Interview with Yanek Iontef, Summer 2003

“I always look at it retrospectively – that sixteen years old boy from Belz who made aliyah, and today typefaces he designed can be found in the daily paper. I see it as a local success story, like many success stories that happen to newcomers in this country… It’s not that I don’t make attempts at international recognition, but I’m happy with what I have.”

Yanek Iontef’s typefaces can be seen almost anywhere across Israel, on billboards, presentations, commercial advertisements, and also as part of various corporate identities. Some companies are simply Iontef addicts, such as Cellcom, who now use Erica Sans, his TDC award (2000) winning typeface, as their corporate typeface, and beforehand used Me’argen, another Iontef font, in all their publications.


As mentioned, Iontef made aliyah (moved to Israel for citizenship) from the USSR at the age of sixteen, after finishing four years of art school, and applying for higher art education in a sculpting department. During his first year in Israel he studied at the Talma Yalin highschool near Tel-Aviv. He then moved with his parents to Haifa, where he studied at Ort Assif, majoring in graphics. During his third year of army service he heard of the Bezalel art academy, applied and got accepted. He started studying there immediately after his relief. He admits he had chosen the right profession for himself, “because it is a form of art… I do things I like to do, and also make a living. Although graphic design is tiring – letter never are.”

Iontef will soon be releasing a Latin typeface named Cartonnage, which is based on printed letters from cardboard boxes. It will be distributed through FontShop, one of the largest digital font foundries in the world. The typeface will have three styles – Capital letters only, Caps and lowercase, and a dingbat font containing symbols scanned off of various cardboard boxes. Iontef hopes that through this typeface, he will manage to penetrate the larger, Latin typefaces market.

Iontef's book cover project
Iontef's book cover project

What got you into lettering?

“I was always interested in typography from a young age. During my first year in Bezalel, Avi Eisenstein taught typography. He documented his curriculum in our class throughout the year, then made it into a book on the subject, where works of mine can be seen in several pages. On my fourth year, my final project was to design book covers for holocaust-themed books written by the same Russian author. I made each book three covers – one was purely typographic, in Russian, the second was typography integrated with illustration, also in Russian, and the third design was illustrationally dominant with very minimal typography, in Hebrew. On the back cover were some details on the writer himself, therefore I needed a cyrillic typeface, which wasn’t available back then, since the first computer arrived at our department only a year before (1988). Me and Boaz Rossano (currently owner of an internet company), who knew how to work with Fontographer, built a cyrillic font together only for the sake of that specific text. That was my beginning, since then I make fonts.”

Back cover with custom type by Iontef
Back cover with custom type by Iontef

Up until a year ago he teached type design at Bezalel for six years. Iontef is the pioneer in the field of teaching type design as part of the curriculum. In this context, it is important to mention that he is self-taught. All his knowledge in type design is an independent study, and according to this knowledge, he began teaching it in Bezalel (today his position is replaced by a friend of his and a gifted typographer, Shmuel Sela).

To those who wish to study typography, Iontef recommends experience in manual type and calligraphy. “Although the technological aspect is inseperable today, in order to develop sensitivity for form you must work manually.” In terms of reading material, there used to be much more publications on the subject than there are now. “There used to be a journal called Hed Ha’Dfus [Echo of Type], by the printers’ association, which was published every month, with articles by Dr. Moshe Shpitzer, and advertisements for Narkis and Hadassah. There used to be a type museum in Zefat, that doesn’t exist anymore. In Hadassah College, under the management of Henry Friedlander, all type and typesetting professions were taught, but not anymore. This is the main issue with type designers today, who start to work without knowing what leading is for, why tracking is required, and where all that derives from. Why should there be such spacing and not other, and why should the letter be light and on what kind of paper.”

So where should one study? Iontef recommends two institutes outside Israel that teach typography explicitly in the course of a master’s degree in graphic design. “One is in the Netherlands, in the Royal Academy of Hauge, a Type and Media course in which they teach techniques and methods of typesetting and calligraphy; There are also studies for master’s degree in the University of Reading, England, that includes, aside from working on typefaces, writing theoretical essays on type design.” One Israeli studies type design at Reading nowadays – Adi Stern. One of his essays was dedicated to the subject of Hebrew type in the 1950s. In order to grade his work, the teachers at Reading looked for the right person who could evaluate it properly, and eventually came up with Matthew Carter, who designed matching Hebrew sets for Latin types at Monotype. Iontef dismisses that by saying that even the great foreign designers that do appreciate Hebrew scribes cannot evaluate them properly, and even admit so, because they simply don’t understand the language, “it looks exotic to them, but in terms of flow, in terms of real typography – they themselves admit that they lack the tools for proper evaluation.”

