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Peter Bilăk on Typography


Jungle: How did you first get yourself exposed to the world of graphic design, and what formal/informal education or trainings did you have before you started your professional career as a designer?

Peter Bilăk: 
I started studying back in Czechoslovakia at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. While studying there, I went for an exchange programme to England and to the US. After finishing my internship in the US, I went on to study to ANCT (Atelier National de Création Typographique) in Paris to focus on type design and typography. I worked for a year in a big agency, but left and I received a research grant at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht, NL where I spent two years working on a video-based project on reading. From there my route lead to Studio Dumbar in The Hague.

Jungle: What teachers, artists, movements helped form or change your perspectives about typography and graphic design? How your international experiences (U.K, U.S. France, and currently the Netherlands) have formed you and your work?

PB: Every experience in the course of my studies was extremely useful and invaluable, I learned different things home in Slovakia then in the US or France. It is difficult to compare, and pinpoint the best. And there are so many people I admire…

Jungle: As a Slovakian designer, how much do you value and treasure the history and heritage of Czechoslovak typography? And how do your ideas reflect in your design?

PB: The Czech type designers such Menhard, Preissig or Hlavsa have got me interested in the profession at the first place. I didn’t realise at that time how unique were the Czech books that I had at my disposal. The tradition is fundamentally different then the French or Dutch one; Czechoslovak designers always worked in complicated situations and were forced to look for very creative solutions. There was a big gap and a period of silence in the 70s and 80s, but fortunately with political changed in the country and technological development the tradition survived and is blossoming.
Today I work in the Netherlands where the esthetical and functional values in design are very high. But I can’t forget and deny my own roots. An artist in Czechoslovakia has always a special position. They didn’t only have a role of artist adding value of society but carried direct responsibilities; they were often socially and politically involved.

Jungle: How did you come by with the ideas for the ‘Illegibility’ book?

I started working on the Illegibility project in the US, and its background is the wild development of digital typography in the early 90s. By that time, I have designed a series of fonts some of which were published by FontShop. Illegibility came naturally as a next step, and more theoretical base for my work. It was challenging to start working with the written word after I have been playing around with its form. Today, I feel a big distance from this project.

Jungle: And Transparency?

PB: Transparency is a result of one year sobering in France. I got interested in linguistics which later resulted in the Transparency book. The by-product of this interest was also Eureka which preceded Transparency. The book is arguing that typography is fully dependent on technological, social and political development.
The Transparency project is not intended to romanticise graphic design; it is about provoking independent thinking. The subjectivity of today’s graphic design is unlimited and leaves enough space for more than one interpretation. We must respect the reader’s right to interpret the message. Graphic designers should be the most sensitive readers, offering their work to other readers who reconstruct the meaning individually. Designers have the opportunity to ask questions, to discover textual complexities and introduce readers to new feelings.

Jungle: You mention the emotive and expressive nature and aspects of typographic design. How are they manifested in, for instance, Eureka?

PB: Eureka is closely connected to the Transparency project, in fact it was designed with the intention to have a typefaces that can be used to longer bilingual text.
 Because most of the fonts used in Central and Eastern Europe are of Western origin, they don’t really respect the local culture and language. There are many fonts which totally ignore the linguistic particularities.
Some fonts work well when used in Dutch or English, but used in languages which have many accented characters they are not adequate. Eureka is a direct response to this. I was observing different reading rhythm in different languages, and studying what causes it. Eureka has adjusted proportion to accommodate accents which are very important in Czech or Slovak for example.
Of course, Eureka is not only a visual response to a set of problems, it is also a formal experiment, and a learning process. Because of the long process (five years) I learned a lot. When I see the first versions of Eureka I can’t believe how many mistakes and inconstancies there are. But I guess this quirkiness adds font some character.

Jungle: There are many literary fans for Milan Kundera in Korea, as most of his published books have been translated into Korean were always successful in charting the bestseller list. Regarding your notes on the Problems of translation of Kundera’s work, how does it relate to your attitude towards design?

