Stas Polyakov, an independent creative director, on how Gogol Center and Stratos found each other.
My most favourite brief, always freaks me out whenever I get it: you need to create a user-friendly site, but also with a strong personality. The trick is that in terms of strong personality all we have is a logo and our theatre playbill. The playbills didn’t have any integral graphic language, each show had its very own mood and style.
The initial effort was like this: why not start with addressing the logo, let’s say, taking lines and circles. The Gogol Center had already been engaged in an attempt like that — they had this more or less typical and classic theatre website, where the authors tried to play around with corners, Bauhaus-ish kind of way. Since this idea was used many years ago, we had no intention to repeat ourselves. The team quickly came up with two sketches of this kind, but it immediately became clear to each one of us that we would have to take a different path.
The Bauhaus-ish kind of way
And this was a long quest. I have interviewed several people who go to the theatre occasionally or frequently. Apparently, a large proportion of playgoers perceive theatre not as a continuous delivery genre, but rather as a collection of performances. People don’t choose a certain show, like ‘since I’m free tonight, I would go to a performance’. It is quite the opposite, actually, since they do a bit of research on what is on now, ‘which performances I might possible like, what would be worth spending my evening on?’ Judging by my small sample, very few people actually make their choice with the use of aggregators. Mostly, it is a certain number of theatres a person typically prefers going to — and so they go to these sites, launch a bunch of tabs and start to pick what she/he likes.
The problem is that those platforms tend to have a long-present, established site architecture — branchy tree structure, with a load of non-obvious sections and subsections. For the most part, it caters the needs of what the theatre itself considers important: to offer as much information on its concept and history as possible, to highlight essential and/or relevant names of actors and directors, and — as if it really was the most crucial thing! — news on the website. We argue that a substantial proportion of site visitors are unfamiliar with those details, which is why this information has to be provided in moderation and incrementally — you should start with the essential, gradually moving towards the lyrical part of what you are going to share. You need to provide more of what helps make a choice.
Then we bring in the central idea of the Gogol Center, which is freedom and avant-garde. Well, just picture yourself that we take the main Russian theatres and lay them out in matrix. There are some very serious, academic ones; there are theatres that used to be the so-called new school but now have already become somewhat casual, — and then there are these extremely eccentric, quirky theatres. Our Gogol Center is located somewhere near the latter. Avant-garde, but only slightly peculiar. Fresh and fancy, it is ranked among the top three who set the tone and the pace for everyone else. Why don’t just break down the traditional site architecture and rebuild it the way it should be in the modern world. Never short on what is key for the theatre — and at the same time for the benefit of visitors.
We wanted to determine the three most important things people need. First of all, you would want to check our showbill — it is what about 90 percent of users come to the site for. You want to find out what is on in the short run, figure out whether it might resonate with you personally, just how interesting it might appear to you, or simply whether you have already seen this performance or not. There are people who go virtually to one single theatre, and those normally want to know the date of their favourite play, or perhaps check if there are new productions to expect.
The second thing is everything that has to do with usability and convenience for the audience. Starting from the presentation of the theatre, then followed by some specific conveniences, such as phone charging stations, coffee spot, closing time, directions, return policy, and so on. Some sort of extensive guidance to help you solve a whole range of issues. For some reason, this info is often thinly spread across the whole site, and it takes a while to find what you need.
The third essential in question is about ‘we’, and it relates to both parties. While one is very concerned in terms of presenting the company in a most favorable light, the other consists of people who, after seeing a certain production, think something like ‘Oh, this one is a really great actor! Is the guy acting in some other plays? Who is he anyway? I would like to learn more about him’. And it happens that this person wouldn’t even remember the exact name — all they know is a certain stage persona, his dramatic character.
Menu on the site’s final version
While I was doing my research on all of this, I understood that there was an obvious pattern of interaction that was hardly covered by the majority of theatres — mobile experience. It turned out that quite a lot of people (as is the case with air tickets) still don’t make such kind of purchases from their mobile phones. The mobile share is already perceptible, but still not 100 percent. A playgoer can choose a ticket to the theatre using their phone, but then they still get on the computer and purchases the ticket from there — since it is an important process, a large thing to do. Plus, it is not really convenient to look through different pieces, compare them quickly, and see where exactly it is you want to go.
Another task is to develop the production’s page in a way it would be almost like a landing page. It has to be brief so that it would be possible to compare things quickly — and at the same time so fancy that you are, like, ‘wow, I have to see this!’
After that, we began playing my most favourite game, finding the balance.
