Spring 2010

Reputations: Peter Bil’ak

‘I have more reasons to make fonts than ever … typeface design is a cumulative process, there are more possible entry points, more references, more inspiration than ever before. As with books, when you engage in reading, it points to more books … you might appreciate the ones you read early on more, because of your new understanding.’

In the quiet back streets near The Hague’s harbour, in a former school building, is the studio of Typotheque, the type foundry and design practice begun in 1999 by Peter Bil’ak. Since then, Typotheque has produced a continuously evolving catalogue of typefaces and developed innovative ways of sampling and consuming them. The studio also publishes articles on type and design, sells books and magazines, and produces T-shirts, diaries and other material developed from and made with the typefaces.

Bil’ak also works as a graphic designer for cultural and commercial clients: perhaps his most visible work in Holland is a series of stamp designs for the Dutch Royal Mail that manages to reference tulips, Mondrian and the history of Dutch type design through no more than glyphs and their bodies.

In parallel with this he makes projects for contemporary dance, writes, curates, gives lectures and teaches. The range of Bil’ak’s work may be a product of his early experiences – a sense of multiple narratives. He says: ‘I am not really able to argue strongly for any single idea, I usually see the opposing view at the same time.’

He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1973, his parents both teachers. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, then in Paris at the Atelier National de Création Typographique (1995-96) and in Maastricht at the Jan van Eyck Akademie (1997-99). His first major typeface project, FF Eureka, was published by FontShop in 1998. While working at Studio Dumbar in The Hague (1999-2001) he received his first big private commission, to design a typeface for a major insurance company. Disaster struck twice. The project was cancelled, and soon after all the work was lost in a studio break-in. Bil’ak redrew the font from scratch to make Typotheque’s first release: Fedra Sans (2001).

Around the time he founded Typotheque, Bil’ak launched the journal Dot Dot Dot with co-editor Stuart Bailey. The project quickly went beyond its billing as a design magazine to become an influential bi-annual collection of pieces around a wider view of creative thinking and practice, though Bil’ak withdrew in 2007.

The Fedra Serif fonts were released in 2003, and the family continued to develop in formal and linguistic directions with a range of display fonts as well as Arabic and Hindi; currently it extends to more than 100 fonts. The newspaper type Greta (2007) was followed by the release of a project Bil’ak had been working on for several years, the History typeface system (2008), an examination of layering across time and cultures (see Eye 71). The typeface Irma (2009) uses contextual alternatives to link positive and negative capital forms into mesh-like word images. His work follows an alphabetical opus system: Eureka, Fedra, Greta, History, Irma. A-D were early works now ruled out.

In 2009 he formed the Indian Type Foundry, a collaborative project to create and distribute fonts in Indic scripts.

Since 2004 Bil’ak has worked with Lukáš Timulak, the choreographer, on devising new concepts for contemporary dance, most recently Offspring (2009) for Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Real Time (2008) for the Slovak National Theatre. He teaches on the postgraduate Type and Media course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and is a guest lecturer on several other courses internationally, most recently at Rhode Island School of Design (US), ECAL (Switzerland), Hong Kong Design Centre and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Mark Thomson: What has influenced your work?

Peter Bil’ak: 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 then went to Atelier national de création typographique in Paris and the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, Netherlands. Those places had a big influence on me, and always made me question what I knew already.

I think travelling at this age [in his early twenties] made me lot more independent and allowed seeing things from multiple perspectives. I am not really 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.

MT: How did you get into type design?

PB: I’ve always been interested in text, doing a bit of writing, and interested in design and designing printed matter, so designing type fell naturally somewhere in between.

At the beginning, I didn’t separate it from other work. I had this naive idea of absolute authorship – designing type for the essay I would write, for the book I was designing. But later I became interested in seeing what others might do with those typefaces.

MT: You were early with the platform / foundry / shop idea – Typotheque is ten years old already.

PB: 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, and also projects by friends who I had 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.

MT: That was Fedra Sans [used for this issue of Eye], which was notable at the time for distinctive features like the lower case “f” and “i”, the curved tails on “r” and “K”, a very animated italic – and an unexpectedly large x-height …

PB: Fedra Sans was the first commission I received when I started on my own. It was supposed to be a corporate typeface for a German insurance company, replacing Univers, which it had 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 other projects and interests, specifically all the multilingual versions: Arabic, Hindi, Armenian and so on.

MT: These 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?

PB: There are many fonts produced in India but mainly to support software packages, and those fonts don’t work outside those applications. Companies such as Adobe have been making design software for two decades, and part of their software is developed in India, but you still can’t use Illustrator or Photoshop with Indic scripts (though there are now 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 them, 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 an Indian design student, S. N. Rajpurohit, on the Hindi version of Fedra, and two years later we started the Indian Type Foundry. We partnered with Rajesh Kejriwal, who has 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 typefaces made by local designers.

MT: 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.

PB: When we started DDD, we were very self-conscious, and did a lot of research into the history of design magazines, how they started, how they finished, which became the pilot issue. By the second issue we relaxed. If subjects as diverse as music, language, film, art, mathematics, literature occur in our work, where we have to become temporary experts on them, 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.

MT: Do you think there’s any point in magazines being printed any more?

