Type: More Questionable Than Ever

Presented at The Type Directors Club 2019 Type Drives Culture conference.

Thank you, to all the organizers, for putting together such a thoughtfully curated event. It was an amazing line-up this year, a clear vision, and fantastic branding. The content of my talk is below, and as it took me a bit to get my bearings, perhaps better read than heard. ;)

I’m Ksenya Samarskaya. I’m a creative practitioner, working here in Brooklyn, as well as, on some other coasts. I work under the moniker Samarskaya & Partners. All the works are collaborations on a range of visual communications, which you’ll see some gloss thin-slices of in the upcoming slides.

I’m going to do a lightning-round career overview, because I haven’t done that here before. Throughout, what I’m interested in focusing on are the frameworks for my thinking, the questions I’ve asked along the way, and how those questions led from one thing to the next.

Chapter One: Installation Arts (2001–2005)

I’ll first back up a little and say that what I studied and did early on was installation art — exhibitions, gallery work, physical computing — which gives me a slightly different take on the sections I’ll get to later on.

To create this kind of work, one’s basically starting with nothing, and building up entire worlds.

On occasion I’d joke that my degrees were more or less in shopping and counter-fitting, as it was a game of really looking at, assessing, and studying the world. Understanding how to insert jokes into it. Remixing it towards different outcomes and conclusions.

For example —

In 2003 I was asking questions regarding what gets left, after we’re gone; what are the material evidence notes of our existence. This resulted in a series of three William Ryan installations, including obstructed video projections, a basement and bathroom cross-section that we kept rebuilding in different forms inside galleries. And an entity that we created to help tell our story, the Ministry of Observations.

The Ministry of Observations was essentially a proto-Twitter, and pondered what it would look like if instead of just tax and financial forms that end up as the residual net summation after a death, the government instead kept track of the more idiosyncratic moments and preferences that make up a unique life. Again, this was fifteen years ago, and I wasn’t quite imagining the world to go towards this exact dystopian take on it.

Another project from that year, the Registry of Existence, took over a space in Michael Graves Portland Building. Referencing outdated psychological textbooks it allowed people to prove, or certify, their personhood.

My perennial fascination with translation and misunderstandings first made its way into the gallery in 2005 in Translatec, where guests were invited to speak into a microphone, it’d go through speech recognition and mis-translation computing program. It would then give out false yet plausible-enough receipts of what was said — so it would catch about fifty percent of what you were saying, and in a grammatically sound structure make up the rest.

Chapter Two: Branding

This wide-open thinking, agnostic attitude to medium; this focus on holistic communication translated perfectly to a career in brand design.

But fairly fast, working in design, I noticed I was spending all my time either selecting fonts or manipulating fonts. And despite being a proficient user or mimicker of type, I still felt bound and limited by the personalities of existing typefaces, and all the emotional meta-data they would carry with them. Especially when it didn’t perfectly align to my page, or my intended meaning.

Chapter Three: Type and Letterform

In my type and lettering work, from the start, it’s been about understanding what information I can pack into and what I can deduce from letterforms.

There’s been a lot of technical exploration — do letters work for small sizes on newsprint, for broadcast, for legibility, and for dimensionality within extended reality. I took the concepts I learned working with Tobias on Retina and Exchange, and applied them to screen with Diote, a sixties-inspired high contrast serif that pairs and functions down to four-point legibility on screen. For Sweethaus, we drew an inline/outline to be able to naturally fit to neon at night and sign-paint during the day. Light and Ladder’s wordmark allowed for rotation so it could sit nicely at the bottom of porcelain tableware.

I was interested in how type tells stories. How it turns. How people have drawn letters in so many different ways throughout history, and the breadth and the range of what one could do while still remaining crisp, and clean, and modern.

We’ve drawn type that referenced world war plane posters, mid-century mid-European book covers, delicate jewelry, tire tread, sea holly, backs of canvases, Italian cafés, or Russian Vyaz. The most interesting projects have often been ones that ask us to combine seemingly irreconcilable concepts or elements. And the range of text, what it can do yet still be perfectly harmonious and legible, still seems boundless.

Chapter Four: The Internets (2010–2014)

For the internets, in addition to building standard informative or commerce websites, we’d often explore how the brand voice could be accentuated. How we can bring a bit of magic, or a bit of slow time, to the medium that was more and more being directed towards a one-dimensional “optimization”.

