An interview with Kiril Zlatkov about prof. Vassil Iontchev who dedicates himself to the art of typography, develops a separate system for classifying signs and sets a stable, scientific ground in the field of typography for Bulgaria and researches in detail the Cyrilic and Glagolitic scripts. A conversation about the new names who are creating Bulgarian Cyrillic typefaces and fonts for us to use.
Kiril Zlatkov: There were two exhibitions in honor of professor Vassil Iontchev. One was in the gallery of the Union of Bulgarian Artists at 6 Shipka str. and it presented the Bulgarian school of typography in four generations – authors from Iontchev and before him to present day contemporary works. In addition to the exhibition, there were educational panels on the history of our alphabet, its origins, development, key periods of change in its refinement, the whole history of the Cyrillic scripts. The other exhibition, in the Academia Gallery, was dedicated exclusively to the work of Vassil Iontchev. There was a lot of detailed information about his, what can be called, an international contribution in the field of typography – with his classification of letters and characters with highlights in the history of the Cyrillic scripts in general, not just the Bulgarian Cyrillic script in particular. His contribution is not only as an author, but as a main driving force and organizer, an inspiration for the Bulgarian typographic school. His theoretical research could have had a very wide practical use, but unfortunately it is not well known among professionals, so that its terminology and methods could be applied today. This is one of the sad facts about his legacy.
Milla Tarabanova: Why aren’t his methods used? What about his research of the Glagolitic script?
Kiril Zlatkov: The Glagolitic script is a separate subject. It is a very broad, very interesting subject which is becoming ever more mysterious. Maybe we should concentrate on the Cyrillic script which we use every day. The consumers of the script, i.e. all of us, are to blame for the impossibility of fully applying his work. We all, everyone who should have that reflex of applying effectively what was taught to them. But that knowledge is in conflict with and is different from the popular knowledge which we receive mainly from the internet and the present global chaos in this field is what dictates the standards. For better or for worse, relatively few designers are acquainted with the terminology and the meaning of his analysis and groundwork as it is being taught at the National Academy of Art Sofia. You could say that even the students of the academy – when they delve into the reality of life, they break away from what they were taught and start using what is popular, adequate to the environment and the current moment. I don’t mean that it is something bad or is something obligatory. These are the facts of life. We comply with the standards which are the same around the world, though they are neither effective, nor does it give good results. Maybe this is the moment to include the question of character. Maybe this is one of the key factors which is missing. From here on everything else breaks down. It coincides with the key concepts of identity and self-awareness – values which weren’t very important to us, but then we put on such a show to state their importance. We are always very convincing in that. I am talking about our image in society. We want to be recognized, but it seems this issue is not on the agenda. Everyone upholds a certain system of values by which they are recognized beyond, let’s say, the border of the Danube River. Everything seems different on the other side. There are so many different identities on such a small territory as ours. Identity is not a national doctrine which a group of politicians decide to implant with which we comply with and respect. If it isn’t real, it just won’t exist. In our case, maybe our most persistent characteristic is actually the lack of identity. It’s quite sad.
You and the initiative group For the Bulgarian Cyrillic quietly introduce the Bulgarian Cyrillic script and fonts into our everyday life.
This is part of the absurdity. This society possesses something which has already been developed and is not just an idea. It is a whole system which has a long tradition behind it. A system enriched and harmonized with everything which is contemporary at the moment in this area of written language, of printed books and everything that we know about the world alphabets. We possess it and we don’t use it. Maybe in the same stupid way that we do not honor our worthy ancestors or abide by the laws we ourselves draw up. Most of the traditional things which otherwise are suited for us, usually do not go well.
Vassil Iontchev’s system of classification is applicable not only to the Cyrillic and Glagolyth scripts, but can classify practically any sign. How does his system differ from all the others?
