Zoya Pavlenko: “It is either very simple, or very complicated”

Zoya Pavlenko starred in our Instagram this July. We spoke to her about our followers’ preferences, type trends, and non-design reference.

September 19, 2019

Please, tell our audience about you: where did you study, where do you work…

I studied at HSE Art and Design School, graduated two years ago. My professors were Ivan Yakushev and Stefan Lashko, from ESH Studio. Since then, I’ve worked in a lot of places. Currently I work with Arthur Lebsack, doing identity design. We’ve actually just started to do things together. We’ve met because I was in charge of type.today’s Instagram account. Arthur saw my pictures, and suggested we’d collaborate.

I would like to ask about your education, since this experience is rather recent for you. How was it? Good or bad, useful or not so much? Have you received enough knowledge on typography?

We had quite a lot of freedom and flexibility in terms of knowledge acquisition. Like, you could have, while visiting the same courses, learned and tried a lot, — and at the same time you could have been doing nothing, and nothing would have happened to you. One could have chosen and explored different areas — the ones he was interested in. So, if someone was into typography, normally there were opportunities to learn something on it. For example, we had Denis Masharov teaching us his typography course. I wouldn’t say I did obtain a great deal of knowledge. I mean, the knowledge I acquired, I did at HSE, — but I could have learned way more than that.

Any sources, besides teachers, where students can gain knowledge on typography from? Have you learned things on the Web, maybe?

I am only on Instagram. I read nothing.

You have a rich portfolio. I, for one, was very impressed by the zine you made for Volchok. Please, tell me how it was.

Me and my friend Marina Baranova, with whom we went to school together, we designed our little book on table tennis — the green one, you can see it on my website. We posted it to Facebook and Instagram, and the book was very much liked by the photographer Alexey Nikishin. A year later, he invited me to take part in the project for Volchok.

Ping Pong Moscow zine

Crash Test zine, designed for the eponymous collection of Volchok, Russian streetwear brand

Do you take pictures by yourself, or do you act as an art director during photo shoots?

While we were making books with Marina, I liked the process of choosing what what she was going to shoot. After that, I started to photograph myself, and have been doing this for some time, but at some point I realized that with what I had — a camera worth 300 roubles and the cheapest film, — one produce worthy pictures only when travelling to some weird places. So, when I travel, I do take pictures, — and when I don’t get to travel, I don’t take pictures. In fact, I enjoy working with photographs. As it happened, with type.today I used plenty of photographs, for collages and things like that. I’m especially proud of the fact that all those pictures, — and they are all very different, — I’ve found all of them on Wikipedia.

On our Instagram you’ve managed to produce quite an integral story. Have you perhaps invented some kind of a hidden framework concept?

No, I have had no such thing. The day before the start of my month, I decided to make everything on a black background, because this would make everything easier, — for the square frame not to constrain me in any way, I would just fill it with different coloured objects. Also, from the very beginning I had a special approach for wording: I picked the words from a moodboard that initially was put together for a clothing brand — but never actually used. But, when I reached the fifth picture or so, I guess, I’ve ran out of the words. And so, I’ve just started to visit random articles on Wikipedia.

I get the thing with wording, all right. But here you also have stuff like a poster, museum explanatory catalogue cards, stickers, or a newspaper. How did you invent those things, Zoya? Like, you wake up in the morning: “Why not a newspaper for today?”

Yeah, that’s the way it worked.

Say, did you build your works on the typeface as a starting point, or was it the object itself?

Always different, no pattern to it. As to the newspaper, that’s exactly what I wanted to design — and I decided on a typeface afterwards. Whereas with those papers, scattered all around the image, — I just chose a shape to fit with a certain letter, and came up with a business card, or a skin patch, or a wristband. There were moments when I knew I had a font and that I just had to utilize it, but I didn’t really understand how. I just sat and tried to figure it out — and at the end of the day I came up with the image just because I perceived this particular typeface this particular way — and there was no other way for this picture to be. This is how some images were born. For instance, the orange picture about playing bridge: for this one, I very much wanted to use CSTM Xprmntl 02.

When you got your hands on our collection and looked at it for the first time, what has determined your choice of fonts you were going to utilize? Have you had any approach to that?

I opened the collection and saw some fonts which I already had been familiar with, the ones I thought to be easier to work with, and I created the images using them. Then I looked once again and found more fonts that I was able to produce something with. Towards the close of my shift I realized that some fonts remained untouched, — and I made an effort to work with them. I believe that eventually I made use of almost all the fonts.

And which fonts you were already familiar with, exactly?

Graphik, CSTM Xprmntl 01, BigCity Grotesque, Druk.

And do you have any new favourite fonts now, after our joint project?

