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Anna Seslavinskaya: “I don’t think the future of type is serif

Anna Seslavinskaya designed HealthGoth, a contemporary blackletter, available in our Tomorrow collection. We talked about why a health food manifesto needed a blackletter typeface, why there can be no favourite fonts, what references you cannot find on Pinterest, and why all digital startups look the same.

March 19, 2020



Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I mostly do graphic design. I graduated from British Higher School of Art & Design, programme Design in Interactive Environment curated by Dmitry Karpov. For the last three years, I have been living in America, San Francisco, which is near Silicon Valley. I am the co-founder of a company that offers different kinds of support to startups, providing graphic design and production services. We have organized a workshop for startup companies on how to quickly prepare a decent presentation on the base of their MVP, minimum viable product, so that it would be understandable for investors, or anyone to whom it may concern.

How much of your work is type? Do you create typefaces for businesses, or it’s just for yourself?

I became interested in type back when I was studying in BHSAD. Dima Karpov was experimenting, giving us many kinds of different creative tasks aside from our area of professional specialization. He invited many guys to speak with us, such as Igor Mustaev and Ilya Ruderman, among others. They explained to us a lot of things about type design. Since then I like using type as a key communication tool: I always build upon it, creating something on its basis. It can be someone else’s typeface and I use it for a logo, or a presentation. The typeface becomes a framework: this is where I start my research, and I build a branding on it. A typeface serves as a starting point for consideration — later I decide what it can be complemented with so that it would be relevant for the product.


HealthGoth is on sale in our Tomorrow collection


As for type design, I’ll tell you what: I often see clients who believe they need a custom typeface, but, personally, I try not to flood the world with new typefaces: most projects I get don’t need their own typeface. What they need is a solid tool to solve a certain communication task, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, I am trying to explain to my customers why they should rather purchase typefaces than use what they already have installed on their computer.

Do we really have to explain that in America, too?

No, I’m talking about Russian clients. I believe guys in America know better what they are getting into. They don’t seek to save money on you as a professional or on the tools you would use for solving their task. I feel like they trust you more. And if you, being a professional, tell them something, then so be it, then it is a right thing to do. It is not that they hire a slave for delivering on their vision — it is more like they engage a peer. It sounds pretentious, but it is true.

And do you have beloved typefaces? A default font, something like that?

Actually, I’m not a fan of the idea that there is such a thing as loving, or not loving, any particular typeface, since it is a communication tool. There is this great exercise: imagine you don’t like a certain typeface, and then visualize a situation where this particular typeface would be relevant and appropriate. When you create a context where this typeface works well, you see that the problem is not a typeface, the problem is you. Recently I’ve been carrying out such an experiment with Times New Roman, and I realized that the problem was that I did not see a room for this typeface — there was nothing wrong with the typeface itself.

Now let’s talk about HealthGoth. It had two reincarnations, how did it happen?

I did this project, sort of a healthy food manifesto. When it comes to projects that I do for myself, I prefer doing it all from scratch — reinventing the wheel, precisely. And so I began figuring out what typeface I needed. Initially it seemed that the more weird, the more different from a blackletter typeface — but still consisting of its elements — it is, the better. After finishing the project I realized that it was a great typeface and decided to make it an open source — I packed it, released it, and went on with my work. In about a week I was approached by Ilya Ruderman offering to add HealthGoth to tomorrow.type.today and asking me to improve and finalize it a little bit. It wasn’t easy to get back to the typeface since I figured I was already done with it. Were it not for regular questions from Ilya like ‘how is it going with your typeface?’, it would have lasted forever. As a result, the typeface has undergone many changes. I rebuilt it, it is completely different now. It has turned into a blackletter typeface the way we’re used to see it. More legible, more text. I like it very much since it is unusual to me. Of course, it was quite difficult to cut off things which I perceived as the basic style cornerstones, but some elements were easy to get rid of…

Hungry Book, a ‘clean normcore food manifesto by nomads and geeks’


hungry-menu

The first version of HealthGoth in the menu of Hungry Book


You wrote on Facebook that you’d lost an a which you really cared about…

I started the redesign from this glyph, which is why I cared about it — it was more about worrying about myself than it was worrying about the letter. Though this a was very much in line with the previous version of the typeface. And it was hardly legible. Because the general logic of this typeface had got nothing to do with the blackletter style — it was rather about a block work: you break the blackletter down into separate thick and thin elements and then put them together in an entirely arbitrary manner.

