We tried to get to the bottom of the phenomenon that is type conference Serebro Nabora and decided to have a chat with its founder, type designer, teacher and organiser of the Brownfox studio Gayaneh Bagdasaryan.
Serebro Nabora type conference was thought up in 2012 and its first edition was a huge success in the autumn of the same year. It turns out that a lot of people from all over Russia and beyond are willing to share their knowledge about type and typography—a new space for professional dialogue and new discoveries was born. Today, Serebro Nabora is a large-scale international event with intensive courses, masterclasses and exhibitions. In 2014, designers and typographers of international renown are to speak at the conference: we’re looking forward to sessions with Lucas de Groot, Erik van Blokland and John Hudson, among others. The Russian speakers include typographer Evgeny Grigoriev, as well as designers Elena Novoselova, Irina Smirnova and Alexandra Korolkova. The full list of participants looks impressive.
How did you get the idea to hold a type conference?
It was an absolutely impulsive decision. I’m always like that: do first, think later. I was going to a Ukrainian type event, and I was suddenly struck by the thought that here, in Russia, there’s nothing similar, while there are a number of such events in Ukraine. I found this so unfair and even hurtful that I thought, “I have to fix this—right now, today”. I immediately sat at my computer and invited several friends to meet up and give some talks about type. They all agreed. Waking up the next morning, I, of course, realised that I’d been too hasty, but it was too late to back out: I would have felt awkward in front of the people I’d invited. Since I’d got myself in such a mess, I’d have to give it a shot. But I assumed that it would be a low-key event—twenty to thirty people, fifty at most. I couldn’t have imagined that people would come specially from Vladivostok and that there wouldn’t be enough room in the hall for them.
It was a spontaneous urge—I felt ashamed for my country, that’s all. If I’d sat down, thought about the best way to plan it and started thinking up strategies, I never would have made the conference happen.
What was next? What challenges did you face when organising the conference?
I invited some potential speakers, we discussed their topics and I came up with a signature style. Dimitry Rastvortsev came up with the name Serebro Nabora (which can be roughly translated as “Silver Type”). We did the website together. I had to deal with the practical issues. The first problem I came up against was finding an appropriate hall. In the first year, I changed the venue three times, because I gradually realised that more people would come than I thought. Finally, I was lucky enough to meet Vasily Tsygankov, the head of the Graphic Design Department at the Institute of Business and Design. The institute offered me its premises, and they also took on all the organisational concerns: equipment, sound, chairs. That was a great relief for me, because I wouldn’t have managed myself, of course. The most difficult thing in the first year was the fact I didn’t realise how many people were going to come. Registration for the conference was free, which made it hard to count the number of attendees. I closed registration when the number of people reached 900. The day before the conference, I counted the chairs in the hall…
There were ninety at most?
There were about two hundred and fifty of them. Of course, we reserved another room with a live stream for those who wouldn’t fit into the main hall. But I knew that people were coming from Novosibirsk and Kazan, from Russia and neighbouring countries. Most of all, I was worried that there’d be no space for the people that had specially travelled a long way. Everyone made a real effort: they used up their days off, bought train tickets, booked hotels, some of them even put in holidays to come to the conference—that made a real impression on me. I wanted to see their expectations met, so that no one would be disappointed. In the end, we managed to fit everyone in—some people had to stand up, others listened from the balcony, but no one complained, and everyone was satisfied.
Do you wonder why people got so phenomenally interested in a type conference?
I think that people were willing to travel because there’s nothing like it the provinces and regions. Even Moscow can’t really boast a lot of events like ours. But in Moscow there are at least schools and professionals. We can meet up and call each other—there’s a professional scene. Recently, for example, I went to Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) to do a three-day intensive course, which was a real novelty there. Their graphic designers don’t get professional education; they’ve learnt everything themselves.
A total lack of specialised educational institutions is the main reason that people are so eager to get to a conference. There, they can receive some information, learn something new, enrich themselves. And of course, a conference is a great emotional boost, which can inspire you for the whole year.
So people get into the professional circle and start to participate in this one big thing together.
Yes. They break out of their routine. Most designers’ routine, sadly, is boring. They do the same thing every day. They need to step back and experience, so to speak, the Great and Beautiful. It’s really important. A lot of people have said to me that the conference is helpful because it provides a burst of creative energy. Then people go and sign up for special courses—to learn about calligraphy or typography. The conference gives them a big shake-up, pulls them out of the routine.
The first Serebro is best remembered for its versatile programme. The subject matter of the talks was understandable to both type and graphic designers. How does this approach differ from other global type conferences?
