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Gerard Unger (1942-2018):
An original type designer

The type community loses one of its best

Unger signs the new book in Antwerp in September. [Photo by Michi Bundscherer]

The day after Thanksgiving, sad news: Gerard Unger has died at his home in Holland.

A fine graphic designer in the great Dutch tradition that combines history, art, and practice, Gerard produced a number of fine typefaces, including Swift, Flora and Capitolium.

After meeting him at an ATypI congress in the late 80s, I invited him to a Poynter Institute conference which I helped organize. And I was proud that he accepted. In St. Petersburg, Florida, Gerard made an influential presentation about the characteristics of type for news. He pushed the idea of big counters, high x-heights, and short descenders. This led to the decision by USA Today to drop Times Roman and commission a new Unger typeface—which became Gulliver.

You can’t really design a news site or a newspaper—nearly 30 years later—without considering an Unger typeface or one like it. Case in point: The text for The Guardian, although produced by Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz, has all the earmarks of an Unger design: Balanced, expressive, readable and slightly informal. You can sum it up in one word: Fresh.

Learned and erudite on the history of letterforms as he was, Unger was an original designer rather than a revivalist. You can always tell an Unger font, like the work of Adrian Frutiger or W.A. Dwiggins—and just as good. It is well done; it is well informed; it was fresh when drawn; it continues to be fresh today.

Gerard was at the ATypI in Antwerp this September, which turned out to be his last. It was clear to his friends (which included all of us at the conference) that he was not well. I spoke to him at some length, and he was very frank about his prognosis. Yet he showed no bitterness about the approaching end. His only sadness was about the loss of his wife Marjan, Flora’s mother, a constant source of brightness and warmth until her own untimely death in June.

In the lobby, Gerard signed copies of his new book, Theory of Type Design, well designed by Hansje van Halem. It’s an excellent summary of his experience and his ideas, and filled with illustrations. So many wanted a signed book that they sold out. The publisher jumped in his car and drove back to Amsterdam, filled the trunk with boxes of books, and returned as quickly as he could. They sold out, too.

This made Gerard happy.

Cover of Gerard's latest, and last, book. [Photo by Hansje van Halem]
[Photo on the home page is from gerardunger.com]

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