Peter Biľakin conversation with Vasilis van Gemert

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Peter Biľak does many things. He runs Typotheque, a type foundry and design studio. He just finished publishing Works That Work, a series of magazines about hidden creativity. He’s one of the founders of Fontstand. So much to talk about! We talk — well, Peter talks mostly, I listen — about the complex mastery of typography, we talk about designing fonts for non Latin scripts, and about coming up with new viable and honest business models because nobody else does.

… right now I am advocating inclusion of beauty as an attribute of design, on the other hand the whole reason why I started Works that Work was because of this obsession with surface

Peter also talks about this fantastic project he worked on. It’s about creating a new language for a new country and documenting how a new language forms. We end this fascinating conversation with a small lecture about beauty.


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Vasilis: You're listening to The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting, a series of conversations about quality with Vasilis van Gemert and an eclectic mix of designers. This episode is with Peter Biľak. Peter is the founder of Typotheque, and of Fontstand. He was the editor of Works that Work, designer of font systems like the incredible Fedra, and he’s a lecturer at the typographic master at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, to name just a few of the things that he does.

Peter talked to me about many things. About working with non-latin fonts for example. He talked about the complex mastery of typography. Of course he talked about Works that Work, the magazine about hidden creativity that redefines the word design. He also talked about creating a new language for a new country, but before he starts talking about all those things, first listen to his answer to the question What makes a thing good?. It’s worth it.

Peter: Right, I think it is a difficult question if you think that the thing itself is good. If you internalize it and you think that the object itself contains all the qualities and I think it becomes a lot more interesting to talk about the relationship of that object or idea or whatever it is to people. I think if you talk about the relationship it becomes clear and then it becomes about that it communicates some values, presents some values to the audience. But it is not the thing itself because if you ask about what the quality of this bottle, of this glass, of this book or chair it becomes very difficult to think that the thing contains everything by itself. Things change depending on what they represent in different context and in different relationships. And if I work it is always my intention that the work, which I do, presents a certain value to the user, reader, viewer, whatever it is. So you are no longer thinking about the magazine but you are thinking about the person who reads the magazine. You are no longer thinking about the fonts but you are thinking about someone else who may use the font. You are not thinking about the theatre performance but someone who sits there and views it and leaves and has some kind of […] you think that it made some kind of change in their experience. It presents certain value. And then you can quantify it. You can quantify that value or the means. And if you achieve with your work to bring that value to the person I think that delivers the quality.

V: Ok so it is [..] what is it. It is the maker and the product and the user.

P: Well yeah because it is a multi layered thing. It is never [..] again I think it is confusing to think that […] if you look at poster or artwork that all the quality is contained within the paint or the canvas or the format that there is. It means different things to different people at different times.

V: In different times as well of course.

P: So it is a very layered meaning and you see like the meaning changes and that's why you have to discuss a wider viewing of again work or an idea. And if you isolate it then it is too vague. You see that people need to share a lot in common to understand it the same way and people from different contexts will misunderstand works and suddenly […] it doesn't mean the quality is no longer there, it doesn't. It just means that it is not contained within itself but it is defined in the relationship of again viewer, user and that idea or object. That is my simplistic understanding of it. And at least this gives me some kind of background when I work. So thinking what is the right choice of something is difficult but if you are thinking about who may be using, viewing it then you make more informed choices because you are thinking about a very concrete relationship.

V: Yeah, okay. And I guess that's easier if you are thinking on the short term than if you are thinking on the long term?

P: Yes again even long term can have different meanings like how long.

V: How long, yeah, yeah.

P: But yes the more defined it is the easier it becomes. And I see it also with work the more defined something is the easier to test it then you know exactly like how people view it and you simulate it and the more undefined then you don't know when people will see it, view it, use it and which conditions in which places becomes trickier because you need to kind of include all these possibilities in your work process.

V: Yeah. So in the last Works that Work, the magazine that you […] the series of magazines that you just finished. You said a good design is when design benefits all parties involved and those are the users, the makers, the producers and the general public. Right so?

P: Right.

V: And then, yeah.

P: Yes. I mean this reacts to understanding of design in the past. Like in the past, you know when I was a student people always went to design heroes and Dieter Rams you know like a piece of design that you admire and you know like a […] and it made me feel that the quality was about the shapes and the qualities of an object and the material quality. And the definition was this 1970's definition of design was design is a good business. It really was making business sense and that's why good design increases the value for you know put manufacturer. But you can find all kind of cases where there is a great business, things look good but it is really bad for people who make it or for people who use it. It is still a great business. And you can think of all kind of ideas, I don't know Uber, I don't know. It is a great business, it looks fantastic, it is not great for the drivers.

V: Or fashion of course.

P: For many things. And so this kind of inclusiveness that you look at it from multiple perspectives and again if it is really well considered than it should be consider all people involved. I think that's a trademark of the last 10 years. Or possibly some of these ideas appeared even in the 70's but they are marginal ones. But I think now it is a lot more common to be aware of you know who makes the jeans and it is not only about how things look like but you know how they are made and who makes them and your coffee where it comes from and what it means. So I think you look beyond just the plain taste of things and looks and that's what we are doing in the magazine. That lot of the things which are there they didn't need to look great and didn't neatly convince you that this is such a great idea. But if the more you knew about it the more you realize like wow it is actually […] some ideas they don't need to look great but they are bringing change and the change is something that we are looking for.

