Samurai Style

Émilie Rigaud of French type foundry A is for... spills the beans on her latest font family, Tongari, a new 'pointy' serif seven years in the making and inspired both by old type specimens and her time spent living in Japan...

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How did the project come about and what did you want to achieve with Tongari—was there a particular feeling you wanted to evoke, or a use you had in mind?
I didn’t have any particular use in mind—apart from commissioned work, Coline is the only typeface I have designed with a specific use in mind; it was designed for pocket books. Usually, I create a typeface because I have shapes in mind, and then I try to make those shapes as beautiful as possible in large sizes and as efficient as possible in small sizes. The main task is to find the right balance between these two poles. They can have as much personality as they want, but the typefaces I create have to all behave in small sizes and make a nice ‘grey’. You can even try to set my typeface Jaakko in 9 points and it remains readable and even.

What was your starting point for the design, and where did you look for inspiration?
Many years ago, I saw a very beautiful ‘e’ in a book about old type specimens; it had a pointy outstroke and a "cartoony" look which I liked. So I draw an ‘e’ inspired by that shape, and then decided to design a whole typeface to go with it. After that, once I had a medium kind of weight for the typeface, I figured I wanted to make a whole family out of it, ending up with seven weights and their seven corresponding italics.

During the whole process, I kept in mind that everything had to be pointy, and sharp. I sprinkled on that a bit of Plantin, for the lowercase a, and a bit of Vendome for the uppercase R.

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How does the typeface fit into your ongoing research into Japanese culture and typography?
The play around the Seven Samurai movie (which you can see in the type specimen) actually came about one day whilst I was on the tram, maybe four years ago, going to my Japanese language classes—it struck me that the pointy feeling of Tongari could be reflected in a samurai's sword. I love that movie so much, every single shot is well thought out, even if it lasts for only a couple of seconds. You can pause the movie on any image and it will look like a beautiful photograph. And, of course, the whole movie is carried by the feline energy of the actor Mifune Toshiro.

As the design of Tongari took a long time, the typeface had different names during that process. First it was "pointue" (sharp-pointed, in French), then Meije (a name of a mountain), then for some reason I looked up how to say "sharp-pointed" in Japanese and came up with that name I instantly knew was the right one, Tongari.

Also, I may see a link between current Japanese typography and the light weight of Tongari because when I was living in Tokyo, I saw a lot of refined light minchô type (that we could compare to our serif typefaces) around me in advertising. As I drew the light wight of Tongari soon after I had returned to France from Japan, I’m sure that it was an influence.

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Describe your design process to us—how did the typeface start to take shape and were there any important turning points during the process?
I always draw a lot and Tongari was no exception. Only once I have sketches for a lot of the letters do I digitize them. I really cannot get the curves right if I draw directly on the computer. They would seem unnatural to me—I like it when a typeface retains the trace of the flow of the hand, even though it is digital.

I made the very first sketches for Tongari in 2010. At that time, I digitized a few letters, but nothing more happened because I was busy with life. Then, in 2013, I finished the basic set of lowercase and uppercase letters for the medium weight. Again, life goes on—clients, licence in Japanese, etc.—and I opened my files again in the summer of 2016 to add an italic and submit the typeface to a competition. The real turning point was when I moved back from Tokyo to Paris this March, and decided to turn what was supposed to be a single medium weight typeface into a full family. So it actually took me seven years (truly, seven is my lucky number on this project!) in total to make this typeface exist.

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Were there any particular technical challenges to overcome?
Until this project, I had always worked with Fontlab; Tongari is the first typeface I designed using the Glyphs software, so I had to change my entire workflow. It took me longer to design this font than previous fonts have taken, and I discovered a lot of easier ways to do things only after I had done them. However, it has been a good opportunity to learn how to use the software while working on a ‘real’ project.

Also, I find it particularly difficult to maintain coherence when you build a large typeface family such as this, because if you decide to change one thing—for example, cutting the tip of a stroke, or if you spot something wrong in the kerning—you have to change it across the whole family and make sure you have made the change in all the masters.

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What are your future plans for Tongari—are there any further projects coming up in which it's used?
I am actually now working on a display version. The first sketches of Tongari had much more contrast, but it was not good for a text typeface. I then decided to split the typeface into two groups: one that would be a good typeface for long texts, which meant less contrast, and another one that would be for larger sizes. This display version is not ready yet, but it will be released eventually. It is even more fun to draw than the low-contrast version!

One fun fact is that I am now using Tongari for the identity of the French branch of a Japanese brand, YKK. "La boucle est bouclée."

What are you working on next?
I still have a lot of typefaces that sleep in my digital "drawers". I try not to begin working on any new ideas before I’ve finished my previous ideas, but it is difficult to restrain oneself. Sometimes you just have to give up a project if it is too old, I guess. For example, I started an serif-less roman (Optima-like fonts) a few years ago, but I’ve seen that a few similar typefaces have been released on the market since then, so maybe it is too late now so I won't release it. On a more concrete level, the next typefaces I will release through my type foundry are a fine italic for Knif Mono and a revival of a sweet script connecting typeface originally made for a typewriter.

Apart from typeface design, as you said I also do research and write about the history of Japanese typography. It takes a lot of time because everything I have to read is in Japanese, but it is so interesting! My very first research project was about the life of Motogi Shôzô, founder of the first type foundry in Japan, and now I am focusing on the development of type foundries led by the boom of daily newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century.

I value very much the balance of both pure design and historical research about design processes. One feeds into the other, and the other way around.

Tongari is available to purchase at