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.