V: Yeah I thought that magazine was fantastic. I just […] the first issue there were these chairs from China, incredible. I mean a design magazine with […] it was basically just the things that people found that they could sit on and then […]

P: Well and you know it was important in the beginning especially to show what we mean by design. Because often you think that […] you imagine really the high end that's what you call design. Like it has to be very expensive and has to be made by someone with a degree and so you think […] again it is the external things like it is only then then you think like oh it is really good design and we stop calling design you know the basic things. Like usable basic really good things. And it was important that we showed it and also kind of a widen discussion that it is something that designers think that their work is relevant for big audiences. But in terms of like how they really think like often they become very elitist you know like they are just you know working towards certain groups and exclude everyone else. And now we have been struggling with this. You know I had, when I was growing up with my brother we had separate book shelves and I had my design books there and he would never look at them because he is an engineer and he just didn't care about it. It's your things and this is my things.

V: Ok, wow.

P: And I realized like there was something about the appearance of these books that made him look like that's not really for me. It is full of jargon and full of you know attention for itself and how it looked and that he thought okay that is for my artistic design brother and this is not for me. And it really made me wonder like you know technically like what he was doing I was calling a design as well. He was an engineer and he was making stuff. But somehow he didn't see this you know like on the principal level they are the same but for some reason like either it was just two different understandings of it so I was really hoping to make a magazine that my brother would read as well.

V: And did he read it?

P: It took him awhile. I have to say like I have been making it and I gave it to him first copies and he was always like okay great, thanks, okay. And at one point, I think after two years into making it, he read the whole story and told me like why didn't you tell me this is really interesting. And I said well I did tell. It was like yeah but you said it was design but like when I read it it has nothing to do with design it is just full of really interesting ideas. So you see that design became a tricky word. So we stopped using it because it became confusing.

V: Yeah, it is a confusing word. I think it is one of those words that just changes […]

P: It is everything and nothing at the same time. It is like how you use it. And because it is over used in different contexts you know like when you know you are are going to a design shop you know it is not gonna be cheap. It is not going to be like […] it is a design shop or design objects, design shoes which are really expensive and you have design I don't know what and we forget that everything is somehow designed and that's why I became interested to see also if everything is design what is good design.

V: So you say that every human act of creation is design?

P: Yes. Which doesn't mean that everything is well designed and that is why we seek examples of some piece that we should celebrate. And until now you know this whole shelve is full of design magazines and kind of more traditional ones and they don't really celebrate design they celebrate designers. You know they celebrate like people and talk about personalities and egos and you know like […] but not about what it means to me.

V: Yeah, yeah.

P: I Think that's what so […] in the magazine we try to kind of change the view, change the camera you know, that we point to the people who use designs. And the criterion what is good is defined not by the maker but by the user.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what I find fascinating on the things that you do that on the one hand you teach at a Masters very specialist Masters where people just study one subject for well probably the rest of their lives. And then on the other hand you do all kinds of things. Not specialist, probably specialist but it is out there. So and there is more to that but do you have any […]?

P: Well, yes I work with the […] so the master is about type design and I work with type design and I have been always interested in language and languages. I come from a small county so I had to speak in another set of languages to be able to communicate with people and by doing it you learn a lot how they work and how communication works because there is a transformation of you know like from pure idea to the speech and then from speech to written languages. So I have been always interested in you know the evolution of communication and you know people have been speaking for thousand, many many thousands of years, maybe 250.000 years that we have been […] earliest example of written communication is only 5000 years old. It is really in terms of history of the world it is very very short.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

P: And if you look at that you aren't able to read it so if you talk about longevity it is crazy to think like how to communicate. You know one of my favorite articles in Works that Work is about an article called message for the future about how to demarcate places where we store nuclear waste. With the idea that nuclear waste will continue being radioactive for 100.000 years, 100.000 years.

V: At least, right?

P: And that's insane considering that you know all these written languages are 5000 years old which we cannot read at all. So how do you put that sign which for thousands of years will kind of indicated with this is […] you will die when you go there.

V: Yeah.

P: When you know if you look at something just 3000 years old you just first cannot read it and if you do read it you don't really believe it because you know it is all credibility and legibility and all kind of issues. So I am interested in this you know like language on one hand is very durable on the other hand it has its limits and to recognize this. And there are different kinds of expressions of it and type and the form of language you can compare it to the voices. You know like in the same way how people speak in different voices and they have different efficiency. Like some people are able to get their message across thanks to their personalities and voices. I think this is what type does as well. So it is likened to human voice and that's why we design different ones which have different personalities. So it is a very […] it works on both micro and macro levels. On one hand it is the language which everyone works with and it is a very global one and it is kind of big view on the other hand there is a world of micro details and micro typography about how things work which is very specialized. So it is a fine unique discipline where […] again looks appears to be very specialist but you know the specialty of the discipline is that it works with multiple disciplines. It works with technology because typography and technology are interlined and always been since Gutenberg and since […] rendering of stuff and about you know representation.