You only designed Cyrillic for the new version of typeface?

It’s that Cyrillic simply had more alterations, since the legibility level of Cyrillic blackletter, this is really something… After all, blackletter and Cyrillic scripts are not very connected. This is nothing new, so I wasn’t shocked by how hard it was. Many glyphs that I constructed went through hundreds of iterations. In many of those, they looked nice and cute, but they were lettering elements. Lettering and not typesetting at all. I have many of such typeface remnants left that would not fit anywhere: they are not suitable for a stylistic set, and they are not suitable for just posting them somewhere either, since the project is over.

What letters did you have the most trouble with?

It was a common lowercase e, surprisingly. I moved it a hundred times. Then it was ж, naturally. Cyrillic, blackletter and ж — really a nice room for trying. Oddly enough, I had absolutely no problems with щ and ц. I quickly came up with a good design for those.



It is not clear why use a blackletter typeface for a project on food.

When I started making it, I built a landing page on Readymag. This is where I found this great Graphik. I thought that a blackletter in contrast would be cool and fancy. Normally, when I’m creating something associated with type design, I use external sources for inspiration. That is why Ghostemane indirectly affected my work — precisely his music, cloud rap, not his graphic communications or music videos.


moodgoth The moodboard for HealthGoth


Andromeda, Ghostemane’s biggest hit on YouTube


Every once in a while in San Francisco I visit this event called Type Thursday. It is some sort of free networking platform for type designers. It takes place every month at San Francisco Center for the Book. The event is attended by many people who come there to hang out with each other, talking to each other about things. You can bring a project you work on, and discuss it with others. The thing is that you get criticized and told how your project looks from the outside perspective. Presenting your project, you explain what kind of second opinion you’d like to hear. It is an absolute necessity if you want to get any criticism or feedback to your work. This is what many people forget about on Facebook and stuff like that. While at Type Thursday guys won’t tell you anything until they understand a) that this is what you were looking for, b) what was the goal of your project.

I brought in my HealthGoth and received a lot of interesting feedback. Meaning, in the process of redesign, many letters got comments not only from Ilya, but also from the guys doing type design in America. They were giving me interesting comments on Latin glyphs. Although, I got some irrelevant feedback, too, like ‘Oh, is that a food project? Is it some kind of a blackletter? And how do you feel about the Third Reich?’ It was so sweet and funny. I mean, if I use some radical instrument in my art project, it simply has to raise questions — and it did. Mission completed.

So, you’re saying that any person who considers himself a type designer can come there and get feedback? From whom?

It is not exactly some place where you meet type design icons, or something like that. This is an open event for anyone interested in typography. And it gathers different sorts of people. You have professors, including those from local art schools. For example, they once invited an author of Meet the Creatives podcast. They also had an interview with the guys from Collins who made branding for Dropbox, Twitch, MailChimp. On the same day I brought in my typeface — you have wine and snacks, wandering through the space and communicating with people — I was approached by a very grown-up looking gentleman who invited me to discuss some signs and explained where I could steal a nice letterform. He turned out to be Carl Crossgrove who made fonts for Adobe back in times when I was probably not born yet.


Type Thursday, photos by Anna Seslavinskaya


How long have you been doing research before starting to design the typeface?

Normally I try not to look at other stuff because I’m too afraid I couldn’t help borrowing things, unintentionally. When I run into something visually, it imprints itself in the back of my head and becomes a part of my visual field — so that later I won’t even realize that the idea wasn’t mine, that it was borrowed from somewhere else. This is my way of maintaining the hygiene of mind. This is why I had little graphic references to blackletter type. I believe I began looking at some real blackletter only when I started the redesign and Ilya sent me a couple of examples. This is when I decided to break this sacred vow of celibacy — and generally stopped worrying that I might be stealing something from someone.

