Timur Zima: As long as it’s cool, I keep doing it

Graphic designer Timur Zima was in charge of our Instagram account last November. We talked to Timur about studying type design, a virtual escape from harsh reality of the Russian countryside, and the risk of being carried away by Pinterest algorithm

April 18, 2019

Ilya Ruderman: Timur, I would like to start by asking you this thing: do you observe, or sense, any specific trends in the modern type? What is now happening in typography, how do you think? Is there anything that you particularly enjoy? Or where you get your inspiration from?

Timur Zima: I started to get the understanding of the trends, when it comes to type, just recently. It all began with meeting David Rudnick. I call him ‘rock star designer’ — he’s had a meteoric rise at some point. Rudnick is truly big, and he exudes coolness. This man views two aspects, creating the font and managing the project, as an integral whole. David Rudnick designs separate fonts for each of his projects, — I’ve never seen such an approach before. This is a very special typography: he starts with looking trough the old medieval books, and then pulls out of those books something that becomes super-new and modern in his hands. It is truly amazing, the way he refreshes this stuff.

I first discovered his works on Pinterest. Usually, Rudnick utilizes black background and black space — so that the letters always shine through this black matter. He draws with light, and it never seizes to amaze me. I also love that he designs all typefaces himself, — even the boring ones! — expertly combining sans serifs, serifs, all sorts of gothic stuff.

He had worked with many people. And during a lunar eclipse, Rudnick even created a small illustrarion for NASA. Recently he’s done this large project with Daniel Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never. As a matter of a fact, David actively produces his things for the electronic music scene. So now many of those who also design for the electronic and techno music projects, often attempt to copy Rudnick’s work. He is influential. The guy has set a powerful trend.

A while back David Rudnick had delivered the lecture at Strelka Institute, speaking on the crisis in graphic design; I attended the event. While Rudnick was giving his speech, we watched his works projected on the screen. An hour and a half of a very slow show, made up entirely of his stuff. This suggests that Rudnick is also quite prolific. He is an exceptional kind of dude who works very hard. And all these designs are good. They are commercial, but yet you understand that the designer has his signature, that he expresses himself. I was really inspired by this.

I started to figure out his working method, and it turns out that he makes all fonts himself. And so I realized: ‘Damn, once you get the idea of how the font is organized and of how it works, you immediately gain greater control over your projects’. I wanted to learn from his approach. And so I became interested in fonts, I began to create and design things just for myself, — all while having absolutely no understanding of the type. Since I haven’t studied the typography as such, separately, I had to collect information bit by bit — and dig deeper into the field.

IR: Let’s talk a bit about those bits. What were your first steps since the moment you realized how fonts enriched the toolkit of a graphic designer? What did you start studying? Where did you go?

TZ: As far as I understand, all the enthusiasts eventually arrive to the books of Jan Tschichold and Yuri Gordon, two giants of typography, — both are super-famous theorists of the type. I read their works; but naturally there is not a single word on practicing, on how a typeface is structured, on visual compensators. These issues are mentioned in generalities. Well, of course, Gordon in his Book of Letters reviews the cyrillics: explains the emergence of shapes, speaks on what made it what it is. For cyrillics, I used Gordon’s book. Other than that I just surfed the Internet. Some stuff is taken from Igor Shtang’s blog on LiveJournal. Except that I never stopped striving for work on shape. Take the black matter and turn it into a font. The font that somehow resonates with my personality.

IR: Have you ever taken part in workshops?

TZ: I haven’t. I’ve been doing all this at home, by myself. But I’ve just taken an online course of Sasha Slobzheninov. The guy also has recently started to design fonts, and as such he is now an aspiring type designer. But he is quite good at organizing the info that he finds. As far as I know, he currently studies graphic design in Czech Republic. Since the school has little to offer in terms of font design, Sasha learns from others sources.

Slobzheninov opened his own course at VK, and it is a very comprehensive series of articles. He describes the process of creating a sans serif, point by point, from picking references to kerning. It helped me to finally stop groping in the dark. Now I see all kinds of crap that I’ve been making at the beginning. Now I know that I need to start it all over again, a ton of work to do before my first real fonts.

