Rudy VanderLans talks with Peter Biľak about the Typotheque founder’s education, design practice and experience as an ex-pat Slovak living in the Netherlands. Dot Dot Dot is discussed, as well as the typefaces Biľak has produced and his current teaching practice.
RVL: I asked you this question back in Rome, during the AtypI, when we first met: as a person born and raised in Slovakia, do you ever feel you should perhaps be practicing design in your home country right now? You could be part of the new generation of designers helping to built a prosperous Slovak Republic. Right now they may need you more there than in Holland, a country that seems to be crawling with great designers.
PB: This question kept me busy for a while. After my stay in the UK and the US, and after finishing my studies in Paris, I had returned and worked for a year or so in Bratislava at a large agency. Then, after my first year in the Netherlands, I returned to Prague and worked there for a couple of months. Both experiences were useful, but I finally decided to focus on my main interests: type, graphic and editorial design. I thought I could do it better in the Netherlands. It is complicated. I don’t mean to suggest that Dutch design is better, but I had an impression that in Slovakia or the Czech Republic I spent most of the time explaining what graphic design is, and I didn’t have much energy to actually practice it, let alone doing something interesting.
There is this Slavic attitude, which is lovely when visiting, but difficult when trying to seriously work there. It is this heaviness that Kundera describes in the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Many people have a kind of self-destructive mechanism built into them, which makes it difficult to argue with them, or to make relationships which are not just emotional ones. In the Netherlands I acquired spontaneity of expression, and became more productive.
But in the end it makes little difference where I live. Right now it makes sense to work in a position that allows me to develop my interests. Without being sentimental or pretentious, I think I can be more helpful for my home country by making work I believe in. I have a lot of contacts back there and I do some unofficial advising to students from the Art Academy in Bratislava. I occasionally give talks and I am involved in some projects there. I don’t think I would have the expertise to do this if I had stayed at home.
Holland is currently facing a big dilemma regarding its foreign population of guest workers, asylum seekers, immigrants from former colonies Surinam and Indonesia, designers who flock there, etc. It’s a very small country, and there seems to be a limit to the ‘tolerance’ of the Dutch for accommodating all these people. As a foreigner in Holland yourself, do you ever encounter any animosity directed at you?
No, I haven’t. Or maybe I developed some immunity towards animosity. Or maybe the cliché about Dutch tolerance has some foundation in the truth. I see hostile feelings towards immigrants more often in other countries.
How did you end up living and working in Holland? Can you give us a quick history?
I started my studies at the Art Academy in Bratislava, participated in exchange programs in the UK and US, did a MA program in Paris, returned to Slovakia for a year to work in this agency I mentioned, got a big salary, car, etc., but I really disliked my work.
Johanna, my girlfriend, lived in France at that time. When our apartment in Bratislava burned down, I quit my job, moved to the Netherlands, and came to Maastricht where I received a grant to study at the Jan van Eyck Academy. There was no plan to stay there. I actually had some plans to work in Prague, and as I started new projects, it just made sense to stay in Holland. After the Jan van Eyck, I was asked to work at Studio Dumbar in the Hague where I now live with Johanna. So, basically, I never decided to live in the Netherlands, I am just postponing leaving.
This is perhaps a crass question, but how do you make a living? You design and distribute fonts, which is very work intensive, especially since you specialize in text fonts which require a lot of up front investment of time. You also publish a small magazine, DotDotDot, which I’m sure isn’t exactly a gold mine and also requires a lot of work. And you do some commercial work, and teaching. Are you living a comfortable life? Or is it a constant struggle to make ends meet? Or is that simply unimportant to you, and being able to do meaningful work, work that you truly believe in, outweighs any discomfort in your life style?
How I make my living is a miracle for me too. After starting on my own, in a foreign country – the language of which I still don’t master very well – and not having any foundations here, of course moments of uncertainty appear. I still don’t understand the mechanisms that make it possible that as soon as I finish one project another comes along. But in the end it always works out well.
The activities you mention are sort of equally divided, although now I spend more with type. There seems to be a suggestion that one must suffer spiritually and aesthetically in order to satisfy material needs. And vice versa. In design
this is extended to a dichotomy of daily and after-hours work. The former pays the bills, the later satisfies the individual creativity. It creates a schizophrenic attitude in a person, not being able to focus on either one. Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. The idea of wealth is a mental concept that we create ourselves. I find comfort of living important, but I wouldn’t want it to guide my life’s decisions. I try to do the work I like during the day.