PB: 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’s still early days.

MT: One of the more unusual elements in your work is dance.

PB 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.

Dance relies on live performance; once it has been recorded it is no longer dance but 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.

MT: The idea of unitary constructions describing movement, something fluid and temporal, is similar to the relationship of the elements of type to written / printed language, and of language to the ideas it forms. The DanceWriter utility is an explicit statement of that relationship.

PB: A few years back I made a Web page playing with an idea from Abeceda, the book by Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige. It uses a video recording of a dancer who performs movements that can be read as letters, and you can compose a message and send it as an email. A recipient sees a video of a dancer dancing the message.

Recently, I made a new version of DanceWriter, a larger installation for the exhibition “Quick, quick, slow”, curated by Emily King in Lisbon’s Experimenta Design, and realised that although the DanceWriter installation 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”.

MT: Are you the choreographer or the designer?

PB: 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 again in the last weeks of production, 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”.

MT: How does the studio work, given the variety of disciplines you are engaged in?

PB: I used to do almost everything myself, from programming to accounting; now I am happy to 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 with anything that can be automated – the website, creating online applications, even our yearly diary – which of course saves time, so I can focus on other things.

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.

MT: Do you have a business model?

PB: Not really. Elaborate business planning rarely works. During the design process I only think about making something genuinely useful, rather than about 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 – 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, so I don’t advise it to others. I created fonts when I was still a student, when I didn’t need any real income. Eureka, my first serious published font (1998), funded work on the next, Fedra, which funded work on History, which funded work on Greta, etc.

MT: 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”?

PB: Today, file sharing is estimated to account for more than a third of all internet traffic. There are groups who advocate unauthorised copying of data – making a point that we need to observe the 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 that are controlled neither by content creators nor by publishers, but solely by the interests of the users: content flows from creator to user without a corresponding flow of remuneration in the opposite direction.

MT: What does that mean for you?

PB: It is surprising that people don’t see this issue in a larger perspective. Creating content costs a lot of energy and resources, so cutting the flow that remunerates the authors will mean less quality content. But that will become visible only in a few years, and it might be difficult to restart the production-consumption circle. Sure, one can make a film, piece of music or font with no money, but it will have consequences on the outcome. Most of the truly free movies available on the Web are not worth watching.

A lot of the content that we think is free is in fact very laborious and costly. Verdana, for example, is seen by 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 the expertise involved.

MT: Do you think there will be a moment when the market for fonts is saturated?

PB: 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. As with books, when you engage in reading, it points to more books, and you might appreciate the ones you read early on more, because of your new understanding of them.

Type design has been driven historically by technology, but I think the discipline has moved beyond the problem-solving activity – it is more self-aware, more informed by history, with very few technical limitations. This opens more possibilities for creation.

There are more fonts today than ever before, and some of them will probably never be used. That is fine, and hopefully it will mean that the overall quality is higher than, say, fifteen years ago. 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.

MT: The idea of History originated in a proposal for public communications; it 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.

PB: Right. In 2002 I was invited to take part in the international competition for the design of the typeface for the Twin Cities. Instead of proposing a single 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. This would be linked to the computer’s calendar and, using a predefined database of fonts, present 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, it would be in a new typeface, say Granjon, that was created more recently than Garamond. The idea was that the constant changes would confront the user with the continuous development of typography. The brief of the project was to bring people more awareness of typography. I just didn’t think it would be possible to do this by making new forms.

MT: Your History Remixer application is extremely useful, because it gives designers a chance to experiment freely and see how the combinations work before buying the fonts.

PB: History sells rather well, which I am pleased about, because most of the comments I received were that the project was interesting … but hardly usable.

Seeing it used now gives me a great satisfaction, and proves that even very personal projects can have a value for another user, even when it requires the user to do extra work.

I don’t think it would have been possible to do a this had I made a calculated decision about what new typefaces designers need. Market research would probably point to some clean, neutral sans serifs, and there are plenty of those already.

MT: Another Typotheque utility is the Web Font Service, which enables designers, finally, to use custom fonts on the Web.

PB: Although there were ways to use custom fonts on the Web before, they all involved some complicated hacking, or converting fonts to images. This changed in 2009, 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 is why we found it important to support use of our fonts online, rather than just in print. Until last year we simply had to disallow embedding fonts in websites – this is still what other foundries do.

MT: How does the font service work?

PB: Users can create a subsetted version of one of our fonts, which contains only the characters that they need for their website. This makes the font-set small and fast to load. It is then copied to the network 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 the subset on the Typotheque site. The font files can’t be casually copied, and the code works only on the registered website.

MT: How does the licensing and pricing work?

PB: If someone has bought fonts from us in the past, they can use the Web service free for those particular fonts. The prices of our fonts have not changed but the licence has been extended to cover Web use. We also offer a Web-only licence, at a fraction of our usual price.

What is new is that we can also provide a free trial licence. This has never been possible before, you had to pay for the fonts before you could use them.

With Web fonts the process of licensing changes, 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, like in the old days, rather than a product, so users would purchase a monthly subscription.

MT: That would require another complete change of orientation from both suppliers and users.

PB: 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.

First published in Eye no. 75 vol. 19, 2010.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy


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