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Anna Alexanina: “I like to wear everything I like at once”

Studying physics, loving goth and industrial, promoting non-Russian Cyrillics on our Instagram

May 25, 2021

Anya, you have only this year graduated from Higher School of Economics, but your portfolio looks like one of a person who has been in the profession for a long time…

I am actually a physicist by first training, having graduated from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (the PhysTech) in 2018, and I wasn’t serious about design until I got enrolled at HSE two years ago. I started as an illustrator, freelancing, then worked at Yandex and for Alexei Ivanovsky at W1D1. Today I’m working at RBC as a motion designer. Alongside I was doing lots of different projects sort of for myself: at HSE, we had a creative group called Schyoloch (‘alkali’) where we made two zines and a few more small projects.

Horoscope 2050, a zine by Scheloch

And how does a physicist become a designer?

I always enjoyed drawing, but didn’t see myself as an artist and went to school to study a ‘serious’ profession. But in the process I realised that it wasn’t what I wanted and that I wouldn’t make it there. I learned about design from my acquaintances, then I found out that you could do a second, master’s degree at HSE, and that’s how it started.

Meaning, you came to HSE having no basic artistic education whatsoever?

Only art school, and that’s it.

Who was your teacher there?

My curator was Vladimir Ayuev who also run type.today’s Instagram a couple of years ago. Thanks to him, my mind experienced a powerful breakthrough, as when I came to HSE, I had a very vague understanding of what was going on in design. And then — primarily thanks to him and being involved with the designer community — I managed to develop some visual experience and figure out what worked and how.

You’re confident and bold in dealing with typography. Have you put a special effort into it?

We had a typography course, but it was rather shallow. This whole set of skills, I rather developed it through a project system: an entire module, a half of the semester, we spent doing some project, near-real, from every angle of it — this is how you’d learn typography, composition, anything. But as for certain theoretical and technical things, I learned those practically myself, as we had no serious fundamental courses in this regard.

worldmusic Graphic identity for Ethomechanics festival, a student project

cigs Cigarette pack stickers

attics Attics Akzident, a student typeface project

How do you pick a typeface? And how do you use typography to create such a dense, aggressive canvas?

I spent many years doing amateur painting, and the things I do in design are close to what I used to do with oil on canvas: I like to wear everything I like at once, so to say. Minimalism is alien to me, and when there are so many beautiful things around me, I want to figure all this out.

How do you follow type novelties?

It is extremely helping if you get into the circles and mingle there: I have many like-minded friends from whom I can learn things and whom I can offer something in return. Plus, there are resources where it is convenient to monitor, such as Are.na or blogs like It’s Nice That.

Do you have favourite authors or studios?

One of my favourite studios is Berlin-based Studio Yukiko. I really like what Timur Zima does. I was glad when I had a chance to do something together with him, or simply follow what he’s up to. Also, since I truly enjoy 3D and all kinds of motion, I like what White Russian are doing. Their work is very lush particularly when it comes to forms. It’s not graphic design, but also interesting.

Homepage of White Russian

And do you have certain non-design references where you get your ideas?

From a young age, I’ve been enjoying industrial style and goth culture, they have a significant impact on how I work. There’s a rich visual part. For example, there is this British music label, 4AD, where there was a rather well-known cover designer called Vaughan Oliver. And that is a great source of inspiration for me: those weird collage, ephemer stuff.

Some works by Vaughan Oliver

Do you design typefaces yourself?

I am learning to do that, but I don’t have a single decent completed typeface.

Do you study somewhere to this end?

No, I’m just learning by myself. I wish to embark on it seriously some day, but I haven’t had time yet. That is a separate interesting science. Sometimes, when I create a composition, I know what it should look like, and in this case I wish I hadn’t to take someone else’s typeface, but use my own. But I still lack the skills to do it in a quality manner.

How do you learn type by yourself?

I am trying to stick, on the basic level, to the advice I was given: the important thing is to look at how good typefaces are made, try to understand how they are constructed, and try to repeat them, at the same time doing something of your own. Then you can read theory and go deep into how type works.

What did you do at W1D1 with Ivanovsky?

I was a motion designer there, and there was significant scope for action. What was the point there: you have daily tasks on developing observational skills and creativity — for example, go outside, find a blue object, take a photo of it and post it. For each task, you had to film a video manual — a short video, or some animated movie. I was in charge of creating those manuals: filming, animation, working with typography. Plus, together we came up with content, all of us: what kind of task it could be, what sort of explanatory information it should have. That was exciting, as I was doing not only design, but also collected and structured interesting information on art.

Some animated illustrations for W1D1

For how long have you worked there?

About six months.

The vision of the world that you received while doing physics, does it help you in motion design?

