added to cart

Maxim Balabin: “Reading is the simplest way to put information in your head”

Art director at Bookmate, Maxim Balabin is an old friend and a loyal customer of type.today. We sat down to discuss the fate of the printed book in the digital age, Maxim’s book covers for Individuum, and why most books are so ridiculously ugly (at least, in Russia)

September 24, 2020

Maxim, it is you we should thank for Kazimir Text. Could you please share the story with us?

Bookmatе needed a text typeface of their own, and I did not like any of the already existing ones. In Cyrillic you won’t actually find many good-quality book typefaces in general, — and it just wasn’t possible to find one among them the one with an expressive, but not too harsh personality. That said, I do have a certain amount of old books, published at the turn of the 20th century. And there was a typeface I sometimes saw in those books which I liked a lot: on the one hand, it was well readable, — on the other, it wasn’t descending into some kind of the Schoolbook. I kept thinking why nobody is doing something like this anymore? There even was this one time when I started drawing those letters. But I’m not much of a type designer — I drew three letters and called it a day. Later, I ran into Kazimir and asked the guys whether it was possible to make a typeface with a similar personality, but aimed for using in books. Ilya and Yura told me that this was a nice idea, ‘let’s see’. At some point, off we went, and a couple of months later Kazimir Text was born.

Quite a success story — where you can just walk in, ask for it and they just do it.

Yes, this was a mystical coincidence: our ideas coincided, everyone got lucky.

Is it really a customary practice among ebook services, comissioning their own text typeface?

It is, yes. With all major market players: Kindle has its own typeface, Google does, too. Normally, they produce it with a proprietary license. Those who’re in business for more than ten years have two own typefaces just for themselves. The funniest part is, Kazimir Text happens to be the best of all those custom typefaces. Fits the phone just perfectly.

kindle Amazon Kindle: Bookerly typeface by Dalton Maag, exclusive to Amazon

google Google Play Books: Literata typeface by TypeTogether, open-sourced since 2018

And how the Bookmate’s set of typefaces came about?

People who like reading can be divided according to their typeface preferences into five or seven groups, and you have to find an option for each of them. Even though mostly everyone reads with a typeface you are offering. Particularly inquisitive readers, those who go to settings and work out that they can change the typeface, are not that many, only a few percent. But those are the most difficult and demanding. This is usually for them exactly that everything is being done.

Have you looked into these type preferences somehow?

I’ve been looking into it at one point, but there is nothing really statistically significant. It’s just that there are some people who prefer sans serifs. Bookmate offers two typefaces of this kind: one without any personality, and another with some sort of. They pick one of these options and read their books without serifs. Those who prefer serif typefaces, also get to choose their favourite — our serif selection is not very vast either. But in case you don’t offer for those few percent their personal typeface, they won’t feel comfortable. Some geek ebook software allows for user to upload a font file. ‘Cause there are people who can’t live without it. They just have to take their own font and upload it. And there’s nothing you can’t do about it.

As soon as Kazimir arrived, it was made the default typeface. And it works perfectly well in that role. We also have a default line spacing and a default margin width. They are not calculated the same way they are calculated on paper. There was never a Tschichold for smartphones — nobody told us what proportions a text field should have. Nobody ever even talked about this. In one way or another, empirically, you find a text field and offer several options to users, so that they could make it wider or narrower. But not too radically, within reading hygiene limits. Not to make their eyes bleed.

fonts

Five text font options in Bookmate: Times, Iowan, Kazimir Text, Avenir, San Francisco

promo

Kazimir is used on the website of Bookmate, and in its promotional materials

And there’s no feedback, like ‘change margins!’

People make some changes for themselves. There are very few uncompromising users who prefer reading a very small text with extremely narrow margins. Those feel uncomfortable, I suppose. We don’t allow any extreme metrics, because we have compassion for the others who can apply these settings by accident and ruin their eyesight.

Do you monitor the research on the mechanics of reading? Is reading experience somehow changing?

