fr/en Peter Bil’ak
What are the function and meaning of type design?
Well, the main role of type design is to capture the language. The language by
itself is fleeting and is under recorded. Languages have been around for millions of years, but the written forms are much more shorter. Type design is first discovering writing systems, later, the central function of them is to design a system that is able to capture the language. Type design basically does that. It makes the language material. And type design simulates language in the same way than many people have different voices. It can separate the pure information and give it a more emotional or functional layer on top. So typefaces give a particular voice to contents.
As a teacher, you do not focus on the practical technique of type design. (At least you say this is not the final stage). How then, in your opinion, should you think about design?
You know, everything has to be put into context. I don’t focus on
practicalities and skill making because there are other teachers that do it much better. It is important to do that, but I benefit from the fact that they do have stone carving lessons, calligraphy lessons, programming lessons and computer font editing lessons, so I don’t need to do it and I can do something else. I help my students to see what to do with the skills that they have learned, because in the end, it takes a lot of time for you to acquire them and also to really master them. I think this is another kind of level above that, to know how to put your skills to best use and to find your personal motivation. In my class, we look at what makes some things particularly interesting, and it is not about the skills of the creator. It is the same as writing. You can have a great vocabulary, you can master the grammar, you can know the language, but that does not make you a good writer. You need to have the story to tell. It is what makes you a creator. You need to have a particular interest, you need to dig deeply and to find something which hasn’t already been done. That is not easy to learn. It has to come from within. I can’t tell people what they should be exploring, but I can maybe ask questions that can drive them a bit closer to discovering what they want to do. I am trying to teach them, through different exercises, to get closer to being themselves.
Due to your background, from living abroad, you have developed an interest in language that has an influence on your work. Can you tell me more about the link between language and typography?
It is not just the language. I think that everything around you affects you
in some way. It gets attached to you and it becomes an integral part of who you are. The people that you hang out with, the country you live in, all that exposes you to different ways of thinking that can push you out of the comfort zone. I think being abroad speeds up your personal development. And because you do not do it the way you were taught, you must ask questions like, why is it the best way? Why do people do things differently? I have been fortunate to live in different places to compare and choose what suited me best. And then, because language is the subject matter of my work, I think it is important that I do speak enough to understand other languages. Then I know what the letters mean, how they are used, the context… it is good to have a broader vision.
How far does language, and its comprehension, play a role in your perception of the shape of the letter?
The comprehension is a really interesting question because there are
two different things. I deal a lot with non-Latin languages, which I don’t speak. It is not too different from drawing Latin — I don’t speak the Latin language either. I am familiar with the Latin writing script because this is what I have been exposed to from my childhood. And if you spend time with other written scripts, you don’t need to know the language, you need to know how it functions. You need to know that in the end, it is an alphabetic system. You need to know the principles of the alphabet. How the different letter combinations combine, and how they recombine? What are the typical combinations? What are the frequent and non-frequent ones? And to know the cultural history, because in the end, the context and the culture behind it is very important. In terms of arabic for example, arabic language is quite distinct from arabic script. Arabic script is used for non-arabic languages as well and they all have different writing traditions. So, mapping the possibilities is important to be able to choose from all the available forms, to use it wherever you decide around the globe. Otherwise, if you are unaware of this, you may end up with the wrong impression about certain language scripts. Working with foreign scripts is lot more time consuming because as well as drawing them you have to do research: I think for me it’s 90 % research and a small percent of execution. I can draw very quickly but I need to know what to draw and how I made these choices. And you can only make choices about form if you have a good overview. What has already been done? What failed? What are the cultural preferences? How has it been affected by technologies? How have different trends and fashions changed over time. I think a creator needs to be aware of this.
Do you then consider the letter for its shape rather than its sound or meaning?
Yes, one example is Eudald Pradell, one of the most prolific and
successful type designers and printer in the history of Spain. And Pradell created very beautiful eighteenth century typefaces for the world of printing. All his life he was illiterate. So he would be producing forms without being able to read them, which means there is a difference between reading and designing, they are different activities. He would have an understanding of the shapes and forms and how they combine, but knowledge of the language — although it makes it easier — can almost be distracting as well. Because when you start looking at the meaning, I don’t think you consider the typeface that much. You can change from black to grey, you can understand the colour, but in the end meaning is formed in the imagination. If you just look at shapes, it is a different way of looking.
In your magazine projects (Dot Dot Dot and Works That Work), as in your approach to education, it appears that you consider any kind of specialisation as restricting. For you, design has a much broader scope.
It is a rich question. There are two issues. I think specialisation and being professional is very important for society. If you go to the doctor you want to be sure they know what they are doing. However, in the creative field, it doesn’t work so well because what we are trying to do is to reinvent a method of doing things with each projects. Every project is a new question and each new question should have a different answer. To have the same answer to different questions, I think it’s being restrictive. My personal motivation is that if I look at projects which I most enjoyed working on, they are often early projects. I was a student and I didn’t know much, I was just trying things out and exploring, making mistakes, but I did something and really had fun doing it. I always wanted to keep that feeling in my professional practice. One way for me was to include other disciplines. I find it more challenging and more interesting to do projects which admittedly I am not an expert on, and to be able to force myself into learning things constantly. Someone else should be doing it, but because you bring a complete different vision to it, you can end up with more personal results. For example, I worked with a choreographer of a dance company. I have to admit, I am not an expert. I am neither a choreographer nor a dancer. But I work with design — which means dealing with the public, creating forms of communication — and I can bring this experience to the dance world. And strangely, there are enough similarities between them. Dance performance is a form of communication, there is a public and there is a live performance, and somehow you get a message across and you try to make sure the intention and the outcome are somehow allied. If I am designing a book, or a typeface or a dance performance, in the end it is really about trying to make sure that my intentions and my result match. It is as simple as that.