IR: Let’s talk about your experience on our Instagram. I must admit that I was truly surprised by your readiness to post pictures virtually the next day: ‘I’m on it, starting tomorrow!’ We’ve never met such a response from the people we’d invited earlier. Tell me about your feelings, your impression. What do you feel about this past month?

TZ: This was awesome! You showed up just in time. Until that moment, I was aware that you engaged and invited other designers — and even felt un urge to write to you. Like it was time to crash your party and introduce myself. You wrote to me at this very moment. As if the stars have aligned. Though I had no idea what I was going to come up with. I had no plans. Frankly saying, I use a very simple process. It’s a constant improvisation: I come up with something — and the stuff is being born in process. That is why I’m open to ideas all the timw. Always spontaneous, but from time to time I really do create rather cool things.

I had a feeling of freedom. You give me the platform and say: ‘Dude, you go for it, experiment around. No matter how you approach it, the important thing is that you keep uploading the pictures’. I thought it would be fun to apply your font collection to various situations, to make use of it from different angles. Meaning what? To use it for a cover of some book, to show how it works on a poster, to demonstrate it interacting with 3D-graphics. Creating many different kinds of sketches, including the fonts’ sketching.

IR: Yeah, so we gathered. What images do you personally find special?

TZ: I prefer the one about Berlin, the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz. But I also like Gromko poster, it’s Druk. And the one where the abstract graphics meets the generator of abstract patterns; I designed it together with my roommate who is a software engineer.

I spent a month in Berlin. It has had a huge influence on me: I’m a small-town guy, and have never travelled. But, thanks to Goethe-Institut, I came to Germany. I’ve been working with this entity for a year, maybe a year and a half, and we became friends. They offered me to go to Berlin, to cover my expenses. ‘Why not? I’d love to’. I studied German, walking down the city streets every day. Berlin is a very powerful city. During my stay I was keeping some sort of a graphic diary, and initially this poster was designed in statics. I saw this amazing tower and thought that I should make a poster out of it — where the text has to encapsulate it. Then I thought that it would be even more fun to liven it up — with the text moving around the tower. That’s how I got there.

At first, Gromko poster was created for BlankPoster in English. They post one word a week, for the designers to create posters using this word. It is some sort of designer escapism, abandoning and rejecting the routine. There’s no framework for your art, you have just one word — and you do what you want. And I thought that if I had cyrillics coming out to me, straight into my arms, I just must make the Cyrillic poster. It went out pretty well, — and the Cyrillic Druk is really cool, I must say.

The third work is a pattern generator. One day, me and my roommate Kirill were talking coding. He now uses Qiwi language, does some really difficult things on it, but in his spare time Kirill enjoys little coding for himself. I told him: ‘Let’s do something fun’. I showed my roommate this web site where programmers produced tools — mostly for graphic designers. They upload those solutions into a library, which enables you to create 3D-stuff: it all gets rendered directly in the browser.

So, we create such a thing: you have a room, and you also have a pressure ridge (ice piling) which is constantly moving. We are watching the ridge from million angles, and get a completely abstract image, with various patterns; the image is splitting into multiple images. You press F5 and get a random color parameter which modifies the image. It takes a few seconds for the rendering to happen. Kirill provided for the Save button. I, for one, just sat there and pressed it.

IR: Can we give open access to this pattern generator?

TZ: Easily.

Yuri Ostromentsky: If you ask me, frankly, I was impressed by what you did with Graphik on the packaging. Two and a half years ago, when we were in process of launching the store, trying to come up with its graphic identity — together with lots of other things, Ira Ivanova showed us the American pharmacy drug packaging on her moodboard. Seems like your made a perfect match for our own identity. Where did you get it?

TZ: Well, my respect to you and Ira Ivanova, since you did a great job. After seeing this hole up there in the header I was impressed how simple and elegant was the solution you found.

I have a huge account on Pinterest where I collect some cool stuff. I truly like the packaging and try to build my own collection of the most beautiful examples. The packaging of Helmut Schmidt is a completely different level in terms of aesthetics; the function meets the aesthetics, and all this comes thanks to modular grid. Just perfect. And I thought I needed to pay some sort of hommage, mixing together several of Schmidt’s grids. This was an easy — and a nice, pleasant thing to do.