I’ve always had this idea that this education was actually a waste of time, that it doesn’t help me at all. Although, people who worked with me used to say that you could feel a certain background, fundamental knowledge. What did they mean by that — that is indeed a good question. I have only one useful skill left from studying at the PhysTech. There, we had many courses where you, let’s say, have a textbook, and in five hours you need to pass an exam, while you’d never seen these letters — try to do something with this. That helps you a lot in life, as you have this feeling that even if you can’t figure all this out, you can at least try to figure out just any field, get an idea of it and study it.

But you must have a good knowledge of how objects interact with each other, doesn’t it help in doing motion and 3D?

That helps a little — you see certain words which are familiar to you when you create some 3D physics simulation, — but it does not give you a considerable advantage. All those things can be easily learned and mastered by anyone who doesn’t have a specialized educational background.

You had an experience of working with typefaces from tomorrow’s collection at Sloy.

Yes, I worked there for some time as well. They used CSTM Xprmntl 03. Of course, I followed the epic saga of how it was created on your Telegram channel. Today it has already been released and looks super-consistent, but back then — more than a year ago — it was a little bit difficult to work with. I had to use it a lot in graphics, and problems started when there was something missing or something looked too weird. It was very spectacular, though: Sloy logotype which had been made before I came there, immediately caught your eye and looked very fancy, even though it was just a word set in Xprmntl.

Sloy, launched by Russian web giant Yandex in 2019, was a social app aimed at youth fashion influencers, with clothing recognition, masks, and AR accessories. The project was sunset a year later

You also have worked with CSTM Xprmntl 02.

It was actually very funny with the second Xprmntl. I had just started studying at HSE and soon ran into a problem: I was eager to use all sorts of display type, creating some kind of typographic wild nonsense, but there was hardly any display type in Cyrillic. You really want to, but there is none. And it was namely the second Experimental that was one of the first typefaces that were similar to what I wanted. I was slightly paralyzed: ‘I had no idea things like that were even an option!’ It was later that other typefaces either appeared, or became more visible — but this was my first encounter with such a beautiful, contemporary, provocative display type in Cyrillic typography.

CSTM Xprmntl 02 in the zine ‘From Tambourine to Kick’

CSTM Xprmntl 02 in graphic identity for DOM culture center, a student project

Do you have any favourite typefaces?

It’s hard to tell. On the one hand, I value change, — while on the other, I do have, perhaps, certain favourite sorts of typefaces. There was a period when I literally worshipped Nostra, then it was replaced by other typefaces. I enjoy bizarre, elegant serifs, — or something kind of brutal and futuristic. And then there are a number of possible options — ranging from something completely pragmatic to something completely wild.

And what do you care about when it comes to type?

The harmony of form and content, if you’ll excuse me being that pretentious. For it to have something that catches the eye, something eye-striking, — this works for both display and text typefaces, — and at the same time it has to be usable, readable, without any obvious problems.

Your month on our Instagram was devoted to different languages using Cyrillic alphabet. How did you come up with the idea?

It was about two things. First, when I received your message with an invitation to participate, I especially noted a phrase about promoting Cyrillic being one of type.today’s goals. Secondly, I’ve long wanted to do something about different scripts — not even just about Cyrillic, but, more generally, about the fact that there are lots of scripts, and all of them have their own interesting specifics and particularities. I figured that I wasn’t willing to just make beautiful pictures during the whole month, related to nothing, I needed a subject. And at some point I had this drastic idea that I could combine these two wishes and reveal Cyrillic in all its variety. We see it every day, but it is actually significantly wider than what we see. And this has also to be taken into account.

Following this month, have you developed some algorithms and advice for people who have to deal with an extended Cyrillic set?

It is in fact not all nice and easy here: unfortunately, it’s not always and anywhere that you have all necessary glyphs. Though, in principle, it’s more or less OK with typefaces from type.today’s library, but here, too, you need to get the details right and put a lot of effort into it, when you start working with a new language. I actually messed up myself while making an image for Bulgarian language. And I even knew that they had two variants of the alphabet — old and new, — and in the new one, they prefer using triangular д and л. But eventually that image turned out to have traditional Russian Cyrillic. And Abkhaz language, for example, has very special glyphs. Sadly, I failed to implement the thing I initially had in mind, as there were no glyphs that I needed in a typeface that I meant to apply.

There actually were not that many rare and unusual glyphs during this month.

Well, typically, the unusualness of glyphs in Cyrillic is limited to the familiar letters having diacritic — such as Г with a tail or a bar. There are not so many glyphs that appear to be upright foreign, and not every language has them.

Cyrillic remains Cyrillic, and in the quest for exotic and wild symbols you’ll need to address other scripts — for example, Glagolitic. I had a picture about Komi language. They are now using Cyrillic, but they used to have their own alphabet, Anbur (also known as the Old Permic script — translator’s note) that was very different, and I put a couple of glyphs from it.

How did you pick a typeface for each poster?

It was rather on a whim. I made myself a selection with all typefaces, stared at them and tried to figure out which of them I associate with the subject of today’s post — a certain given language, culture or a text mentioned there. There was no rational rule, purely an associative thing.

