26 March 2020


Eugene Yukechev

‘A man of let­ters’ was the term, in Renais­sance times, for in­di­vidu­als en­gaged in crit­ic­al think­ing, read­ing, re­search and hu­man self-re­flec­tion about know­ledge, life and so­ci­ety. That defin­i­tion per­fectly suits Peter Bil­ak: he writes, lec­tures, pub­lishes and, in fact, makes let­ters. Twenty years ago in the Hag­ue he set up his own type foundry, Ty­po­theque, and since then has launched a series of unique pub­lish­ing pro­jects: the magazines Dot Dot Dot and Work That Work, co-foun­ded Font­stand, a new way of dis­cov­er­ing and li­cens­ing fonts, as well as TPTQ Ar­ab­ic, a com­pany fo­cused on the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern and au­then­t­ic Ar­ab­ic typefaces, to name a few. Last year Ty­po­theque cel­eb­rated its 20th an­niversary with a solo ex­hib­i­tion at the Kun­st­mu­seum Den Haag, a fine way to top things off. It has been a pleas­ure to meet and talk with Peter at his cosy stu­dio at Kon­ing­s­plein 12, The Hag­ue, Neth­er­lands. — E.Y.

I’d like to start with a ques­tion about the last big event in our field—the second Font­stand Con­fer­en­ce, which you or­gan­ized. What do you see as its achieve­ments? What mo­tiv­ated you to or­gan­ize the event? 

It just made sense for us be­cause Font­stand is more than a busi­ness, it’s a com­mu­nity pro­ject. It brings in­de­pend­ent foundries to­geth­er. Mono­type was buy­ing com­pan­ies and be­com­ing big­ger and big­ger. And people be­came dis­il­lu­sioned at the ab­sence of an in­de­pend­ent al­tern­at­ive. We star­ted Font­stand the year that Mono­type ac­quired Font­Shop. Ba­sic­ally, we wondered how small foundries can still be rel­ev­ant today. We wanted to show that there are oth­er ways to do it – to pro­duce qual­ity work, in­nov­at­ive way to li­cense it, and de­vel­op in­tim­ate re­la­tion­ships between the makers and cli­ents. 

I really ad­mire the work of many col­leagues, and thought that maybe we should or­gan­ize per­son­al meet­ings to dis­cuss our work and learn from each oth­er. So last year we or­gan­ized the first meet­ing, in Zagreb, Croa­tia. At first, the idea was to make it just a private meet­ing of type de­sign­ers, just dis­cus­sions about what we were work­ing on. And then, once every­one wanted to come, we thought that maybe it would be a shame to keep it so private, and ad­ded a pub­lic con­fer­en­ce to the pro­gramme. And it turned out to be a great event. People really en­joyed it. This time in Porto, it was a prop­erly or­gan­ised pub­lic con­fer­en­ce on a nice loc­a­tion, with a very packed pro­gram. And as be­fore, we also had a private pro­gramme for the foundry mem­bers, where we dis­cuss lots of stat­ist­ics and num­bers. It was like a kind of very per­son­al an­nu­al re­port, with a chance to hear every­one’s opin­ion.

Font­stand Con­fer­en­ce par­ti­cipants (Porto, 2019) 

First line, sit­ting: Hye­won Han, San­dol; Yun­jung Park, TLAB; Lud­wig Übele, Lud­wig Type; Dino dos San­tos, DS Type; Mat­teo Bo­logna, Mucca Type; Susanne Zip­pel. Stand­ing in or­der of ap­pear­ance from left to right: Cath­er­ine Dix­on; Young Oh Oh, TLAB; Jeremie Hornus, Black Foundry; Bar­bara Bi­gos­ińska; Kristyan Sar­kis, TPTQ Ar­ab­ic; An­dreu Bali­us, Type Re­pub­lic; Jo­nas Heck­sh­er, Play­type; An­drej Krátky, Font­stand; Paul van der Laan, Bold Monday; Stefanie Bitzi­geio; Quentin Schmer­ber, (then Pro­duc­tion Type, now Swiss Typefaces); Peter Bil­ak (Font­stand, Ty­po­thqeue); Math­i­as Jes­per­sen, Play­Type; Mar­tin Ma­joor, Questa Pro­ject; Nikola Djurek, Ty­po­theque; Paul Barnes, Com­mer­cial Type; In­dra Kup­fer­schmid; An­ne­mar­ie Friis­lund, Play­Type; Marko Hrastovec; Laura Me­seg­uer, Type-ø-tones; Ilya Ruder­man, CSTM; Mi­chael Hoch­leit­ner, Type Jock­eys; Rui Ab­reu, R ty­po­graphy; Mario Fe­li­ciano (Fe­li­ciano Type Foundry).

You launched Font­stand in 2015. What dy­nam­ic do you see dur­ing these four years in num­bers—fonts, users, in­comes? Could you share some num­bers with us

First of all, we don’t really have a strict busi­ness plan, such that we know where we want to be in three years or five years, we don’t only think in terms of num­bers. We strongly be­lieve in the idea we can use cre­at­ive ideas not just in draw­ing typefaces, but also how our work can be avail­able to the pub­lic. We also be­lieve in the power of com­mu­nity, so Font­stand feels like a grass­roots or­gan­iz­a­tion. Of course, we want to be prof­it­able and grow, but very cau­tiously. We would like to al­low type de­sign­ers get­ting paid for their work, and we want to also guar­an­tee high qual­ity fonts offered to the cli­ents, which doesn’t al­ways go hand in hand with growth, as you know. We work with foundries and makers by in­vit­a­tion. We care­fully cur­ate our lib­rary, but we don’t choose typefaces; we in­vite the de­sign­ers be­hind them, and they choose what they want to of­fer. 

Our of­fer is our plat­form. We of­fer these fonts for just 10% of the nor­mal price per month for rent­al, but the price is con­trolled by the foundries. They see ex­actly how it goes, who tests fonts, who rents them , and how much they earn. At this point, there are about 50 foundries and there are al­ways new re­leases. So Font­stand grows or­gan­ic­ally as foundries re­lease new typefaces. In terms of users, it’s also grow­ing. We have about 40,000 re­gistered users on Font­stand, which again I don’t know if that’s a lot or not. We nev­er had a tar­get for these num­bers, and fo­cus on cre­at­ing a value for the type foundries in­volved and for the users, of course. 

Right now, the over­all con­ver­sion rate 5.3, mean­ing that every fifth free tri­al con­ver­ted to a paid rent­al. But that’s over five years. In the first year, it was one to eight, and now it’s less. So it’s get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, be­cause at the be­gin­ning people were just curi­ous and they kept try­ing. And we are pleased to see that a lot of myths don’t hold up. People think, for ex­ample, that “only sans serif sells.” We showed at Porto that we have equal num­bers of serifs and sans serifs, equal num­bers of dis­play and text fonts that sell. Ac­tu­ally, at the mo­ment, the best-selling fonts are serif fonts.

