Arsen Mollakaev: “I feel like calming down, searching for something more subtle”

Our instagrammer this March, on graphic design, the Caucasus, graphic design for the Caucasus, graphic design in the Caucasus, and graphic design with no relation to the Caucasus whatsoever.

August 27, 2020

Arsen, can you please tell us something about yourself at first?

My name is Arsen, I am a graphic designer. Now I work at DADA Agency, before that — at BBDO Group, not in graphic design but in advertising, within BBDO for a short while at first, and at Bootleg after that (it is a separate agency within the BBDO Group). Later I spent a year freelancing, and recently started working with DADA.

Could you please expand on DADA?

It is a creative agency operating in different areas, such as creative ideas for advertisement, and branding and media as well. Currently it is better known as an advertising agency, but recently they launched a full-featured branding business line, and this is exactly where I work.

How did you come to design?

My dad is a designer and an artist. Now he is more of an artist, but earlier my father’s occupation was design, and I’ve been in this since I was a kid: I attended an art school, then enrolled to the Moscow State Pedagogical University’s Faculty of Art and Graphic Design, successfully dropped out of the school and started studying at Wordshop — but it was advertisement, not design, and that’s how I ended up at BBDO. As time went on, I realized that I was more into design after all — you might say that I got back to graphic design with those guys.

Have you been in some way impacted by your father being a designer, too?

I surely have. Although I wasn’t willing to admit it while I’d been studying. I wanted to be a student like everybody else. But in fact I was getting a lesson beforehand, at home, and my dad was my main teacher. I still show him everything I do. Our tastes may differ, as he has his own criteria when it comes to beauty and I have mine, but he will always be a key opinion leader for me. While we were still living in Dagestan, he painted pictures and I liked them. In Moscow he went to study at Britanka (British Higher School of Art and Design), to Leonid Feigin.

How did it happen that your father managed to get an education at BHSAD?

Yes, many people laugh and wonder how it happened. In Makhachkala he painted pictures, worked with a local theatre, designed shop signs. But when we moved, he went to study at Britanka and was the eldest student in his class. It was like, wow, because I suddenly started seeing how the works were being created. This is not something you see on TV, they don’t show you that at school — this was a whole new world. The funny thing is, my professor was Feigin, too, and Feigin didn’t learn about it until the end of my studies, but when he did he said, ‘Wow, it turns out you are the son of that Mollokaev’.

How long ago did you leave Makhachkala?

I was born in Dagestan. When I was five, our family moved to Moscow. Сurrently I am living in Moscow, but I still remain deeply connected to the Republic of Dagestan: I visit each summer and each winter, all my relatives are there. Basically, I didn’t get far away from Dagestan, though I grew up here <in Moscow>, went to school here, and I work here now.

How often do you have to deal with typography for work, to choose typefaces? How do you do that?

We’re considering a context that we need and choose typeface based on that. What matters the most for us in the first place is that the whole picture adds up to the common system, so that nothing is out of character сonceptually.

How do you keep yourself informed and posted, where do you go for looking at type and design?

There is a certain standard list of media that everyone reads: both with your digests and Telegram channels. But I spend most of my time on — it is some sort of Pinterest-like platform which works not exactly like Pinterest, where you have plenty of weird images interspersed with graphic design: on Arena the algorithm of your feed depends on your subscriptions, so it is always things that you’re looking for, finding and adding yourself.

Posters by Arsen Mollokaev

In your portfolio you’re mentioning working with Jugend modelling agency. Is it your project, or you did nothing but design for them?

I worked there in different roles. There was a moment where I was even in charge of model castings, and there was a time when I did just design. This is a project that we started with my close friends. At some point we decided it would be nice to launch an agency with fresh young faces. We work selectively, not en masse, — it is more of a creative process than a business.

Have you developed certain criteria of what faces can be called fashionable while you were working there?

