Peter Biľak interviewed by Mark Thomson
Peter Biľak speaks with Mark Thomson about his beginnings, running a type foundry, magazines, print media in general, modern dance and typography. This interview appeared in Eye magazine No.75, Spring 2010 in the Reputations series.
Opening spread from Eye 75, photograph by Phil Sayer
What things have influenced you?
I think the biggest influences were places where I lived. I was born in Czechoslovakia, and when I was sixteen, the regime changed. Many things I was taught in school turned out to be half-truths. I learned how easy is to manipulate information, that there are very few things to take for granted. I started at the Art Academy in Bratislava, studied briefly in the UK and US, and than went to Atelier national de création typographique in Paris, and Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, Netherlands. Those places had a major influence on me, and always made me question what I knew already. I think travelling at this age made me lot more independent and allowed seeing things from multiple perspectives. I am not usually able to argue strongly for any single idea, I usually see the opposing view at the same time.
I was also fortunate to have had very good teachers in my studies, from many I can single out Irma Boom, Karel Martens, Armand Mevis, or Michael Rock.
How did you get into type in the first place?
I’ve always been interested in text, doing a bit of writing; interested in design, designing printed matter, so designing type fell naturally somewhere in between.
At the beginning, I didn’t separate it from other work, there was this naive idea of absolute authorship — designing type for the essay I write, for the book I was designing. But later I got interested to see what others would do with those typefaces.
You were early with the platform/foundry/shop idea — Typotheque is ten years old already.
I’ve been designing typefaces since the early 1990s, and started Typotheque in 1999 with the idea of digging out all the projects from the drawers and publishing them. Also those of my friends that I met along the way. But at the time, I worked at Studio Dumbar, and I was not much focused on the foundry. Only after I started working on my own in 2001, the foundry/platform/shop took off. A few years later Johanna, my wife, joined me in the office, and now I also work closely with Nikola Djurek, an ex-student of mine. Typotheque started with a single typeface.
Fedra Sans, which was notable at the time for distinctive features like the lower case f and i, the curved tails on R and K, and a very animated italic — but perhaps most important had an unexpectedly large x-height...
Fedra Sans was the first commission I received when I started on my own. It was supposed to be a corporate typeface of a German insurance company and replace Univers which they used until then. In the end, the project was cancelled, so I could release it through the new foundry. At the time I was really unhappy about not completing the project, now with some perspective I see it how lucky I was to keep it. Fedra was important for the foundry and fuelled some of the other projects and interests, specifically all the multilingual versions: Arabic, Hindi, Armenian and so on.
... which have resulted, among other things, in a brand new venture, the Indian Type Foundry — the first company to develop and retail Unicode fonts in India. This is potentially huge isn’t it?
There are many fonts produced in India but mainly to support software packages, and those fonts don’t work outside of those applications. Companies such as Adobe, have been making design software for two decades, part of their software is developed in India, but you still can’t use Illustrator or Photoshop with Indic scripts (recently there are third party plug-ins that support Indic).
This has to do with the complexity of Indic scripts, a belief that there is no market for software or fonts, and a high level of piracy. Larger companies especially find it risky to invest more into Indian typography.
Because of my interest in languages I worked with Indian designer Satya Rajpurohit on the Hindi version of Fedra, and two years later started the Indian Type Foundry. We partnered with Rajesh Kejriwal, who’s got a paper distribution company and direct contact with designers in India. Just like Typotheque, ITF is starting with a single typeface, but has larger plans to develop typefaces for Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, etc, to organise lectures and workshops in India, and to publish also typefaces made by local designers.
A Devanagari companion to Fedra Sans typeface. Fedra Hindi is Unicode compliant font and comes in 5 weights with full support for conjuncts. Designed with SN Rajpurohit
Around the same time as Typotheque, Stuart Bailey and you started Dot Dot Dot magazine, which started as a design magazine but quickly moved off into other areas.
When we started with DDD, we were very self conscious, and made this long research about the history of design magazines, how they started, how they finished, which became the pilot issue. By the second issue we relaxed and thought that if subjects as diverse as music, language, film, art, mathematics, literature occur in our work, where we have to become temporary experts on them, then why not bring this variety to a magazine made by designers. It would not be a magazine showing visual outcomes of the design process, but presenting the recurring themes of our daily work. Changing the way of thinking from ‘what a design magazine should show’ to what we are interested in as designers was quite liberating.
Dot dot dot is a biannual, self- published, after-hours magazine, originally centred around graphic design, later broadening in scope to interdisciplinary journalism on subjects that affect the way we look at the world, how we think about and make design. Published, edited and designed by PB with Stuart Bailey. After 2008 the issue is edited by Stuart from the US, as PB stepped down as co-editor.
Do you think there’s any point in magazines being printed any more?
I do. You just have to consider how to make the best use of the given media.
Printed media has some inherent advantages – It is portable, tactile, photographs usually look very good in print. The web is great for news, interactive information, video, but lacks the sophistication of print. It is also rare to find websites with the level of content editing and curating that we are used to in print. Even the design of blogs and websites is not as refined as it could be — it is still early days.