Like I said, the ideas at the core of the Center are freedom and avant-garde. Kirill’s case aggravated our situation — since it was a drama for the whole theatre company, in the first place, and because it is hard to meet the expectations of a person whom you cannot contact directly. (Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most renowned theathre directors and the head of Gogol Center, had been accused of embezzlement and placed under house arrest in August 2017. He was freed in April 2019, but the case has not been closed. Read more about Kirill and his case in The Guardian’s recent feature. — Editor’s note) So, it took us hours to discuss what freedom was, and how we were supposed to convey this idea graphically. The team, it was Nika Gruzdeva, PR manager at the Gogol Center, and Valentin Andrienko, Creative Producer. We came up with three considerations.
The key concept was this: the Gogol Center is not a theatre in the conventional sense. It is a house representing the realm of freedom. ‘Freedom’ as in the opposite of unfreedom, meaning narrow-mindedness and linear-thinking, both in culture and daily lifestyle as well as in other things. This is not the story of immaturity or anarchy, — it is rather ‘really? We had no idea this was even an option’! The closest analogy to such house, as weird as it sounds, is Berghain. A space where they don’t teach but show you how it can be done. The same space that respects all the rules of your private space, with a respect for an individual, but which yet shows you what freedom is, how it works and how to make it work. Same thing here: each production is an illustration of a different way to think and to do.
Second thing is: it is a controlled process. You are watching a play and at some point you start to get the feeling that the actors are improvising: something falls down as if by accident, or a person on stage trips on something, misspeaks. An actor runs down to the audience, starts yelling, interacting with them. You are starting to feel that what you’re witnessing is an improvisation, an accident. Later you learn that it was all planned, every single detail, including each step and each fallen chair, exploded lamp or sudden flash of light — all this turns out to be coordinated, calibrated chaos…
And the last, third point: Kirill Semyonovich is not trying to be cozy as he tells a story. Now and then it feels like a slap in your face to sober you up and engage in a conscious dialogue inside your head. But it is never epatage provocation just for the sake of it. It’s bold, but it’s sharp.
It is not ‘let’s make it weird and funny’ but rather ‘let’s ditch outdated solutions, make it clear and add some tension.’ Let’s create our graphic framework as steel trusses on the stage where we could arrange any lighting we want, setting the overall tone. Hence we have this slight brutalism, engaging the whole screen space, tense composition, contrast typography.
Searching for the font
We immediately found a metaphor for our layout in the logo which has three expressive verticals: two Г letters, one Л. This lead us to three expressive columns. The site has to look huge, like a bald move, it should give you this feeling of looking at some sort of giant poster or playbill. That said, everything has to look contemporary and to be perceived as an interactive thing. Like, paper and print, coming to life in interaction. For that end, we needed a perfect display + UI typeface.
Verticals and columns
On top of this, each theatre has got his own website-clone. Those are the so-called ticket touts, resellers who offer you the very same tickets but on worse terms — or even you pay and get nothing. Which is why the typeface should also ensure creating a zone of confidence. A certain image to be recognized without even realizing it.
We began to look for a typeface as some personality which would help us convey all those feelings and messages. And this is when I got stuck for a month. We considered plenty of solutions, though in fact there were only two of them: either typesetting with something super classic — or to resort to something fresh, but also classic.
What did I need? A typeface, or two which can be combined, both on our website and on other media. Powerful display face that has its personality and rhymes with logo, and a text typeface. The personality can be shown either through the main type typeset, or through the headlines. Both options were okay with us.
At first, we considered Graphik. But to that moment it had already become a massive hit, used anywhere you go, — even for me, it was going to be my fourth Graphik project. I just couldn’t do that, it felt like a professional hazard. I wanted something less obvious, with decent Cyrillic, very elaborate, but not yet well-known and used by others in the field. Still, it had to have a very expressive personality.
A take on Graphik
The search started from The Temporary State. Then I looked at Gosha Sans, Editorial Grotesk. It became clear that I needed a geometric sans serif, because it’s what our logo imposes: round o — and it would be ideal to also have round a. Plus, I wanted it to be a bit weird. We tried Formular, but it was too technical. Then — Firs, Commons, Fellaz, Stolzl.
Discarded font options
But all of it was uncool. Not sharp. Each time we picked some peculiar typefaces with geometry, we fell either into something USSR, or factory, or a hipster story — which would be a reason to hate us to elder audience. We needed something normal, but weird. But normal.