PB: As you might have gathered I am a big fan of Kundera myself. In his body of work, he has been striving to devise a his own definition of novel. A novel that is not reducible to a story or adaptable to e.g. theatre play, film script or comic strip. Kundera makes an argument that if a novel survives an adaptation or rewriting it is a proof of its low quality. 
Finding a unique form of expression (in writing or in visual communication) is a very interesting point in todays’ information saturation. I also came to a conclusion that if I want to develop a specific way of working, I cannot ignore the outside world, I need to be able to react to everyday stimuli and have my eyes and ears open. This is essentially contradictory to a definition of ‘style’, which many designers are trying to develop.
 I find inspiring finding inspiration outside of the design limits. Kundera’s way of thinking can be easily projected to, for example, graphic design. Kundera developed his own way of language of relativity and ambiguity which despises comfortable classification into good or bad. Similarly to Kundera, I also dislike answering the question before knowing the question. People tend to judge before they know enough. This is probably a simple human condition: making a sense out of the world around. Applying it to design, this results in signature style, the lowest of styles. But style is the content, and doesn’t need to be revealed only on the surface.

Jungle: What part are you taking in Vienna’s art project ‘Museums in Progress’?
 It was a collaboration with artist Eran Schaerf. We have met in Maastricht and shared some ideas. When Eran was invited to work in Vienna he invited me for a collaboration in the project.

PB: A long term project is ‘dot dot dot’ magazine which we started last year in May. I was working with different magazines before, in our magazine we are trying to correct do everything we disliked or thought was wrong. Dot dot dot is intended to fill a gap in current arts publishing. We are not interested in re-promoting established material or creating another ‘portfolio’ magazine. Instead, we offer inventive critical journalism on a variety of topics related both directly and indirectly to graphic design. Most interesting if collaborating with other people on contributions. Since we have very limited budget for production and no money to pay our contributors, we really work only with the those who have heart at the right place and are really engaged in the subjects they working on.

Jungle: Your future plans or wishes?

PB: Currently we are preparing already a third issue of ‘dot dot dot’, the magazine is a constant challenge, it has its own life and we are not even sure where is it leading. We have our own scope of interests which are visible in the magazine, but we have no themes or long term plans. At this moment comes also a major career turn. After time spent working at Studio Dumbar, I am starting my own studio to focus on my projects. I hope to combine self-initiated projects such ‘dot dot dot’ with commissioned work in graphic design and typography. I am finishing some typefaces for FontShop, and hoping to do some custom commissioned fonts.
 After organising an exhibition of Dutch graphic design in Brno, I had clear ideas how graphic design could be presented in a book form. Together with Stuart Bailey I am preparing a book proposal which is a reaction to conventional cafe table books. And I keep my eyes and ears open to enjoy the world. The magazine was founded by Jurgen Albrecht, Tom Unverzagt, Stuart Bailey and myself. White the first two are still involved, Stuart and I are taking most of editorial responsibilities.

* Jina Park interviewed Peter Bilak for Design Jungle Korea
, May 2nd, 2001. See this inteview in Korean here.

Interview with Jean-François Porchez


JUNGLE: Which teachers, artists, or movements helped  form or change your perspectives about typography and typographic design?

JEAN-FRANÇOIS PORCHEZ: I discovered typeface design through Calligraphy during my first year of graphic courses with my teacher of calligraphy Ronan Le Henaff, who himself at this time was learning type design at Atelier national de Création Typographique (National Workshop for Type Design, abbr. ANCT). For the next two years, I continued to explore type design with other students from ANCT (who were also teachers in my school!).


Jean-François Porchez won the First Prize at Morisara International Typography Award with typeface Angie in 1990.