V: Yeah it is about the material right. What can you use and defines […]

P: Yeah and then there is a language which is very you know general and it is about linguistics and then there is a design. So you get three different disciplines which completely don't overlap. You know so you get technology, you get language and you get design. And normally you study language in a different school and technology in a different school and design in a different school. So it is very rare that these three things get together to make one an object, one creation and I think that explains why there are not so many people who engage in this practice because they need to have knowledge about all of them. If you only care about you know drawing and lettering you may become […] you know you are unable to translate it to the technical terms that you need. Because we work a lot with scripting and formats and definitions and making tools and then you also need to know about how languages work because we make type for over 200 languages. And we need to kind of have understanding of what happened to them. We just talked about transliteration of Serbian, Croatian and why transliterating to Greek would be very difficult. It requires a bit of knowledge about how languages function.

V: Yeah.

P: So on the surface it appears to be super specialized on the other hand it is something that everyone deals with. Everyone works with type and everyone leaves his word of communication in language so it is both. It is kind of really nerdy and the most common thing in the world. I think that I like this that everyone it is part of your life. You cannot escape it we are surrounded by written messages and communication. You don't pay attention to it you just kind of take it for granted. A bit like if someone told you they are designing air or something like it is just there. You go like what. It is just there. So type we are offered it is just there.

V: It is really true. Before I knew about typography, really knew about typography for me it was just something that was there and then I work with designers who said no we need this special font. It is not different than Helvetica, so if you are not trained to look at it you don't see the differences as well.

P: Right. And it is the same way like if I make this metaphor with air it is like you start paying attention to air when something isn't right. When it is polluted, when it is like not right then you start paying attention and … well this is not right. And then you are looking for changes. With type also unless […] when it works it is just invisible okay it is this kind of thing that you don't pay attention to. You are hoping you are getting directly to the content which is not because it is a complicated transformation process. And only when there is a lack of legibility then you start be aware of it that there is something in between. There is something that impedes the communication or helps it or distorts it in many ways. But it does in the say way how voices do, the same way like I am trying to express some ideas now, I am trying to first find the right words but then also to package them in a way that it becomes understandable to you and possibly to someone else. And I don't always succeed. And some other people can say the same things much more clearer and in a better way, the type can try to do the same thing.

V: What I also found interesting is that you with Typotheque are working on not only Latin script, right it is all different kind of languages. But if I understand correctly you first have a Latin base and then translate it or redesign it into […] or does it work the other way around as well? I would be very curious about what would happen if you use a very common I don't know Greek font or whatever if that would change if we would have a different letter then or character.

P: We do. I mean first of course the fact that we do predominantly start with Latin has to do with our context and background. Like we live here, you know like I learn to write it first.

V: Is it also maybe a typographic culture?

P: But also it is unfortunately the Western World is kind of defined by Latin script. Most of technologies are defined around Latin script. If you talk about the invention of letterpress, we talk about Gutenberg, although he was not the first one to produce books you know there had been books produced in Asia and Korea before him. But most of the printing presses and technologies and font formats were developed for Latin first. And then they were looking for ways how to you know make it work for other languages. There are ways how […] you know when the British went to India for example they brought their monotype printing machines and they tried to use it for Devanagari which is the Indic main script which has a complete different structure. And you cannot fit it to multi machine which work with 26 keys, you know like you find by the Latin alphabet. So they could make it work for Arabic easily or for Indic scripts but they still tried. They distorted these languages to make it fit their purpose. So in the past there has been a lot of kind of bad influence of Latin onto other foreign scripts. Now we hope that the situation is changing by having technology which allows different kind of representations so in defining the you know Unicode, open type fonts people think about you know different writing scripts. Still not all. There are still that many unencoded languages which don't […] and unencoded letters which means that you cannot send your messages like in the [..]. but we are catching up and there is a lot of work made that recognizes there is a knowledge which is accessible only in some languages not others. And it is important to recognize them and preserve them because through the process of translation you lose some of it. We tend to think that anything can be translated to English and internet is in English but in truth some things like vocabulary to represent them and to translate them completely so the translation is quite the transformational process that reveals a lot about the content itself and we work with this. So we basically translate our fonts to other languages. And we have done it both ways so typically we do Latin first and then translate into a related script which is Cyrillic and Greek are quite related but if you work with unrelated scripts like Semitic scripts like Arabic or Hebrew or Indic scripts they offer different possibilities and they work completely differently how we think. We think that we know how certain pen […] you know the Western pen you know you hold it in a certain fixed angle and you don't change that angle when you write and I think if you understand you know like different writing scripts it completely blows your mind because it is complete different. You know like with Arabic you have to keep rotating pen and writing and it is not something that you are used to like you keep shifting both sheet and your hand in order to write some letters and you cannot do it otherwise. With Indic scripts you hold it completely like if you were left-handed. You hold it in different angle, your pen is cut in a different angle to get different shapes. So even the act of writing is complete different physically, your hold is very different. In Asian scripts usually hold complete upright you cannot lean on a sheet of paper. And if you take this as a starting point it has an influence on your Latin I think. So we do it in both ways but it is always about understanding the culture of the context because if you count too heavy handed on this then you may distort and make it unreadable for the local audience.

V: Yeah fantastic, wow.

P: Well there is a lot of things. Like you know you mentioned so far the magazines and type. We engage with all kinds of […] what I enjoy about these is the diversity I think most of all you know like one thing which I don't know if you know I work a lot with dance companies creating dance performances. It is a complete different audience but I think in principle on an underlying layer the work is just the same as if you do the magazine or type. That's a different discussion.