Font­stand’s font view. Font­stand, a simple stan­dalone ap­plic­a­tion for Mac OS X, (down­load­able for free at Font­stand.com) marks a re­volu­tion in the way fonts are dis­trib­uted and li­censed. Con­ceived by in­de­pend­ent type de­sign­ers spe­cif­ic­ally to ad­dress the con­cerns of their in­dustry, it provides cus­tom­ers with a simple way to try fonts for free and rent them by the month for a frac­tion of their reg­u­lar price, an ideal solu­tion if you need a font for just one pro­ject and don’t plan on us­ing it again. At present, Font­stand fea­tures thou­sands of fonts and font fam­il­ies from more than 20 of the world’s top in­de­pend­ent font foundries, in­clud­ing the work of in­ter­na­tion­ally re­cog­nized de­sign­ers. 

(From a press-re­lease by On­drej Jób)

Speak­ing of the rent­al mod­el versus sub­scrip­tion mod­el for fonts, what was your main point for go­ing with rent­ing?

It’s a good ques­tion. In gen­er­al, sub­scrip­tion of­ten sounds like a very at­tract­ive mod­el. I sub­scribe to magazines and think that’s a fair mod­el. But the prob­lem with the kind of sub­scrip­tion that Spo­ti­fy of­fers, as also do many oth­er di­git­al ser­vices, is that there’s a fixed fee, say, $10, for an un­lim­ited num­ber of products. That means that there’s no price really per product. You can con­sume any­thing you want for that fixed price, which means that that $10 is di­vided in­fin­itely by the num­ber of products based on the us­age al­gorithm. Prac­tic­ally speak­ing, very little gets back to the people who cre­ate the work, even those, whose mu­sic is very suc­cess­ful. And that’s why artists are dis­il­lu­sioned with Spo­ti­fy, be­cause on the one hand it be­came a huge suc­cess, with most people now con­sum­ing mu­sic by stream­ing, but you need mil­lions of streams to pay just the min­im­al monthly salary of the con­tent cre­at­or. Every­one uses Spo­ti­fy, but no mu­si­cian can live from the money that flows back to them.

Say, if we offered five mil­li­on fonts or songs or books for $10, but what does that $10 rep­res­ent, how do you get this num­ber? We de­cided from the be­gin­ning to make clear that fonts rep­res­ent cer­tain value, and it is the makers who set the price.

It looks like the Font­stand is a big pro­ject. Ob­vi­ously, it needed a lot of in­vest­ment. How many people are work­ing at the mo­ment on Font­stand?

Font­stand is not so big op­er­a­tion. There are: An­drej Krátky, my­self and On­drej Jób, who de­signed the app and all the on­line things. But none of us are work­ing full time on it. And then we have a team of de­ve­lopers, with four de­ve­lopers work­ing full time. So there’s a big­ger tech­nic­al team and a smal­ler cre­at­ive team, and we don’t have any man­agers.

To pro­duce soft­ware is not cheap. There are no out­side in­vestors. We put our money in­to it, which shows our com­mit­ment. We be­lieve that this is a good thing. We could pos­sibly seek ex­tern­al in­vestors, but that would change our pri­or­it­ies, then it be­comes only about profits. We wanted to play by our rules. We put our sav­ings in­to Font­stand. And this, as it hap­pens, is the first year that Font­stand has been prof­it­able, so it took over four years to get here. Again, there was no tar­geted “when”, there was no pres­sure to reach prof­it­ab­il­ity by a set time, but, luck­ily, we’ve come to a good place. And it’s come at a time when we have to make fur­ther in­vest­ments, for ex­ample for the up­com­ing iPad app, but now they can be made by the com­pany it­self.

Chan­ging the sub­ject, I’ve al­ways wanted to talk with you about your design pro­jects. I know that you re­cently worked on typefaces for the Par­is trans­port sys­tem. Could you tell us more about the de­tails of the pro­ject? Is it fin­ished? 

First, it is not yet fin­ished. It’s a fas­cin­at­ing pro­ject, mainly in terms of how it’s or­gan­ized. Typ­ic­ally, a pro­ject like this would be­gin by work­ing on con­struc­tion first, and a year be­fore launch there would be a call for design and then some design would hap­pen. But not in this case. This is a new trans­port­a­tion sys­tem for Par­is, called Grand Par­is Ex­press, and it will com­bine rail­road and un­der­ground and everything, and there will be 80 new sta­tions. It’s a very am­bi­tious, very ex­pens­ive, huge pro­ject, which, if things go well, will be ready in 2035. But pro­jects like this usu­ally don’t go well. They’re too com­plic­ated. So it is ex­cep­tion­al that they ap­proached de­sign­ers in this early phase, be­fore the sta­tions are even built. 

There were plenty of ques­tions. For ex­ample, how co­her­ent or con­sist­ent should the sig­nage be? Should it be ident­ic­al in every sta­tion or dif­fer­ent? We had to do a lot of re­search about the ex­ist­ing sig­nage sys­tems. And es­pe­cially about what makes sig­nage sur­vive. If you look at the design for the Olympic games, you see how quickly things age. Look at something from 4 years ago, from 8 years ago, 12 years ago, and you see – yes, ob­vi­ously it ages. So now it’s a ques­tion of how to design something that will last quite a long time; we have to design something now that will look fresh in 2035. This is a chal­lenge. And ty­po­graphy plays a very im­port­ant role in the pro­ject be­cause it’s an ele­ment which ages the least. 

If you look at type, you see that it’s not time­less but it’s more time-res­ist­ant than any oth­er me­di­um. If you look at ar­chi­tec­ture or pic­to­grams or any­thing else, fash­ion, of­ten you can identi­fy when they were made. With type, it is a lot of dur­able. I was just read­ing a book about Sil­ic­on Val­ley set in a typeface that is 300 years old and it feels fine. It doesn’t feel dis­con­nec­ted be­cause the shapes of type have so­lid­i­fied. They be­came stand­ard­ized some­time dur­ing the Renais­sance. And that’s why work­ing with type be­came the solu­tion. It’s quite safe to work with type as a key com­pon­ent in sig­nage be­cause it prob­ably will hold up longer than oth­er things. 

So back to the pro­ject. The sig­nage sys­tem will be in five lan­guages: Chinese, Ja­pan­ese, Ar­ab­ic, French, of course, Eng­lish — with three non-Lat­in scripts, this is quite dif­fer­ent.

The typefaces should be dur­able, but should they be neut­ral as well?

No. We didn’t think that neut­ral­ity was the solu­tion. We wanted to cre­ate something which is iden­ti­fi­able and spe­cif­ic to the place. So we are not try­ing to make something which is not rooted in any­thing. One de­cision that we made, for ex­ample, is that we are not go­ing to re­place ex­ist­ing sig­nage. The new type is go­ing to work next to everything else which has already been made. Par­is sig­nage from the 19th cen­tury, very Art Nou­veau sig­nage, will re­main. Then you get post­war sig­nage. And then you get Fru­ti­ger signs from the 1970s, and 1990s’ Jean François Porchez sig­nage. These are like lay­ers in ar­chae­ology. You see the dif­fer­en­ces. You don’t try to re­place the past, al­though it some­times hap­pens that old sig­nage no longer works, and then it is re­placed. Only the new sta­tions will use the new sys­tem fully. 

