My home town is close to the Dutch border in Germany and there was a university right across the border which offered this great course that seemed to have a little more interdisciplinary aspects than what you could find in Germany at that time. So I was just like, “Yeah, I’ll sign up for that. That’s perfect!” And that’s what I did. In Germany, you used to finish school around two years later than you do in The Netherlands. I ended up in this class as the oldest person, the only German, and the only girl. It made me very conscious about being a stranger, to a point where I didn’t feel that comfortable with my choice anymore. I stuck around for a little longer and then followed my friends back to Germany and started from scratch with graphic design. I enjoyed that far more and it turned out that I didn’t completely suck at it.

…there was never the *perfect* typeface for my project. So I decided that I had to learn how to design type and I went to Reading to do exactly that.

Bianca’s Interest in Type Design

TT: Where did your interest in learning about type design come in?

BB: Well, I realised that I was unhappy about the fonts I when was designing for print. That’s not true, I was happy about the fonts I had at hand, but I always wanted to change tiny details. It’s the typical type designer’s story. I just wanted to be able to tweak some things and make them slightly different, because there just was never the *perfect* typeface for my project. So I decided that I had to learn how to design type and I went to Reading to do exactly that. And I never went back to graphic design.

TT: You went to the University of Reading for your Master’s in type design. At the completion of that, you ended up at Dalton Maag, correct?

BB: Exactly. Pretty much right after. I think there was a three-month gap in between in which I freelanced. It was the year Dalton Maag was hiring like crazy because they had just landed the Nokia project. They needed to expand quickly, so I was just lucky that I recently graduated and that they grabbed me.

TT: Either way, you got the gig!

BB: Yay!

It’s lovely to be surrounded by people who are smart and enthusiastic and are eager to figure out everything you throw at them. It’s very exciting and refreshing.

Skills and Process Department at Dalton Maag

TT: Your position within Dalton Maag is the head of the Skills and Process department. I’m super curious about that that an institution like Dalton Maag would have a department called “Skills and Process.” Could you clarify what that is?

BB: I don’t actually know where the name of my department comes from, but it actually describes very well what we’re doing. My team’s interests are divided in two big topics. One is the optimisation of font development processes, so type design, font engineering and hinting. We try and see if there are things we can do to make them more efficient. Perhaps we find that we could automate repetitive tasks or could assist the designer or engineer in other ways. Two teammates of mine are software developers and they are mainly concerned with the development of tools and to put a workflow in place that makes the font development process smooth and flexible, and a little bit more reliable as well. Very tedious and repetitive tasks often result in human error and that’s something we can help avoid.

And the other side of the coin, the skills part, is where we try to make sure that everyone who works at Dalton Maag, not just in font development, but also in the teams that support the designers and engineers, can grow the skills that they need to do their job. We provide thorough training for our developers and also for people who recently joined Dalton Maag. They are staying in the training team for around three months and don’t work on client projects during that time. It’s meant to make the transition into the new position easier, build confidence and get people acquainted with our workflow and team structures. It also gives us a chance to assess whether or not a new designer has a skill gap that we’d like to address before they join the font development teams. Of course we also try to support people whenever they are interested in learning a new skill that might not be absolutely necessary for their daily work.

We organise recreational activities. For example we arrange workshops that are not strictly project-related. That can be everything from workshops by native experts on how to design for a specific script or sign painting workshops and Thai language classes. Often it’s just to play around but it also gives you perspective on other creative disciplines, even if these new skills are not directly applicable to your work.

TT: To summarize, the process side deals with the steps needed to produce a typeface, to remove human error and increase efficiency in the workflow. And the skills side is the knowledge and understanding of the practitioners within Dalton Maag. From the “skills” side there’s a knowledge base to help develop the “process” of the designers inside the company.

BB: Exactly. Me and my team often jump in as well when people are stuck in the process, mostly when it comes to the technical side of things. So if they have questions they often come to us and ask for support. You said it so much better than me!

TT: How big is the Skills and Process team?

BB: At the moment, 5 people. Two software developers, one designer, one engineer and me.

TT: How big is Dalton Maag in general?

BB: I think the font developers — Let me count. Just one second. Probably somewhere between 20 and 25 designers and engineers at the moment. Plus the people in the support teams and business development and client services. I think we are about 40 people with 20 different nationalities at the moment.

TT: What do you enjoy the most as head of the Skills and Process department?