V: It is a bit more […] we have in the Netherlands we have Toegepaste Kunst.

P: Applied Art.

V: Applied Art. Is dance applied art or is it […]?

P: No it is not but it is just what I said like if I work with I don't know Indic scripts you have to kind of understand the logic or the possibilities of that language and not to think from Latin perspective to do it. And if I work with dance you cannot think […] you have to think about the live performance and possibilities of it rather than thinking about film and books and static forms you have to kind of completely have a different possibility of a mind. It is a bit like some possibilities are more limited than others. It is a bit like if you are trying to create RGB image from CMYK scale like it is just you don't have the values enough so you have to kind of completely rethink again where you start and what you are going to do. Because if you start with kind of certain ideas it won't work it cannot take the conditions as a starting point and we always go to that practical building and actually meet the audience. Usually see where it is made to make sure that we can create something new that creates written value for the audience.

V: So you have mentioned the material in some ways in some of the things you have said. So you talked about that the way you write is of influence on what it will look like and then you have of course the theatre and the things that people can do is of influence for dance. If I understand correctly the technology for fonts is changing a little bit now with the, what is it, flexible fonts, flexible?

P: Variable.

V: Variable fonts. You have a wonderful […] so what I thought is okay now we can have from thin to ultra thick that will work but immediately you released a font that had all kind of different possibilities. Will this change typography? Is this material of influence of what will happen?

P: Well you referred to last year, so in 2017 or was it 16 there was kind of like an update of open type formats. Technically it is called open type 1.8 which is maintained by Adobe and Microsoft and in wider world it is referred as variable type which allows having different masters and then smooth interpolation between different masters that is insured. So you can basically one file can contain many. And it seemed kind of like a major innovation but in practice it is something that I have been working with for 20 years. It has been used before so it is not a completely new thing.

V: Okay, okay, okay.

P: Adobe had its masters technology before and Apple had the GX technology which allowed pretty much the same but it was not the implementation was more limited. So I think the difference now is that by Adobe taking it more seriously and there is wider browser support we can actually use it. Before it was kind of like a proof of concept. Anyway there is this and what it allows is that this becomes a dynamic range so you are not choosing fixed static instances but there is something that you know can modify and you have to see like if it makes sense. Like for possibly for users it may be very confusing because if you have a you know Verdana regular, Verdana bold you know exactly what you get. If you can have a Verdana bold but 5% bold and lighter than a bold like it becomes kind of like a yeah well why do I need it, what does it do. Possibly it can do something. For example you read differently like one type is inverted because of how light works when you have a back lit light you see actually brighter things than when it is reversed, when it is black on white. Possibly you can do all kind of optic compensations. You can use it for this. Or you can do something else. To me I think it allows possibilities which often people don't discuss and the type can respond to users and so for example today you can track you know like how far you are from the screen so the type could respond to this. If you are really far a type could actually modify itself to it. It can you know animate itself it can bring focus to things that you need.

V: I think I saw an experiment with that once. There was actually it wasn't that good because when I bring the screen closer to my eyes I probably want to look at the details but then the font got smaller and I couldn't see it.

P: Right, right. But in order to do this when it brings this kind of time aspect to it then you need to count the range of type rather than just this Verdana regular, Verdana bold. You need to count the range of it that can change you know like we made 10 years ago pixel types called ultimate pixel font called Elementar with Gustavo Ferreira.

V: Yeah yeah. I have that. It is fantastic.

P: Which normally pixel types start being usable you know from 7 pixels on because you need like 6-7 pixels to build your letters. But we made them […] you know Gustavo insisted that we start from one by one pixel letters you know one by one pixel you cannot do anything it is just one pixel right. But we made it because then you can also for instance show the growth, how it grows like first horizontally and then vertically how it is build. So you can actually animate them and then there is a reason why it is so. And then of course when you increase the resolution to I don't know 20-30 pixels then you bring more resolution and more details. But even ineligible crazy pixels they are there for reasons because they can basically show the continuity which is maybe interesting. Because before we could not have continuity on printed type and on screen because it is refreshing always. You can actually use the time aspect. So I think this type I mention that technology and typography are completely related and that's why with all the advances the technology type is just catching up. Now I can try to suddenly use the new possibilities and because you know history of typography is again we counted from Gutenberg, so 500 years, possibly it is longer. But 99% of all the typefaces made were made for print and now for the first time you can think of screen first because we read those screens mainly I guess.

V: I guess so.

P: And so I think designers have to kind of consider the output and see like well okay if you are reading mainly on screens of different resolutions of different sizes how type should be different.

V: Do you have an idea why there is still so much focus on paper because I am actually a bit confused by that.

P: It is confusing you know like even when we think of magazines. When we started Works that Work first thing was like people go like so you are making a print magazine. And I said well you know we are making both but you know like we are making print because people ask for it. And they go like no no one ask for print, it is like well we do like we did count the crowd funding where people could vote what they want and they vote with the wallet not with the likes. So if you are willing to pay more you get print. If you are paying less you get the digital version. And it is not the one is better than the other but they offer different possibilities.

V: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

P: I think digital edition is great for archiving, for searching, for indexing.

V: For sharing.

