Interview: Mark Van Bronkhorst, Type Designer
MVB Fonts is a type foundry founded by Mark van Bronkhorst in San Francisco in 1991, now located on the opposite side of the bay in Albany, California. Van Bronkhorst creates digital fonts for designers, and custom fonts for magazines and corporations.
Name: Mark van Bronkhorst
Studio: Berkeley, California
Profession: Type Designer
Transportation: Pedestrian (home office) or BMW (Berkeley studio)
Mark, how did you end up running a type design company and foundry?
Long ago, my interest in designing type led me to do graphic design for type-related companies, including FontHaus, ITC, and FontShop International. I worked on my own typefaces in between delivering a great deal of print work for these and other clients. Over the years, I’ve been able to devote an increasing amount of time to designing type, and it’s evolved into a full-time endeavor. I couldn’t be happier with the shift.
Type is a vital ingredient in any corporate identity or magazine, but do you think it is only a small part and it is underestimated?
Type (and/or lettering) can be a vital ingredient in any design that includes visual language. I am sure type’s role in corporate ID or magazines is both over- and underestimated, depending on whom you ask!
Besides fonts for designers and the retail market your studio develops custom typefaces for magazines and corporations. Compared to making original typefaces, do you find that a more interesting option?
Both are original and interesting; different in how the design direction is established. With my own typefaces, I have an idea in mind as I work, which can change as the design progresses and I explore options. With a custom project, a client will often have an idea of what they’re looking for, providing a fairly detailed design brief. In many cases, the client has selected our company based on seeing our other work. We’ll then have equal influence (if not more) over the direction of the custom type. What I find most interesting about custom projects is that they can take my work in a direction I might not otherwise have explored on my own.
How does one develop a font for a client, and how do you decide the design direction?
A client may have a clear idea of what they are after, or might provide a vague description. We work with the client to articulate their design criteria so that we can evaluate options more objectively. We typically start by designing a few key characters we feel meet the criteria, forms that can be thoroughly tested to evaluate the design direction. (“Hamburgefonstiv” provides enough characters for “greeking” tests). If a custom project calls for italics, multiple weights, diverse stylistic variants, etc., we’ll explore those in a similar fashion.
Once we have arrived at agreed-upon tests, we flesh out full character sets, then evaluate again. After locking in the final characters, a good deal of time is spent perfecting font metrics (spacing and kerning).
When I say “we,” I want to make it clear that I don’t usually work alone. While on most projects I am the designer, Linnea Lundquist, a former Adobe type editor, does much of our production work and OpenType font engineering, and, at times, assists with design and production of glyphs. We’ve also collaborated with other lettering artists—we bring in whatever talent is needed to deliver.
What’s the secret of your success in type design?
That would be telling!
You’re now most focused on creating original typefaces for the retail market. As the type foundry market is huge and a lot of fonts are for free, how hard is it to position your own work on the type market?
I am fortunate that after devoting myself to type design, my work (MVB Verdigris®, MVB Solano Gothic®, Sweet® Sans, to name a few) has performed well enough in the marketplace so that I can continue creating type on a full-time basis.
Those of us of a certain age will recall that, in the late 1980s, only a handful of “desktop” fonts were available. I think the ever-growing type choices available to designers—dare I call it a “font glut”?—is an entirely positive development. Given this, it can be more difficult to position a new design, but competition in a marketplace is nothing new and not something I would ever whine about.
Each new typeface is a new creature, with its own set of traits and potential uses. Some, like our Sweet® Sans, find and fill a niche that needed filling, and generate a strong response rather quickly. Other designs may take more time to gain traction, or prove to be a labor-of-love and little more. What I find fascinating is that a typeface I designed years ago can suddenly intersect a new trend, and strangely start selling.
When I’m working on a new typeface, I don’t get too hung up on what I think may or may not sell. I make the typefaces I want to make, and if a few of them sell adequately, I can continue to design type.
You recently developed Mascot, a jaunty varsity script that evokes the spirit of sports and simpler times. Where did you draw your inspiration from and how long did it take to develop this font?
MVB Mascot® is based on vintage American flocked (furry), stock iron-on letters that one would apply, letter by letter, to Little League baseball jerseys and the like. There’s a familiarity to the form, a nostalgic warmth. A shareware font based on this design has existed for some time, but I felt the model had more potential if redesigned to better behave as a connecting script, with the full character set designers need. I found a set of vintage iron-ons on Ebay and got started.
The stock letters offered the alphabet, an ampersand, and a swoosh for reference. Developing the typeface meant redesigning the letterforms, and creating numbers, punctuation, etc., to harmonize with the design.
I will often work on a “fun” typeface after completing a more significant project. After releasing MVB Verdigris® Pro Big — a titling companion to MVB Verdigris® Pro Text — I needed a break. Mascot was fun to design and produce as the forms are naive, lumpy in places, and meant to be taken less seriously. Redesigning the letterforms to work as a typeface involved cleaning things up considerably, but not to the point where the design might lose its familiar, naive qualities.
As far as production time — it’s hard to pinpoint that exactly, as I tend to work on projects in tandem. Mascot probably represented about a month’s time, roughly speaking. Mascot is available exclusively from our little site at mvbfonts.com.
Talking about Sweet Sans again. Jessica Hische mentioned in an interview that she likes this family of 54 fonts. The family is based on antique engraver’s lettering templates called “masterplates.” The Engraver’s Sans Serif has been one of the most widely used stationer’s lettering styles since about 1900. Its open, simple forms offer legibility at very small sizes. While there are digital fonts based on this style (such as Burin Sans and Sackers Gothic, among others), few offer the range of styles and weights possible, with the versatility designers perhaps expect from digital type families. Sweet Sans fills that void. Can you tell us more about this?
I had found in the past, while designing letterhead for an attorney, that an engravers’ gothic would be a good possibility for the typography. While the fonts available were good, they were unfortunately lacking in range. There was room for a much broader interpretation of this very basic, ubiquitous style.
I started researching the availability of old templates (“masterplates”) used by engravers to copy letters from the masterplate to a printing plate. Engravers I’d worked with years ago had either closed shop or scrapped these masterplates (most now photo-etch their plates, and any font can be used). I finally located a source that has maintained an inventory of masterplates for many years, and I began to study examples of the engravers’ gothic style.
The more familiar style was the cap-to-small-cap design, like Sackers Gothic™. Masterplates offered various versions of this, plus a model for italics. Masterplates also offered an upper- and lowercase design (similar to Burin Sans™), with companion italics. It was clear to me that a greater range of styles and weights was possible based on the model.
My plan was to marry the cap and small cap with the cap and lowercase designs as one family, in as many weights as possible, and include italics for everything. I decided on proportions of small caps and x-height relative to caps. I then began drawing the forms—a process of interpretation rather than revival. For example, since varying versions of each character were available from similar masterplates, I would need to choose which sort of ‘S’ best reflected the style, etc.
The Heavy weight could have been made heavier still, but I went as bold as I felt the design could go without starting to depart from the monolinear feel that gives the model its character.
I’ve been very happy with the response Sweet Sans received in its first year and appreciative of the support it represents to our little company. We are getting a good number of web font inquiries and are working with Webtype.com to make web fonts available (both Sweet and MVB fonts are actually available now from webtype.com for private hosting). ❚