Stefan Gandl's typographic skills have developed from playing around with black marker pens and Letraset as a kid to producing one of today's best-selling design books.
Throughout his studies and his 15-year career in design, Stefan Gandl has seen some huge developments in the technology available to his art, and he's embraced these advances at every opportunity. After years spent experimenting with effects using pens and Letraset sheets, Gandl happily began deconstructing type sets on Apple Macs.
Today, the Mac is an everyday tool at team Neubau, but the sketch pad is still considered to be vital, with the company's international crop of interns all expected to fill at least one black book in their time at the studio.
"I didn't want to follow any other profession," says Gandl. "Although I tried very hard at elementary school, the teachers weren't very happy with my calligraphic output and I received bad marks on a regular basis."
That did nothing to harm his interest in drawing bold characters. During the 1970s he designed the covers for his own Beatles mix tapes, which meant re-drawing all the modern grotesque characters from the original sleeve designs. It was this sort of experiment which sparked off a life-long interest in combining imagery and typography.
"In 1979 or 80, a school friend gave me her Beatles single Help as a present. Unfortunately the cover was missing so I needed to design a new one myself."
After much painstaking work he successfully managed to combine cut-out black-and-white photocopied images with his own drawings and rub-off typography.
"The result wasn't really that bad, which gave me further confidence to go on experimenting with my new-found toys: the dry transfer sheets of Letraset. Luckily enough these expensive sheets were available to me through one of my aunts, who was an architect in those days," says Gandl.
With this fresh confidence in his own artistic skills, Gandl continued to develop his talents through his studies at Hoehere Grafische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt Wien 14, a high school for applied graphic design in Vienna, Austria.
"I wasn't really very interested in typography. The first few Apple Macs were available at school - a real revolution - and we mainly used them for destroying existing typesets then creating new ones."
After school, most of Gandl's income came from freelance work for a diverse range of Austrian design studios, connections that he'd made while he was very young. "I always wanted to stay independent; that's why I never went for fixed employment," he says.
A collaboration with high-school colleague Peter Motter resulted in commissions from Motter's father, the well-known typographer and designer Othmar Motter (Vorarlberger Grafik). This spurred Gandl on to get more and more involved with typography. When Gandl was tasked with redesigning a corporate design which Othmar Motter did in the 60s, the young designer digitised the original black-and-white logo drawings and delivered the logo within the company's own corporate font. The resulting digital design ensured that, from then on, the logos were always used at appropriate quality.
"That's how I began to get really interested in typography, and my painful experience with Fontographer began," says Gandl. The application has led him to create beautiful typography such as the well-balanced NB 55 and perfectly simple NB Block.
At that time, the Fontographer manual was only available in English, and it contained a lot of complicated terms which were indecipherable to Gandl, yet his experiments with the software sparked off a new enthusiasm. "Internet and search engines weren't available in those days, so I was mainly following the trial-and-error method. Two weeks later, with a couple of achievements, and twice as many failures, under my belt I was helplessly addicted to the package. Ever since, I have worked on digital typefaces on a regular basis, while my own handwriting gets worse and worse."
Towards the end of 1995, a call from a previous acquaintance set Gandl on the path to Berlin and cemented the course of the career that has followed.
"I received a phone call from a film director I had worked for at a Viennese theatre. She asked me if I was interested in doing a corporate design for a new 'cross-media' company in Berlin. Naively, I thought I might be able to do the job within the suggested three-month time period, spend some time with my mates in Berlin, then after a couple of weeks I would be back in my Viennese studio. But 11 years later, I still find myself in Berlin!" he exclaims.
The anticipated three-month project actually took a year to complete and resulted in the corporate design for Berlin-based personnel recruitment agency Designerdock. Besides its core business, Designerdock was producing online design magazine DesignerShock. "Robert Meek from Glasgow and I were using the DesignerShock magazine as a vehicle for our own typographical adventures," explains Gandl. It was at this stage that Gandl's career took a turn that would see him get involved with specialist publisher Die Gestalten Verlag and produce DSOS1: The User's Manual - a collection of 80 typographical experiments released by DGV in 2001. These typographical experiments are embedded in specially developed online games including the world's first type synthesizer, MEEK (Modulated Esotherik Etype Kreator). Like the classic MOOG sythesizer for modulating audio bits, the MEEK program, by Robert Meek, enabled the user to modulate matrix-based typography and generate TrueType fonts.
With the release of the DSOS1 book, the DesignerShock magazine project for Designerdock was terminated and Gandl founded his own studio: Neubau.