BB: Well, actually what I’ve been doing recently has been really exciting. And it’s related to both parts. We’d had an intern here, David, and — unlike most of our interns — Wait, maybe I should explain that just like everyone else in the training team our interns are not expected to work on client projects. We would like them to actually learn stuff here and not just apply what they already are comfortable with or just do supporting tasks that are not valuable to them. The training team is part of Skills and Process. One of our most senior designers, Ron, is taking care of interns and trainees during their design training. They are usually starting with calligraphy and drawing exercises. And then they go on and develop their own designs, based on their sketches. All this under Ron’s watch. It’s followed an intro to font engineering. David had asked to focus mostly on engineering, so he spent more time with me and a little less time with Ron, which is highly unusual. It was really nice to have this person right next to me who was super curious and asked a lot of questions. It’s lovely to be surrounded by people who are smart and enthusiastic and are eager to figure out everything you throw at them. It’s very exciting and refreshing.

TT: So what you really enjoy is seeing the enthusiasm in new designers and new people wanting to learn.

BB: You could say that.

A lot of the inspiration in design comes from experience and from being exposed to different things.

Knowledge Management

TT: What is the biggest challenge for your department?

BB: The most difficult part is probably “knowledge management.” It’s a huge investment for the company to train people in-house or send them to attend external workshops or go on research trips. We’d ideally like to spread the new skills they bring back, but how do you make the most out of it? Imagine we have one person who’s really into Indic scripts. We sent her for some research to India where she’s visiting archives and collections and attends workshops. Ideally she documents what she looked at and makes it available to everyone in the studio but most of the knowledge will be stuck in her head.

It’s great for her personal and professional development, but how can we make sure that what she learns can also inspire her teammates and gets them interested in the topic? I find that hard, especially when working with designers. I suspect it might be far easier in other industries where you can actually write precise manuals that will lead you to a predictable result. But in design, it’s just very different. A lot of the inspiration in design comes from experience and from being exposed to different things. And that’s just not easy to transfer from one person to the other. I think that’s a great challenge.

TT: So what you’re saying is, specifically in type design there’s the more internal experience of learning something and how can you document that and share that with other people. That’s a challenge.

BB: Yeah. How do you spread that knowledge? I don’t have a good answer yet.

TT: So in general, well, the challenge and the reward is the exchanging knowledge. Would that be a fair summarization?

BB: That’s pretty good.

A lot of graduates from type design courses are female, but not that many of them actually stay in the industry.

Alphabettes Mentorship Program

TT: Your other interest is working with Alphabettes on their Mentorship program. I know you have a post you shared about where you talk about the real excitement about it and the interest in the topic was much more than you guys anticipated. Why do you think there’s that interest in a program like a mentorship program?

BB: It actually took me by surprise. We talked about this for some time. There were a lot of discussions going on in the background about how to reach out and help newcomers immerse themselves in the industry. A lot of graduates from type design courses are female, but not that many of them actually stay in the industry. The rate of female/male graduates that come out of KABK and Reading is about 50/50. In some years there are even more female graduates than there are male. If you compare that to the number of people active and vocal about their work after graduation, you will find that there are many more men than there are women.

We were wondering why does that happens? What is holding them back? And how can we help them? So we were talking about different options to reach out, like organising scholarships or a mentorship program. We thought that a mentorship program would be easiest to implement and to see if there’s an interest in this kind of thing at all. So that’s what we did. We just put it out there and people jumped at it. And now we are almost struggling to find mentors in some areas.

TT: So the idea of the mentorship program was an idea of helping to support design students after they graduate. Was that the idea?

BB: That was the original idea, yeah. But we quickly discovered that we don’t want to offer this kind of help to women only; there are men who struggle with similar things. And maybe it’s not just graduates but also people who are self-taught or changed career recently. We accept all of them as mentees. We have many requests for portfolio advice but there are many areas people seem to struggle with. “How do I get into speaking at conferences? How can I promote myself better? How do I learn the business side of things?”

There are surprisingly many people out there that are greatly into type design, but they don’t yet have a link to the community.

The Importance of Community

TT: As you said, in many spectrums of people, both getting involved to share their knowledge and what aspects they need help with.

BB: There are surprisingly many people out there that are greatly into type design, but they don’t yet have a link to the community. They might be self-taught and didn’t graduate from one of the type design courses, so they perhaps lack the contact and intellectual exchange with other type designers. They might not be fully aware of resources or events in their area if they aren’t well connected with other designers. So what we want to do sometimes is to just bring people together and have them share their experiences. It’s as easy as that.

TT: The goal of the program at this point is to help be a bridge between people and where they want to be in their careers in the future.

BB: Yep. We just want to give them a little bit of a leg up.

TT: I think that’s excellent. If people are interested in entering the mentorship, either as a mentor or a mentee, where should they go?

BB: I just recently published an update on the mentorship program with some numbers about how many people we had signed up, where they are based, and things like the ratio between men and women. You can find all this information and links to the forms to sign up on the Alphabettes blog.

TT: Yes. It’s been a great conversation. Thank you so much.

BB: Thanks for having me.