Yuri Gordon: “After all, I’m devious”

Yuri Gordon is one of the most prominent names in Russian font and graphic design. We met with the artist, type designer and co-founder of the LetterHead Studio to discuss the past and the future of the industry, artistic boundaries and freedom.

September 14, 2017

The conversation, which was recorded in October 2016, also features Ilya Ruderman, Yury Ostromentsky (CSTM Fonts, type.today) and Daria Yarzhambek, graphic designer and art director.

Photo by Tim Pokrichuk

Yury Ostromentsky: Traditionally, we start with talking about your vision of type, or font, today.

Ilya Ruderman: What defines a modern, up-to-date font, in your understanding? I’m asking about today specifically, considering that you have been working with fonts for I don’t know how long.

YO: For as long as we can remember.

Yuri Gordon: For as long as you can’t remember, as you had not even been born yet.

IR: It may well be so. For as long as we can’t even remember.

YG: Since 1976, because what I did back then was all about fonts as well.

IR: All the more so. It’s not a retrospective that we’re after; today, we would like to speak about how the present day will be remembered. You can make comparisons. That is, what trends, what phenomena will enable us to come to a realization in ten years’ time that 2016 was a special year?

YG: I’m not too sure about it being special. However, I hope that it will be special for me. But that’s yet to see. As for type today – by the way, the name choice for your project is brilliant because whenever someone mentions “type today,” or its Russian equivalent, you get free advertising. I don’t know anything about type.today yet, as I haven’t even visited the website.

YO: In this conversation, when we say “type today,” we mean “type” as “font” and “today” as “the present day,” essentially.

YG: May I make just one spiteful remark? Basically, I’m not too interested in fonts now; in fact, I’m not that interested in typography either. Neither in fonts per se, nor in typography per se. Alternatively, you could say vice versa: I’m fascinated by fonts, but I view them as the ultimate goal, not a means.

That is, I sometimes approach a font and work on it, making it my final goal. Naturally, someone can purchase and use it afterwards. But for me, it’s not the point. For me, the most important thing is the act of creation, and then I can just sit and watch the result like fire in a fireplace.

IR: Am I right to understand that presently, Yuri Gordon does not view fonts as tools that he or someone else can make further use of, but as end products…

YG: Yes, a font is an end product as well, all the more so because I position myself as an artist, not a type designer. I happen to know how to make letters. Fonts have always been first and foremost an artistic means I could resort to in my own projects, an expression of what I am doing at a certain point of time. And so they have remained.

On the other hand, I would define what I am doing now as the development of the Russian literary language through letters. In other words, I’m trying to find letters that will first of all enable me – and probably someone else in the future – to express things in the language we are used to. Not in a foreign, borrowed language, but the Muscovite, local, neighborhood dialect we are all so good at. And this has a direct impact on the letterforms I work with because I used to think like, “Oh, and what will the Latin version look like? Oh, what will a John Smith somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic think of it?” But now, I disregard such things completely.

I only work with the letterforms I will need for the rendering of certain speech acts or typographic objects. This is why my fonts are the way they are – without any reference to trending styles or anything momentary. They are in fact momentary, but in the context of my own work.

Yuri Gordon creates special fonts for almost every graphic design project of his. Thus, according to him, the map “Moscow in One Word” required a total of four and two-thirds of original Mos-fonts: Mostype, Mosdor, Mosmetro and Mostitle (regular, inline and shadow)

YO: Why is that?

YG: I’m not interested. I don’t find type design appealing anymore. I was already doing it ten years ago. I used to think, “Oh my god, how do I keep pace with such and such?” I’m done with it now. This is over. Since then, I have become conscious of the fact that I’m an absolutely pure, unfazed artist. And fonts are one of my military units, the one that attacks from the right. Meanwhile, another unit outflanks from the left. I hope it will be a large sculpture or a painting, for instance.

Fonts are yet another means of expression, and I feel absolutely at ease resorting to it. I don’t have to think about how to incorporate them. I know they will be present in any case. And I’m barely concerned about the professional typographers’ opinion because they are not my target audience. My objective is communication with the world. Not even with typography consumers, but in a much broader sense.

I’ve recently created three fonts for a new map in three days. They are lopsided, slanted – you name it. But I know what they communicate. I’ve uploaded them to Facebook, just to give them a try, and they gathered plenty of likes, not because they are pretty, but because they speak in the language that is used on the map.

That is, if Kievskaya metro station is dubbed “Kivukha” on this map, I need a font that reflects it in words. And there it is – I’ve found it. If I need a caption “Leningradka” with spiky Russian Л and Д stretched along Leningradskoye Highway… And now I have a font for that. That is, I have my own means of expression. In fact, this was exactly where we started back in 1990.

IR: So that’s what my question is about: how is your current state different from your previous states? I was under the impression that you have always adhered to a similar approach.

YG: Yes, indeed, I have. The reason for it is that I had started working with it much earlier, and I discovered this approach through books, through working with fonts in illustrations and a lot of other complex matters. If we take Valery, for instance, he has specialized on design from the very start. And yet, we shared the same need for a means of expression. So we took a look at Emigre and realized that they had already had their own language, as early as in 1985. And we were in 1991, without a single word to use. We can’t use Times or Helvetica, as we need something altogether different.

So we started creating typefaces, for corporate use at first. Everyone who saw them would say, “Come on! How is it even possible to do what Letterhead has done? They are the only ones who can use it; we’ll definitely never try.” They’re starting to use it now, and besides, they are using that very typeface from 15 years ago. However, it only happened because the culture has caught up.

Two of the earliest and the most famous fonts by LetterHead are FaRer and Hot Sause

IR: And what if you try answering that question not as an artist with a personal attitude to the subject, but as a contemporary who is looking at the industry?

YO: You have explained your approach to working with type design. We’ve got the general idea. Yet still, you take notice of what is happening around you, don’t you?

YG: No, I don’t. Never. I have a very clear-cut objective. I pull rabbits out of my empty head. That is, I wait for an idea to occur to me, and I phrase it on my own, forbidding myself to look at what others are doing. In most cases, someone repeats my idea in five years’ time. And it’s perfectly normal. It’s the way it should be. But I never look around.

YO: You’re not being completely honest, are you?

YG: I am.

YO: But you were present in the hall during the conference. (Editor’s note: The conversation takes place soon after the 2016 Serebro Nabora type conference.)

YG: I took a look at you and left; I didn’t stay to watch anything. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to see you, your faces, your emotions and so on. I didn’t come to see anything specific; all I wanted was to socialize. I didn’t watch any font presentations at all. I had a complete lack of interest. I never look anywhere.

Daria Yarzhambek: How do you even walk along the street?

YG: I laugh. I laugh as I go. Seriously, what about it? There is sans serif and there is serif. It’s all clear. I’m not interested in learning where they have shifted this or that hook. I realize that the hook was shifted to the same position half a century ago, and now everyone is clapping their hands and moving it there one more time.

Alternatively, they suddenly say, “Oh, we got it.” Danila Vorobiev (Editor’s note: Danila Vorobiev is a graphic designer, art director and teacher) suddenly declares that fonts are not divided into two categories and the categories are somehow interconnected. For me, there is nothing sensational about it. For me, the entire multitude of typefaces is a blend. That is, I don’t believe in any categories or difference. I can classify picture any of the books from this shelf: here we have a sans serif, then there’s a semi sans serif, and that one is one-third sans serif. What do we have here? Is it sans serif yet? No, it’s not sans serif. So I can pull it out of here and make it sans serif. That is, I don’t accept any conventions or styles, at least, not in the context of my work.

