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Alexei Bystrov: We need more than new letters

Alexey Bystrov — design director and co-founder of Look at Media and Frank. Ilya Ruderman and Yury Ostromentsky (type.today, Custom Fonts) discussed with Alexey contemporary typography, modern applications and type design industry

Ilya Ruderman: Our first question, which we ask virtually everyone, is: What exactly is a “type today” for you? It’s a very general question, but that makes it all the more interesting to see how you answer it off the top of your head.

Alexei Bystrov: A contemporary typeface is very practical. Because, despite the flexibility of the technology available to us and the unruliness of animations, the form comes first and the function follows directly from this. And today this demands of a typeface that it be extremely functional.

IR: That is, it’s first and foremost a tool?

AB: Yes, a tool. It’s vital that a type is legible; that the people using it know its nature; that it is well capable of supporting the languages in which it is used. A tool, yes, that definition describes it accurately enough.
From the point of view of stylistics, everything is now changing very dynamically, and each year sees us repeating a certain decade of the twentieth century, mixing it a little with all the rest.

IR: That is very interesting. You mean to say that we are now living in the age of reboiling…

AB: …the reheating of the twentieth century, mainly. But it takes in some earlier admixtures too.

Yury Ostromentsky: What decade are we now reprocessing, according to your impressions?

AB: In my perception, we’re now passing through a reheating of a mixture of 1950s Switzerland with the primitivism and naive geometry of the 1920s. A new reading of this, that is… We don’t go for geometric grotesks now, but there is a certain kind of mixture, but now there’s a lot of angles and circles from Futura. And this is displayed in Graphik itself, too: almost everything that is currently prominent is more or less geometric, wouldn’t you say?

IR: A good answer. We’ll take it. Actually, it matches up with my impressions too.

AB: While everybody had been excited about Helvetica for the previous five to seven years, giving birth to a great number of alternatives to it, and the most popular Google search on type was for “Helvetica alternatives”, next there came alternatives to Gotham, and now it’s all going in a more geometric direction. However, there is inertia, of course; there’s still a lot coming from Proxima Nova.

IR: Now we’re getting into specifics, which is great as this was going to be my next question: Could you name those fonts which you feel possess the maximum concentration of “todayness”, pertinent to 2015-2016?

AB: Unfortunately, my memory fails me as to the names. From what I do remember, Graphik has meant a lot for me in the last year and a half, as it happens, and it really does have a “today” feel for me. But its appearance in my own life was very much due to the San Francisco font, which is definitely contemporary. It’s super practical, and highly flexible: it was made for clocks, is excellent for displays, and super textually, and those guys gave it a toolkit for any eventuality, even a table for letter depth tracking. A Swiss army knife of a typeface. My graphic editor has a plugin, in which I simply select a font size by clicking a button and it sets the recommended tracking automatically. I have a very weak academic base and have always acted primarily by intuition – which isn’t always the fastest way. And here it’s advising me, which I really appreciate, even if I do occasionally do it all my own way regardless. Grilli Type types are now in the limelight, and the Colophon studio is becoming increasingly popular. But some more interesting things are cropping up too, such as New Zealand’s Klim Type Foundry with its cowboyish Founders Grotesk and twangy Tiempos.

YO: It’s quite a hard question, and one which I myself for example would not answer, but here goes: Which twentieth century decade will we be observing and rehashing tomorrow?

IR: Do you have any intimation of the coming tendencies?

AB: No, I don’t know.

IR: Then do you know where you will turn to find the answer to this question, where you will go to seek it out?

AB: I have a hunch as to what’s coming next. I think typography in general will become less contrasting by font size, i.e. it won’t be very big or very small, but very middle-sized. Because we’ve already done big and small, I think. And we are now approaching humanistic grotesks, almost to some kind of Rotis, like in Frankfurt Airport. It’s hard to believe now. It’s like your parents’ flat: you saw something similar in childhood, but won’t leave it like that yourself. And then – whoops, you barely even manage to see what’s going on and you’re just stuck in a conventional Bang&Olufsen. It seems to me that there’s about five years left – and then it will begin. Some kind of Dax, that’s what it’ll all be about. I can’t imagine myself using Dax now, but, in five to seven years, - and… I won’t be able to put it down!

