Keith Bates first became aware of Typography as a child through its expressive contribution to the things he valued – comics, chewing gum cards, packaging, film and television titles, posters, coins and stamps.
Working as a high school Art & Design teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Keith had a good supply of Letraset, and later computer fonts. By the late nineties, Keith had become fascinated by the fonts of Ray Larabie, Chank Diesel, Fontalicious, and other enthusiastic and prolific fontmakers whose work was being disseminated freely over the internet, and who seemed to be part of a grassroots movement that had a subcultural excitement about it. Small type foundries were springing up across the globe. Discovering Fontographer in 2000 was Keith's admission ticket and the K-Type foundry was born.
K-Type is a small, independent type foundry based in Manchester England, offering a unique range of high quality ‘Free for Personal Use’ fonts, and pay fonts which are modestly and simply priced for designers, small businesses and large organisations. As well as offering many high quality fonts free for personal use Keith is also really generous with his knowledge, sharing lots of information and resources via the K-Type site.
He found inspiration wherever it occurred, often revisiting childhood and adolescent fascinations. K-Type's collection soon became quite eclectic, though a common thread throughout is a strong sense of time and place.
Keith writes "I grew up in Beatles-era Liverpool. I received an English Grammar School education with a typographical baseline of Times New Roman and smatterings of Eric Gill. I was attracted to music and graphic design, and was hugely influenced by American art and the counterculture of the late sixties. So I started to chart those influences in the fonts I made. In a small way, perhaps they ascribe meaning to the erratic flow of interests and experiences that comprise my existence.... K-Type has grown into a collection of whatever’s fascinated me at different times. I often like to create my own versions of type designs that have signposted my life, such as the British car plate typeface Mandatory, Latinate based on a bus ticket font from childhood, Bank of England inspired by the chancery lettering on banknotes, or street nameplate fonts like Penny Lane and Deansgate. And last but not least, the Transport typeface which has quite literally adorned the signposts in my life."
This approach has resulted in a broad body of work that not only signposts intimate of personal experiences in Keith's life but also important historical and cultural cues we can all relate to. My first journey through the K-Type catalog evoked memories of my fathers shed (more specifically greasy motorcycle parts!) Black Knight Licorice straps and tangy fruits at the cinema as a child and nostalgic memories of record sleeves and album covers from my youth.
After exchanging a number of emails back and forth I with Keith I asked him to answer a few questions for the TypographCommunity!
You mentioned that you’re constantly learning more about typeface design and understand the importance of being a life long learner. I really value the act of making to learn and am interested to hear about your learning process! Can you give us an example of a lesson learned through mistake or failure with a typeface?
I’m self-taught, I learned on the job, so it just seems natural to continue learning. I flit between reading books about type and Terry Pratchett novels. I’m close to finishing all of the Discworld series now, but there are plenty of books about lettering still to read and there is a huge amount of valuable information about typefaces on the web. I look back at my earliest fonts and see things I wouldn’t do now, drawing diacritics incorrectly and misaligning characters, I only recently noticed I’d put the two Thorn glyphs in the wrong positions in one early font. I used to miss out uncommon characters but now I’m very fastidious about supplying a full repertoire of glyphs, there are over 400 Latin Extended-A characters in all recent K-Types.
You note that you find yourself striving for unattainable perfection with a compulsive urge to make each font better. Do you ever revisit and update previously released fonts based on your gained knowledge from a new/current project? Or once a Typeface is published do you see it is static and instead apply the new knowledge to your next projects moving forward.
Static would be the ideal. I try to be meticulous about quality control and never intend to revisit my typefaces, but good reasons often crop up. I recently changed the numeral 9 in Lexie Readable to a diagonal leg after several users emailed me their dissatisfaction with the original vertical legged character. Occasionally I’ll notice that something’s not quite right and decide to make changes, even though most users might not even notice. I also have a rolling programme of adding accented characters where the repertoire is incomplete and sometimes additional characters are requested. I also revisit typefaces to add weights that I feel might be useful or in response to requests.
