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Vale Gerard Unger, world’s first digital typeface designer

Friday, 07 December 2018
By Wayne Robinson

First digital typeface: Demos by Gerard Unger

Gerard Unger, regarded as the father of digital typography and a giant in modern font design, has passed away in his native Holland, aged 76.

Unger designed the typeface Demos for the world’s first digital typesetting system, the Digiset, manufactured by Hell in Germany. He also designed the Swift typeface for newspapers, regarded as the finest newspaper font since Times New Roman.

He did not see it as his mission to reinvent existing fonts for the digital age, he wanted to develop new fonts for the new technology and new applications.

Typeface aficionados regard Unger as simply unmatched in the modern era. After finishing design college in 1967 he worked under Wim Crouwel, famous for creating the theoretical digital New Alphabet font, designed after seeing the first prototype digital typesetting machines at drupa that year. Unger then spent 15 years at Hell. With no computers he made ink drawings of pixelated letters, including those created to fit the resolution of the Digiset. In those pre-internet days the fonts were fed on rolls of paper into the Digiset.

Gerard Unger: 1942-2018

Unger’s original Demos drawings were made on a CRT grid with 120 horizontal positions and 100 vertical positions per em, to produce type sizes between 8 and 16 pt. Some 26 years later the font was recreated in vector format, and three years ago was recreated as Demos New in different weights and for multiple language types.

His Swift newspaper font with giant serifs was created in 1985 to be ‘indestructible’ in the rough world of newspaper printing

In 1988 with the advent of desktop publishing Unger started generating his type designs directly on the computer. One of his best creations was Gulliver, launched in 1994 and famously used through new paper USA Today. Unger marketed it as ‘the world’s most economical printing type’.

He accepted various prestigious commissions, including one for a new font for all Dutch road signs, and one for a font the Jubilee of the Catholic Church in Rome in 2000, which he called Capitolem.

Unger was a key teacher of typography, both as a lecturer and author, inspiring generations of young type designers across Europe. He taught at two colleges in the Netherlands continuously for 35 years, and since 1993 until this year also at Reading University in the UK.

His books are classics, the deep understanding of his topics written with wit and warmth. While You’re Reading (originally Terwijl je Leest, and translated into seven languages) in 1997 is a remarkable insight into how the brain processes letterforms. Theory of Type Design, written in English and published earlier this year, sold out almost immediately.

Vale Gerard Unger, 1942-2018.


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