P: For sharing and print is great for you know like you read on the beach, in sand and it is really super high res and it doesn't deteriorate and it doesn't need batteries and it is more tactile material but I realize like when we did this question to our readers who are I think fairly young, like not young young, but like you know in their 20s, 30s. Young people so full of digital media that when you want to have quality time and have a break they prefer to switch off the digital media and they want to read. And maybe it has to do with nature well it has to do with the nature of our stories, they are quite long that print kind of makes sense. But we made stats you know the digital edition is used or is read by our older readers. It is really older people that choose for digital.

V: Really?

P: And young people voted for print which is completely contradictory to what do you think. You think like of course the youngsters are kind of digital savvy and digital only but because of this they choose like […] if they have a plan for themselves they choose for something else and vice versa like an older person you know every time on a plane I will see someone with an e-reader it is usually an old guy or lady but not really young guys like they do it probably on the phone but like e-readers, the Kindles and […] I always see […]

V: I bought one last year and I am probably old so yeah. Before that I didn't have one, yeah.

P: Oh because it is great you know like those people care about like not carrying kilos of books you know like you have a small reader and it is fantastic for this you can have like a pile of books fit into a small thing.

V: But still I am also a bit disappointed so maybe that is what plays a role as well so there was always an idea about technology and digital and that would be fantastic but then it didn't turn out to be that fantastic I think. So I had all these ideas about that you could share for instance share notes. If I wrote notes in the magazine that other people could read it that would be valuable as well.

P: Yeah.

V: But that just didn't take off. It doesn't work like that.

P: Well, you know technology is never good or bad. I think they are talking about called democratization of technology that allows people to be involved in disciplines which we previously they could not be. So publishing for example is one thing that now there is this thing called self-publishing which before you know it was impossible because it was too complicated it was too costly too specialist and now like a guy with a laptop can well produce books, make websites, produce e-books whatever format you know produce video documentaries like anything.

V: Yeah.

P: But just because technology is available doesn't mean that it makes sense. You know like you know what you recognize is that the process to use the technology requires knowledge as well. And I am also you know very I am also skeptical about where […] you know I have a daughter of nine who views […] who doesn't watch TV but watches YouTube mainly.

V: Yeah, my daughter as well.

P: And you see it like […] you know when we see like what they watch I get sometimes worried about like you know like if this is the idea of progress that like […] because anyone can use technology, they do and then appreciate the process of […] or the editing process on information. And the editing is basically the key becomes it makes information accessible, it chooses what kind of information to what groups and what to do with it, how to articulate it, what is the right time spam. There is a lot of people involved which you don't realize and with self-publishing by having one person who serves as a creator, editor, publisher, viewer they don't have this ability to see it from multiple perspectives to make the rich content that you normally would have.

V: But that's generally speaking because I guess that […]

P: Well of course you can do it. I; There is some very good stuff on YouTube as well.

P: Yeah. But I mean talking about on average of course if you have like […]

V: But hasn't that always been the fact that on average things are pretty shitty and […]?

P: No well because the average before it was so expensive to produce like it made that some of the requirements were you know like […] it was less difficult by having more people involved like you had to called vetoing process and some edits were never realised.

V: Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah.

P: So now we have a kind of great great diversity, I think it is a good thing but it also means there is a lot shit out there which is part of the price we pay like for having […]

V: Yeah more shit now yeah.

P: Yeah with more information there is more you know unreliable information and crappy information as well.

V: Yeah that's true, yeah. Because I think that's a law somebody stated it is more of a statement that 99% of everything is crap and now we just have more. So there is […]

P: Yeah, possibly, possibly. But maybe it educates people that will be more critical viewers maybe that's what it means. Like I am always fascinated by you know people who come from certain cultures where they you know anything that is printed or on TV it is considered to be the truth. And I think like it takes you know a kind of self-education to realize like well it is printed and edited but I need to know who is printing and editing because they have their own biases and that's the kind of valuable lesson also. I learned this the hard way because I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and I think people knew that they are […] like what you see on TV is not that it was false but it was just not the full picture and they kind of learned to work around it. You get different sources and you didn't know like who is saying what to kind of make your own mental image. I think like with what we have out there it is kind of also making you more aware of it who says what before you can take it for granted that this is what it is. The diversity of messages you have to make sense yourself and this was scary for kids because they cannot really filter that information so you probably have to help them.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. On the other hand I think it is […] I was jealous when my kid started watching well little film movies on the iPad I think so she liked I don't know Roger Rabbit or something and then she could watch anything.

P: Yeah at anytime.

V: At anytime just all of it. When we were kids […]

P: Yeah because it is different then waiting for the 7:30 show like on Monday.

V: Exactly.

P: I think that concept they don't have. Looking forward for three days like on Monday […]

V: Yeah she was in two weeks she was a specialist on the […] I think that is of course a very good thing.

P: Well it is exciting. Again I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man. It's you know completely different. You are probably the same, similar age. You know like when did you get your first cell phone, like how old were you?

V: I think it was in 99 so I was going 30 something yeah.

P: Same like for me. But that you know that's not normal.

V: No, no, no of course.

P: So like when we are kids like what is a good right age for them to have cell phone. And it is the first time you have to think about this because no other generation had to think about things like this. So at home we can discuss when is the right time. Like what does it mean. It can't be too early but too late is also not great.

V: Well she has a phone now but it is not the right time I think.

P: Yeah it is amazing that you do something for the first time. Again we have been on this earth for you know millennia and we can still for the first time solving some things.