Unfortunately for him, type design isn’t Iontef’s main occupation. “I never made type design into my main work, because I couldn’t make a living out of it. That’s my problem, if I could – I would do only that. Since I can’t, I’m mainly a graphic designer.” For him to be able to live only by making fonts, he says he will need to thicken his type library (he currently has about fifteen typefaces), and dedicate all his time and effort to starting the business anew, but he can’t afford that today. A part of the problem is the narrow local market, and the competition he has gets today, from new directions as well: According to him, there have been some new type designers who began selling their fonts independently, some of them were even students of his, like Hatayas and Oded Ezer, which makes bigger competition, yet he calls it a blessed competition.

Iontef's bulletin board
Iontef's bulletin board

We are sitting and talking near the desk in his studio, a small office in a south Tel-Aviv complex. It’s Friday, and it seems as if we are the only people in the building. Every once in a while someone comes to the door and interrupts our conversation with woe-full questions on how there isn’t anyone else in the building besides us. On the bulletin-board above his Macintosh are some examples from new and less new projects of his, like fonts he made, and book covers he designed. “Right now, for example, I just finished a corporate identity for the Pauza brand, a daughter-company of Mey-Eden that markets vending machines to businesses. The project included developing a logo, a corporate indentity, uniform, rules for applying the logo on different backgrounds in different settings, and also developing a unique typeface for the company, called Pauza, in four weights, accompanied by a matching Latin set that works well with the Hebrew letters. Developing unique fonts for corporations is one of my skills as a graphic designer – this is the meeting point of type design and making profit – in fact, this is the main profit, like the typeface I made for Pelephone with Eitan Bartal, and the campaign font for Bank Hapoalim.

Iontef's font for ''Pauza''
Iontef's font for "Pauza"

Isn’t that a shame?

“No, there are all sorts of models. The font for Bank Hapoalim, for instance, is exclusive for three years, then later if they don’t wish to renew their contract, it will be released commercially. The font for Pauza won’t be exclusive, except for the release period, which is three months long.”

How do you distribute your fonts?

“I am a total failure in marketing. My fonts travel by hearsay – many of them became popular after people heard about them coincidentally.” About eight (!) years ago he had a website called Fontef, which is still listed in old search engines alongside the large companies, but his went offline long ago, and now he’s thinking of renewing it, and maybe even to sell fonts through it. “The real professionals don’t have time to deal with marketing, that’s why in order to succeed in this field you need to have some sort of business partnership, like several Israeli type designers have.”

''Ost Gothic'' (Latin) and ''Goti'' (Hebrew)
"Ost Gothic" (Latin) and "Goti" (Hebrew)

After school Iontef worked for a design studio in London for a year, then came back and worked for six years at Metamark International studio. “That studio was owned by an american businesswoman, which is very unusual. Usually, the owner of a studio is a graphic designer themselves, which is why employees don’t get so much creative freedom as people who worked there has received. The owner believed in me, and let me design typefaces when there was time. I designed some Latin faces at first, and made all sorts of attempts – for instance, mixing Capital letters and lowercase letters in a deconstructive-David-Carson style (Carson himself used a more serious Iontef typeface in Raygun magazine – M.S). Afterwards I created a Latin font that was based on simple geometric shapes, and in correspondence to the Latin letters, I designed the Hebrew set.”

What are you looking at when you borrow Latin attributes and use them on Hebrew?

“I first observe the Hebrew letteform and only then I think of what attributes should I add, how will they affect the letters’ flow, the shape of the serifs (the little feet –M.S), the way you can couture them in the right places on the Hebrew type… When you’re affected, you can’t be blindly affected – you have to make the transformation wisely, because we’re working with a different language. You need to always have in mind the basic rules of Hebrew type… It’s not like you take the letter e, flip it over and get a Pe, or take an x and call it an Aleph – that is an example of unprofessionality.”

That is how I used to make fonts…

“It’s okay, everything is legitimite. Sometimes you actually do things like this to assimilate to Latin letters. It already happened when designers went towards simplification, and then x can really be an Aleph, and an e can be a Pe, and an o can be a Samech. We went through this, and now we’re probably getting back to it – it’s all a matter of fashions.”

