Defining Walther

Charly Derouault



Defining Walther
Charly Derouault

Defining Walther: Charly Derouault in conversation with Sarah Kremer

Sarah Kremer is a freelance graphic and type designer, and currently teaches at the Amiens School of Art and Design. She joined the Atelier National de Recherche Typographique in 2013 where she began a project to develop an extended phonetic typeface and undertook the redesign of an etymological dictionary. Her project developed into a thesis, The material realisation of the ‘Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch’: the impact of typographic formatting on the development of a lexicographic project, which Sarah completed in 2018.

The following interview is about the history and development of this project. Our conversation took place on 12 May 2021 as part of the ECAL MATD Theory and Research unit.

Charly Derouault: Before you started your thesis, which you worked on for several years, the project originated during a research program at the Atelier National de Recherche Typographique,1 where you began to sketch the type designs that you developed as part of the thesis. What was your motivation to expand the research project, and within what kind of framework did this work take place?

Sarah Kremer: It was the research framework that I found interesting. The project started during the first year of ANRT reopening after six years’ closure,2 and at that time we had only nine months to work on a project, whereas today students have two years. I was based in ANRT’s old premises in the Ecole des Mines, the engineering school, which was in a separate location from the Beaux-Arts. There were only five of us, and we spent the year in seclusion with the teachers. I had the opportunity to visit ATILF3 (the laboratory of Analysis and Computer Treatment of the French Language) several times. The Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch4 centre is located within ATILF, and this is where I initiated the idea to design a new typeface and update the dictionary’s design. I would pay regular research visits to ATILF, and then each time return to the ANRT studio to draw the first sketches of this typeface, which I called Walther in honour of the FEW’s founder Walther von Wartburg. With the help of my teachers, I tried to understand the specificity of this dictionary and how it could be approached in the short timeframe that I had.

I also had in mind editorial projects such as the adaptation and development of Fedra Sans and Fedra Serif for the Collins dictionaries (fig. 1), and Lexicon, a serif font designed for Van Dale’s Dictionary of the Dutch Language (fig. 2). But apart from these well known examples in the field of type design, I realised that there were very few other projects of this kind. These references helped me question my work on the FEW, which was closer to an early 20th century publication in its form, and very different from the image I had of a dictionary.

This first year led me to present solutions that were closer to the more contemporary ideas that I had in mind, in the form of a dictionary whose graphics and typography were interesting for a modern reader. I think I achieved this by using very different typefaces and type styles compared to the original dictionary. And it was while trying to assimilate the technical needs related to a complex reading of the book, for example the interlettered italic, that new answers came to me – the design of a sans serif typeface to save space and the integration of a ratio of weights to create a better hierarchy of information. When evolving this project into a thesis topic, as well as starting to work directly at ATILF, I was able to understand and more directly analyse the references manipulated by linguists. I understood that the very specific forms of the characters and their stylisation, with or without serifs, with a more or less strong level of fatness, had an enormous influence on the coding of the message. This led me to adopt a more reserved approach, and to make more subtle changes that might go unnoticed by the average reader, but which help improve and optimise the reading experience.

Apart from the two references mentioned above, my approach was mainly to trace the historical image of the dictionary and its evolution over the last hundred years, in an attempt to synthesise it. My work is therefore in the continuity of the existing form, with very generic characters. For a majority of the FEW fascicles, a variation of Monotype Modern family was used up until a change of publisher, when it was switched for Times New Roman. It’s interesting to see that this choice then remained the same, by default. The editors write and publish using Times New Roman in Microsoft Word. Then ATILF felt the need to develop its own tools, in order to meet its needs for a phonetic character specific to its dictionary, drawing its own accented letters from Times New Roman.

CD: The final typeface is interesting. One could expect a very utilitarian design, perhaps in a neutral, cold sense, but nevertheless the family has a strong identity that emerges – a rather pronounced style. The serifs for example are not orthogonal, not drawn at right angles but slightly curved. Is this choice based on a concept of reading comfort? Does it aid the hierarchy of information? Or is it influenced by a technical aspect?

