Danilo Kuchum: “Sans is safe”

Danilo Kuchum (@khankuchum) starred at our Instagram account this August. We chatted about the vibe of Russian type foundries, the ambiguity of design trends, and the importance of TikTok.

December 12, 2019

How should we address you? Danila or Danilo?

Actually, it is Danila, but it puzzled people back in Brazil where I lived for some time.

Only female names had an a at the ending. So I switched to “Danilo.”

How did you happen to get to Brazil?

My family comes from many places: Kazakhstan, Russia, etc, — and had quite a set of journeys. Parents met in Saint Petersburg, then moved to Ukraine, then to Brazil, then to Russia back again, and finally back to Brazil. I spent at about three years there while studying in school. Then it was seven years in Kazakhstan, and, finally, when I turned twenty which was two years ago, I landed in Moscow.

What a great mixture in terms of cultural background.

Yes, it definitely helps with developing a non-biased approach to things, for every country tends to address varying phenomena of human nature in its own particular manner.

You were claimed to be a promising fashion designer at 17 already.

Yes, so I moved to Alma-Ata, got friends with folks from graffiti culture and we, like, started tagging walls. And I had not a single clue, I just landed a deal with a model agency. I was only cast for two shoots, but this deal gave me a tangle of contacts in the fashion business, which I started untying. First, me and a friend of mine, we decided to do video reports from all those events: here we are, a couple of greenhorns with a mic and a camera, hanging around, singling out people from the crowd, storming the bar with free drinks. I got myself interested in good clothes, so I started cutting and putting designs for myself, and asked mom to help from time to time.

Did you do all the designs by yourself? Choosing cloth, cutting, setting up the sewing machine?

Yes. Then I got invited to cover the social life for Kazakhstan’s edition of Harper’s Bazaar. And there was this moment when local fashion week organizers said: “We need fresh blood, what do you think about us investing in your brand?” And it kind of just kicked off. The first collection is out, I am in magazines and stuff. The second one is out, and we got international coverage. Everything went fine and well, but as the financial crisis hit, my investor decided to step out, because fashion is not that profitable: for several years in row you just make the ends meet (or even not), and it pays back later.

So, do you do anything in fashion now?

I have my subproject called Aksai—3. I make graphics, posters, and merch, too. I am also very involved in developing merch for various companies and consult others with launching their own brand. Yet I do hope to have a proper comeback at some point.

How did you land in graphic design?

It always neighbored with clothing. I kept on doing collages from various runways. Once a Chinese magazine Fashion Weekly approached me and invited me to contribute a series of collages on season trends. That was my first proper, paid graphic design gig.

So would it ring true if we say that you learned all those things on the street?

Yes, it would. YouTube tutorials were and are the thing for me. So I dropped school after 9th grade, got myself enrolled in college. Dropped this one, too, cause I had a day job which left me no time for studying. The only diploma I got comes from the evening school if we set aside the workshops at Strelka and the Type Design Workshop. (Read a short report on this year’s Type Design Workshop in the August Type Digest — Editor’s note.)

Would you tell us more about the Type Design Workshop?

I wanted to get there since last year, cause I realized I have that much font design in my projects. My perception of design is somewhat close to Margiela’s approach to clothing: I love to rip things apart and reconstruct them from scratch. Yet I do believe that deconstructivism has to stem from the deeper understanding of the thing you deconstruct. As I had no idea how typefaces work, I shied away from undoing them. While attending Strelka workshop I happened to meet Nikita Sapozhkov from Type Design Workshop, I had a look at his projects and realized that if I want to evolve, I got to get some basic type design skills.

So I enrolled when they put out this year’s call for applications, but I had not a single idea on what to expect. These might have been some tedious courses overpacked with theory and no practice at all, but at the same time, it may have been otherwise when you are like said at the first meeting: “You draw now,” — as if you got a fine designer’s background. So what happened is they got a pretty balanced course, but it was wearing me out: two weeks of barely any sleep at all, nerves all shot, and you keep on googling, writing, drawing, listening, sketching stuff. You filter enormous amounts of information, and that is exhausting but fulfilling at the same time — you get all happy that you got all that knowledge. A day after graduation, methinks, I would have been unable to explain why my typeface looked like this, how I came up with it, how I drew it. But let the two weeks pass, and this new information starts to seep in your work.

kobra Technocobra, Danila’s project at Type Design Workshop

What is your primary occupation?

