Peter Bil'ak talks with Catherine Schmidt
Peter Bil'ak works in the field of editorial, graphic, and type design, teaches at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Started Typotheque in 1999, Dot Dot Dot in 2000, Indian Type Foundry in 2009, and Works That Work magazine in 2012.

A big thing about HTML & CSS is limiting factors. The web is a platform designed by engineers at its core. It’s made great strides in the past couple years, but there’s still a lot it can’t do.

If you’re talking about typography in the browser, it’s important to realize that it’s really early days.

Oh yeah.

We’ve had print around for a few centuries. If you look at the typography on the web, you can sense that it didn’t go through the same developement and refinement. It’s better than it’s ever been. The progress is dramatic.

I spent a lot of time dealing with web fonts some years ago, in 2009, when we were deciding how web fonts should work for our type foundry. At that point I was comparing the current state of newspaper typography on the browser to the print edition.

Oh jeez.

It became clear that it’s exactly like 100 years ago in print. You can compare the newspapers from 100 years ago, say from 1909. All the newspapers in Europe would be using one type face at the same point size at the same column size, and if you made a clipping from a newspaper you would not be able to recognize what is what. So the tone and the journalistic point of view could be different, but from a graphic point of view they were identical. And if you looked at newspapers on the web they were doing the same thing. If in 2009 you looked at New York Times, The Guardian, Fox News, and an italian paper, they would all be using Georgia and Verdana at the same point size, using blue for the links, same placement of logos, same placement of the banners. Again they would not be identifyable at a typography level. While in print they’ve really made a lot of effort to define what the identity is, on the web there is no such identity, in fact it’s very generic. There’s been tremendous progress in the past five years in bridging the print and the web. But there’s still a long way to go. Just realize that it’s the early days.

Do you try to figure out that relationship between print and web with Works That Work? Is that something that you think about?

Well, of course.

I would hope so!

We try to simulate a bit of the experience. It’s even more complicated. Unlike the newspapers, we have a print edition, we have a browser online edition, and then we have all the ebook formats. If you look at colors, everything’s changing, if you look at proportion everything’s changing, there’s nothing shared. The only thing that remains constant is in fact typeface. That’s why we made the typeface for it, so there’s a bit of a connection. It’s the thread between the different editions, because otherwise there would be nothing, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it. But at the same time, each of the mediums comes with different limitations and different connventions, so each of them will behave differently. So print you use the conventions available for print, and for the browser you use different conventions. It’s not using the same layout. It’s the same font but we do something else — in print we are quite minimalistic about what weights, what sizes we use the type. On the web we don’t do that because we need to emphasize hierarchy differently, so we take slightly different decisions — same with the ebooks. But it’s important to recognize the different decisions the medium is giving you, and figure out how to make it work at low- and high-resolution devices.

Would you consider the web a low-resolution device?

It is, obviously it is — and it will be for a while. It’s changing, and it’s closer to what print can do, which means it will get simpler for people like us working with type design and making type for low- and high-resolution. Right now, yes, some typefaces, like Verdana, are made for low resolution and at high resolution they don’t feel like they’re at the right destination. I think that the need for making separate low and high resolution typefaces will dissapear hopefully, one day — not quite today.

Is there anything that you have thought about specifically when it comes to making type for the web instead of type for print?

Well, yes. You know what does not work on the web. If you take classical typefaces like Garamond and Bodoni and scale them down to 9 points, they will not survive this destination, because they contain some details for which you need that resolution to show — the contrast will be too high, and they become too fragile, which does not work. So if you invert it, you see that these are some of the things that do not work, so what is the opposite: make it a bit more robust, make it possibly wider, increasing the x-height. So you need to make some adjustments in order to make it work. And again this means that by including these changes, you’re making compromises, because the typefaces may not look as elegant in high-resolution, like in print, which is the highest resolution. Because suddenly they may look too clunky. You’re making it really fit a grid of pixels. So yeah, there are these basic things you need to do. And we also now know that type for the web needs to be larger as well. You just can’t use the same point size for print and the web. There are differences and you need to respect that to make things the most readible.

Does the web open up open up any possibilities for you and your practice?

Of course, and not just for me, but the web opens tremendous possibilities. It’s an exciting time because up until now, almost all typefaces were made for print. And it’s only in the last decade that we’ve started making typefaces for the screen, because we read a lot more on the screen. Matthew Carter was one of the first to pioneer type for the screen. And now people, like anyone, like you, can make the same thing. Like to rethink, if the screen is the native medium, what am I going to do about it, how am I going to use it. And it’s not about just removing the details, but more thinking about the nature of the screen. The nature of the screen is that it can refresh itself. It can include elements of time, color, it can include animation, it can be responsive, it can adapt to the reader’s position, it can do all these extra things that static media cannot. The experiments with using webcams and determining how far the reader is and depending on this the type can scale. Depending on the density of the screen and on the position of the screen, and the resolution of the screen, you get different results. So there are plenty of possibilities. And again, the fact that we forget about the element of time as well. You can do something which is using time. You could almost do animations with something that refreshes itself and updates and you don’t need to keep moving your head maybe, but something else could move to aid your reading. There’s lots of exploring to get the most out of the medium. And again in print, we have a few centuries of development, right, so we know what is optimal, we have experience. For the web we don’t know what it is, so there’s room for research.

You’ve written this really nice piece defining typography that I really like, and you’ve been exploring that through your own choreographic endeavors. Is there any relationship between a potential for responsiveness and a changing definition of typography, or a different definition of typography? Does it impact that definiton at all?

Well there’s a general problem with definitions. They’re always behind. They’re never up to date. Definitons are the secondary ones. There’s always need to update definitions as soon as more language is made. It’s a self-observating mechanism. But, if there’s one useful thing that a definition makes, it makes it clear at least for myself by writing it how things work. So, especially when I do a bit of teaching. It’s a reflection on what we’re doing, how we should be doing it, what is possibly the next thing in doing it. And even though we know that all the classifications and defintions are bound to be limiting because they’re observing what’s happening, and they try to react to it. As soon as there’s new developement, I think you have to redefine everything.

No constants?

The changes are the constants.

Do you teach type differently when it comes to the screen, or just because of the screen?

No. In the school where I teach in the Hague we try to be very technology-agnostic because it’s likely that the technology will change faster than the designer. So we try to push design in a way that you may have to adopt technology through it rather than the design follows the technology. And again we have experience with this because when you start solving with design the flaws of technology, the technology changes. You step behind. So, if someone says screen really is important — reading, in general, does not change. The human eye will not change. So we base it on this rather than the pixel density or hinting, something that will likely change, might be the first thing to change. Although we do try to understand the tools and environments that we work for, the design should be the leading things, not the following.

With you on that.

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