Why do you think there is this persistent association between the blackletter and the Third Reich? Actually, Nazi Germany was trying to leave blackletter typefaces behind…

Exactly, because they were ‘Jewish’. But back in those days they also had this poster aesthetics, I’ve seen a lot of examples myself. And people are just not making any effort to figure it out — this is some sort of taboo for them. However, if there is a taboo, something hidden, there is always pain. And if there is pain, it turns out to be a real tool, because in the world of communications the pain provokes a response, it makes people react. It doesn’t mean that when I use a typeface with certain associations, I intend to provoke people: ‘Oh, so it seemed to you? Well, you’re right! This is it. It is the Third Reich’. It is rather about addressing your own issues, about people who are worrying that the typeface stems from there and that it does mean something. If you perceive something as a taboo in design, you’d better take a look into yourself — it is about you and not about design itself. It is about your perception of this period, about your communication field, about why exactly you think that something is not an option. It’s people who create myths, it’s not design. Design doesn’t imply any hidden meanings until we add our narrative to it, until we fill it with our connotations, link certain events to it in our minds which then start to mean something. That’s pretty much how I answered to a person asking me about the Third Reich at this nice event.

When I chose to use this sort of visual language for a food startup, it was not a taboo for me personally. After that, when you look at yourself from the perspective of other people, you have to justify your solution — what was your intention and why do you believe it means nothing at all. Initially, when I designed this typeface, it had nothing to do with blackletter or Nazis. It had something to do with Ghostemane and cloud rap music. As funny as it sounds, this is how I see it. The rest is someone’s spoiled attitude.

That’s interesting how you apply a reference which is not type or even design. What else do you look at for finding material for your work?

Usually it’s Pinterest where I go every day. But I draw inspiration for my graphic design in non-graphic works. I’ve already mentioned that I try not to look at graphic design projects, because it’s already a final result of their previous research. I have not seen their backstory, I don’t know where they were heading and what communication task it was supposed to solve. This is why it is better to look at sources, at where they were digging to find their inspiration. For example, it might be some absurd trash photos. Lately I have adopted a habit to post a dozen of certain images united by a certain minimum storytelling to my Instagram stories. This could be five kilos of carrot stuffed into the washing machine. Or old screenshots of someone’s bad outline maps. Those images have to be at the intersection of some things. And I have to find these things myself, see their meanings, make a story out of them, and then elaborate and use it in my work.

I started compiling it around New Year’s and called this craziness youth fury. But with these images, it is not the thing in the picture that matters, but it’s exactly this association you have in mind when you place your content in a certain order. Most importantly, it helps me go into this battlefield trance which is necessary for a designer. This state of mind where you become effective as a designer.

pin

The Young Fury moodboard in Anna’s Pinterest profile


And here’s one more thing about research. Recently I contacted this cool professional with 50 years of experience who once was a partner on Pentagram. His name is Kit Hinrichs, he is based in San Francisco. Now Kit has his own design studio. When I asked him about inspiration, he told me that for creating something new you have to look where nobody looks. That is, Pinterest is used by all designers in my generation. Meaning that for designing something new, you shouldn’t hang out with them and use the same sources as they do because everyone’s using them, you all dig in the same place and you will all come up with the same thing. This idea stuck in my head, now I’m processing it. I have done nothing yet, still processing.

In the Bay Area I’ve met many graphic designers who work for high tech companies, like the very same Pinterest or Airbnb, and they visit archives or private collections, looking for impressions from printed graphics. There is this great archive in San Francisco called Letterform Archive. There, you can touch unique design items from all over the world. My favourite object is the original Manifesto del Futurismo by Marinetti, in iron. I truly like this age of design and graphic art: Dadaism, Futurism, these twenty years.


A book of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti printed on metal sheets, a dear and costly Futurist artifact


Fantastic.

The archive also possesses a huge collection of flourish calligraphy, wonderful albums. Then there are several works by Hermann Zapf. Plus, much of the archive of Emigre, who worked in Berkley 20-30 years ago. They created a great number of typefaces that now are a part of Adobe packages. For example, the large part of this archive are those angry letters from people on Mason typeface, which was created based on weird handwritings of Charles Manson. Guys made a very good typeface out of it and initially called it Manson. Later they began getting letters from design studios refusing to receive their mail outs and typefaces: like, how dare you glorify the image and the name of the killer? That is why the typeface was renamed Mason. Another exciting object in the archive is an old marketing plan by Coca Cola company. It is an album-format material, the big folio in А0 format. And it is an excellent work, visually. You can also find KFC and NASA brand books there — not recent, the old ones.




