Stretching the limits of readability — Typographics Blog

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Stretching the limits of readability

Hansje van Halem discusses her approach for balancing the effects of text-based illusions

Hansje van Halem is a Dutch typographer whose work explores the boundaries between foreground and background, ornament and texture, shape and line. Her vivid posters, editorial covers, and even postage stamps feature bright, concentric shapes that push legibility out of the way of visual stimulation. She is coming to New York this June to speak at Typographics, so we asked her some questions to get a glimpse inside her very electric, typographic mind …

Hansje! What brings you to the Typographics conference this year?
Hi Elizabeth! Well, I had the honour of being invited to tell about the typographic sides of my work. I will probably be showing too many slides in high speed tempo where I try to capture approximately 10 years of my personal design quest.

John van der Rijdt Galerie Block C poster

3-color risograph poster for an exhibition of work by John van der Rijdt at Galerie Block C in the Netherlands.

You’ve been incredibly prolific in your professional life. Can you give us a taste of what has motivated such wonderfully intense ambition?
Insecurity, stress and deadlines used to be my trigger to make as much trials and errors as possible. Since I have been making more trials than errors, each project leaves me with a lot of unapplied design starting points that are just lying around to be picked up. And the ambition, I don’t know …? I would describe it as a greediness or a hunger. Over the years the commissions that come on my path just seem too good of a match to turn down.

VPRO Gids Dutch Design Week cover

Design for a cover of VPRO Gids, a Dutch TV guide, on the occasion of Dutch Design Week 2014.

Your work truly embraces typographic experimentation. What kinds of parameters do you like to create for projects? How do you start?
As a designer I grew up in the Vectorian Age where a clean scalable line feels like hard currency. Adobe Illustrator is my playground where I hunt for methods to build a texture that also attacks the shape of the letter and tries to stretch the limits of readability. I design without a scale and let my laser printer show me what the ideal size of the letter is. Sometimes it means I have to scale down the detailing to make it work at a certain scale. Once a type treatment is established scaling it is relatively tricky. The illusion disappears when it’s too big, the detailing turns into a grey blob when it’s too small. I’m now in the proces of realising my letters are not suppose to be static, but rendered over and over again.

Hansje van Halem’s studio

A view of Hansje van Halem’s studio in Amsterdam.

When you say Illustrator is your playground where you hunt for methods, are you saying that your textures always start digitally? What informs that texture from the real world?
99% of the time I sketch digitally. Mostly I get inspired by the digital possibilities, which are more mathematical, shape, rhythm, contrast based then anything else. Every now and then I tend to have a real-life association. Then I want to see snake skin, a mountain from above, bubbles in a glass of Coke. I never copy it, I just take it as a starting point and find new abstract outcomes from there.

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