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Larik Gordon: “Serif brings everything to a higher level”

Founder and Art Director of Airborne Ape Studio takes a shopping tour of type shops and explains what corporations and web designers have to do for a long and happy life of serifs

Jul 29, 2021


Larik, why do you like serifs so much?

Let’s just say: I like all the typefaces, but when it comes to serifs, I’m their advocate, because they have been unjustly neglected. Here’s the problem: if you believe that the bicycle is an inefficient form of transport, since the car has already been invented, people will stop using it before you’ll remember that it’s actually eco friendly, green, and quite comfortable. We are this close for people to forget how to properly use serifs.

But today we often hear that ‘serifs are back’ and even in service design there has been a certain renaissance. Don’t you agree with that?

Not entirely, not. Today I’ve looked through the websites of the ten top startups of 2021 and haven’t found any serifs there, even though there were no reasons not to utilise them. This renaissance comes like a flower out of pavement: suddenly, you see a serif typeface jumping out of nowhere. And that relates mainly to IT projects. I see that in services such as Whereby or Fibery. Which is interesting, because normally the IT guys are the most closed-minded. It’s just that in graphic design serifs never left, what is happening is simply recurrent fluctuation of its types: yesterday super bold was in trend, today it’s super round, tomorrow will see blackletter with little serifs, or this, or that. But serifs are actively trying to enter IT, and I really want that to happen.


Whereby website. Set in Roslindale Condensed


Why do you think that serifs could settle down in the new world of services?

I have given it a great deal of thought. And I believe that serif brings everything to a higher level. What is happening today is the democratisation of everything, and most of all people appreciate technological effectiveness and performance, which is why sans serifs have taken over everything, they seem simpler, more open, more inclusive. Yet, on the other side, there is nothing wrong with sometimes being inclusive-academic, trying to explain something from a scientific perspective, where serifs are better fit. Or use it to show that things can also be a bit more elegant. I am not sure that people would like to see serifs on their buttons — and this is something I am ready to agree with. They are probably not willing to read it, if it’s not a magazine or their bank account statement. But at least there is always room for display type, and serifs should definitely find their place in headlines, but now it is not there — the place is used by yet another semibold style of the very same font, or another, additional sans serif. Why is it so — I don’t get it.

Part of the problem is that people who come working in UX/UI development rarely have a design or arts educational background: it is technical if we’re lucky, or there is none at all if we’re not. They mastered Figma and immediately started working — they will still be hired by Google, Yandex, Mail.ru or some industrial giant. They do not know what typography is, all they know is how big will be a finger that will press the button. And those are slightly different tasks.

Do you believe that IT companies should invite typography professionals?

It will at least introduce some nice diversity. When you go to Behance, you see more artsy-fartsy dudes who are trying to make their product more pleasant — whether it’s ads, children books, or UI. But when you visit more substantive Dribble, things you see there are all the same: this monotonic song, Kingdom of crooked mirrors, reflecting the general idea of what product within the digital environment of a phone and iPad is — and it is slowly wallowing in the exact same solutions and concepts. I don’t see this idea moving anywhere for, like, the last four years. And where shall I go for new things? So, yes, I believe it would be the right decision to invite people who understand typography to offer at least something new.

There also has been a rather illustrative experience with Apple…

Yes, when they released their San Francisco and that serif New York at the same time. It is quite an interesting font — with nice moves, which includes Cyrillic ones, very well and nicely made, flat, stylish, but without too much ego and tricks. And it kind of ended up on the eternal subs bench: it is there, it is available, and it is known to about zero people. On the one hand, this case demonstrates that Apple sees a certain potential in serifs, — while on the other hand it shows that even they don’t understand how to deal with it. Although I have a feeling that New York serves as a Chekhov’s gun — it is hanging on the wall, proving that it can go off. Why shouldn’t it? After all, they change their iphones’ form factors once in three years — one day it has sharp edges, another day it’s rounded, then it’s sharp once again. At some point we might see Think Different set in a serif typeface, as it once was typeset in Garamond.


4 Apple advertising campaign 1997. Set in (Apple) Garamond


Do they use New York themselves?

I wasn’t able to find anything. It is allowed for use and available within Apple, as well as San Francisco: it is available within UI kit, and you can apply it as a part of brand block, if you are a software developer for MacOS and iOS. Meaning, it has the same potential. But right now no one sees it yet, because, frankly, nobody bothers themselves. In fact, less and less people bother themselves, judging from what they use.