IR: Can you imagine some kind of Dax made contemporary that will begin to make itself felt?

AB: It’s hard at the moment, but possible. But not right now.

IR: I’d like to jump back a bit now to the question of listing contemporary fonts, and ask you out of the blue about antiquas. You named grotesks first of all in your arsenal of “today” typefaces…

AB: Y. It’s about the absence of a base, of education again. I, simpleton that I am, have always been afraid of antiquas. I’m often asked to have a look and say how some kind of antiqua looks in a selection, because I’m scared of starting to typeset it myself. I like newspapers serifs, practical ones like Greta – its textual version, even the one not for display use. It’s super when antiqua reads well in a selection, and this is the main place where I, in principle, use it. I don’t remember the last time I put an antiqua in for printing work. Maybe I haven’t grown up yet. It’s like with Raphael or Rameau, we wait and see when we’re scared.

IR: Still?

AB: Yes, even now, twelve years of terror. But when I want to try a new antiqua, I go and see what others are using. And if I didn’t look, then I first of all, before @font-face existed, I put Georgia everywhere, and then a Garamond phase began, after which came a free PT Serif, and I started to do body for them. Then I found Merriweather for the New York version of Hopes&Fears, which was very similar to the Guardian font, but free and on Google Fonts. And now Greta is my new love.
In recent times, when I’ve needed some fresh antiqua for a text, I just go and open up the latest work of Sasha Gladkikh, to see if there’s anything new. Or I just write to him directly: “Sasha, I’m putting down some antiqua”.

IR: And what does he usually recommend?

AB: Nothing new, usually, if it’s in Cyrillic. Nothing at all. And well, they all push the same things as routine. But sometimes there’s a flash of inspiration, though you have to search thoroughly for this. It was like that for me recently; I really wanted to use Hoefler Text but they don’t have it in Cyrillic. And so I discovered Greta.

IR: Do you dream about certain fonts appearing in Cyrillic? And would this genuinely improve your situation?

AB: Absolutely, I’d like some kind of Lyon in Cyrillic, definitely. But what would also help here would be if somebody were to teach me how to choose between them. It would be great if big professional resources appeared on their use, like some kind of Fonts in Use, where you could see how the major players do this. I have a very strange and primitive request now: I need, as it were, an antiqua in which the X-height coincides with my grotesk, so that I could combine the two. That’s all.

IR: You mean where all the vertical metrics coincide?

AB: Yes. And it’s hard to go out and find what you need for such a requirement, because it’s very time-consuming and, probably, it’s not really what we should be looking at when selecting an antiqua anyway. This is where I need schooling on all this, or some short manual.

IR: Is this a stone in our vegetable patch or a call to action?

AB: A call to action. At some point all of us simple designers realise that beautiful letters, taken individually, are one thing, while it’s quite another thing altogether when the whole font is working for you – and is legible, with the style just as you need it to be and so on. And in the second case, you take a letter by itself and it’s not quite right or beautiful. In this case, the graphic designer doesn’t get it immediately, it’s hard to realise this, because we all start out from very hermetic things and only learn to build a system after a decade or so into our career. And so it was only very recently that I began to feel this. But for people to start learning all at once to think like this, you need to understand how to tell them about it.

IR: We’re talking about web-typography. It’s developing. Might you characterise these trends for us?

YO: Where is it all going?

IR: … or what is going on now?