The ques­tion is not how to link the new sig­nage to everything else. It is really about Par­is, about the city and about what there is already. I should have men­tioned in the be­gin­ning that this is a pro­ject that was a com­mis­sion from In­teg­ral Ruedi Baur Stu­dio in Par­is, who won the pitch. For the pro­ject they work with ar­chi­tects and psy­cho­lo­gists. It’s about mak­ing a loc­a­tion spe­cif­ic, and they are try­ing to visu­al­ize dif­fer­ent areas in dif­fer­ent ways. There’ll be huge dif­fer­en­ces at every sta­tion. So neut­ral­ity was not something that was con­sidered.

Do you think a typeface can be neut­ral?

I don’t think so. But I do think it’s a really in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. I like ques­tions which don’t have a clear an­swer. I don’t think that’s really pos­sible to make a neut­ral typeface. I think all typefaces in­volve a lot of de­cisions. De­cisions about design are not neut­ral. They are in­formed by the past, his­tory, your pref­er­en­ces. However, I do think that it’s in­ter­est­ing to con­sider the pos­sib­il­ity — even when I think that’s ba­sic­ally im­pos­sible. I think you can’t write a neut­ral book, you can’t write neut­ral news­pa­pers be­cause you make your choices about what to talk about, when and how. News is not neut­ral; noth­ing is neut­ral. 

The para­dox is that we do work with neut­ral­ity.

You may have heard that Ir­ina Smirnova is work­ing now on a Cyril­lic ex­ten­sion of the Neut­ral typeface by Kai Bernau. He de­signed the typeface in 2005 ex­plor­ing how to make a typeface free of any con­nota­tions. Kai is a very ser­i­ous guy, and he made a longer re­search in­to the sub­ject. And since 2017, we work on dif­fer­ent lan­guage ver­sions of Neut­ral. We star­ted work­ing on Cyril­lic, we tried to think if there was a neut­ral Rus­si­an typeface — what it might look like and what kind of meth­od­o­logy we should use. At first, Ir­ina drew in­tu­it­ively, re­ly­ing on her sense of how she felt it should be and then slowly dis­tanced her­self and de­ve­loped ana­lyt­ic­al meth­ods for how to draw it. I don’t know if you’ve seen her re­search about this.

Yes, I talked with Ir­ina Smirnova re­cently. She showed me some ex­amples of her and Max Ily­in­ov re­search. It’s a really im­press­ive ana­lyt­ic­al pro­cess, but I’m still won­der­ing if it’s pos­sible. 

My con­clu­sion is that it’s not pos­sible. But again a lot of our pro­jects start with a “what if” ques­tion. And then you push it, push it all the way you can. You make a com­mit­ment. Be­cause if you only work from the meth­ods you already be­lieve in, you’ll al­ways keep do­ing the same thing. What I really like about my work is that it’s dif­fer­ent every time. Every pro­ject is very dif­fer­ent. It pro­vokes me to design a new work­flow, new meth­ods and new tools that al­low me to get the most out of them. 

Of­ten we try to design things to be dif­fer­ent, just slightly dif­fer­ent than something else. But here we have a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Ir­ina finds it really fas­cin­at­ing to draw dif­fer­ently from her usu­al man­ner. This really chal­lenges her. And once she is sat­is­fied with her draw­ing, how it should be, the second one is pro­duced just re­ly­ing on data, al­low­ing data to struc­ture the work. And then we com­pare. Some­times the two res­ults are very sim­il­ar. Some­times the pro­cess forces you to do com­pletely dif­fer­ent things than you feel you should. Some­times she feels like the res­ult is not really made by her.

For a long time, Kai didn’t feel that it would be pos­sible to do a non-Lat­in ver­sion. I was al­ways telling him, “Yes, it will be dif­fer­ent, but maybe even more in­ter­est­ing.” The res­ult will not be a lit­er­al trans­la­tion of the ex­ist­ing typeface; it will be a dif­fer­ent typeface, that ex­plore the ori­gin­al concept.

I’d like to talk about a com­pletely op­pos­ite kind of situ­ation, about the “tone of voice” of your magazine Works That Work. You de­signed the typeface Lava ex­clus­ively for the pro­ject in or­der to give it its own unique voice. A Rus­si­an type de­sign­er, Yuri Gor­don, refers to this as “the taste of read­ing.” So what is the “taste of read­ing” pro­duced by Lava? What was your aim?

Ori­gin­ally, I thought I’d design Works That Work my­self. I had a concept of the magazine, and I star­ted play­ing with lay­outs us­ing ex­ist­ing typefaces, but I wasn’t sat­is­fied with this be­cause in this small format there’s not much that you can do with design. The type just had to be unique in some way. At the same time, the idea of the magazine was a design magazine for non-de­sign­ers. And I didn’t want to make it overdesigned. I hoped for just a really nor­mal read­ing ex­per­i­en­ce. I was al­ways think­ing that it would be for my broth­er, who’s an en­gin­eer. And he has this fil­ter. If something looks ob­vi­ously de­signed from cov­er to cov­er, like Eye magazine, he says, “This is not for me; this is for de­sign­ers.” So I wanted to see what a magazine might look like to make him feel com­fort­able as a read­er and doesn’t shout out, “This is a design magazine.”

An­oth­er big factor in the design was that the magazine was con­ceived in 2012—the year that the iPad be­came a big thing. So I was think­ing, OK, let’s cre­ate something which is about stor­ies. It doesn’t really mat­ter if it will be in print or di­git­al or on phones or Kindles or whatever. But then the prob­lem is that every device is dif­fer­ent, and you can’t know what you’ll be read on. Formats are dif­fer­ent, col­ors are dif­fer­ent, lay­outs are dif­fer­ent. The only com­mon de­nom­in­at­or is the typeface. 

Halfway in, I changed my mind and real­ized I wouldn’t have the time to ser­i­ously design the magazine. To really do the job, I would have to spend all my time just run­ning the magazine, be­ing its pub­lish­er and ed­it­or. So I asked Kai Bernau and Susanna Carvalho to design it. They’re book de­sign­ers. They had nev­er de­signed a magazine be­fore, which was the reas­on I wanted to work with them. I thought it had to feel book­ish and very fo­cused. They agreed and were very ex­cited. 

Much later, I told them that I wanted to use a typeface which didn’t ex­ist yet. They were, like, “What? What it’s go­ing to be?” You should know that they are very picky. The choice of type is something very per­son­al for them. I knew that they might re­fuse the pro­ject just be­cause of this. So I was a bit care­ful: “I will give you all pos­sible free­dom in us­ing the typeface,” I said. They made a point that type is a tool and they need to know the tool. They can’t design a magazine without know­ing the typeface, and they have to be­come com­fort­able with it. And they said they nev­er used new fonts. They use fonts which they know very well, try­ing to get the most out of them. 