V: But it is really interesting to see that you are actually actively exploring the possibilities and trying out different ways. So with Works that Work you try different ways of distribution. You had also different ways of accessing the content, digitally. The same thing with Typotheque your own type of licenses that other foundries they have different kind of licenses, at least for web fonts what I found. Very interesting to see how you explore these things.

P: Well we talked about that you know the ability to see the same thing from different angles like is it publisher. I think Typotheque is a publishing company like we publish printed matters and fonts and films or whatever. There is always like a desire as a maker to do something but then you have to confront it with you know like how […] you have to kind of be the advocate of the user, viewer as well. So you have to shift perspectives around. And this came to me quite naturally that you do it because I want to do something but then you confront it like what does it really deliver to someone else. And the different motivation for magazine it was clear that if we want to […] you like I can make a magazine that I would want, how I would want which means without influence of advertisers and in a quality that I really you know like I am aiming for then we have to kind of rethink distribution and financing. So it is in order to write the story we want we have to kind of do the logistics first. So people think always that the magazine is really defined by the content, yes it is but the context of publishing defines what kind of content we can include and predominantly now magazines are funded by ads which means that they are available in news stands and the fact that you have the ads make the reader not the investor. You know there is someone who pays for it. But makes them pure consumer and basically a target of advertising only. So like a reader of a normal magazine is a commodity which is sold to the advertiser.

V: It is fantastic, it is such a […]

P: Except that people don't really usually realize this. I think you realize like on digital media that you know with social media with Facebook and stuff that you know what it means that your data is being transferred to someone. To this has been always […] you know it is been 200 years like this with magazines. If you buy a magazine for 2 euro you are not paying for it but you are basically […] your information is being sold to someone because you represent a certain target group and someone is interested in target group like you yourself. And you are defined by that category.

V: Yeah it is a vehicle for […]

P: Yes.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

P: And you know we wanted to try to do different things like it started with the fact that it is a design magazine for non-designers which means suddenly you don't fit any particular group of magazines. It is not something that you get in your travel sections or your visual art sections or […] it just blurs the boundaries. And because of this the audience is very diverse and because of this you have to kind of find a different way to distribute a magazine. It is all related and if you didn't do it then it couldn't exist. You know I could make it but then you know if I would offer it to normal bookstores they just wouldn't know what to do with it. It would fail. And I know it for a fact because I have seen it many times. I have friends in publishing so we had to kind of take responsibility for it and turn it into benefit. You make the process transparent and you basically empower the readers that they are an integral part of the magazine, we make it for them, we are not making it for someone else. And then the part which were kind of the boring parts became the inspiration and we discussed the logistics and we discussed like how to get it from place to place and how much it cost to make the magazine. And in the same way have people interested to know where your water or coffee or jeans are coming from. They want to know where the magazine is printed, how it is bound, how it is produced, if people are getting paid for it. So we made it part of our game. We talk about everyone who contributes to it gets paid […]

V: There was something like […] you had a slider right where it said how much do you want to pay and then what can we do with that money. Yeah that was very very interesting.

P: And it is just allows you know to have the discussion but not in a guilty way like okay you didn't pay and that's why we don't give you this but more like you see the relationship. Like if you really want to pay like you know 99 cents for something like […] this is cost of paper like unprinted like so yeah we could produce a blank book. And then okay and it would shift the slider suddenly like yeah we can include you know we can pay the author then we can still can not edit it and can not have any photography so you can see like all […] everything adds up until we can reach the sweet spot where everyone gets paid and then if you go below it or above it like what the consequences are. But this is all about taking the readers seriously you show them because they are this much part of it as anyone else. And with fonts we do the same thing. So you know I am designing fonts to be used. So you have to kind of think about licensing and distribution in the same way. So we don't work with external distributors because we just don't have good experience with them.

V: Okay.

P: So we have to kind of think of different ways how to make our work accessible and usable and show that it makes a value. You know I believe that our fonts you know they have a very wide language support, they are very complete you know more than anything else really on the market but you don't really see it if you see you know a static picture of it you don't really see what is underneath. So you have to think about like how you know to present that value to people so that's the reason why we introduced Fontstand I don't know if you know.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

P: So Fontstand is the kind of completely separate unrelated business you know a platform that allows trying many fonts for free because that's what people wanted and then allowing finding them and rethink also licensing, distribution instead of paying one big amount one time you can try it for […] use it for one month for a small amount of money.

V: Which is very practical because often you just need it for a month.

P: Yeah. But I wished someone else made this and then I can just do my work but because no-one else would make this you have to make this as part of the work because it feeds the whole kind of the ecosystem of, you know, creation. In order to support our work we need people to use our work and to make people really use the work you need something else that you know makes it easy for them. So I love these win-win models. It is really good for us but also for the public. It is not at the expense of someone but it is really like delivering of the same value for both.

V: I think that is fascinating you keep coming up with these new kinds of business models that well I assume they are viable and […]

P: No I have to pay this office […]

V: Well, it looks like you can pay it. But it is true they make us happy. Long time ago when web fonts were possible for the first time. I guess that's more than 10 years ago or about 10 years ago or something I worked for a big bank in the Netherlands. They had their own version of the Rockwell I think but it was under license so I called the foundry and I asked them can we use this as a web font. And then they asked how many visitors do you have, does that really matter, and then they said you can use it for one million dollars a year something like that. I was what?