IR: It was a direct hit, judging by the response of our audience: this image broke the record getting more likes and reactions than any other post in the history of our Instagram account. I was deeply impressed by the picture, too, so I forwarded it to Christian Schwartz and he gave me his thumbs-up: ‘That’s what we need. Great stuff’.

TZ: By the way, I have another picture where Karloff looks like some kind of a sticker pack in the ziplock bag. At some point I was really into the stickers: I designed them myself and bought from others. Normally, the ziplock has a label on top of it with a hole, just like the one you’ve now got on your logo.

IR: During this month you have had an opportunity to touch all the fonts in our collections. Perhaps one of them has opened up to you from a brand new perspective?

TZ: I’m afraid that my answer would be rather obvious and commonplace: I am already in love with sans serifs, but have not yet fallen in love with serifs. All sans serif fonts are just gorgeous; they are fairly great. And I’ve always had Druk, for the record. I’ve been its devoted fan since the release. It was such a nice thing to do — opening the Cyrillic in the font editor, contemplating how the letters are organized, assessing all solutions. Druk is great for having a quality time with it! But when it comes to serif typefaces, things are complicated.

IR: What’s wrong with serifs?

TZ: I don’t know. It’s just who I am, it’s in my character. I am fast. I like quick solutions. I prefer solid, hefty fonts that could fill in the overall composition. I like it black. I enjoy it when the array strikes me in the face. And the antiqua is an elegant solution, it doesn’t really talk to the audience.

IR: The typography is about the contrast. It happens all the time that you are in need of a powerful message — delivering it with the use of hefty and massive sans-serif. But the real thing happens in contrast: it is when you counter this gothic type with, let’s say, an elegant italic serif. So, apparently, we are witnessing the arrival of a new era, where quicker and more clear-cut solutions start becoming more and more relevant, aren’t we?

TZ: No, not just that. Have you perhaps heard of Kristina Kulikova? She is a pretty popular designer at the moment, works with 3D-graphics. Kristina creates such thick composition that your eyes just drown in it. And on top of this cool, very fancy and futuristic 3D-graphics she applies sans serif type paired with serif. She is very much into serifs and super-bold sans serif typefaces, such as Druk. Kristina often uses them — and those two get along pretty well on her posters. You may even think that they are simply meant to be together. It always has been like that, and it always will be. She’s been able to find her language — and the way to communicate through serif type. She figured out some way to reconcile them.

IR: You created excellent graphics — like the one for Thema font, when the complicated brilliant modifies the typography and we watch some kind of fractures appearing. It is a very nice piece of work. The one where you don’t feel any mistrust, or lack of confidence, of the designer towards serif. Indeed, this is a quite modern and relevant graphic statement.

TZ: As a matter of a fact, I wouldn’t exactly say that I have some super-resentment towards serif types. But I still don’t really get how to deal with them. I can think of a quick and elegant solution, like what I did with Thema — or when I turned them golden, or 3D, by adding the volume. But this is more about contemplation. All these shapes and the white inside — your gaze just slides across them. I mean, it is so academic. I still don’t realize what I could say by means of these shapes.

Mikhail Berezin: I am looking at your Behance portfolio at the moment. I’ve run onto posters where you have dual items there, both antiqua and sans-serif. Awesome. Timur, regardless what we were just saying about the type.today collection, how do you use serif typefaces for your own work?


IR: And while you’re at it, what fonts do you chose by default? Well, apart from Druk, you’ve already mentioned it.

TZ: Well, I guess that my relationship with serifs is ‘work-specific’: a great deal depends on my job as well. I have been working with media outlets and social media for 6-7 years now. For them, the first and the most important thing to do is to always come up with a catchy headline — clear and reader-friendly. The title has to stand out in the feed for catching the eye of the user so that they immediately read the message, understands it. Those headlines are like rapid flashes. And this is exactly how I think up the posters for social media. So we have everything organized around sans serif fonts, just because they are better readable. The posters keep flashing, really fast, in front of the eyes of the audience — the viewer has to digest them right away, at a glance. That is why I routinely have to deal with sans serif fonts.