During the last year at ANCT, I decided to start creating a set of complete typeface to understand all aspect of the design: now FF Angie. During theses years, I was commissioned by several packaging and corporate identity agencies to do some lettering and logotype work. I also discovered Bernard Arin, who was leading and teaching at the Scriptorium de Toulouse from 1968. He opened my mind about type design, that it has to be rooted in scriptures and calligraphy studies. Calligraphy became my initial reference when I started first designing typefaces.

But quickly, I understood that books can provide much more information and resources for “self-teaching” than actual teachers. Books were instruments to find my own personal way. I discovered that the books of typographic history were mainly written in English, so I started to learn English by reading books on typefaces! In those years, there was no real equivalent in French. The situation has changed now.

My references are mainly from books. As I remember, Twentieth Century Type Designers by Sebastian Carter, Anatomy of Typeface by Alexander Lanson, Hermann Zapf and His Design Philosophy by Zapf himself, and Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy gave all my first understanding of my future job. By the time when I have been accepted to ANCT (which changed its direction the same year), I considered myself that I already knew about type design. My winning of the first prize for the typeface proposed to Morisawa Awards before ANCT proved that. This special one year at this school was only to reaffirm my determination: I’m going to be an type designer!

fondlerieJUNGLE: As a French designer, how much do you value and treasure the history and tradition of French typography? And how are your ideas reflected in your design? What, in your opinion, is the most essential element in typographic design?

JFP: The Rencontres internationales de Lure (French equivalent of ATypI created in the fifties by Maximilien Vox, creator of Vox-ATypI typeface classification) is the main link to French type tradition. People like Gérard Blanchard (died last year) showed me “my” French roots. We discussed many times about type history and contemporary type design. In France, there is a big generational gap between young and old type designers. There is nobody from the same generation of people like Erik Spiekermann or Sumner Stone. But the Rencontres internationales de lure helped me to meet and discuss with people like Ladislas Mandel and René Ponot, who by their knowledge opened my mind to French tradition and viewpoints that I understand very well, because I compared their vision to the Anglo-Saxon typographic philosophy.

Each country has its own culture, regarding typefaces. I strongly think that the typeforms can’t be the same in all countries, first because our languages are structurally different and a type designer “dreams” his new typefaces in his own language!  Natural rhythm in German texts is really more contrasted than Latin or French. For example, German designers like Zapf or Spiekermann naturally designed more structured, straight, square and low-width contrasted forms of letters. In reverse, I design a text typeface more contrasted in forms widths to give more life to my texts to balance the low contrasted French text language.

JUNGLE: Have your perspectives about typography changed during your professional career? For instance, your perspectives as a student, as a career-launching young designer, and as an established designer as now? If so, how?

JFP: I don’t think so. It’s a too long a process to design fonts.

JUNGLE: How many new typefaces are turned out (or released) at which frequency? And tell us about your workshop Typofonderie?

LeMondeLivreClassicJFP: I don’t know! I currently work on two families for clients and two for my own. The first was the extension of the Parisine that I design in 1995/96 for the Paris Métro signages to optimize legibility and economy of space, in bold and bold italic at this time. I was asked to create an 12 series families (6 romans and 6 italics). I will probably finish it next month. 
The second was a family more distinctive in term of style, designed for Costa Croicières, a large Italian company specializing in boat trips and selling holidays mainly via catalogues printed in many different languages. The new family fonts are more distinctive and unique compared to their concurrents. It’s a 4-series family from Light to Bold.

I am also trying to complete a new part of Le Monde family called Le Monde Livre Classic, which features alternative forms for many letters of the original Le Monde Livre. This new family is designed to give more historical roots to composed text, as I will provide many ligatures, alternates and ornaments. The Italic is declined in two variations from Standard Italic (but more flowery 
than the LM Livre original) to Swash version. Lastly, in parallel to Parisine family, I am developing a Parisine Plus which features more original forms and alternates in the same way as Le Monde Livre Classic. Also very different from Parisine is an San-serif typeface family.

JUNGLE: When you work with clients – as they usually look for a tailored and exclusive appearance in the typefaces, how do you approach and convince them? Could you give us an example from your former or present clients.

