Akira Kobayashi is a Creative Type Director at Monotype. Kobayashi began his career as a type designer at Sha-Ken Co., Ltd. in 1983, going on to study calligraphy and typography, and working between Japan and Europe. His designs have won across U&lc, Linotype, and TDC competitions, and he’s authored multiple books in Japanese on typograph and the Latin alphabet. He is the thirty-fourth recipient of the TDC Medal.

Akira Kobayashi was introduced to the possibilities of type while still at school in his home country of Japan. Students were given regular poster art projects, coinciding with civic initiatives such as road safety week or dental healthcare week, and encouraged to use drawing and lettering to convey information. Kobayashi quickly realized the power of type and image put together. “As a child, I became aware of the importance of the form of letters,” he says. “When I drew beautiful lettering for posters, it looked good, but when I drew beautiful pictures but the lettering was horrible, the poster would look horrible. That was the difference I sensed at the age of nine or ten.”

Kobayashi was already learning Japanese calligraphy, so had a basic understanding of what made for good form – however he was unfamiliar with lettering. He remembers searching out newspaper headlines as a reference, and teaching himself letter shapes by studying and copying them. As a teenager, he furthered his practice using lettering textbooks.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Kobayashi went on to study graphic design at Musashino Art University in Kodaira, Western Tokyo. His typography course there focused largely on Japanese lettering and type, and he remembers that, at the time, graphic designers were considered the ‘stars’ of the industry. But Kobayashi says that he had his reservations about becoming one. He questioned whether designing adverts for a product he’d never used, or a car he’d never driven, could be considered an honest job, and he worried if he’d feel like he was deceiving people. To add to this, Kobayashi found himself more interested in what he describes as “pure type design”.

In particular, he’d found himself fascinated by the work of Sha-ken, a Japanese type design and photo typesetting company. In 1983 he landed his first role with the business, which he describes as less like a graphic design studio, and more like a factory, located in Tokyo’s suburbs. He’d arrive at 8 every morning, put on his factory worker-style uniform, and draw letters until 4.30pm, using Sumi ink and white poster color. On an average day, he’d be creating anywhere from 10 to 20 kanji characters. “It was quite a daunting task for a young designer in his 20s, but I really loved the job,” says Kobayashi. “I worked for Sha-ken for six years, and during my career I learned to draw 10 fine lines in one millimeter. I was trained like that.”

While at Sha-ken, he discovered a book that would become enormously influential in his life. The company’s type design department had a collection of titles about Western typography, including Hermann Zapf’s About Alphabets. It took Kobayashi six months to finish it – he was learning English at the same time – but it sparked something in his mind.

“I realized that a type legend like Hermann Zapf, who could draw these beautiful letters, was also self taught,” explains Kobayashi. “He started to teach himself calligraphy, but he was told by someone that he was holding his pen at the wrong angle. So he was also a kind of layman when he started to learn calligraphy. If he started as a layman and designed a lot of beautiful typefaces, and did beautiful calligraphy, I thought I could follow in his footsteps. I didn’t know anything about Western type design, but I thought maybe I could teach myself Western type design or calligraphy. So I decided to leave the company and go to London to study.”

Kobayashi had never been abroad before, and says England was “kind of a culture shock” – full of things he’d never experienced in Tokyo, or even Japan. He’d learned to speak some English but had been taught by an Australian, so when he arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport he struggled to understand what passport control was saying to him. Nevertheless he made it to his apartment, and enrolled on both an English course, and an evening calligraphy course at the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication).

It was 1989, and he remembers it was extremely expensive to live in the capital. Kobayashi also says it was challenging for him to get to grips with the Latin alphabet – for example understanding why the left side of a capital A is always thinner than the right diagonal. His calligraphy teacher suggested that he join a meeting of The Letter Exchange – a gathering that brought some 50 people together, all from different disciplines. “There were stone-cutters, calligraphers, also type designers working for Letraset,” remembers Kobayashi. “It was also a culture shock to me because when I was working as a type designer in Tokyo, that kind of thing – calligraphers and type designers in one room – was impossible.”

