“A year ago, I mostly combined two typefaces in my work — Arial and Times New Roman”. Interview with Orka Collective

Kseniia Stavrova and Anton Abo of Orka Collective took charge of our Instagram this February. We talked to the design duo about type preferences and type phobias, and their experience of remote collaboration

May 29, 2019

Ilya Ruderman: We don’t know much about you, so I would like to start by asking you to tell a little bit about yourself.

Kseniia Stavrova: We have been working together for 10 years — started working remotely, and met in person only two years later. We began with collaborations, literally working together on the same thing, but later we realized that we would like it much better making different things on the same subject together. Later I’ve read in your interview that you worked the same way.

IR: How did you two meet?

KS: On Flickr. At that time it was much like the Instagram today: a photo sharing platform mostly, but with designers and illustrators also posting their things there. We have the same technique, the same stuff, the same mood and the same vibe. We got in touch there and decided to make a collab; that’s how it all started. I lived in Saint-Petersbourg at the time, and Anton lived in Kyiv. We shared our materials by post, it was all ‘analog’ between us. At first, it was more about images, drawings and pictures, but then we shifted to design, — though now still getting back to images, from time to time.

IR: When did the two of you first meet each other in person?

KS: We decided to arrange an expo in Kyiv, two years later.

Anton Abo: It was in 2010, when you came for the first time.

KS: Yeah. Then several times it was either me, coming to Kyiv, — or Anton, visiting Saint-Petersburg.

Works of Kseniia and Anton, circa 2008 года

IR: Anton, what is your thing, your area of expertise? What are you best at?

AA: That’s a tough one. I keep asking it myself, actually. I’m coming from the graffiti scene. Then I was a member of Art Syndicate, a Kyiv hardcore movement. I’d been drawing flyers and posters, really inspired by all this DIY-culture. It encouraged me to study graphic design, though before I had been studying law — this is, until I got expelled. So, you could say that I alternate one thing with another: at first, I produce classic graphic design, posters, brand identities, — then I get obsessed with drawing, and I do it for year, or year and a half. Now I’m in process of trying to unite it in some kind of a comprehensive approach, working on illustration and using typography along with 3D-stuff on the same time. Recently, I have completed illustrating courses in Kyiv. Though, most of the time, I’m doing prints and design for clothes collections — shifted to fashion.

IR: What kind of background do you have, Kseniia?

KS: It is Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy, earlier known as Mukhina higher school. I studied graphic design there, but I can’t say the studies did taught me something, really. I started working as a freelancer, more in illustrating. And later, through a self-learning, came to graphic design — now I rarely draw by hand. At the moment, I am still studying design at the University of the Arts Bremen. This experience was interesting for me — and even not from education perspective, but as an opportunity to plunge into another environment, where the system is different from the one we exist in.

IR: Could you, please, elaborate on your studies?

KS: I graduated from the Academy in 2012, started working, then later in the year 2016 was enrolled in school, and moved to Germany. There, they had a bachelor-masters system. At Mukhina school, it was different: just a diploma, six years. But thanks to this diploma, I was enrolled directly to this master degree program. The program lasts for two years, but in you can extend it, actually: take as much you need. And this is what makes it different. You plan everything by yourself: you choose which course to take, what to study, how much studying you need. There are some restrictions, but everything is based on self-discipline and on your own choice and creation of program. Everyone does what he wants to. Many people do things which I don’t know a thing about. I believe that this system works, if you already have an experience of unsupervised work. I don’t really understand how it works for those who get there from the very start. But it is truly great that you can try different things. Plus, technical equipment at the school is nothing like we have here, at our schools and universities. Now I’m having a last circle before having to defend my master project.

IR: What project is that?

KS: I am writing a theory that says the language is a matter — with all sort of speculations on the subject. This is a pure art project, I don’t pretend creating a scientific work. Even though it looks quasi-scientific.

IR: And what is the end of your project going to look like? A book?

KS: The end product is my final presentation. The body of work, I guess, would make up a book, with this theory presented in it. Plus, there will be a website.

IR: When did Orca Collective studio emerge as brand?

KS: When we just started, it had another name. But two or three years later, we came up with this name. Though you would hardly call it a studio. We work as two independent people — and unite the stuff we create under one name. We have no legal entity behind it, nothing official, — just a collaboration of two people. Still, some of our projects, thanks to mutual advice and cooperation, could be called a studio product.

IR: So, Orca Collective is a trade mark?

KS: Yes, you can call it that.

