Interview with Robin Mientjes

Robin Mientjes is a Dutch type designer based in Oslo, Norway. She has her own type foundry called Tiny Type Co and is currently also working at Scandinavian Design Group, as well as doing lectures and making props for movies. She is driven by the need for inclusivity, taking political stands through her work, designing things with a purpose and a story, with a goal of solving the puzzles in her brain.

Who are you?

It depends on the context. At film events I’m basically just a plus one to my wife and I always say I’m Hedda’s first wife, and people find that really funny. It's always a good opener. So it depends a little bit on who’s asking. I’m talking at Grafill next week, and in my bio for that I say that I’m a senior type designer, a freelancer and I design props for movies. I love to make stuff and I love for it to have a whole story, not just the surface, but also reasoning behind it and a good construction. I love the good craft of it too.

How did you get into type design?

At 13 I had a design blog and I was writing about design and web standards, which at the time was relatively new, to make websites accessible for blind people for example. If you’ve ever heard of W3C, that's the organisation that basically defines what codes we use to define what is a title, what is a paragraph, what is a footnote, etc. They had a work group, and I was in that for two years. It's all about archiving and stuff, and that sparked a lot of my interest in the meaning behind language. And that’s how I almost went into linguistics. So you can kinda see how I got into type. That’s how those brainworms met, right in the middle there. I can make something pretty that works and also has to do with language, which is such a beautiful organisational weird thing, because it’s so subjective yet there are so many things that can be done objectively right or wrong. And that’s what got me really interested in getting good at typography. In the years going up to art school, and then in art school, I immediately knew that my specialisation was going to be focusing on type. That’s 12-13 years that I’ve been designing type, because it’s such a nice hybrid of all of those puzzles that I love doing.

Can you talk a little bit about your education?

I started working really early, which can be bad when you’re 15 and don’t know how to deal with feedback. When looking back, I got into design because I thought it was extremely engaging and I put so much of my personality into it, and then I went to art school and I felt so much responsibility, and it made it a lot less fun in certain ways. You start believing that there’s design that’s reasonable and design that’s emotional. And the emotional stuff you’re not supposed to do, you’re not supposed to be an artist, you're supposed to be a reasonable designer. And that was a false dilemma I was given in art school basically.

The education at KABK was really good in really many ways, but the package deal that they teach is that there are certain ways that design is good and certain ways that it isn’t, but they’re not always as good at recognising that maybe not everyone should be put in only one bucket. I hope that’s changed a bit. Give me that range, let me have that range cause it has made me better. I’m a better designer for those things.

In your experience, how does type design differ in the Netherlands vs. in Norway?

Netherlands I absolutely know that there is a different relationship to selecting type. I know that for every Dutch designer I’ve spoken to I feel like they try more, I feel they invest more in type. They will buy a font to work with it and explore it, and they might not end up even using it. There are obviously people here who play with their fonts and explore everything that a font has to offer, but it's rare because it doesn’t seem as integral here as in the Netherlands. It’s budgeted better there I think. Experimentation would be the key word. Experimentation would be the difference between those two design cultures I think.

How do you think type will develop and look like in the future? Do you think there will be a way we can include ie. visually impaired people into type design?

I think there’s a lot of fields where we basically, because type is designed by seeing people, that we don’t really even consider that it could be for others too. And there have been experiments in a way that is futuristic, to make fonts that would be easier to read by computers. Braille is a pretty clever system because when we are reading our attention span tends to be quite narrow. If we’re reading and someone’s talking around us we can’t access that because it’s often in the same place in people's brain. So I’m curious if that’s the same truth also if you read with your fingers. And then there’s the whole idea of the tactility itself. Braille is often punched out of something, like steel, and those people have to handle it, they have to handle the steel. I’ve lived here long enough to know that there’s a lot of times in the year in Norway that I do not want to touch stainless steel that’s outside.

Do you think braille could also be considered typography in a way?

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, because I have to make my fonts broadly linguistic. I have language support for more than 200 languages. I find it really interesting to cover Vietnamese, but also understand it from a Vietnamese perspective, not just from what I think the shape should look like. Because that’s not on me, because I don’t speak the fucking language. So I'm trying to learn as much as I can from their needs. And that’s also the question with braille, is it related to my needs at all? Because all the stuff I do with type where I know optical balance and relational things, in braille there's a grid and I don’t know if anything I care about matters. It's a kind of humbling experience I think, and really kind of important to look at. You don’t care about stairs, but your friend in a wheelchair will absolutely care about stairs. It's still a radical act to include oppressed people into a debate about their oppression. So that’s futurism to me, to say what if we did that all the fucking time, what if we made it the new norm. A new norm is part of futurism, it's to rewrite what the standard should be. And the standard should be better.