I must say that Serebro Nabora is gradually narrowing its focus too.
Won’t that scare away people who don’t work in type development?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but the programme planned for this year is similar to the ones proposed by overseas conferences. It’s more type-based. In the first year, the subject matter was broader more out of desperation than anything else. We don’t have enough type experts to make the entire conference about type. Then when I started to invite foreign speakers, the general topics of the talks became more specific. Perhaps this will mean that the audience will be smaller. But, as a type designer, I wanted to make an event for myself and people like me, so that it wouldn’t be necessary to go abroad and so that the talks would be translated into Russian. That’s important too: not everyone speaks good enough English to understand such complex texts on the fly.
How are the themes formed? Do the speakers suggest things that they’re interested in themselves?
Yes. They often suggest themes themselves, and I agree. Sometimes, they propose multiple topics, and I choose the one that seems the most interesting to me. Occasionally, I ask specific speakers to do specific subjects that I consider important and relevant. But, as a rule, people just talk about their work, and that’s how it should be. Conferences are there so that specialists can share their recent experience with each other. Historical material can and should be found in books, while conferences are for as yet unpublished thought that no one has had the time to share.
In other words, we can say that Serebro Nabora reflects what is happening in the profession now—some research is also present, but to a lesser extent. Is that right?
Yes, I’m more interested in the up-to-date. But I wouldn’t set research in opposition to the here and now. Research can be topical too, and there are a lot of talks at Serebro that show this. For example, Alexandra Korolkova is going to present us with her reflections on type design for the second time. John Hudson is going to speak on a research-related theme too.
What gets the most active reaction from the audience at a conference?
Last year, the most heated discussion sprang up around font rental. This confirms the need to focus on relevant, topical subjects, on which people feel a lack of knowledge, or want to hear the opinion of professionals. Everyone, without exception, was impressed by Telingater’s lecture. I didn’t expect such a success—and this success wasn’t linked with the relevance of the topic, but the speaker’s skill. Vladimir was extremely well prepared, which brought results. We do get some disappointing talks, of course, but you can’t do anything about that. I try to invite top-class speakers whose talks will be predictably interesting, but I can’t test them all. My principled position is that the speakers should be as diverse as possible from year to year. This, of course, is linked to a risk of disappointment.
The last Serebro Nabora was complemented by year-round masterclasses. Please tell us a bit more about them.
My partners at the Institute of Business and Design suggested the idea of conducting masterclasses. They’re professionally involved in education and saw the demand for these workshops. They suggested that I not wait for next November. If people are so eager to study—be my guest: we’ve got the facilities, the teachers and all the resources needed to continue the process throughout the year. At first, education wasn’t a part of my plans, and for me personally, the most interesting thing is the conference itself.
What is the level of the masterclasses? Who attends them?
Essentially, designers who work in agencies and design studios. More often than not, young ones: the average age is probably twenty-five to thirty. They’re designers who want to improve their level and fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Among the teachers of these courses are names like Boris Trofimov, Vladimir Chaika and Dmitry Kavko—a quite diverse set of professionals in terms of their methods and style of work. How were they chosen?
There’s no connection between their courses, of course. You’re talking about completely different classes. I just try to analyse what’s missing and draw conclusions from that. Calligraphy and type theory are in demand. It’s interesting that narrow type-related subjects are much more popular than, say, posters. Maybe there’s already enough of that around. But specific type themes are in short supply in our education system, so I’m going to accentuate this where possible, although it’s not easy—we don’t have many people who are able to teach the theory and practice of type.
Do the organisers of Serebro Nabora want to publish printed material based on their conferences?
Due to our limited resources, I’ve tried to do only what is absolutely necessary from the very beginning, instead of spreading myself too thin for the sake of optional extras. The publication of printed materials requires time and money, and I can’t see any point in it. All the video archives are online, if anyone feels like watching them again.
What awaits visitors to the conference this year?
A fantastic programme is planned. There will be a lot of interesting speakers. I hope that all the invited foreigners come—there are some real stars.
David Jonathan Ross from Font Bureau, Lucas de Groot, John Hudson and Erik van Blokland have already been announced on the conference Facebook page—it’s an impressive list of speakers. Who else will we see and hear?