IR: What customers do you have, and from where? German, Saint-Petersburg’s, Kyiv ones?

AA: Customers are mostly our personal: who is coming to whom. Though it is often the case that we can hand a part of some particular work to each other. We are separate creators, each of us, each with his own portfolio. Yet initially we used to take orders together and tried to share work. But now it is more about consulting — we’re asking help and advice from each other.

KS: Or, for instance, there are elements that we could borrow from each other. Since recently, this is happening more and more often.

IR: Let’s talk about your experience with our Instagram. You must have some emotions, reflections and observations left after. Can you share them with us?

KS: For me personally, it was hard agreeing to this in parallel to my job and master project. I expected that it would devour a plenty of my time — and I would suffer. But eventually, this was quite the opposite: it was really hard to stop. At some point I even realized that it was truly relaxing, relieved my tension: you are turning on, and just doing this. It helped me to make up my mind in the right direction.

We haven’t prepared any specific work for a particular day. I just tried to have some sort of reserve, while doing it so that it would look more or less well-organized after — in terms of color, and other details. Totaled up, your Instagram turned out to be the best emotions, an interesting project; we have never done such a thing regularly. It was great.

AA: Thank you for having us. We gave it a lot of thought, whether to do it or not. But the moment we started, we’ve just become hooked on it. There were days when we just sat making pictures, this was fun. On the one hand, it provided a relief of tension, but on the other hand, it brightened our lives up: we worked together for a whole month, never stopping to take advice from each other. When something just didn’t work, we just sent each other our pictures — trying to hand over this work to a partner.

KS: Yes, there were a few times when Anton just dropped me a message with a picture, saying: ‘I have no idea what to write about it’. And I wrote something. This was a return to our initial form of collaboration.

IR: It is hard for us to tell, which one of you was involved more — and which one less. Perhaps we even don’t want to find it out. But let’s just have you giving credit to each other: which works have you liked the most? Name one or two.

KS: It’s rather difficult to choose one particular work. Sure, I like TechnoHouse. Plus Stereotypes and Internнæt. Largely, I like everything that Anton has produced. I notice that we have some kind of division: Anton is more about bitmap graphics — while I am more about the vector one. This way you could tell our works apart. Yet, for the most part, we strived for more diversity: having pictures, or collages, — together with purely vector stuff. We had a shared folder where we put everything ready, in order for both of us being able to see in advance what worked well for the partner. And there could have been some moments where, let’s say, when I asked him to replace the red by some other color, — since I knew that Instagram could turn this red into a really weird thing. Although, eventually it was me who posted a work in re, which was then too much compressed. But I am still glad with the whole picture in terms what we did.

AA: I like Ksyusha’s series. Condensation, Social Realism, Rods and Cones, that’s just great. Actually, I liked everything.

IR: You’ve had a chance to look through our whole collection, and try fonts in real graphics. Can you share your impressions with us?

AA: You could have noticed that we had our favourites. After Ksyusha dropped me all fonts, I took my time look through them. At this moment, to avoid any confusion, I started to pick the fonts that I would work with later — it made slightly more than a half. Personally, I prefer the whole series CSTM Xprmntl, then Druk and other fonts I used for TechnoHouse (Pilar, Karloff Negative — editor’s note). As a matter of a fact, now I prefer anything which is a bit weird and peculiar, often wide. So it was interesting to apply exactly those kinds of typeface.

KS: I have roughly the same set of fonts. I also really enjoyed Kazimir, actually, — even though my relationship with serifs are rather complicated. I liked almost all fonts from your CSTM Xprmntl series. I had one of them before: I believe, you noticed us after I had used it for creating a poster. Me and Anton, we decided that we would spend a part of our fee on purchasing licenses to use the fonts we liked. When you start working with some font, at first you need time to get used to it, to get how it shall be applied. While working on your Instagram account this is exactly what happened with regard to some fonts, and now I don’t even want to dismiss them. And yet, there were some that haven’t impressed me at all, and so I just ignored them. At first I’d been thinking that we were to use the whole collection, in one way or another, but then I concluded that it was better to make things that I myself enjoyed.

Darya Yarzhambek: I am observing this trend on our Instagram — nobody likes serif.

KS: I wouldn’t say I don’t like serifs; I’ve said that we had an uneasy relationship with it. Perhaps it’s that I don’t possess enough theoretic knowledge on type in general. I always work by intuition, and often use my eye measuring instead of grids. I understand that it sounds unprofessional, but yet my attitude towards a font when I see it depends rather on my emotions about it, than on its parameters. And there are much less serifs among those that I am able to use properly — and have right feelings about. And it was just perfect with Kazimir, it seems to me that I can really feel it.