I work for BBDO Branding and do branding mostly. We have many big clients with long-term projects, and these clients keep on launching many sub-brands, so it is my job to develop new styles in accordance with their brand book. That is a rather serious and conservative task, in a sense, so I am not that related to it personally. Therefore I am now in transition, moving to Bootleg Agency which is also a part of BBDO Group running rather rad, sick and brave creative concepts, and ad campaigns. It seems to me that every creative piece of work or design has got to cause an emotional response. One should not just devise a fine-working graphic system; rather one has got to foresee the imprint your product leaves on the customers, be that anger, laughter, or a push causing one to churn new ideas. (The interview took place in September 2019. Today Danilo is an art director at Bootleg. — Editor’s note.)

How do you select typefaces in your everyday work? Is there an algorithm for it?

I am always having this understanding of purpose and effect caused by the typeface be it put in a certain position. Sometimes, I can single out a text-only typeface and use it for headings, or vice versa, — take the typeface which looks fine in large size, and downsize it in order to make this starking eye-catching contrast.

First and foremost, I meditate on the product’s imagery, and then I start remembering the type foundries which design typefaces with a similar vibe. There ain’t that many Cyrillic type foundries, so when you shuffle through their catalogs, you have a clear sense of emotions inspired by the typefaces. So I start picking out the similarities and associations, like, which type foundry I can relate to this product or brand. Am I looking for something commercial, or creative, or wild, or conceptual, or even soothing? Then I open the catalog and start hunting for new things; like, maybe there is an interesting project put out on Future Fonts. I do that to be sure that I am not missing out on anything.

Do you have favorite typefaces?

Sure! Just like all the other people I got this period when I thought Druk is the thing. And, god almighty, it really did fill all the whites. Just look at this fellow! He is a perfect match for whichever context, and he’s so emotionless. I mean, it always looks prim and proper and never plans to be particularly responsible for anything, it is just functional.

Then this “functional” slot was filled with Aeroport. As of now, I fell for Halvar. So many designs, so many emotions and impressions this typeface might bring out, given the context. It is important for me to have this chameleonic feeling of the typeface, so it would be able of becoming funnier or more aggressive, or it could become the main element of design, or it can shuffle back to the background. And I think that Halvar does exactly this.

You say every studio has got its own vibe. Can we tag and sort them, then?

Okay. Let’s start with Brownfox; they tend to keep things conscious, carefully weighed, Bauhausy a bit, and minimal. Because both Gayaneh and Slava (Gayaneh Bagdasaryan and Vyacheslav Kirilenko — Editor’s note.) like to sort out unnecessary information and keep things reticent. Their typefaces are always calm, never cocky, yet every single one of them has something special to remember.

Temporary State got this radical groove. I like their Panama typeface a lot. They are these underground pioneers, for they are never much about promotion, letting those who know to know. Brave customers are the ones whom you can offer these typefaces; this work is aimed at those who wish to broaden their horizons. What else we’ve got. Type.today ain’t no type foundry. CSTM Fonts is the one, but type.today is a store, right?

Yes, it is one. But it represents only the curated content. It is a collection of fonts handpicked by two people, therefore you can surely tag type.today.

Perhaps, “curated content” is the best tag fitting. There are those underground clothing stores where you dip in order to single out this particular rare item. And there are stores where you walk in, knowing there are plenty of nice and interesting things to see, — so you can walk around, make some eye-shopping and hand-picking. For me type.today is this second type of store. And it has its own bestsellers: one can say, Navigo for navigation, or Druk, which became and for the second year in a row remains this sacred thing for Russian designers.

This store is like an older brother for other type foundries, for it unites many self-made typefaces and quality-made Cyrillic adaptations, and I have tons of respect for this approach. These are great typefaces, all of these are in active use on the Russian design market. That is a great ratio of creativity and business. I suppose type.today is the most commercial entity on the Russian market if we put Paratype aside. But I am ready to put them there, for their legal proceedings kind of scare me a bit. One can not legally pursue me, though, but they just act aggressively on the market. I dislike such a way of positioning, therefore I tend not to cross paths with Paratype.

Where else do you go?

Contrast Foundry is the place. Their collection of fonts is not that big, but their vibe is like Masha Doreuli’s. They got a very positive, technical, creatively free collection. They are no pretenders or wannabes, neither they are neutral. See Chimera, which is a tad childishly naive, yet it fits contexts perfectly and radiates this smooth sunny vibe. We can look at their CoFo Sans which is put to use in Lamoda, playing cool this “corporate typeface” role and yet not diminishing in a background, unlike this more functional Graphik.