The face has to be interesting, and at Jugend we are looking for such faces. We don’t look at what skin, or what eyebrows a person has, do they meet certain criteria or not. If the face is interesting, if we understand that it could tell a story, we work with it. For some reason people say that there is currently a trend for the unbeautiful models. I totally disagree with that, because an unusual, peculiar, distinctive face is a beautiful face! Yes, perhaps such models are less likely to be invited to photo shoots. There are these faces with a powerful personality, but this is exactly what’s interesting about them, and at some point such a face would totally work.

You’re working with both human faces and typography. Do those have something in common in terms of working with?

They both have character. I don’t have much experience in design, and I spend a great deal of my time on listening to my gut senses: like, whether it is OK or it is not. Which is why I look at the character. I feel that it works just great here, the character is exactly the same as anywhere else here, matching the overall system. Just like if you visit Judend’s website and look at the faces there, all of them seem to represent the same community, since we look at the character and we select according to character.

I also would like to ask you about how it happened that you have Dizengof99 branding in your portfolio?

When I was still working at Bootleg, we did some internal projects for the BBDO group. And at some point we were faced with a task to change BBDO’s canteen, as many of the team members were complaining about it. We invited Dizengof as a partner — many of us liked them, including me. They came to BBDO, and as it was a restricted-access canteen only for employees, we had to figure out some separate identity. All these visuals that you see in my portfolio, — those were made exactly for Dizengof within BBDO. Later I left BBDO, but we continued our collaboration for a while after that. And some things — posters, glasses, stencils — they also ended up in the main Dizengof restaurants.


This was a quite impressive month on our Instagram. How did you come up with all that?

Thank you very much for trusting me with your Instagram, and for letting me do what I did. I’ve been monitoring the statistics and saw how difficult this style was perceived: texts, plenty of small details — and I have also inserted some meanings there. In fact, type is about the meaning in the first place, which is, sadly, something that people now often tend to forget and are carried away by frills. I really enjoyed the month before my shift, the one with the plastic concept. This was really cool. I wanted to do more than just drawing some pictures, too. I actually prepared a dozen of images for future use on in advance, with lots of fun and humour, but on the day I had to post the first picture I realized that I’d had enough of joking and got tired of humour in design. In fact, lately I lost interest in drawing separate pictures. I stopped making posters at all — this just doesn’t work for me anymore. Many posters ended up ‘in a drawer’, stored on my computer. I am looking at them and thinking: what if I posted those? Well, great, good for you, you’ve made yet another poster. I feel like I’m lacking an integrated approach. I would like to create a certain system. That’s when I got an idea to devote the whole month to one single topic, do branding for the North Caucasus.

Why this topic?

I felt like I could tell something that people don’t know about. But I didn’t feel like presenting it within a usual framework of jokes and stereotypes; I rather wanted to tell about an alternate reality.

Does that mean that there were no jokes whatsoever in everything we’ve been seeing during this month?

No. There were jokes, there’s no getting around it. But here you also have to understand that even if something seems like a joke to you, there are still some real problems behind that. Even though my perspective is to a certain degree an outside perspective (and there’s certain things which I don’t agree with myself), it is a cross section of reality, it is a given. It is interesting how the’s Instagram audience reacted to certain posts and what direct messages they wrote to me. Like, after my post on 8 March, with a girl wearing a hijab and advocating for women’s rights, people started telling me that hijab is not women’s rights. But you can’t agree with that: if you come to the Southern regions and find female human rights activists, you’ll see that they’re wearing hijabs, — and that’s their right. That’s a given: women are willingly putting on hijabs, because it protects them. When they’re putting it on because they’re forced to, — that’s bad. This has to be a woman’s choice. In my family women don’t wear hijabs, and in my future family they most likely won’t wear hijabs either, as I have not been raised in such a religious environment. But it is definitely not up to the guys from comments to decide whether women in the Caucasus should wear hijabs or not.

What things on our Instagram that appeared to be a joke in fact aren’t jokes?

