Interview with Peter Bilak
by Luciano Perondi and Silvia Sfligiotti
Milano, 29/05/02

SS I would like to start talking about translation. I know that you’re really interested in it, and it could also be used as a metaphor for graphic design. Umberto Eco in one of his books defines translation as a form of negotiation you have to do with the text, giving something in return for what gets lost in translation. What’s your opinion about it, do you agree with him?

PB: I usually tend to agree with Umberto Eco (laughs)... Translation in languages is incredibly interesting, but there are limits in how you can apply that to graphic design. It’s hard to talk about translation when you move to one medium to another; there’s inevitably a certain loss of data. It’s often used as a metaphor in school explaining what typography and graphic design do. There’s a sort of simulation, trying to record everything that people do translated into graphic terms. But it leads to a certain frustration if you try to do it with one-to-one translation. In the end, it’s really about interpretation and adaptation to the right form. It’s a bit like when you have to convert a book into a movie, people are always disappointed with the result, because the medium does not offer the same possibilities. So you need to embrace the limitations of the medium. I’m facing the same problem now when trying to find a representation of dance in the printed form. It’s something that is not obvious, because the limitations of the printed form are so strict compared to the life feeling of dance. You need to look at the defaults of one and at the defaults of the first, and see what possible changes you need to make in order that it works in one or the other.

SS: You have your native language, a language you use in your work, and the language of the country you live in. Does this have anything to do with your work as a type designer?

PB: I think so. People that have experience of living abroad can really appreciate the role of languages, and tend to think about the translation more often. I have never studied languages, I’m not a linguist and I don’t know enough about it. All my languages are learnt through practical experience, so they are also limited by my formation.
When writing, I tend to do simultaneous translation in my head, which makes the writing very dense and compact avoiding empty words, which don’t survive this translation. At the same time, I know that it is especially these words that can’t be translated that make the text very personal and characteristic for a particular language.
In typography I have a continuous interest in expanding the field of latin typography through the influence of non-latin scripts. There are some rules which are so typical for latin type; if you look at the others, like greek or arabic, there’s such a richness which can be influential to latin as well: this way I find new possibilities for designing latin type again. So it works both ways.
In the seventies and eighties, because of various pressures, there was a trend of latinizing foreign scripts, mainly Greek, as an expression of political preferences, rather than embracing the possibilities of the script. Greek for example, which doesn’t use a strict vertical contrast but rather more flexible things, influenced by semitic writing. We come back to the roots of it only now after a digression of past decades.
It is the same, the more languages you know the richer the person you are, you can use these possibilities in your work and your personal life.

SS: Yesterday, presenting your work, you focused a lot on the process: you were talking to graphic designers and in this cases it can be really interesting to think about the process and maybe forget about the final visual result. But in real life the final result is what communicates and the process is totally lost. How do you deal with it?

PB: I deal with it every day. Teaching in school I always meet students or ex-students who are trying to work in real life. They compare the experience of studying in school with the experience they have in practical life, working for companies, and they always complain: “The client doesn’t understand my work, I cannot do what I want to do”. I wouldn’t say it’s a mistake of the client. It is a negotiation between two parties, so you cannot blame it on the receiver. I often suspect something must go wrong in the communication, and I think that what goes wrong is the explanation of the process. Most of the time what we do is trying to engage the other persons into the process. If you don’t do it sufficiently, there might be a misunderstanding. If you come up with a result and present it to someone who doesn’t really see how you get to it, it’s very hard to understand design.
Recently I had to write an essay about experimental typography, and I started to think about what an example of experiment would be. You realise that as soon as you have a final result it’s not an experiment, it’s just a result. Experimentation is the process that gets into it. Terms like ‘experimental’ or ‘process oriented’ design double the meaning, because every design is process-based, and every design is experimental: you need to come up with new solutions to different questions.
When I explain my work, I find it very important to emphasize what information are available before and what is the answer, so you can see the trajectory, rather than leaving you there and thinking about it as a kind of art work where people should be clever enough to figure out what’s happening.

SS: This is what happens with the client. But in the end this thing is out in the streets and someone looks at it, and in that moment nobody knows about the process…

PB: Yes, inevitably. But I think that by concentrating on the process and engaging other parties in it you reduce the chances of miscommunicating the message, because you look at the same thing from different perspectives. Rather than imposing your own perspective on other people, you should embrace more views, to see what would happen if you look at it trying to understand what this piece of design does and how it can be interpreted. I do these mini-tests to see what happens in the streets anyway, but I do it before it’s out in the streets.

