Erkin Karamemet takes us on a typographic journey behind the scenes with his sans serif Repro
Many designers will at some point be grateful to German type designer Erkin Karamemet and the team at Swiss foundry Dinamo for designing and engineering a typeface with an embedded encircling effect. Whilst it looks seamless and endlessly exciting to use, as you can imagine, creating this was certainly no walk in the park. Having dedicated over six years to the development of Repro, it was only fair that Karamemet told us in his own words what this momentous task entailed.
PT What triggered you to look at signage and digital operating systems for inspiration?
EK I think the drive has been inside me for a long time. I grew up in a space filled with signs and different wayfinding systems, because my dad was a sign maker in the German town of Bielefeld. He’s also a Jujutsu black belt, but that’s a different story. And then operating systems are just a part of everyday life for most of us, right? So I wanted to develop a tool made for our everyday surroundings, one that performed beautifully within them.
PT Why did you choose the name Repro?
EK There’s no huge science behind it. ‘Repro’ is a strong word, rich in vowels. It makes me think of signage being produced by a printing press, and the wayfinding that’s digitally reproduced across all of our interfaces. It’s a very graphic, production-tinged word.
Repro as a name also carries memories from my old professional background. Before moving to Berlin to become Dinamo’s first intern in 2014 – and before starting my design studies at FH Bielefeld – I worked as a pre-press technician in what’s known in German as a ‘Werbetechnik’ shop. There, I was printing (reproducing) adverts and signage.
I love to begin a project with an idea rather than a solution, because it means that everything grows from that core.
PT What do you consider to be unique about Repro, compared to other typefaces in the ‘friendly sans serif’ genre?
EK Apart from the unique Circle feature, which I’ll talk about later, Repro is a hybrid of two strong genres. It lies somewhere between geometric hardness and humanistic warmth, and tries to serve both worlds rather than just one of them. It’s neutral and functional, while still forming its own distinctive character. The slightly locked terminals are a small personal rebellion of mine – proof that open contours are not the only solution for friendly, legible type!
PT With the concept under development for over six years, were there any major changes or features that you couldn’t include?
EK Yes, we tested and tried a lot of different things that we then threw out! But it was also the other way around: we included more and more. I started with the concept of the circle function. I love to begin a project with an idea rather than a solution, because it means that everything grows from that core. And because I began this way, new ideas emerged from that core one all the time.
For example, because the circles don’t wrap themselves around the regular font size, we needed to create second-size glyphs, which became another special feature. Think of the circle function like Repro’s own version of italics, bold or underline. The markup is embedded straight into the font, which means that the entire character set can be encircled. And the first, middle, and final circle forms are automatically assigned to each of the characters as you type. But if it’s encircled, the type needs to be smaller and sit above the baseline to make room for the ‘circle’ to enclose the letterforms. So that additional feature was required to make the core idea work.
Through creating this second size for the content of the encircles, we had the idea to then create three new positions for our second-size glyphs as an additional feature. Users can position smaller text either at the top, centre or bottom of the baseline. So from one feature grew the idea for another :)
PT How did your perception of Repro change during the process?
EK Everything constantly changes in the design process. Sometimes, you end up returning to the beginning at the very end. Looking back now, there were several versions of Repro that all looked very different. Over 200 versions to be exact, and folders for Phase I, II, III and IV ;) At one point, I wanted to create three sizes for the circle function – totally insane in retrospect, the glyph count that would have created… So a key motto came up: kill your darlings. It was then a process of constant corrections and improvements.
Early on, I sent Repro on journeys out in the real world. Early adopters were happy to try it out, and seeing a typeface on real applications is always the best for testing. I noticed from this process, for example, that Repro can be used in very different ways. Observing differing applications is how the large number of alternates came about.
A couple of examples: straight or curled stems on the ‘l,’ ‘t,’ and ‘j’ can be selected depending on whether you’re going for the most readable, or most stylish, look. Alternates like the Space Odyssey ‘S’ or the umbrella ‘y’ are ideal for branding. The Dinamo Font Customizer, which lets customers customise their fonts at checkout by choosing their alternates, was also in the making at this time. I wanted to make sure Repro could be used in the Customizer!
Testing, discarding, it’s all part of the normal madness of the design process.
PT Can you tell us about the circle function? How did it come about? Was it challenging to implement?
EK My favourite question! It started as a little note to myself on a post-it. I was thinking about different ways of emphasising text, like bold, italic and underline. I was wondering if there were other ways to add emphasis? And then I thought of how people circle words when they’re writing notes to themselves on paper. Why don’t we have a digital version of that, too?
So I came up with the idea of developing a function that would let users encircle text. As I mentioned, the idea for the function came first. Then the next question arose: What kind of type should it be connected to? My process was then a back-and-forth, sparring between the main characters and the circle feature.
PT Did Repro possess any unique challenges during its creation process, compared to other typefaces you’ve worked on?
EK Yes! The circle feature took a lot out of me. Especially because I didn’t know how to start it at first. I’d like to thank my friend Robert Janes who supported me with his Python skills. And of course the rest of the Dinamo team! What I learned is that looking for the right recipe is most important. Testing, discarding, it’s all part of the normal madness of the design process.
PT How long did it take you to perfect it for every single weight? Were some harder than others?
EK It wasn’t really that different from other projects, once we’d solved certain questions. It was just a little bigger, there was more of everything. It took more than six years to complete. Of course, you don’t work on it constantly. You brood, you ponder, you despair. Or you’re just busy with other things. And six years go by.
PT For such a complex project, what have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned from it?
EK I learned a lot from the process of developing Repro, in regard to software. Dealing with a large character set requires a different mode of thinking. You work a bit differently. For example, after the 100th repetition, you start to ask yourself: How can I automate this process? And it’s easy to get lost if you don’t give yourself structure. You need to plan, and create a logic that is totally systematic.
PT Have you spotted any favourite uses of Repro out in the wild so far?
EK Tracking the in-use cases is what I really love about type design. It’s always a surprise how people use a font. Totally different from what you’d expect. Seeing the circle feature in a real application is very satisfying.
Repro offers an incredible amount of ‘new’ possibilities to users. As a tool with digital interfaces and signage systems in mind, we’ve included a range of special web-specific characters inside Repro, just as one example.
In terms of early use, we featured a couple in our recent newsletter that have been exciting.
PT As Dinamo’s ‘longest collaborator,’ what stands out from your collaborations with them so far? And what can we look forward to in the future?
EK Our collaboration has always been special to me, privately and personally. Our relationship is based on mutual trust, and every project brings something new into the mix. I’m currently working on a superfamily for the foundry, a sans serif genre that’s totally new to me. I’m also working with the artist Stefan Marx on an exciting typeface project. More on this one soon. And an expansion of Repro is planned, there’s a ‘Repro 2.0 VF Extension’ folder on my desktop ;)
And personally, my new site has been online since the end of last year. I’ll be publishing typefaces there, and using it as a space for personal experiments and new projects. Both on that site and with Dinamo, I’m excited to release projects from the drawers!