Nikita Kanarev: “Make it for the fun, the courage, the gist of it”

Nikita Kanarev designed Archaism, the big experimental font family, available at our Tomorrow storefront. We talked about the inspiring Altai, the not-so-inspiring Moscow, video game typography, and how type designers are isolated from the bigger world of graphic design.

May 21, 2020

Let us know a bit about you first.

I’m a type designer from the city of Barnaul.

You graduated from Ilya Ruderman’s course at the British Higher School of Art and Design, right?

Yes, in 2011. It was the second year of Ruderman’s studio there. My graduate project was Emoveo.

Have you studied anywhere else?

No, I haven’t.

Why did you decide to design typefaces?

There was only one university in my city that taught design, the Altai State Technical University. I tried to enroll into their first ever graphic design course.. To get into that, you had to complete some preliminary courses on composition and academic drawing. At one of the composition lessons, there was a task to create a symbol based on an animal. It was to be done by hand, on a 50×50 cm canvas, with a pencil and gouache paints. I drew a duck and wrote “Duck” in the corner. The teacher said: “Oh, typefaces are hard for you, it’s all dubious, you should not mess with fonts, anyway.” I ended up flunking the academic drawing exam and didn’t get into the university, but ever since, I was drawn to the forbidden. I worked as a graphic and layout designer and got a job at the best design studio in Barnaul, run by Alexey Shelepov. During that time, I designed a couple of typefaces, but these were so bad that there is no worth in showing both. Then I came to Moscow to learn type design from Ilya.

What happened after completing the course?

So, I worked in Moscow for some time and decided that I am not on speaking terms with this city; the landlord prevented me from renovating my rented apartment, it was nearly impossible to buy good meat, and these mundane issues kept piling up. I returned to Barnaul. The Altai Mountains are closer here, everything is homelike and familiar. Besides, my wife had just returned from Mongolia, where she worked as a teacher.

What do you do now?

I design new fonts and cyrillize existing ones. Also, a year ago, I trained to be a jewelry mounter. So, I got interested in the Avgvst jewelry house, which makes jewelry for girls who don’t wear jewelry. They have cool projects, and I wanted to understand how jewelry is made.

Let’s talk about Archaism. What were the first steps?

There was a craft bar going through an identity update. The thing about craft bars is that they change what’s on tap quite often. Beer is trendy in Barnaul. Most bars use chalkboards. Yet, I wanted to develop a signage system that would both highlight the identity of the bar and be handy for bartenders. I got the idea from notices in marshrutkas, like “Fare 25 rubles,” that are printed in such a way that the phrase occupies the maximum space of the sheet. Apparently, for some reason, they don’t know how to cut paper. So, they aim for the message to fill as big of an area of a single sheet as possible. Therefore, they take, for example, the Arial typeface and stretch the lettershapes manually, using Word, which looks horrible. I decided to do the opposite, to restore letters. I chose the facade lettermarks of the Islay distilleries as the base aesthetic.. Those were made by workers to ease the navigation for the arriving ships —there was a lot of factories on the island. The very first style, which I drew from scratch is the narrowest and most compressed one. I first stretched it to the right proportions, keeping the contrast, and then restored it to Regular. Having mixed narrow and wide contrasting styles, I put the font to use. I printed magnets, one for each letter. The bartenders had the impromptu lettercase, so they composed the names of beers. The letters in the names alternated: wide, narrow, narrow, wide, and the inscriptions became hoppy, creating the behind-the-looking-glass effect.

Archaism in the Elbrus bar, Barnaul. Photos via Elbrus profile on VK

When we first opened the bar, a software engineer came in and threw a natural tantrum, saying that he would not return because he could not read the names —or rather he could, but it was straining. I tried to explain that the whole idea was this, that one can only read those letters after a pint or two. At that moment, I was really glad to have provoked such strong emotion with a relatively simple type trick..

You scared the customers away?!

That particular one, yes. Then I presented the typeface at the Baikal Special Design Camp that Ilya (Ruderman — ed. note) also visited. He said: “The font is cool, but it needs some refining.” I refined it and got onto Tomorrow.

Archaism in the header video for The Way Out Foundation

Do you realize that you’ve created an extremely fashionable thing?

I’m not sure if it’s incredibly fashionable. While making the font, I saw several similar sans serifs with reverse contrast. Maybe I just caught on the trend, that’s all. I see the Nautilus Pompilius typeface more often, I drew it for a Barnaul design studio, and now it’s used on almost every leaflet, it’s like anti-Lobster. You go to a village some 500 km away from the city and still see it at every turn. But it’s so popular probably because it’s free and has been distributed by a more or less known business.

The free-licensed Nautilus Pompilius was commissioned and released by Punk You Brands agency (operating in Novosibirsk and Barnaul, Russia) in 2013

What do you feel when you see your typeface everywhere you look?

I feel terrible. I would invent the time machine, travel to the past, and slap my own hands. It’s used way too often. And it’s used not in the way it was supposed to.

Where do you look when you work? What inspires you, apart from the signs in marshrutkas?

Those park benches and other things that people create in the Altai Mountains. The very people who have nothing to do with design, they just create things which fill the needs. I am very inspired by them. And those things are functional but somehow sloppy and strange… People can achieve such beauty with minimal means.