SS: You mentioned teaching before. Why did you decide to teach?

PB: Most of the things I do, although it sounds like they are clever career decisions, they’re not: I never decided to live in Holland, I never decided to teach, I never decided to design type. These things happened because of many other things that happened on the way. Look, we decided to make this interview, but if we wouldn’t have moved our chairs a moment ago, we would be surely doing something else now.**. It is good to have some kind intentions, but one always needs to react to the current situation. There are many small reasons why I came to Holland, all things happened at the right time. With teaching it’s the same: I did occasionally a talk or a workshop, and I realised it had an effect. I did enjoy it, and then someone asked me if I would try it for a semester. I don’t think that I would come spontaneously to a decision, “I decided to teach now”, but suddenly when you are confronted with the possibility and you think about it… you try it and see, the worst thing would be that you give it up after six months.
I did teach in different schools; I started in Arnhem and I really enjoyed it but it was a little too tiring, because of travelling. Now I teach at the postgraduate school in The Hague, which is different from teaching at graduate and undergraduate levels: people are much more mature. For me it’s not really teaching, but observing what they do and trying to be a kind of stimulant for their work.

  • _(During the interview in the backyard of Aiap, a large glass window fell right on the place where LP, SS, and PB were sitting. Luckily they moved a minute earlier because they wanted to sit more in the sun.)_

LP: Can you make some examples? how do you teach?

PB: I prepare a series of lectures on specific topics which I think might be relevant. Every time I present a certain theme, which could be for example designing diacritics for a specific language. From this theme I prepare a series of practical assignments. I try to always get lots of input from the students, so often students prepare lectures as well. This is a feature of graduate students, which are more mature and more able to articulate ideas. It’s quite amazing to see how much work one can do in one semester or two semesters. The school where I teach now used to be two years, and it was shortened now in one year: I didn’t see any difference in terms of results. The students are able to produce as much or as good as in two years.

LP: Do you teach type design?

PB: This course is called ‘Type and Media’: it’s very type design specific, and there are very good type designers involved already: Frank Blokland, Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Peter Verheul, Petr van Blokland, Christoph Noordzij, Fred Smeijers, Gerard Unger, the best of dutch type design. So I don’t feel that I need to talk too much about designing type or technical aspects. I often bring things that are related… Languages, and non-Latin type became something that I talk about more and more.
I try to do many assignments, because otherwise it becomes too theoretical. And I talk about the possibilities of type design, finding parallels with other disciplines, to see what happens in architecture and literature, when you have very reduced possibilities and realise that you can do a lot more than you think.
The school in The Hague has a certain methodology, which tends to be quite self-enclosed; it’s inspired by Gerrit Noordzij and his ideas about writing, based on translation, expansion and so on, which is great, you need it because it is a very practical way to understand the structure of type, but you cannot leave it at this stage, you cannot think that this is the final stage of how to think about design.

LP: Tell me your opinion about education in type design.

PB: I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a type specific course at a regular art academy: it’s too early, there are so many other things that I find more important to learn about before. When I was teaching in the undergraduate course I didn’t teach type design, but I talked about its funciìtion and meaning; we tried to cover all the scope of different media and means. It is important to give an insight, but if someone is interested in it they can deepen the knowledge later. There’s a phase for broading your knowledge and then another one for narrowing it down.
In post-graduate education, you can really specialise, focus on something. But you cannot focus before you know the whole scope of possibilities.
It would be wrong to specialise too early, it creates quite narrow-minded people. There are many type designers who are narrow-minded, maybe because of too early specialisation.

LP: Do you think it’s important to teach graphic design to non-designers?

PB: Teaching, like any exchange of information, should be dialogue. There should first be some kind of interest of the non-designer to learn about design. If this would be imposed, students wouldn’t understand why. But if they find some interest in visual language, in understanding how it works, then it could be done.
In a way, I think the greatest challenge for designers is to be able to speak to a wider public. Some people who I really admire are finding their way to develop a language which is not a jargon that only designers understand. Rick Poynor ’s biggest contribution is not writing on Eye or Emigre, but writing in newspapers. He writes about design for The Guardian; this means he has to find a completely different vocabulary to talk about these themes to a wider public. Movie critics talk about their field in tv or newspapers every day, because they find the way to describe it in very broad terms. Designers tend to be overly specific, and their writing can be only published in trade magazines. If you would be able to find a more appropriate language which can involve a wider public it would be only good.