Can you tell us more about some successful project using a serif font, and why does it work well there?

Well, I think, Fibery case is quite successful. I worked with them, but not as their typesetter. They actually have a very cool combination: they took the sans serif Graphik, while the rest, headlines in particular, are set in Libre Baskerville which is pretty free, but comes with no Russian version. It is slightly more round and nicer than all the Russian-speaking Baskervilles in various realisations. And it fits there like a glove, accompanies well, and doesn’t make the product look older, just brings in a certain intellectual vibe to it.


Fibery website. Set in Libre Baskerville


Libre Baskerville in use. Typozon website


Fibery exists in the competent market: the guys are making a task tracker with node penetration — that is a rather difficult system offering a possibility to get with one idea through various tasks, which distinguishes it from classic trackers such as Asana or Jira. And since their approach is a bit book approach — they base on the works of Douglas Engelbard dating as far back as the 1960s — this combination works well for them. One the one hand, they look nerd, on the other — verbalists, and all that said they don’t fall out of their environment and do not look worse than their direct competitors, such as Notion or Miro. Yet they are slightly different, they’re more about text than about images.


7

Interface by Douglas Engelbard


Do you agree that a text set in a serif typeface is easier to read?

It’s hard for me to give a definite answer: I read in sans serifs, too, but I prefer serifs. I almost gave up reading paper books, I read everything from my iPad, and there everything’s set in serif. So, the actual answer is yes.

The Russian version of which serif font do you feel the need of?

I need a hell lot of things in Russian. I make quite a lot of Cyrillic stuff, therefore many fonts that I have, such as the very same Libre Baskerville, are half-faced. That is a good, beautiful typeface, but I can’t use it to its full extent, because at some point I remind myself ‘Oh, not for this market, no’.

Sometimes I lack the entire clusters of fonts, for example gothic ones — not blackletter, but corresponding to Gothic typology: a certain glyphic (or incise) serif typeface with small serifs. These small serifs — normally triangular or just bevels — are responsible for the overall vibe of this thing. Even if you deduct serifs, these gothics won’t make a grotesque in its literal sense, because proportions still remain rather serif and because they have no contrast. Sometimes, contrast is not as articulated as it is the case with classic serifs, but it’s still there. And the difference of gothics from a regular serif font is that they are very readable, almost as sans serifs, — their serifs don’t prevent them from getting smaller and still be readable at small sizes.


41 The Eternals film titles


40 Ghosteen by Nick Cave, album cover


In Russia people don’t even think about the fact that there’s such a type class, because de-facto there isn’t. All there is is Copperplate Gothic, translated in 1994 or something like that as a kitchen-table effort by I don’t even know whom. I don’t remember any other bright examples of gothic fonts, while Copperplate is not the best example, to be honest.

There’s also not enough Russian glyphic, incise serif typefaces. There is Optima, also known as Opium which was once translated by Paratype, but it is not capable of covering this extensive hole in the market alone. What are you supposed to use for setting cosmetics, after all? Not to mention that that is a rather elegant class of fonts, and in London, for example, it is even applied in street navigation.


20

Street navigation in London. Set in Johnston


I need an experimental type as well. For instance, there is Cooper Black — a certain rounded font from the 1960s, seemingly, but it was actually designed in 1922 (I discovered this fact while doing research and was quite amazed). It was first remembered by The Beach Boys, and it made it to the top together with their Pet Sounds album, and then people started using it left and right — for instance, it was utilised to set the Easy Jet logo. A couple of years ago, on yet another wave of American affection towards Cooper, lots of similar typefaces appeared on MyFonts, but there is only one of those which is Russian-speaking, as far as I know, — Bogart. It’s a good thing that it arrived, but it would be great to also have Recoleta, and all the others, as there were a whole bunch of them designed during these two years. There would be the wave of design connected to those — we would meet nice products when going outside more often, or friendly services. Because it is a super friendly thing, and it can be used to build huge brandings.


42 43

Bogart



34 344

Recoleta


Just like seven years ago people discovered for themselves the existence of the very same sans serifs, but in their rounded version: ‘Can we really give a message set in Arial that would not sound like it was given by a lawyer, or a policeman? Yes, we can!’ The fonts imitating Cooper are the same thing, but even softer and rounder. While it’s not childish. A very good solution for any product market.


