Type News

Serebro Nabora 2014 (Part 1)

March 22, 2015 by
Sonja Knecht
Sonja Knecht

From Russia with love: The Serebro Nabora conference took place in Moscow on 29/30 November 2014 – embedded in a week of intense workshops around type design and technology. A great experience (and not cold at all). Part 1: The Dutch Invasion.

If you’d like to get an overview of the conference first, here is the Serebro Nabora conference programme. It started on November 24th, 2014. Yes, you can consider me late to report about it, but believe me: It was a lot. Those 10 Muscovite days continue to have the effect, of researching and thinking further.

Early arrivals: David Jonathan Ross with his wife Emily, Daria Petrova, Olka Pankova, then (hidden beneath her yellow cap) Frederik’s wife Elisabeth, next to Maria Doreuli, Gayaneh Bagdasaryan, 
Frederik Berlaen, Luc(as) de Groot and Aleksandra Samulenkova.
Early arrivals: David Jonathan Ross with his wife Emily, Daria Petrova, Olka Pankova, then (hidden beneath her yellow cap) Frederik’s wife Elisabeth, next to Maria Doreuli, Gayaneh Bagdasaryan, Frederik Berlaen, Luc(as) de Groot and Aleksandra Samulenkova.

Groups of letters, groups of problems

The first three workshop days were provided by Luc(as) de Groot and Aleksandra Samulenkova of LucasFonts with their Eye Opener Type Design. They conveyed a profound understanding of what type design is: following the path from sketch to font file, grasping logic and regularities within a typeface, learning to see and evaluate letter shapes – and shapes in general.

Starting off with Luc(as) de Groot and Aleksandra Samulenkova

Luc(as) began with some writing exercises, as the basis of type design. The most important thing with regard to the broad nib he used is the direction in which you hold it (same goes for other writing tools): simply because it results in thin and thick parts of a letter. We observed Lucas writing the lower case letters one after the other, describing their starting points, end points, thicker and thinner parts, showing how the writing direction works. Surprisingly he states that “we don’t care about serifs” (at least not within this exercise). Yes, there are some serifs, they appear (or not) while writing, but “we can add them later on, or we don’t add them at all”. Okay.

Alekandra Samulenkova of LucasFonts, Berlin, who supported Luc(as) de Groot and the participants of the workshop, caught in one of a few moments of contemplation.
Alekandra Samulenkova of LucasFonts, Berlin, who supported Luc(as) de Groot and the participants of the workshop, caught in one of a few moments of contemplation.

One thing is clear within the first five minutes: The same tool allows a lot of different styles. It just depends on how good and how consistently you use it. And “the tool” doesn't necessarily have to be a computer. While carefully writing one letter after the other, Lucas incidentally addresses basic challenges and how to cope with them: “When we are designing type we have to think of groups of problems”. For example, when you face a design question concerning a diagonal (in one letter), you can find the answer for all diagonals (in all letters) of the font you are creating.

You are responsible for what you have written.
You are responsible for what you have written.

There are of course exceptions: “the zed is the most difficult letter”, and it does not fit in a group. Because when you write the zed with the same angle as the other letters (45 degrees), it is “empty in the middle” (with only a very thin stroke). And there is also the German Eszett of course, or “double s”, or “sharp s”, as we call it. Lucas clarifies and explains its heritage. Leaving out the capitals („we only have three days“) he continues with numbers, because “they need a different ductus“.

Night shift in the Institute of Business and Design in Moscow.
Night shift in the Institute of Business and Design in Moscow.

Pure silver

Actually, this workshop fits perfectly within the overall concept. Serebro Nabora is understood as an educational association, offering a variety of type design and typography events. Apart from their annual conference they provide workshops, master classes, meetings, lectures, and exhibitions. Thus, Serebro Nabora quickly established a setting for typographic learning as well as for presentations and social interaction of graphic design professionals, mainly from Russia and other countries of the former USSR. Most events are held at the Institute of Business and Design in Moscow. At this year’s conference, speakers from Switzerland and Berlin, the Netherlands, the US and Canada were invited to intermingle.

The mastermind behind Serebro Nabora is Gayaneh Bagdasaryan (of Brownfox foundry). She graduated from Moscow State University of Printing Arts, started her career at ParaType and designed award-winning Cyrillics for major libraries.

On our first night out in Moscow (in an excellent Georgian restaurant, by the way), Gayaneh explained the conference name to us (and that she didn’t want to explicitly include words like “type” or “design”): “serebro” means silver and “nabora” means set type. Together, Serebro Nabora refers to an excellently set piece of text that would display a regular rhythm and a grey-scale with a consistent, silvery look and feel.