For the hundredth time, I get back to type.today’s site and suddenly discover a typeface called Stratos, which was kind of released a while ago — at the moment, it was 6 months old. And that’s when I realized that it had a perfect letterform match with our logo, with extended Г, Г, Л, and absolutely geometric and round О. — And Stratos had those extended and geometric and round lowercase letters! We typeset ГОГОЛЬ — it was practically the same logo!
I need to mention that the Gogol Center team trusted us very much, saying, ‘Show us what you believe in, and what will blow the minds. Which is why we mostly checked our work with the theatre audience rather than with the client, asking what did they feel about it. And each time we tried to employ serif (well, maybe it was about how we did it, I’m not sure in fact), the audience felt that it was something ingratiating and temporary, or too academic, old and dusty.
The funny thing is, at first people didn’t respond to basic ‘legitimate’ typefaces, such as Helvetica or Graphik. ‘That is set in a regular font’. Later, when we began to bring in this acidness with Gosha, Stolzl, Fellaz and other stuff, they were like, ‘Great! That’s pretty cool’.
Then we showed them quiet typeset. After that — once again the acid ones. In the end, people started to ask us to normalize. I am talking about the audience, but the client, in fact, had the same response.
When they were shown Stratos, at first they thought it was from the line of regular typefaces — until they noticed it rhymed with logo, and it blew their minds: ‘I mean, what is that?! That looks like the logo’. They figured it out in two minutes, while using the prototype.
At a certain point when we didn’t find Stratos yet, I was so desperate to find the right thing that I was willing to commission a typeface — and use Helvetica until this typeface is finished. But the moment Stratos was put in layout, each of us realized that it was almost as it was created especially for the Gogol Center — an ideal and perfectly logical continuation of the identity.
The worst part was to learn, when everything was applied, that Stratos is Wheely’s company face. And we were like: ‘Jeez, it’s not fit for you! Just stop using it.’ It is rather weird to see the typeface in other products, — we always have this feeling that Stratos is a perfect match in our case, while with them it is more of a decoration, supplementary and flirting.
Why Stratos is so cool
It has rather dark Regular, almost like Medium. I can’t explain it, but it produces very cool texture — dark, technical, and at the same pretty weird. You start reading, and it reads like a normal sans, not even a geometrical one — simply neo-grotesque. The cool thing is that you are starting to get its trick only in the process.
At some point we noticed that Stratos worked equally well in different sizes. Changing size and picking the right contrast feels like adjusting the volume. So, we gave up on the idea of another typeface to pair it, minimized the amount of styles, and got rid off of needless colour. As simple as that: Medium + caps for display and interactive elements, while most information is set in Regular. In the entire layout, you can immediately see that it’s something special, because of its narrow uppercases, among
The final version: gogolcenter.com/en
Also, we had this notorious contrast problem, related to Swiss typography: everything works just great with short words, like in English — and we got the broken size contrast anytime we wanted to increase font size. All the time we’d been asking ourselves tricky questions like: ‘We have these two actresses with awfully long names. Shall we divide?’ But when we began using Stratos, we found out this: ‘Oh, we can make it even larger, since it’s narrower in the uppercase’.
For me personally, the greatest thing about Stratos is that I can adjust the typeface very precisely: I work with micromodules of 5 and 10 pixels, and Stratos fits the pixel grid perfectly, even the glyphs with ascenders and descenders are no problem.
This is wildly important even not for prototyping, but for the web development stage. Seems like for the first time in my life I am not criticized for choosing a typeface by my favourite developers from Prominado. Stratos is a great pleasure to work with, it is perfectly mastered.
There is this very Russian story, people being afraid of looking too simple. Especially when it comes to brands. When you simplify things, make it clear and super easy, the audience gets very excited: ‘Man, this is exactly how it should be!’ While the brand owner is always worried that people wouldn’t understand it, that it would be too simple. ‘We have to grab their attention by adding some zest!’ I once received a great piece of advice from Igor Gurovich on this matter: when we were creating the website for Perm Museum, he explained that it was super important to work with content without touching it. For example, you have this shot from a movie, some picture: just imagine how many people worked on it — and you take it for your site, cropping it or putting some text on it. In many cases you can’t work like that, you have a serious restriction: anything service can’t be louder than the content itself. It is one of the reasons why we gave up on complex typefaces: we needed something interesting which would offer a certain personality and a message without yelling louder than the photo.
Images and type
Stratos has got it. This is a bit like Jil Sander or Dior. Being a regular person, you can’t see why it
It’s been a year since we launched it, we’ve been testing the first version and gathering statistics. If something doesn’t work, or you have an idea how to make it better, feel free to contact me via Telegram.
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Stratos: Oktava Creative Cluster