I really liked Austin. And — Graphik, since it provides Greek (the Greek version of the font is not available through type.today, it can be purchased on commercialtype.com — editor’s note), and I am keen on languages other than Russian or English. Also, I’ve discovered the Georgian set in CSTM Xprmntl 02. It has plenty of interesting glyphs, both in Italic and Regular. Plus, I saw a new, unusual and amusing, side of First Prize. I didn’t know it had such a fun Italic! And I have really enjoyed Halvar, which I didn’t know until our collaboration.

This is a new release. And haven’t you had situations where you just wasn’t able to manage a certain font, no matter how hard you tried? Like, you haven’t managed to fit it in somewhere, at all?

This happened to me. But eventually I inserted those into the post with cloakroom tickets. This image is an assemblage of all the fonts that haven’t worked for me during the project: Lava, Thema, Dala Floda

Can you explain why these fonts turned out to be useless for you?

They are too much of an old-school, vintage sort of type. Cera is also like this, too complicated for me.

Can you maybe define what is for you?

Not sure I can. I can tell why I haven’t used them — because I don’t need any of the functions which these fonts were created for. I’ve always had another sort of brief, that is why these fonts haven’t worked out for me.

Did you have any font preferences before dealing with type.today collection? Is there any font you could call your default font?

In the course of my experience I had a number of different default fonts, depending on the moment, — the sort of font that I initially applied on everything, and only after that began to look around for other options. A while back, maybe four years ago, my default font was 21 Cent by Yuri Gordon — while it is rather weird, since this typeface is vintage-style. A year back, it was Arial: I literally put it everywhere, somehow applied it — and enjoyed the results most of the time. As for now, it is Druk that I use everywhere as a first option, before starting to figure out what to do.

Could you please define some traits which make a font modern and trendy, for you?

There definitely are some trends, I can see them. And these trends are very different depending on what we are talking about, serifs or sans serifs. If it is sans serif, it would be as simple, clear and brutalist as possible. It could be very wide font, or it could be very condensed — makes no difference. The important thing is that it is as brutalist as a font can be. But when we talk a serif typeface — or maybe some display typeface like Pilar, — it should have a bunch of odd serifs, tails or arcs running in all directions. I enjoy working with classy serifs, like Austin. Because such fonts have many details, too, — they are something worth looking at, and they have contrast. It means we have two options: it has to be either very strict and dry, or a very fancy typeface with plenty of details. It is either very simple, or very complicated.

Have you been monitoring the likes on the posts? Was it any different from your expectations?

It was different in the first two weeks. After that, I was already understanding what would get likes and what wouldn’t. I started to get the idea after my tenth picture, I think. But towards the end I realized I stopped caring about this kind of stuff. Since that moment I just wanted to complete the project the way I like. So, when it comes to my last seven pictures, I was pretty aware that they wouldn’t get many likes whatsoever.

What would get many likes?

You need to have a simple and clear message in terms of design. Some complicated collage with the use of many odd elements is not the thing. You should not use acid colours, — which I happen to love, by the way. But you have to emphasize the font itself — it has to be clearly visible, placed in the foreground, it has to play the lead. Plus, — do care to have a clear shape, preferably a square one, and it’s not the font I’m talking about, but the elements in your picture. So, you can say that people are unlikely to like an acid colour, a shape which is not a square shape, and the type of collages where the photo you used takes up too much space.

What can you say in general on this experience, Zoya?

It was very challenging. I thought I had a whole free month ahead of me and that I would be just quietly producing pictures, you know. I had no idea how much work it would require, actually. At first I was preparing all I need the day or the night before the publication. But then I started to receive some parallel working tasks, and since then it was simply impossible for me to prepare the things in advance. There was even a day when I never posted on your Instagram at all. Just this one time, but still. Sometimes it took me too much time to create a picture — a picture which would then get zero likes, little likes. It’s not that I got too upset about it, but… Well, it was challenging. But certainly very fun, for the most part.

Any positive impressions left after?

A lot! Since our project, I just can’t think that it is even possible to spend a day without me working on some things design. Until then, I definitely used to have days like that.

What are your references, sources of inspiration, outside of the world of design?

Actually, I rarely visit anything other than Instagram. And there I just watch lots of fancy pictures. And when I come across something that looks good, this thing stays stored at the back of my mind. If you ask me to give you names, I can’t do that. There is, certainly, many design titans out there, but I can’t imagine the way they work — it is some sort of incredible and unachievable level beyond my reach. And I don’t see how I could use them as a reference. And then, there is a huge number of no-names who create some good things, and it is really a great deal of authors, whose moves I observe with a great deal of pleasure.

Most typically I run across some photos, and I understand that what I see here is beautiful shades, or I see some other interesting thing about it, — and I realize that these images could be of some use to me. That I can produce a beautiful thing out of it. And it is at this stage that I start analyzing the rest of the world outside the Instagram, with the aim to figure out how I could benefit from this stuff. And most of the time I end up with a collage like this.

Zoya, thank you very much for our wonderful July Instagram.

Thank you!

Mentioned fonts