Trust your eyes

Back to work(shop): Luc(as) de Groot gave technical insights (tools, Beziér curves) and presented his findings in optical mathematics for designing letters (wait for his book). Despite all calculations and theories: one of his most important statements is that above all you have to trust your eyes, even when using the most refined electronic tools to design whatever – be it type or chairs. Same goes for readability: use your eyes and be interested. For Luc(as), most of all it is “a question of curiosity”. Whether we are (or will be) able to read something depends on whether we are interested. We will learn how to read a certain script, a certain book or a certain foreign language system if we want to. Visiting Moscow, I noticed it myself: within a few days I started to recognize certain Cyrillic letters.

Lots of learning in the shortest time

On 27th and 28th of November, Erik van Blokland of Letterror followed up with practical knowledge in his Long distance TypeCooker workshop. By “long distance” he did not refer to travelling to Moscow, but to what happens if you look at type from a distance. Participants were encouraged to learn about the effects of size and distance and thus about the basic parameters of sketching type. Unfortunately I could not take part in this workshop nor in the three-day workshop following the conference days, DrawBot + RoboFont, by Frederik Berlaen and Just van Rossum (more about that later). But, being embedded as a reporter in that first Eye Opener workshop (lucky me) and getting to know how intense it was, how participants kept attention, responded to the input, and worked hard throughout those days, I can only say: yes, please. More, please.

Such workshops provide valuable insights in the shortest possible time. Plus a profound understanding of how type (design, tools etc.) works. No wonder participants range from students to type and design professionals, which makes it even more interesting and mutually benefitting. In Moscow for example, there were people from Art. Lebedev Studio (founded by Artemy Lebedev in 1995), from ParaType, as well as freelancers – plus me, the “type writer”.

Maybe you have the chance to participate in Robothon in The Hague or at TYPO Berlin: Gayaneh Bagdasaryan herself will provide a workshop there, about Cyrillics. And be sure: it will not “only” be about Cyrillics.

Gayaneh Bagdasaryan opening the conference.
Gayaneh Bagdasaryan opening the conference.

Vasily Tsygankov, head of the graphic design department at the Muscovite Institute of Business and Design.
Vasily Tsygankov, head of the graphic design department at the Muscovite Institute of Business and Design.

Emotions and archetypes

After some days of warming up – or should I say: defrosting – the long-awaited two conference days started. November 29th began with an introduction by Gayaneh Bagdasaryan together with Vasily Tsygankov, head of the graphic design department at the Institute of Business and Design (where the workshops took place).

Most important door in the building :)
Most important door in the building :)

Gayaneh welcomed us in the impressive conference hall. More of an elegant auditorium, it is actually the heart of the prestigious architects association building in Moscow. Gayaneh reminded us of the fact that Serebro Nabora started as a small initiative only in 2012. Today she is happy to welcome both presenters and visitors from several countries. Her aim is “to improve the professional culture of our visual culture”.

Erik van Blokand about how things work

The first presenter was Erik van Blokland. In his thanks to the organisers, he did not forget the interpreters, guessing “that they are going to have a tricky job”.

Erik van Blokland designs type and develops type software. He describes himself as always being interested in finding out “how things work”. The way we look at things, he says, and the way we interpret things is very personal. So he wants to find out how the eye functions – “to design better type, maybe”. In his talk Light and Letters (and code) he concludes his findings: There is only one point at our retina (the little “screen” in the back of our eye) to read type, “and the rest is there to provide context”. So our eyes are not really that good; for example we cannot read small type (like on an iPhone) from a distance.

Erik van Blokland and how the eye works.
Erik van Blokland and how the eye works.

Erik and the reading problem.
Erik and the reading problem.

Erik and something really small.
Erik and something really small.

According to Erik and what he calls his amateur science, “type for reading sizes is at the edge of what the average eye can see”. Some experts have dealt with this before, like Harry Carter (father of Matthew Carter), who published his book Typography in 1937 and included drawings by German punchcutter Justus Erich Walbaum. Walbaum drew “potato-like shapes” (German!) but it did not matter in small sizes as they were readable. Carter was making the case for using more optical sizes – but it did not happen nor did it in the 1980s, Erik remembers. After his talk, responding to Gayaneh’s questions, he concluded: “You don’t need technology to do this. You just need to be aware.” At this point the first laughter was heard in the audience, so the translation obviously did work. Erik-the-Superpolator-software-developer means it: “We don’t need a programme. Just print out things you designed and hang it up and try to read it from a realistic distance“.

