Profile: Andrea Tinnes

"The thing that really attracts me to type design is the challenge of working within the constraints of supposedly static and precisely defined shapes, respecting the laws of Latin letterforms, and balancing cultural conventions with individual expression," says the type designer Andrea Tinnes. "It's quite fascinating how minimal alterations like variations in weight and space, straights and curves, starts and finishes, ascenders and descenders, can have a maximum effect."

The way she polarises and balances concepts isn't just something that characterises her description of why she's been so captivated by typography for the last decade or so. It's something that seems to be a theme in her work. Some of her faces, such as PTL Skopex, DasDeck and Wedding Sans would put her in the same category as other great German typographers whose work is clean, careful and conventional. Yet in some of her other fonts - HairCrimes, Stitch-Me, Mimesis and Volvox, for example - expression and experimentation are evident in the extreme.

Tinnes studied communication design in Mainz, an important location in the history of type. It was here, in the 1550s, that Johannes Gutenberg was perfecting a process that involved casting uniform characters for letterforms, punctuation and ligatures to use in blocks within a screw-press printing machine. In inventing the press, Gutenberg also founded the discipline of typography. Over 450 years later, Andrea Tinnes believes the field continues to increase in its cultural importance. "We consume typography on a daily basis. Today we rely on type more than we ever have. Type as the visual representation of language has a strong impact on both how ideas are presented and how information is conveyed," she says. "It's an integral element of any communication in our society: it promotes, commands, directs, organises, represents or simply describes."

After graduating from the Academy of Applied Science in Mainz, she went on to the California Institute of the Arts. Since 1999, she has been working as a graphic and type designer and in 2004 formed her own label, Typecuts, as a platform for promoting and publishing her fonts and her graphic design work. In addition, commuting from her current base in Berlin, she teaches courses in typography at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts in Norway.

"I have made a conscious decision to be a one-woman studio, so I try to keep everything small and manageable and leave enough room for designing typefaces and my teaching commitments," she says. "So, my list of clients is rather short. However, this has put me in a position where I am able to establish a close and friendly relationship with clients as well as collaborators. I have two types of clients - commercial clients and design studios - who commission me for logotypes and custom fonts."

Emotional project
There are three projects in Tinnes' portfolio that stand out for her. First, her most extensive work is her typeface PTL Skopex. "This is my most intensive and extensive type project, and probably my greatest type accomplishment," she proclaims. "Skopex very much represents all the stages of my type design training. It's been a very long back-and-forth process and even after six years it's not finished. New additions are planned. Looking at Skopex now, it's hard to imagine all the pain and suffering it caused me as well as the emotional phases I went through, like excitement, frustration, anger, satisfaction, joy and exhaustion."

Moving away from typography slightly, she has been doing design work for Media, a film production company with offices in both Cologne and Tbilissi, Georgia. The aim of the company is to foster cultural exchange between the two countries via film and, together with the Goethe Institute, it organises a German film festival held in Tbilissi each year. Tinnes works on ads, posters and other promotional material for the project, which combine the - entirely different - Latin and Georgian alphabets and language systems.

Merz, an art store in Berlin, is another of her favourite clients. It's a place where artists and designers can exhibit and sell their works. Tinnes has designed their identity, and supports the concept of giving artists a place to show and sell their work, as well as discuss and exchange ideas.

Experiments in type
One of Tinnes' most interesting type families is Wedding Sans. On the face of it, it's a very ordered, clean-looking modern sans serif typeface available in eight fonts. The story behind it reveals Andrea Tinnes' conceptual thinking at work. "At CalArts, I applied the basic principles of genetics - the breeding and crossing of dominant and recessive character traits - to type design. I'm generally interested in the concept of a typeface as a family or society, in which individual members interact, form relationships and have idiosyncratic personalities."

Using the idea that different elements of letterforms could have dominant or recessive characteristics, she developed the typeface, which she describes as both rhythmic and irritating. It's hard to say whether or not the rounded and rectangular elements clash in this font, or whether the lower case letters are wide due to their breeding or by nature, but it seems a successful modern face.

Experimentation is taken even further in some of Tinnes' other typefaces. Volvox is easily the most incredible. It is a five-font system without letters at all. Instead, each letter is represented by a shape. Across the five fonts, the shapes for 'A' are all different yet complimentary. Combinations of the letters superimposed on top of one another create unique individual forms. It is literally a font system that can be played with.

"It all started out of my special interest in organic forms," begins Tinnes. "The inspiration came from various sources: biology books, lexicons and specific publications on organic structures like D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form. However, the greatest inspiration came from Ernst Haeckel's wonderful drawings of sea urchins, jellyfish, corals, sponges and radiolarians in his monograph Art Forms in Nature.

"At the beginning of the design process I was just sketching and collecting organic shapes, all kinds of bits and pieces, not knowing where it would eventually lead me. At the same time I redrew these collections on the computer translating the shapes into vector graphics and I started to play around, to create composites and radial organisms. While playing I realised that I needed some structure, a hierarchy of forms, and it was at that point that I came up with the idea of a font system based on a rigid hierarchy to easily superimpose and mix the various shapes."

Bumping into Martin Perlbach, a Flash programmer working next door to her studio, Tinnes has had the system turned into an application. You can go online to, and interact with Volvox forms to come up with unique creations.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the artist Jamie Calirie has put the font to use, painting the composite Volvox letter 'E' on the front of the Highland Grounds Caf in the city. How long will it be before the font is used as a secret means of communication remains to be seen!

Using fonts ornamentally is a thing you'll pick up upon in Tinnes' Mimesis, Stitch-Me and HairCrimes typefaces as well. "The decorational intends to engage the discourse of ornament with that of rational design," she says, quoting Denise Gonzalez Crisp. "This quote sums up very nicely my experimental type designs. I have been interested in the relation of geometric structure and organic form as well as pattern and rhythm. Mimesis, Stitch-Me and HairCrimes, despite their organic qualities, are based on very rigid grids and use modular systems."

Each also came from very interesting sources of inspiration. Mimesis was started after Tinnes saw a documentary called Microcosmos, which looked at the everyday life of insects in meadows and ponds. "I wanted to play with the illustrative potential of letterforms - letters as autonomous forms, almost like little creatures," she says. Stitch-Me, meanwhile, was inspired by copper templates found at a flea market in Berlin. They were used to transfer cross-stitching patterns onto fabrics, and she used the cross-stitch motive as the pixel elements of a series of bitmap fonts. Finally, HairCrimes was influenced by two books: Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, a calligraphic work inscribed by Georg Bocskay with illuminations by Joris Hoefnagle; and 4000 Monograms, a collection of decorative monograms.

Tinnes' collection of unique typefaces continues to grow. Most recently she finished a new font system called Type Jockey, and over the next few months she's going to concentrate on the design of a new sans serif typeface including a true script with swash characters. After that, the 2006 material for the German Film Festival in Tbilissi will be due in October.