What is your favorite type design or project you’ve worked on?

There is a lot of work that I really enjoy, like we talked about earlier with inclusion and the bigger perspective. I made the type “Norway Sans” for “Brand Norway” which is a visual identity of Norway, specifically in its application abroad for tourism and industry. We realized that a custom typeface would be smart, because then we could force a font onto their computer called “Norway” and that would make it easy to use for example from an embassy in Kenya, Vietnam or Germany.

But then they also needed a font for Norway, which would support Norwegian and English. But think about that properly, what is Norwegian? Which languages are in Norway? That’s already not just Norwegian, there are two Norwegians and thankfully both are written with the same alphabet. But there is also a range of Sami dialects and those need to be supported too if you want to say you’re a Norwegian font in my opinion. Because those people are just as Norwegian as the rest of us. So I made the biggest alphabet I’ve ever drawn, because I realized that would be the only proper “Norway” font for the international market. It would need to actually support at least the Latin alphabet, for every country where Norway has an embassy or diplomatic mission. I also drew a logo for Norway for all those markets, in a lot of scripts that I didn't have time to make whole alphabets for, like Chinese and Arabic. I could make a political statement and say that even if Kurdistan isn’t recognized internationally as a country, because they’ve been the victim of a horrific genocide and a part of a diaspora, the Kurdish people still have their own version of Arabic. So I made a logo in Arabic for Norway in the Kurdish Arabic. And that is my political statement to say: I don’t care what Norway says, these people read Norway differently, it’s written in their script. I like how that packages a lot of ethics I believe in, that become political automatically.

How do you go about starting the process of developing a new typeface?

I tend to have a few routines that I have to use for clients, because they come with really specific or really vague requests. With my custom work and every big client I’ve done, I've always set a few fundamental questions at the start: 1. What is it for, is it long running text or is it just display? 2. Which languages do you want to support, and do you understand what you are asking for right now? And otherwise, I will explain. Like when I add Sami for example: because every Norwegian client should support that! 3. I tend to ask: what does it go with? Do you have shape language or material already? Do you have other typefaces already picked out? Am I going to be a supportive typeface or am I going to be everything? And those are really boring questions, but they really quickly narrow down certain things you can do.

When I’m working for myself, I very much work from: What do I believe this could be? It’s completely inverted. I’m working from a vague concept where I think: Wouldn’t it be funny if I drew a grotesque from the 1950s, on the proportions of a renaissance face from the 1450s? Does it still work? Can you mix and match between styles and construction, can you mesh those up randomly? Which is often a question I ask and I am always playing with the proportions and expected narrative form.

Is there anything you would like to say at the end?

That’s a risk and you know it! Let me see. Pro tip: Recognize your boundaries. You might recognize them in your best friend’s boyfriend, clients have them too. There are abuse patterns that clients have, and that realization which I’ve been dealing with since February. It was such a hard hit, to realize that I’m good with clients, but with some clients even I cannot win. And what’s stupid is: as designers we’re hired to do a good job, we’re not hired to do exactly whatever the client says. If they give me a roadmap of exactly every step that I’m supposed to take to accomplish a goal that they have, but they don’t know which route it might take for me to arrive at the destination, then I’m going to go insane. And you’re going to go insane too, if you find yourself in a situation where somebody else tells you exactly how to walk. If you have a different height, or a different gait or different energy levels, you’re not going to walk the same as the other person, and you cannot step in their footsteps.

But if I have to give any unsolicited advice, it is that it’s super important that you try to keep the things that you like in your life. So keep hobbies. Find ways that they fit with you, but don’t always try to monetize them. They should make you happy. Not everything is going to make a job. So many things that I do are really difficult to even get as a job, and in fact even type design at an agency. I was the only one for years, with my specific job title. That’s why it’s important to know what you like about your job, about your skills, because then it’s possible to keep doing it. And also my parents thankfully, now believe that it is a real career to be a designer, which is nice at 33. So there's hope for everyone.