With Type Director Akira Kobayashi
Developing a typeface ready for 93 languages is no small feat. Go behind the scenes with the Sony designer who envisioned it and the font designer assigned as type director, as they recount their thinking and the significance of the project.
Type director at Linotype (now Monotype), a foundry with a 120-year history in European typography. Based in Germany since 2001. Involved mainly in type design direction, planning, and quality inspection. Has collaborated with legendary type designers Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger. Frequent speaker at international type conferences, and judge at type design competitions. Selected publications in Japanese include a two-volume set on traditions and usage of Western typefaces, a book on the fascinating prestige of brand logotypes, and an exploration of typefaces in Japanese public signage.
Chief art director, Sony Creative Center. Proposed a standard typeface and assigned Akira as type director. Widely contributed to the project, from conceptual design to overall project management.
Fukuhara: My initial inspiration was to create an authentic typeface, something I was passionate about. All project members shared my regard for authenticity. We sought an original typeface, yet one built on solid typographic traditions. We hoped it would endure for decades to come. And multilingual development was planned from the start, so besides a firm understanding of typographic history and ideals, we would need expertise in expanding the typeface for use around the world. This requirement naturally narrowed down our options in potential collaborators. Here, Monotype seemed like the perfect partner. Not only does the foundry enjoy a long history in typography, their in-depth support ranges from typeface design to display optimization, and they’re experts in multilingual development.
As for Akira, we had been using his typefaces and following his new releases with interest even before this project. He’s well-versed in the traditions of Western typefaces and a leading designer of them in Japan, so he seemed uniquely qualified as type director.
Kobayashi: When I first heard how extensive the project would be, it made me nervous, but in a good way. Corporate typefaces always serve many roles—on products, in stores, online, and in a variety of other touchpoints with consumers. I felt a weight of responsibility knowing how the project would help build the Sony brand image. And we would also be taking on multilingual development. It makes me smile now, when I recall how daunting this complex project seemed.
I remember being impressed by the grasp of Western typography evident in the conceptual typeface prepared in-house at Sony. As I saw it, my role would be to retain their good ideas and refine what I could, as we created a respectable typeface. In type direction, I would be checking the clarity of words and blocks of text, and also ensuring that the typeface fit Sony style well.
Kobayashi: To me, Sony has always had an understated yet powerful image. This was something I just sensed naturally, over the course of using Sony products myself. Behind a very refined exterior free of needless elements lies impressive functionality. I hoped we could express this familiar image through the shape of type.
In existing typefaces, the first thing this brought to mind was the Helvetica® typeface common in Sony packaging, which seemed fitting for products with a somewhat “hard” look. I also thought of the Frutiger® design, appreciated as an easy-to-read typeface that might be described as gentler and more organic. Once Hiroshige told me he sought something between these two, I realized we would be creating a typeface slightly more organic than Helvetica and more reminiscent of Sony products than Frutiger.
However, creating a hybrid was easier said than done, because people have seen both of these typefaces for decades. It’s very difficult to improve upon long-established design of impeccable quality in new work.
For example, we could make the typeface look more organic than Helvetica by making the letter S narrower and the letters W and M much wider. In fact, Frutiger already has type like this—with narrow letters that are inherently even narrower, and wide letters even wider. Although these organic letters are easier to read in words, narrowing an S in a typeface resembling Helvetica to match the width in Frutiger would make it look a little weak next to other letters in Sony, for example. That’s why we made the S slightly wider—to make Sony more coherent. We kept this sense of balance in mind as we fine-tuned characters. You might say that for readability, our model was Frutiger, and to match Sony product qualities, our model was Helvetica.
Fukuhara: Because Sony has used Helvetica for so long, suddenly switching from a firm to a relaxed typeface would not inspire confidence. That’s why we envisioned a typeface that was organic and readable yet geometric.
Kobayashi: In fact, geometric features were essential in the new typeface. But taken to an extreme, geometric type would look very unnatural. We had to make the typeface seem geometric in the general impression it gives. In the end, one way we did this for SST® fonts was through uniform line widths.
Fukuhara: Having some basis for a geometric appearance had been important all along, from the conceptual design phase. I think the typeface you see today, with its uniform line widths, is true to our ideal of making it distinctive.
Kobayashi: Although we sought consistent line widths from the start, this was a new approach I had not taken in years of type design. For example, at first I was concerned that Hiroshige’s regard for uniform line widths would make a lowercase o look too fine, because the usual approach is to make the vertical parts of an o slightly wider than those of an h. But once we tried it, I was surprised to find that this was not the case. It made me realize that this width in an o is not always necessary. It was an interesting discovery. We did need to make some adjustments to counteract optical illusions,* but I think adopting the same values for line widths that only differed by a fraction of a millimeter made a difference in how the typeface recalls qualities of Sony products.
*Line shape, length, and other details are carefully adjusted to prevent optical illusions from giving the wrong impression.
Horizontal lines as wide as vertical ones appear wider
As corrected, line widths look consistent
Helvetica Neue 55 Roman