35 Cooper black, 1922


9 Pet Sounds album cover, 1966. Set in Cooper Black


8 Easy Jet identity. Set in Black


What do you think about the boom of fonts that Timur Zima has called ‘wicked serifs’?

All kinds of variations on when there are long swashes coming out of a serif typeface, sticking out in all directions? This is normal, that’s fashion. A couple of years ago we witnessed a boom of fonts that were seemingly written by a person who happened to have his face paralised during working in Illustrator, and all his moves can be only very weird, kind of intentionally naïve (here, ‘naïve’ is not a life sentence, but rather an outside perspective on the approach: as if I draw in a quad-ruled notebook and came up myself with the rules where I can’t swerve or turn aside anywhere, which is why all the letters will be little legible). That is also fine. Type in general is very much exposed to fashion trends. And it even can come through the whole fashion cycle while the rest of the market won’t notice what is going on. Unlike the clothes market that can use and absorb billions of dollars during each cycle, type designers are only able to make a couple of hundreds of posters and move forward to new achievements, while the rest of designers are striving to understand exactly what they did. Type is a quite marginal profession, in a good sense. That is a frontier of experiments with letters from which people later will get their inspiration. A whole lot of ideas are born here, that you’ll later suddenly see on some weird sneakers two or three years after they were conceived by some type designer. Fashion industry is a much more closed and cautious community, which is surprising.

I cannot help but ask you about the serifs presented on type.today platform. Which of those have you used? What did you like?

Obviously, I bought Kazimir ages ago and used it a lot the way it was supposed to be used — put in several projects and was awfully happy with the font. I like from afar, I don’t know yet why, Austin and Parmigiano. They are classified under the category of the cluster of super bold and super contrast serif typefaces which are in great demand. The same applies to Tesseract, I guess, but it is slightly lighter. Designers like when it is explicitly heavy, explicitly light, or explicitly in-between, while it is a bit lighter in various places, — which is why it might be harder to use, but is definitely a very nice and proper font for this display stuff that I have already mentioned earlier — for large headlines, for magazine layouts, for some large presentation.


13 Totti identity, design by Airborne Ape. Set in Kazimir


Are you familiar with Vesterbro?

Oh yes, it is very nice looking. Although with it you can feel, no offence, the same vibe that Doreuli’s Willam has: when it was released, everyone got excited — finally, there is a Caslon that can be fancily used. Yet, do you know, how old is William now? And here you have a new thing, decent and balanced. Though, really, it is very high priced — one of the most expensive fonts that I’ve seen.


22 Vesterbro in use. “How to live” book


Here, one must realise that, apart from obvious things — to stand out from the rest of fonts and achieve a certain effect, — many fonts are appreciated at the beginning only by knowing designers. Even a designer who simply sees his goal — to put a font of this particular class here, — can sometimes go to a bear, downplay, just to not have to agree on this with their client yet another time, not to shock by the fact that now we need to spend yet another several hundreds of dollars, taken out of nowhere. Each time I think of the quote of my favourite stand-up comedian Bill Hicks who, even if he died in the 1990s, said one of the best phrases of our time: ‘They are demons set loose on the Earth to lower the standards’. I remember how we used Aeroport by Gayaneh Bagdasaryan for one large project. It was very difficult to figure out the arguments why we need exactly this typeface and in terms of what it will be different from the very same Montserrat which can always be used and which I sincerely hate. That is like my worst enemy — the grotesque of grotesques, they say, but as it was designed to average, neutralise just everything. It took me a huge effort to explain that we had to spend a thousand dollars, but it was worth it. It had only two styles, but the client had an actively visited website and not very big budgets for these things. But what can you do? You still want your product to look beautiful? You do. And you definitely don’t want Montserrat once again to be all over it.