And then you had to go to the code table and search for a language you needed?

I had. Sometimes I needed to drop something that was seemingly the best fit. And sometimes, as was the case with Abkhaz language, I had to cheat and choose simpler words, as I really wanted exactly this typeface and it had no necessary glyphs.

Have you discovered some new typefaces during the month, the ones that you especially enjoyed?

Some of type.today’s typefaces were known to me — they’ve been around, I knew about them and used them. While many of your typefaces, I saw them for the first time. I was particularly shocked by an incredible amount of sans serif — for every occasion. I’ve never worked with variable fonts, and there were those, such as Nekst or Factor A. As it turned out, they were interesting to work with. I’ve always had a certain prejudice towards variable fonts. But when it so happened that I worked with them, it turned out to be really fun — trying to adjust unique thickness, width, height.

And as a motion designer, haven’t you tried to work with variable fonts as an animation tool?

I have, but it has always seemed to me a slightly overused trick which appeared and immediately began to be used by everyone too often — when you have this dynamic increase of the letter’s width. That’s why I always avoided those. But as Xp03 shows you can look at it from a different angle — take two absolutely different scripts, come up with an unusual transition for them, the one that never existed, and combine it. And it is interesting not even as something that you would often use in your work, but rather as this cool concept, a certain statement: you can also do it like this, and it is beautiful in itself as a certain separate entity. But only if there were more such things as Xprmntl has — those weird transitions of something into something completely opposite, — we could have found wider application for variable fonts in motion than a simple change of width and height.

Were there some interesting stories that happened during this month? Have you had angered or grateful linguists coming to our comments section?

No, unfortunately not. However, there was a story with Bulgaria, when the Sofia-based FontFabric foundry showed up. And they said very nicely and politely: ‘this is not Bulgarian Cyrillic that you have here’. And so I introduced the differences between Bulgarian and Russian Cyrillic in my next post. They commented once again, very nicely, and the post got unexpectedly popular. Although, in fact, I was embarrassed to make a mistake like that. Also, it was very nice to receive comments from people who spoke those languages or grew up where those languages are spoken. There were those who came and recognised Narspi that they read in school. I received a lot of feedback on the Tatar Shurale as well. Many thank-yous.

Did any of your expectations from an image correspond to its feedback?

They barely did. For example, the Shurale post was highly popular, although I didn’t think the image was very good. And I actually noticed this trend that everything turned out the other way around. The more I spent the time, thinking and trying to come up with something, the cooler the response of the audience was. And the quicker, with a single stroke, I made the thing, the better it was perceived. This was the first time I had an experience like that. Normally, there is a direct relationship: the more I sit and finalise something, the better it turns out and the better it is perceived.

What else makes an image on Instagram popular?

First, you have to correctly define how to conceptually draw attention: not only visually, but what people are interested in, what they want to see, namely in terms of meaningfulness. Secondly, some neat and concise things are liked better than complicated ones, with high levels of piled up details.

Do you have any idea about what characterizes today’s typography?

I believe that fashion and trends in typography do not exist in a vacuum: they are very much tied to what is actually and more generally happening in the visual culture around us. And if you simply look at how music videos look, how clothes look, what news we read, you can draw some rough conclusions. Plus, there is a certain response time: change of trends in typography takes more time than it takes in other areas that are also susceptible to changing fashion. Several years ago, we witnessed the arrival of this digi-punk trend, and it has been evolving very slowly. Meaning, it also slightly transforms. A couple years ago everyone was very inspired by graffiti, while today all of it is moving in a somewhat more elegant direction. Another important point is that new generations of designers are coming, those who create this typography. They have their notion, vision of beauty that they received in their youth, 10-20 years ago. And, years later, they begin to be inspired by those things.

And what are you going to move towards, how do you think? Do you have any idea?

I’ve always wanted to gain more awareness, mindfulness, over time and with experience. Because I actually possess certain qualities of a magpie — I see something very shiny, sparkly, and I really want to use it right away. I would like to have more understanding of what to discard, and what to foster, nurture and apply in a quality manner. And let it somewhere be close to the trends, and somewhere not.

However, I’m not yet able to answer the question ‘what I’ll be when I grow up’. I am trying to take it all at once. I was doing graphic design and branding only for a couple of years. Then I became a motion designer. Currently I’m trying to study to become a 3D generalist and at the same time I got enrolled in the HSE postgraduate programme, where I will defend a thesis as an art historian, explore modern art.

Is it a quest, or do you think that later you will manage to successfully combine these skills?

That is rather a search, as there are lots of interesting fields around us, and my greed reflects not only on typography, but also on my entire life: when there are so many interesting things around you, you wanna try all of them.

Anna Alexanina

behance.net/alexanina/
instagram.com/perodine.art/
readymag.com/alexanina/portfolio/

Mentioned fonts