I gave them a brief which was very open. The brief con­cerned the weight of the magazine, I told them it had to be un­der 200 grams, in­clud­ing the en­vel­ope. I gave them sample art­icles. But I didn’t give them the format, but it’s just clear if you know about print­ing prices in the Neth­er­lands and you’re try­ing to be very eco­nom­ic­al that it comes down to very few op­tions. Hap­pily, they came to the same format, which I had in mind, rather book­ish size – 17×24 cm. It’s the format in the Neth­er­lands where you don’t waste any pa­per. 

I think that they re­spect all our fonts, but they wouldn’t use them. They have just a dif­fer­ent way of work­ing. I’m not sure if they ever used our fonts be­fore, but I didn’t force them. So fi­nally I showed them sketches of the typeface and I was re­lieved that they liked it a lot.

How did you de­scribe to your­self the new typeface for WTW? What were you look­ing for when you made the first sketches?

My closest ref­er­en­ce was Plantin. I really like how Plantin looks in books. It has a kind of con­fid­en­ce that you don’t doubt – you see it and there’s no doubt. Any typeface (even Times) – when I see it, I won­der, really? I don’t have im­me­di­ate, full trust. So you’re look­ing for something that makes you feel like, “End of ques­tions; it’s fine.” 

You can com­pare typefaces to hand­shakes. Some­times you get hand­shakes that go like “mmm?”… And some­times a hand­shake that isn’t force­ful is con­vin­cing. And you feel, yes, the per­son knows what he’s do­ing. The same with voices, and the same with types. I think cred­ib­il­ity/au­thor­ity is an im­port­ant as­pect. Au­thor­ity means that you don’t doubt what you see; it is not just try­ing to sur­prise – “I do it dif­fer­ently.” Lava is com­pletely re­laxed, not in your face. It works in a subtle way. Prob­ably, it works more subtly than any of my oth­er fonts. And I’ve be­come very fond of it. I nev­er thought that it would have such a good af­ter­life be­cause it was made for the magazine pro­ject, but now you can see it in many oth­er pro­jects.

I can con­firm that: you can see Lava in Rus­si­an fash­ion magazines and in news me­dia broad­casts, on edu­ca­tion­al web­sites and so on. Lava is used, for ex­ample, for the bril­li­ant edu­ca­tion­al pro­ject, Ar­za­mas. Very dif­fer­ent voices but the same im­pres­sion. My next ques­tion is about the typeface for Dot Dot Dot magazine. It was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story, wasn’t it? You used a very ec­cent­ric typeface, Mitim, by a Czech type de­sign­er, Radim Peško. And that magazine, in con­trast to WTW, was try­ing to be really unique. How was that? 

Dot Dot Dot is an older pro­ject that star­ted back in 1999. The first is­sue of DDD used my typeface, Eureka. I think Eureka was used for the first three is­sues. Then it was Plantin, which we both (Stu­art Bailey and I) liked a lot. But, halfway along, on is­sue nine or ten, we real­ized that DDD had stopped be­ing a design magazine. It was an art pro­ject – about lan­guage, mu­sic, everything. It be­came very self-con­scious.

First, we didn’t know much about edit­ing and pub­lish­ing. I think some­times there were pieces that shouldn’t have been there. Then we slowly began to have dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ic pref­er­en­ces: we ar­gued about choices of type, about col­ors, about things and what they meant to us. Fre­quently, we couldn’t agree on things. So com­mis­sion­ing Radim was the solu­tion. I had known him for a long time. So we de­cided to give it a try. We gave him our full trust to make something, and we didn’t know what it was go­ing to be. We gave him a design brief for a typeface, and we showed him what we had used be­fore. But you have to real­ize that Radim is not a clas­sic­ally trained ty­po­graph­er. We knew that the res­ult was not go­ing to be a book typeface of the kind that we’d get, for ex­ample, from my col­leagues at Type and Me­dia. Radim’s work is funky, loud, a bit hip­ster (and was so long be­fore the word be­came pop­u­lar). 

He worked very quickly. In a week he gave us a font which was something that I would nev­er have used nor­mally, of course. Neither would Stu­art, I think. We were just won­der­ing, “What the hell is that?” But we agreed that we’d use it. That was our com­mit­ment. I think there was some feed­back I gave Radim. We asked him to change a few things, but the deal was that we’d use what we had and would use the up­dates for the fu­ture. I think it is dif­fer­ent in every is­sue. In the be­gin­ning it was really rough, but slowly it gets more re­fined. 

Slowly, it gets more weights, more char­ac­ter sup­port, slowly it gets everything. And the deal was that we would pay him per is­sue; we couldn’t af­ford ser­i­ous money. And we ac­cep­ted the typeface as a per­son, like someone who comes for a vis­it, but you didn’t choose this per­sons per­son­al­ity. But, well, it is a per­son, and we have to have re­spect who­ever it is. So neither Stu­art nor I chose it based on what we nor­mally use, but we had to work with it to find out if we could do something with it.

How did the new typeface af­fect the magazine?

It changed the magazine very much. It be­came even more idio­syn­crat­ic. It be­came even weirder. At the time I’d been work­ing on that magazine already for five years. I thought that we had done most of we had wanted to do. But Stu­art felt dif­fer­ently, there was still a lot more that he wanted to do with it. We had an ex­hib­i­tion in Tallinn, Es­to­nia, for the 10th is­sue. And for me it was al­most like the end of a pro­ject. For Stu­art, it was a time to steer it, to make it even more an art magazine. So it be­came more about art. For me, the cri­ter­ia for se­lec­tion were not clear, what should be and what should not be in­cluded. Around is­sue 12, I slowly dis­tanced from the pro­ject. And slowly, after hav­ing been someone who star­ted the magazine, I be­came just a read­er. 

Mitim by Radim Peško (2005–2010) is an on­go­ing pro­ject/typeface de­signed upon a spe­cif­ic brief* for Dot Dot Dot magazine and char­ac­ter­ized by its tri­an­gu­lar serifs. The Mitim fam­ily of fonts grows and de­vel­ops with each new is­sue of the magazine in re­sponse to the chan­ging con­di­tions of its pro­duc­tion: the con­text, theme, ap­proach and spir­it as well as re­stric­tions in pro­duc­tion pro­cesses, and the needs of spe­cif­ic con­tri­bu­tions.

To me, WTW was very much a kind of re­ac­tion to DDD. A mat­ter of try­ing to learn from that ex­per­i­en­ce, from what I learned about work­ing with text, how to make choices, how to work with au­thors, how to work with im­ages. And I prob­ably de­ve­loped a lot more re­spons­ib­il­ity to­wards read­ers. You know, I would of­ten meet read­ers who said about the DDD magazine: “Oh! I love this so much! It’s really fas­cin­at­ing! I have no idea what it means, but I really like it!” And, I thought, this is ter­rible be­cause some­times neither read­ers nor ed­it­ors knew what we were really do­ing. It looked in­ter­est­ing, but no one really knew what it was about. This is something that not many people are will­ing to ad­mit – but it means you have kind of lost con­trol. 

And with WTW I learned that if I didn’t un­der­stand even a single word, I wouldn’t pub­lish it. If I don’t un­der­stand it as a pub­lish­er, there is no way that I am go­ing to of­fer it to a read­er. So it’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of work­ing with text. And we were very picky about the texts. We did a lot, ac­tu­ally. For every art­icle we spent 8-10 months work­ing to source everything, to check everything four times. There’s a lot of unique con­tent, and I knew the art­icles would be strong.

