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The typographic Times
Luc Devroye

 

[May 2004]
The mathematician typographer
Luc Devroye interview
L.Devroye Links page editor

   

Who is Luc Devroye, briefly ?

You may consult my web page for more biographical information. Since 1977, I am a professor of computer science and mathematics at McGill University in Montreal. I left my native Belgium in 1972 to study first at the University of Osaka in Japan, and then at the University of Texas at Austin, where I obtained a doctoral degree in 1976. The principal reason for leaving Belgium was to avoid the military service (legally, of course).

As I cannot stand any kind of authority, I should be unemployed. Luckily, at the university, I have found a lifestyle that suits me: intellectual freedom, no nine-to-five drag, lots of spare time to learn new things and carry out research.

And since Montreal, the only European city in North America, is fantastic, my wife and I decided to live here. We stay in touch with our families in Belgium and forget our nostalgia by exporting some Belgian ways of life to Canada. For my visitors, for example, I always have an ample supply of the best Belgian trappist beers.

Why this passion for typography ?

Yes, you are right, I am nuts about typography. One of my early dreams was to develop a system for writing and typesetting mathematical texts in a style that the greatest mathematical minds use when they explain theorems on a blackboard. In this respect, the arrival of software like Word and PowerPoint was a catastrophy.

Typographically deficient, the resulting layouts fail to capture the ideas that whirl around in those oversized mathematical heads. In the eighties, Knuth tried to correct this by developing TeX, a nearly perfect typesetting tool for classical texts, both mathematical and non-mathematical. Nevertheless, we still need new software that will facilitate the transfer of ideas to paper in a transparent and fluid manner. I am giving an example below of some notions I explained to some students on my blackboard in my office.

Please note that the text embraces the figures with its arrows and balloons. This style of exposition is necessary in a math course, and as of today, no software permits us to typeset like this. I am thus interested in everything that can be helpful in this project, which started in 1993.

In the meantime, I learned a lot about typography. For example, I developed a family of typefaces for connected handwriting with over 1600 glyphs (letters, pairs of letters and even triples). Thus, the entire text becomes one long string of adjacent ligatures. An imperfect example follows:
Since we read words globally, I think that the heavy use of ligatures may increase the speed with which we read. I was also forced to look into font formats, because I had to create my own fonts, and I did not want to use font editing software such as Fontographer or Fontlab, because I wanted to fully control the creative process and be in command of all details.
I will stop here, because my answers are becoming too long. But you realize just how passionate I have become about typography.

Your link pages are the most complete on the subject. How did you conceive the idea?

In the beginning, my pages were just for my own perusal: I wanted to organize my ideas and my data. I learned very quickly that it is useless to have simple passive links: I felt a need to explain and to place each link in the right context. It is the old principle of the "added value". Thus, I had to learn about the history of type and about its major milestones.

I was at once fascinated by the beauty of the letterforms, moved by the geometric perfection of Bodoni and Didot, disappointed by the commercial aspects, and interested in the interaction between art and the computer. So, my small project became a really big one, one that I will probably continue working on for the rest of my life.

The ideal would be not to have any links, to have all the information in one place, without a need to go further. That is of course impossible. It is equally impossible to beat Google on its own battlefield, but Google will never be able to provide an opinion or to describe a historical evolution. Thus, I am not too embarrassed by the fact that many of my links are "dead", because the valuable descriptions survive. It is sad, though, that so many people change their URL’s more often than their underwear.

I obtain my information from many sources: 

  • First of all, Google! Google gives us the most popular links. Often though, I want the inverse, because I already know the most popular sites. Thus, for real discoveries and surprises, I prefer search engines that are imperfect. You might call them the anti-googles.

  • I own many of the important books on typography. Moreover, McGill University’s Rare Books Collection is just a stone’s throw away from my office: it has the largest and most important collection on type and the history of printing in Canada, with over 13,000 books.

  • Furthermore, I consult the links on this page every day. Sites like Typographica, Typophile News and MyFonts are very useful for the latest news.

People ask me how I can manage over 170 pages simultaneously. The secret is that I just have one humongous file with all the information. I wrote some software to generate all my web pages automatically from that master file. The automated refreshment of all my pages takes just a couple of minutes.

Do you also write articles about typography, or is it just for the fun of it ?

Yes, from time to time, I write articles. My first manuscript was entitled "Random fonts for the simulation of handwriting" (1995). Three students have written a thesis with me on the subject of typography.

See, for example, MetamorFont, a randomized font made by Bernard Desruisseaux: every character has been programmed with extreme care, at the speed of about three characters per week. And yes, it’s for the fun of it .

What is ATypI and what are you doing there ?

The ATypI ? That is the Association Typographique Internationale, which was founded in 1957 by a famous Frenchman, Charles Peignot! Each year, the association organizes a conference, a veritable typographical feast. I am not a member of ATypI, but despite that, I try to participate in each meeting, although that is not always possible with my course commitments at McGill. I attend the conferences like an eager-beaver student, seated in the first row, hypnotized, scribbling notes, and learning.

During the breakfasts, dinners and receptions, I often meet interesting people. And in the evenings, it is party time. For example, I will never forget the dinner in Barcelona with Jose Mendoza y Almeida, to whom I explained on a napkin how to draw a Bezier curve without a computer, a construction due to de Casteljau. On the other hand, I want to quickly forget the conversation one night in Rome with a typographer who pretended that Christophe Plantin was Dutch. But that is the ATypI Conference, often surprising, and always interesting.

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