Hi. I'm Ken Zinser. I do projects, and this is my blog.

System:Touch

From the age of letterpress through designing type for the screen, the Dutch have a long history of influence in the world of type and design. It seems that for each generation of great designers there is an equal number of exceptionally important figures to come out of the Netherlands. Two such figures are Wim Crouwel and the type foundry, Underware.

Wim Crouwel is arguably one of the most influential designers in Dutch history. Born in 1928, he originally trained as a painter but found a growing interest in the orderly principles and aesthetics of functionalism. Crouwel moved to Amsterdam in 1951, designing exhibition stands during the day and taking graphic design classes at night. (Middendorp 117) In 1963, Crouwel helped form Total Design, the Netherlands’ first large-scale, multi-disciplinary design studio. Crouwel has also been designed stamps and worked with institutions like the Van Abbe Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. Crouwel’s style is typified by a strong use of systems and grids, and this style extends into the design of his typefaces as well.

Most of the typefaces Crouwel is known for today were never meant to be complete alphabets, but rather they were designed as wordmarks for a specific name or company. However, his first complete typeface is both his most famous and most controversial—the New Alphabet. Created in 1967 for the emerging technology of the cathode-ray tube, the New Alphabet stands out as his most consistent integration of form and function.

Underware is a design collective founded by Akiem Helmling (German), Bas Jacobs (Finnish) and Sami Kortemäki (Dutch). The three met in 1998 while studying typography and type design as part of a one-year postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, the Netherlands. They continued working together after graduation and today Underware has studios in The Hague, Amsterdam, and Helsinki. They design books and magazines, posters, websites, and custom wordmarks; but they are best known as a type foundry, creating popular font families like Dolly, Sauna, and Auto. (Middendorp 290)

Part of the phenomenon that is the internet, Underware is one of a growing number of small type foundries using the web to distribute their fonts. But Underware takes full advantage of the technology offering OpenType families equipped with ligatures, swashes and alternative characters that give users a wealth of creative opportunity. Underware also takes part in the globalization of design, creating Typeradio, a radio channel on type and design, and offering type design workshops around Europe.

Wim Crouwel began his design career in the early 1950s. During that time there were two important aesthetic movements influencing the Netherlands. The first became known as functionalism and the second was the International Typographic Style being developed in Switzerland. Functionalism was a kind of pragmatic constructivism that had origins in pre-war movements of De Stijl and The Nieuwe Zakelijkheid (literally, “New Objectivity”). Architecture of the time displayed a democratic approach to building with more functional considerations. Of course, the International Typographic Style was extremely influential in the world of graphic design and it’s apparent Crouwel drew heavily from the Swiss. But it really wasn’t until Crouwel and Benno Wissing, his co-founder of Total Design, combined the Swiss aesthetic with the Dutch functionalism that the style infiltrated graphic design in the Netherlands. (Middendorp 114)

In Crouwel’s design work and the work of his studio Total Design, you can make clear connections to the Swiss Style: overall adherence to a grid, flush-left text, use of only one typeface. More so, however, it’s easy to see where the Functionalism comes through: his use of typefaces other than Helvetica, mostly Akzidenz Grotesk and Univers; the invention of highly unusual display faces, most always based on a grid.

Based on a grid of four rows, Crouwel created the type for an exhibition at the Van Abbe Museum in 1963 by the painter Edgar Fernhout. By using rectangles and quarter circles the letterforms become very narrow, purposefully reminiscent of the way Fernhout painted. “The Fernhout typeface referred to the way in which Fernhout painted. He used a little flat brush with which he painted short rectangular strokes, one next to the other,” said Crouwel. While the final outcome appears experimental in nature, it is simply the functional solution resulting from a very pragmatic process. In 1980 Crouwel wrote: “Experimental typography and functional typography are, up to a certain point, opponents of each other. Experimental typography is not only reflecting a cultural pattern, but gives primarily a self-reflexion. As soon as we carry out experiments in order to improve a certain typographical solution, that means as soon as we do research, we cannot speak of experimental typography; experimental typography never results in a solution for a certain problem.” (Middendorp 118)

Akiem Helmling, Bas Jacobs and Sami Kortemäki founded Underware in 1999, when Wim Crouwel was 71 years old. Without being directly influenced by (nor influential in) an all-encompassing aesthetic movement like the Swiss Style, Underware has been most affected by the culture surrounding the Internet; not only do they distribute their fonts digitally, they run blogs and host online radio channels, too. Today’s multi-disciplinary designers not only make brochures, they program websites and have one or two fonts to their credit, not to mention the logos they’ve submitted to crowdsourcing competitions. Globalization in general influenced the studio, allowing Helmling, Jacobs and Kortemäki to live miles apart—in different countries, even—yet collaborate seamlessly on their typefaces.

Crouwel was best known for creating systems—for identities, for grids, for typefaces. If you look at how Underware designs type today, it’s easy to draw comparisons with Crouwel’s process. On the one hand, typefaces by Underware often have a hand-crafted feel; the italic swashes and ligatures of Sauna and Bello come to mind, or the way Liza acts as if you were writing with a pen that occasionally runs out of ink. But the font families and OpenType features are so robust they become systems in themselves.

