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Polina Kukushkina: “Why not take a neutral sans serif if you need it?”

Polina Kukushkina, who took over our Instagram in April, talks how love for typography takes time, why she’s been unable to work at the same place for long, and what young graphic designers like about dry neogrotesque types

October 1, 2020

Please tell us about your background and key points in your career that affected you as a designer.

By a lucky coincidence, I met Boris TrofimovBoris Trofimov (b. 1940) is a Russian book and graphic designer. In 1997 Trofimov co-founded the Higher Academic School of Graphic Design (Moscow) when I was still in the eleventh grade. At first I started attending the Higher Academic School of Graphic Design as a guest student; then I simultaneously passed my ‘unified national exam’ and an end-of-year exam there and was enrolled to a second year. In fact, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a graphic designer. But when I met Boris Trofimov and visited their open day, I realized that I wanted to get to this school. Eventually, I ended up in an environment where I was younger than everyone else — some of my classmates were even ten years older than me. And so it happens that I grew up among people who are older, more experienced, and cooler than me. This had a great impact on me. Later they got me a training internship at Zoloto Group — while Igor Gurovich, Erik Belousov, Anya Naumova, Kirill Blagodatskikh were still working there. As a result I spent a year and a half of my life with them. At some point, I was joined by my classmate, Stepan Lipatov, and that was great: he was like an elder brother to me, we were growing together. And after that I began my own journey in the ocean of freelance. Also, there was an important point in my life when I made friends with the guys from Faces&Laces and the streetwear brand named Codered. With Faces&Laces, we were creating clothing lines with various brands, and with Codered I gained an experience of not only creating prints, labels and packaging, but also working with clothes — I produced a couple of women clothing styles all by myself, start to finish. Somehow I got there. I began getting familiar with fabrics, trimmings, educating myself, — after that I was capable of doing branding and guidelines for other new clothing labels. I had to draw everything and say what will be and where it will be, of what fabric, how it will be printed, and with what garment accessories. Somehow my life took me there. Later I added music. At some point, there was graffiti, too.

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Works for Codered

Are you still a freelancer and still actively working with fashion labels?

I work with the Faces&Laces summer event, an exhibition of local street culture (that’s how they present themselves). Apart from anything else they’re an agency, too. The guys are doing lots of collaboration with foreign brands and designing collections for Russian clients, large and small. When they need to combine graphic design and clothes, they come to me. We did three projects together, but we can’t yet reveal them. One of those is a very big collection which hopefully will come out next year. Among my other recent projects there were a couple of visual identities and guidelines, for children’s wear and teenage clothes.

Other than that, I get commissions to create some fun merch: not just taking a tee and putting print on it, but specifically producing something very well thought through. Another latest project was with Redneck: we developed a style for their pottery market.

I like doing different things. It is exactly the reason why I am a freelancer — for me it is important to choose. I can’t do the same thing all the time and work at one place. This spring I did a large navigation system for ten floors, right after that — oops! — a cover for a drum and bass project’s album; after that I do the style for a market, or get back to clothes. This flexibility, that’s the greatest part.

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Polina’s rejected cover designs for Sam Binga & Hyroglifics ‎– Wicked & Bad EP

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Polina’s other typographic works

Yes, you do have a really diverse experience. But, looking back, didn’t you lack some education on type and typography in general, what do you think?

In the first two or three years, I simply couldn’t make anything work, I wasn’t feeling typography at all. Vladimir YefimovVladimir Yefimov (1949–2012), type designer, type design teacher and writer, was an art director and co-founder of Paratype came to us freshman year, but I couldn’t understand anything, I wasn’t able to absorb it at all. My guess is that I wasn’t that much in love with letters as I am now. But later I started understanding something, and the level of my work has increased. I remember how in our third year we did this project for the Arch Moscow exhibition — a contest on creating the style identity (Stepa Lipatov won the contest). None of our entries were any good. By the way, in this competition we were joined by Anna Kulachek and Ira Ivanova — who were already graduates at the moment, — and Masha Ignatyeva. They already were designers of a higher level, not like us, newbie students. At first my project was plain awful, and I was readjusting it for a long time — and it was after this that I started to understand something about typography. And perhaps I was also influenced by assignments and tasks we got from Trofimov on layout design in the style of DaDa and Merz magazines, along with theoretic and practical lessons with Sergei Serov: when we began learning about the history of style, from classics to post-modernism, I started to get good at things.

How do you engage and interact with typefaces in your everyday life?

Lately I became interested in drawing logos, letters, lettering, all kinds of prints myself. But in general I just look at many typefaces, naturally. Although, it so happens that in my work I mostly apply neutral sans serifs. I believe it all began at Zoloto Group, as their visual identity used Pragmatica. And to this day I still like it. Then, we used Helios not long ago…

All this, that’s just one same typeface called Helvetica.

Well, they’re all neutral sans serifs for a reason! Anyway, when I need a display typeface, I am used to drawing it myself, a logo and what not. I was inspired by an example of these Swiss guys Johnson/Kingston who once attended Golden Bee where we met. They have rather bold, peculiar manner — as they’re sort of punks. The guys told me that they produce a new typeface for each of their projects. Back then I didn’t ask them what it meant — whether they simply draw letters for a poster, or they rather develop a real typeface family. But I liked that a lot. I decided that I will try acting the same way myself.

Well, actually, it constitutes a part of design education in Western Europe, where type is included in the program throughout all specialties. Because type is the same basic knowledge as colour or composition. That’s why they have no problem with designing ten letters in case they need them for a more precise stylistic statement.

But we had no such practical exercises. We did tasks to design our own typeface, or an entire family. But we had no such thing as drawing letters for each project.