As readers, publishers and designers start recognising the differences of media, we will get less of websites looking like print, and less of print looking like web.
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One of those diverse subjects in your work is dance – not immediately a sister discipline to typography perhaps.
Dance is comparable to typography because both rely on rhythm and harmony, but at the same time you could say that they are almost the opposite of each other. I mean that dance relies on live performance, and when recorded it is no longer dance, but becomes a work of video, photography, or just documentation.
Type, on the other hand, needs to be reproduced to be defined as typography, otherwise it is just graffiti, handwriting or lettering.
Oneness, a modern dance performance created by choreographer Lukáš Timulak and designer PB for Nederland Dans Theater. Dancers have wireless microphones and their breath is amplified and controls the back projection. The idea was to create inseparable elements as basis of the performance.
On reflection, the idea of unitary constructions describing movement, something fluid and temporal, is very similar to the relationship of the elements of type to written/printed language, and of language to the ideas it forms. The Dance Writer utility is an explicit statement of that relationship.
A few years back I made a web page playing with an idea exploring the ideas from the Vítězslav Nezval / Karel Teige’s book Abeceda. It uses a video recording of a dancer that performs movements that can be read as letters. On the web you can compose a message and send it as an email. A recipient gets to see a video of a dancer dancing the message. Recently, I made a new version of Dance Writer, a larger installation for the exhibition Quick, quick, slow, curated by Emily King in Lisbon’s Experimenta, and realised that although the Dance Writer is using dance, it is technically a piece of typography. I created a database of pre-recorded movements which are retrieved on request by the user. Just like Gerrit Noordzij’s definition of typography as ‘writing with prefabricated letters’.
Dance Writer 2 at the Experimenta Lisbon (EXD’09) exhibition Quick Quick Slow, curated by Emily King
Are you the choreographer or the designer?
I often have difficulties describing my involvement with dance, because of the lack of clear terminology. I work with choreographer Lukáš Timulak, who takes care of the minute work with dancers and rehearses the choreography. I define the concept of the dance pieces, getting involved very early on in the process. Then we find the right music, stage design, lights, dancers, costumes, etc. I get very busy in the last weeks of productions again, when I have more distance than Lukáš, so we can bring all the components to a unity.
While it is clear what Lukáš does — he is the choreographer, my own role has been defined in the theatre credits sometimes as designer, stage designer, sometimes as dramaturge, sometimes described simply by the noun ‘concept’.
How does the studio work, with the variety of disciplines you are engaged in?
I used to do almost everything myself, from programming to accounting; now I am happy I know the right people for the things I am not best at. I work with external programmers, a small company run by a friend. They help me with anything that can be automated, from the website, creating online applications, even our yearly diary — which of course saves time, so I can focus on other things. There is also Johanna who helps with the run of the studio.
Working with programmers requires me to be very clear about what I want to do. There are no assumptions made, no going halfway to understand my position, one just has to be very explicit, which helps my other work too.
De Roos foundation has been publishing fine limited edition books (175 copies) for bibliophiles since 1945. The book Dagen met Kafka (Days with Kafka) is a collection of articles by journalist Frits Abrahams documenting his journey to Czech Republic following locations significant to Kafka. The book features a map with all the places mentioned in the text. To put the reader in the center of the book, reader’s domicile is put on the cover of the book. The title is hand-written by the designer.
Do you have a business model?
Not really. Elaborate business planning rarely works. During the design process I only think about making something genuinely useful, rather than thinking of some fictitious market group. First I create something, and then think of how it can be offered to the public. Economically, this is probably a poor idea, but it has worked so far — DDD, our fonts, our diary are examples that if I do my best, more people might be interested in it and support it as well.
I realise that this plan could easily fail as well, so I don’t give it as an advice to others. I created fonts when I was still a student, when I didn’t need any proper income. Eureka, my first serious published font (1998), funded work on the next font Fedra, which funded work on History, which funded work on Greta, etc.
How do you think the future looks for type designers who market their own work and perhaps don’t have the time or resources to prevent ‘piracy’?
Today, file sharing is estimated to account for over one-third of all internet traffic. There are groups who advocate unauthorised copying of data — making a point that we need to observe behaviour of online users and legalise it. There are even political parties like the Pirate Party in Sweden that have it in their manifestos.
There are new distribution channels emerging, channels which are controlled neither by content creators nor by publishers, but solely by the interests of the users: content flows from creator to user without the corresponding flow of remuneration in the opposite direction.
The design of these standard postage stamps was inspired by the Dutch landscape, the starting point being the well-known view of geometric fields from the air, the first view of the country offered to any visitor landing at Amsterdam airport. Besides the inspiration coming from the landscape, the stamps offer another reading. The design is purely typographical, as the width of each letter determines the width of the surrounding block. This is how old-style metal printing works, setting metal punches next to each other. In this respect the stamps can be seen as a modest homage to the traditions of Dutch typography. The stamps have been reprinted three times already, totalling over 143 000 000 copies. The 2010 edition is slightly modified.