Any foundry else to list?

For example, there is Ilya Naumov. I like his Black[Foundry]. These are freshmen with seemingly Russian ancestry, but I tend to associate him with a European rather than Russian design. So he is like a Russian European for me.

That is the European studio with one Russian designer, who is Ilya.

Oh, there, see. I did not know. Then there is Radim Peško, but he is on his own, and there are not that many Cyrillicizeds typefaces under his belt. Yet, I adore his Fugue a lot. Hard to say what are the emotions I feel, but it is out there, and I am glad that it is out there.

Let’s talk about our collaboration on Instagram. You approached type.today yourself. What made you do this?

I spent some time working alongside Kirill Martyanov, who curated your Instagram in the previous year. And he shared stories with me, told about the emotions which overwhelm one doing it. So I had this itch: what is it like to do posts for 30 days straight, on a day-to-day basis?

So, how is it, making a picture every day?

It is great, actually. Now I keep on doing the same thing in my account, it is like sports: things are rough when you are just about to start, but then the routine kicks in, and you go on smoothly. But the post, in which I sincerely said that I got nothing on my mind today, had some decent coverage.

Firstly, I thought I may be able to make posts for a month ahead, so I would be all happy, just posting the readymade pictures and going about my things. I really tried to make it, but it turned out that you run out of ideas earlier than you fill the schedule for all those 30 days. Some of the drafts had to be dismissed, some were put to use in those days when I had no time to make some extra-sketching. Other posts I made the very day I posted them.

Tell us a bit more about the street experience with stickers, posters, and stencils.

It all started with stickers, I wanted to toy with Moscow-based stories. So I had Type.Today Club Moscow which was a reminiscence of Ping Pong Club Moscow, or stickers with typeface names which were an homage to the works of A.D.E.D.

Also, there are plenty of advertising stencils on my block, it gets buffed regularly, so it just keeps on building on top of itself, layer to later. And this thing turns to be the most mundane part of the cityscape, so you tend to neglect its visual impact. My idea was to make a stencil ad for type.today. I contacted a printing shop, they made the stencil, and I gathered some friends: together we started spraying surfaces all around Novokuznetskaya. Quite naturally, in half the cases stencil worked abnormally: the paint flooded the wall, or the letters were eschewed and unreadable. There were places where cops booed us out. I mean, it is the very center of the city, cops are on patrol, and we constantly had to jump to hideouts, or we’d get cuffed. That is something you forget when you do graphic design for a while: graffiti bombing is no putting mock-up on the wall in Photoshop. A friend of mine filmed the operation and made a short clip that carries on the vibe of that night.

You got addresses of where stencils are?

It is Novokuznetskaya mostly. Some people found some of the stencils later.

And how did the t-shirt idea spring to mind?

The next day I started receiving DMs from those who wanted t-shirts with that print. One girl even came down with a sweatshirt, and we used the same stencil. So, we discussed it with type.today and decided that we can run an experiment and put our collab in a physical form, i.e., clothing. We found a European company which does this sort of printed merch. Now it is available for pre-order, and we would print and produce items only per request, so there would be less waste.

To what extent did your expectations match the reaction of the audience?

Well, oftentimes they did not match at all. That was the thing with your Instagram: I decided to personalize it a bit because I believe that designer has got to sell not only the skills but the persona as well. Therefore, every post was somewhat connected to what I was going through at the moment. At a certain point, I even stopped thinking about what people would like and what would not. One should not be afraid of doing things wrong. There may be great posts with zero likes, and sometimes simple ones would cause a tsunami of feedback. I understood that people tend to react to the most sincere posts. That thing with me moving? It got coverage, people DMed me like “yes, that is right, we also moved places just like this.” That is the main thing I got from curating the Instagram feed — people tend to react to the way you establish a dialogue with them, your sincerity and integrity. It is not about beautiful posts or cool typefaces. Sincerity brings you likes, shares, and reposts.

OK, so you have a collection of typefaces in front of you. How did you approach it?