Magazines are often started because people have a need to fill what they perceive is a hole in the market. Did this come into play when you started DotDotDot? Was there a magazine that you felt was missing, a niche that DDD could fill?
Both Stuart and I had some experiences with writing for other magazines or designing them before we started DDD, so we focused more on how we could better combine design and writing than looking for models to follow, or filling gaps in publishing. DDD follows in the tradition of independent publications, but there were no ideas about positioning the magazine, just an interest to do something and continue to reinvent it regularly. It’s a small publication so we don’t have to try too hard to appeal to an audience. We print only 3000 copies, and those somehow spread world-wide.
We often emphasize that we don’t have any editorial policy, no design philosophy, or a school of thought that we practice. It may sound like avoiding a discussion of our motivation, but in fact the actual process of making the magazine is the real motivation. For ourselves, DDD cannot be defined by a single description. If it does, it becomes stifled and we should do something about it. I suppose it is mainly about the development. When we are finishing an issue we know that another one comes again. Only now, after about 4 years of work, it has become something we feel more comfortable with.
What is your most favorite issue, and why?
I just spoke to Stuart, who made an observation that DDD seems strangely opposite to most avant garde/underground/eccentric/independent publications. It started off weak and got better. The normal pattern is to start with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, then get tired. Some sort of turning point came when we started thinking laterally, as in any good design, and good idea. From about issue #4 onwards, which is when DDD started to really change, we stopped thinking in terms of “what pieces should a graphic design magazine contain” and started thinking “whatever we decide to include makes it a graphic design magazine, if that’s what we still choose to call it.”
What role does Robin Kinross play in DDD? He is listed as editorial adviser? How involved is he in DDD?
Robin used to help us with his thorough proof reading of the magazine, and also by giving us his opinion when Stuart and I would disagree on something. He counterbalanced our naivete and “winging-it” approach. We had no experience with editing, and not that much with writing. His input has been immensely useful, and we are glad he has done this tiring work. But he has stopped with this advising after issue #7.
I have a few questions about your short essay in DDD #6 titled “History of a New Font.” In it you state that “Typefaces designed to fulfill the needs of their times contribute their small part to the knowledge accumulated across the centuries by extending and adapting collective knowledge to contemporary conditions.” They extend history. Whereas revivals, you write, “are unrelated to contemporary demands,” they discontinue history, and stop progress. They are “ahistorical,” and therefore “fail to participate in the big story.”
First, what made you write this essay? Second, how does Fedra, which is perhaps one of your most successful font families to date, fulfill the needs of our time?
This text was an extension of the Fedra design project. Type design is a long meditative process. It takes a lot of time to arrive at certain results, so obviously some thinking takes place. A project like this also forces you to think about the motivation for making type today. I was interested to see if there is a more autonomous reason for making type, one that is not just explained as problem solving.
In any art discipline you can note some discoveries which are absorbed by others, as they recognize their values. For example, in the history of painting the inventions of perspective, abandoning of figuration, introduction of multiple perspectives, etc., are accumulated techniques which are being used to even greater effect by artists today.
It is possible to see this cumulative progress in type design as well, although probably less explicitly, because it’s somewhat obscured by technological progress.
Fedra, too, contains its share of history. Some influences are fairly clear. For instance, I borrowed certain ideas about italics from Jean Jannon, a 17th century type designer, but I also took ideas explored by Gerard Unger, a contemporary type designer.
But there’s something more important at play. Since it is difficult to predict how fonts will be used today – what size, which medium of reproduction, etc. – Fedra had to be adapted to work in print and screen, small and large sizes, high and low resolution. These are all contemporary issues. Of course the font still has its limitations, but it is not directly repeating the past, nor is it predicting future trends. It is simply the product of now. While this is a very obvious idea, it is often disregarded, as we are so concerned with both the future and the past. Products whose main concern is now are often still very useful tomorrow. Now is the only real time to consider when working.
Being a micro-foundry, I have very close contacts with the users of my fonts, which allows me to optimize, complete, and extend the typeface when needed. If I feel that the type doesn’t perform satisfactorily, I fix it. Those updates become free to all existing users.
Maybe I’m not understanding. What you describe above relates mostly to type design as a problem solving enterprise. But you started off by mentioning that you were “interested to see if there is a more autonomous reason for making type, one that is not just explained as problem solving.” What were you trying to get at?