I do read something once in a couple of years but don’t find anything extremely useful there. I won’t name you anything specific that I would have definitely recommended for studying. There are a number of well-known scientific works. There have been several speculative researches on the harmfulness of electronic texts, or its retention, — all of them are rather pseudo-scientific. There is nothing to dig up. Everything’s in our head. Reading doesn’t change. Media makes its way from the papyrus scroll to the book, from the book to the screen, but the essence of the process has remained unaltered for hundreds years: reading is the simplest, the most compact way to put information into your head. You directly read off the information by yourself and visualize it. It is a direct transmission of the information to your brain: you have letters, they get to the brain through your eyes, your brain starts to render all these images, you imagine, and then everything happens in your head. What difference does it make how you read this text? Either you saw it on the scroll, on the screen, or you have the AR goggles with this text before your eyes.

Do you believe there is no substantial difference between reading on-screen and reading in print?

Reading on screen is more convenient than reading the book. There are certain extremely rare books that cannot be put into the phone, which are nice to read in print, — with pictures, or an exquisite, complex layout. But if it’s fiction, it doesn’t matter how you read — you might print it on toilet paper, or on the phone. If it’s just text, it makes no difference.

You worked with print, then a long time with on-screen, and now, in more than a year, you did many books. Is there a difference of approach to the paper and to the screen in terms of design?

Normally, you do less decoration on-screen, and more — in the book. That’s the only difference. But you can add a bit of character to screens, too. Of course, designers suffer from the fact that they can’t realize their creativity in ebooks, but I don’t feel sorry for them. The reader doesn’t miss that much. Typesetting a book is somewhat rudimentary, something that should have gone extinct already ten years ago. Packing a paper book into those weird pages, you do so much unnecessary work! This is superfluous labour which should be done by computers, not by people. It could have been automatized years ago, but nobody wants to do it. We are used to books, but it’s super inconvenient: to cut down a tree, to make paper out of it, to cut into sheets, to glue them together, plus you should layout everything in advance, because you’d run off those sheets very soon, and in between pages you have all kinds of visual effects — here you have a hanging line, there you have a river of white… In this sense, the phone is way more technological, you don’t have to do a lot of redundant activities for someone to read the book.

Bookmate has pages, too.

It does, but nobody cares about widow lines. They are so small — both pages and lines, — that nobody cares about those holes. When you lay out a narrow text, you have less to lay out, and, as a matter of fact, you have less design options whatsoever. Because we forgive many things to the narrow line, — the ones which will irritate you in a wider one. Besides, it used to look awful on screen before, while now it looks fine. You can choose beautiful typefaces, you can add a bit of typography. And as time goes by, it gets even better.

Hanging prepositions at the end of the line or dashes at the beginning of it, do they annoy you on screen?

Dashes don’t. One-letter hanging prepositions do annoy me, though. That said, I am aware that nobody cares about those in English texts, so I don’t care either. They can have an article falling off, and the word — on the other line already. But they don’t care. English books are much easier than Russian books in this respect. I believe it to be the Russian malady, Sonderweg — our own special path. How to flip the text on the book spine so that it would feel weird for everyone…

Why everyone? It makes it easier to read what books you have on your shelf. While according to the American tradition, you have to make it look good lying on your coffee table.

One tradition is human-centred, while another is library-centred, and I consider this one as far-fetched. It is nicer when a book is lying on the table, and you can read its title from the side. It is extremely important for me.

koreshki Image via Artemy Lebedev’s Mandership, Chapter 122, Book spines

But a home might have a large library…

There are no libraries anymore. The fate of books is uncertain, as nobody is willing to keep them anymore. You’ve bought a book, you’ve read it, and it is unclear what to do with it after.

How do you actually see the future of reading? Will we read? How and where?

There is still no better way to transmit and to perceive stories. When a person is reading, it launches in his head a process the quality of which is still way higher than any technologies we are trying to use, — others are more expensive and complicated. For creating a story in your head, you have to have a text, imaged somewhere. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s imaged on paper, on screen, or inside your goggles.