Underware designed Auto, a sans-serif family, with three sets of italics. Each italic is slightly different, more angled than the last and more informed by the written hand. You can see changes in the letter ‘a’ across the three italics; in the first italic the ‘a’ is still looks rather upright, in the second it becomes more narrow and angled; finally in the third the counterform opens up.

World War II put much of Europe in a state of reconstruction, and the Netherlands was no exception. With their strong aesthetic inclinations, the rebuilding included communications and design. As far back as 1919, Government agencies like the Postal and Telecommunications Service (PTT) were advocates and sponsors of innovative design. PTT went as far as to establish an Aesthetic Design Department, handing out commissions to artists and designers for all their designs. (Meggs 458) This shows the strong commitment and supportive environment designers in the Netherlands benefit from.

In 1974 Crouwel was asked to design a typeface for Olivetti, the Italian manufacturer of typewriters. His sketches for the typewriter font were based on the shape of a rectangle with 45-degree angles. Eventually dubbed Gridnik, Olivetti never used the typeface. However, Crouwel found an application for Gridnik while designing stamps for the PTT, drawing a special version of the typeface for the word “nederland” and the numbers that appear on the stamps.

Originally designed for the typewriter, Gridnik is a workhorse text face meant for setting large amounts of text. Not unlike Helvetica Neue or Univers, Gridnik acts as a vehicle for the written content. But at the same time, Gridniks subtle typographic features—rounded corners and slightly angled terminals—give it a kind of character not found in typefaces like Univers or Helvetica Neue.

The Dutch are known for being open-minded, tolerant of diversity in religion, art and politics. Open-minded is the keyword for both Crouwel and Underware. Crouwel’s institutional work for the Van Abbe Museum and Stedelijk Museum, wasn’t exactly conservative, and yet was well received; in an interview with Michael Place, Crouwel said, “the interested public were very receptive to it. I was often invited to talk and the public that came to these talks were very accepting.” (“Striking The Eye”) At the same time, the designers at Underware approach their work with the same sort of Dutch philosophy, designing faces collectively, sharing credit. And they’re trusting; when Underware published their first typefaces, they included the fonts on a CD with each type specimen, leaving it up to the users to buy a license when they decided to use the fonts.

The trio offered this in an interview for MyFonts: “The current OpenType jungle actually shows that most people don’t know exactly what they’re buying. The only way to really test-drive a typeface is by installing it and using it. All other ways (like online test-drivers, etc) offer a preview, but will never be a satisfying substitute. Would you ever buy a new car straight from a catalogue or a car simulator?” (“Creative Characters”)

Traditional alphabets whose letters are individually designed with meticulous care belong in a time in which typesetting was a task performed manually.

Up until the 1960s, letterpress printing was the most common printing technique in the Netherlands. (Bros, Quay 10) While Crouwel often drew type by hand, he became primarily concerned with technology, especially that of the Cathode-Ray Tube. The idea behind New Alphabet began after he saw the first digital typesetting of Garamond at a print exhibition in Germany. (iconographics.com) Crouwel saw that the letterforms were inconsistent at different sizes due to the use of pixels. He thought that traditional alphabets “whose letters are individually designed with meticulous care” belong in a time in which typesetting was a task performed manually. (Middendorp 120) New Alphabet is an alternative, a solution. A typeface designed specifically for the technology of the time, with forms best suited for digital typesetting, but a big change from traditional alphabets. Even more so, Crouwel attempted to change how we perceive the alphabet. “I think I have always inclined not to bother too much about things that have been developed through tradition,” says Crouwel. “It’s good to create a breakthrough and then see how you can adjust it.” (Middendorp 121)

Underware is equally concerned with designing for the technology of their time. OpenType is the most recent font format, introduced in 1997 by both Adobe and Microsoft. As opposed to the Postscript and TrueType formats before it, OpenType functions across all computer platforms and each font can contain up to 64,000 characters. (Dodd 169) With these new innovations, type designers can design for a wide range of details, from small caps and titling to tabular figures, superscripts and fractions. They can also include multiple alphabets for different languages.

The typefaces designed by Underware take advantage of everything the OpenType format has to offer. Typefaces like Bello and Liza contain ligatures and alternative characters, and in the case of Sauna, multiple italics; the regular italic is more traditional italic, and usable for longer text settings. Italic Swash is more for display use or the emphasis of single words within regular text. And while they employ the latest technology, many of the ideas and sketches for Underware’s fonts come from the hand. Bello is based on handwriting with a brush, while the blackletter Fakir is based on writing with the broad-nibbed pen.

Unibody 8 was designed by Underware as an optimzed screen font. Aesthetically, it is the closest match to the grid-based fonts of Wim Crouwel. Like Crouwel’s lettering for the Fernhout poster and a poster for a Vormgevers exhibit, Unibody 8 makes use of a visible grid—in this case, the grid of pixels on a computer screen. With a focus on function while creating the typeface, Unibody 8 also shares the same ideals as Crouwel’s New Alphabet, designed for the Cathode-Ray Tube.


Wim Crouwel, a designer of type born in the Netherlands, created systems and gave order to Dutch design. Underware, a Dutch type foundry and design studio of the 21st century. Both concerned with the digital technology of their time, whether Cathode-Ray Tubes or OpenType software. Most importantly, both are examples of the highest quality type and design.