Oleg Turbaba: “Icons and fonts both got to befriend each other”

Oleg ruled our Instagram this January. We talked about the diversity of his daily postings, what emoji have to offer to typographers, and why Oleg is designing several-hundred-large open icon set

June 18, 2020

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you study?

I am a certified designer, graduated from Kharkiv Academy of Design and Arts’s branch. I had to start working early in my freshman year. I managed to land a gig, which fitted my studies: I designed posters for a cinema theatre. That was a useful way to fuse work and education, itt gave me some room to develop skills and acquire experience. I trained myself through research, thanks to the Internet. I also had access to the huge PSD layouts that film distributors sent, which were technically superb. For example, the files contained posters translated into every world language. That gave me plenty of space to experience and research type. Those layouts became my mentors, too.

Regarding the studies, I had all the academic disciplines which one ought to have: foundations of composition, textures, sketching, fine arts, types. Tutors told us that typefaces are complicated, one should not even put one’s hands on it. I took it to heart and followed this precaution. We had a study of colors, other standard courses, but I missed some of it due to work. The fourth year of the university got me thinking I can no longer make it look like I study, so I stopped, never even took the physical copy of my bachelor’s diploma.

You live in Saint Petersburg and work for San Francisco, right?

Yes, I have been working for Clay agency for quite a long time. I started there when it was still SoftFacade. We used to have two principal directions. The first one is what is now called digital brand identity. We designed visual packaging for apps, which helped to promote them on the market. The second was interface development and conditional access systems (CAS). We started in Saint Petersburg, built a vast portfolio, but gradually shifted to working for the American market. We opened a full-scale office in New York, which later relocated to San Francisco, because most of our clients reside in Silicon Valley. So now we have two offices, one is in California, and is more client-oriented; the other is in Saint Petersburg, and the team here is more into production. Part of my job responsibilities is maintaining the workflow in the Petersburg office.

How do you interact with type in your day-to-day work?

It is only recently that I started getting into the structure of a typeface and looking into how it works. I was a pretty shallow user earlier, navigating type like “I like this one, I don’t like that one.” A year and something ago, I got into the Vorkurs by Zhenya Yukechev and started delving into the type-verse, because I felt that I needed it. I started researching this big, unknown, and complex world, of which I knew since university times that I should avoid it.

We at Clay have quite a situation, because our market is all about apps, start-ups, and things technical, and this market is pretty conservative about type in use. Today, typography seems to have become a thing, there’s a whole lot of new styles and techniques, but it still hovers on the orb of Helvetica and the likes. My day to day work material is still the standard font families available for iOS and Android. These are alright fonts, comfy for work, relevant and conventional, we use these without thinking, it is more of a habit. Yet, when we combine several of our directions: UI, brand identity, narrative websites, — we go for display fonts, especially if we talk about in-app headlines, promotional kits, or landing pages. The in-app spectrum is mundane, it limits us to three or four fonts which are Helvetica Neue, Graphik, Roboto, San Francisco. That is the the core, other fonts are just for fun.

Where does the trend lead the market, in your opinion?

It leads elsewhere, no exact direction taken, but all things tend to become quite more daring. Brands realize that being a bunch of IT brands is a limiting experience. Plus, the tech behind producing type affects the market dramatically; more and more businesses can afford to have their own font, not just Google and Apple, as it was earlier. Smaller IT businesses look for existing solutions and fonts, yet now they often go for a bespoke product, finding one’s own voice. That is the primary trend.

Regarding styles, that can go in whichever direction. Last year, I guess, Mailchimp used an attractive serif for their identity, and that launched a trend; other companies went for serifs, too, and that fills me with joy. Dropbox also ignited a trend when they became the first who went for a variable font. I think those big companies define the future. These companies make big decisions, and others are there to follow. Let’s hope these decisions will be interesting.

Dropbox use the variable Sharp Grotesk by Sharp Type

Do you ever work with Cyrillic fonts?