What does that mean for you?
It is surprising to see that people don’t see it in a larger perspective. Creating content costs lot of energy and resources, so cutting the flow that remunerates the authors will mean there will be less quality content. But that will become visible only in a few years, and it might be a lot more difficult to restart the production-consumption circle. Sure, one can make a film, piece of music or font with no budget, but it will have consequences on the outcome. Most of the truly free movies available on the Web are simply not worth watching.
A lot of the content that we typically think is free is in fact very laborious and costly. Verdana, for example, is seen by the users as a free typeface, but it is probably the most expensive font ever made, with production costs in seven figures because of the extremely high quality of rendering in small sizes, multilingual support, and involvement of the world’s best experts working on it.
Do you think there will be a moment when the market for fonts is saturated?
If I relate it to my personal experience with typeface design, I have more reasons to make fonts than ever. First, because typeface design is a cumulative process, there are more possible entry points, more references, more inspiration than ever before. Just like with books, when you engage in reading, it will point to more books, and you might appreciate the books you read early on even more, because of the new understanding of them.
Type design has been driven historically by technology, but I think that the discipline has moved beyond the problem solving activity — it is more self aware, more informed by history, with very little technical limitations. This opens more possibilities for creation.
There are more fonts made today than ever before, and some of them will probably never be used. That is fine, and hopefully it will mean that overall quality is higher than, say, fifteen years ago.
So, although there are too many fonts published, I don’t think I could have made a font like History before – it would have been technically quite difficult.
The idea of History originated in a proposal for public communications in Minneapolis / St Paul; the proposal didn’t go through but it was nevertheless an interesting idea, something between appropriation of the history of type and, conversely, a negation of the design idea of appropriateness.
Right. In 2002 I was invited to take part of the international competition for the design of the typeface for the Twin Cities. Instead of proposing one new typeface for St.Paul and Minneapolis, I presented the idea of a typeface system inspired by the evolution of typography, a conceptual typeface that reused existing fonts. The font would be linked with the computer’s calendar and with a predefined database of fonts, presenting a different font every day.
For example, one day it would use the forms of Garamond, but the next day when you opened the same document the next day it would be in a new typeface, say Granjon, that was created later than Garamond. The idea was that the constant changes would confront the user with the continuous development of typography. This was the brief of the project — to bring more awareness of people to typography. I just didn’t think it would be possible to do this by making new forms.
“Everybody Dance Now: 20 Years of Dancing in Print” exhibition at the AIGA National Design Center in New York, designed by Abbott Miller at Pentagram NY. On the window most of the styles of History font.
The History Remixer is extremely useful, giving designers a chance to experiment freely and see how the combinations work before they buy the fonts. Has History sold well?
History sells rather well, which I am very pleased about, because most of the comments I received were that the project was interesting, but hardly usable. Seeing it used quite often gives me a great satisfaction, and proves that even very personal projects can have a value for a user, even when it requires the user to do extra work. I don’t think it would be possible to do a project like this, if I made a calculated decision what new typefaces designers need. Market research would probably point to some clean, neutral sans serifs that there are plenty of already.
Another utility on the Typotheque site is the Typotheque Web Font Service, which enables a designer, finally, to use custom fonts on the web.
Although there were some ways to use custom fonts on the web before, they all involved some complicated hacking, or converting fonts to images. Only last year the situation changed when most browsers implemented a way to use remote fonts installed on servers. But that also means that fonts can be very easily copied from websites, and that’s why there was a lot of resistance from type foundries.
To run our type foundry, we rely completely on the internet. The web allowed us to distribute our work directly, bypassing the traditional distribution methods. That’s why we found it important to support also use of our fonts online, rather than just in print. Until last year we simply had to disallow to embedding fonts in websites — and this is still what other foundries do.
How does it work?
Users can create a subsetted version of our fonts, which contain only the characters that the website needs. This makes the font very small and fast to load. The font is then copied to the network on servers, and the user receives a piece of code to use on their website. The user doesn’t work with actual font files but with code linking to the fonts on server. The font files can’t be casually copied, and the code works only on the registered website.
How does the licensing and pricing work?
If someone has bought fonts from us in the past, they can use the system for free for those particular fonts. The prices of our fonts have not changed, the license was extended to cover web use. Additionally we also offer a web-only licence, which costs a fraction of our usual price. What is quite new is that we can also provide a free trial licence. This has never been possible before, you always had to pay for the fonts before you could use them.
With the webfonts a lot of things change in the process of licensing, so there will be new business models. Instead of seeing fonts as software, the fonts could sell like music — where the author’s compensation depends on how popular the font is. In print it was impossible to know how people use fonts, on the web, there are precise statistics of the font usage. Or type could be a service, rather than a product, so users would purchase a monthly subscription.
That would require another complete change of orientation from both suppliers and users – do you think that could happen?
We’ve already seen changes like this. When type was material, one would not buy metal punches or phototypesetting films, but the service itself. The change from service to product happened only recently when fonts became digital. History tells us that suppliers who failed to react to these changes don’t exist any more.