All photos courtesy Nikita Kanarev

How do you translate these things into a font?

I designed my Srostky typeface based on the opening credits of Kalina Krasnaya (a 1974 Soviet movie written and directed by Vasiliy Shukshin, an Altai-born author, actor and film director — ed. note). Admiring the rural lifestyle is from the same period of my life. I might take on the idea of rural font sketches, maybe I will make a series of simple typefaces based on rural household items. There are a couple of townships that I like. I have to go there, walk around, become inspired, notice different features, and convert that into letters.


Opening credits of Kalina Krasnaya

Another idea is a font associated with beer. Like a beer, it must have a specific density, strength, and bitterness, if expressed in three parameters. Regular would be a low alcohol content, low density, and sharpness, but when we go to some extremes, with a beer that is super-bitter or super-strong, the font changes dramatically. Changes would alter many parameters, from the contrast to the letterforms.

You’ve launched a Telegram channel dedicated to this typeface, but it’s a little quiet there.

I have other projects now, some commisions. I do post there sometimes, but quite rarely, I don’t have a lot of time for it.

The beer typeface — as disclosed on Nikita’s personal website, the project is titled Headytype

Do you follow global trends to align your work with what’s happening in Russia and abroad to a certain extent?

If we talk about graphic design, I haven’t seen anything new in the last five years. Anything, like, explosive and cool. It seems to me, and this applies not only to Russia but also to studios around the world that I follow online, the current situation looks like the past generation was chewing on a piece of beef — then, at some point, they spat it out, then our generation came and was like, “Wow, meat!” and started chewing on the same piece. We haven’t invented anything new and unique, we rummage in the old.

Many things of which people dreamt back in the eighties are now being produced…

Yet we are too slow to produce those ideas.

Designers, who worked in the eighties, have primarily defined the aesthetics of today. What we have now was designed back then.

Yes, if we look at the Tesla pickup, we see that a design stemming from that aesthetics. Almost half a century later, we only start digging their pile of ideas.

Do you dig too or do you strive to break something down, or hunt down a new idea?

I would love to create something new. This technology, which enables variable fonts, may offer something. But it has baby steps, Adobe products produce bugs every time you try to use this technology. The web is not bursting with fresh outbreaks of variable font usage: it is only type designers who create specials to show how this thing works, but ordinary users just do not have the tools as of now. Even when these specials occur, the axes are mostly the usual the dull width, density, and contrast.

What would happen with the typography in the upcoming twenty years? Any chances we’d stop chewing on that old beef?

It is impossible to offer a forecast for such a long stretch. Contemporary fonts have varying aesthetics, people like different things. Even poorly done or unfinished projects put on Behance find their end-users. And I strongly believe, it is kind of unfair to judge fonts aesthetically. Diversity is enormous, so the aesthetics are in the background, and the concept is now at the forefront. I think that conceptual type owns the future, those very fonts with an interesting backstory and not just a “beautiful serif.” Unique, designer-made fonts which are not affected by fashionable trends would run the scene.

The video game industry is now in active development and also in need of quality-made fonts. Cinema used to be a critical leisure activity, but now we have games in which we make decisions for characters, in which we find new means of telling the story. Games are the modern cinema. Yet, designers in the industry, even if we talk about big studios, do not get themselves perplexed about picking the right font. It feels like they buy the first thing to pop on MyFonts; the “more or less” kind of attitude. For example, I have many questions regarding the typographic side of Doom Eternal, while its musical score is a top-notch production created by Mick Gordon. Cyberpunk 2077 is now in works, and it was talked about a lot in 2019. I am eager to see what would be the typography there, how they would chew over the eighties culture, and wrap it in contemporary stylistics.

Doom Eternal (in Russian)

Should type designers become the evangelists of the attentive and sophisticated typography in games?

There is an activist in the US called Anita Sarkeesian, she was the first to publicly analyze and criticize the depiction of women characters in games, and gamers righteously started to hate her. I am afraid that if type designers start being pushy about being a part of the industry, people would hate them. Gamers would see them as a small marginal group, which tries to set the rules for a huge game that was not set by this group. This kind of narrative is seen in many spheres and is not unique to the game industry only.

So how should we change things? And should we, at all?

All those things will eventually change. Not in a revolutionary fashion, but, rather, in an evolutionary way.

We here in journal long for education and enlightenment.

Whom do we enlighten then? I am sure that your target audience is a relatively small group of people mainly comprising type designers and those who do things with fonts. Yet, it does not include all the graphic and web designers. For example, designers I worked with specialized in illustration, so they don’t read They create interesting illustration-driven brand identities, but they never read reviews on

Well, you tell them about us.

I try to, but it is kind of like them telling me about the differences in the watercolor paper types. I do not think I’d be that much interested in it. There are plenty of graphic designers. How one should work with the new wave of UX/UI designers? I mean, I do not fully understand the things they do. Like, they have those apps with the GoogleFonts. How can we address them? And should we even?

That does not sound very optimistic.

Well, let’s keep in mind the lockdown, which me that skeptical. The spring will come, the birds will chirp, and all the things will get more positive.

So what are we to do?

We are to make fonts and enjoy ourselves making it. Make it for the fun, the courage, the gist of it.

Mentioned fonts