Every­one was so up­set when you shut down WTW after the tenth is­sue. What drove you to close it up? 

Well, there were many things in­volved. First, a pro­ject like this re­quires a cer­tain in­tens­ity. It’s like phys­ic­al ex­er­cise – you know you can sprint only as long as you can sprint. If you want to change, then you have to start run­ning mara­thons, but it’s dif­fer­ent then. The rhythm, the tempo, the amount of work - it was a very in­tense pro­ject. And we knew about this. And I was wor­ried. I knew from DDD that at one point I would lose in­terest, and I wanted to pre­vent that, so I wanted to end the pro­ject be­fore that happened. And from the very be­gin­ning, I had said this would be a time-lim­ited pro­ject. It was something that had a be­gin­ning and would need an end. I think I sug­ges­ted around is­sue five for the first time that a lo­gic­al end seemed to be num­ber 10. 

There are many magazines that dis­ap­pear without even know­ing that they have dis­ap­peared. For ex­ample, we have worked with some writers who had writ­ten for Col­ors magazine be­fore. And someone was al­ways say­ing, “I’m a former ed­it­or of Col­ors magazine,” and I would ask, “What happened to Col­ors?” “I don’t know.” Does it still ex­ist?” “I don’t know.” No one knew. It was really weird. There can be this slow run­ning out of en­ergy, of in­terest. And that seemed to be the least de­sir­able scen­ario. 

The best thing about the pro­ject is that I am fully in charge and I can choose when to start, when to end. It’s not very of­ten that you can choose when and how you want to end. Usu­ally you are either forced by fin­ances or by dead­lines or by crisis or I don’t know by something else ex­tern­al. This will be an in­tern­ally made de­cision that will be on our terms. And the fi­nal is­sue will be about cel­eb­rat­ing not only the be­gin­ning but also the end be­cause everything has an end cycle.

To put the peri­od on a story is a strong de­cision — you should be proud of that. Let’s switch to your per­son­al story, if you don’t mind. I am curi­ous about how and when you im­mig­rated from Slov­akia. Why did you choose the Neth­er­lands and what mo­tiv­ated your move? How did you put to­geth­er your mul­ti­cul­tur­al puzzle?

Every­one is born some­where, and that’s not a choice we make. I happened to be born in the former Czechoslov­akia. I nev­er thought about it much. I do think that the place, where we live in­flu­en­ces the way we see the world. But I nev­er felt either proud or ashamed. It was just the place I was born. I had a happy child­hood. Al­though if people ask me, “How could you have a happy child­hood? You lived in Com­mun­ism.” My fath­er died when I was young. You don’t think about it as a boy. You find a way to deal with everything. And hap­pi­ness is not a simple res­ult of good liv­ing con­di­tions. 

I was born in 1973, and in 1989 the re­gime changed. It was the end of Com­mun­ism in Czechoslov­akia. I was 16. And it was a good tim­ing. It’s just the time when you start hav­ing your opin­ions about things. Be­fore that, I don’t think kids really think about so­ci­ety much. I re­mem­ber that grow­ing up un­der Com­mun­ism was not streigh­for­ward. I was al­ways told what was cor­rect to say at school and which things were not cor­rect, and you find a way to bal­ance the world. 

For ex­ample, there was the of­fi­cial news on TV, but at homes people listened to Ra­dio Free Europe in the even­ings. Slowly, I real­ized that there are dif­fer­ent, par­al­lel real­it­ies. And it was very subtle. Then I went to study in the US and real­ized that my per­cep­tion was kind of cor­rup­ted. I would be with my Amer­ic­an class­mates, and they’d be telling that something had been on TV, so that meant it was true. But for me the fact that something was on TV didn’t make it true. And sud­denly I real­ized that I was a lot more sens­it­ive to dif­fer­ent in­ter­pret­a­tions of facts. That’s why I nev­er felt strongly about any­thing. I could see that the same thing can be viewed from many dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives. 

By the time I was 16, I already spoke two lan­guages – Rus­si­an was my second lan­guage. We had eight years of Rus­si­an in school. I could read Rus­si­an books, for ex­ample. I don’t speak it very well now but I still un­der­stand Rus­si­an.

Does it help you to make typefaces sup­port­ing the Cyril­lic script?

Well, I can read it and can un­der­stand, so I think that does change things. I’ve been look­ing at Cyril­lic since I was eight years old. It feels very fa­mil­i­ar. It doesn’t feel strange, as it prob­ably does to oth­er people. Rus­si­an is the only for­eign lan­guage I have ever stud­ied. I nev­er stud­ied Eng­lish. I speak French; I nev­er stud­ied French. I speak Dutch, and I nev­er stud­ied Dutch. Rus­si­an is the only lan­guage I stud­ied be­sides Slov­ak. Prob­ably I speak Rus­si­an the least well. But liv­ing in a small coun­try means you have to speak oth­er lan­guages. You have to deal with oth­er cul­tures. 

After the change of re­gime, there was en­thu­si­asm to travel. And for me it just happened at the right time be­cause two years later I went to the uni­versity. It was a new situ­ation, new pos­sib­il­it­ies, and I could do ex­change pro­grams. First, I went to Eng­land when I was 18 for a semester, and then I went to the US for a year and a half, and then I went to France for an­oth­er year. So I spent four years abroad in ex­change pro­grams. And I think that fact also sped up my de­vel­op­ment. Be­cause at that age you learn things much faster, like a sponge – ab­sorb­ing, learn­ing new things.

And when did you de­vel­op your in­terest in ty­po­graphy and want to be­come a type de­sign­er? 

Type design kind of happened, just happened. It was nev­er a de­cision. Be­cause I lived in a small coun­try, I worked with design, with pub­lic­a­tions. I re­mem­ber the first time I worked on a book. I was writ­ing it my­self and I star­ted look­ing at fonts. And the font that I chose didn’t have any Czech and Slov­ak dia­crit­ics. “What’s that?” I really wanted to use a Ger­man font, but you had to hack the fonts that came up your­self. So we tried to find out how to do that. I had no idea how… soft­ware was not avail­able; there were no tu­tori­als or lit­er­at­ure to teach type design. Someone showed me the needed tools. So I star­ted play­ing with them. I was prob­ably mess­ing up things badly. But you kind of do it be­cause there’s noth­ing else. 

Luck­ily, it was at a time when it wasn’t easy to pub­lish things. I’m very happy about this, be­cause, if it had been, it would be very em­bar­rass­ing to see. I wrote two books as a stu­dent that were pub­lished, and I wanted to use my fonts, be­liev­ing that au­thor­ship meant that you de­signed everything. I used my pho­to­graphy, I wrote the text and did everything, and I felt like I should prob­ably make my own typeface. So fi­nally it was set in my own typefaces. And slowly I real­ized that I quite like work­ing with this, so I tried to see how I can get bet­ter. So look­ing for ways to learn more, I found Atelier na­tion­al de créa­tion ty­po­graph­ique in Par­is (now re­named to AN­RT), which offered a mas­ter’s de­gree. It was prob­ably the only mas­ter’s pro­gram at that time in 1994. And I went there. Didn’t speak French, but you learn on the way. And I was work­ing with type, but still there was no de­cision to be a type de­sign­er. 