SS: A few years ago you started a magazine, Dot Dot Dot, with Stuart Bailey. You called it a graphic design/visual communication magazine, but I don’t think it’s exactly that. It’s more like a magazine for graphic designers, for those who feel the need to look at other disciplines to pick up new ideas.

PB: We got rid of the tagline ‘graphic design/visual communication magazine’, I think after three issues. When we started it we thought of it as a design magazine, because we were designers. The question we asked ourselves was: what kind of things should be in a graphic design magazine? Which is quite limiting, because at the end you start doing what other magazines do, trying to find clever design projects and put them in the magazine. After a while we realised that our work is not limited by design, every project is so different: you work with architecture or photography or mathematics… there’s no limitation in terms of subjects which you can work with as a designer. We try to apply it to the magazine as well: there’s no reason why some things like film, music, literature should not be in the magazine. I think the only connection with graphic design is that Stuart and I studied graphic design. Now the magazine talks about everything else besides graphic design, it talks about all the other things, which maybe define design, because design is not self-enclosed, you need other disciplines in order to define it. Like anything, this magazine is changing. There was no master plan or editorial policy. We started strictly talking about design, then became more loose about it. Now we need to figure out if it still makes sense or what’s going to happen in the next stage.

SS: You have curated a couple of graphic design exhibition. One was a few years ago, at the Brno Biennale, and you’re going to do another one this year. What do you think about showing graphic design in the context of a gallery, which is not the context it was meant for?

PB: It’s quite a coincidence that you asked that, because the new exhibition deals exactly with the same thing. It’s entitled Graphic Design in the White Cube, the white cube being the gallery and all the embedded meanings of the gallery: isolation from the real world, creation of a kind of utopian space which is only for elitist groups to see. Graphic design is meant to be seen in context, on the street, in a bookshop or in a shop.
When I did the first exhibition in Brno it was the same issue. I was presenting dutch design in the Czech Republic: most of the books and posters where in dutch, people didn’t see any context where they were done, the works were reduced to pure images – usually pretty images – people came to admire it, without any understanding. In that case, the solution was to find the original brief and translate it, and it was shown next to the work. You had the assignment – what the designer was asked to do – and you had the result, and you as a public were in this triangle – the public, the client (the brief), and the final work – which simulates reality.
For the new exhibition, I tried to come up with something even more straightforward. I was asked: “can you prepare a fascinating design exhibition?” – which is something extremely difficult. Basically they had the idea that I would bring the ‘best’ designers, by whatever criteria, collect their work and bring it there. And again, you lose the context, you don’t understand what they do and how. So, instead of making a big selection of people, I chose only eighteen designers who tend to work often on self-initiated projects – they’re often the authors of their own work – and I asked them to design a poster for this design exhibition. All the eighteen posters are presented in the gallery, and second copies are put in the streets of Brno as a sort of invitation. It’s quite self-referential, a snake eating its own tail, but doing it this way I could document the entire process, which it’s hard to do when you do it later. All the sketches, all the by-products that were produced while working at this, are part of the exhibition.
The posters are meant for the gallery this time; the gallery has given the context to the work, so it the best place to see it now. The designers had pictures of the space, they had to think about the location of Brno, about the context of the Biennale, they were given the entire history, and were supposed to react to this.
I got really interesting responses. I had invited nineteen people; one of the studios rejected it, it was M/M Paris, instead they decided to write an essay about it. What the whole show does is – rather than talking about images – raising a question about how to present design, and if it makes sense to present design this way, and showing itself as a possibility. We’ll see how successful it will be, because you need to see it on location.

LP: What do you think about the possible future of type design?

PB: I have been interested in the past and how the past influences the future, but what I came to realise right now is that whatever I do, I do it in the present moment. My best work is the work which was really done to present this present moment. When I try to find futuristic solutions it always fails to work. I recently worked in a competition for a logotype for the Olympic Games in Leipzig in 2012, and I found it extremely interesting, because this logotype is not designed to work today, but in ten years. If you look at all the logotypes for the Olympic Games, it’s quite obvious that they were designed ten years before, and it doesn’t work.
The best that we can do, how in general we can live our life, is to concentrate on the present moment.