AB: There are several things happening. On the one hand, CSS has been developing very strongly over the last ten years, permitting the use of many type tools and on the Internet too. We can already use ligatures and alternative headings. You have to always be aware of the limitations awaiting you; in one browser you might have a ligature, and in another one no, and so on. And you always need to find various shortcuts and hacks to be able to pull various things off, but that’s already the next level. Back in 2010 we were still struggling to display the fonts we wanted on the web, and it was really quite difficult. The situation has vastly improved, largely due to the way in which modern browsers renew automatically, without involving the user in the process. And you don’t even have to think about Internet Explorer 3.0 when you’re designing something. On the one hand, CSS is developing. On the other, people now have better displays. And, naturally, you can’t count on Retina being everywhere. But, even so, we can allow ourselves more leeway, as there’s already a decent amount of traffic even in the media that comes from mobile devices (most mobiles now have high definition displays), so the trend here is remarkable. From the point of view of technology, it’s all developing in leaps and bounds.

IR: And how does web-typographics stand from the point of view of stylistics?

AB: From the stylistic point of view there are two trends. On the one hand, an immense variety of tools has appeared, particularly fonts, and people have started to use around twenty typefaces on the one site. I myself admit that I’ve gone too far with this now and then. As soon as we reached WebINK with custom type [the possibility of using fonts other than the system ones – Ed.] in 2011, all the obstacles that could be toppled were toppled, and we used everything and simultaneously. Like Perestroika, but in typographics. Then it gradually slackened off. The other trend, diametrically opposed to the first, is material design, which is when companies draw up very detailed guidelines from a bunch of templates [such as from material.google.com — Ed.], and people deal first of all on the function rather than the style. And the style is the same everywhere, all from the same mould. And then your work as a designer consists of making an application functional or a website convenient…

IR: And design takes a secondary role?

AB: Not quite. Design is becoming functional, and doesn’t go to aesthetics straight away. When it comes to aesthetics, people often start engaging in dynamic design instead of statics. Animations are becoming more and more common. But this too will come to an end. It’s the same as happened when people discovered fonts. It seems to me that I haven’t really answered the question. That is, there’s a kind of Brownian motion underway, as in everything else. The entrance threshold is still very low. You can become a decent designer in literally a couple of years. There’s a great deal of information, very many templates and so on that people can get started with. Literally in school you can make some pretty good things. It’s understandable that we’re not, as a rule, talking about the building of complex systems. But that same hurdle before which we huffed and puffed for six years can now be jumped over in just one and a half years.

IR: Is this having an interesting impact on the industry?

AB: It’s interesting, certainly.

IR: What if design, web design and the creation of applications became part of the school curriculum? This is already the case in many progressive schools. Apple is now beginning to teach programming to children, and they’ve announced the launch of several toys for several age groups. You can start teaching a child programming as early as three years of age!

AB: Yes, this is cool. It’s crazy, of course, but if there’s a parallel aesthetic training too, if it keeps up with all of this, then we’re saved. And if not, then I fear for the consequences, but we will soon see how it turns out. And we will find some way to use our strengths to influence the situation.

YO: What is web design lacking at the moment, and what will it be needing from us graphic artists and type producers in the near future?

AB: I have the feeling that you’ve already drawn so much of everything, but we just don’t know about it. We’re all lacking in erudition; we don’t orientate ourselves with regard to what you’ve already come up with. That is, we need to not just know how to distinguish a grotesk from an antiqua, but also to get our heads around how this market is set up, and how to choose for our projects what really suits them. At the moment, as I see it, when people decide what they want to use in their next project, they first look to something they’ve already used before, or something their friends or those around them are using. Or else they try to make some kind of sensible, deliberate choice. But in the majority of cases, they waste a great deal of time and end up coming back to the first two options.

IR: Logically. On the other hand, you spoke of the need for such wise tools as San Francisco, where the tool becomes more intelligent than you and recommends the right tuning all by itself.

AB: San Francisco, actually tunes by itself, too. That is, in the graphic editor, if you want to see what it will actually look like, you turn on this thing that drives the process on, and when the application is being developed, it tunes the tracking itself, and you don’t even control this. Meaning that everything is possible, whatever you like. You can stop it from doing this, but in default mode it…

IR: Yes, there was a presentation about San Francisco, and the greater part of the industry was in shock, Apple once again having pushed ahead and thought up something that had never existed before.