By two features, crucial to perceiving the structure of letters in general. The first is the instrument with which the letters are written and the trace which the instrument leaves. It is important not to forget that what we call today print letters have a history and come from handwriting. From the end of the 15th c. and the beginning of the 16th c. in the Renaissance, beautiful handwriting follows the natural movements of the hand and an inclination of the pen which suggests an inclination of the axis of the letter. When we hold the pen in an up-right position (typical of the first industrial typeface after the Baroque onwards) in the case of modeled, assembled letters – there is no connection between the axis of the oval letterforms and the mode of writing on paper. These are forms with a different aesthetic idea, a different axis, a different construction and even different laws. The second feature is contrast – the difference between the thinnest and the thickest parts of a sign. If there is any contrast at all. These features are as important as the classification according to the different styles.
He also classifies them according to style which is close to the German classification. He is a graduate of the German academic system with innovations transferred from that system to ours which were working models for, let’s say, the last thirty years of the 20thc. Today though things have blended and mixed with the imperfect, but much more employed global terms. At the moment one cannot say that everything is bad, though it is not clearly defined. It should be clear, especially in our case with our legacy. An example of something missing in our terminology is the word for typeface which isn’t of Bulgarian origin. Now if I draw the letters of the alphabet on a paper and someone asks what we have drawn, the answer will be “a typeface”. But this is not yet a font we can use, because the nature of a font today is very similar to software. To something which is installed to work under an operating system. This difference between what we drew from what we are using on our computers and telephones is like the distance between the earth and the sky or something even farther apart. People think that we scan the drawings and the Word program converts them on its own. That the car probably builds itself and all we do is fold the metal sheets. However the drawing, the artwork is something separate – of a different nature and likewise the digital product is of yet another nature. It is a code, a series of conventions triggered by a key or a combination of keys. It is much more complicated than that. One key can activate many other commands. With a virtual keyboard we again change that language. All these details are described and are given as commands and certain groups of people – specialists, know how to work with them, how to arrange them so that they serve a purpose. An even smaller group of people in Bulgaria make typefaces and fonts. We are probably 20 or 30 people and an even smaller percentage have their own fonts, entirely created from scratch. You start with a drawing and develop it to the end. It is not even a question of motivation. Though the educational program still must change. To develop a font is not just to create something on inspiration. Not that it is not done this way and that it is not beautiful, on the contrary, these type of ideas are a designer’s fancy and they are used as such. But what we have been talking about are those fonts which are for long texts.
After seeing Boril Karaivanov’s lecture about fonts and the work involved in creating a font for long texts on YouTube, I found out that only Russia, as a country and not a private entity or corporation, has commissioned the creation of a Russian font. I suppose Vassil Iontchev worked in collaboration with the State when he created his working group and developed his classification – this way he was probably able to win over financing, support and everything that was needed for the research, for training specialists, for creating Bulgarian typeface and fonts.
Here we touch upon the understanding of what is a society. When we say State, what do we mean? What are the vital elements of this society? It is a series of conventions, crucial for the identity of society and in general the essence of society. If the conventions say that we should not abide by the law and the principles which separate us from the jungle, if everybody deceives the State – this is a mental construction, a reflex which undermines and eliminates the meaning of society. When it comes to the question about the Bulgarian typeface, fonts, etc, the word State which we are all part of is frequently involved. The State is not just a group of politicians which we have elected to solve the problems of society and to shift matters in a better direction.
But the Bulgarian typeface and fonts should be included as an important part of the State politics and should be regarded as a priority.
In principle – yes, but there is no consensus on this matter in the State doctrine. In our case the important question is of the effort that is required. When the difference between the Bulgarian form of the Cyrillic font and that of the Russian form are explained, there is no question about it – Yes, the Bulgarian fonts are more exquisite and evolutionally more refined and in addition they are Bulgarian! There is no question about it, but it requires an effort to be made. This is not just a gift which has fallen from the heavens or can be picked from certain types of trees. That may be the case for some fields of work, but in this field it requires a lot of effort. Exertion is required, as it is required in the field of law, healthcare, etc.