Is best really better?

Just van Rossum about type and code

Just van Rossum is known for his radical-experimental approach to type design. Beowolf and Trixie, done in collaboration with Erik van Blokland, were groundbreaking. Beowolf is among the 23 type families aquired by The Museum of Modern Art in 2011 for its Architecture and Design collection.

In Moscow, Just explained to us How type & code became inseparable. (At the beginning he did not know whether to take his glasses on or off, thus giving us a nice live demo of readability issues.) Just got his first computer at age 15 in 1981, only to programme. Then he studied (typo)graphic design with Gerrit Noordzij, Grand­sei­g­neur of the Dutch type tradition: “In the first year we learned how to write letters; in the second year we learned how to draw type; and in the third year we learned how to design type“. Summarizing these experiences, he started programming when he was very young, then drawings, and then started to programme again this time with letters.

A font is just a piece of software

Just’s teacher Gerrit Noordzij introduced him to Petr van Blokland, “Erik’s elder, taller, bigger, whatever brother”. Together with Erik, Just made FF Beowolf (in 1989), “a typeface that is created randomly by a programme”. The rest is legend, including their question if best is really better. Just does not want to speak about legends, but about the fact that “a font is actually a piece of software, and in those days that was even more true than today”. As Eric Gill famously once said said “letters are things, not pictures of things“, in this vein, Just van Rossum likes to say: “Letters are programs, not the results of programs”.

A story of brothers

Just’s elder brother Guido van Rossum invented his own programming language called Python (open source, multi-platform). Python was used for Dropbox, Google etc. and today “it is everywhere, which helps obviously”. Python even helps to create sausage fonts. Sausage fonts that do work of course, and that are readable and transformable (“if you would change the centre lines the sausages would react to it”).

Just van Rossum gives us a survey on type software developments: Petr van Blokland developed Ikarus M (Ikarus for Macintosh). In 1997 “The Russian Connection” started with Yuri Yarmola working on Fontlab. DrawBot allows programming for visually oriented people (Just did his whole presentation in DrawBot). “The markets for professional type design tools are really small”, he sums up, “and those tools have to please different tastes of type designers, difficult people with different taste“. His recommendation: “Don’t try to please everyone. But for certain ideas, tools can help to reduce the amount of time-consuming drawing work”.

Just van Rossum starts to modify the conference name.
Just van Rossum starts to modify the conference name.

… adding only some shadows…
… adding only some shadows…

… or some sausage-like ornaments …
… or some sausage-like ornaments …

… making the sausages longer…
… making the sausages longer…

… and longer…
… and longer…

… and adding some fluffy expansions to them. (Conference logo for next year?)
… and adding some fluffy expansions to them. (Conference logo for next year?)

For further exploration and fun, try out drawing and calculating with DrawBot, test the Superpolator, and follow @justvanrossum and @letterror on Twitter.

Happy incidents

Just van Rossum shows examples done by his students when playing with programmes, proving that “there are many happy incidents and unexpected surprises”. Take it as encouragement! Like the story of Frederik Berlaen. One of Just’s students nine years ago (only “a little more crazy”), he developed Kalliculator. “Frederik pretty soon left the Drawbot world to do more complicated stuff”. Answering additional questions, Just states that (referring to the students work shown) “the difference between type and lettering is sometimes a bit blurry” – but he favors those experiments, and sure did so in his workshop as well. Together with Frederik Berlaen (Frederik is not from Holland, but from neighbouring Belgium), Just van Rossum stayed in Moscow for Monday and Tuesday 1st/2nd December to do their DrawBot + RoboFont workshop. Frederik Berlaen also provided a lecture later on in the conference, which I like to report here where it fits in best:

There is no magic

Frederik Berlaen shouts for more tools

Yes, Frederik Berlaen, type designer with a love for programming and scripting (Typemytype), asks for More Tools, Please! That does not imply to study informatics; he “only” studied graphic design. But obviously with a special curiosity and interest in how to manage design and drawing processes in an efficient way, which lead him to developing his own little tools.

Which Frederik?
Which Frederik?

Frederik Berlaen from Belgium, quickly adapting to local habits as “Fedjuscha”  /// Федюша. Which made some guy behind me chuckle for about ten minutes (and me too).
Frederik Berlaen from Belgium, quickly adapting to local habits as “Fedjuscha” /// Федюша. Which made some guy behind me chuckle for about ten minutes (and me too).