K-type demonstrates a significant investment in industry by generously offering some fonts for free. Mail art is a great example of you collaborating with community to create something for community. Can you tell us a little about how this curated collection of snail mail letters came about?
I’ve been involved in Mail Art since 1983, it’s a postal network of artists who exchange work and contribute to each other’s projects. Unlike the selective gallery system, Mail Art projects don’t involve a jury or fees, your work is not returned but you do receive documentation. Most project calls are open to anyone, but in 2004 I decided to make a Mail Art Typeface and sent personal invitations to around 150 of the mailartists I’d corresponded with who’d shown an interest in graphic work. I allocated each artist one character in the font allowing contributions to be made by post or by email, something I’m still trying to persuade the Mail Art community to embrace. I tailored characters to particular artists, often one of their initials. The @ symbol was contributed by a pioneer of internet usage, and I invited a conceptual artist to contribute the delete, he sent back an empty envelope. The resulting freefont is a playful and punky mismatch of styles into which I tried to inject a modicum of cohesion.
Often in lettering and sign painting the artist/designer takes liberties with conventional letter structure to create unique letter/word relationships. (lettering is a collection of beautiful letters). However in Type design the system demands each letter work with each other letter. (Type is a beautiful collection of letters). Last year you released The Sgt Pepper Fonts a family of layered typefaces that were inspired by the painted drum on the Beatles lonely hearts club album cover. I read that although you chose to correct Joe Ephgraves non-conventional weight distribution for the Y in your typeface you also included an alternate character that referenced the way Joe painted the original drum skin. I love that you honoured the artwork in this way! Working with layered display fonts like this is a really complex undertaking (not for the faint of heart!) what about the lettering this painted artwork compelled you to make this type system? And other than the Y and adding lowercase did you make any other stylistic/authorship decisions while constructing these faces?
I consider taking liberties my prerogative as fontmaker. I flipped the unconventional Y because I thought it looked better, but I also liked the idea of making the original Y available to designers - you can’t say his version was wrong, it was the sixties. I noodled with other letters as well, like the R where I thickened up the leg which seemed a little too spindly.
The fonts are a homage to Joe Ephgrave, but I was making the Sgt Pepper fonts that I wanted. Originally I just wanted to be able to recreate the bass drum but to change the lettering, that was the impetus to make the layerable Outline and Outline Fill fonts which were all uppercase like the original drum lettering. However, having finished off the rest of the capitals and creating punctuation and symbols, I felt compelled to make a third, full font that included a new lowercase too.
Your typeface New Old English is based on the type circling Victorian era coins. I have no experience with a revival project like this but given how small the letters are reproduced on the coins and also the variance that comes with wear and use I imagine translating these marks and details was particularly challenging! Can you tell us a little about the design process for this font? And does your process change when working with tiny specimen as opposed to working with large specimen (for example your Transport new face).
The coins I looked at were in good condition, so it wasn’t that the rounded edges resulted from natural wear and tear, the die struck lettering had softness, in contrast to the sharp pen-drawn blackletters we usually see. I bought a replica gothic crown to examine but mostly worked from photographic enlargements, images culled from numismatic websites and eBay. Of course, the letterforms were three-dimensional raised surfaces, stem widths and edges were unclear, so once the basic shapes were established the challenge was to introduce common dimensions and draw each glyph as part of a coherent set of characters.
I love that you use a creative propulsion method to conceive and construct your typefaces – by drawing inspiration from small character sets, lettering and printed ephemera. This observational approach to the design of a typeface is something I teach in my alphabet is code workshops (and the way I teach myself about type!). Do you have any tips or advice for people wanting to create a typeface based on a single character or limited number of glyphs?
I really enjoy taking an existing handful of characters and completing the set, having some of the pieces of the jigsaw and letting imagination create the whole picture. You can find the codes and conventions of typographic tradition everywhere and they become your guide, your reservoir of routines to imitate or transform. Whenever I make a new typeface, I seek out the most similar existing alphabets, partly so I can copy shapes when difficulties arise, and partly to identify what I don’t like, what I don’t wish to repeat, and where my vision differs from that of my predecessors. I usually begin a font by pencil drawing letters in a sketchbook, though at times I’ll draw directly in Fontographer if the design is strongly geometric.