I’ve invited a designer who, in my opinion, made the best typeface of 2013. I’m talking about Laurenz Brunner, the new European star of type design. Just van Rossum and Frederik Berlaen, the creator of RoboFont, are coming too. Each of them will give a talk, and they’re going to do a three-day workshop together. Erik van Blokland is going to do a masterclass on TypeCooker too. Lucas de Groot will conduct a three-day workshop. Liza Enebeis, creative director of the world-famous Studio Dumbar, will be there too. I deliberately thinned out the type specialists with graphic designers. There will be four Russian speakers: Evgeny Grigoriev, Alexandra Korolkova, Lena Novoselova and Irina Smirnova. In total, I’m planning twelve talks: six each day. That’s not a lot. Last year it was a bit much, and I felt that it’s hard to digest all the information. This conference will be more balanced and unhurried.
How many days will the event run?
Two days with six talks each. Exhibition openings are planned for the evenings. One exhibition will be dedicated to the winners of the Modern Cyrillic competition, and the second will be a student exhibition, similar to the one that Masha Doreuli did last year. She’s going to curate it this year, but we’re going to show other educational institutions too, not just the Royal Academy in The Hague. In addition, three intensive courses are planned, so, all in all, Serebro Nabora 2014 will last from 24 November to 3 December.
Can we expect any talks from foreigners about our environment? I mean graphic design and the Cyrillic alphabet.
Foreigners do want to talk about the Cyrillic alphabet, but Cyrillic isn’t what these people are truly known for, which is why I really don’t want to focus on our situation. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. We could probably tell them something about Cyrillic, not the other way round.
Is there any prospect of Serebro Nabora taking place in other cities?
The conference—no, but visiting masterclasses are already being organised. I recently went to Chisinau, and the Lopukhina sisters from Kiev were there after me. Alexandra Korolkova went to Minsk. I think that this aspect is going to develop further, because it’s very much in demand.
Judging by the frenzy that the conference provokes, can we say that the profession of type designer has gained in popularity?
Yes, the profession is becoming more and more popular at the moment. It’s beginning to bring in money, which was impossible before. People are starting to get involved independently and earn from it. I’d like to see typography and graphic design evolving at the same rate.
In this respect, Vladimir Krichevsky is definitely right—typography is lagging behind type design. A good typeface is just the raw material that’s needed for the design. But if nobody is able to do that, it doesn’t matter how good or bad the typeface is.
I want to ask about the organisers’ problems of Serebro Nabora.
I don’t have enough money (laughs). Although we manage to bluff our way through every time. A big sponsor miraculously appears at the last moment, like last year: Adobe gave us some money in literally the last week, which was just enough for us to break even. Paratype always sponsors, Fontlab helps out. Small companies, for example, Demon Press, offer us their work. The print shop 24print also provides its resources to support us. The ShanDesign studio shot a short film about the conference, voiced by a volunteer, for absolutely nothing. Volunteers gladly help with the little things: when we need to meet someone, put up a poster somewhere or buy tickets to the Kremlin for foreign guests. It’s nice when little-known studios offer a bit of help. I really appreciate it.
Some foreign companies choose a different type of sponsorship—they send a speaker at their own expense. Most notably, Font Bureau. They pay for their speaker’s travel and accommodation themselves, which I agree to, of course. There are a lot of costs: we need to pay to hire the hall, which should be respectable enough and in the city centre. Simultaneous interpreting is big money. One earphone alone costs us 300 roubles—just the earphone, without the interpreter. Then, of course, we need to get all the speakers here, provide accommodation. And there are a lot of little things: printing leaflets, serving coffee to guests. Obviously, part of the costs are covered by the tickets, which we sold at a symbolic price of 500 roubles, but this year the price will probably go up to 1000–1500. Anyway, that’s nowhere near the money that we spend. We couldn’t exist without sponsors—conferences are an unprofitable business.
Would it be possible to find a sponsor in the form of the state?
I think that the state should support initiatives like Serebro Nabora, but don’t know how to go about it. I don’t have the right friends and contacts. That’s why I sit and daydream that one day my phone will ring and I’ll hear: “Ms. Bagdasaryan, we’re calling from the Ministry of Culture, and we want to support your great event”.
Now, two years on, what does Serebro Nabora mean to you?
Serebro Nabora doesn’t occupy a very large place in my life. I’m probably better known because of the conference, rather than my typefaces, but the thing that I devote most of my working hours to is still more important for me, and I can talk about it at great length. The fact that I organised the conference—well, that just happened. I could stop doing it or pass it on to someone else. I would even be glad just to go as an audience member, to save myself from all the organisational worries, because it really is very difficult. I just want us to have a conference in Moscow that I could visit and where I could listen to interesting speakers with simultaneous interpretation.