JFP: Because I have been teaching since a long time, I understand very well that it’s important to explain many aspect of work to future clients. For example, I contacted Le Monde newspaper to propose an exclusive typeface that they never asked. I voluntarily offered my presentation of my new typefaces. After only few weeks of discussions, they decide to buy it! Because they understood how a carefully adapted typeface can optimize legibility and provide them with a strong typographical identity. The newspaper increased in sales after that, but not only because of the new typeface but also the new layout of the newspaper. I was very proud of that, as Le Monde is actually the only French newspaper that uses a custom typeface family in France.

NewFonts1999JUNGLE: You obviously contribute actively to teaching as well as publications both in journals and books in the field of typographic design. What are the topics of your lectures and courses, and what are your aims in teaching?

JFP: I always think that parallel typographical activities gives good opportunities to better understand my work. I contribute to associations like ATypI, for an improvement of typography in general. Last year I published Lettres Franacises, a specimen of all French contemporary digital typefaces to promote the French typography throughout the world. This book, published in French/English, includes some essays by Gérard Unger (outside view), Gérard Blanchard (inside view) and several texts on French typographical schools, list of most typefaces created from the beginning of this century, etc..

I wrote from a couple of years many articles on contemporary international type designers such as Matthew Carter, David Berlow’ Font Bureau, Gérard Unger, LettError, Carol Twombly, etc for French graphic design magazine Étapes and several articles, essays for ATypI Type Journal and related publications. I also organized type events in France like the last ATypI conference MultiTypo 98, where 500 people came from all over the world to attend more than 28 lectures, exhibits, group discussions, visits, and etc. Yes, I taught typography from my first year of activity in several Parisian schools, now I keep only an high level Type design course at École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

JUNGLE: What is your latest interest or fascination in terms of your source of inspiration for the new typeface design?

JFP: I learned to design typefaces on paper, but quickly, like many graphic designers, I moved to computer design. Now, I design my typefaces directly on screen from scratch with Burmerster curves. But when I need to more wrote forms, I scan some roughs or calligraphies to provide me with better sources. Sometimes, it is quicker to draw letters in small sizes (less than 2 centimeters high caps) on papers than directly on the screen. I don’t what to be software-dependent, when software can offer what I ask. I change it for another or work on paper!

CustomFontsI started in the early nineties with URW Ikarus specialized software for digitization of paper forms. After that I worked on Macromedia Fontographer, sometimes with Illustrator. Now it’s a mix of Fontographer, Robofog and FontLab and some small Apple and Microsoft softwares for very specialized fine-tuning. I like the philosophy of Robofog more and more, because this software is created by LettError and other Dutch typography designers for type designers! The concept is that you use script written in Python language to create and produce your fonts, so the software has no limits anymore. All the users are at all times in interaction with the developers by mailing lists. When we ask for a new function that we can’t do by our own scripts, they update Robofog very easily and quickly for us.

The computer tools have no direct influence on my forms; my influences come from my readings, most of the time historical. Latin type forms have already 2,000 years of history, so when you know past very well, you know what you can do or not when you design new fonts. I adapt my forms to current technology rather than the the other way around!

JUNGLE: Finally, we come to the last question to wrap up. What is your view about non-Roman alphabetical fonts? Are there any particular foreign letter forms other than Roman alphabets which interests you?

JFP: Cultural aspect of writing and typefaces are fundamental, so without a good knowledge of a particular language, in written  form and the culture of the people using them, you cannot design good typeface. The transposition of experience in Latin forms can help only for technical aspect of non-Latin forms, never for the forms themselves, or the finished typeface looks strange to a potential user. The history shows too many cases of such bad examples. So, I have only the ambitions to continue some typefaces extensions to Cyrillic and Grècs because Latin have common Mediterranean ground. I work currently on Le
Monde Cyrillic. My Grand Mother was Russian origin!

* This interview originally appeared in Magazine Jungle in Korean posted September 16th, 1999. See also article here.