When I made the Norton typeface, based on just 5 letters from the motorcycle logo, I had real difficulty drawing valid forms for some lowercase letters. I’d found Paul Lloyd’s Duvall font, so I emailed Paul and asked him if I could borrow some of his lowercase shapes and he kindly agreed. Norton isn’t a copy of Duvall but you can certainly see the influence.
K-Type’s Norton has been featured on The Daily Show! That's significant exposure and must have been super exciting (and rewarding to see) do you have any other examples of your fonts in use that you can share?
It’s really nice to see K-Type fonts in action. I keep finding Norton in unlikely places, most recently on a book cover about cycling. Every supermarket trip my eye drifts smugly to the Greek yoghurts where Müller use Dalek for its Hellenic quality. On holiday in Kefalonia last summer we noticed that Dalek also appears on Greek t-shirts. Mailart Rubberstamp crops up a lot in labelling and shop window displays. Mandatory is being used for car registration plates in Brazil. Predictably, Keep Calm is everywhere, and not just on the ubiquitous poster lookalikes, we recently found it used on fabric shopping bags at Strand Books in New York.
I think its marvellous you have revived Gill's Solus as the K-Type Non Solus and note that you did revisit this particular face to add more weights and refine the design based on new high resolution printed specimen of Solus, honoring your eye as you interpreted details... Given Monotype’s recent Gill revivals and the current popularity of his work do you think the opportunity (or desire!) for you to keep developing the Non Solus family will arise as more samples come to light/become available?
At some point I expect Monotype to make an official revival of Solus. When Gill designed it I think it was considered to be too light for commercial success, and slab serifs generally regarded as too Victorian, but I think typefaces often have more than one time. Robin Nicholas’s response to my enquiries politely warned me off giving K-Type’s Solus the original name, hence the ‘Non’ moniker. Sadly, he didn’t offer to send me any samples or original drawings or invite me down to Redhill for a cup of tea, I expect he is a busy man and Monotype are very protective of their archive. However, I’d been sent a good scan of the 48pt original from a kind typophile and was content to work from that. The slightly curved bracketing I observed on the printed serifs added warmth so I decided to keep them even though Justin Howes advised that they were probably not present in the original design. I don’t lose sleep about it, Non Solus is K-Type’s version of Gill’s forgotten font. It has a bolder Bold (the original seemed too similar in weight to the Regular), additional Light and Medium weights, and a new set of italics that Solus didn’t originally have.
Wes Wilson and Zabars are fantastic examples of your period inspired Display fonts. I love the unusual weight distribution and the playful white counter spaces in both of these typefaces. Do you think these delightful historic forms are always going to be regarded as retro? Or do you see them coming back around and predict these revival styles will carve out their own space in contemporary design culture?
Both letterforms you mention had already been brought out of retirement and repurposed for a different age. K-Type Wes Wilson was inspired by the psychedelic posters of the 1960s, but Wilson’s lettering was based on the Austrian Secessionist Alfred Roller’s graphic work from the early 1900s. And the Zabars font is like the bifurcated Tuscans used for Victorian circus and theatre posters. Gabriella Garcia recently wrote an article about Broadway typography which featured the Zabar’s lettering and included Steven Heller’s comment that the lettering is “classic but anachronistic. What it says about deli food is a mystery, but since they’ve owned it for so long the question is irrelevant.”
Sinkin sans (free for both commercial and personal use) is your largest family to date and was created for comfortable reading in digital environments. Although when I first saw it I thought it was a nod to printed type. Were the inktrap like features a mechanical nod to analogue technology or were they driven by an aesthetic agenda to relieve the optical weight at connection points.