IR: Has it always been like that?

YG: I arrived there gradually. It definitely was like that after the second book about letters – one hundred percent. All those cases about superimposition freed me from all the illusions. There is a sign and its essence, the features that make it legible. It is perceived in accordance with certain principles and I think I have understood them more or less. I doubt I can make a sign that won’t be legible at all. Or I will make it illegible on purpose. Anything else is a judgment call which is determined by local or temporary preferences. Trends will be replaced by different trends.

Today, we like our letters to be shaped like that, and later, we will prefer them to be shaped differently. End of story. There is nothing else to it. The beauty of what we’re doing lies in the fact that we’re trying to do something original. That’s awesome! But tomorrow, we may say that we were doing everything wrong; we will start anew, taking on a completely different approach, and it will be just as awesome.

IR: I’d like to take a look from a different perspective. We work within the limitations of a certain workflow, sometimes dreaming of a different workflow, similar to your Proteus. In fact, we depend on the tool we use – to a greater or to a lesser extent. The workflow evolves and develops; ideally, it’s supposed to make our work easier to some degree. How comfortable are you now in this regard?

YG: I’m looking at what Yarmola is doing now (Editor’s note: Yuri Yarmola, creator of the FontLab application). Each step is taking him closer to Proteus, though he is still far behind. I’ve taken a look at what all those Adobe folks have been up to. They have launched a new standard, OpenType. Essentially, it is headed in the same direction as Proteus. I even recognize certain elements… Apparently, Adam Twardoch (Editor’s note: type designer, typographer, and Director of Products at Fontlab) once mentioned… some of the things we had discussed with Yarmola. They were included in the standard itself, in its description.

Sketches of the workflow in the FontStructor font editor, which was later renamed to Proteus

Unfortunately, it was way too late for me. I craved it eight years ago. When I was 50, I was dying for this standard to appear, with all the variations. Now I don’t need it anymore. Because this standard doesn’t yet have enough functions to make the fonts I’m creating now. It can’t create a multiple master font from trash. On the other hand, it’s easier now, of course, and even more people are going to dive headfirst into font design. That is, the profession of type designer is becoming more accessible, and it’s great, it’s fantastic.

IR: I’d like to discuss it in more detail. Many of our colleagues were extremely elated about the release because, on the one hand, the format which had been established 20 years ago had not evolved previously, which is fantastic news on its own…

YG: Adobe finally turned its head. Previously, it kept looking in that direction, doing nothing but suffocating font applications. And then it realized, “Oh, this is actually interesting. Our format hasn’t changed yet. Our language is a bit outdated.”

IR: On the other hand, we seem to be taking a step toward animation-style fonts. In other words, being accessible to the end user, this interactive variability actually creates a lot of opportunities, and type can finally become truly dynamic. In my understanding, the artist in you should enjoy these new perspectives just as much as the direction we discussed earlier. It’s true that the standard is based on very old technologies.

YG: It’s the same blend.

IR: Essentially, it’s the legacy of Multiple Master, the legacy of the same blend, the legacy of interpolation in its modern interpretation. In fact, it’s the same old story, packed into a single OpenType file. Many designers are being extremely enthusiastic about it. I’ve come across a great many experiments in Twitter recently. The more I see them, the bigger my appetite gets. Returning to the topic you mentioned – the untamed creative imagination aimed at originality – this technology is much better equipped for such purposes.

YG: By the way, do you think we can find a link to my LiveJournal post from eight years ago? Here is what I was asking for: “Can you please give me a tool like that? Just give it to me, and I’ll do it right now.” After which I simply designed all I needed by hand. Take Mr. Palkerson, for instance: it’s the same font, but it was made by hand, even without the use of Multiple Master, style after style, desperately fighting my own laziness and the need to sleep. I’ve already been through all of it. Let others do it. Fantastic.

Now I create the most primitive fonts and let Konstantin (Editor’s note: software developer) take care of the technicalities. He’s amazing; he can do anything and it’s all good. They have various applications, tools and stuff. I don’t know what can make me create such a multiple master font with all the attributes in the new OpenType. The only thing that comes to mind is some sort of overarching idea that has nothing to do with the font itself or modifying certain shapes. Perhaps, it could be connected with the following.

Yarmola is introducing the new FontLab now, with proximal instead of smooth interpolation. And proximal interpolation is something that can catch my eye. I think that the time of blend families is over, and the current technologies enable us to use a separate font for each action, not a style, but a separate typeface with its unique features. As a result, looking at a page set in a certain typeface, a title page, for instance – large letters, small letters, italics and so on, – we will see a complex game. Not a simple one, not Lucas-de-Groot-style (Editor’s note: type designer, founder of the LucasFonts foundry), where everything fits so well together… Something similar to the early 19th century type, when simple, Classicist title pages were set in different typefaces because they didn’t have anything else.

I’m generally convinced that we’ll arrive there soon: in my opinion, solid professionals should opt for diversity. It seems to me we’re headed in this direction.

YO: It was one of the last things we discussed with Ilya – the idea that bold and regular styles should be created independently. Not considering interpolation, disregarding it completely.

YG: Naturally, K’s should be different.

IR: These styles are totally different; it’s as if they belonged to different fonts. We had a project more than ten years ago…

YO: Funnily, our first joint project with Ilya looked exactly the same. It had two styles. I designed the regular style, while Ilya was in charge of bold. Occasionally, we shared our progress with each other.

IR: We were on a tight schedule. We had to work twice as fast as we normally did. We didn’t have the time to hone it for ages, so we simply divided the tasks. You get two weeks and a style to complete. You get two weeks as well and you task is another style. We had no margin for error.

YG: Well, like actual punchcutters. Each in love with his own bits of metal. The second story deals with the way things should be, in my opinion. I had difficulty trying to complete my Baker Street font family, with a sans serif called Dr. Watson, a great many serifs united under the name Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and a Victorian font called Mrs. Hudson. They were supposed to form some sort of a family, although a weird one. A Victorian, post-Victorian, steampunk mystery – a small theater of sorts.

Dr Watson grotesque

YO: It looks like you’re missing the fourth one –the Hound of the Baskervilles.

YG: This family could include anything at all. We could add an Inspector Lestrade, the dimwit. Anything at all. But I was intent on including those three. And I have them now. I have Dr. Watson and the first style of Mr. Holmes. As for Mrs. Hudson, I started drawing it by hand. Not the way you normally get down to a Victorian font, but by hand. It’s crooked for now; I can’t seem to figure it out.

However, I think it’s for the best too. There are many families like this now. Essentially, it’s the future of typography. Unlike the entire printing history, it’s not ink spread that we’re fighting now; today’s battle is between Retina displays and the perfect print. And the question is which one… will overtake, or rather, which one we’ll settle for – it’s a matter of microns now. How we will read two point size, which will be clear and beautiful on paper, and equally beautiful on the screen. That’s what this is about.

I am now drawing Mandelshtam by hand, glyph by glyph, without a ruler, with a uneven contour that can’t be seen. From the distance, it seems even, but as you look closer, as you read the letters, it starts vibrating. I believe that this vibrating contour with ink spread imitation and deliberate mistakes is our future.