Take Trola. This typeface has been highly appreciated in competitions, but is still not very popular for some reason…

I think I know what this is about. That is a very well and neatly made font — I didn’t expect anything different from type.today. But what we have here is an issue of too decent production. Let me give you an example from a parallel industry, to make it a little more illustrative — yet not to offend anyone. Let’s say there are people who produce hard liquor. And there are different liquors popular in different markets: at some places it’s whisky, somewhere you have vodka, or cognac, or rhum. And you have guys who distill, let’s say, ouzo. There are definitely big admirers of ouzo, somewhere, but the thing is more or less particular, because it’s not by far everyone who’s used to consuming anise. And the same is happening to this font. You have a certain type of font within which you have all sorts of subtleties covered. But the type itself — this rectangular, extended, filling, very much standing serif — seems too lean, too flat, a little bit leaner than you would probably expect from a serif typeface today. Because the serif is either becoming a more display typeface, or it is becoming academic. Yet Trola doesn’t really belong either here or there. It is not very academical, wrong proportions, on the other hand it is not enough display to scream ‘I am your choice for headlines’, or ‘I am about expensive things’, or ‘I am here to cover state stuff’. Other than that — it’s pretty much all right.


15 Trola in use. The General Election Day 2015 Newspaper


Are serifs about state, government stuff?

Yes, serifs are associated with state things, government-related. Laws coming down from above are rather set in serif. Whenever the document is written in sans serif, it looks either as if you were force-fed with something, or as if it was all as figured out that you are given a stepwise guide on how to act. But once we’re talking about a law — that is most certainly a serif with an eagle on top of it.

Now could you please assess the serif in the RIA family whose destiny is very much similar to the one of Trola.

Here you have a simpler explanation, I think. Certain things disappear at some point and never come back, while sometimes they return years later. This happened to many typefaces. There was Officina, and then this trend left on a very long distance train. However, obviously, this doesn’t make Erik Spiekermann a bad designer, absolutely not. It’s just that at a certain point Officina was used to jumping on so much that it stopped being a launching pad. The very same happened to DIN. In 2012, it was all over Moscow.


23 RIA Text Serif in use. “In Memory of Memory” book


Naturally, everyone got tired of it, and DIN disappeared. The same thing, I hope, is eventually happening to Circe: it is already making our eyes bleed, just because it has exceeded the limit of consumption. The same level of boom was experienced by Formular, but I’m glad it was not overdriven to death. Meaning, all these fonts are well made, but we have questions as to how much they were used. RIA falls into the category of Charter and other Swifts, and Gusev in Kommersant applied those everywhere until everybody started crying with bloody tears. And, just like the time of Kommersant is over, the era of Charter and Swift is over as well.



Let’s also check the typefaces under our tomorrow tab…

I just adore tomorrow’s tab. I enjoy everything there. Look, there’s Lenora. I like Lenora. I am a big fan of Yura’s stuff, so I buy different Xprmntls from you with great regularity. They are not that easy to classify. Or, yet again, Base&Bloom — what is it? I would say that it’s sans that has grown legs. But it also has certain serif features, in some places. I would not deal with regular Apoc, while I would play with its Revelation style. By the way, the Transgender Grotesk that ended up with you — I purchased it from Sasha Cherepanov a while ago, through VKontakte, by convincing him to sell me a copy. I literally found him in a corner of the Internet, wrote to him directly and transferred 2,000 rubles through Kontach (informal term for VKontakte — translator’s note). That’s why I have some interim version of Transgender Grotesk bought not from you, but privately behind the garages, you can say.


32 Base&Bloom in use. “Radio Dolin”


Curbe drops out of the topic of our conversation as well, but I like such things: pseudo-Soviet style with continuing reflection on that matter. These are very beautiful exercises which are there to jump-start the script that we have, but that is not figured out and dies in agony on posters of small towns’ cinemas. Lately I visited the design weekend in Suzdal. And there, on the cinema poster, it was written in that good old classic blue and green and by brush: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’. The ideal script! Totally awesome. I literally passed out. Because, damn, now we’re talking — there’s a master who’s been sitting there since the 70s and creating things like that.

I like Epos, I love fonts like that. Recently I made this kind of thing myself, not as complicated, but of similar type, a thing you could have called a glyphic, or incise, typeface, but it has no narrowing in the middle of its lines. On the other hand, I spent a very long time trying to apply Brownfox’s Nolde which I also like. It belongs to the class of typefaces that you always want to put somewhere, but they rarely let you do so, because they have a certain gravitas and steal your design, dragging it away into their own funnel. I like Halunke as well, and I like it from afar, too. I don’t understand where it can be utilised, but I just like how it’s made. With tomorrow’s typefaces, you often, as they say, celebrate the master. You look and think: ‘That is a hell of an idea. I am very glad it exists. I probably won’t be able to use it, but I will try at least’.


