(Not) Just Another Foundry

Two personalities, two approaches, one common vision: fonts you can really use.

Partners in life as in work, Tim Ahrens and Shoko Mugikura are the operative force behind Just Another Foundry. Though their respective cultures —Ahrens is German, Mugikura Japanese— and academic backgrounds are widely different, their love for typography led them both to the same place, a design program in southeast England.

“I got into type design while I was studying architecture, shortly after I got interested in (recognizing) fonts,” Ahrens remembers. “It was very natural to start drawing alphabets myself, and it didn’t occur to me that one would have to learn it [from someone else]. ‘I know what the letters look like,’ I thought, and of course, that is basically true. Naturally, I soon realized that drawing good fonts is really tricky. In a way, though, that’s something that still fascinates me about type design: technically, one doesn’t need to ‘learn’ how to do it. I am totally responsible for the result myself; the shapes come from myself, not from applying ‘rules of the craft’. My best teachers were, and still are, other fonts.”

“Although we occasionally don’t agree on things, all in all we work harmoniously, probably because we have a similar vision: we want to make type that is useful. We don’t like show-off designs. Our aim is to create an idea that is unique and clever, but so skillfully implemented that people don’t notice the genius of it. The design should have a “soul” (a term we prefer to “character”), and the soul can only be inside, rather than on the surface.”

Ahrens submitted his first design, Aroma, to the Linotype contest in 1999, and it was accepted for publication. Yet it would take him a number of years to gain experience and refine his style. “After I graduated from university, I spent a year doing type design, still completely on my own, without any feedback from professionals. I worked on several typefaces and decided to create Just Another Foundry, but at that time I couldn’t have made a living from type design. My plan was still to become a full-time architect, and in 2004, I moved to Oxford to start work there. The funny thing is that in the train on my way to the job interview, I passed through Reading (which I didn’t know) and I thought, ‘maybe if I get the job I’ll be close to the university’s department of typography and graphic communication, and then maybe I could be in touch with them!’ Indeed, Ahrens successfully applied to the MA program in typeface design as a part-time student, and for the first time in his life met other people sharing his interest. After graduating, he continued working as a part-time architect, but eventually decided to “do fonts” full-time around 2009. His MA project became JAF Herb (2010), a study in Renaissance broken letterforms that gave rise to a softened, yet potent blackletter face (in regular and bold, both with condensed versions).

JAF Herb

As for Mugikura, she initially studied visual communication at Musashino Art University in Tokyo. “While I was studying there, I wanted to understand what typography was, but I could not figure it out. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Japanese writing system is incredibly complex and unique; in Japanese writing, orthography and typography are interwoven, which makes it difficult to see the underlying visual structure. Frustrated with Japanese typography, I gradually became obsessed with Latin typography, which to my eyes looked extremely simple and systematic. After completing my degree in 2003, I decided to study Latin typography at the University of Reading. I ended up spending 3 years (2 years on a BA and 1 year on an MA in book design) in the department of typography and graphic communication.”

JAF Domus Titling

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Both during and after her studies, Mugikura worked at several design companies in London and improved her skills as a typographer. In 2011, she officially joined Just Another Foundry. “I discuss design concepts with Tim and make mock-ups of type in use at several design stages so that we can make appropriate decisions, proof fonts, make promotional materials and so forth, but I don’t design typefaces. The only exceptions have been sketches for JAF Domus Titling, a rounded sans serif family, and JAF Johannes, a revival of Johannes-Type, a font designed by Johannes Schulz around the 1930s for the Genzsch & Heyse type foundry in Hamburg. We would be more prolific if I also produced fonts, but I see benefit in staying a pure type user. I can be totally objective about the fonts and judge their quality from a typographer’s point of view.” This input is much appreciated by Ahrens: “For many special characters, a typographer can say even better than a type designer what they should look like, for example the weight, size, spacing and positioning of quotes, brackets, superiors and the like. Shoko also found it fascinating and fun, influencing the making of a typeface. “Tim’s influence on me is also significant“ says Mugikura, “but it is much more abstract - more about the attitude or thinking towards work such as thinking clearly and logically, working efficiently, and being positive but realistic.”

JAF Johannes

JAF Bernini Sans (2012) is a good example of their collaborative process: “During the development, Tim’s initial idea was to make a sans serif which combines open letter forms (such as a, c, e, s) and round counters (b, d, p, q),” says Mugikura. “I created many, many mock-ups: dictionaries, cookbooks, signage… That is the only way to find out whether a typeface works in real life. Type users will always choose the fonts for their projects on the basis of the look and feel, so this is an important aspect to test, no matter how well-executed the design is. We ended up with two complementary sub-families because we both insisted on our preferred shapes: I pushed towards a restrained, no-nonsense look, which became JAF Bernino, whereas Tim said, ‘but I just like that double-story g,’ or ‘users will like that a with a tail,’ features of what is now JAF Bernina.”

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JAF Bernini Sans

Ahrens is also a skilled programmer, (his Font Remix Tools, plug-ins for FontLab Studio, should be available soon for Glyphs as well), and in recent years has been trying to create a high-quality autokerning tool. And in 2014 Mugikura and Ahrens published Size-specific Adjustments to Type Designs — An Investigation of the Principles Guiding the Design of Optical Sizes, a book that received critical acclaim and quickly became a go-to reference on the subject. Last but not least, they have several typefaces in the pipeline: “JAF Domus Text, JAF Bernini Serif, JAF Garamond, and in late 2016, we will be able to release an as-yet-unnamed Sans/Serif family, designed in 2013 as a corporate typeface. Surely we’ll come up with more ideas for new designs after that!”

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