Well, the wrestling-themed series: on the one hand, this is a joke and on the other, people in Dagestan take wrestling very seriously. There are even ex-champions in politics, holding posts. And you can joke around about that, but it is clearly a real problem, with wrong people occupying key posts in the republic. Yet I feel great about wrestling, that’s the only sport I like to watch. — But there’s a time and there’s a place for everything. What else? A joke about the Caspian Caviar Lobby. Of course, there’s no such organisation, but I remember when I was a kid you could always buy a can of sturgeon caviar which in fact was prohibited to sell. ‘Welcome to Chechnya’. I didn’t actually put any meanings in there, but for some reason that post got lots of likes. Sounds resonant, and perhaps it was perceived a bit the wrong way. There was this one joke, just a joke, about the Guman. It was precisely when this mass hysteria started and all the toilet paper in stores was sold out. This was probably the only mere joke during this month.

How did you work on these images? Say, you have a large collection in front of you — what was your way of working? Did you start from the topic or from the typeface?

I came up with a subject at first, and then drew everything else based on that. I never do it differently. Usually I have an idea and then I look for the other things to match this idea. For instance, when I came up with the Guman thing, I felt like Karloff would be a great fit there, as it is more of a decorative typeface with a bright personality. And its slightly jovial character was very much on point there.

Were there any typefaces which you particularly enjoyed during this time?

I liked Halvar which I used for the brandbook layout. For some reason I didn’t notice it before our collaboration. I often visit, checking the typefaces. I actually like all the collections, and is currently the first place to go when you need a typeface. Although, for some reason, I always missed this typeface. Now it has revealed itself for me. It appears to be stemming from the 2000s — but in a good sense, — and it also carries some kind of a memory within. It is seemingly the most discreet and stealthy one, but I actually liked it the most, used it most of all, and made it the layout’s typeface.

Seems like you applied a lot of First Prize, too.

Yes, I found it very relevant within this muslim theme, as all the shop signs that you see walking through the city of Makhachkala are just like this, very similar style. I fell in love with this typeface and even used it a bunch of times. And each time the typeface revealed itself in a different way. The first posts where I applied it were exactly about Dagestan, but then I realized that it works perfectly even if stylised for a sign. And the second post, about Recycle Control — totally non-Dagestan topic, — but it fitted just well there, too. I liked it so much that I was ready to utilise it in a couple of more postings. But I knew that you can’t do everything with one typeface.

You have not used much serifs.

That’s right. It wasn’t good for everything. After all, the stylistic framework I set at the beginning didn’t allow for going somewhere beyond in such a short time. I tried many things and myself was unhappy with what I got. I’m sure it is totally possible to handle it, though. But at that time I realized that a serif wouldn’t work for this task. I often work with serifs, I have no fear of them.

Do you have any favourite serifs in our collection?

I like Bodoni. That’s the sort of classics you like.

Bodoni as a class, or our NWT Bodoni?

Traditional Bodoni is beautiful, but when you try typefaces in Cyrillic there is this problem that they seem a bit different. I appreciate in your Bodoni that it remains elegant in Cyrillic, quite exquisite, that’s pretty awesome. But I generally don’t have this thing where you have a certain favourite typeface. The typeface should always exist in a context. If it suits the context, then at this moment it is my favourite. But that I like, for example, Hevetica, — that never happens to me, as in certain things you even start hating ‘cause if it doesn’t fit. It always depends on the context.

You often visit Dagestan. Are you keeping an eye on what’s happening there in terms of design?

Over the last 10–20 years people began travelling more, abroad and to Moscow. And you come to the Republic and see the places opening which look very modern. I am pleased to see that people want to do something good and high-quality. Though, it’s still the place it used to be: like, for example, it is impossible to create a single design code there with the purpose of introducing a uniform system for signage, like they did in Moscow. It is a tough issue in Makhachkala: lots of shanty, self-help construction, no oversight whatsoever, and people don’t want anything to change — that strongly affects the landscape of the city.

But generally what is happening there in terms of design is a part of a larger movement towards islamisation, since Dagestan is our attempt to recreate Dubai: all this gold, and plenty of Arabic culture instead of local one. But they are still not that great at it, because we’re not in Dubai. We are Dagestani, and we should hold on to our roots. Speaking of which, there’s this interesting story that people living in the Dagestani flatlands had their writing system changed three times in three generations: at first, there was Arabic script, then they had Latin for a while, and after that — Cyrillic. And it so happened that a grandfather exists in one system, Arabic script, while his grandson exists within Cyrillic or Latin script. And because all this was being introduced artificially, everything which is happening now is an echo from our past.