Fedra was the typeface where I started thinking of these issues, but maybe it is not the best example of this more autonomous, self-conscious way of working with type. Currently I am working on a new typeface which span of my proposal for the Twin Cities type — a typeface which reflects different historical periods by borrowing their formal attributes. Sort of many fonts in one, but still united by the same proportions and skeleton. While Fedra still has to respond functionally to the situations where it is used, this new typeface’s gets away completely from problem-solving issues.
One of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard in regards to type design, is the fact that you had almost finished Fedra Sans and then your studio was broken in and your computer was stolen and you had to redraw the font based on some printouts you had. Can you elaborate on this story. It must have been devastating, But I also wonder if there was some silver lining to the experience.
Silver lining!? It was the ultimate nightmare for a designer. From one day to the next I lost about 3 to 4 months worth of work when both of my computers – including the one used for backup – were stolen. It’s a good story, but not very funny at the moment.
Of course I lost other work as well, so I didn’t work on fonts for some time. I was busy recreating other design work which had to be sent to the printer. When I finally had the time to think what to do with Fedra, I realized that together with the fonts files I had lost some of its problems. For example, I had noticed earlier that it would have been better if the italic had a different angle. But I had invested so much time in the design that I was very hesitant to redraw it. So the accident freed me to reconsider some early design decisions, most of which were made because the fonts were originally to be used in a very specific context. Of course that delayed the release date significantly, but I do believe that Fedra benefited from this incident.
Eureka, one of the first text fonts you designed and which is released by FontShop, is a typeface that you have more or less denounced, saying it was a sophomoric effort. But the font is still being sold. How do you feel about seeing it in use? For instance, what did you think of the use of Eureka in Rick Poynor’s latest book No More Rules?
I am quite comfortable with the basic weights of Eureka. It is mainly the bold versions which suffer from my inexperience at the time. I haven’t seen No More Rules, but I have seen some other applications which were quite fine, such as the identity for the Dutch Minister-President and an MIT book on Central European avant gardes. Other uses were rather awful, such as ONE magazine. It is not an easy typeface to use, but when played with, it can have a pleasant appearance. I do like its fragility compared to the sturdy feel of Fedra.
I mentioned that I released several updates of Fedra, a font that is only a few years old. I often thought that Eureka could benefit from some updating, but I am less likely to do it because I don’t have any direct contacts with its users. Maybe it is a good thing, so I can concentrate on new projects rather than redoing past ones.
I noticed your own site lists only a handful of fonts. But you have designed quite a few fonts for the FontFont line, such as Holy Cow, Atlanta, Craft, and a series of Dirty Faces. Are you distancing yourself from these early experiments? Is there a particular reason you only sell Fedra on your own site?
Yes, I suppose it is a natural development. It was important to make those early experiments, but my interests are elsewhere now. If I were to show these fonts on my typotheque web site, I probably wouldn’t offer them for sale. As part of FontShop they are a public memory of the period when they were made. I like the idea of the Opus in classical music. It is a numbered series authorized by the composer, while stylistic exercises, or early experiments do not qualify, and are not numbered. For me Fedra is opus 2. The fonts you mentioned are the experiments.
There will be more fonts available on typotheque, but it will take some time. I am in no hurry.
Do you in any way feel like we may be at the cusp of a new era in type design? After this rush of production of fonts in the 1990s, where everybody was able to make a “working” font in a matter of days on their personal computer, it now seems with the introduction of OpenType that the circle is closing again, making type design again very work intensive, and highly specialized. Have we seen the end of the great democratization of type design? And if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I don’t think it is a circle. It’s hard to go back to the methods of the old days. OpenType offers possibilities that only very few designers take advantage of. I have made OT fonts containing some 1500 glyphs for a dictionary project, but I doubt it would be very useful for an average user.
I think the mentality of type designers is slowly changing. Those early fonts were all based on relativistic arguments, then it started to crystallize, and as a response, in order to differentiate their work, many designers started to produce very complicated types, like OT types.
About the design of DotDotDot. Looking at the issues of DotDotDot, they feel like a mishmash of styles and page designs that resemble non-designerly, generic trade or academic science magazines, or even fanzines. And I believe this is what you intended, because in your introductory essay in issue #1 on page 2, you, the editors, wrote that “any tendency towards ‘generic’ or ‘default’ typography may seem conceited, but has a genuine foundation in wanting to avoid over designing.” You set out with this specific approach because “Looking at other magazines from all fields it seems that “serious” content-driven publications don’t care how they look, whilst “superficial” content-free ones resort to visual pyrotechnics.” I know there’s some who say that it’s unproductive to discuss style, but when we met in The Hague a few years back you told me that you and Stuart sometimes spend hours choosing just the right font for an essay in order to evoke these very particular effects that you’re after, so I figured it’s only fair to discuss this topic. My question is, by giving DotDotDot this very specific look that mimics non-designerly, content driven magazines, aren’t you concerned you may be creating the kind of progress-stopping pastiche that you criticize in your ‘History of a New Font’ essay?