33 Epos


25 Nolde in use. Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble at Kaliningrad Music Week, program


Whom would you approach first when you need a great new serif font?

If we’re talking about Cyrillic one, I only see two candidates. I would go not even to Letterhead, literally to my father, and I would go to you. As for Masha Doreuli, I don’t understand what kind of new things she produces, while William — naturally, — I already have it. I would go to Brownfox, perhaps, not for serifs, but rather for an interesting sans. All other guys are either worse in terms of their level, or they are experimentalists, and I won’t go looking for something serious there. But if I needed a slightly less serious serif typeface, I would go to Valera Golyzhenkov. Well, OK, there’s also Paratype. But here it is as if we always forget that there is an elephant in the room and we probably should go to Paratype for something, yet not for something new, trendy and relevant, I’m afraid, but for typographic achievements of the last several thousand years. Though, I tried — recently I have scanned Paratype for interesting stuff and what I’ve found was feeble imitation, at most. And then I thought ‘OK then, you do what you do’.


Typefaces by Yuri Gordon: Elsenskok and Fleursdumal


And what if it’s not Cyrillic serif that you need? What foundries and typefaces are your favourite?

I liked a font by Klim Type Foundry called Signifier. I don’t know yet how well it will fit within a design, though I believe that everything will be fine. It has a good contrast in proportions, but still is sharp in all possible places you can think of. Yet with all its sharpness, it doesn’t lose its powerful personality.


21 Signifier in use. Hasso Plattner Institute of Design yearbook


There was another font that also seemed great to me, Nocturne Serif. But when you make it a bit smaller, all its sharp parts become too thin, and it can’t be normally used, it works only at decent sizes. I fairly regularly buy Colophon’s Basis in small amounts from them, and that’s largely fine with me.


39 Smart Coffee identity, design by Airborne Ape. Set in Basis


They also have the Value Serif that I find cool — it has a very peculiar texture. Sharp Type offers the typeface named Simula from the class that is not at all presented here, and their Ogg is good, but it is the same niche that is more or less covered by your Apoc.


Simula in use. Сollaborative Change


31 Ogg in use. The Landscape the Tropics Never Had album cover


VJ Type is what I love and nobody else does. Those are French guys called Violaine and Jérémy who are just graphic designers, but they do have a type section that has practically turned into a separate store already, and, actually, there are more serifs than sans serifs presented, while normally it’s the other way around. Initially they were making designs for restaurants, museums, and theatres, and occasionally drew super detailed pencil pictures, completely wild ones. Then they gradually began to introduce their own typefaces which I have been loving for years now, and that I am ready to literally hoover up, even though they all are slightly weird and bizarre, and you can hardly just take and use those, unless you do the same wild French design. These guys in many respects were in advance of their time and anticipated current trends — for instance, they began to roll out of a normal serif to the one with certain strange circles. The typefaces Traviata, Love, and Voyage — none of those were released last year as you might think when you first see them, they are about four years old. The guys have just seen a lot of Behance and started playing with everything in their own way. And the resulting typefaces are rather distinctive and particular, because they are being made by the guys for themselves. I would really love to have something like that in Russian. Not necessarily exactly like this, but I wish that someone started creating design together with type, in one package. You come to your customer and say ‘Let’s figure this up for you’, — and you create something very special.



Is that why you’re advoсating serifs?

Yes, because we need to keep diversity alive. Serifs have a significant potential in lots of various kinds of uses, and we should never forget about that.

But what should we do to that end?

Graphic and product designers should try serifs. It seems to me that now they are simply not trying it and not thinking about it. While type designers, since their concern is to show specimens, they should make specimens which would interest those guys. Not only develop beautiful marginal stories, but also try to strike this very balance where an unexpected serif would look attractive in absolutely routine, casual things. I am certain that this balance exists and it is possible. And that is something that I actually could ask you, too, guys. For example, imagine on type.today’s Instagram what will happen if all popular services suddenly become serif-based — starting from Dropbox and Miro, who now manage to find nice options without serifs, and up to the very same Zoom that we all use right now and where one could change literally everything, because it is a nasty product in general, apart from the fact that it actually works.

Mentioned fonts