P: That's exactly right. Like about 10 years ago like the first concepts of web design came about. We are actually the first foundry to introduce web fonts. There was nothing before so like it was really difficult to find a model when there is nothing. It is really like zero, nothing. And again that's a good example of like people taking responsibility because type designers would get together to define a new format for themselves because they realized to make web fonts a reality you need a different format. It is more compressed and it's web only. So WOFF is designed by type designer.

V: Okay, yeah.

P: Very local just you know a couple of people got together and start thinking about it and collaborating with browsers so just together with Mozilla.

V: Yeah that was fantastic. Before that we had to use Flash and things like that.

P: Yeah or you know like people making clever you know generated with gif images and even newspaper. I remember the New York Times like you have headlines but they all kind of gifs so you know you could not read them, you cannot search for that headline. And they tried to find a clever way how you could do it. So like there is fault […]

V: Hacks on hacks on hacks on hacks on hacks. Yeah.

P: And again for a maker it is like we want to make our work usable and not […] so I was never kind of just look at the restrictions which until that point like people are more about protecting the work rather than making it accessible. Which happened at music and films and fonts.

V: It is still happening though.

P: Yeah. I love to see what people do with our fonts of course so that's why we make it.

V: Yeah.

P: So instead of putting money into marketing we are putting it into creating the value for the users. So we are creating technologies and tools and stuff.

V: Yeah, fantastic. Thank you very much. I have one last question by Hay Kranen. Do you know Hay Kranen? He did a workshop for Sandberg@Mediapark?

P: Oh, yeah, okay.

V: And he was wondering about the project about the weird island he was wondering about that.

P: All right, okay.

V: I mean this is totally unrelated but […]

P: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

V: I guess.

P: No it is […] we made together the project for Mediapark you know about this. We just […] It was an idea to propose […] you know the reality is like less and less people watch TV. I think we see it with our kids. All the channels in Hilversum they kind of got together and they put a bit money to ask people who are unrelated to TV world to propose new programs. So Hay and I were part of a group of eight small teams who had the complete free hand to propose something new. And I proposed making series of documentaries about language because that's what I am interested in. But not you know like normally I work on a later stage of a language that I visualize language with designing fonts. For that project I proposed creating a new language, from scratch, from zero and observe and talk about how languages are made and born because languages are not natural products but they are social constructs by people. Except you never watch it live because it takes thousand of years to develop and you know and we kind of understand language for what it is but what if you could see from the very beginning how languages are born. So I wanted to do this and I approached […] you know like for this you need to have everything aligned again like it is not you cannot make a language by yourself. You need to have speakers you know and who are motivated to learn that language. So in that project I got in touch with a piece of land which you may have heard about called Liberland. Have you heard about Liberland?

V: Yeah, yeah.

P: Liberland is related to this it is a disputed or no it is a piece of land between Serbia and Croatia and because of the flow of the river Danube changed over time it created a mini island on the Danube which is not claimed by neither country. And if one party claims it then they are losing access to other part of the land. So basically no one wants this piece of land. And it was claimed by a Czech politician who established a new country on this piece of land. It is just five square kilometers and there is half a million people who wanted to become citizens of Liberland. And I got in touch with the president of Liberland to propose him to make a new language for those people because those people have nothing in common and normally identity of groups are defined by what they share and often it is language they share. And he enthusiastically embraced the idea that we could develop a new language for those people to create new identity of the land because the county doesn't function just by having a flag and passport defining certain values. And language could define their values so I got in touch with the Language Creation Society which is a group of linguist which make languages and they make languages for example for Games of Thrones and like […]

V: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

P: And because you know for example in Games of Thrones the language there doesn't allow it to order coffee because there is no concept for coffee but you know it is all about fighting and you know power. So the language tells a lot about the society. So we wanted to create something which reflects exactly the ideas of that piece of land and how it would work. It is an extremely ambitious project you know I would love to see how […] you know like to have a chance to watch in real life how languages are born and how this could work and I presented it there and all the people kind of appreciated it and they were very positive. I think they just saw it as a very long-term project which would be hard to turn into a real TV program with the budget that they have. So that didn't move much further unfortunately. I would have loved to kind of […] I think it would be a multi year project to follow you know what happens with that.

V: I think it is beyond television this right?

P: Yeah but you know again because there is a group of motivated people like a lot of the people who applied for citizenship they are refugees from the Middle East or they are anarchist or they are adult people evading taxes like all kind of different motivations. They all have strongly motivated to possibly learn a new thing which is very unusual that someone has this willingness to do it because if you just make a new language it is like well how do you convince someone to use it, communicate with this.

V: There is of course some knowledge about this from the computer programming world I guess.

P: Well there is all kind of […] you know there are people who spoke Klingon to their kids so they made them first speakers of a made up language so it does happen and language itself affects how you think which is also amazing that by changing the structure of language you change your brain. So there is a lot to talk about how languages work and what kind of impact they have on people. And so that is where I became really fascinated by this and I have a complete realistic proposal but I need a kind of extra support to make it happen.

V: Fantastic, wow, wow. That's fantastic. From the tweet from Hay it looked like some weird island I didn't know. It is incredible. Wow, beautiful. I think I asked all the questions I have right now. I mean of course I have many more. Do you have anything that nobody ever asks you or that you just want to say?