AA: I started to have problems with serif during my studies already. We had this course called The Font — they made us draw the stuff by hand. Naturally, it was way easier to work with sans serif. I always had a trouble drawing serif, I did it poorly — and poor grades. So, it became some sort of unconscious knowledge to me. I still feel uncomfortable while handling with serif fonts.

IR: And what fonts were you into before your became familiar with type.today collection? What typefaces did you apply by default?

KS: It happened that certain fonts just grew on me — I got really attached to them. For instance, recently I often used Akzidenz Grotesk. Before that, I was obsessed with Arial, I adored it and worked with it really a lot, — and I haven’t stopped liking it actually. I’m into crooked and somehow irregular fonts — I call them ‘ugly fonts’. I like to find beauty in there.

IR: Thank you for that, for saying that Arial is an ugly font.

KS: I also once had a typeface that was digitized from a Chinese TV packaging, or something like that. An awful serif, awfully designed, — but yet quite funny and rather amusing.

AA: My relationship with fonts dates back to my youth interests, to the DIY, punk and hardcore aesthetics — which I still strongly relate to. Plus, I like all this brutalism, which is quite trendy right now. This dates back in 80s, 90s. I can’t say I’m into Arial that much, but I often use it for my stuff. I began to work with fonts at advertising agencies in the mid-2000s. At that time, it is not as we had much of a choice: mostly some classic fonts purchased by your agency. For me, I decided to use free fonts. A year ago, I mostly combined two typefaces in my work — Arial and Times New Roman. But recently, we have been seeing more and more studios appearing who release fonts under open-source license. Just yesterday I downloaded the fonts produced by the French studio Velvetyne — the one who created Trickster. Me too, I am into a bit crazy typefaces. Since I came out of DIY-culture, I like distorting the fonts and applying simple ones. And Hobo is my favourite.

Hobo typeface specimen Tobias Laursen

KS: It is also the favourite font in Germany, by the way. And I am already fed up with Trickster, it is constantly used at my school. As for display typefaces, they seem beautiful, but they are hardly to use because they are too recognizable, and this recognizability is sometimes bad.

Trickster and other free fonts by Velvetyne

DY: Two things aroused my curiosity when I looked at your web site. First off, I found out that there was some bar named Golova, here on Trubnaya street, and that you were producing great posters for the place…

KS: From the very start it was me who created the whole identity for Golova and covers for events. And then I thought: ‘Why not also making posters?’ And the story has been going on for more than two years now. It turned out to be a good exercise for me — when I have to create something on a regular basis, and not to put much thought into it, just making things.

This experience taught me how to do a good job and be fast at the same time. Recently, when it takes me a lot of time to come up with something, it is a clear indication that this work is not going well enough — and that I now have to switch to something else. This skill of generating things quickly, that I trained myself creating these posters, is quite useful.

golova Posters for Golova by Kseniia Stavrova

DY: And the second thing I found madly interesting is Syndicatе Original clothing brand. I want to know more about it.

AA: Syndicatе launched in 2010. Back at the time, I worked at a creative agency, and they asked me to develop the brand identity. Its concept was bringing together different designers and illustrators who designed prints for T-shirts. I created the identity, made a couple of prints, and the guys invited me to work with them on a regular basis. I joined the team and ended up being the brand’s art director — although, as a matter of fact, I’d never worked with clothes before. Over time, the concept a bit changed, with us starting to make not only T-shirts, but full-fledged, complete collections. (Shortly after our interview Anton announced his departure from Syndicate — editor’s note)

DY: And all those things are designed, sewed and printed in Ukraine?

AA: Yes, we have our own production, making everything here. We still work with various designers and artists. Yet, whereas previously they created just T-shirt prints, now we are trying to come up with larger collaborations, with designers and illustrators taking part in developing some of our clothes styles, and so on.

DY: And what designers are we talking about?

AA: We have local designers, and we international ones: from France, United States, Britain, the list became quite large during these years.

For example, there is a Spanish illustrator Ricardo Cavolo, we have been collaborating for 7 or 8 years with him. Still, for a long time, the bulk was produced by Ksyusha and me. Now we are getting ready to present a number of new collaborations, one of them is a collaboration with a quite well-known Kyiv artist, Vova Vorotniov. Last year, we already made a collab with him — a collection dedicated to Ukrainian avant-garde, Kyiv and Kharkiv artists of the early 20th century. This collection caused a scandal with National Museum, which, in its turn, provoked an extensive public debate on copyright: what can be done and what cannot be done, when a contemporary artists refers in his work to the artworks of the past century.