AB: Cool guys, yes. It seems to me that loads of people found out that a colon can stand both on the baseline or above it, and that one is needed in some cases, and the other in others, precisely at that WWDC presentation.

Antonio Cavedoni presents San Francisco typeface at WWDC15

IR: It really is brilliant, because I myself expect the reverse effect from their activities – that the developers (and they do talk with them, with the application producers, and support them) will really start working on what I’ve been hoping they would. This could have a good influence on our type industry too.

AB: Anyway, to answer your question… I think that they need more than new letters from you – it would be nice if you helped us with the old ones.

YO: But why is it that you look to us in particular for this? In general, education is the work of teachers. Education in the field of graphic design is carried out either by arts scholars or those who actually work as graphic designers. I understand why you look to us; it’s like, you’re the ones who make it, you tell us about it, but this is a pretty strange suggestion.

AB: It’s nothing too demanding. Let me clarify. There is a system that is changing so quickly that the manuals can’t be written fast enough. I’m not talking about Switzerland in the 50s, but about what’s happening right now. And there are several parts to this system. The first is the designers, the majority of whom do not have an education in the classical sense of the word. It’s what we’ve just been talking about; that, being a designer, you can already start making some money in two years’ time. Assume someone has done just that and at this point he doesn’t have the time to spend six years getting an education. He is already able to buy the fonts himself and won’t need to tell his clients “Buy these fonts.” And he also needs to make his own selection, but he doesn’t have the ability to do this. And then there is the second part, that is, the person who is offering a means of purchasing these fonts. So, to proceed, you’ll need someone (from one of these two or an independent party) to teach you how to make a choice. And the academy, which stands somewhere on the side lines and doesn’t have any connection to this at all, it won’t just come up by itself and help you, and nobody is even asking it for help, the academy is in some other sphere altogether. All of these people have practical tasks. “I’m doing the banking. I need someone right now who will tell me that if I want to make a number table, I need to know about tabulated figures. And I also need someone to tell me which dollar sign will be more readable in small typography and who will help me to select all of this. My client will pay for it or I will be paying myself, but I need someone to help me.” And it’s hard to expect any help from the schools with this.

YO: So the short answer sounds like this: “Dear type-designers, please make a good presentation of your work.”

AB: Yes, that’s probably it. This is a good conclusion.

IR: So you are saying there can’t be enough education? There will always be tasks the designer will face in one way or another, where there is something new he never had to deal with in the past for some reason. And so it would be great for him, if he had an easy way to find answers? I get it now. AB: Yes. You have already started collaborations with designers, where they are making all sorts of pictures for you. You don’t have much of it yet and it’s all kind of … wild in a good sense, but not about practice … It’s just that I’m picturing Merdan’s Spheres [referring to Merdan Agayev’s work for type.today. – Ed.] in my mind right now, but it’s like on typography.com; there is a section that has this huge panel with lots of pictures. And these pictures can really be helpful. I’m not using it to look things up anymore, but when I’d just started working with letters I used to look at these pictures and they helped me understand what I needed.

Screen Shot 2016-10-24 at 18.35.42 Discover typography — mini-site by Hoefler & Co represents different ways to use their fonts

IR: They instantly explain the font and what it can do.

AB: In many ways, yes. Another area where you can probably find demand for fonts is in branding. People are still creating very many logos and most of them, thank God, are based on some kind of font. So you either have very small changes somewhere, or no changes at all. And people want it to be something sufficiently characteristic that they can later turn it into something practical. But this connection is normally also broken. People usually have highly differing demands for these two tasks, which somehow must be harmonised, and that’s where they require help. They’ve usually already developed their own ideas, but it’s hard for them to go further and they usually decide to do it the familiar way, because they don’t know how to search. With “they” I also mean myself in many cases.

YO: So you are saying that when you, our esteemed type-designers, are selling me one of your products, you will also recommend me a body it looks good with?

