Preview: LettError – terrorising letters?

6 May 1999

Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, via LettError, are familiar names to most designers. Whether that’s through their type designs – NCND (formerly known as Trixie), Dynamoe etc – their work in interactive and new media, or appearances at design conferences. What’s probably less familiar is their ethos of computers as design tools in the widest sense.

 Petr takes the front seat, Erik and Just squeeze in the back
Erik and Just both studied at the Royal Academy in the Hague, they were introduced by Petr van Blokland (Erik’s brother), by way of Gerrit Noordzij a lecturer at the Academy. Just says that their first meeting “didn’t work”, but it seems that the two quickly found some common ground in typography related to computers and programming. Unlike students on similar courses both were encouraged in taking this route by Noordzij.

At this point Just went to work for Meta Design in Berlin, and Erik finished his final year at the Academy. After this, eighteen months later, Erik joined Just at Meta too, Erik jokes “Spiekermann was convinced that every design company should have a resident Dutch type designer”. Just finishes “So he thought if I have two then I’m safe!”.

It seems about this time that the two of them started to develop their attitude towards computers. Just: “We didn’t have a life. We didn’t know any people. So what do you do in the evening… well there’s computers we can use…” The first fruit of all night programming sessions was the random Beowolf font.

“When Erik and I sat together, playing with PostScript, we realised that when letters are programs, they shouldn’t necessarily be static. Hence Beowolf.”

“At ATypI 89 in Paris we wrote this little booklet called LettError, about making animated fonts in PostScript, at that point it was still an idea.” Erik recounts, they had still to develop the concept of random PostScript instructions into a working typeface.

The booklet was picked up by Roger Black, who was organising the ATypI conference the following year in Oxford – ‘Type90’. Through a convoluted process the pair ended up inviting themselves to speak at the conference.

“We didn’t really have any work that we’d done together, apart from Beowolf. So we literally cut and pasted some slides together, stuck together with bits of red tape. Fifteen minutes before we were to go on we sat down and wrote down what we were going to speak about.”