A group of likeminded people of which I am part of, we have decided not to rely on the State. Its functioning system is extremely slow and ill disposed to any additional work which is needed to be done, even with projects which have already reached a certain stage of completion. What we call an Institution, Country, Ministries, Presidency, i.e. the people who should support things like the identity of a society, the functional assistance of which all of society should benefit from, etc. in practice do not exist. There is no institution that will engage itself with this vital work. For example, the common use of the Bulgarian font is not possible. That’s why we took it upon ourselves to do the job. This is a commonplace practice in the other fields of work as well – teachers, doctors, lawyers, they all take on such tasks and contribute as much as they can. In the case of the Bulgarian typeface and fonts, the work will be carried out by the people who care about it. A very important question here is that of the education in this field because at present we are at a phase at which the Manifest of our whole program (that of the initiative For the Bulgarian Cyrillic, /http://cyrillic.bg), which consists of only three main goals, is working and is uniting an increasingly larger group of people in this direction. During the last 4-5 years the situation in this field has changed greatly. It turns out that even our small efforts and those of the Academy of Art Sofia, who train designers and artists, have greatly popularized the Bulgarian Cyrillic form and it is progressively entering our society’s agenda. This is what we have been striving for – a stronger presence of the Bulgarian Cyrillic in what we produce like books, magazines, written legacy. Today the Bulgarian form of the Cyrillic is more frequently used than 4-5 years ago.
Are the Bulgarian fonts for long texts, which are entirely digitalized and complete, very few?
The people who in the last years have created quality examples that can be used for long texts are several in number. This is Iliya Gruev – in very first place, Vassil Kateliev from Varna after that and everybody else in the honorary third place. Maybe it is not fair to rank them this way, but the efforts of Iliya and Vassil are exclusively focused in this area. Alexander Nedelev and Veronika Slavova from Type Depot have wonderful fonts. Some of the graduates of the Academy of Art Sofia, who graduated from the department of Typography with MFAs, works in FontFabrik – Ani Petrova, for example. There are people from other fields related to typography, like calligraphy – Jacklina Jekova, who also works at FontFabrik. This is an ever increasing group of young people who work professionally with typography. This is something new and it occurred recently. Currently typography is something fashionable. Type design is even more fashionable. A good type designer rapidly gains cult status. Even advertisements are very focused on typography. You can go without a picture, but not without words. There are even sites without pictures, but there is no site without words. Only this fact alone is enough to generate a huge desire for achieving something unique. In the world of typography, choice is limitless. As to the Cyrillic form, choice is limited, though it is expanding. With titles, posters and all that is created by hand – we have very good examples and achievements from long ago, but what is missing are fonts for long texts. What comes after the title? This is where there is no follow-up. This is an enormous problem because a very small portion of people are good designers who could be motivated to shift their focus to start creating fonts for long texts. It’s tough work. The pleasant part of the design consists of 30% of all the work, maybe even less, then the long texts start unfolding. Tons of writing and numerous problems occur. Problems that are technical, aesthetic, a struggle with languages, as well as an open battle with pixels – how monitors and printers show the beautiful forms of the letters. Something the designer thought would look thin and elegant, looks thick and ugly on the screen; clumsy and not what he wanted to achieve.
We started to overcome the feeling of weightlessness in this area. The lack of information about what we need and at present we need more fonts. Well, this is a new stage. People know a lot more about the Bulgarian form. They found out, they saw and understood the necessity, but they do not have the resources, that is to say they don’t have the fonts. This is the biggest problem facing us today. Even after people read these words, go and search for something related to the Bulgarian Cyrillic fonts and depending on their intelligence or rather their combinative skills, they will certainly find some samples. The better ones will have to be purchased, i.e. a budget must be put aside for them.