From Dot Dot Dot (‘design can be found in other ‘creative’ disciplines (film, music)’) to Works That Work (‘creativity is in our daily lives’), your perception of the limits of creativity has evolved. How did you reach that conclusion?
All the outcomes are the continuation of how you started and how you
get to where you’re going. Dot Dot Dot was really important to see how a magazine operates and how to deal with content, I learnt a great deal and it was a good collaboration with Stuart Bailey. But now, with a little hindsight, I also see failures. Often, because it was not well edited, a lot of the material inside Dot Dot Dot was too obscure, too abstract, too hard to understand. But not on purpose. The problem was that we didn’t know how to improve the text and material. There were probably things that we shouldn’t have published because it wasn’t clear enough even to ourselves. So yes, probably Dot Dot Dot was the spring board for Works that Work. It is almost a reaction to it, each project reacts to the previous projects. I learnt that I wanted it to be easier to read. Now, if something is not clear enough, or strong enough, it is just not there. It is really simple. There are many levels of editing to make it publishable and readable for people. Writers still rely on the help of the editor to form the message, to make it more understandable to a wider public. And we help them. So Works That Work is more accessible. It has a lot more clarity of meaning. I think Works That Work is about this power of ideas. It is something that is so powerful that it is relevant also for non-designers. It is almost a design magazine for non-designers. Everything made has been designed, and creativity is not something that is reserved for designers or artists, but it is something used by almost everyone. In any profession, if you do it seriously, you are basically reinventing methods and tools and you’re being creative. We are looking for examples of this unexpected creativity in different places.
What stimulates you outside type design?
It is hard to find something which does not stimulate. Type design is
something that I am busy with in the studio but it is not my life in itself. I enjoy nature, I enjoy eating, I enjoy many things. Everything, if you are paying attention, is possibly inspirational. You just have to keep your eyes open. It can be simple things in a restaurant where you notice how they cook, it can be combinations of images, it can be visits to new places… People always find it easier to find inspiration in new places, it is harder to be inspired when you are in your own environment. It’s like photography: it is easy to make great photography when you are traveling to Tibet and to Patagonia or somewhere where you can have astonishing images. But what do you photograph when you are at home? People just think there is nothing to see. No, you should be equally interested in your surroundings, you don’t have to travel. Because if you live in Tibet, you don’t really see these amazing things, it is normal. What would you photograph if you are a Tibetan coming to The Hague? Probably something else, very different. So I force myself to see things as a stranger, as a visitor. By trying to change your point of view, to shift it, that is basically how inspiration comes.
As a type designer, you create material which would be used, and interpreted, by graphic designers. How do you feel about this appropriation of your work?
I am very relaxed about it. I always say that type design is just a semi
product, it is only final when it is applied by someone else. You are making tools for other people to make something out of. Robin Kinross has a better way of saying this, he compares fonts to bricks. You are not the architect, you’re basically making the smallest elements from which you can make anything. And these bricks do not contain specific ideas about what you should build out of them, they are just very solid building material. So, I am aware of this, and I am aware that, sometimes, I am working on a book typeface and testing it in a book environment and then people might use it in completely different ways, which is fine. I am trying to do the work that I do as well as I can, but how it is used or misused, it is out of my hands. You cannot control the outcome precisely. You don’t know until the very end if something is going to sell or not, how exactly it is going to be used. I do look out for examples and that is interesting to see what people do with fonts because you get surprising results. Often it is just completely astonishing, it is something I would never have thought of. And I think that this is a good thing. It is like a writer that writes a book and people find different ideas to what the author actually meant. It is even richer, because they connect with their personal experiences and make something completely different. Fonts have this capacity as well. And the nice thing about type work for me, is that it is a really long-lasting product. Unlike graphic design which is very ephemeral, typefaces stay for years and years and they get reinvented. They’re forgotten and then rediscovered and then used for different purposes. It feels like a responsibility: how can I design something now that can possibly be used beyond my lifetime? Which it is, because if you look at the fonts which are used now, often they are fonts designed by people who are now dead, and they are still relevant and still interesting. The typeface has a life of its own: how it evolves and what it means to different people. It is part of the work.
Do you have any advice for a young designer?
I cannot give advice to someone I don’t know — I can hardly give advice
to people I know. But, based on my experience, people forget that whatever you spend time on, you become really good at it and that if you continue working on the same things, you end up always doing the same. For example, if you spend time doing something second rate, as a way to pay the bills, you become really good doing second rate jobs and not at what you really want to do. You get asked to do things that you are doing right now. It is really hard to tell people that it is not what you really do. So it is important to understand that what you are doing right now is really important, and you need to choose wisely what you do, because that’s what you will probably get stuck with. You know, the seeds of what I do right now came from what I did ten years ago. I had no specific ideas, but I was drawing type or writing. You just become better at it. You do more and more of it.