At the end of the meeting, Kobayashi approached a stone-cutter who invited him to a workshop in Norwich, where he used a flat brush to explain the anatomy of the Latin alphabet – including the thin left diagonal of the capital A that had been troubling him. Suddenly, says Kobayashi, things started to make sense.

It was also around this time that he received a letter from Letraset, who he’d applied to for a job while still in Japan. The dry transfer lettering company was interested in one of Kobayashi’s Arabic numeral designs that he’d made while still working at Sha-ken – and which would become his first published typeface. Kobayashi called it Skid Row, after a song from cult 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors.

Kobayashi stayed in London for 18 months before returning to Tokyo, where some fellow former Sha-ken type designers were setting up a new type design studio, Jiyu-kobo. “A Japanese character set consists of kanji, hiragana and katakana characters, and also Arabic numerals and Latin glyphs as well,” says Kobayashi. “So they needed someone who was able to design Latin letters and of course kanji characters.”

The 90s was an exciting time to be creating type, as things started to shift into the digital world. Kobayashi remembers being quite happy to work on a computer, but says he’d still use pencil and paper to visualize his ideas in the early stages of design – a practice he still uses today. After three years at Jiyu-kobo, Kobayashi joined TypeBank, where he was responsible for redesigning and improving the Latin alphabet parts of the company’s Japanese type designs. After another three years he decided to go freelance, although he remembers that moving jobs this much was “quite unusual” at the time. “Of course my parents worried about me, and one of the type designers in Tokyo who worked freelance warned me that a Japanese trying to Western type design was impossible,” says Kobayashi.

Nevertheless, he was confident in his abilities. He’d already spent his free time and weekends designing Latin typefaces and successfully submitting them to ITC. These were published as ITC Woodland, ITC Luna, ITC Silvermoon, ITC Scarborough, ITC Japanese Garden and ITC Seven Treasures. And as well as working as a freelance type designer, Kobayashi taught Japanese and Western lettering at design schools in Tokyo.

In 1999, he submitted his Clifford typeface – one of his first Latin serif designs – to U&lc magazine’s international design competition and won. Then in 2000, he repeated his success with Conrad, which also won. This caught the attention of Linotype, who offered him a job in Germany as Type Director. It wasn’t a straightforward decision for Kobayashi, who didn’t speak German, and at this point was married with two children, one of whom had only just been born. In 2001 he decided to take the offer and relocate from Tokyo to Bad Homburg, where Linotype had its office. And his first job was a memorable one – no less than redesigning Hermann Zapf’s Optima.

“I decided to learn Western typography because I read the book by Hermann Zapf, and it was a dream come true,” says Kobayashi. “Hermann Zapf was like a god somewhere far above me, and then in 2001 I was able to work with him. Together we worked on Optima, then after that Palatino, and other typefaces as well.”

While at Linotype – which became part of Monotype in 2006 – Kobayashi also worked with Adrian Frutiger, redesigning his Avenir typeface, released as Avenir Next in 2004, and also Frutiger, released as Neue Frutiger in 2009. As well as collaborating with legends of the type world, Kobayashi directed the development of Monotype’s first original Japanese typeface, Tazugane Gothic, and worked on major custom type projects for the likes of Sony, UBS and Panasonic. He’s also published several books explaining Western type design and typography to a Japanese audience – saying he believes one of his important roles is to “pave the way to Western type” for graphic designers and students in the country.

Now Creative Type Director at Monotype, Kobayashi is seeing an increasing globalization of type. He says more Western companies are interested in Asian type, and more Asian companies are interested in Western type – meaning his role is also, in some ways, circling back to the start of his career. While, at one time, Asian companies would have simply used Helvetica or Times New Roman, and Western companies would have paid little attention to the differences and qualities of Asian typefaces, Kobayashi says companies in both parts of the world are taking more care.

“I think I’m quite optimistic about the future of type design,” he concludes. “We can use emojis and images instead of type, but I think people are more and more interested in the subtle differences in the visual images of brands, or their information in type.”