Even though Sinkin Sans was designed for web use, the notches were inspired by ink traps. The indentations weren’t made for aesthetic reasons and are quite inconspicuous. They’re a subtle attempt to make busy intersections a little less congested and to reinforce the sharpness of right angles by counteracting the blurring effect of anti-aliasing and halation.
Your Transport New and Motorway typefaces are beautifully constructed digital translations of the faces designed for British motorway signage. You acknowledge that these faces have subtle eccentricities which add to its distinctiveness, and drawing the New version involved walking a tightrope between impertinently eliminating awkwardness and maintaining idiosyncrasy. I found this particularly interesting to read as I have previously featured the work of a number of typefaces designed for dyslexic readers and many of these faces support some visual eccentricity as promoting legibility. Nathan Stevens typeface Literae (which defines type characteristics with the potential to improve dyslexic literacy) he also models transport signage. You have conducted your own research into this area producing your Lexie Readable face. What characteristics if anything do you think are transferable between type designed for large scale signage and type designed for accessible text?
I can’t claim to have researched legibility in great detail. However, when I was studying the Transport typeface I was struck by the generous letterspacing on road signs where ease of reading is undoubtedly helped by the loose spacing. I often give display fonts quite tight spacing but I consciously set K-Type Transport New a little looser, though the fonts would still need additional tracking to equal road sign looseness. When I made Lexie Readable, I looked closely at Comic Sans to understand the qualities which made that font so easy to read and concluded that a relatively wide spacing was a major consideration for easy reading at small type sizes too.
My screen font of choice is Verdana, I find it such an easy typeface to read. I don’t attribute that to its doubtless excellent hinting, I have a 4K screen so that shouldn’t matter too much, I think the superb readability comes in large part from its supremely comfortable spacing. I’m drifting towards thinking that readability, the way type is set out, is more important than legibility, the design of individual letters themselves, which might chiefly be down to personal preference, familiarity and cultural norms.
You have a fantastic resource on your website that describes your K-type development and build process step-by-step. It is full of excellent advice for people starting out with designing type. Do you have any other pearls of advice for people starting out with designing type and/or publishing fonts?
Thank you, that’s kind of you to say. I do enjoy writing Kernel articles about how fonts originated and explaining design details, particularly where typefaces have interesting backstories, it’s easier to talk about fonts that already have a social presence than the ones that evolve more from formal exploration. It was also fun to add the ‘Making Fonts the K-Type Way’ section for anyone just starting out fontmaking. As for offering advice, I think anyone who wants to design typefaces should choose a tool that makes creating glyphs as easy as possible. I’ve never regretted choosing Fontographer, it’s such a user-friendly program with highly intuitive drawing tools. It’s been making the task easier since 1986 and is even better since it became a FontLab product.
You are currently working in a digital environment but you use pencils as part of your design process and you used to be an art teacher prior to starting K-type so I am curious whether you have processes and mediums you miss working with, or new techniques or materials you would like to experiment with more or build into your practice?
I am happiest working digitally and pencil sketching ideas. I used to love screenprinting and carving rubberstamps but now I’m more fascinated by digital possibilities. I really enjoy creating the publicity posters and banners for the fonts I make, I got a special buzz from making the Sgt Pepper graphics showing my type heroes. I was a keen collagist in the heyday of Mail Art, and now I prefer to make collages in Photoshop.
You describe K-type as a collection of whatever is fascinating you at different times. What has you excited/interested at the moment and what are you working on right now?
I’m ‘between fonts’ at the moment. I’ll often embark on some research and actively seek out the next typeface project, but sometimes I’ll do something else completely and wait for the muse to strike. I’m in that latter frame of mind now, I’ve taken a few weeks off to restring and set up my collection of 14 guitars. But your questions have got me looking over old drawings and I can see a few ideas that might be worth developing. We have a city break in New York planned in a few weeks’ time so I’ll also be seeking out some inspiration there.
Keith I am thrilled that these Q's could act as a prompt for ideation and hope the New York trip provides lots of visual inspiration! I cant wait to see what seeds grow via your kernel!