The lack of a Bulgarian Cyrillic font for the computer operating systems must be addressed as soon as possible. Work in this area is taking place. Lacking is also a free font for more complex typographic tasks: a family of fonts free of charge which could cover essential typographic necessities. This includes variations of that font family, such as regular type, light, bold, italic and maybe bold italic type, for the straight fonts to have small caps – the small capitals, to offer at least three sorts of numerals (figures): for texts, for placing in tables and those proportional to caps’ size. There is no such Bulgarian font that is free of charge. There are separate functions offered by one or two families – one or two weights, for example the wonderful fonts that Botio Nikolchev offers, those of Type Depot and FontFabrik.
What type of fonts did you offer to the state institutions free of charge?
Kancho Kanev and Ivan Neichev (from HermesSOFT) offered those fonts. They are used for Old Bulgarian Cyrillic and the Glagolitic script. Primarily for historical texts, in cases when you have to see how a text looks in Cyrillic and Glagolitic script. Or in other areas, when an Old Bulgarian text must be harmonized with a contemporary text. Iliya Gruev’s thesis was dedicated to such a harmonization of Old Bulgarian examples with contemporary ones. He gives a brilliant solution to the task of harmonizing texts different in character and historical origin, with no variation in form and blackness. In contemporary texts, if there is an authentic citation, for example the text from the column of Omurtag with its distinctive lettering, part of one column, usually looks horrific.
In dictionaries and encyclopedias, there should be a unified aesthetic standard for the whole book, for a whole edition. Usually they don’t look homogeneous because they were compiled by Russians in a pre-digital age. These dictionaries then were somehow digitalized and circulated through the internet in a manner which contradicts any standards. You don’t know what to expect from them. At present there is such chaos in this regard. How do we make these texts fit for reading? It’s impossible. If scholars are preparing them, they will give up. This is usually the case. They don’t want to employ the professional knowledge in this field. This frequently happens with people who write or those who publish books. People who write, of course, do not think much about the form of the letters or they may have some idea of how they should look and that idea is usually inappropriate. But we shouldn’t blame them because typography exists only in honor of the text itself – the texts that the authors write. The task of the publishing house is to put their trust in typographers and make no pretence to be experts which they are not. We shouldn’t expect such expertise from the writers or poets, neither from the translators or the printers.
There are designers, typographers who have the expertise. All that should be done is to put your faith in them. Today an increasing number of publishers use the Bulgarian typeface. When a publisher wants their book to look in accordance with all contemporary standards related to the Cyrillic, they actually have no idea what that means. While a designer knows how to choose the adequate tools. A typeface is an instrument. There isn’t and shouldn’t be only one suitable typeface for all books and texts. Which is the best suitable typeface for reading so that even an elderly and a young person could easily read? What should be the distance between the lines and what about the distance between the letters? There is a multitude of similar questions that should be addressed. When the publisher entrusts the designer to prepare a book for publishing, the designer should have read it and should know what the idea of the final product is. The designer should make an informed decision so as to offer an adequate solution. But it rarely happens. This knowledge has a reflection on everybody because we all produce typography.
Micro typography is possibly one of the most conservative areas of design because it is based on national, written and non-written, fixed rules and conventions of different ages. Fashion, of course, makes it way rapidly, but it usually only changes titles, posters and more transient features. In a poster, for example, where you may have only three letters – those three letters must look up-to-date, contemporary and at the same time they must convey the idea of the poster. It must possess highly communicative ability and to provoke the reaction of the viewer.
Monotonous texts; long, academic articles, textbooks usually are set in the most horrific and tiring the eye way which even goes against the idea of accessibility of education. We all have experienced at some time getting tired from reading. There are so many tricks whose goal is to make the texts visually less monotonous, though thus they do trample over certain rules, but without visually chopping the whole picture into chunks. This is extremely difficult. It is like the right proportion of casualness and improvisation in music. It is good if we teach an understanding of these things. To expect it from the publishers, from electronic and print products, but when we do not see such examples – how does a reader acquire it on his own?