Fedjuscha (Федюша) very convincingly stated that “your digital platform should be different form project to project because every project is different”. To him, it is important to keep in mind that everyone has this different identity – “because then you can and will make different things and express your own ideas“. On this basis, you have choices. Use those programmes in the way they suit your needs. If you only use one programme, “it has more control over you and it limits your possibilities”. So again, it’s not that a programme is good or bad or best, it’s the right programme used in the right moment for you.

Choose your weapon

So, if you expect from a programme to create an A for you, you will not be happy. It is you who creates the A. Your A looks different from any other A if you use the right tool. Otherwise you would receive only Frederik’s A, for example. His perception of the usefulness of tools is very similar to Just's: tools should result in a better relation between design time and programming time. “A machine does not sleep, does not need to eat, does not say, hey this is bad A“. He recommends using tools in the way a calligrapher tries out several pens. Choose your weapon wisely! Do this with your computer and programmes and everything you use: choose your own, make them your own.

Thus, Frederik Berlaen underlines Erik van Blokland’s and Just van Rossum’s recommendations, pointing out that it is important to design from your own standpoint: “exploring more tools or exploring them more”. But always in your own environment and your own way of thinking and designing. “A computer is no magic of course. There is no magic.”

Get your pens sorted out :)
Get your pens sorted out :)

As an example, Fedjuscha shows Kalliculator. With Kalliculator, you can research how pens work, with thinner and thicker strokes, and find a way to digitize them. You can also rotate with your “pen”, which would be a hell lot of work in Illustrator, for example. Kalliculator calculates dots and tries to find nice Bézier curves from there. Frederik uses it as a research tool to find out how a contrast works. This specific contrast then will not be available for everyone “because the contrast is mine, my design is involved in the programme – but you can make it yourself”. Frederik made it in his Type & Media year, so it is possible. And remember, he had no programming skills at all.

Another beautiful example: Fredrik’s ShadowMaker. His motivation: “If you have a shadow you exist. Type has no shadow, so I have to make a shadow maker for type”. It is very easy to make shadows, says Frederik, “just rotate”. And you can also make a shadow of a shadow. That means that also the shadow exists.

Yes, every type conference gets philosophical at some point.

And there is more, of course … Zebra was part of a research project of a student of Frederik’s, who finally made a tool out of it (“you wouldn’t want to draw all these lines by hand”). The T-shirt numbers for his own soccer team he made in Robofont. He also mentioned DrawBot, which he recommends teaching design students how to programme in a design-based way. Frederik’s talk is full of encouragement. It is pleasant to get to know his approach to type design: very pragmatic and semi-philosophical at the same time, always reflecting what he is doing.

We are family

Luc(as) explores the extremes

Luc(as) de Groot, creator of the Thesis superfamily (first published in 1994) indulged into his favourite topic: “Designing big type families with optical mathematics, ClearType hinting and Kernologica research to improve the readability per square centimeter” – but simplified the title to “Moving Moscow”.

He summarized his family history, listing his “ancestors”, the diverse international de Groots and their achievements in type history. For example Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great (Latin Carolus or Karolus Magnus, German Karl der Große, Dutch Carl de Groot – get the hint?), who invented the Carolingian minuscule. Inspired by such achievements, Luc(as) de Groot seems to be constantly driven to make great achievements himself. So, he developed The Thinnest: a font with a stroke of one font unit, based on the broad nib pen contrast. Yes. Although, admittedly we cannot really see it, the font is a tiny little bit less “thick” at some parts. Luc(as) demonstrates his fight with the grid to do this. Right after the Thinnest, he decided to do The Fattest. It actually resulted in the fattest font in the world, with counter forms of – guess? – yes: one font unit. Less is not possible and it can hardly be seen with the eye. But it looks great.

Luc(as) de Groot with The Thinnest font. Implies some fighting with the grid…
Luc(as) de Groot with The Thinnest font. Implies some fighting with the grid…

Luc(as) de Groot with The Fattest font. Implies some fighting with your eyes…
Luc(as) de Groot with The Fattest font. Implies some fighting with your eyes…

How do such experiments succeed? Luc(as) gives two recommendations. First, he only eats food with his fonts on it. This could turn out difficult for most of us, but we could eat things with nice typefaces on them (still hard). Second, he says, “don’t follow the guidelines”, which comes as a surprise after learning about those grids and his excessive mathematical experiments. (Actually, this conference is full of surprising statements. Or is it specifically Dutch?) What Luc(as) means seems to be simple, though. Here we go again: “trust your eyes” and trust yourself. But the strategies and the personal preferences of the respective designers are different. Luc(as) mentions Frederick the Great as a role model in history: being left-handed he actually hated writing and reading but made great achievements in politics, social affairs, and culture.

