A French look at MultiTypo98

Jacques André, Inria-Rennes, France

ATypI Lyon 1998 sign. Photographed by Adam Twardoch.

I am used to participating in technical conferences on digital types (like the RIDT'98 conference at Saint-Malo, France last April) and I must confess sometimes they are hard to follow. I also go to Trade Fairs like Comdex and I must confess they have too many ties and not enough types! For the first time, I went to an ATypI conference, last October at Lyon and I must confess that it greatly impressed me. An ATypI conference is a place where at every moment something happens.

This ATypI conference, called MultiTypo'98, was chaired by Jean-François Porchez, a French type-designer who, at the close of the conference, was awarded the Charles Peignot Prize, given periodically to the most outstanding typographic practitioner under the age of 35.

The atmosphere was rather friendly and studious. Even if you did not listen to some of the lectures (there were two parallel sessions, OnTypo with simultaneous translation and OffTypo, although no hierarchy), there were many opportunities for learning.

Exhibitions included an impressive and very well informed set of panels on black letters by Paul Shaw and Peter Bain (tucked away on the third floor); an exhibition on calligraphy and lapidary engraving (together with demos by Vincent Geneslay, Veronique Sabard and Roger Gorrindo); an exhibition by two French schools of typography (Ecole Estienne in Paris, and Scriptorium de Toulouse) showing students’ work on type design. The book Lettres Françaises (a kind of specimen of young type designers’ works) was to be found in the GoodyBag) edited by Jean-François (with a layout by Philippe Millot). Even the presence of French publishers in the bookshop, BookTypo, offered evidence that there is a revival of type design in France. Good news indeed!

Despite some "hard" problems (such as net or toner!), a daily gazette occured three times, each with a different title (AZERTY, QWERTY and ICUKEN or rather Russian letters that you may pronounce itzuken) to prove that multi-linguism was an authentic keyword for the conference.

Lyon is said to be the capital of French cooking! It seems that many delegates discovered the small "bouchons" (typical old restaurants) even if some prefered pizzas. The Annual Dinner was also generally greatly appreciated. One place I loved was the room where lunches were served: local food and local wine and no chairs; a very good idea allowing everyone to speak to anyone. I noticed students who dared to speak with people having names of typefaces (such as Stone, Frutiger to name just two). T-shirts specially designed for this conference by Erik van Blokland, Jonathan Hoefler, Franck Montfermé, the official MultiTypo 98 Tshirt, and a few designed for previous ones, gave the feeling of a coloured patchwork.

ATypI Lyon 1998 hall. Photographed by Adam Twardoch.

There were many other activities around type. For professionals (LaboTypo with demos, CaféTypo with many and long discussions on the problems of piracy, copyright, standardisation, and patent control, etc.), for players (QuizTypo), for rich people (CharitéTypo, the auction), for buyers (demos or lectures by commercial firms on new products such as Apple's Atsui, TiroTypework’s Sylphaen, Adobe/Microsoft's OpenType, Pyrus' Fontlab, van Blokland's Robofog, etc. Generally I don’t much like salesmen who don’t understand what they are selling. But here, at MultiTypo 98, these talks/demos were given by designers (type designers or computer programs’ designers), and that really makes the difference. This is probably one of the biggest differences between a commercial trade fair and an ATypI conference!

Two stirring moments : Adrien Frutiger answering with both emotion and humour Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin's questions and James Mosley reading a tribute written by John Dreyfus to Gérard Blanchard, a French expert in type history and semiology who died last August. John Dreyfus’ tribute and Gérard Blanchard's draft of the talk he had planned to give at Lyon as keynote speaker, appear in the special issue of Cahier Gutenberg that was distributed to all participants in the GoodyBag.

All of this produced an atmosphere which made Lyon a worthwhile conference. If you had time left, you could even listen to lectures. As they took place in parallel in different rooms it was quite impossible to follow everything and it's quite impossible to report on everything. So here is my own subjective view concentrated on two specific areas:

LYON: 2000 years dedicated to typography

Many people (even French ones) have learned that Paris is not the only town in France, and that Lyon has a very eventful past in characters, printing and typography. Some events illustrated that history:


The main theme of the ATypI conference was MultiTypo, encompassing typography and multi-linguism.

ATypI Lyon 1998: Yuri Yarmola and Ted Harrison of Fontlab Ltd. Photographed by Adam Twardoch.

A few years ago, when the Unicode consortium was launched, many people were sceptical, claiming that it would never work. When the standardisation institute decided to expand it (as ISO 10646), when teams decided to adopt Unicode as the standard character set for HTML, XML or other SGML, still many people were sceptical: there is no typeface with such a character set. I think that MultiTypo98 has shown that today this reality exists: Unicode works. Let me quote some of the facts (K2 was, apparently, a ghost there).

The common point of all these products or prototypes is the wish to use Unicode, to standardise a number of tasks (such as hyphenation, bi-directional texts, etc) and to offer a dialogue between the fonts (say the font metric) and the editor (or the layout). As far as I understand, typical problems are: who is in charge of kerning (the font or the editor?), who is in charge of hyphenating in the middle of a ligature such as "f-fi" ?, etc. Even if it will still take many long months to achieve final products, the process is on the road and it's nice.