I think that lately, we only had three projects with Cyrillic fonts, and these fonts were there to alternate with Latin. I live in the Cyrillic world, yet I do not work with the script. It is a background I rarely distinguish. I find Cyrillic letters weird. These are beautiful and unique letters, yet I marvel at them. And I do not feel so sure, working with Cyrillics. It is harder for me to identify a good font because my visual memory does not store some 200,000 variations of ж, to choose from. Luckily, this feeling goes both ways: I am amazed by all Cyrillic fonts. Apart from Myriad, I love all the others.

Well, judging from how you handled our Instagram this month, you have quite a set of skills and interests…

I set this hyper-task to myself: make all posts look as if various people did them. Therefore you see plenty of different solutions and techniques put to use, both technically and stylistically. First of all, I wanted to try new technical solutions that I did not have a chance to work with. Secondly, I planned to experiment with styles. I hope my posts have had a weird look and were never alike. Sadly, not all of my findings made it to posts, because I have this rule: do not publish things too raw. Some works did not pass the test; some had to be reassembled the night before posting. Anyhow, it has been an excellent opportunity to work with fonts in a way I never did.

“I am no big fan of the kinetic typography because the definition implies that this method exists for the sake of itself, which, in my opinion, leads designers into a dead-end. You can use it to animate texts, to perform optical tricks. Yet, there is no conceptual gravitas to this method. So I look at the new works in this field and realize that I saw those things already, sometime somewhere.

But then I had this epiphany: the rise of 20th century, constructivism, modernism, futurism, these movements were about motion, about being new. So I mused: ‘If only they had After Effects,’ and this is how I made this sketch. Styrene does not really fit here, they would have not used it back then, but I am not in the 1920s as well, so” (via turbabaza on Telegram)

“It took me a while to get into Giorgio Sans. The first look reveals a condensed, nicely built font with heightened capital letters. Looking closer, though, shows the wide characters, which enable the font to express itself differently” (via turbabaza on Telegram)

Why did you decide to write about the process in your Telegram channel?

I thought that doing a post is one thing, and explaining the behind-the-scenes and sharing notes on the fonts I worked with is another. I reckoned I’d share my process, complications, and findings. Sadly, there was not always enough time, so sometimes, I skipped writing.

You encouraged people to set tasks for you. Were there many?

I can’t quite remember, there were some ten of them, I guess. What surprised me is I got about ten requests after my shift had ended. Admittedly, I did not complete many tasks. The very format of the mobile screen presets certain restrictions. Like, if you go for a complex font composition, it wouldn’t work within the phone’s screen. Therefore my footing was in an absolutely distinguishable minimum within the font. I tested each image on a small phone display because that is important. I also tried to design the storyline: from a letter to a text, color-wise, etc.

You posted on Telegram, in greater detail, explaining how you create images, but you did not pay that much attention to letters. Let’s discuss typefaces and feelings inspired by them. How did you work? What did you like most?

Firstly, I created a list with all the fonts and their features: like HandglovesA commonly-used word for testing fonts in design, plus the glyph set, plus a paragraph specimen. It helped me to pick fonts for specific tasks. I am tailored like this. I solve tasks, therefore I pick things suitable for specific tasks. Before creating something, I rummaged in the glyphs section, in the alternates, so that I knew what’s under the hood. It seems that many designers do not really know how interesting the tools hiding there are. Telling more about it is the reason I post on Telegram.


The test file with the type.today fonts

I like an idea of customising a ready-made font with the alternate sets , making it more decorative, or otherwise, simple and pragmatic. I started doing so with Graphik, when I found out there is an alternate lowercase a. I was literally struck with awe because I used this font so often; we at Clay almost see this font as our corporative tool, many clients pick it. Yet, I do find something entirely new, within this tool which almost became a part of me. It’s like you learn your wife is an outstanding juggler. I was, like, very astonished. So I started making this a part of my routine.


Cover images for Clay’s job postings. Note the alternate а from Graphik

Through that, I started learning many new things about fonts: I became aware of small caps, tabular figures, all these exciting features and alternates. I wrote a long post on stylistic variations on the About page. Because I really adore several letters. The lowercase t in Kazimir is adorable, but it can be too much, in case there are several ts on neighboring lines of text. Luckily, I calmed down the typeset , because the font offered an alternate. I had a similar story with Halvar when I decided to use it for an airport departure schedule. I changed several glyphs and made all figures tabular, which calmed down the font’s appearance.