And where do you go to look at typefaces?

Well, I certainly follow type.today and type.tomorrow, for sure. Then it’s Masha Doreuli and Contrast Foundry, Black[Foundry]. Radim Pesko! I also like French publishers like Typelab and Velvetyne, Dutch Wise Type, German Charlotte Rohde, and Eliott Grunewald. Instagram is an important sourcePolina sent us a list of her favourite Instagram accounts, see the links below the interview text, too.

What do you like in typefaces?

I like different things — weird, fresh, unexpected. I won’t give you a more detailed description…

We happily watched what was happening with our Instagram throughout the whole month of April. What impression did you get of all of it?

In the first place, for me it was a real challenge to use every day the typeface I am given and not design anything by myself. Apparently, I am not used to this anymore, for the last two-three years already.

We didn’t put any such restrictions on you…

Yes, but I’ve put this restriction on myself. Secondly, I found certain typefaces which I haven’t noticed before, and while using them I realized that I actually enjoy this a lot.

Did you make any preparations the moment you were given our type collection?

I really wanted to prepare myself, assigned to myself this task — the one of necessarily choosing a theme, figuring out what I’m gonna do, precisely, writing down what typefaces I would take, day by day, and so on. But it was the moment when the situation in the world started drastically changing. In March no one was really talking about quarantine measures. And when in the end of the month it just happened, I understood that anything I was preparing and planning to do now would look completely different. That’s when I dropped the idea of coming up with a certain algorithm and realized that I should listen to my gut: tell what I feel and how I feel. I really didn’t feel like doing a serious project. Even though many of those who participated before my shift were doing just that — choose one theme and hold on to it. But I realized that I just couldn’t do that; I had to bring in the positive in order to cheer myself up and amuse everyone else. Like, if we’ve installed the game Heroes of Might and Magic III, why not remind everyone how great and legendary this game is? Also lately I’ve taken an interest in microbiology, so I just couldn’t help avoiding including my hobby in this. Well, I was translating nearly everything. Jokes and funny phrases. I just did what I felt like doing. And I must tell you that by the end of the month I got a little tired. It often happened that I had to prepare posts the day of publication. And you’re just getting lost, not knowing which day of lockdown it is and how long have you been managing the account. When you wrote to me that today was actually the last day, I was certain that I had no less than one week ahead of me — and I was ready for doing this week. I remembered plenty of songs, had a number of jokes prepared — I didn’t make it with many of what was planned.

Can you give us the examples of works that, in your opinion, turned out to be particularly successful?

I especially like our post on Mendelian inheritance, genotype and phenotype. A bit way too serious, perhaps, as it’s not funny. But I like it anyway. I enjoy some of the animated works, but I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of meaning there. What else? Mikhail Krug. I really liked this Kazimir Text Thin. Though, there have been lots of complaints about an unusual letter “У”, especially from Tatars because they have two letters У

Yes, the Tatar ү in caps has the same construction as the Latin Y. And were there any works that you didn’t care about that much, but which turned out to be very popular anyway?

That would be the one about numbers. I didn’t understand the reaction of your followers at all. It just came to my mind and I sat down right away and created this post. There’s no joke, nothing. But somehow it got more than eight hundred likes. Vot eto PRIKOL, too — I just woke up in the morning, decided to make it, the process was fast and easy, and people liked it very much. While it happens that you’re sitting for, like, three or four hours, putting a lot of thought into it, thinking of how to realize this idea, but it just doesn’t work.

This was one of the funniest months on our Instagram. We haven’t laughed like that in a long time. Even though we actually had to use Google to remind us what Brichmulla is…

Guys, come on! I have it, like, written at the back of my mind, “Brichmulla, Brichmulle, Brichmulloyu.” Before doing this post, I ran a little poll among my friends. And there are whole groups of people who know the source. Then there are others who are, like, “What is that? No, never heard of it.” I hesitated and wasn’t sure whether I should do it or not. Then I decided to go for it.

You’ve been mentioning that you discovered Kazimir. Did you have any other revelations?

Actually, I’ve enjoyed lots of stuff. If we’re talking about serifs, other than Kazimir I really liked Austin and Vesterbro. I loved Graphik, both normal and compact. Then Pilar. Druk, obviously. As for revelations, — Halvar, of course. Giorgio was great in use. When I saw it at first, I didn’t even know how I should use it, but later it worked out well for me, too. I just loved Proto Grotesk, it is definitely among my favourites. However, I was pretty certain that I would utilise Amalta many times, but that just didn’t happen. I’ve used it several times, but not as the main typeface, only combined with some other typefaces and in small doses. And I just failed to do something with Gauge, — neither Pro, nor Letterpress.

That’s a great list, thank you.

In fact, I think that I expanded my horizons. I am actually grateful to you for this month — I believe it has changed me somehow.

Hopefully, your love of Helvetica as a default typeface will eventually go away.

Hah, thanks. The truth is, I used it by default when I needed a typeface for body text. That’s simply convenient. Normally I have a certain display text, logo or lettering of one kind, then a different kind of lettering, and then I have a space left for text, and the text has to be neutral. Why not take a neutral sans serif if you need it? But now I really am willing to use the whole range of tools that life is offering us, and not just draw type myself.

Instagram inspiration, the Polina Kukushkina list

@savemymind
@nicolemclaughlin
@brutgroup
@organiclab.zip
@unownedspaces
@odjah_z_evropy
@retrosexualvintage
@thundergirl_xtal
@supinatra
@zach.lieberman
@schultzschultzgrafik
@cestainsi.funfactory
@mikeyjoyce
@ohezin
@s7epa
@liars_collective
@cavempt
@alicegavin.xyz

Mentioned fonts