SK: The way I proceeded was initially very pragmatic, using the material from the dictionary and the text of the articles. If you look at its rhythm in detail, you can see that it is made up of particular elements which do not bring the same constraints as can be found in a text written in German.5 There is an agglomeration of forms, abbreviations and languages, which form a language with a particular graphic colour (fig. 3). It was important to work on this structure, this plasticity, and to be able to quickly report on the research. It was also a way to show the progress to linguists. I quickly realised that using dummy text made it difficult for the client to properly understand the evolution of the project, as, unlike a typographer looking at proofs, they were distracted by the words. Using real text was essential for them to be able to fully appreciate the work.

The first typographic experiments were very raw. After my year at ANRT my first tests were more open, more personal, and less framed. My exploration went through several different styles. When a typeface seemed to work, I would directly modify the proportions of width and height in InDesign, in a rather brutal way, but the aim was to find interesting proportions.

So my base of elements was initially quite rough, which corresponded to technical data of percentage ratios, between uppercase letters that should have such a percentage ratio with the value of x, ascenders, numerals, and each type of glyph. These measurements provided me with a table of values from which I began my first rough cuts, without curves or details, and trying at first to establish a reading rhythm that would correspond to the project.

Once the rhythm and the typographic grey were validated, the result was very dry, in spite of the efficiency of the reading rhythm. This was due to my initial pragmatic approach and the attenuation of elements that were too present graphically, such as the regular use of uppercases in the composition of the dictionary. So, having found a technical solution, it was still in need of the right kind of aesthetic spirit.

This part came by refining the drawing, by giving it more presence and escaping from the technicalities. The work then became more subjective, while making sure to always consult the people who use the dictionary.

CD: Speaking of future users and readers of your typeface, what impact has your work had on your exchanges with professions far removed from applied typography, such as linguists?

SK: Our exchanges were almost daily. Without giving me precise indications on the design as such, they gave me their opinions, which were certainly subjective in terms of design but totally objective from a technical and practical point of view. At the beginning they didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary, but they acquired it very quickly, and ended up becoming very fussy about aesthetic details!

When I was working at ATILF, my office was located next to that of my thesis advisor Yan Grub, who is also the director of the FEW centre. This situation allowed me to get feedback on my work and a review of my proofs almost every day. When I was trying to make capitals, which are very present in the structure of the texts, and less important in the grey of the page, I had to find a way, in agreement with Yan, to achieve a contrast that would make them quickly visible but which would not overpower the other characters. This research could only be done in dialogue with proofs of complete texts and with the guidance of a linguist.

CD: How did the type design process relate to the writing of the thesis?

SK: The typeface and the thesis were done in quite distinct stages. After my design research at ANRT, I continued the first year of thesis writing on the same path in order not to get disoriented, even though the emphasis had shifted. As soon as I was working directly within ATILF, at the end of the first year of my thesis, I had advanced the development of the character set. I also got into the rhythm of the ATILF lab, and was introduced to documentary and academic research. Coming from the field of applied arts, this first year allowed me to better understand the context of what I was doing.

It was in my second year of the thesis, having developed a trusting relationship with the linguists, that I was able to begin my role as a language researcher. Having made good progress on the typeface, the following years were dedicated to writing. The remaining typographic work was mainly focused on digital integration, and the creation of the linguistic tool in connection with the developers at ATILF.

CD: What were the demands and expectations of the project in typographic terms? Your typeface includes a bold sans serif, a bold serif, roman and italic. Were these different cuts predefined or did your research lead you to this result based on identified needs?

SK: The initial order given to ANRT was to find a solution to the encoding of accented characters, which were only in italics (fig. 4). The answer could have been a digitisation of the existing characters and a reworking of the encoding, but by submitting the project to the ANRT the workshop wished to propose to the ATILF a more global, coherent concept.

It was also necessary to convince them of the importance of a specific typeface design, as well as of the disadvantages of using Times, the forms and proportions of which were not adapted to the structure and composition of the articles.

The dictionary had three cuts and were therefore part of the initial order. I couldn’t, for example, transform the italic into a sans serif typeface, which I could have imagined at the beginning of the project, before the framework and issues were better defined. I was still able to propose and have a new typeface accepted, bold sans serifs (fig. 5), dedicated to the entry words, a modification that does not change the status of this element. The new design allowed me to visually mark the distinction between two items, which until then did not formally exist, the entries having the same value as a bold character, with serif already present within the definitions.