Let’s fly back in time from the future to the past. You’re a self-taught man — you came working to Afisha as a coder, I believe…

Yes, I had a technical background. I used to do databases and got hired to Afisha, pretending to be a programmer using a language I didn’t know how to code with, — I just really wanted to get a job there. At some point I started doing web design. Back then it was more about programming than it was about design. I enjoyed it, though. After a while, there was a job opening for a designer in the magazine. I came to Ira Voloshina, who was art director, and asked her: ‘Perhaps I could be in charge of the design for the magazine?’ She answered: ‘Let’s see how it works’. I smoothly began doing some things for the printed magazine. It turned out to be very easy. The design of a multi-page edition is the very same programming: you think of patterns, sequences, relations. It fitted my mindset — the mix of technical and artistic.

In Afisha by Balabin, many things were about senses.

I’m a super emotional dude. I like emotional things: pictures, stories, color. And the lack of education happened to be my huge advantage back then. I didn’t know how to do things. I read a lot and I watched a lot, but it wasn’t some stuff about design or culture. I saw certain cool things which I liked and just tried to do as great as they did. Later, when I started hiring people, I realized that artistic education could in fact represent a real problem. You have all this cultural deadweight lying on your shoulders. Anything you’d been taught, is pressing you against the table, and you’re afraid of doing something stupid. For me, it was easier to do silly things.

You were that person who taught us to use text and caption fonts in display texts.

No way! Look, I didn’t even know those words!

afisha

Maxim Balabin art directed Afisha magazine in 2003–2009

You used Tarbeev’s Gauge 15 years before its appearance on type.today. Please tell me a bit about what you recall.

Afisha Serif? (Internal name for then-Afisha-exclusive typeface, designed by Alexander Tarbeev — editor’s note) A great typeface with a personality was at my disposal. No one had it but me! I was very inspired and started applying it in any appropriate and inappropriate way: in text, in display text, anywhere. Actually, when you have only two typefaces for many years, it’s a great experience. Those limitations encourage you coming up with something of your own. I really loved it, and loved it consciously, because by that time I’d seen plenty of magazines that used varied typefaces for display texts. But all of the magazines I loved had a few typefaces, like one or two. It was fancy back then: you limit yourself when it comes to type, and seek other ways to express yourself.

Would you be able to work with Gauge now? Like, do a book, for example?

I guess I would. I actually don’t have this problem — I can do anything with any typeface. Give me the ugliest typeface ever, and I will do something with it. There is no such thing as a bad typeface — you just have to find an approach to it. Perhaps you can’t do branding with just any typeface, as the personality is a very powerful thing and you can’t replace it with something else. But if you do something media-linked — a book, a magazine, or a fanzine, — for any typeface you can find a trick that will justify it and make it work.

Even if you had to deal with it every day for many-many years?

Yes, you could do something even about the most overused typeface. In the 2000s, there were few typefaces, and you got so tired of looking at those that you just couldn’t do it anymore. Today, there are a lot of typefaces, so there are no more of these ‘victim’ typefaces, used by everyone.

Aren’t you tired of Kazimir Text either?

I’m not. And that’s a whole different story. When I do books for Individuum (Moscow-based publishing house, its majority stake belongs to Bookmate — editor’s note), I have three or four text typefaces, and I pick those according to the book’s personality. Since Kazimir Text is a rather relaxed typeface, it is either a direct narration with a neutral tone, or this sort of slight irony within a narration. If you do a book with a powerful author statement, it won’t fit in there. It’s too kind. For such cases, I applied Swiss Typefaces’ SangBleu, since it’s angrier. Kazimir Text is neutral, while that one is obstinate, though a very text one. However, you hardly see this character there, it is quite reasonable. The third option is fiction, or a book written by a neuroscientist. You understand that in this case a typeface shouldn’t have any distinct personality whatsoever. You take Lava, and it’s all right. Not very beautiful, but the good thing about it in text is that you won’t even think about it. It has nothing of its own. I like it.

You did a fantastic number of books for Individuum, in a short time.

It’s not rocket science, doing books. For me a book is an easy thing to produce, like a simple branding. As soon as you get the personality of the book, its character, what it is about, everything is starting to take shape: the book’s cover, its typeface…

Did you purchase many typefaces for the publisher?