After the stud­ies abroad, I came back to the coun­try, which had be­come Slov­akia already. In 1993 Slov­akia be­came in­de­pend­ent. I had a small job in an ad­vert­ising agency. They really wanted to work with me be­cause I had for­eign ex­per­i­en­ce, and I be­came an art dir­ect­or in the agency, and I ended up do­ing ter­rible work and knew it was ter­rible. I really be­came dis­il­lu­sioned…. This agency really wanted me to work there, so they offered me money and everything. But I re­mem­ber the first day, I was go­ing through the archives, and I was say­ing, “This is shit, this is shit, this is shit, we have to change this, this is really crap.” But eight months later, I was go­ing around the same archive think­ing, “This is ac­tu­ally OK, this is OK.” I can’t be­lieve how my stand­ar­ds changed! And it be­came really scary.

When did you de­cide to change your loc­a­tion? 

I thought that it was time to do something about this. And around the same time it happened that Jo­hanna, my girl­friend, already lived in France, so noth­ing was hold­ing me there. We had an apart­ment, and it happened to burn down. I re­mem­ber Jo­hanna was just vis­it­ing, we went out to the movies and then we were go­ing home on Fri­day even­ing and saw this fire. We came closer and slowly real­ized that it was the house we lived in and it was on fire. I went there and saw it burn­ing com­pletely, and it held all my things – my com­puter, my work, my books. There was noth­ing left. So next day I quit the job in the agency and with­in a week I moved to the Neth­er­lands. 

It was like a sig­nal. You have a chance to think things over when you lose things – to re­con­struct what you had or to use the mo­ment like, “maybe it’s time,” there’s noth­ing hold­ing you and you have to use it. You have space to do something. I don’t want to sound too spir­itu­al about it, but de­struc­tion can give you op­por­tun­it­ies. Of­ten when things hap­pen, it’s like a kick in your butt, you can choose to do this or that, make a choice. People are usu­ally too stressed at that time to make the right choices, and they of­ten choose what they know, rather than what they don’t know. But for me it was like I woke up in the morn­ing (I slept at a friend’s house) and thought, “Yes, of course, I’m quit­ting this job. I don’t really like it. Let’s start over.” 

So noth­ing of my work be­fore 1997 ex­ists be­cause all of it burned in this fire. All my pre­vi­ous life – my books, my posters, my everything – which I think was quite lib­er­at­ing. It was a clean start, be­cause that stuff was also not very good. I am ac­tu­ally quite grate­ful for this in­cid­ent. Everything was dis­troyed, and it was very lib­er­at­ing. Well, one typeface, Eureka, had been pub­lished. So that is one thing which hasn’t dis­ap­peared.

And there was Jan van Eyck academy in Maastricht, which was in­to pub­lish­ing and ex­plor­ing wider un­der­stand­ing of design. Pub­lish­ing was something I was very in­ter­es­ted in. I was very late ap­ply­ing, but they ac­cep­ted me in­to the pro­gram. This was like a per­fect co­in­cid­en­ce and just the thing I needed. Ever since then, I’ve real­ized that every time we lose something, it’s a chance to go fur­ther. It’s al­ways that you don’t know what’s right for you at that time, but the truth re­veals it­self much later, and the loss of­ten has giv­en you the space to do something. 

Some­time ago I was in the Se­quoia Na­tion­al Park in Cali­for­nia. These trees can be a few thou­sand years old. They are really im­press­ive. The thing about se­quoia trees is that they need forest fires to sur­vive. Without forest fires, they can’t mul­tiply. Most of these big trees have sur­vived hun­dreds of forest fires. Their cones need to heat up to a cer­tain tem­per­at­ure and only then do they open, and they can rep­lic­ate. And the fire usu­ally kills everything around them be­cause they need light and space.

Se­quoia and Kings Canyon Na­tion­al Park. The fire star­ted from a light­ning strike in Ju­ly 2010. Photo by Hir­ange

So I moved to the Neth­er­lands two weeks after my home burned to the ground, which of course wasn’t planned. With such de­cisions you don’t really know what you have de­cided, what has happened. I had no plans to live here. I was there to do this course. I was in Maastricht for two years. It was a fant­ast­ic pro­gram and really great teach­ers.

Karl Martens and Irma Boom were among them, right? Could you tell us a bit more about your teach­ers? What did you learn from them?

In­deed. Irma Boom and Karl Martens were my teach­ers. Mi­chael Rock was very im­port­ant also. Ar­mand Mavis and Jan Van Toorn, a lot of people from Yale Uni­versity who taught there. From Jan van Toorn I be­came fa­mil­i­ar with so­cial act­iv­ism, I learned a lot about the role of de­sign­er, like think­ing not just about form but the mean­ing be­hind it and how to op­er­ate. So it was really eye-open­ing. At that time I think my work was ex­tremely form­al. When I came there, I learned how to think about what it all means. 

They are com­pletely dif­fer­ent teach­ers. First of all, they were less teach­er-like than any oth­er teach­ers that I had. So they are tak­ing you like an equal, and at first it is in­tim­id­at­ing. They are more part­ners in dis­cus­sions than they are teach­ing you something. I didn’t even un­der­stand that they were try­ing to teach me something – we were just talk­ing about stuff. It was very per­son­al, very close, very in­form­al. And from every­one I learned dif­fer­ent things. Karl Martens is not a big speak­er, he doesn’t like speak­ing pub­licly but he knows what he’s do­ing.

I re­mem­ber one thing – I was try­ing to learn from him more about grids and tech­nic­al things. Once we were in a book­shop to­geth­er, and he opened a book and put it down. “This is a ter­rible book. It smells really bad,” he said. “Well, it’s not the fault of the book.” “Of course, it is.” Any­thing that has to do with the book is part of the design, it’s been de­cided by de­sign­ers. You chose how to pro­duce it, and you can’t avoid re­spons­ib­il­ity for that. And to me, at first, I thought, “It’s not fair. Come on.” I thought, for me as a de­sign­er, I don’t have any say in this. But maybe you do have say in how the books are bound, how you pro­duce books. He taught me a lot about bind­ing meth­ods. And I real­ized that I had nev­er thought about it. Be­fore that I thought that my thing was choos­ing col­ors and fonts, not even format…, But sud­denly there was a dis­cus­sion about how much a book should cost, and it’s one of the most im­port­ant de­cisions in how a book is per­ceived. 

With Irma Boom – the same thing. She told me what makes a book a book – the price, the ac­cess­ib­il­ity. Irma would re­fuse to work mainly on private books be­cause she felt that it’s be­ing pub­lic that makes a book. Al­though she has a his­tory of mak­ing private edi­tions of books, I think right now she really likes to do mass-pro­duced books, al­though she is re­cog­nized for ex­traordin­ary ma­ter­i­als but she really wants to use ac­cess­ible tech­niques to make them. 