In the interests of a better hierarchy, the italic has also been drawn more finely to improve its distinction from the regular body (fig. 6). Because if we go back and look at the history of italics, the typographic colour variations were more marked. Originally the two designs were not linked and their uses were different. By juxtaposing the two bodies, we seek to create a break and to look differently at these emphasised words. This is a theme that has always interested me, long before I started work on Walther. [Michael Twyman’s text, ‘The Bold Idea’, which deals with this history of hierarchy through the emergence of typefaces, is an excellent complement to this subject.]6

CD: Finally, after completing your thesis, have you continued to work in collaboration with ATILF to further progress the project? Will it be online soon?

SK: In addition to the typographic work, ATILF also carried out a project on the consultation and writing interface, and this work is still ongoing. The model already integrates the typeface, and although the feedback and recommendations proposed by my thesis haven’t been taken into account yet, the engineers continue the work. The only problem is that the lab doesn’t have anyone in charge of project development, which is why it’s taking a long time to materialise.

After my thesis defence, an encouraging connection materialised – I was contacted by another dictionary, the Lessico etimologico italiano (LEI),7 which is the Italian equivalent of the FEW. The dictionary functions similarly on several levels and shares some of the same problems that we were able to solve with the FEW, as much on the typographical work as on the digitisation of the data and the digital interface. We’ve begun a dialogue so that the graphic and typographic tools developed for the FEW can be shared and used for the LEI.

Their needs are very similar, so the idea is that they can use Walther, which I would complete according to their requests. I recently developed a series of additional characters necessary for the composition of this dictionary, which did not fit with the composition of the FEW articles.

Eventually, the goal would be to distribute the typeface on an open platform, downloadable for free, and free to use, without it being modifiable. I have reservations about the free modification of typefaces – it’s complicated and risky without understanding the background and issues of a typeface, and to modify the encoding or implement new designs might result in a lack of consistency. This is actually what led to the creation of this new typeface i.e. a poorly encoded typeface, which had been modified, and cobbled together to respond to a specific problem, but which creates others in the long term.

After six years of work on Walther I can say that this project has greatly influenced my current practice as a designer and continues to develop in my professional life, particularly through LEI and other lexicographic projects. It has reinforced my practice as a designer and made me evolve from graphic design to type design and reignited my desire for drawing. And having now disconnected myself from the thesis, I am also working on other projects with freer, more expressive forms.



Further reading

Charly Derouault is a French designer based in Paris, offering type and graphic design solutions. His projects cover a wide range of creative fields, extending from print to digital media, and giving shape to custom typefaces, visual identities and books. He regularly collaborates with designers and foundries, while designing and publishing his own typefaces.


[1] The Atelier National de Recherche Typographique (ANRT) was established in 1985 by the French Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, to contribute to the development of type design and typography. It has been based at École nationale supérieure d’art et de design (ENSAD) in Nancy since 2000.

[2] ANRT closed in June 2006 following the departure of its entire teaching team in the wake of profound divisions with Nancy’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Thomas-Huot Marchand, appointed to direct its reopening in 2013, relates this period in an interview with Azimuts magazine, also available on the ANRT website: [last accessed 4 June 2023].

[3] The ATILF (Analyse et Traitement Informatique de la Langue Française – Computer Processing and Analysis of the French Language) is a research ‘laboratory’ in linguistics and language studies.

[4] The Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (German: French Etymological Dictionary) or FEW is the principal etymological dictionary of the Gallo-Romance languages (such as French). It was the brainchild of the Swiss philologist and lexicographer Walther von Wartburg.

[5] The creation of the original edition of the FEW, written in German, began in 1922 and was completed in 1967. The language of the dictionary is still German.

[6] Twyman, Michael, ‘The Bold Idea: The Use of Bold-looking Types in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society issue 22, The Printing Historical Society, London, 1993.

[7] The Lessico etimologico italiano (LEI) is a dictionary of Italian etymology in publication since 1979.

Further reading

Michael Twyman, ‘The Bold Idea: The Use of Bold-looking Types in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society issue 22. London, The Printing Historical Society, 1993

Thomas Huot-Marchand, Ariane Bosshard and Olivier Huz, Atelier national de recherche typographique ANRT: archives 1985–2006. Dijon, Presses du réel, 2016

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