I might be headed for a dead end. It would be all right as well. However, it is a story that can play out well in typography, so as to make it less… What do I hate the most about typography? Typography is self-satisfied. In typography, everything is always fine. Everything is a masterpiece. Starting from the Trajan’s Column. Trajan’s Column is a masterpiece; Aldus Manutius is a masterpiece; Gutenberg is a masterpiece. They are all masterpieces. And further on, you get nothing but masterpieces. Do you have anything bad at all? Anything like… I don’t know… Van Gogh. There hasn’t been anyone like him in typography. There is none, and nowhere to be found. So why can’t we have anyone like him? Why not try creating a font that is legible, but viscous, like mashed potatoes.

Two grotesques from the series dedicated to poet Osip Mandelshtam

YO: The entire 19th century fonts didn’t print well, especially in Russia. Each style on the title page was set in a different font.

YG: This is different. No-no-no. They were looking for beauty; they were trying to play music anyway. However, they failed because of imperfect machinery.

IR: It’s an orchestra without a conductor, which is slightly different.

YG: It’s a different story, of course. Because if we take the early 19th century, Didot, it was super-cool, it was just fantastic. A thing of beauty. His paper is still white. You open a book, and you see white paper with pitch-black letters. And all those serifs… Words are failing me. I remember when I first saw a title page from 1810 and opened it… after working with Soviet print… Because Soviet print was gray on gray, gray paper with small hairs in it and gray offset – it was terrible. And then I saw something different. It was an Italian opera of the early 19th century.

IR: I’m going to ask you a few questions by picking a few quotes from our lecture (Editor’s note: from the presentation of type.today at the Serebro Nabora conference), just to compare your opinion with some of our impressions. We had a large group of internal trends, a variety of smaller and bigger trends that we roughly define as “fonts… that have reached an unprecedented degree of clarity, simplicity, sharpness and musicality.”

This group has a number of internal subdivisions. For instance, the group that we have agreed to call postmodern includes a variety of fonts that are utterly simple, minimalistic in the extreme, with perfectly round print drops and very simple shapes. This simplicity results in a unprecedented image with a unique feel. At the same time, if we look at your fonts, almost every font you’ve created over the last 15 years has a lively touch to it as well, but you seem to have achieved it by a different means. You’ve had a few projects dedicated to simplification, simplicity and minimalism. I recall a few. Everyone has his or her own approach… That stick font of yours.

YG: Not quite. Palkerson is far from simple. It’s quite tricky, and it’s a Victorian story. Of course, in Letterhead, it was Valery who was in charge of simplification, meticulously trying to make any font simple to the point of absurdity. For me, it was of little importance because I don’t set any geometry-related goals. I’m not interested in geometry. My goals are psychological, among other. They can include simplicity, but it will be a simplicity of a different kind.

I have reached the limit of font simplicity in the regular style of Razinizar, a font we designed for Leonid Fedorov and Vladimir Volkov, who used it for a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov. They needed a font that was legible in size eight, but utterly ridiculous and simple at the same time. By increasing the x-height and keeping the graphemes clean (not the contours, but the graphemes – they had to remain legible), I managed to design a font, using nothing but contours in Illustrator – no hinting, kerning or any other tricks; it was perfectly legible as it was. So that was my limit of simplicity.

Cover and booklet for Leonid Fedorov and Vladimir Volkov’s album “Razinrimilev”

YO: I think we have a different understanding of simplicity.

YG: That’s for sure. I want to make it clear that simplicity can vary. I don’t think that what’s happening now is a return to a simplicity of some kind. Partly, it’s an infatuation with geometric sans serifs, which was triggered by a general design trend toward simplification. Interfaces have become two-dimensional. Geometric sans serifs work really well in them. This is why everything has been simplified.

YO: Not only geometric sans serifs.

YG: And then they realized that not only geometric fonts work well. At first, they were drawing circles, and then they started simplifying Helvetica.

IR: Well, then there are Din-like fonts.

YG: Din-like fonts as well, but they’re all the same to me.

IR: Another take on geometry.

YG: Well, yes. We stretch a letter like this, or squeeze it like that. It’s just that Din – what’s so special about it? It has an idiotic typewriter rhythm. As if it’s clattering against your teeth. It’s great for design, but it’s no good for the consumer.

IR: It holds a structure together.

YG: It’s good for design because it conveys everything at once, while maintaining the structure and the surface, which is great. Basically, it’s Helvetica all over again. So this dichotomy is what keeps the entire modern design vibrating: the choice between simplification and an attempt of doing – wow! – something unexpected.

That is, on the one hand, we have all those hairy hipster fonts, and on the other hand, we have fonts created by high-profile designers, the real pros – and those fonts are kind of naked. Round-shaped, naked and pretty. But I don’t see any more purity in them than in the first Garamond. Its only problem was pronounced ink spread, but the contours were nothing if not simple. It was simple because it followed the contour of handwriting, so there was almost nothing superfluous about it. Remember, its a’s didn’t have teardrops at all.

IR: In fact, if we compare all these fonts with calligraphy, it’s a step toward simplification, of course.

YG: It’s true about the 19th-century calligraphy, which was complicated. However, if we compare them to a calligraphy with a clear-cut structure, Gothic, for instance – it was actually very simple. And each movement had to be done with a feather.

Consequently, this requirement made its way into type and stayed there. It’s an utmost elegance of manner. I’m under the impression that the modern simplicity, the modern crisp edges are based on the cleanness of contour lines. I realize it, but it has nothing to do with simplicity; these are two different things. Simplicity is a trend, whereas crisp edges are a proof of technological progress.

YO: When we say simplicity, what we actually mean is clean contour lines.

YG: This is what annoys me the most about modern typography. You look at the sheet and cannot read a thing because it’s so clean that your eyes – whoosh! – slide off it at once. Modern typography has become too neat.

IR: I would like to cite your own words as an example. When yet another iPhone update was released, it introduced San Francisco, and your first comment was about how everything suddenly became clear and sharp. By the way, that’s where I picked up the terms. In part, we used it as an example when we were trying to define this category of clarity and sharpness, when the font seemingly had no other differences from its predecessor. We looked at our Retina displays, which hadn’t undergone any changes, and got a distinct feeling that someone had sharpened the image.

YG: True, but how ridiculous the San Francisco font is!

IR: By all means.

YO: It’s another question.

YG: It’s not about beauty; it’s about enhanced legibility.

IR: That’s right.

YG: They made a few adjustments to graphemes; that is, contour lines have not been smoothed out, unlike in many modern pretty-looking serifs. Here, the spacing between the letters was altered, to prevent them from sticking together, like in Helvetica. Each grapheme became more solid, cleaner and more legible. It didn’t get more beautiful; it wasn’t about beauty.

Naturally, I felt as if the image in general had been sharpened. Helvetica was a bit fuzzy. But this one is kind of ridiculous, with mismatched letters. It’s idiotic. That is, beauty stopped being their top priority. This is why so many users were indignant at first: “Oh, this is ugly! Oh, it looks just like Windows!”

It is one of the two directions. These directions oppose each other. As for contour cleaning, it’s the plague of advanced toolkits. We have access to very good toolkits. We can draw four dots, and the rest will be created automatically. Now Yarmola will add a new function that will automatically determine where contour lines are better and where they are worse – and it will be the end. No way you can make a mistake.

The San Francisco font presentation at the WWDC’15 conference

IR: A provocative question for you. Recalling your statement that you try to keep your eyes and ears closed, to stay in your own world and to avoid seeing or hearing anything…

YG: I don’t make any effort; it’s just easier for me this way.