You might notice that the latest issue is very different from the early ones. But you are right, at the beginning the idea was not to attach a single style onto the magazine which turned against us and made it look like we tried to mimic non-designerly magazines.
Although we don’t really spend hours looking for fonts to capture some emotional effect, we do design the magazine very, very consciously. Instead we look for the right balance and decide what’s really important. And sometimes the typeface is important and sometimes it is not.
We try to overcome the duality of form and content now. Each issue has a set of ideas and overlapping themes which emerge from the content. The design is the result of these individual pieces bound into a whole. We do hope that DDD doesn’t have a fixed look, since it doesn’t have a fixed content.
One of my favorite spreads is in #6. It consist of two full page full color pictures of the same bird, each showing the bird in a slightly different position. It’s an introductory spread for an article titled “The field guide.” Without reading the text it makes little sense. You only get the complete picture once you’ve read the text. We try for DDD to be read as well as looked at, without reading it the design is difficult to consider.
Besides the fact that DDD gives you an opportunity to experiment with balancing form and content, what is DDD’s ultimate purpose? Some people have expressed high hopes for DDD as an alternative design magazine. But it would be easy to dismiss it as a magazine that simply showcases the esoteric and eclectic taste in articles of two individuals who happen to be graphic designers. Why should we care?
DDD does express a rather personal meeting point of a small group of people, but it doesn’t have, and never did have, a ‘purpose’. If we stated something contrary in our pilot issue, it was only because the first issues were diluted, with too many compromises. We’ve tried several times to have an editorial statement, but the most accurate one (Stuart’s favorite) was on page 1 of issue #4. It’s a clumsy cartoon of a broken go-cart with the caption ‘the masterplan’. This describes us perfectly. It would be suspicious to have a clear statement of purpose. If there ever is, it comes only AFTER the event, after an issue is published.
DDD is, as you say, esoteric/eclectic. Since many people have eclectic tastes, especially those working within the arts, they could care. To us it just seems a very human way of working, rather than forcing ourselves to follow some arbitrary predetermined plan.
I couldn’t resist asking you one of the questions from the list of questions that you ask your students at the course you teach at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Question 9: ‘Is it good for people to stretch and reach into inconvenient places?’
These questions, inspired by Norman Potter, which I usually ask at the beginning of the semester, are designed to recognize certain patterns of life. So there is no right answer. I find pattern-recognition an important aspect of design. The list of questions is to observe ourselves and others and is a simple exercise, but I hope it leads to a process of questioning. Teaching is a difficult subject. I don’t have much experience with it, so I am still experimenting and learning a lot.
Besides the fact that it is difficult, what is the most important thing you have learned from teaching?
I learned some Dutch. I said that teaching was a difficult subject, because the longer I teach the more complicated it gets. Last year I was thinking a lot about the role of the teacher, school system, marks and grades, and that everyone intuitively knows that the best students are often those who nearly fail. I am a little bothered by the aspects of teaching that are based on imitation, so I try to push students into developing their own criteria for working rather than looking for teacher’s approval. I also learned that education is not the same as skills training, and that thinking is not separate from working.
That leads perfectly to my last question. With all the writing, thinking, editing, and teaching you do, is there ever a risk to ‘overthink’ what you do? In other words, does all this theory ever hinder what you do in practice? Do you ever wish you could just forget about all that stuff for a minute and just create purely intuitively?
This makes me think that perhaps I was very clear in my previous answers. I rely largely on intuition. That’s why I always think that whatever the result is, it could have been completely different. There is no theory which generates my work while I’m working. It is only when I talk about the work retrospectively, like now, wrapping things up nicely and conveniently, when it all sounds clever and carefully thought out. During the process things are different. It’s a constant oscillation between intuition and intellect, never just one or the other. No theory can fully encapsulate the decision one has to make when drawing type or designing a book. When we work on DDD, we often use the phrase ‘This feels very dot dot dot’, which is the only way to convey a particularly good gut feeling about something. Contrary to beliefs of some, design often operates beyond the rational parts of the brain.
This is an unedited version of the text first published in Emigre, No.67, 2004.