I wouldn’t say that, not many. It was not possible to buy typefaces. Since we started the publishing house as an experiment, we had no money at all. We tried hard to save money in order to make books profitable. To make it business. In our book economics, 40$ for a font license is a huge amount of money. Therefore, for buying a typeface, you had to commit to apply it to another several books.

So, could you please tell me how to convince a project in the cost-cutting mode to buy four text options and another dozen of display ones from fancy studios?

Well, all this didn’t happen in one month. For example, I laid the book out by myself, we saved money on paying a layout designer, — but I bought two styles instead. And those were display styles which we probably wouldn’t use again. Mostly all typefaces were purchased with a view to utilising them for the next books as well.

And Individuum is two publishers, not one. There is the Popcorn Books imprint, who publish fiction books for teenagers. And you immediately understand that what you need is geometric sans serifs — ‘cause the young adult book won’t be young adult without a geometric sans serif. You won’t be able to do anything without a round O — there always has to be the round O. That’s just how this audience is, and such typefaces will easily hit the right note. You take Cera — a super usable sans, without any specific character, — and buy its various styles. Each of them is then used endlessly. Such expenses are insignificant, as they are divided by twenty books. With Individuum it’s more complicated, since they have different authors and absolutely different topics. If you purchase a typeface, you have to think whether it will be suitable for some of our next books. However, in a little over a year there were very few typefaces which I haven’t used more than once.

popcorn

Popcorn Books covers featuring Cera

I feel like asking you about type.today’s typefaces. For example, how did it happen that Menoe ended on the cover of Danya Turovsky’s book The Intrusion?

The story is simple. I’m a geek. Doing a book about computers, the Web and hackers wasn’t difficult for me. I pretty much immediately knew how it should look. It was hard to come up with a color, but I saw Danya in his military grey shirt, and designed the cover in this color. Then I picked pink as a complimentary color, to reduce anxiety. I also needed a terminal font. When you are making a book on hackers, the first-level association is a terminal typeface. I remembered Menoe. It is a very beautiful monowidth typeface, and it created a personality there. The second time it proved useful was for the Russian edition of Judith Duportail’s ‘L’Amour sous algorithme’ (Love Under Algorithm). A personal book, clearly, but it is wrapped around technology: a journal of a girl who starts wondering how Tinder works, and why it works this way. That’s why Menoe was introduced once again. It’s like an operational system or Siri — impartial, cold, beautiful, neutral. Not always appropriate — but if it suits you, consider yourself lucky.

tur

lub

It is a typewriter, for many.

Typewriter! It’s something that your old folks and dinosaurs have seen.

How did Transgender end up on the cover of Sergei Mokhov’s book about death?

mokhov

It is a new typeface that I liked very much when I saw it. And the book speaks about difficult things: modern approach to death — where the word modern matters more than the word death. It is a fresh perspective on very traditional things. When I was reflecting on modern and fresh, I thought about this typeface. I designed the book’s cover with dead flowers — a classic image of death, — but on the other hand, I needed freshness, and this typeface worked in contrast.

The book about the Beslan school siege, was it a hard experience for you?

This was a highly difficult thing to do. A lot of pictures, little time. I had to fully commit myself, plunge into this story. Until I realized, second by second, what was happening there, I haven’t been able to choose images. I had to go find the photographers, talk to them, pick the photographs. This was a hell of a task: it is a book about the things which are super hard — and at the same time you had to make people buy it. However, you shouldn’t make a drama out of the book, as there is enough drama inside the book. I had to locate and draw this line. On the cover, there is just this frame from a video footage: someone’s walking through the empty school and filming it. I needed a typeface which would look like video camera captions. There are images from the videos filmed inside the building, and they have typefaces from the cameras with the date (which were used by parents and relatives to film children’s school gatherings and performances). The super oblique style of Halvar immediately matched the character. And this super slope was relevant to what was happening there. Beslan is a very rapid, drastic story, fast and crumpled up.

beslan

Later, another Halvar’s style played its role in the opposite situation, on the cover of Surveillance Valley, by Yasha Levine.

Yes, Halvar is quite a family, with a number of very different personalities within. If a certain publishing house purchases the whole collection, I imagine it could design all its book covers applying only one type family.

net

And NWT Bodoni? You used it for the covers of ‘My European Family: The First 54,000 Years’ (Min europeiska familj : de senaste 54 000 åren) and ‘How Propaganda Works’ (by Tatiana Eidelmann).