IR: When and on what occasion did you last experience some sort of…

YG: Delight at a font?

IR: Roughly speaking, delight at someone else’s font. It would be great if you could name a few.

YG: No, I doubt I can give you many names. I was truly delighted, almost squealing with delight, when I discovered Emigre. This team started doing something they were not supposed to. And it was extremely impressive. It was like a slap on the face, two slaps from both sides.

IR: I don’t think anyone has beaten Emigre at it yet.

YG: It was something that… pushed us in one direction, then in a different one and finally enabled us to find the right one.

IR: Actually, I meant things you simply like. Not a life-changing experience.

YG: Štorm (Editor’s note: František Štorm, type designer and founder of Stormtype), of course. I translated Serapion and had to deteriorate the translation. Štorm was very surprised: “Why are these letters different? What is it?” I had to explain to him that no Russian will accept such a serif in Rolling Stone. People won’t understand what we’re talking about. I had to make it worse, to make it a bit “lumpen-style” and replace some of his Czech motives with rougher, local motives. But Serapion left me in awe as well. Later on, Štorm surprised me a couple more times by his unexpected moves. That is, not by his greatest achievements, but those instances when his national identity shows itself. There he is, going about his business, and before you know it, he demonstrates that he’s Czech. It’s wonderful! You feel as if you were in Prague, and it’s a very cute feeling. I don’t like Schwartz or any of the Hoefler fonts – not one of them. They are too clean and neat.

The Cyrillic version of Yuri Gordon’s Serapion font in Rolling Stone

YO: Valery Golyzhenkov?

YG: I adore Golyzhenkov. He’s crazy. He creates crazy fonts, like the recent one, with a tail. It’s a whole other story. He’s a bit of a monk. In his monkhood, he does all sorts of unexpected things, fooling around. It’s wonderful. In my opinion, he’s a very profound artist in typography. It might be unclear at first sight, because he doesn’t release anything in the first place. He’s got an entire bag of fonts in stock. He refuses to release anything.

Speaking of notable events, those are family events, naturally. For instance, Valery creates something. And you think, “Holy cow, why has he done it? Couldn’t he have left it to me? I’d have done it.” But he’s done it, though differently. So you give it a try and you think, “Interesting.” Illarion (Editor’s note: Illarion Gordon, graphic and type designer, art director, Yuri Gordon’s son) hardly ever creates fonts anymore, but whenever he makes one, it always somehow… pulls at my heartstrings. Such as the DoubleB logo, with those ridiculous b’s… So yes, I notice certain things, but they are usually one-of-a-kind; as for typical creations, I don’t pay attention to them at all. I can’t even make myself look, as I’m not interested.

IR: Has anything from our lecture (Editor’s note: the type.today presentations at the 2016 Serebro Nabora conference) caught your attention?

YG: Yes, certainly. The structure. That is, I realized that I finally saw the guys who would outdo us fair and square. They will do so with ease and grace, and move on to a better future. I hope this is what happens because someone has to do it. And I think you can do it. I really like your collaboration and I like the way you complement each other. It seems to me your project may have a big potential.

IR: Wait a second; you’re answering a question that is different from the one I asked you. What I meant is what you wanted to challenge.

YG: Everything at once. There wasn’t a single idea… I kept jumping in my seat: “What are they saying? That’s nonsense.” But it doesn’t matter, as it’s my silly opinion, not the global truth that needs protection.

IR: We displayed about 20 or 30 projects by other designers that we believe to be up-to-date.

YG: I missed them completely; I didn’t look at them at all. I thought you’d mixed all the categories, putting random stuff here and there. Everything was in the wrong place. From my point of view, there were a lot of points to argue about a lot of things. That is, I could have challenged almost everything. I’m not even speaking about “Dur” (Editor’s note: roughly translated as “crack,” this word denoted a category of modern fonts in the presentation of type.today at the Serebro Nabora conference). It strongly reminded me of the Soviet classification, which placed every font they found hard to define into the decorative category. Plenty of fonts ended up there.

IR: It may well be so. We might conclude that everything is a total mess and we need to reorganize it. Even though we had been preparing this lecture for several months and had turned it upside down more than once.

YG: At the moment of speaking everything was great. By the way, everyone noticed it. So did Gayane (Editor’s note: Gayane Bagdasaryan, type designer and organizer of the Serebro Nabora conference): “How well put! I didn’t think their presentation would be so nimble.” Just like I wanted to argue with Gayane, who said that postmodern has set its… that fonts catch up with trends a bit later. Nothing of the sort. No, no, and no. By contrast, today, trends emerge in fonts earlier than anywhere else. It’s a trend-setting category. That is, something comes up in fonts, and before you know it, design picks it up as well.

Presentation by Yury Ostromenetsky and Ilya Ruderman (CSTM Fonts, type.today) at the Serebro Nabora conference in 2016

YO: Could you please say a few more words about fonts as trendsetters? It has always seemed to me that you sit down at the desk with a sketch, a pen and some paper… or at your computer, no matter where, and you think, “Now I’m going to invent something new.” And it’s unclear where to look for something new.

YG: That’s well put. It’s unclear where to look for something new.

IR: Where to look for something that hasn’t been invented yet.

YO: In fact, I was under the impression that new trends spread across fonts at least after they emerge in fashion. It seemed to me that the newest discoveries in the area of visual arts always happened in cinema, in fashion or in music. Definitely not in fonts.

YG: It may be true to some extent, but when Griffo was cutting his first typefaces, he was ahead of fashion – way ahead of fashion. Basically, his fonts predetermined smokings and tailcoats while everyone still wore traditional Burgundy clothes and used old-fashioned letters. That is, there’s no direct correlation. When constructivist designers were creating their round-shaped types, they kept pace with fashion, without lagging behind.

YO: In fact, they were fashion designers as well.

YG: They were the ones to design clothes. Tatlin, with this crazy workwear of his.

YO: At the same time, people dressed differently back then. No one ever wore the clothes they designed.

YG: Certainly. No one wore them back then. People started wearing them later. In the 1960s, they were perfectly acceptable. This is why I don’t think that fonts lag behind or borrow trends from other areas. In different epochs, different areas take the lead. When Emigre released their creations, there were no clothes to match them. There might have been similar music. It’s hard for me to say, as I’m not an expert on who had the upper hand. However, it was an absolute breakthrough in visual arts.

IR: Actually, things developed simultaneously. Everything was interconnected. That is, typography had its own period of provocation when computers became available. Emigre weren’t acting on their own. The personal computer appeared and creating fonts became simpler, leading to a certain laxity. Since a personal computer did not have the capacity to create quality fonts, a new ideology emerged.

Roughly speaking, we can’t use a personal computer to… imagine a small screen and a very primitive application that enables you to draw a font letter by letter in very low quality. You can’t make a decent product like that. So you come up with a new ideology: “On the plus side, this font is mine, and I can use it to create my own design statement in a designer application.” And it is guaranteed to be drastically, one-hundred-percent different from what is happening around you.

YG: Of course, considering that no one else has the technology yet.

IR: Take Brody, for instance (Editor’s note: Neville Brody, graphic designer), who developed unique typographic encoding and fonts for each issue of his monthly magazine, trying to convey certain messages of his own.

YG: Brody had a wonderful thing going on when the deconstruction took place. I don’t remember what it was.

IR: “Content.”

YG: Yes. From issue to issue, the word “content” gradually turned into a set of sticks. It was an amazing sight.