DY: Please, tell us more about Ukrainian illustrators. Could you give us some names, perhaps, tell where they come from — are they all self-learners, or is there some good schools?

AA: We are proud of any of them, but one can single out Masha Reva, with whom we have been working since 2011. She is artist, illustrator, designer from Odessa, who initially started with fashion. Masha studied in Britain, now being more about creation and illustration. We had her first collection in 2011 — it received international coverage, which made us famous. Even М.I.A. and Lady Gaga wore her things for their shows. Back at the time, Adobe wrote about us, since Masha used Photoshop screenshots for collages.

Masha Reva x Syndicate

The most recent collab was with Dima Yaponchik. He is a young Kyiv designer and architect exploring Japanese culture, who launch his own brand. The guy creates interesting graphics, printing it with the use of silk-screen printing technology. Also, we have been working with Venya Son for quite some time — a Kyiv illustrator living and studying in Spain.

Dima Yaponchik (D. Krsn) x Syndicate

DY: Since you have to deal with a wide range of people, you should have seen how the Ukrainian design changed over the past 10 years. What is now better, what is worse?

AA: Currently, we have a lot of good and exciting things going on in Kyiv, and in Ukraine in general. We see new interesting schools being opened, which engage in various fields, both design and illustration. Usually, it’s art directors of small studios who open them. The most bright and visible, I guess, is KAMA, Kyiv Academy of Media Arts, — which started more with advertising, but now embarks on more practical courses, and Projector school, it actively developed in Kyiv in the past few years and recently opened its branch in Odessa. There are now many people saying that you can send your kids to such schools rather than to some institute, since they teach pure practical stuff there — and one could learn much more useful stuff there, in just two years. KAMA even seeks to obtain state certification.

DY: Do they teach typography there, too?

AA: We have very little fonts. Though, we see calligraphy developing quite actively — it is one of current trends, with even special calligraphic schools being opened. Whereas I can’t name a single one who is seriously working on type here. There is a real gap to fill, when it comes to types.

DY: There is now little connection between Russian and Ukrainian designers, I gather.

AA: Hard to speculate, but in general I guess that you are right. You can feel that before there were a lot of master classes and joint projects — now there are almost none. Ukrainian designers rarely come to Russia. And the same with Russians coming to Ukraine, apparently.

Naturally, politics and war happening in our country left their footprint on the whole design community. On the one hand, there is a number of rather apolitical, politically indifferent designers. On the other hand, there is group of those who actually attempt to use the situation to close from Russia, to build the wall from it, highlighting the Ukrainian cyrillic, for example, and trying to develop design in a national way.

KS: I wouldn’t want to see the subject of Russian-Ukrainian relationship coming up each time someone is talking about our activities — like, it is something inevitably affecting our work. Our particular work is not affected by this. Although, I try to be more careful and think more about it. Once I came to Kyiv for a master class, and made a mistake in Latin spelling of the word Kyiv. I knew nothing about it at the time, and Wikipedia offered me two choices — Kyiv and Kiev. Anton explained to me that Kiev is now considered being incorrect. But that is nothing, and in general I wouldn’t like highlighting it as something really special — except for the technicalities, now there are more of them. Now if you want to come somewhere, you have to think twice, — whereas previously we had no problem visiting each other. Generally, I think, that we have to have some sort of connections and relations at the cultural level, with cultural events and initiatives. It is a neutral field, where you can always locate some intersections and find common ground.

DY: Do you see such meeting points around you? Or you can only bring yourself as an example?

KS: I won’t speak for the whole cultural scene, but some of my friends also keep working with Ukraine. For instance, I cooperate with the guys working with coffee, and they also keep communicating with everyone, just as they did before. I believe that we have to try to find common ground.

IR: I’d like to end this on this positive note. You are doing great, representing a truly great example of globalism: not just coming from different cities and countries, but you also keep moving around. This story of meeting each other on Flickr has really amazed me…

DY: True! Two people who met each other on Flickr and learned to work together, without even meeting each other in person. A proof that we are now truly living in the 21st century!

AA: Thank you for providing us opportunity to work with your typefaces. This has really boosted us to continue working in this direction. Even the stuff that we later posted on our Instagram drew a lot of attention. That is why we decided keep doing typography, and graphics in the same manner. Thank you very much.

KS: Thank you from me too!