AB: Yes. For example, there is a reason why Produkt and Graphik are placed in the same folder on commercialtype.com. There is nothing there that says why they are in the same folder, but I look at it and I immediately understand: “I guess you can try to combine them. Why not?”


IR: Let’s talk a little about mobile design and applications, the typography on a mobile phone.

AB: I might be completely wrong, but I have the impression that compared to the web, the potential for font diversity is much lower when it comes to mobile design. This is due to the fact that almost every mobile platform offers a big toolbox of default solutions. Roughly speaking, Android and iOS both have their own visual systems that already include their respective fonts, and that’s usually sufficient for most tasks. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I don’t have to work with applications that are made for advertising purposes, where everything is quite polar. But when we’re talking about practical things, there’s very little in terms of custom typography. We can fantasise a little. The font providers could take some actions directed at the designers, which could help in creating more diversity, but I think that all of this lies in the realm of licensing. I mean, let’s assume there would be a system that could calculate the costs of a license or a subscription based on how many times your application has been installed. Like: “My application has been installed fifty times and I am using your font in it, so you get three cents multiplied by fifty.” Or: “My app was installed five million times and you basically found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Well, there is still some loophole here. Maybe if the entry requirements were low… Because everything Apple, Google, and everyone else are trying to do right now in regards to mobile app development is to lower the entry requirements so much that even a five year old kid could write an app. A five year old won’t buy a licence from you for 100 dollars, but for two cents, especially if it’s an in-app payment with their parents’ card, they would do it easily. If nothing like this is going to happen we’ll need to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be any custom fonts on mobile phones. But if someone brave and influential decides to make such a system, maybe without any guarantees, everything might change automatically.

Fontstand, introduction from Fontstand on Vimeo.

Fontstand — is a new approach in font distribution, which has all chances to change the industry and the market itself

IR: This would result in a lot of custom font usage and that would be awesome. I think we should call on all the big and influential players who could influence this to implement such a system, because it’s a very interesting idea. I think it’s a ready-to-go business proposal.

AB: A few years ago I even registered a domain for this. I can give it to you, if you need it.

IR: It would be cool to connect it with Fontstand.com, because this comes pretty close to their ideology of micropayments, where you pay based on how long you use their fonts. We could consider connecting it with type.today.

AB: It will probably require some additional mechanism, I’m thinking of some anti-piracy stuff. Meaning that fonts should not be given away in OTF format, but in some form of gibberish no one could possibly read without a key. We’ve had some time to think this over. I even had a document with technical ideas for this topic and developer friends who were ready to implement it virtually for free.

IR: Probably we should just realise it?

AB: I can set you all up with each other, I myself just haven’t had time for it in the last year or two.

IR: On the other hand, you have already fulfilled your function – you came up with it all. Now it only needs to be developed.

AB: There are some technical nuances. Apparently, there is a way to turn OTF files into… Well, to just distort them in a way, so that they become unusable. The only problem with it is that you have to validate each time whether an app has the right to use this font, which is a rather problematic thing to do without an Internet connection. So, basically, that means that all offline apps could be excluded. Of course, it’s 2016 and such apps are quite exotic, but still…

IR: Wait a minute. So, somebody is downloading an app from the Internet and that is the moment when we receive our additional cent. But what about a developer who is so ambitious that he expects his app to be downloaded by a million people? For example, he produces a hit like Pokemon GO, let’s say. What would he need such a scheme for, if he is obviously going to make hell of a lot of money?

AB: In my scheme it would be like this: as soon as you reach the costs of a normal app licence, you don’t need to pay anymore. Of course, this isn’t very interesting for you. We could make a normal app licence, multiply by two, and then all risks would be covered.

IR: Okay, we will think about this.

AB: I mean, it could be a progressive kind of thing that reaches …

IR: It has to have an upper limit.

AB: Yes. Our main objectives are to lower the entry requirements, not to lose money, and to broaden our market. We can surely think of something here.