MB: Which sans serifs, exactly?

TZ: For our magazine we purchased the Formular. In the process of our rebranding I was perhaps even going to pick the other one, but Misha opted for this font. I was a little upset at first: it seems monospaced — but it’s not, and the shapes are kind of, well, roughly chopped. I had no idea how to deal with it. Although later I got used to it — and made the typeface work marvellously well for us. It showed its different side in such tight space; if you set «–35», or «–40», in Photoshop, the font would become different, completely unrecognizable. I guess you could say that I deserve a slap on the wrist for that, but this experiment with Formular was our huge success. Besides, I always keep ready at hand the collection of fonts that I truly enjoy: Pragmatica, Akzidenz Grotesk, — and Helvetica, naturally!

MB: Why Pragmatica? Doesn’t seem to be the obvious choice to me.

TZ: Somehow Pragmatica possesses very cool shapes. And I enjoy sans-serifs of this sort. Plus it has a wide typeface, just like Druk.

MB: Plus it has been there for ages.

TZ: Yep, this font was designed a long time ago. Usually it looks good in large sizes, and the letters are quite nice. As a matter of a fact, I spend a lot of time searching through different fonts and regularly trying them on with Photoshop, creating something for myself. I even can tell you the most recent font I really liked! It’s called VLNL Bon Bon. Quite unusual and truly wonderful.

YuO: Timur, while you were speaking on Formular, you’ve mentioned a certain Misha. The one who bought this font. And who is that, actually?

TZ: Misha Tsygan, the publishing manager at Knife.Media. (‘Nozh’ in Russian)

YuO: And could you please elaborate on this remarkable, from my perspective, situation where the media editor decides on the corporate font apparently without giving much consideration to what designers have to say?

TZ: Perhaps it really looks weird for an outsider, but we often opt for the same solutions, take the same decisions. At the time of Metropol magazine, — I think this was back in 2013, — me and Misha worked a lot pretty closely to each other, making up the magazine pages and managing social media accounts at the same time. He happened to be the editor-in-chief and designer, also in charge of the community on VK. I liked their graphic design on social media at first. Back then, hardly anybody bothered themselves to use decent posters on social media — while those guys already figured out that you had to bother yourself with such things, that you need to produce a beautiful media. So, I read the magazine and thought to myself: ‘Awesome!’ And that’s when Misha contacted me: ‘Dude, I saw your VK page. It’s getting busy right here, could you perhaps join us and help?’ Since then, I’ve been working at home — right now busy with assisting Misha’s outlet called Knife.Media in everything when it comes to design. I trust Misha, and he trusts me. My posters don’t undergo any moderation process prior to publication in terms of graphic solutions. In the earliest stages we might have been discussing something for agreeing on it — but our tastes are quite similar, actually. Misha is currently involved with Knife special reports. He makes them up into pages by himself — and, just like me, finds an interest to the type and typography in general. This explains why we enjoy producing this kind of stuff.

Posters for Knife.Media pages on FB and VK

YuO: I am sorry, but now I must ask you a bit grandpa question. In the past 5-10 years, Ilya and me have been witnessing the arrival of a new generation of designers — and presumably you belong to this new race, too. Yet we hardly get to understand you. We watch you having your own life — a whole other life! — rarely crossing our path. Apparently, there are many of you — and many more keep arriving every day. What can you tell us on your generation? How, and where, do you communicate with each other? Which way are you looking? What is missing? All this may sound rather pretentious, but still, please, tell us about those whom we don’t know yet — but should probably put in charge of our Instagram for the next round.

TZ: Well, we don’t know shit either. That is, we’re just flexing.

IR: Well, could you maybe describe the way you consume the design knowledge? What is your favourite platform for getting inspiration? Are you stuck on Pinterest, or do you prefer surfing the Instagram? And your heroes, are they all foreigners? Or are there some young unknown Russians?