YO: All right, so let’s take a look from a different perspective. It embraces fashion, history and, most importantly, the “here and now.” Why are you working on the Mandelshtam font here and now? I don’t want to sound as if I were nitpicking…

YG: No, you’re far from nitpicking. It’s a valid question.

YO: Just to make it clear, this question is not only for you, but for me and Ilya as well because we are working on fonts like Kazimir and Pilar. We’re working on them here and now. For some reason, we’re also under the impression that our work is up-to-date and necessary here and now. Why is that?

Mandelshtam Poetry and Mandelshtam Life

YG: With Mandelshtam, it’s very simple – but that’s a special case. With other projects, it’s more complicated. I believe myself to be Mandelshtam’s avatar to some extent. For me, Mandelshtam was not just a poet; I seem to have developed a very good understanding of his essence – what is happening inside his poems, or even inside separate letters.

I have wanted to print one of his books for at least 25 years. I already have an idea for a fragment of “Conversation about Dante,” the one about the definition of poetry. I’ve made a few attempts at drawing it. But I feel I need specific typographics for it. I need a specific font. So I’m trying to approach it from this direction.

IR: Is it the end of a long way or its continuation?

YG: Its continuation, of course. While it used to be just a dream of mine, I can already call it a project now. It has taken a number of shapes and I realize that I can develop these shapes further. I have a font for Mandelshtam’s Prose, but I don’t know what the font for Mandelshtam’s Poetry will look like. I need one, and it has to be completely different. So I need to design it somehow. I’ll get an idea when I get down to it. I already have it inside my head, in the form of a noise that needs to be transformed into a system of signs.

YO: That is, it has nothing to do with the “here and now,” does it?

YG: Of course it doesn’t. What millennium are we in? It’s just that I understand that Picasso left certain things unsaid, and no one picked them up. He invented a number of things, but the development of his language stopped with his death. In other words, he was interrupted halfway through the phrase, and no one continued it. This is the exact same feeling that I have toward Mandelshtam’s legacy and its parts that need completion.

Nevertheless, here we are, speaking the same language and understanding one another, which means I have mastered the modern language. No matter if I’m 20 or 58; I can use this language in a statement. There are still people who will understand me. I think the three people sitting here are sure to understand me. It means that a statement must be made.

IR: I’m going to change the topic. After the lecture, I heard an idea in the lobby that I liked very much, and I’d like to discuss it with you a little. The idea that our categories and everything we’ve discussed has a number of blind spots. What trends, as a very rough approximation, would you like to add?

YG: I’m generally convinced that all unambiguous classification systems are obsolete. They were never successful in the first place, but now they’re outdated simply because the modern culture offers to use tags. I think that any phenomenon can be a lot more accurately described with a tag cloud than with a single word.

I’d like us to abandon rigid phrasing, because any phrased definition is static. That is, on a certain dot of the timeline, we phrase a definition that seems accurate at the time – but what happens next? We move on to another dot on the timeline; we go ahead, but the phrasing is left behind. As for tag clouds, they are ever-changing, losing some tags and including new ones; therefore, we get a dynamic definition. I think we should give it some thought. First of all, we should consider the possibility of describing dynamic fonts through a wide variety of states instead of categories.

I was trying to do it right in my book on letters, where I write about a tag cloud that includes all the fonts, from humanist serifs to “funny fonts.” The entire cloud can be a description. The same approach can be applied to the current state of affairs. That is, we should look for parallel strings instead of categorizing. This one is a bass string, and that one is different.

I’m not thinking about it for the simple reason that I’m now busy working on a book titled “The Language of Composition,” which defies any categorization.

To my mind, there are a few trends. First, there is the trend of contour absolutization, which will soon outlive itself. Polished to the extreme, the contour is so clean that it can’t even shine anymore. It is polished to perfection on the level of graphemes. That is, we say that here we have a K. It can’t be any better because it has exhausted itself. (It was the same on Trajan’s Column, if only a bit chippy, but we’ve made it perfect…) What happens at this point? The grapheme changes. That is, at this point, we see the grapheme start melting, how the Classicist, Latin K gives way to a different grapheme, influenced by the Cyrillic letter Ж (“zhe”).

Whether Latin alphabet users want it or not, they realize that apart from OpenType, there is the Kazakh language, the Ukrainian language, the Russian language and so on. These languages have the letter Ж, which has to be taken into account. Even though it accounts for no more than three percent, in their minds, the grapheme has already changed. Having changed, it dragged along a huge pile of rubbish that we use for letter K around these parts. I’ve counted 20 letterforms that we use, and they are all equally valid and viable. It means that Latin users will have to…

IR: That is, does it mean that all writing systems will have influenced one another eventually?

YG: Yes, certainly.

IR: All the graphemes will be transformed beyond recognition.

YG: On the one hand, yes. On the other hands, all Danila Vorobiev’s stories about how we can use round shapes here and narrow shapes there, and those letterforms should be identical and all of it has a meaning… These changes don’t have any meaning because we have already tried everything. A font with fixed-width characters; a font with fixed-width characters and round O’s; a font with wide H’s and fixed width for other characters, and so on.

That is, such details don’t change anything except for the flavor of reading. In fact, this is worth paying attention to: the flavor of reading changes. As we read this font, we accentuate all the O’s and we accentuate all the consonants. If we mask the O’s, our font becomes less sonorous. That’s what this is about.

This is what matters, not whether the font is similar to a standard type from five centuries back. The same goes for all the other constituents of a font. The grapheme takes the longest to change, but it’s starting to melt too, under the influence of globalization, monitors and technologies. That is, a grapheme is changing technologies as well. Just like in the era of phototypesetting, when the width of letters was fixed and limited by the size of the matrix. So the fonts were all… Well, take Carter (Editor’s note: Matthew Carter, type designer) was the last one who worked with them… They were preceded by ITC fonts. They had similar features.

IR: Squarish.

YG: Squarish. Because they had to fit into a certain space. However, their shape influenced people’s minds. It had a certain impact on the minds of type consumers because we got used to seeing squarish shapes everywhere. I think it will put an end to the absolutization of contour cleanness and open up new perspectives. Extrapolation.

IR: This trend can have a return wave because contour absolutization also had a technological aspect: they needed smooth contour lines because it’s faster to process a curve if it’s set by a smaller number of points.

YG: The great Charter looks the way it does because the printer didn’t have enough capacity.

IR: Figuratively speaking, the return wave of the trend can lead to hairy contour lines.

YG: This is what I’m doing now: I’m making contour lines hairy, vibrating, uneven, irregular, fuzzy, and a bit smudgy on Retina displays. This is an option too.

175067_original The uneven contour lines of the Mandelshtam Prose font

IR: And it reaffirms the relevance of the project that I keep thinking over. It is exactly what we discussed just this morning.

YG: Another wave is contour geometrization and purification, which is a trend in its own right. In my opinion, it’s connected to design trends. It’s already on the decline, as we’re witnessing the return of the baroque. That is, when classicism reaches its apex, the next thing we hear is, “It’s getting tiresome; why don’t we add a twirl here or a loop there?”

IR: There hasn’t been anything pretty for a while.

YG: No, there hasn’t. We’ll soon be back to pretty again. I think we’re already on the verge of it. The beauty might return in the new OpenType.

YO: I’ve been waiting for the baroque for five years already, but it’s still nowhere to be seen.