Halvar has alternates that lessen its display features, like, here, I have simplified the a. I also tried to create monospaced numbers; I learned of this feature on type.today course, and now I know that many fonts allow that. In brief, I suggest you browse the “open type” tab and shuffle through all the font characters.” (via turbabaza on Telegram)

Do you have any favorites?

I had a post about the font Tinder. The story implied I had to pick just one font in the end, and that was a torture. I launched a random selection and picked one casual font, that being Amalta. Apart from that, yes, I have favorites. Some are comfortable to work with, some proved to be a revelation of sorts. For example, Halvar, though Druk is in the same category and is more known. But there are plenty of options installed inside Halvar, as for a single type family. I researched it quite thoroughly while making that wondrous cube. I am a fan of several letterforms in Menoe Grotesque. I like this one a lot, but I used it rarely on your Insta. I also have an affinity towards this great conceptual solution in Stratos: when the capital letter has the same width the lowercase does, it gives a particular display look. Styrene is an excellent solution for UI/web projects. It enables staying in line with hi-tech aesthetics, it looks fresh, and it is readable. It is not the most display font, not for just a single word. And the capitals have this hi-tech vibe, and not the corny one.

“I had this technical issue to solve, I got to move a mobile UI within an Instagram image, and I had to preserve the beauty of letters. Styrene, I feel that it interestingly fits the UI issues: it is wider than San Francisco or Helvetica, it is quite geometric and does a beautiful job in headlines” (via turbabaza on Telegram)

Due to my lack of knowledge, I did not have a smooth experience with some of the fonts. I like Amalta, but there is little to none understanding of how to use it. I tried to interact with it, picked just one letter from it. For the most part, I am not acquainted with serifs; Clay rarely makes me work with these. type.today has a great, diverse, exciting set of serifs, but I lacked the expertise to read and peruse their strengths. Yet, I like the way capital looks in Spectral: very Roman, yet contemporary.

“The goal was to merge a serif with an emoji within a headline; I keep working on my own emoji set, but the process is somewhat abrupt. I got many tasks within my icon library project. The idea is that, since we use emoji often, can we calculate the average proportion of using emoji versus letter glyphs?” (via turbabaza on Telegram)

I am a fan of big projects, so I shuffled into the Pro font families, which have many characters, alternative sets, outlines, — a lot.

Why were you so interested in these?

I have this side project, I am developing a voluminous icon library. Zhenya Yukechev explained to me that the Pro stands for some1,500 glyphs in the font. So I got interested in learning how one can arrange such a dataset because I have 841 pictograms in eight styles. Undoubtedly, today the ways of perceiving fonts and icons differ, yet they stem from the same root, which is graphic representation of information. Here, perhaps, is the cornerstone of my interest in fonts and their technical features; I am interested in understanding how to process large amounts of data while maintaining a specific style and message.

Here is the story behind this library of icons. We had this young designer, he is from that generation who does not know how to work with Photoshop. They know Sketch, they don’t do sketches though. And I saw him using the Google icons, taken from the Material Design Icons: he tried to apply these in iOS context. I experienced this cognitive dissonance, and I said: you cannot do that. He snapped at me: “Well, where do I get my icons then?” And that got me thinking, that we have no resource like that. There were attempts to create icons, but some 100-200 symbols won’t solve the issue, that I can tell. One needs more symbols, a decent navigation system, and features like width, weight, etc.


Iconoteka can boast some 500 icons

Do you think that emoji affect future typography?

Sure, well, they coexist already and evolve in parallel, yet their paths rarely cross. I do not know whether these two can form a bundle. The two can be the same (at least, the design brief can prescribe this alikeness), but it will fade as soon as the brief is executed. Yet, when brief for icon development says, “these are to look as if created in 1985 by the Swiss designers,” the same brief can fit the font designer’s task. There are cross-breed icons, which are somewhat between emoji and a font glyph. I researched this topic, I spent several years on it, because there are cases in UI design when emoji occupy half the visual field, and fonts occupy the other half. And there is got to be consonance.