''Erica Sans''
"Erica Sans"

A Hebrew type design that is based on Latin type can be found in another Iontef face – Erica Sans, which, as mentioned, has won competitions and is very widely used in many publications and advertisements in Israel. It is in fact an hommage to the British artist and designer Eric Gill, and is based on the Latin letters of the famous typeface he created, Gill Sans. Iontef explains to me that this style is called modernistic: “It’s a letterform that is basically sans-serif (no little feet –M.S), but has many attributes that make it look serif, for instance the narrow connections, and the changing width of the stroke. That is what I tried borrowing for Erica Sans. The dominant Hebrew model-typefaces I used during the work process were Narkis Tam and Oron, which are almost evenly stroked and very straight-angled. I made all sorts of dramatic changes in the lines, which is the main attribute for Eric Gill’s letterforms.”

Didn’t you have any copyright issues?

“It’s not about taking Eric Gill’s font and expanding the letters’ widths. In this case I created completely new symbols, that are based on the forms of the original typeface. You can see it done all the time, for instance with Oron-Univers. And in the spirit of those times, even Narkis’ faces were matched with Helvetica. A part of the case is that we’re always influenced by different trends.”

What are you affected by?

“Look, I enter the office in the morning, fire up a web browser, surf through all kinds of websites… We live in a global village.”

Do you think Erica Sans is your best typeface?

“In terms of popularity, yes. It’s also a typeface I based other letters upon, such as the Pelephone font and the typeface I made for Bank Hapoalim. In Bank Hapoalim, for instance, they didn’t like Erica’s stiffness, so I rounded the edges a bit, straightened a few lines, and also narrowed the letters down to about ninety percent. I also have designs for a narrower version of Erica Sans, but it still isn’t finished. By the way, I never narrow down letters automatically using graphic applications. If needed, I change the font to a narrower version.”

''HaYetzia Haba'a''
"HaYetzia HaBa'a"

“HaYetzia HaBa’a [The Next Exit] is sort of taking a Ready Made font and complementing it with figures, punctuation and additional weights. I have a technical book by Ort, with the original sketches for this typeface. These were shapes developed by engineers, according to fixed radiuses and straight angles. This typeface is probably based upon a similar Latin typeface named DIN – which was also developed by engineers, in order to standardize German road signs. It is a kind of anti-design, since it’s not about subtleties, but instead following a sturdy grid.”

Is it successful in your opinion?

“Yes. Since it’s so anti-design, its attributes are netural, therefore you can paste it alongside any other element, whether it’s quiet or noisy. The font I made works because apart from upgrading those letters by adding punctuation and figures, I also developed light and bold weights, therefore you can apply the necessary typographic color to your graphic work. Also, this font can be easily adjusted for headlines, as well as text. The typeface I made for Pauza, for instance, is also based on the old letterforms from Ort’s technical book – the simple structure, the round edges. It’s very designed.”

HaYetzia HaBa’a is also very designed.

“Yes, that’s where all the greatness in type revival is expressed – the original typeface is indeed the inspiration, but it’s not really a blind copy, since the figures, for example, were completely redesigned, according to the principles of the original letters. Another example is the bottom line in the letter Tet, which is usually problematic: The original creators solved it by using the simplest solution, by drawing a long, straight line without caring for how much width it’ll take up. What you get then, is an absurd bold weight, in which the letter Tet becomes so wide, it’s even wider than the Shin. The actual design occurs when the the designer narrows the width of that letter, which simply makes it look better, and also serves the purpose of higher readability, economy in space, and maintaining the Hebrew attributes. This font is in some way a replacement for the classical Haim typeface.”

''Shishim VaSheva'', ''Font Gas'', ''Blow-Up''
"Shishim VaSheva", "Font Gas", "Blow-Up"

We look at his font folder, and Iontef shows me his less known collection of types, which he calls instant letters – meaning, fonts that didn’t take long to make. “The Shishim VaSheva [Sixty Seven] typeface is based on letters from the 1967 IDF album, it’s a typeface that’s used for writing telegrams… Blow-Up is a facsimlied version of the David typeface. Soda is based on receipts from a cash register, and usually works well only in its original sizes… Gas is from the time I did mostly revivals, which is based on the Goldstar beer logo – letters from the 1940s-50s, it’s a little similar to Hatzvi. I complemented Gas with both lowercase and capital figures. I’m also an obsessive collector of old typefaces from shut-down printing houses, by sifting through second-hand book stores: the Atzmaut [Indepdence] font I created with David Tartakover is a revival, made according to some bold-weight letters he had in his collection. I created the font’s punctuation, figures and lighter weights. It won a type contest in Moscow.”


