In Memoriam: Gerard Unger 1942-2018
erard Unger (22 January 1942 – 23 November 2018) was a Dutch graphic and type designer. He studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam from 1963–67, and subsequently worked at Total Design, Prad and Joh. Enschedé.
In 1975, he established himself as an independent developer. A long-time guest lecturer at the University of Reading, he mentored many modern typeface designers. He lived and worked in Bussum, Netherlands.
Unger developed many typefaces over the years, of which several specially developed for newspapers (usually typefaces with a large x-height and large inner counters), such as Swift, Gulliver, Coranto and Vesta. He also developed designs for magazines, coins, books, logos and stamps.
A large number of Unger's typefaces are available from Linotype and the Dutch Type Library; his more recent faces are also available through the foundry Type Together.
He released new work on his own website from 1995. Unger designed typefaces for the signage systems of both the Dutch highways (ANWB-fonts) and the Amsterdam metro.
A draft of M.O.L. and its application in the real world. By the way, the typeface’s name refers to the Dutch word “mol” (meaning “mole”)—at first, the designers had the idea of making the animal the mascot of the Amsterdam Metro. There would be a giant molehill outside each station in the city, with a mole pointing the way to the entrance with his nose. This proposal was rejected by city authorities, but was allowed to live on in the name of the typeface.
His newspaper face Gulliver (1993) is familiar to millions of readers, as it is the typeface used in both USA Today and several European newspapers, including the Stuttgarter Zeitung.
His typeface Coranto is the typeface for The Scotsman and the Brazilian newspaper Valor.
In addition to his work in type design, Unger was active in the field of education. Unger taught at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie for over 30 years, and from 1994, he was a visiting professor at the University of Reading at the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication.
From 2006 to 2012, he was a lecturer in typography at the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Leiden.
His most important publication was Terwijl je leest (1997) ("While You're Reading") which was completely revised and reprinted in 2006.
In 2004, he delivered the Tiele-lecture (of the Dr. P.A. Tiele Stichting) under the title Veranderend lezen, lezend veranderen (rough translation: Transformed Reading).
In September 2013, he received a PhD degree on a new typeface called Alverata, which he developed while researching medieval lettering.
From the working files of the serif Demos (1975, Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell/Linotype) and its sans-serif counterpart Praxis(1976, Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell/Linotype)—Unger’s first experience in developing a superfamily. Source: V. Efimov, A. Shmelyova. “Great Typefaces. Book Two. Serifs.” Moscow, Para Type, 2007.
Unger received various awards, including the H.N. Werkman prize (1984) the Maurits Enschedé prize (1991) and in 2009 the SOTA Typography Award.
In 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hasselt, Belgium and in 2009 from Estonian Academy of Arts. In 2012 he was awarded the "Piet Zwart Lifetime Achievement Award" by the Association of Dutch Designers BNO and in 2017 he was awarded the TDC Medal by the Type Directors Club.
This fall Gerard Unger shared his typographic knowledge through his new publication, aptly named "Theory of Type Design".
In the book Unger theorized how the design of type is a fundamental linguistic tool. "Of all designed objects letters are probably the most pervasive," Unger explains. "Very familiar yet amazingly diverse in their appearance … there seems to be no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to varying letterforms." Unger approaches the diversity and creativity of the field with a wide-ranging, reflective, critical theory of how we design and make sense of text.
Unger died at his home in Bussum on 23 November 2018, approximately five months after his wife's death.
Unger in his own words:
"Papers have all kinds of information on the same page; very distressing and very joyful; gossip and facts. I wanted to bring that variety, that liveliness into the typeface design".
"The best part of my education was that it forced one to be flexible".
"I’m from the generation that saw graphic design as problem-solving and I’m still a problem-solver. That’s my first question: ‘What’s your problem?’".