Tech giants have their own packs of emoji. They realized need their own voice. And here is the straightforward parallel with fonts, because the two go together. If a brand wants to be vocal, it has got to voice its messages both with emojis and fonts. The two are close, both in terms of meaning and execution.

Emojis and letters often neighbor in a line. It is interesting to see whether those would go in one another’s direction.

I feel that a font always has more technical and meaningful gravitas, and if type goes towards emoji, it might stop being readable. I think that emoji are to be equalized with type in terms of emotional response; emoji should sound just like fonts do. There are many solutions which may be of help. I use those in my icon library and my daytime job. But one has got to have quite an expertise both in type and icon design (if one can say so). Like, you can take a lowercase o and make it visually resounding with the emoji depicting the head of the user. There are the same solutions: angle curvatures, proportions, terminals, etc. Icons and fonts share the same visual field; therefore, both got to befriend each other. The designer has got to mix the two because both won’t stop hanging with one another. We are to aim for a healthy synergy, speaking from the visual side.

Regarding your icon library, do you make many styles for one glyph?

It depends on the glyph. Some do stand quite close to font glyphs, they are actually a part of some fonts—for example, an arrow. Yet, there are icons harder to depict, for instance, a professional photo camera. If I can draw parallels with type, they stand for a complex character, with many stroke crossings—for example, an hieroglyph. My goal in building this icon library is to bring all those things together so that the icons would look coherent.

We can compare it to fonts easily. There are four weights, from light to bold (approximate equivalence are ultra light toregular in non-dingbat fonts). Yet, there are specificities, like icons with strokes and fillings. Sometimes you need all the eight weights, sometimes just the four of them. An arrow allows for just four variations, there is no filling shape in this icon. If there is an icon that depicts something within the circle or, for instance, a TV, one can execute it both with strokes and with fillings.

Now I’d like to venture to font software.I’ve had a brief encounter with Glyphs, and I’d keep digging in this direction, it seems to be right. I hope to make something variable at some point.

Variable fonts are the future. And all the conditions for using type features in icon business are there. The icon market is in a weird state right now; there are the Apple icons, there are the Google-provided Material Design Icons. Both are like font sets, but both have lack some icons crucial for our work. There are also websites where one can buy or download separate icon glyphs, which do not fit one another and do not shape a uniform style: like, here is the briefcase icon, but it is hard to find the spoon icon in the same manner. That’s why I started compiling the icon library, it would be significant and free, and I hope it would serve as the catalyst for the market.

Do you know that emoji have a slot in Unicode?

Yes. But my library now works for searching characters because Unicode is not universally comfortable for use. My goal is to make this library accessible for UI and graphic designers, and — that is the most crucial part — like, some Saint Petersburg janitor who needs to print the poster “Beware of icicles” and looks for a skull icon or something. I want it to be essential and accessible for all. Therefore I am not compiling any fonts, as for now. It works as a website with a search string, where I put as many tags as possible, so that I can ease the search procedure for other users.


CSTM Emoji in RoboFont. In this font, emoji take the place of the alphabet, but they are also available at their appropriate Unicode slots

What drives you? Is it pure altruism?

As of now, yes. I hope this project would stay this way; one can support me on Patreon, but the access would remain free for all. There is too much work in it, you know. If we pick all the world alphabets, we’d have a finite number of characters — did anyone calculate, how many?

Unicode does that.

Okay then. But if we gather all the world visual images, the abundance would exceed the number of font characters. This is an endless story. I would make as much as I can, so be it. This work is going for many years already, in a background mode. I hope it leads me somewhere. There has been no public release as of now, but I hope we’d make a launch this year, and the library would prove to be a useful tool, and other people would become interested and would tune in for further development. Perhaps, we would set a foundation for it, develop guidelines, so that others can step in. We will see about that.

We wish you the best of luck, and many thanks for the fascinating Instagram and a great conversation.

Thank you both for the opportunity and for the interview.

Mentioned fonts