The birth of Neubau
Neubau set out to work in the design fields of screen, print, video and typography. Gandl worked on his own until 2004, at which time he started to accept internships. In 2006 he was joined by Christoph GrÃ¼nberger and today a project can employ anything between two and ten people. Although Neubau is Berlinbased, it's rare for Gandl to collaborate with another artist from the same city.
"The collaborators are from all over the planet - and so far that has not included a Berliner," he says.
"The collaboration with the artist and designer Klaus Voormann was the first big exception to this - and it was a great personal challenge - but Klaus was only born in Berlin and is not actually living here.
"In general, I have to admit that I am not involved in the design scene - whether in Berlin or anywhere else - so I know less about Berlin and its designers than most other people do. In fact, I couldn't even say who else is working in Berlin," Gandl admits.
Despite being an established designer for 15 years, Gandl still finds it difficult to define his job title within the design field. "Typography is an integrated element of my profession - special projects require special typography," he says. "I am very passionate about the design products I'm requested to develop, and although I wouldn't consider myself a typographer, I definitely dig the experiment."
Gandl's method of creating quality display fonts is designed for speed. He has developed a special matrix which enables him to create different cuts and weights.
"I call it a diamond grid because of the way it looks. By using this grid it's very simple to find the perfect anchor points. Whether you're producing a narrow or an extended version of a typeface, it's always perfect," he says.
Once Stefan has the basic line - the skeleton of a character - he imports the lines into a fontdeveloping program and works from there on the different weights by expanding the strokes, removing overlaps, correcting the path direction, and so on. Gandl points out that this process isn't a solution for body copy fonts but it works perfectly on his display typefaces.
Most of the Neubau work produced is presented on the web but that doesn't mean that all the designs are destined for the internet; Neubau specialises in print, video and typography as well as work for the computer screen. Gandl combines HTML and Flash to display type at its best on the web. Although he expresses his love for simple HTML, he chooses to display non-operating system-based typography largely, properly and economically with Flash-based sites.
Like many of his design colleagues, Stefan Gandl always dreamed of doing his own book. When he moved to Berlin in January 1996 he met a very small publishing unit called Die Gestalten Verlag.
"At that time they had just released one of their first books, Localizer 1.0, which I had bought before I left Vienna. The book was focusing on the techno scene and its visual output," explains Gandl, who, impressed by the title, got the publisher's address from the book index with some personalised targeted marketing in mind.
"I didn't think it could do any harm to visit them and let them know that I would be available for graphic related commissions. At that time, DGV had their office in the east part of the city only a few blocks away from my own studio, and today our studios are both located in Kreuzberg - only five blocks apart."
After the initial meeting, Gandl kept up the contact with the publishers: "We had diverse discussions on design-related projects like books, sleeves and logos. Although we never really worked together, we never lost contact and they were kind enough to publish my work in some of their books. And then one day in 2000 I received an email from DGV asking if I was up for doing a book on the recent stuff I had been working on. What a question! And that's how the first book, DSOS1: The User's Manual, came about," he adds.
Gandl explains how the book publishing process works: "I don't want to waste my own or other people's time, so I try to be as well prepared as possible before I present my ideas and concepts. Luckily enough, Robert Klanten (founder of Die Gestalten Verlag) takes his time to listen to these ideas, which is always a good start.
"At the first meeting, the general product outline, the retail price and its eventual production problems get discussed. That was the starting process behind DSOS1, Neubau Welt and Neubau Modul.
"After DGV has done research on production prices and that sort of thing, they usually confront me with the harsh reality of the situation. This is the most difficult part of the process. Together we develop concepts in order to try to make as few compromises as possible by keeping the original idea, the quality of the final product and a reasonable retail price.
"From my own time as a student, I remember how most graphic design books aren't really affordable and are considered over-priced for what they actually offer. That's why I always put a suggested retail price on my books during my presentation with Robert Klanten, and, so far, he's kindly accepted this and tried to realise it for me."
Gandl strikes a good balance between his commissions, his personal work and his collaborative projects for Neubau. "I love doing printed work, I love designing books and record sleeves, and the requests for Neubau products are constantly growing. It's very handy to have this shopping site which gives us the chance to work more independently. That means we are able to decline projects we know we wouldn't enjoy," explains Gandl.
You might imagine from his last statement that this busy designer's ambitions have all been fulfilled: from perfecting a successful design agency, consistently unleashing conceptually thrilling work, and producing books which outsell their print runs. But Gandl lists some of the plans he still has for the future: "Keeping Neubau as small and nice as it is; the production and release of Remember Revolver; the collaboration with Klaus Voormann as well as the preparation of the exhibition design for Voormann's solo show taking place in 2009 in New York; the release of Neubau Modul in October 2007; a full-length animated motion feature; and a commercial expansion of Neubau to work beyond the fields of screen, print and typography, into video."