"Neville Brody and David Carson achieved something that in graphic design and typography was nonexistent before them and that was superstar status. It’s not that I envy them, but for a lot of people there was nothing else. All the students wanted Carson on their curriculum and they wanted their work to look like his There was also Neville Brody’s influence: you saw second-rate Brody posters with all the Brody ingredients but without Neville’s touch. It never did him much harm. What I can’t understand was that there were so many people willing to trade in their own creativity for someone else’s. That they would use ready-made ingredients, an instant meal, instead of something that would take them the same amount of time to prepare themselves.We have to get to grips with this superstar thing. I started professional life as an assistant to Wim Crouwel, and Wim is an absolutely charismatic leader. He’s charming and outspoken, and when he explained design you thought: ‘This is it, this is the solution, here’s the way to do it.’ I had a very tough time freeing myself from that influence, convincing myself that I had different ideas. I had to find my own footing".
"I’ve always been a bit of an optimist. No idea where that comes from. I was not a brilliant secondary school pupil, I actually don’t have a final diploma from secondary school".
"I think there is no difference between paper and screen, the reading experience is the same. Actually, at the moment I am trying to read a very big and heavy book in bed, before I go to sleep. It is much more comfortable to read from an iPad, but this book is not available on the iPad. So there have been all these technological changes, but the far bigger change, as far as I am concerned, is that throughout the 70s and in the early 80s I was working as a type designer—I could make a very good living as a type designer and I was one of the very few. There was Matthew Carter, Adrian Frutiger, Hermann Zapf; they were older than I was. I did not have many contemporaries. And suddenly in the mid 80s, early 90s, there was a wave of young designers from the Hague, Arnhem, and then Britain, Germany… and the picture changed completely. Since type design has gone digital, the number of type designers has multiplied unbelievably. But I don’t think about all my young colleagues in a negative way at all. It is great to have a large number of colleagues, to meet and discuss how different the products we make are or how similar they are when it comes to a neutral sans serif".
"I was educated by the whole generation of designers who combined a career in art with a career in design. For example, my teacher for lettering, type design and typography, Theo Kurpershoek, was a painter, a modern classicist in his paintings and a traditionalist in his typography, but he combined two careers. I think you see it much less nowadays".
"I’ve always been very curious, and I think curiosity is a very fundamental Dutch quality. When you make a design, the first question you ask when you’ve made it is: What else can I get out of this? Is there anything more? Is there anything beyond what I have done so far? So that was another thing that I’ve learned in the 60s as a student: never be satisfied with what you can do, but always try to get a bit more out of yourself and to experiment. I think this is what I have in common with many of my Dutch colleagues".
"It’s fundamentally to see type design as industrial design combined with ergonomics, in order to adapt the human product to the capacities of the human body, in this case to the capacity of the eyes and the brain and the hand. This is what supports my work".
"I am very fond of curves. I’ve always liked curves. It’s never a simple curve, they are very complicated curves very often. It starts rather flat, it makes its turn, it stretches itself, makes its turn again and suddenly goes up… There is an outside curve and an inside curve doing something different, you create a silhouette this way, this is how shapes come about. That’s the trick. That’s all there is"
Typefaces designed by Unger:
Demos (1976/2001 [Neue Demos]/2015 [Demos Next])
Praxis (1977/2001 [Neue Praxis]/2017 [Praxis Next])
Swift (1985/1995 [Neue Swift])
Capitolium (1998/2011 [Capitolium 2])
Coranto (2000/2011 [Coranto 2])
Big Vesta (2003/2011)
Capitolium News (2006/2011)
Capitolium Headline (2011)
Coranto Headline (2011)
M.O.L. (1974)—this typeface for signage in the Amsterdam Metro was created in a working group led by Dutch designer Pieter Brattinga. This is one of Unger’s first experiments with readability. In the difficult conditions of the underground (Unger even has this draft on a black background), the forms of letters are lost and seem to drown in spots of light on bright lightboxes. From here follows Unger’s decision to “anticipate” this distortion: he made the counters of letters (the spaces within them) larger and rounded off stroke endings.
Unger’s first professional typeface—Markeur (1972). This sans serif for navigational purposes was directly linked to the then-existing technology of engraving letters on plastic: the engraving system Pantotype from company Enschedé was used to make signs based on Unger’s drawings. Below: Unger’s drawing and the letter engraved from it. Markeur largely formed the basis for M.O.L.