It was the time of the mani­festo, “First Things First,” about the so­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity of design. All of these de­sign­ers thought about the re­spons­ib­il­ity of design. It changed the way I saw it. Sud­denly it be­came less form­al. I star­ted think­ing about what it means to oth­er people and how to work. I think es­pe­cially Amer­ic­ans brought this dis­cus­sion about wider sig­ni­fic­ance, about the cul­tur­al sig­ni­fic­ance of your work.

And then I came to the Stu­dio Dumbar, which was like a con­tinu­ation of my edu­ca­tion – more prac­tic­al, how to op­er­ate the busi­ness, how to work with data­bases and things I’d nev­er thought about. It was the first time I heard the term “data­base” and how we can use it in design. Be­fore that, design for me was in­tu­it­ive and sud­denly it was very sys­tem­at­ic. So again I learned dif­fer­ent things. And slowly those kind of ex­per­i­en­ces com­bined to be­come a way of work­ing.

And you left Dumbar after two years there? Too much of brand­ing?

No, it was not like that. Dumbar, es­pe­cially Gert Dumbar, the founder, felt very up­set that I left. He didn’t speak to me for a few years. I really en­joyed be­ing there. It was a very good ex­per­i­en­ce. But after two years I felt like I was ready to move on and to work on my own. I don’t op­er­ate at my best when I’m giv­en very little re­spons­ib­il­ity. And I’ve no­ticed that I’m not the best de­sign­er if you only want me to do just a logo or if I do something very lim­ited be­cause my mind goes quite wide. And I’m not really a spe­cial­ist. I’m a gen­er­al­ist. So I came to the con­clu­sion, some­how, that I have to run my own stu­dio. 

Now I think that was quite brave, be­cause I was 28 and I was in this coun­try only two years. I didn’t speak Dutch, I didn’t know any cli­ents, but I felt like, “I’m go­ing to run an of­fice, I’m go­ing to start a stu­dio.” Then I got the pro­ject of Fedra Sans, a com­mis­sion. That is also a dra­mat­ic story – my com­puter was stolen, I lost all my data, I had to redo all over again. And I be­lieve it was bet­ter to do it again. When it was ready, the cli­ent stopped the pro­ject. It was com­mis­sioned by a big Swiss in­sur­ance com­pany. And it was can­celed, and I was really up­set about it. But now I think that it was the best thing that could have happened be­cause I could keep the typeface and I could start a type foundry with it. You don’t know some­times what this kind of thing means. 

Fedra type fam­ily (sans and serif) de­signed by Peter Bil­ak 2001–2009 with Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an (Cyril­lic). The typeface re­flects the ori­gin­al design brief: it hu­man­ises the com­mu­nic­ated mes­sage and adds simple, in­form­al el­eg­ance. An im­port­ant cri­terion was to cre­ate a typeface which works equally well on pa­per and on the com­puter screen. The typeface at­tempts to re­con­cile two op­pos­ing design ap­proaches: ri­gid­ity of a typeface de­signed for the com­puter screen and flex­ib­il­ity of a hand­writ­ing.

If it had been up to me, things would have gone oth­er­wise, but luck­ily I was some­how forced in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion, which was so much bet­ter than what I would have chosen. I could keep the rights. I was paid for mak­ing it, be­cause they had stopped the pro­ject. It was an ideal situ­ation – they pay you to do your own thing which you can keep and can sell later. Fedra sup­por­ted many of our oth­er pro­jects. It al­lowed us to do oth­er pro­jects, be­cause it be­came a quite pop­u­lar typeface.

When did you start teach­ing at the KABK Type and Me­dia?

Very quickly, prob­ably too quickly. In 2001, the same year I star­ted my stu­dio, I was asked to do work­shops there. I did one of the work­shops, and then Type and Me­dia was re­struc­tured. It used to be a two-year pro­gram with a lim­ited num­ber of teach­ers, and they changed it to one year – a short­er and more fo­cused pro­gram. And I was part of the first gen­er­a­tion of teach­ers there. Most of the stu­dents were even older that I was, which at that time was the case quite of­ten. I wasn’t a very good teach­er in the very be­gin­ning. But slowly things got bet­ter. I’ve been do­ing it long enough now, so I know a little more about what I am do­ing.

Are you sat­is­fied with the res­ults? How does it feel?

The last year was a very good year, but a good year is also hard for some people be­cause we have a couple of ex­cep­tion­al stu­dents, and that puts all the pres­sure on stu­dents who are in the lower half. But it’s a very good year, very hard work­ing, very mo­tiv­ated. And I’m look­ing for­ward, which means that we’ll get good res­ults. Every year is dif­fer­ent, of course, but usu­ally it’s a joy to work with the stu­dents. Be­cause they’re so hard work­ing. They ex­ceed their own ex­pect­a­tions. In oth­er schools, you push stu­dents to do more. In T&M you have to stop them be­cause they keep go­ing, for­get to sleep and eat. I’m also learn­ing a lot. I have to pre­pare lec­tures for T&M, and in this way I have a chance to ex­plore my own in­terests. Usu­ally, whatever I’m work­ing with, I use it to build a more the­or­et­ic­al found­a­tion for the work. So teach­ing com­ple­ments my own prac­tice, and hope­fully stu­dents find it rel­ev­ant. And slowly you be­come more ar­tic­u­late about what you’re look­ing for, what you want to do, and what you want from the class.

I no­ticed that you quite of­ten men­tion long-term pro­jects. Long-term can be quite long. Your His­tory typeface took 12 years, for ex­ample, and then there is the Fedra type fam­ily and so on. A long-term pro­ject needs a huge amount of in­vest­ment – time, money and en­thu­si­asm. What drives you in long-term pro­jects? Is it a psy­cho­lo­gic­al thing?

Have you seen this?

Oh, yes. The 100-year cal­en­dar.

The thing is that every day I can check if I am up to date. Of­ten in busi­ness you think about next year, next quarter. Here you have 100 years. I cre­ated it right be­fore 2000. I thought we were lucky to wit­ness the next cen­tury. It’s not very of­ten that you start from scratch where there’s three zer­os. When we shift the per­spect­ive, we get a lot to think about.

For ex­ample, we can see here how far we have come in the 21st cen­tury, and my daugh­ter will prob­ably die some­where here (Peter points to the cal­en­dar). It gives you a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. Some­times you be­come too busy with things, you sit in front of the com­puter and lose track of what you’re do­ing. For­get­ting why you are here, what you really want to do. 

This over­sized silk­screened poster (84 × 119 cm) presents all the days of the 21st cen­tury, with week­ends clearly marked in magenta. The 100-Year Cal­en­dar was pro­duced for the Ex­per­i­men­ta 2009 ex­hib­i­tion, ex­hib­ited as a one-off print, and is now avail­able in a lim­ited edi­tion. You may not know what the fu­ture holds, but at least you will know when it will be.