TZ: Probably I have to tell you about myself. I am the guy coming from hyper-deep Russian countryside. And if you wonder if I had any Internet — this was a tiny modem, the kind that you practically have to drag up to the roof in order to get your precious 64 kbps. My family regularly moved from place to place — often to the areas where the culture as such is fairly dead. Where there’s nothing to see. And here we talk the harsh Siberian backwoods with virtually nothing: no museums, no cinema — not a damn thing. Yet there was a craving for something else. Something different from all things around. And this is exactly how I ended up with this modem — and the Internet that allows your mind to travel around the whole world.

I took inspiration from the guys of Novosibirsk at first. I learned from the web that apparently there were some people who strived for culture like I did. Just as simple, but with a huge desire to grow. Back then it happened to be the local graffiti scene. It encouraged me: hanging around, painting, making posters with certain meaningful messages. Awesome! Perhaps, they were too naïve at that time, but this was a true movement where you choose to reflect and communicate with your friends — rather than drinking Jaga.

Upon arriving to Novosibirsk I joined the graphic scene. In Siberia, it’s mostly the tattoo artists; and there is absolutely no signs of any design community. Even now it is still missing. But at some point everyone started to grow up and drift away from the graffiti scene: because the local graffiti doesn’t develop, or even advance. I, for one, wasn’t a fan of this stuff, so I committed myself to the graphic design as a mean of reflection — and a way to earn money. It was an opportunity to escape from harsh reality, to break the vicious cycle. Ironically, the escapism is a driving force for the enthusiasm; it actually gives you strength to move forward. It is truly empowering you.

I became quite passionate about all this. Since then I developed a habit to discover something new every day. I open the Pinterest, I switch my brain on, I watch and consume. Eventually you develop some sort of filters in your own head: what I like, what resonates with me, what I need, what I don’t need, what I could get rid off right up here. Later, this trained eye of yours starts to play crucial role in producing your own graphic content.

IR: So, Pinterest is your first choice when it comes to platforms?

TZ: Absolutely. Pinterest is my right hand, you might say. But now I’m starting to realize that I have to pull away from this practice. As a matter of fact, this plays a dirty trick on you — since it locks you into trends.

MB: Into a filter bubble.

TZ: Exactly, yes. This is a real information bubble. Take David Rudnick, I’ve mentioned his name for a reason. Many young designers get to know Rudnick’s works, understand that it is in fact a whole stream — a separate movement. So they start to copy him, to create similar content. But yet all their works have no relation to any project whatsoever. Those are just baseless concepts. Whereas Rudnick put his heart into his projects — and figured out how to elaborate them. And those empty concepts, they don’t take you anywhere. You just join the ranks of the Pinterest main stream and go with the flow — not even knowing where is that exactly that you’re heading.

MB: You work as a designer, and it is, however creative, not exactly the kind of job that we can call a free, independent profession. How do you manage to maintain this vibrant and crazy — in a good way! — a vibe?

TZ: I have no idea. You have to let yourself go. To give yourself a break. At times you even can go down to the bottom, then push yourself off this bottom — and bounce off.

MB: What is your driving force? What sort of things are you driven by? And how do you manage to stay out of bad things — and stick to the good stream?

TZ: Well, imagine me just sitting behind the monitor and going like that: ‘Aaaaaahh! What kind of design is that?! Does the mankind even need those kind of things?! This is just ridiculous!! An what the hell is that, anyway?! But why? Why would they do that?!’’ And then suddenly you realize that it’s just cool. You watch the poster and think: ‘Damn, the stuff is awesome, no matter what. I have yet to figure out what media it is actually — but that is cool’.

For instance, I watch the posters created by Igor Gurovich and I am strongly inspired by them. The guy is a grownup man, father and all this bullshit, — but he is still young at heart. He never grew old, managed to stay entirely relevant. And his graphic language is relevant — it keeps standing the test of time. At the same time Gurovich has been able to get along with all layers, with all groups — both young and old. That is to him that you should address your question on how to preserve the designer’s drive, this fervour. And when it comes to young designers, well I believe that they just have it, by default.

MB: They haven’t lost it to the age yet.

TZ: Exactly, just like in a video game, you have mana. Perhaps I might be wrong, and that’s not how it works. All right, I guess that I just keep going as long as it’s cool. As long as it’s cool, I keep doing it. The moment it stops being cool and becomes uncool, I stop doing it right away.

Mentioned fonts