Designing Telefon

In my childhood there were still lots of bits and pieces left of Interbellum Norway, at least visually: Tobacco logos and sweets wrappers, hand lettering, road signs and train stations, even mastheads on newspapers and magazines — it took quite a while before 30’s functionalism left Norway, never to be seen again. Those letter shapes formed my idea of how letters are supposed to look.

Georg Fredrik Fasting’s drawings for the original Norwegian telephone booth. From the book “Norges lille røde”.

Original lettering above, Telefon below.

Telefon started with a Christmas gift from my daughter: A book on the original, iconic Norwegian telephone booths, with good pictures, but sadly set in Helvetica. The original lettering was different from that on the remaining ones – someone filed down those gorgeous ‘N’ spikes and neutralised the ‘E’ and ‘F’ crossbars, probably in the 60’s. But my memories of the weird geometry of those six letters TELEFON (I deliberately didn’t look at them while drawing) became the inspiration for what eventually turned into a typeface.

When drawing type, I never make any sketches. I start drawing directly in the font editing program I use, often not having much of an idea what I am going to draw. Telefon was actually the result of me teaching myself how to construct a geometric typeface.

The magic of type design, from the designer’s point of view, is the process of slowly developing those hundreds, sometimes thousands of glyphs that finally make up a typeface. I am rather clueless to how this process really happens, though. It just does.

A good share of Norwegian street signs are still of that old variety; the typeface a weird cross between the DIN types and more geometric shapes, to some degree resembling Jakob Erbar’s eponymous typeface. The new ones are of course vastly inferior in all respects, since hardly anyone knows typography in Norway anymore. Case in point: When the city of Oslo some years ago decided to have its own typographical profile, the “experts” looked at the old street signs and described the type on it as “a variant of Helvetica”. This would have been quite funny if it weren’t so darn sad.

Telefon is my first completed design. Its very nature probably makes me a member of a not-so-exclusive club, based on my assumption that most budding type designers choose some kind of geometric sans serif as their first attempt at drawing a typeface. Drawing something Futura-like seems less daunting than, say, an oldstyle typeface, because simple geometry is easier to understand than complex geometry. (Yes, all typeface drawing has to do with modularity and geometry, although it is much less visible, at least to the untrained eye, in a seriffed typeface.) But it is easy to underestimate the challenge of making a geometric typeface readable, attractive and interesting. In fact, it is very hard. I’ve tried redeeming Telefon by making it friendlier than Futura: the proportions are less severe, the corners are soft, the two-storey ‘a’ and the rather loose spacing makes it useful for more than display typography. You could even set a book in Telefon; it would actually be the perfect choice the next time someone writes a book on the Norwegian telephone booth.