YG: Why wait for it when you can create it yourself? Let them look and be jealous. What other trends? Internationalization and extinction, or rather, decline of national design schools. You can’t tell a Greek from a Jew. Soon, you won’t be able to tell a Chinese from an Englishman.

IR: Today, the focus is on standalone designers and their personal…

YG: And niches. I believe niche projects are the future or typography. Once a project takes off and becomes a sensation, it triggers the growth of similar projects because everyone wants to imitate this very designer. That is, a project starts with a successful creation which later gains pace internationally, as there’s no telling who created the Latin writing system as it is.

IR: Sometimes you can’t tell by the flavor that the font was made by Indian Type Foundry.

YG: Brazilians have a distinctive style.

YO: So do Spaniards, I think, and the Swiss.

YG: Well, it’s not for long – some are tooth-picking, while others are dancing samba. However, the differences are fading because as we look at the Swiss national football team, most player have names like Ali and Mohammad. The others are Mishas Mikhailovichs.

Globally, national schools are replaced with style schools. I think it’s a relevant story that we’ll soon be able to exchange winks with anyone who shares our values, no matter where they are located – even on the Moon. This is my point. We can send very precise, subtle signals to like-minded colleagues because we see the essence and discern the nuances.

I think Yury and I send signals to each other by means of letter Ы (“y”), for instance, the one with a ligament. I haven’t seen anyone render it the way we do, but we stick with this manner, and it means quite a lot.

IR: We’ve seen a few letters like yours in student’s projects, so it’s taking seed.

YG: Indeed it is. But there’s something special about it. Because every time I use it, it’s a wink. Until I first saw him do the same thing, I thought I was the clever one. Now we do it simultaneously. I don’t think we need to phrase it; what matters is to notice it.

IR: All right. It’s more or less clear about the tag cloud. It’s clear about the strings. What could we have missed? I liked your idea about the fuzzy border between type and non-type. I liked your statement, its phrasing in particular, because it offers a comprehensive answer to all of my internal questions. However, I’m afraid that our prospective readers might find it hard to follow. This is why it’s a good idea to explain what you mean in more detail.

YG: Generally, we work with alphabetical systems of a certain structure that obliges us to express our thoughts sequentially. So we always unravel it along the line. In a completely visual epoch, we stick with literary means.

Hieroglyphs are apparently back with a vengeance because a hieroglyph is a nucleus of meaning. It’s a capsule that can open up in a number of different ways, depending on the context. I believe it’s very interesting and important to follow this trend and not to discard things like emoji, leaving them for girls from primary school. No. In fact, it’s an attempt at a different language. As this language develops, it will become more and more successful. I try to use emoji in projects of mine as often as I can. Besides, I use both text-based emoji, such as smileys, and emoji pictures. Moreover, I’ve created my own set of emoji, but I haven’t been able to upload them to Telegram.

IR: We can share our experience.

YG: I’d love to, by the way.

YO: It’s very easy to do.

DY: You need to speak to a robot.

YG: All right, I’m ready to speak to a robot. Once, I had to upload letter by letter to Corel Draw 2.

IR: Have you seen a relevant release of ours from just a week ago?

YG: I’ve already felt jealous of Linor, who has turned it into a standalone applique of sorts, for her Pe-Tse the Hare. It’s the same thing. I only have faces for now, but I can add many more interesting things. My emoji are a bit uneven and lopsided, with their own stories to tell. For instance, I have an emoji story about a superhero, how he takes off, then crashes against the wall, or something just as terrible happens, and then he recovers.

Yuri Gordon has recently released a number of Telegram sticker packs. You can read about them in more detail in Gordon’s LiveJournal

YO: The thing is that you have to…

YG: Adhere to a certain sign.

YO: Adhere to a certain emoji. Because it’s a glyph and it’s in Unicode.

IR: Then there is consumer behavior.

YG: When I read Telegram messages, I keep stumbling across various custom stickers – with photos of presidents and so on. Actually, it’s a transformation of the language. Today we use emoji, and in the future, we’re quite likely to embrace the Chinese language because emoji have a profound meaning for them as well. We’ll say things like, “Oh, I know this hieroglyph. It means ‘pulled a face and moved aside.’ And this one means ‘sunrise on a winter day.’”

IR: Speaking of emoji, many people say their popularity is short-lived; it will come to an inevitable decline and we won’t have any emoji in 20 years.

YO: To be more precise, it’s not a random opinion; it is quite common among text professionals.

YG: I realize they’re all for it. They want us to return to linear texts, but it’s not going to happen. In 20 years, a glyph could be replaced with a five-minute video. And you pause for a second, thinking, “What’s he trying to say? Oh, right. Okay.” So you stop watching it and move on. Naturally, the diversity of texts will keep growing by all means possible.

DY: I’ve had an emotional experience lately. Currently, I’m in denial about emoji. And I couldn’t find the words to… Apart from the fact that some of them are downright ugly, there was some other annoying factor. Suddenly, I came up with the phrasing I was looking for. How many Unicode symbols are now dedicated to emoji?

YO: Let’s say 386.

DY: So we can resort to 386 facets to express the entirety of our emotional range. We’re limited to this amount.

YG: It’s far from enough.

DY: Even if there were 1386, it still seems to me I’d be able to say more with words.

YG: What about hieroglyphs?

DY: But the mechanism suggests that I make a choice. I stop assessing my emotional state outside the limits of this code chart.

YG: It will lead to an expansion of the code chart. End of story. We are now witnessing the emergence of the new hieroglyphic system. Naturally, it will take time to develop. Further on, it will include combinations and ligatures, like in Chinese and similar languages. This is how the system will develop. To my mind, it’s a transparent and logical process. The system will embrace more and more visual, graphic subtleties because emoji can vary, after all. A certain smiley might express your emotion more accurately if it’s a bit lopsided, fuzzy or otherwise irregular. For instance, a black or a blue smiley might be more appropriate than a yellow one.

YO: Won’t it make the language more primitive?

YG: Not quite.

YO: Why not?

YG: Do the Chinese have a primitive language?

YO: I don’t know anything about Chinese. I know a little about Russian.

YG: I know it’s a great culture with a great language. They also have tones, which we don’t.

YO: So now we see words, groups of words, and word combinations replaced…

YG: With a single item…

YO: With a silly and, in most cases, ugly picture.

IR: As for the words, you can still use them as much as you like.

DY: My manner is changing.

IR: It’s an additional way of expressing your emotions. When have you ever felt bad about having too big a vocabulary?

DY: But it’s become smaller. Now I only have as many objects to describe my feelings as there are in the Unicode code chart.

IR: Excuse me, but there are millions of characters.

YG: You can express your feelings through linear writing. No one is in your way. But when the situation calls for it…

IR: They are synonyms… You can treat then as additional synonyms.

YG: “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” We get extended capabilities.

YO: As a grown-up, I can treat them as an extra opportunity. But we know and we see who uses emoji. They are children.

DY: “A period at the end of the sentence shows aggression.” This is the change of manner I’m speaking about.

YG: And this, by the way, is a fascinating phenomenon. I have a feeling that the psychological aspect of punctuation is changing. The changes aren’t making it more primitive. As for the period at the end of the sentence…

IR: Its meaning is changing. Your perception of this process may vary. It’s a matter of opinion.

YO: The period is simply vanishing.

IR: No, it isn’t.

YO: Everyone tends to drop it.

IR: Not really. It gets an additional meaning.

YO: Why would it? People still use period stop when they need it.

DY: Thus, you can’t avoid putting a period between two sentences.

YG: Certainly.