Does it have an impact on a typographic landscape of the city, determining it in some ways?

It does define it, yes. Lots of type imitate Arabic ligatures: all these shisha bars with the names such as Abu-Dhabi, or Sheikh, all this cheap luxury that affects typefaces as well as anything else.

Posters by Arsen Mollokaev

Is this whole story somehow reflected on our Instagram? Besides the fact that your First Prize looks pretty arabic…

To some extent, yes. For example, the cover of The Prisoner of the Caucasus with an oriental star — and yet it doesn’t look like it comes from the Muslim world, it appears to be coming from the Western world, a certain mix. After all, there are examples of countries with a very secular form of islam and a significant European influence. I always enjoy looking at how different it can be out there, and I wanted to imagine an alternate reality of how it might have been different in Dagestan.

I would also like to talk with you about brutalism — I believe this is the right word for describing an overall feeling we get from your style.

It is hard to judge your own works — it’s always just a flow, and I simply can’t identify in this flow one single style in which I work. Though, I have certainly been into a certain tough thing for a while, all the time attempting to make some statement with the use of shape. My works from back then turned out to be very brutal — there are some tough elements, both conceptually and visually. Lately I’ve lost interest in this subject, I’d like to find something new — finer subjects, probably. Maybe even personal ones. Though, people keep telling me that it still comes out quite tough.

Posters by Arsen Mollokaev

Why are we currently witnessing a spike in preferring this style, do you have any idea?

I can’t speak for the others, but to me personally it so happened that I had this period when I was striving for something explicit and harsh: ‘Yeah, that is some statement!’ You are listening to brutal music, you prefer movies where everything’s bad, you draw blatantly harsh designs. But that time is gone, and now I feel like calming down, starting to figure myself out and searching for something more subtle. And, more generally, there is now a demand for ‘smart’ design which sometimes can be not clear and understandable right away. I wonder where all this is going.

What sort of brutal music do you listen to?

I like electronic music. The brutal rave music which makes you always keep moving. You can set the rhythm of work for several hours, just listening to this music. Speaking of which, this is exactly how it happened with I’ve been listening to the Lot Sound** **mix during the whole day, and it set this mood — eventually I had the whole month in this mood. Today I mostly listen to the artists like Oneohtrix Point Never: he is a musician of the Russian origin based in New York who writes electronic music, which is not about rhythm and beat, but rather about some story. This music is tough, you can’t listen to it all the time, yet it is interesting, saturated with different meanings and filling you with new thoughts.

Music matters. Now, even when you’re putting together your portfolio, you start to think whether you should insert certain sounds for setting the mood for the person who sees it. After all, if they will be listening to some other music — that’s it, your concept won’t work. Just like that story where they built a specific concert venue for performing a musiсal piece, because it was the only possible place where this piece would sound right. Right now we’re planning to apply this approach at DADA, testing new media: for example, a person enters the room and perceives a specific smell. I mean, this is important for creating an atmosphere. And that’s interesting to tell a story through such things.

Will design be more and more integrated in other spheres of sensations?

It certainly will. I believe it’ll definitely go to the next level, into another plane, — while it will still be graphic design, too. Like, I used to have this folder on Pinterest where I added examples of graphic design. But today, when I’m adding such stuff on my, I can call graphic design pretty much anything already: 3D, or a person with their face and personality, — after all, it is a logo, a tool. And that’s highly important not to forget about the content for which you create design. You can design a very cool layout, but if after that you put into it a photo that won’t tell a story to support it, this is a bad design. For example, in Jugend there’s no design whatsoever. What is design there? It is all about the photographs that we have there, which were made with exactly this camera, in this light exactly, and with exactly these people. That’s what plays the role of design there, and it was figured out in advance as a system.


The Graphic Design channel on Arsen’s

Thank you very much, for both our Instagram and this conversation. This was dreadfully interesting.

Thank you for trusting me. That was awesome.

Mentioned fonts