P: Yeah. There are plenty of things no one asks me but I wouldn't even know […]

V: That you want to answer.

P: What that would be.

V: Yeah about beauty that's what I am interested in. So does beauty play a role when it comes to quality or is that possible to define beauty or your beauty, your taste?

P: I usually like in my talks at the Royal Academy in The Hague where I teach usually reserve one class talk about beauty as an attribute. Mainly because of […] well I don't know what is the experience but in Art Schools the consideration of beauty disappeared because it is seen as kind of something undemocratic. Like something like that's too trivial to take seriously. And like if you consider like in the past the beauty and good were seen as one thing. Like what was supposed as beautiful was considered to be good. And what was ugly was considered to be evil and now we can tend to become very careful and see like this is misleading and it is not as simple as this and that's why we don't want to talk about beauty because it talks about something which is unrelated to the substance of things. So for example I go quite often in juries of different competitions or reviewing work and when looking at art and design again in the past they would talk about beauty and today it is avoided completely because you are afraid to be I don't know tricked by beauty and disregard something else. So we talk about functionality, you talk about engagement, you talk about everything else besides beauty. Yet I think it is an important one because I think beauty is important and people even when they disagree I think theoretical disagree about the definition of beauty if they see beautiful things they all agree. And there are many studies which I quote in my lectures where people can view for a microsecond at an object or a face and come to the same opinion as if you look at it for minutes and hours. So that means they instantly trigger something in your brain and you are hardwired to recognize beauty. And you know we see that kids from the […] before they can speak before they have learned experiences they look at beautiful objects for longer than for less beautiful objects. So there is something hardwired about how we perceive symmetry and certain shapes and faces. So I look at this what is it exactly that kind of makes us […] what defines beauty, historically and now. And I think it is something that we can use. You know once you can know how to deal with it you know like I created a typeface which plays with this for example. We made a typeface called Karloff which is trying to be most beautiful and ugly at the same time which seems like a contradiction but by taking the two extremes and interpolation between then you could have either that goes from beauty tot ugliness. So not just weight you know changing the weight of the typeface but like changing the what we consider to be the true appearance of something just by changing one single parameter of a typeface which has many different parameters. So it is something that of course we consider and it is something that plays with the emotional level of audience and it is something that you know when we do for example these theatre projects I always want to make people to feel something deep inside have changed and they are leaving with a different experience and may not be about the definition of beauty but more about them getting closer to ask questions about things themselves? So it is something that you know I don't avoid or I can't include in my work because everything the insides and outsides of things are equally important not just one. Like today we cannot start disregarding and look at something else.

V: But maybe that's only a discussion in the art world. In the rest of the world beauty is important I guess.

P: Yeah.

V: Right we are buying the beautiful stuff.

P: Art is so complicated you know like again like if you have an […] you know like someone who is involved with art criticism they will not call things beautiful because it is beyond, it is too simplistic so you need to know a lot more about it before you can be able to proclaim anything. It is very hard to something that just by experiencing you get the full image. There are only very few things and maybe food can do this, I don't know, like an alcohol. You just try and like […] you don't need to know anything […] I was like its contained within […] you want this kind of simple pleasures which are becoming more rare because things are really multi layered these days. It is probably not the best conclusion but […]

V: Isn't it? I think it is.

P: Yeah?

V: Right?

P: Yes and you know like […] and beauty is also kind of your understanding of it like it changes. Like so the more sometimes you discover about things you know like the more you appreciate them you know like […]

V: But that's also I think that's interesting from looking at it from the art school perspective. There is more to it than just beauty that opens new perspectives. So if you only look at beauty and that is very limited of course yeah. So it is it makes sense to look at more.

P: But it is both you know like right now I am advocating you know inclusion of beauty as an aspect or attribute of design on the other hand like the whole reason why I started Works that Work was because of this obsession with surface and talking about like appearance of things.

V: Yeah.

P: You know and then I am critical of it because then it misses out you know the things beyond the surfaces. So you have to find a careful position it is like yes it is important but yeah it is just part of a bigger whole.

V: Okay. If you […] you have anything else to say? No? You said a lot, you said very much. Thank you very very much for this conversation.

P: Thank you.

V: This was episode 52 of The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting with Vasilis van Gemert (that’s me) and Peter Biľak. If you feel the urge to give any feedback you are more than welcome. You can send me an email via vasilis at Or, if your feedback fits in a tweet you can find me on twitter via @vasilis. Another thing you can do is helping me pay the bills for the transcripts of this podcast. These transcripts are necessary for those of us who can’t, or don't want to listen. They’re handy for robots or people who want to analyse the contents of these conversations as well. Support can be done in many ways, and they all make me very happy. You can find all options on, like bitcoin, patreon or a virtual cup of coffee. A steadily growing list of wonderful people are donating monthly, like Paul van Buuren, Job, and my employer CMD in Amsterdam.

Next week I’m going to talk to my former colleague Maarten Kappert. That conversation is going to be in Dutch.

This transcript was funded with the generous help of CMD Amsterdam, Paul van Buuren, Job, Ischa Gast, Remi Vledder, Peet Sneekes, Peter van Grieken, and Jan Jaap Rijpkema. If you want to you can help as well by donating a (small) amount.