So we brought in rainbow-prism shadows that responded to the tilt sensor on the phone or the mouse movement. We created our own take on flip-board sign effects to respond to changing sensor data.

For our own page, S&P, I often dually reference salt and pepper, ie, all the flavor you really need in a dish if used right, and that’s the metaphor that I see typography serving within design. So we built this sandbox where one could move the individual grains around, dispersing them or pushing them together to make something new.

We also built larger interactive applications… such as where/when, a social network of happenings that lived for a couple years starting at the end of 2011. On there, anyone could add or highlight events, you follow people, people follow you, it’d Tweet reminders at you. With some of the interesting challenges being a re-thinking a calendar, from a then-standard grid to a single ticker-tape line, and thinking through an event system that allowed for, and celebrated, ambiguity and privacy.

And Galvanized Jets, which we built in 2014 to serve as a randomized, live type proof for designing Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek. Still up online — the way it works is you drag the font that you want to proof into the browser, and each time you get a newly randomized set of words that nevertheless adheres to our rules of length and diversification in letter-pairings. (Letter pairings that it couldn’t find are dumped at the bottom so you can make the decision of whether they’re worth kerning or considering.) And, if you’re not a type designer but perhaps a logophile, it tends to generating a pretty spectacular and obscure reading word-list.

Chapter Five: Multi-Script Typography

These days we spend a lot of our time navigating multi-script typography, with a primary focus on Cyrillic and Greek, as well as minority script research. In entering this terrain, again I’m focusing on connotations that might come up, especially for someone from a different background. I’m constantly working to stretch and update my knowledge of what’s possible, and hunting to find untraditional yet functional sources to reference outside of the canon.

With our current sprawl of computing and digital type design, there’s a certain colonial aspect, where a type designer in a silicon valley or on an island can create a popular or inexpensive font and all of a sudden across the globe hand-written or built signs get swapped out by this new easier system. And with that the world loses a lot of history, and a lot of texture.

The way slang or linguistic subtlety carries through in language by region, the same things happen in type. So in our designs I bring in questions of what’s appropriate, but also what’s underrepresented. Even within a seemingly narrow bounding-box of geometric sans serif faces, there’re always options for proportions or movements that talk to different regions or regimes.

Chapter Six: Teaching

And finally, last chapter, has been my explorations in how I approach teaching.

I first came to enthusiastic, experimental teaching at Harbour.Space University, where I saw an institution that had its eyes open as to how the world was shifting in terms of both work and education, and was responding to it in a tactical way. It has been a space that’s allowed me to test hypothesis of both mannerisms and content of my courses.

First, I wanted to remove the Eurocentric vision that’s predominant when talking about typography. I went through whatever example syllabi I had from colleagues and elsewhere, and blacked out everything I saw as potentially problematic, down to terminology such as san-serif or serif, and instead, built the course based on looking, critiquing, and iterative experimentation. Behind me are type specimens that the students, fresh to type considerations, produced in their first week.

The second thing, that I noticed when I walked into the classroom; the students were enthusiastic but the predominant question was, “how do I avoid doing anything wrong?” Not, “how do I make something truly remarkable?” This to me showed a fault in how we’re talking about, and treating, our practice.

Last year, on his way to accepting one of the biggest prizes in type design, Cyrus gave a talk where he mentioned feeling like an impostor in this field. Due to not formally studying it, for a long time I felt like I had to be quiet or take a back seat. But this is ridiculous — what attracted me to this industry in the first place was its nerdy roguery that came from almost everyone in it, at the time of my starting, came to it on their own with no formal training.

The way I would frame it to my students is — there’s actually very little that we’re as intimately familiar with as typography. We’ve been interacting with it ever since we learned to read and write, from the first scribbles of our name as lettering to the first stacking of the letter-blocks as typography. Building that ownership of the medium is important to the robustness of our practice, and the influence and dialogue it can build.


So, in terms of where I’m at now, my encouragement is — that we can learn from the evolving lessons of parallel fields and contemporary discourse, that this field can be a lot more open and wide reaching, and that it’s useful to step back and reconsider a lot of the seeming basics that we take for granted.

There’s an image and a legacy of what this industry has been, but I’m more interested, in what it can become and how we help usher it there. Thank you.

An earlier presentation, from 2017: Text and Subtext, with some different slides can be read here: https://medium.com/samarskaya/text-and-subtext-a91602111f81