What Hebrew typeface is ideal to you?

“Undoubtely Narkis. Also Hadassah by Henry Friedlander. With all due respect to Frank-Ruhl, it’s very overused and tiring. The dominance of Frank-Ruhl is caused by newspaper editors’ and publishers’ reading habits, with no pure typographic considerations.”

Doesn’t this make Frank-Ruhl an ideal?

“No, it’s more like an ordeal, not ideal. It was idealistic when it came out, but that was already more than a hundered years ago. The creators of that typeface, the Hadassah typeface and the Narkis types are the masters of that time. Only Zvi Narkis is still alive today. A little while ago he created the Aram-Tzova typeface, and a bible was printed using those letters. Oron’s typeface was also an ideal Hebrew letter, but in his case it was a one-time creation, that wasn’t expressed through more typefaces. Oron is a typographer, but he’s not a type designer, as he himself had said, he didn’t make it his main occupation.”

What is the biggest difficulty in creating a Hebrew typeface in comparison to the creation of a Latin typeface?

“There isn’t much diversity in Hebrew letters. There are many letters that in their base are very similar to one another, and then it’s difficult to make the lines of text seem interesting, because there is no complex form development. There is the Aleph, which is quite unique, and then a series of sticks and squares. That’s why you need to add as much unique attributes as possible to a typeface.”

Which letter do you like to draw most?

“Pe. It’s got something round in it. And Aleph.”

Do you start by drawing an Aleph?

“Yes, systematically. Aleph, Bet, Gimel… Then I jump straight to Pe. Since the lettershapes keep repeating, it’s best to work on the more complicated letters first.”

Do you work on fonts using the computer?

“At first I always draw a sketch by hand. All my ideas come from sketching. You achieve some concrete attributes, and then, using the computer, you couture them upon the letterforms.”

Technically, is everything PostScript?

“Yes, and most of my fonts have TrueType versions for the PC. Today everyone are moving to Fontlab, which is a much more complex application.”

Do you use Fontlab?

“I started, yes. I had no choice.”

Why wasn’t there any choice?

“For instance, if I wanted to release a font of mine for the PC, I had to work with someone I know who has Fontographer on a PC, because a Macintosh can’t export PC files from Fontographer, a part of the problem is that it hasn’t been updated in seven years. Fontlab allows you to export files in both formats. It’s also more adapted for the PC, which is why I purchased it, and today I can export fonts for PC more easily. You can also reach much more parameters by using Fontlab, and that helps me since my fonts need to be very professional, with proper spacing and compatibility.”

Do you do everything now with Fontlab?

“No… I rather begin the work with Fontographer, and make the final adjustments in Fontlab. I’m not used to this application yet. It has a lot of advanced options, but Fontographer is still more user-friendly. An example for Fontlab’s advantages was working on Cartonnage, which is a typeface full of incompletenesses – each path has hundereds of points on it, and there’s a certain property that lets you map all the problematic areas and marks them with red arrows. I scanned every arrow and fixed it, I already have a wart on my finger…”

So you painstakingly considered each and every point?

“Yes, each and every point. Since FontShop have very high standards, and a problematic font that doesn’t print isn’t acceptable.”

How long do you work on each font?

“Between three to six months. You can also have a finished product in two-three days, but if you want something quality, it’s months of work. There are very simple fonts I’ve been working on, for example Holoni (a font Iontef developed for the city of Holon –M.S), which is in the shape of stencils. It looks very simple, but has a lot of inner considerations, such as a letter that has one break-up and one connection, because two break-ups in the same letter will make it look bad. That’s why most letters have no more than one break-up.”

Do you think you’ll be able to repeat Erica Sans’ success?

“Why not? I always think of new ideas for fonts, I just don’t have the time. The next thing I want to do is a serif typeface, because I want to make a classic font. Notice Erica Sans is ten years in the market and people are still buying it, and that’s how I want it to stay – beyond fashion. Every font that’s made is based on hundereds of years of tradition, no one builds a typeface from empty void. It’s also hard for a font not to look like other typefaces, but I’m not in a hurry. I’m happy with what I’ve got, I already have an immense influence on Hebrew typography. I want to make something beyond time. There is plenty of room for rejuvenation, in spite of the great work that has been put after the estatement of this country, and looking at all the innovations that are still being made in Latin typography, which has already been relentlessly researched, and still people make new discoveries in it.”

[The original Hebrew article @ Concept magazine.]