Designing a 22nd-century Classic

Graphic designer Oded Ezer hopes his latest Hebrew typeface will do what 50 years of fonts haven't done - join the language's staples

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

In an interview two years ago, when asked whether one of his typefaces would be like Frank Ruehl or Narkiss in 50 years, designer and typographer Oded Ezer told Haaretz: "I have no desire to design a typeface to replace Frank Ruehl. You don't recompose a work by Mozart. I hope to create a typeface for the 21st century, in the hope that it will be a 22nd-century classic. But nobody has understood yet how a font should look in the 21st century. My task and that of any intelligent designer is to understand this century, and not to make post-20th century designs.

"Unfortunately, typographical design in Israel is in its 'post' stage. You are not writing a piece by Mozart. I hope to create a font for the 21st century, in the hope that it will become a classic of the 22nd century, but no one understands yet what a 21st-century font should look like. My job and that of every intelligent designer is to understand this century, and not to do post-20th century design. The question is whether there can be a font for Facebook, for example, that belongs to the 21st century. I still don't have an answer to that."

Oded Ezer and his new Rutz typeface.Credit: Tali Mayer

Now, it seems that Ezer does have an answer. Three years after launching his last font, Ezer is presenting a new typeface, called Rutz. Even if he is careful to clarify that he has no desire to replace Frank Ruehl, he hopes that the typeface will be able to assume a respectable place nearby.

When asked whether the new font stood any chance, given the dominance of Frank Ruehl in books, newspapers and magazines, Ezer says he can only hope.

"I'm like a movie director who releases a movie and hopes that it succeeds and that lots of people will see it. I do not seek to replace Frank Ruehl, Hadassah or Narkissim. I hope that Rutz will join this group as a more contemporary option."

Ezer, 38, graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's Graphic Design department in 1998. He is part of Israel's younger generation of font designers, who include Michal Sahar, Yonek Yontef and Danny Meirav. This group offers a new and contemporary interpretation of Hebrew typography and also designs commercial products.

Among others, Ezer designed the Alchemist, Meoded and Taagid font families, which are used in many journals. He divides his time among several typography-related pursuits: He is a senior lecturer at the Holon Institute of Technology; he works with design companies and designs unique logos and fonts, such as the Magnolia jewelry chain's logo, and M Systems' and Yes's fonts; he maintains three different blogs about logos, fonts and the personal and professional sides of his work; he works on experimental typography and he also designs fonts.

He differentiates between font design and his commercial work, because unlike logos, this is something that he initiates.

"I get up in the morning; I do some research. In the end, a font emerges and I hope my colleagues will buy it," he says.

Ezer's works have won numerous prizes, been shown at museums and exhibitions, been published in international journals and become part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and of the Israel Museum. In the foreword to a book on Ezer's work last year, New York's Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli wrote, "Ezer's designs also let us dream about a super-human language shaped by biology, rather than culture - the dream of a universal means of communication that we have sought for centuries."

Seeking tradition

Ezer relates that he developed the typeface, which took three years, due to his frustration that today's standard typefaces are all more than 50 years old: Frank Ruehl was created in 1908; David, Hadassah and Koren are from 1956-1959 and Narkissim is from 1965.

"How is it that in a very short time span, different designers made unique fonts, where as now there are many fonts being released but they're all similar, including my fonts? I couldn't get away from this criticism. I started thinking why this was happening and I reached the conclusion that the problem is not a lack of talent but the methodology. We don't know how to work the way we once worked."

What do you mean?

"I started reading about how they worked and I discovered that many of them wrote and documented their work process: Raphael Frank wrote an essay, as did Friedlander and Narkiss. They all had one thing in common: They researched the history of Hebrew script. So I realized that I didn't know enough. I knew the history of the 20th century and that was it. It's a result of the modernist approach, which ignores the past. Tradition is a persona non grata; we want to create something with no influences. Now we look at the tip of the iceberg, but we have 2,500 years behind us."

What does it mean to learn?

"Initially, to go to the Shrine of the Book, to archives, to the hidden Dead Sea scrolls and to sit and read. Then, research and practice: copy ancient manuscripts. It's not something obvious; it gave me a new horizon."

Ezer cites as an example a 1332 manuscript by Jacob Ben Moshe, "a graphic artist even if they didn't call it graphic arts. He was a religious scribe and he wrote an elaborately designed letter to his friend.

"Look at the aleph," he says, impressed, and immediately asks: "Have you ever seen an aleph like this? I haven't. Look how beautiful it is and how much we don't know. In his time, he was a genius, he was the Zvi Narkiss of that era and I didn't even know who he was."

Copying old manuscripts expanded his design arsenal. "I understood that so long as I wasn't exercising my hand, I wouldn't know how not to make mistakes. So I also took calligraphy classes. If you don't do that, you are destined to repeating 20th century work. This is exactly the difference between us and the 'classic' designers. They practiced doing many different styles and didn't need to recycle."

Isn't this part of something bigger in the computer era?

"I really like the computer, I wouldn't want to bash it, but I like tradition even more. If it's possible not to lose both, that's real wealth. We are poor because we look only at the 20th century, but I'm not stupid: I am not about to work with a rapidograph (a type of pen ), I want to use progress and not have my consciousness limited. The computer is just a tool."

At the end of the process, Ezer created a font family he called Ezer Classic, and immediately put it away. "At this stage, I no longer wanted to compromise on less than a serif typeface. I thought it was idiotic to create another typeface. I was frustrated that it was nice but it was not legible enough. I was very frustrated, because it took two and a half years of work. One day I opened a blog and saw an article by Rob Keller, a University of Reading typography graduate who described how he created Vesper, the font for his final project. The font's edges and style looked 'Jewish' to me; it reminded me of Hadassah, with a sexier and more flowing form. Then suddenly I got it. I contacted Keller, who gave me permission to design a Hebrew version of his font, and that is how Rutz was created."

The result: a serif typeface with structural details on some strokes, with five fonts: light, regular, medium, bold and heavy. This is no simple matter. For the sake of comparison: Hadassah and Frank Ruehl have two fonts each; Koren has one. The second thing that distinguishes Rutz is that while usually horizontal lines on serif typefaces are thicker than vertical ones, but in this case the ratios are reversed. "With a kind of chutzpah, I switched the proportions, and this is what enabled me to design five fonts. It's not that this wasn't done with other typefaces; it wasn't done with a serif typeface."

Why reverse it?

"When they asked Raphael Frank why he gave some letters level tops - zayin and shin - he said he knew he did something you're apparently not supposed to do, but he felt it conveyed the spirit of the time. If I may associate myself with such illustrious predecessors, I can offer the same answer. My constant challenge was how to advance with the zeitgeist, and in this case, this is a Latin characteristic but the Hebrew soul is still there; it is faithful to classic Hebrew script but doesn't look like it is from the 19th century. I didn't want to design something retro."

The font is very reminiscent of another typeface of yours, Meoded Serif.

"That is true. Rutz used its architecture. I really like the Meoded Serif but I think it is less suitable for a book than Rutz font. Meoded Serif is more uniform, and therefore I wouldn't use it for long texts that are not too long. What makes Rutz font unique is that you can use it for a whole book, and it will still be pleasing to the eye and won't exhaust you. There is something softer about it," says Ezer with a smile.

Is it suitable for electronic devices like the iPad?

"I'm working on that now. There is not a lot of knowledge in Israel about adapting a print font for the screen."

Shouldn't it be the other way around? Wouldn't it be more logical to first design a font for the screen?

"This subject is still in its early stages, but you're right, it's the next crucial thing. I'm just one person, though."



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