So why not just step back and try to think about your own life like any oth­er pro­ject. That’s the ques­tion. I do think that we have the abil­ity to design our life, with all our choices. But we of­ten for­get about it be­cause we work for cli­ents who need something to­mor­row. The cal­en­dar al­lows me to shift per­spect­ive. I think a good aim is to see how the world would look for your kids. I think if people would con­sider it more, there would be dif­fer­ent choices, dif­fer­ent design, dif­fer­ent everything. If you think longer term, you maybe use dif­fer­ent inks, maybe you use dif­fer­ent amounts of everything and you just choose the right things. And there’s one reas­on why I like to work with type – be­cause it’s something that has the po­ten­tial to out­live its makers, if it’s done right.

How do you di­vide your time between dif­fer­ent act­iv­it­ies? Mak­ing typefaces, pub­lish­ing books, run­ning busi­ness like Font­stand and part­ner­ships in dif­fer­ent foundries takes a tre­mend­ous amount of time, I think. How do you cope with all of this? Lit­er­ally, how do you man­age things?

It’s simple. You can only do one thing at a time. So I nev­er try to do more than one thing. And at that mo­ment everything else is set aside. The trick is just to find which thing needs to be done. When people try to do more than one thing, things go wrong. They just don’t do it well enough. It’s not prop­erly made. It’s one thing that I’m try­ing to teach my daugh­ter – the abil­ity to fo­cus. I think this dis­tin­guishes great work from less good work. We are too dis­trac­ted by no­ti­fic­a­tions, phone calls, everything. We lose track of what we want to do. Un­for­tu­nately, this means that some­times I have to de­lib­er­ately ig­nore things be­cause I really want to fo­cus on one thing. 

And you have to find a way that works for you. I know some things that work for me. In the morn­ings, I work off-line. I can’t do it the whole day. In the af­ter­noon, I work with the in­ter­net. And I cre­ate room for cre­ation. If you spend all your time re­spond­ing to mes­sages and up­dates and no­ti­fic­a­tions, there’s no space or time to do any­thing new be­cause you’re only re­act­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, we are trained today to re­act to everything.

Do you prac­tice med­it­a­tion reg­u­larly?

I do. It’s one of the things that keep me from be­ing over­whelmed by things that are tem­por­ary. A lot of things that we con­sider im­port­ant are tem­por­ary things. They come and go. As everything does. So you worry less and less about them. You see that they are tem­por­ary, and then it be­comes easi­er to work be­cause you don’t get stressed. Stress is not great for cre­at­ive work. And I’m also very fast with work, if I know what to do. The hard­est thing is to find out what to do. Once I know what to do, it goes very fast. 

And an­oth­er point that I’ve no­ticed is that I’m priv­ileged for three reas­ons in terms of pro­duct­iv­ity. The first, my fam­ily, my wife Jo­hanna, al­lows me to fo­cus on work. The second, I work with great col­lab­or­at­ors. I don’t need to com­mute any­where. For me com­mut­ing is tak­ing a bi­cycle and go­ing to a place. When I lived in Par­is, I spent two hours in trans­port some­where. So I can be pro­duct­ive, I can fo­cus, I can do the work. And last but not least, I don’t have to sit in meet­ings. It’s such a great thing. 

And of course I work with very tal­en­ted, self-driv­en people whom I can fully trust. I need to men­tion our part­ner Nikola, with whom I dis­cuss the big pic­ture but don’t mi­cro­man­age his work. That also helps to do the work. All the work which is done here is done with the col­lab­or­a­tion with oth­er people. So I’m not the sole au­thor. And I don’t re­mem­ber do­ing a typeface from be­gin­ning un­til the end alone. We do quite com­plex pro­jects, so there’s a lot of col­lab­or­a­tion. And also I learned how to deal with people, how to give them space. Cur­rently, we work on a large pan-In­di­an typeface sup­port­ing 10 dif­fer­ent writ­ing scripts, and we work with 15 dif­fer­ent people.

Prob­ably that is why you can cope with the huge mul­ti­lin­gual type-design pro­jects. Ty­po­theque is one of the few type foundries which designs an ex­ten­ded Cyril­lic set, for ex­ample. I am sure it’s not just about mar­kets, it’s not about busi­ness, but it would be good to hear from you what mo­tiv­ates you to design such big fam­il­ies for dif­fer­ent type sys­tems. We are talk­ing not only about Cyril­lic, of course.

I don’t be­lieve that you should make choices based solely on com­mer­cial cri­ter­ia – how much you can sell. Be­cause if you did, then you would only do it for the 26 let­ters of Eng­lish be­cause that’s the biggest mar­ket. Again, prob­ably com­ing from a small coun­try which was a bit ig­nored by ma­jor type foundries, I don’t want to make the same mis­take that I cre­ate typefaces that someone can’t use be­cause I didn’t con­sider the place to be a mar­ket. Of­ten people don’t do a par­tic­u­lar glyph be­cause they think it’s too much work. And one glyph can make a dif­fer­en­ce in the us­ab­il­ity of the font. 

And every few years we choose to fo­cus on a lin­guist­ic pro­gram. We did this with Hebrew. Now we are busy with Ar­meni­an. Why would we do Ar­meni­an, with pop­u­la­tion of less than 3 mil­li­on, where no oth­er lan­guage is us­ing this script? It’s ri­dicu­lous. But I do think that there’s a lot of cul­tur­al value, there’s a lot of value that I’m learn­ing for my­self. So we choose things not just in terms of com­merce. 

Some lan­guages are still not en­coded, and they need to be en­coded. For some, there are no tools, no in­fra­struc­ture, for some there are no fonts. That’s something we want to do. We are at work on two pro­jects (about which it is too early to talk) for lan­guages for which there are no di­git­al fonts as yet. Is there a mar­ket for this? I don’t know, but we still want to do it.

I see you have a copy of The The­ory of Type Design by Ger­ard Un­ger. We are work­ing on Rus­si­an trans­la­tion of his While You’re Read­ing. Did you ever work with Ger­ard?

I knew Ger­ard for a long time, but I nev­er worked with him. I met him when I was still in Par­is in 1994, and we stayed in touch, al­ways in good con­tact. I ad­mired him greatly. It was sad that he passed away. He was very open when he was dia­gnosed with can­cer. He was very open about everything. He knew his pro­gnos­is. And his last 12 months were very pro­duct­ive. He was really try­ing to make sure that he left something be­hind. We had dis­cus­sions about type, about ori­gin­al­ity… He was someone I ad­mired, who per­man­ently changed how we un­der­stand our pro­fes­sion. 

Great, thank you for these words, Peter. Thank you so much for your time. I think we are done.

Good luck with the tran­scrip­tion!

Type journ­al would like to thank: Dmitry Pi­likov for his ac­com­pa­ny­ing in the trip to The Hag­ue, and his help with the photo shoot­ing and re­cord­ing of the in­ter­view; and Olga Krivov­jaz for her help with tran­scrip­tion.

The First Things First mani­festo was writ­ten on 29 Novem­ber 1963 and pub­lished in 1964 by Ken Gar­land. It was backed by over 400 graph­ic de­sign­ers and artists and also re­ceived the back­ing of Tony Benn, a rad­ic­al left-wing MP and act­iv­ist, who pub­lished it in its en­tirety in The Guard­i­an news­pa­per.