IR: Yes. We don’t mean only to make money off the chance millionth customer who comes along with a million…

AB: This task can be solved differently.

IR: Yes, it’s just the upper limit.


IR: Is there anything you always wanted to ask a type-designer?

AB: I think I have a number of questions. Here’s the first: One of the things graphics designers are most afraid of while working with letters is accidentally breaking something, especially if we are talking about clumsy lettering. It’s so irritating if some unskilled person sends you something and says: “Look at this please, have I broken everything here?” And how likely would it be for a scenario like this to happen, where I might, for example, ask you: “Could you kindly dedicate two hours of your time and take a look at whether I have broken something? Or could you tell me what I should do with this letter ‘A’ in that lettering?” – when we’re talk about a simple grotesk?

IR: That’s a great question. Stuff like this happens frequently in my life. I get mail from my former students; these students write to me, who sometimes send font projects or logos and ask me to comment on them. And I have a very positive attitude in relation to that, because my personal position on this is simple: I would rather spend my time now and help someone to improve his work than see this bad work later on in the city or in my life and suffer seeing how everything about it is a little bit bad. There’s a good phrase: “Everything is a tiny little bit bad”. I have a very positive attitude to such requests and I respond to all of them. I have many witnesses for this. I learned this from the Dutch. No matter how famous they were (and my teachers were international gurus) all of them were open, contact friendly and you could easily approach them, hand them a paper and say: “Could you quickly comment on that, please?” You would never receive a negative response or hear something like “Listen, I’m busy” or “I’m bored and I don’t feel good right now.” On the contrary, they would say: “Oh, of course, give it to me, I’ll gladly do it.” And they could also give you such a lecture about your work that you’d leave the room as an enriched, new human being. I try to replicate that, so … Perhaps, if we publish it like this, I’ll receive a flood of requests like “Ilya, since you’re like that, come on, help us all out now!” but I’m not afraid of this. I think that this is very important, because I consider all type-related activities as a broadening of culture.

AB: And what about type as a by-the-hour service?

IR: As a service it’s also very frequent. I had a number of long-term collaborations on various projects with the art-directors of BDO and with Misha Gubergritz. His designers thought up something and drew up a logo. He had a feeling that something wasn’t right, and he gave it to me. I fixed everything that evening or during lectures and then I explained what I’d done. I showed him everything in three slides, more or less, like; that’s how it was, here are the problems, and that’s how I did it. For me, this is quick and usually very easy work, since everything about it is obvious: the points are misplaced, the distances between the letters are broken, some idea was drawn up crookedly and if you move it just a little, it would be drawn well. This is a cheap service; you won’t earn much money from doing this. And everyone is happy.

AB: I know that Miles Newlyn has something that costs 800 pounds a day.

IR: That’s not actually expensive.

AB: Yes. It’s alright. Especially when you drew the logo for Honda and everything else.

IR: I’m not prepared to shout about this directly, as I don’t want to be overwhelmed with such work, but everyone who’s not too shy to write has always got a positive answer.

AB: Beautiful. A second question: Would you recommend something new and classical from the antiquas?

IR: Kazimir Text.

AB: And?

IR: New antiquas with Cyrillic?

AB: Definitely new, but also things that have still not become dated…

IR: Guardian will be coming out soon, with everything: serif and sans serif.

AB: How soon?

IR: This year, I hope. The plan was to have it ready for summer, but I’m not certain. That is, I’ve done all my work on it, and passed it on for mastering.

AB: Will you be selling it yourselves?

IR: Ourselves, naturally. Guardian is a great font. Perhaps it’s not directly about today or now, as it is ten years old, after all. But it’s such a powerful system for the interrelations of typefaces – we can’t ignore it.

YO: Lava. William, which goes amazingly well with Graphik.

IR: But the Cyrillic isn’t officially on sale yet.

YO: Parmigiano.

IR: So, we’ve come up with a list for you: Parmigiano, Lava, William, Kazimir Text, and the forthcoming Guardian.