Hinting towards design

Luc(as) elegantly switches over to more prosaic subjects. “We need to do some hinting, otherwise the fonts would look awful in the web” is one thing. But Luc(as) uses hinting as a design tool – to him, hinting is much more than an unpleasant duty and technical requirement. He shows examples, like the icons he does for Miele to use in the small displays in their washing machines, or for Audi working on the eighth of a pixel (!) for their perfect car display type, icons and figures.

Hinting (= designing) washing machine display icons for Miele.
Hinting (= designing) washing machine display icons for Miele.

So, Luc(as) needs really big screens (which he shows in his office pictures), and some distraction sometimes (which he shows in his fashion pictures), and makes comments about the socio-political situation Russian homosexuals have to face, which raised a lot of noise and laughter in the audience (and stirred up some controversy, as we found out later). Luc(as) does break rules, even his own, when he sees (!) that it is necessary. With Taz (published originally in 1997, still going strong and being expanded), he demonstrates how he needs to correct curves that would be mathematically correct and/or logic in a way, but not harmonious to the eye. Why so? “We get ugly curves when we use only computer programmes”, he says. Thus, we need to combine tools and handcraft. And eyes.

A subtle tone of subversiveness

The question is not about good or bad tools. It is about us, and the amount of effort we invest in our work. With creating fonts, the so-called technical aspects matter. Hinting is a design tool, and kerning is part of the design as well. And then, if a font is well done, the details (astonishingly enough) do not matter. Another contradiction, it seems. Why so? And in what sense? In the sense that you can use a font with a good spacing and rhythm together with another font with similar rhythm, and mix the two intermittently, and nobody would notice. Luc(as) did so for a German left-wing newspaper, Jungle World, adding to their appearance a slight subtle tone of subversiveness. They liked it, and their readers liked it, and nobody noticed that there were two fonts combined, for nine years.

Rhythm is extremely important in type. In his Kernologica research, Luc(as) de Groot proves that the counter spaces between glyphs are most relevant for the reading rhythm. They are different in every language. According to Luc(as), the counter spaces define the characteristics of a language, as well as colour and proportions. After his talk, the first question for Luc(as) was whether he would publish his findings in a book, and yes, he will (“you have to be patient”).

For those who have the chance to visit this years’s TYPO Berlin conference in May: Luc(as) de Groot will among the speakers.

Important for designing letters (words, texts): the most frequent pairs of letters in every language …
Important for designing letters (words, texts): the most frequent pairs of letters in every language …

… and the (most frequent) counterparts of letters, which make for the visual characteristics of a language.
… and the (most frequent) counterparts of letters, which make for the visual characteristics of a language.

As hinting tools Luc(as) uses Fontlab mostly, and VTT Microsoft for Italics. Another revelation maybe: “At LucasFonts, we mostly work on PC“. Luc(as) continuously updates and refines and expands his fonts, out of his own drive and according to client demands, and technical evolution. Asked whether he would collect “the old glyphs and the new ones that emerge” he says “yes of course”, and the reason why is related to how he sees his students work: “When students start to do type design there are so many good ideas; I hope it will continue. It often has so much originally in the beginning, with the first drawings even, it attracts attention, you should keep it and develop it further“. Using your eyes, that is.

Gayaneh and the Dutch crew: Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Luc(as) de Groot.
Gayaneh and the Dutch crew: Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Luc(as) de Groot.

Speaker Frederik “Fedjuscha” Berlaen and Maria Doreuli, co-organiser of Serebro Nabora.
Speaker Frederik “Fedjuscha” Berlaen and Maria Doreuli, co-organiser of Serebro Nabora.

This was a lot. The first workshops and the first half conference day of Serebro Nabora, with the three notorious Dutch guys, backed-up by one Belgium, provided enormous technical, philosophical, practical type knowledge.

Speakers Irina Smirnova and John Hudson (their lectures will be reported in part 2).
Speakers Irina Smirnova and John Hudson (their lectures will be reported in part 2).

Yes, we got to know this too. Not only the word. They put it in some of their vodka.
Yes, we got to know this too. Not only the word. They put it in some of their vodka.

Look forward to what comes next (maybe not what you expect) in part 2 of my report: Flipping letter-drawing conventions to their head.