Stéphane Elbaz is graphic and type designer. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo recently published by Typofonderie. He is the first typeface designer outside the foundry to be published by Typofonderie. It seems to be interesting and necessary to interview him.
How do you define yourself?
I am a designer, I intend to solve problems with aesthetic solutions but at the same time develop a personal expression. It’s this gap that I find interesting.
Stephane Elbaz at the ENSAD in 2004
My taste for letters appeared really early in my life, during my teenage years. At this time it’s wasn’t properly an interest in type, but certainly a taste for letters as plastic shapes. Going to the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs school in Paris made me discover classic typography. How not to be nostalgic of theses school years? It’s very important for me because of how much I learned during these years. Classes with Rudi Meyer and Jean François Porchez gave me the context and the latitude to foresee this subject with a more experimental way of thinking.
It’s during the type design courses lead by Jean François Porchez that I was involved in the creation of Caffeine and Cooker Black typefaces. This was clearly a starting point for me; I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to involve myself in rigorous typographic projects without this first step. Thus, letters became for me the center of graphic design. Type design is an experience that requires a taste for abstraction as well as a systematic mind, two things that fit well with my professional mindset.
Caffeine & Cooker Black, the typeface Stephane worked on at the ENSAD
You take part both in web design and in type design, which is pretty unique, in what way does it change how you work?
Concerning my web design skills, it’s a question that I should ask to my colleagues. I don’t know if working with headlines without kerning, or the incapacity to set a nicely ragged left paragraph is more difficult for me to live with than it is for others. I do, however, have good reasons to be optimistic. Things are evolving more quickly and getting better. The future will bring us more and more screens and it is important that the typographic quality on these devices improves accordingly.
I think what has occurred on the internet for some years is a perfect illustration of the importance of typography in graphic design. The capacity to use a large font palette, in comparison to the 3 or 4 standards that were used for dynamic texts, changes everything and allows designers to express different identities.
Beyond the technical constraints of various screens, I don’t think there is a fundamental difference between the content presented on a screen or on paper. Also, I don’t think that twitter or text messages radically change our language. After all, it’s the graphic designer that has to choose the typefaces regarding his subject and deal with technical constraints with a wider focus than just screen or paper.
Why did you leave France to live and work in New York? From there, what can you say about type design in the United States and in France?
I like the charm of tiny cities.
Seriously though, the United States is a big country and therefore there is a great diversity of expressions. There is certainly a tone in American graphic design that is quite different; the references are not exactly the same as in France. It seams, for instance, that the idea of tradition and the images associated with it are not the same in Paris and New York. The shapes and the imaginative world of tradition are an important foundation in which type designers work, thus there are going to be differences in the type aesthetic.
What is the genesis of Geneo?
Geneo is a personal project that I began without thinking of a context nor a specific use. I was attracted by slab serifs and started with a really thin weight, a bit like a typewriter character but with some kind of Renaissance spirit. I think that I was trying to find an anachronistic mix. I was also fond of the brush-made flourish shapes of the Art Nouveau period. It’s from these areas where I took my inspiration from. All of this together could feel a bit heavy, but my idea was to make a contemporary character where the shapes had to be synthetical while keeping some flesh.
Geneo won the TDC price back in 2009, today it’s distributed by Typofonderie, although it’s not exactly the same typeface. It’s original identity is kept, but it had to evolve to fit in the foundry’s standards. This meant a lot of work, but I benefitted from the guidance and exceptional eye of Jean François Porchez. We worked together on both the design of each particular glyph’s details as well as the weight scale of the entire family. Time was also spent designing dingbats and alternative glyphs.
I believe that this new typeface family allows for a great diversity of uses. The lighter weights used in headlines can convey both a delicatessen or literature. The intermediate weights can be used to set body text in an academic journal or in the logo of a new social network. We can imagine the heavier weights being used on posters or in editorial design. The family as a whole can also be used in works needing a complex typographic hierarchy. Also, I think that in a context of a rational and minimal text layout Geneo ccan add a connotative dimension, a level of contrast. Although the mentioned applications could easily exist, the more exciting uses would be seeing my typeface appear in ways that I couldn’t have imagined myself. It’s from other graphic designers’ creations that I am waiting to see new and interesting interpretations.
Can you share some stuff about the new typefaces you are currently designing?
I have a few things in progress, which I think is often the case with type designers; having several typeface ideas in the back of their minds. What determines if a typeface will one day be completed and released or not is the relevancy of its shapes and its identity. Some others will never be finished because they are shaky in their concept or just not original. I currently have a sans-serif project that I would like to finish. Unfortunately, it’s a category that already seems saturated and therefore a difficult, but stimulating goal.
By Jérémy Landes-Nones, September 2012. All rights reserved.
Graphic and type designer Stephane Elbaz holds degrees in Visual Communication (2003) and Interactive Research (2004) from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo (published by Typofonderie). He works in New York and Paris.
→ Geneo Family page
→ Stéphane Elbaz website
→ Geneo, a new design by Stéphane Elbaz, on the Gazette
→ An article on the team work behind the Geneo
→ Website of the ENSAD
→ Type Directors Club
→ I Love Typography version