I have a problem of holding myself — as I want to put it everywhere. Bodoni is a very cool typeface, I have no idea why it is so little used. It would have saved plenty of book covers. Loads of books would be happy to have it. And readers would be happy, too. I actually got involved in the whole story with book covers because I was curious how it was even possible to make such bad covers as most of the Russian-published books produce. This is a question that had always been torturing me while I was working on Bookmate. And then I was given a chance to look for an answer to it. It was my main challenge: I was willing to understand how a book is being made, on what stages and for what reasons people make such bad choices. We have many good designers. Now we definitely have enough typefaces. How does it happen that we do such bad covers?

fam

prop

Did you find your answer?

I did, but it’s uninteresting. At Western publishers, the book covers are made by art directors together with book designers. An art director picks a certain designer and begins to make a cover together with this person. On the one hand, we simply don’t have book designers, in Russia they’re absent as a class. This is a difficult profession: you have to know your way around typefaces, photography and illustration, and you also should have a brain that can come up with a good metaphor. If a person does have all those skills, he already won’t work as a book designer, since publishers don’t have that much money — while such professionals easily find jobs in advertisement. On the other hand, most large publishing houses have not an art director in charge of covers, but a warehouse manager, metaphorically speaking, — decisions are made by a person who is in charge of distribution. If you put it all together, you understand that nothing good can come out of it at the output. Besides, we have few independent publishers that could have shown an example of how it should be done. There are more of those arriving, but all of them remain on the territory of highbrow non-fiction where you can easily get by with the Suiss typography. In our understanding, all the fancy design is non-fiction. We barely have independent fiction publishers, while it’s more complicated — you have to make poppier, more emotional covers: you need to ensure both image and typeface, or lettering. Individuum and Popcorn Books often publish translated books. And I believe that it is highly important to keep the original cover, it is well-made and fits the audience, we buy and adapt it. In Russia, nobody acted this way systemically: in the best case scenario they just made it ugly, in the worst — designed their own cover. But today, after Popcorn Books has been printing books with their initial covers already for a year, we are seeing that publishers who have been watching us also started doing the same thing — purchasing and adapting the books’ covers. It’s just that they needed someone to test the process.

How difficult and expensive was it to adapt a book cover?

You had to buy it. Sometimes that’s expensive, but not always, clearly. More often than not that’s cheaper than paying a good designer to make our own. Typically, it was me who did adaptation. That’s free. The only problem was to find people who do lettering. It’s difficult: there are plenty of designers around you, and they won’t do such an unfashionable thing. With fiction books, the lettering is actually more commonly used than the type. I guess it’s 60 percent lettering, while typefaces account for 40 percent. If we are talking about young adult literature, that’s almost always lettering.

Covers adapted at Individuum

Why are large Russian publishing houses so heavily weighted towards hard cover?

Things like this among large publishers are explained by the fact that the very same storekeeper is afraid of changing anything. Individuum produces only paperback editions, since they are easier to carry and to read. We don’t make books that will last for centuries. However, it is a lightweight and rather robust book, and it won’t fall apart, it’s bound, not glued. The soft cover will enter the market, as did the adapted covers: as soon as major publishing actors will see that the books with yellow paper and soft cover sell, they will do the same, or even better. It’s just that they’re scared to make this decision themselves. That’s why they produce this silly case binding — nice method, but it’s not right for 90 percent of the books. Neither is the white paper. The Russian tradition is printing on the paper which makes your eyes bleed. For some reason, they are afraid of printing on the paper of the natural color tone — which is much more pleasant and healthy for the eyes. Using expensive paper, you act so that a person couldn’t buy this book, — or that it would cost him twice the price. I don’t see why we should do that. I like when people buy books. Many designers prefer producing a book as an object. I don’t feel like it. For me, it is more important that the book reaches people, ending up in someone’s hands, — than the fact that you’ve been able to find your fulfillment, to express yourself, and produce a beautiful object.

Mentioned fonts