LP: What is your opinion about contemporary type design, which are the critical aspects?

PB: Anything that we do today is contemporary design. Even historical revivals, it’s hard to call them truly historical revivals, because they’re done with the perspective of today. If you work on a revival of Fournier, you don’t work in the conditions that Fournier was working in, you have much broader knowledge, different tools available, and it’s natural that you use the tools, the same like Fournier used the tools which he had at his moment to the full potential. If you take this example of Fournier, to continue his work, the best would be to use the tools we have right now, but observing the methodology of his work.
What we do today is strictly contemporary, and at the same time it is historical, because you cannot not base your work on previous examples. While working, I can use all the inventions and discoveries that other designers have done before me, and work in a polyhistorical way. You make choices about what is better for your work or not, but that means that you’re informed by history .

SS: Looking at the sketches of your typeface History, it seems to suggest the idea that the history of type is a series of slight variations on a theme, the basic, classic letterforms. What is the idea behind this typeface? Is it only a speculation or you can imagine specific uses for it?

PB: This typeface in process is related to another project, a rejected proposal for the typeface for the Twin Cities – where instead of designing one typeface I proposed using chronologically a different typeface everyday to present the history of typography to general public.
The idea remains the same, history of typography is a continuous progress, upon which we build. It is a slow evolution which allow us to progress. Bodoni’s work would not be possible without the work of renaissance punch cutters, their work without the Roman inscriptions, their work without Greek lapidary lettering, etc, etc. I wanted to identify some of these contributions to history and see if one coherent system can be made of them.
At this moment it is a speculation, though I sometimes wished for a typeface which was so modular, that I can take off or on serifs, or change contrast if I needed it. This multilayer typeface could be an answer to it.

SS: There can be different reactions to the presence of technology in our work. Some simply accept and use it as the current available tool, some other seem to react against it, trying to add the presence of the hand-made. Other people try to push it forwards and to use it to widen the possibilities of design. What is your personal approach?

PB: Obviously technology is here and is not going to go away, so it makes sense to accept this fact. On the other hand, it is worth challenging some of the conventions and limitation that it brings. Most software for example is written by engineers, and they had little idea how it will be in fact used, so it includes lot of limitation preventing designers to unfold their creativity. Design, because of its nature, combines rational with intuitive, and it necessarily pushed the technology rather than be pushed by it. Here in The Hague there are more people who are equally good with programming as with designing, Just and Erik (van Rossum and van Blokland from Letterror) are probably the best examples. I am not as skilled technically as they do, but luckily there are people I can collaborate with. For example in the dance performance Due a due a custom software has been made, because there was no existing one. In the space where I work, Edwin and Bart (de Koning and van der Ploeg) are programmers, of VJ software Resolume, and they helped to program it.

LP: How can science and graphic design be related? Is there a possible interesting evolution in the relationship between them? How can graphic design work for science?

PB: To be honest, I don’t know enough about science, so you won’t get very relevant responses from me. I’ve been thinking about science when I was writing an essay that I mentioned before about experimental typography: I was looking at science to find a definition of experiment, because it’s much more clearly defined in science. There, if you make an experiment, there’s a methodology of work; it involves making a hypothesis prior making some work: you define what you want to do, and at the end you test how it complies with the intended results or not. But in design it is not applicable, because if you knew exactly what the result would be, you would not involve the process of experiment into it. The process of experiment means trying different avenues, but don’t have clear criteria like in science to see if your hypothesis matches the results or not.
There is something that is quite unique to the field we’re working in: at the end, you don’t work purely with your reason, but involving intuition, which is contradictory to science. Experiment in science means that someone else has to be able to replicate the same experiment to prove its validity. In design you cannot replicate the same experiment: with a different designer, you will have a different result, which means that it’s not a true experiment by scientific terms. There are some things which are not easily applicable from science to graphic design and vice versa. There are things which can be inspiring– Oulipo is a good example of merging two different things – but not completely: you borrow something, some aspects of the methodology applied to your own field, rather than trying to be extremely dogmatic.

LP: This is about the parallelism between design and science. But can they be part of the same process, can they mix together to get different results?

PB: How?

LP: I’m asking you.

PB: I don’t know.