YO: I can press Enter. I press Enter.

DY: You do, by the way; you press Enter.

YO: True as well. It means that our speech is becoming more poetic.

YG: I don’t see any simplification. I see a change. I can’t fathom how a more sophisticated culture can end up with a simpler language. In particular, emoji add complexity to our culture, among other things. It’s not like we abolished the alphabet. We haven’t abolished writing as a school subject. We just added something else to the picture.

YO: I’m not even trying to defend it, but there is an opinion that the language used by young people tends to abandon signs, to abandon meanings and to replace them with line breaks an silly, ugly pictures; meanwhile people are using fewer and fewer words.

YG: Is it true about all people? Let’s go back to the Middle Ages, when the literacy rate was about two percent.

IR: Let’s not forget Ilf and Petrov with their Ellochka the Cannibal.

YO: Fantastic. Let’s look back at Ellochka the Cannibal, compare the present day to the Middle Ages and come to a conclusion that we’re headed back to the Middle Ages, my dear friends.

YG: No, we’re not going back to the Middle Ages. We get a simple language that can be used by common people to describe simple emotions. Does it mean there are more of them? I don’t think so. I think commoners are getting fewer because higher education is becoming more and more accessible and it embraces a lot of things. With time, people will have to increase the level of their education for the simple reason that manual labor market is shrinking.

YO: What you’re saying now sounds like, “Dear friends, let’s reserve higher education and the big language for two percent of the population, while others…”

YG: Certainly not. No. I think that the so-called big language is now used by people engaged in the domain of culture, and the situation will stay this way. It’s just that they used to represent a tiny fraction of the population, and now this fraction has grown. That is, they’ve become more numerous, not vice versa. More people use the sophisticated language of the culture. It’s just that we didn’t see people who use simple language because they didn’t write anything. Now we see them because they’ve started writing.

DY: This resonates with what Roman Leibov said about the long tail. It’s not that there are more graphomaniacs, but it’s easier to get published.

YG: Certainly, there are just as many graphomaniacs, but it’s easier to get published. Of course. However, the culture is becoming more complex. Naturally, it embraces the lower strata that need some sort of… they used to live in the absence of a language, but now they have emoji.

We, the priests, are the ones responsible for saving this part of the language from permanent primitiveness. I don’t see any problem in developing it. We can be the ones to create new emoji. It’s a ruble sign of sorts. There’s a huge, monstrous state that can oppress anything, but its efforts are in vain in this case because it doesn’t have the governing mechanism for it. Luckily, we have such a mechanism.

Pictorial font Yumoji by Yuri Gordon and CSTM Emoji by CSTM Fonts

YO: I remember how everyone hated the ruble sign when it was introduced.

YG: Naturally; it was meant to incite hatred. How can you not hate it? It was chosen without an alternative.

IR: I’m still fairly skeptical about the ruble sign because, in my opinion, the ruble sign…

YG: Find a better one.

IR: …should be Latin-oriented.

YG: Quite the contrary: I don’t believe it should be Latin-oriented.

IR: For an international symbol, it’s too Cyrillic now. Sadly, it also reminds of P.

YG: No. It’s a ruble sign. It has already become the sign of the ruble.

IR: Unfortunately, it’s a “Puble” sign. That’s what I find disconcerting about it.

YG: It’s a “public sign,” a “puble.” No big deal. Nothing too surprising.

The thing is, during its creation, discussion and introduction, it was designed primarily for the domestic market, as an element of national self-identification. In this context, Cyrillic elements were preferable. Not because… I don’t think I can pass for an ardent, birch-tree-loving patriot, but I kept comparing the Latin P to the Cyrillic Р (“er”). And I thought, “oh my god, we have our own script.” We can design and introduce this element for internal use, and then present it to the international community, saying, “Guys, we have our own script, so could you please make an effort to memorize just one symbol from it?”

YO: Why use it at all?

YG: In Cyrillic writing?

DY: No, anywhere, at all?

YO: Yes, to what end?

IR: To avoid spelling out “rub.”

YG: Certainly.

DY: “Rub.” is a wonderful grapheme; I like it very much.

YO: What was wrong with “rub.”?

YG: Four characters instead of one – that’s all.

DY: Saving space?

YO: I can’t type it with my keyboard right now.

YG: I can easily type it. I use it regularly, just like euro and dollar signs.

IR: It’s easier to find on an iPhone. I have no clue where to look for it on a Mac keyboard.

YG: Option + Р. The Russian Р (“er”).

IR: Is that right?

YG: Yes, certainly.

YO: No one knows about it.

YG: In my LiveJournal… How many are there? Its 5000 subscribers know it.

YO: Actually, my question was in a broader sense. I really find it a bit hard to understand… to heck with the ruble sign. It’s true that we get one character instead of four. It must be convenient, on the condition that everyone remembers the hotkey combination Option + P… However, there’s an adjacent issue… I doubt it’s the area of your responsibility, but you might happen to have an opinion about it. City branding and city logos are all the rage now. Can any of you explain to me why we need them? Why does every backwater town want a logo and an identity?

YG: I think it’s a question for Artemy (Editor’s note: Artemy Lebedev, designer and art director). He has hit a gold mine there. It’s a great niche. It’s a pleasure to work on. I’m certain that city identity is a fantastic idea, but not in our case, where things are the way they are now. If every city developed its own style independently from its neighbors, without looking up to the opinion of Moscow… There’s a guy who is trying to do it now; his name is Alexey (Feodor) Zheludkov, and he once printed a few books for me (https://www.facebook.com/feodor.sinoptik?fref=ts). He’s trying to do it in Irkutsk.

Basically, he’s beating his head against the wall, but watching him do it is incredibly interesting. Besides, he’s a complete natural genius. So far, what he’s doing looks quite weird, but if he completes it, the result will be fascinating because it’s an attempt to introduce something from below, not from above. In addition, his objective is different from dissecting a few elements into pieces and dragging them around: as a resident of the city who feels its rhythm and knows its streets, he is interested in finding a suitable style for street plaques, shop signs and so on. A unified style. There’s something fascinating about it. Why can’t cities have their own style? Why is London allowed to, while Moscow isn’t?

YO: I don’t understand why either city needs it.

IR: So that you, as a tourist who enjoys taking pictures of nice, cute things, could take a photo of a beautiful tiled plaque with the name of the street somewhere in a picturesque Spanish town and get a souvenir of your tourist experience in this town. How tiny and cute Europe is; how comfortable I am here!

YO: If I’m comfortable there, I don’t need any signature style to enjoy it.

IR: However, this feeling of comfort extends beyond a cobbled street, a shabby old cottage and so on. It comprises a lot of things that have emerged over the years for various reasons. Speaking of navigation, if you paid attention, the waves of improvements that have made this town a comfortable place for you as a tourist are sometimes visible as separate layers. They put up a sign, and in a while, it gets rusty or outdated because the name has been changed. Another layer is added. As a result, this multi-layered structure makes this beautiful town even more comfortable.

YO: Navigation is different. Navigation is about usability. As for the city logo…

YG: But then again, what is a city logo?

DY: Heraldry is outdated.

YG: I think a logo is an absolute equivalent of a coat of arms.

IR: In some cities, logos are a modern reincarnation of coats of arms. A reinvention of their old coats of arms and their roots. If we were to answer your question in general, irrespectively of today’s Russia, a signature style reflects the history of the area and continues traditions of this specific locality.