First and foremost, I grouped it into serifs, sans, and display typefaces. It took me a while to figure out where to put Karloff, because when it is Positive it is quite a serif, but the moment you invert the contrast it becomes a display typeface. So I started thinking about the topic of the post, and then tried to figure, which emotion in this context would be channeled through serif, or sans serif, or even a very radical typeface. As soon as I got this feeling of the emotion, I opened the folder with the type. I tried not to overuse the fonts. And I also tried to cool down on using easy-to-integrate typefaces like Druk, because Druk can fit anywhere. And if you fall for it, you risk getting stuck.

Any new typefaces which you now adore? Apart from Druk and Halvar?

I like monospaced Menoe. I liked Vesterbro even before, especially its poster начертания with beautiful symbols. I tried Navigo, and it is very lovely. Finally managed to get a hold on RIA Typeface, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. These are several fonts for one media, but yet these are fundamentally different, and each of these has its own function. That is a comfortable system that has all the designs for various brand needs. I fell for Display Compressed. It fits voluminous, accentuated stories the most, and it looked good in the post on weddings.

Were there typefaces which just were not a match?

Yes, I think that I did not quite figure out Gauge Letterpress. That said, Gauge Pro is the coolest family. So I used Gauge Letterpress in a picture with the seer’s ball “You Are Afraid Of Serifs,” which in itself is a bit ambiguous, non-transparent for me.

May it be so because Gauge Letterpress has less space for the designer’s work? Because the context is already set?

Maybe. It is understandable when you use this type of effect yourself and attach it to a certain typeface. But when you see that typeface was already created with a certain context in mind, it is very hard to shift contexts. When the context is preset, it is hard to work with the typeface.

Since we started discussing this work: are you afraid of serif?

No, I like serif type. Especially after Type Design Workshop, when I saw all this beauty in serifs, all this complexity and logic behind it. I think serif type, unlike many other sans fonts that are neutralized to the max, maintains a certain character, posture. One cannot neutralize a serif easily.

We have this feeling that some designers are just not ready to work with serif, for reasons yet not explicit. Do you agree on that, and what may be the reason?

They may be afraid of the white space. Thing is, sans is safe. You can zoom in, you can upsize it, and it would always look fresh, there would be no dusty library vibe to it. You can run something minimalistic or make this post, where 3S renders and blurred objects meet, and a sans font would be the monolith in the front of everything, calming and exact. Serifs yield a more nuanced approach, you are to feel whether the typeface fits the context of your work, what historical period does it reference and which emotions does it inspire. You are to get analytical when you work with serif type, you have to think about it, therefore, it is harder to integrate.

Obviously, you monitor the trends. Can you specify what makes contemporary typography fresh, actual and up-to-date?

It seems to me there is not a singular thing which would ring as fresh, fashionable or actual, in whichever creative industry, be that fashion, design, or typography. The access to information is universal, it is the first time when that many people can scan colossal layers of historical documents and new works, therefore there are plenty of small groups each of which follows something this group likes. There is a bunch of guys who think that Strelka and the works of Anna Kulachek are the thing. There is yet another pack who’d say that Rudnick and his followers, piling up all this 3D trash and tons of gradients, — is the thing. I tend to think that all things must shine, and the actually good graphic design is precisely the right usage of each of the aforementioned directions in a specific context. Design is not about fashion, it is a way of seeing how to use things in order to achieve goals that are to be achieved with the use of these things.



Let us imagine, that you are a visitor from the future. 100 years pass, and you hold an item features of which can be described, and you say: “Yes, it was manufactured in 2019”…

Frankly, I want to say that this item is plastic, but that is a bum of a joke. I think that the key feature is not the style, but the movement. Yesterday I looked through the month of me curating your Instagram, and I saw that almost every picture is the video. Everyone tries to animate even the simplest picture. If we talk about typography, this would be variable fonts.

OK, last question. What are the things you look at? Where do you draw inspiration?

TikTok. I admire internet-memes, and I spend ages watching memes, videos, pictures, puns, visual jokes, etc. It seems that half of my day is just being there, looking for laughs. Memes capture tendencies and ways people see the world (not only youngsters but people in general). I mean, we all know design resources. I think we roam the same webpages. But here, when we talk about the freedom of self-expression, these meme-producing guys spend a lot of time and effort to show us that one can try so many ways of approaching the very same task. Therefore, I spend that much time following TikTok, Reddit, and all these fancy things. It sounds like I am an eighth grader or something, but it is really cool. You go and watch TikTok!

Thank you for our meme-overloaded Instagram.

Well, thank you, guys.

Mentioned fonts