Posters by Wes Wilson


Tobacco advertising and packaging. Netherlands, early 20th Century


misc Anna’s other favourite images from Letterform Archive


Why do I say all that? This archive is a unique place where you can come to and look at such things. You simply get access to an enormous database which they categorize themselves and help you with your research. You might not know what you need, but still have a rough understanding of your area of research — and they will find it for you. You get something, sitting and looking through it, take all the time you need. And it’s not Pinterest. This is what offers you a unique experience which you possibly can reprocess and rethink, graphically. A huge number of guys doing design and rebranding in San Francisco work with original content. Surprisingly, having the offices of all these companies right in front of them, they don’t get impacted by all this digital stuff the way we think they do.

You also exist next to the source of all things new. Do you have any ideas where graphic design and typography are now going to?

I believe that New York and Los Angeles are better than the Bay Area for someone who’s interested in growing in terms of graphic design, since the Bay Area is too small. San Francisco, namely, has only 800,000 residents. Here it is more about applied design development, as it is a tool to serve digital companies. Local firms require professionals doing UX and product design. Graphic design is not that popular among startups. And this affects the city environment a lot. My friends from LA say that people here in San Francisco are boring, that they all wear worn sweatpants and T-shorts, that there is no beauty in here. It’s just that the system of values is different: they look rather at the achievements than at the visual image. While LA is a city of kitsch, visual effects. And in San Francisco sometimes you can’t tell who is standing in front of you — could be the CEO of a company, or designer, or a real homeless person. So, it might not be the best city to judge the trends in graphic design.

And where is typography heading in the whole world, what do you think?

I regularly read digests on type.today. One of them had this idea that serifs were back to take over the world. Yes, I see around myself many young millennial projects opting for serif typefaces in their branding. But they never use them for typesetting large amounts of text. One might assume that the world is moving towards serifs and that they will see their renaissance. However, serif can be a good communication instrument for branding, in its particular logo part, for expressing a certain message. Serif doesn’t solve any task per se. This is not a sacred place where all brands should finally arrive at, saying that this is all about them. We never knew what it was, but now we’ve finally found ourselves. No. The moment you discover something new as a brand, all other brands also discover something new — and yet again you all are the same, your brand visibility starts to blur once again. So I don’t think that serifs define the future of type.

It is an absolute fact though, that today we constantly need some very bright, cool communication tools for a project — some little typeface to solve a particular custom task. Once again, if we refer to these Collins guys, they pay a great deal of attention to the typeface they use in a project. Their Senior Designer admits that she starts working on a project from developing a typeface for this project. At their earliest convenience, Collins creates their own typeface. It is a major company, one of key players who sets the trend for the most part of the Bay Area. What they do for MailChimp, what images they use, defines the look of at least five startups next to them. In the Bay Area, companies often borrow graphic design from each other. So, I believe, the most promising direction for development is customisation.

Also, today the Bay Area gives high priority to inclusion and social impact, including in graphic design. For instance, in San Francisco there is this great social project called Creativity Explored which helps people with mental disorders become professional artists. In ten years, they gathered a collection of artworks, promoting them and constantly collaborating with digital startups or such brands as CB2, Recchiuti Confections, Comme de Garçons. We got used to the graphics by illustrators who spent years working on the weirdness of their artistic style — and here we have artworks of people who really see the world this way. Simple, elegant, and socially important at the same time.

Social impact is about how your typeface and your graphic products cater for the needs of different social groups. So, it has to be something that serves the society. In your digest, there was this cool example of a typeface that can be read by both blind and sighted people. This is a great example of what is in demand today in the Bay Area — and the Bay Area always seeks to be ahead of everyone, literally.

What do you see more often in your everyday life in the Bay Area, serifs or sans?

Sans serifs. Those who run small startups, they look up to major startups. As long as large startup companies choose sans, they will also choose sans. As long as major companies do flat designs, these crazy illustration with disproportionate legs, they will create the exact same thing. It’s not only that they just aren’t able to come up with anything different by themselves. A style which at some point becomes trending, is important for this industry. It defines the industry and ensures visibility to the product niche. If one large task management service uses a certain style, its smaller competitors would do the same thing in the sake of their product recognizability — according to game theory, this would be a preferred strategy. It’s not stealing, it’s just effective.


Anna Seslavinskaya on Behance

Mentioned fonts