YG: That’s for sure. Take Castelli, for instance, the Italian town of maiolicas. It’s a tiny town situated on a rock massif 200 meters high. If you look at it on Google Maps, it seems as if it had been built in the middle of a forest. However, when you arrive there, you realize that the forest is 200 meters lower. It’s an amazing feeling. Most of its residents are ceramics masters, so all the street signs are ceramic, with scrawled names, which looks really nice. This is a signature style at its best because it emerged from the local craft.

IMG_7946_1 The plaque of the Police Department for the town of Castelli. Ceramics. Almost one meter in diameter

YO: This is a natural process. There’s nothing contradictory about it.

YG: What about Bauhaus? What if a certain variation of Bauhaus emerged in a city and all the new street plaques were to reflect this new, weird style? Why not? It will be a local phenomenon. And it will be…

IR: And then it will spread across half of Europe.

YG: It may spread across half of Europe, but not necessarily. For instance, in old Italian cities, you can come across marble street plaques, with the letters carved in a type different from that of Trajan’s Column; it resembles Bodoni, and the letters are paint-coated. The plaques look amazing, just splendid, with all the quirky lettering and unusual forms.

I really like things like that. Like any diversity and cultural phenomena. I am in complete awe of signature styles that appear as a cultural phenomenon, but not those introduced by the administration to embezzle more funds. Yes, I’m speaking about the situation here. This is why all the styles developed by Artemy look the same. His logo can be the first thing that comes to mind as you think about the city, but it has little to do with the city’s past.

IR: In fact, your question is driven by a patriotic feeling; looking at the ongoing embezzlement and the commercial aspect of such projects, you get an impression that city branding is useless and does not serve to achieve any other objectives.

YO: It may well be so.

YG: I think it’s true.

YO: You create fonts as an artist, for your own purposes, for your projects, in isolation, without looking at anyone else…

YG: Not in isolation. But it’s true that I create them for myself.

YO: For yourself, inside your head, and for your own projects. Why do you sell them?

YG: Because people like them. Why should I hide them after someone has seen them? It’s important for me to show my fonts so as to understand whether I’ve hit the mark. Whether I’ve hit the mark or whether…

YO: Well, could you use a picture for that?

YG: Why not sell them? Let people use my fonts, and I get the money. It’s fine. It’s a mutually beneficial exchange: I get the money and the guys get a font. Everyone starts using it, and one out of a hundred understands it to some extent. Great!

YO: A person who buys a font, no matter where – from you, at myfonts, from Schwartz or at type.today, – is bound to have his or her own idea of how to use it. When a type designer offers certain products for sale… He or she has to keep in mind the needs of customers. Normally, with that in mind, a designer includes a number of graphic, functional and technical features, anticipating potential ways of using this typeface. For obvious reasons, you definitely don’t do anything of the sort.

YG: Actually, I do. However, my approach is different. Here is what I did in 21 Cents and 20 Copecks. The first set includes letters I expect to be used. I use them myself. Mostly, it concerns Russian letters К (“ka”) and Ж (“zhe”). In the first case, in 20 Copecks, the first set includes more traditional, ridiculous letters, while 21 Cents include more provocative, unconventional letterforms. The second set of letters in 20 Copecks, which can be switched on in one click, features straight letterforms that turn this font into an analogue of Akzidenz-Grotesk. Or rather, it starts shifting toward Futura because of its straight lines – and toward modern sans serifs with their small apertures. That is, a sans serif that was created as a mock-19th-century grotesque suddenly starts working like a modern one. I created it both for myself – as a challenge of sorts – and for those who will work with it in the future. But it’s hardly ever used because people think: “All right. He did it this way, so we’ll just follow his lead.”

YO: You see, these two areas often interfere with each other, although I’d prefer to keep them separate. Nevertheless, I try to put a line between the concepts of “artist” and “designer” because the particular difference between them is the fact that an artist, in my opinion, mustn’t feel responsible for what he or she creates.

YG: An artist doesn’t have the right to consider it.

YO: No, an artist doesn’t have this right, while a designer must feel responsible.

YG: He can, but it’s not necessary. The thing is, as a designer, I still… First, I don’t simply put letters on sale, like the Paratype company, which creates a typeface and adds it to the catalog – end of story. I market a font with the entire scope of design objects that use it. I show various ways of application.

I say, “Look, guys, you can do it the following way. You can also disregard everything I’ve done, but what I meant is the following. If you don’t like it, don’t buy my font; buy one from Gayane or from type.today. However, you need to keep in mind that my font has the following features. They are not only challenges; they are opportunities. They don’t necessarily hold back a designer; potentially, they can open up new horizons.” But then again, I’m not an enemy to myself. I create letters I’m comfortable working with. Consequently, if you’re on the same page as me, you get an opportunity of using the same letters.

A good example is the Afisha Picnic festival, which made a great use of my Dr. Watson font. I didn’t know a thing about Afisha Picnic when I was working on the font. I was doing something completely different. It has all sorts of creatures lurking in the basement, with all the ridiculous double contours. The festival designers used it, and it seems to fit in just fine.

piknik_afishi Dr Watson on the poster of the 2012 Afisha Picnic festival. Art Director Daria Yarzhambek

YO: The guys used it because they had been closely watching you create this font and were generally aware of your work.

YG: I realize it. It’s for the better. It means we’re on the same page.

YO: As for an average designer…

YG: Let him be. Let him spoil the font, miss its point, or do the wrong thing.

YO: You’re speaking like an artist.

YG: No, I’m speaking like a person with a clearly articulated style of my own. I can’t show you the share of my style in the total multitude of existing styles. But I can presume my fraction is this small, and there may be about 200 people who can work with it. Is it many or few? I’ll be damned if I know.

IR: If we were to imagine a perfect buyer of your fonts, would he be Yuri Gordon’s clone?

YG: Certainly not. So far, my favorite customer is Tatiana Kostakova, Leonid Feigin’s wife. She’s a great professional and everything she does is good. She has purchased the entire font library and does whatever she wants with them.

My perfect customer is a person who understands my “winks,” but is not too concerned by where I’ve used the font. He or she has their own objectives and uses my font to achieve them. The obtained results can be completely different from mine.

In brief, my perfect customer is a friend of mine, a person with whom I have something to speak about. Basically, an example of my perfect customer is Valery Golyzhenkov, who gets everything for free and uses my creations in his work. Or Olya Vasilkova (Editor’s note: Olga Vasilkova, graphic designer, co-founder of the Letterhead foundry, Yuri Gordon’s wife). Or Illarion. What does he do with my fonts? God knows what. On the contrary, I’m interested in seeing the results.

But I can’t see any point in limiting the sale. Let anyone buy my fonts. After all, I’m devious and I fill my letters with so many general cultural concepts that they should carry a certain impact even as part of a random design poster on the wall. Even if the design is terrible. Once at a post office, I saw my Bistro font on postcards that made my eyes bleed. Those postcards must have been stolen from ParaType umpteen years ago. But it’s all right. This font carries an impact anyway. Its impact is different from that of the postcard. Because the postcard needed a ridiculous font as well, but a different one. However, this combination is an attempt of an impact in its own right. In other words, it’s as if a stupid biddy starts speaking in Mandelshtam’s language out of a sudden; she utters a phrase and then goes on about her business. So this pause, this strange incident that happens to her is valuable too. At least, I think so.


Yuri Gordon’s B for Brownie from the Small Color Alphabet series. Canvas, oil, palette knife, 30 x 30 cm

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