Gayaneh Bagdasaryan: Types of characters and characters of types

Gayaneh Bagdasaryan shared her experience in creating Cyrillic and Latin typefaces and warned the audience about common pitfalls of designing Cyrillic type. Explaining her design methods, Gayaneh lets us peek into the kitchen of her type foundry Brownfox.

Gayaneh Bagdasaryan is a type designer from Moscow and founder of the Brownfox type foundry. In the last few years, Brownfox released four type families as well as two single fonts which rapidly became successful, especially in regions where Cyrillic is widely used.

It’s hard to believe, but Gayaneh’s buisness partner Vyacheslav Kirilenko lives 4000 km away, in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Five hours of flying or 51 hours of driving from Moscow. That is why Gayaneh mentions Skype as their only studio. The long distance partnership is working fine for these two: “If you are tired of your partner, you just switch him off,” says Gayaneh.

Both designers are putting lots of energy into finding the right image for their type design. Tons of sketches are thrown away while searching for a bright, compelling and unique character of a new typeface. At the same time, Gayaneh and Vyacheslav want their fonts to be applicable in a wide range of areas and serve as a reliable workhorse-type.

Mixing different parameters from different typefaces is Gayaneh’s most preferable way to find a new look for a typeface. She added (somewhat ironically?) that it also seems to be the most relevant method for creating new forms today. At least the fonts Brownfox designers are fond of are made exactly like this: combining the uncombinable and the unexpected.


What is Gerbera made of?

Gerbera, the latest type family of Brownfox, is born as a result of such a mixture as well.
Gayaneh became fascinated by the proportions of the Century Gothic typeface – especially its narrow “S” resembling a paper clip. The fascination came suddenly, as it sometimes happens with seemingly familiar things. Nonetheless, Gayaneh has chosen less “eccentric” proportions for her own type: “We were not as ‘brave’ as our predecessors”, so round capitals of Gerbera became less wide, but on the contrary, “T” and “U” were designed to be not as pronouncedly narrow as in Century Gothic. In this manner, proportions of the nascent type came closer to those of humanist sans-serifs (Johnston Type). Adding some very subtle reversed contrast (Antique Olive) and a peculiarly shaped lowercase “a” (Erbar Grotesk), Gayaneh achieved her goal, Gerbera looks familiar yet expresses something new and fresh.

Gayaneh compared the process of creating a new typeface with the process of cooking borsch, the famous Russian and Ukrainian soup: one takes some vegetables (existing typefaces), and combines them into a delicious soup (new typeface). However, the cook should know how to prepare all the ingredients and in which quantity they should be used.

Although font editing tools are developing rapidly, designers’ personal sense of form, era and demand is irreplaceable. This is why Gayaneh is certain about having enough work in the future.

© Bettina Ausserhofer (Monotype)


Cyrillic typesetting: rails and cross ties

Both Gayaneh and Vyacheslav are living in countries where Cyrillic is the main script. Naturally, all the fonts released by them contain a Cyrillic character set.

Gayaneh is a native Cyrillic reader, so she used to work a lot on Cyrillic extensions for Latin typefaces. She knows very well how elusive the supreme goal of such a “translation” is: to achieve the same character of the typeface in both Latin and Cyrillic versions.

Showing slides with some Latin and Cyrillic text samples, Gayaneh pointed out that in Cyrillic there are not as many ascenders and descenders as in Latin. Also, Cyrillic letters have more horizontal serifs: just compare the lowercase Latin “n” (5 serifs) and Cyrillic “н” (8 serifs). Lines of text set in Cyrillic are separated from each other, as text appears as black and white horizontal stripes.
Facing the fact that Cyrillic script contains significantly less round elements than Latin, it is no wonder that Cyrillic typography reminds one of a railroad with its rails and cross ties.

Another peculiarity of Cyrillic script is the construction of its lowercase letters: 79% of them mimic graphemes of the uppercase letters. Latin, in turn, contains only 27% of such letters. This is why Small Caps are not commonly used in Cyrillic typography, as one cannot always differentiate it from the lowercase.

Generally speaking, Cyrillic can be characterized as a more rigid and less ductile script than Latin. Typefaces with a rather brutal character are more expressive in Cyrillic. By the way, one of the Brownfox typefaces with such a character is called Brutal. Gayaneh acknowledges that its visual essence is better seen in the Cyrillic version. This is the exception rather than the rule: usually Latin is defining the style.

An interesting fact is that Gayaneh is usually starting with Latin when designing a new typeface, although Cyrillic is obviously as important for her as Latin.


Formular and politics

The idea for the Formular typeface was born in a flash. Brownfox designers knew exactly what they wanted: typeface in the Swiss tradition, yet more eccentric. Once again, their “combine the uncombinable” principle came into play. The structure and rhythm of Helvetica were used as a foundation, OCR-F served as a “spice” to bring in some eccentric disharmony, and finally, the type was topped with some details from the 19th century – steep diagonals in “K” and “R”, like in Franklin Gothic. Not to forget a little prank with ink traps: “We added an anti ink-trap in places where ‘well-mannered’ type designers used to make an ink-trap.”

As a result, designers got a typeface with the rigid character, balancing between being conservative and daring. That’s probably why Formular was selected by the organizers of the opposition’s anti-war demonstration in Moscow, suggested Gayaneh. It was scheduled for May 1, 2015, but the night before one of its organizers and opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov, was killed close to the Kremlin walls. The demonstration was replaced by the mourning procession. Gayaneh showed impressive photos from the event: people were holding posters and flyers set in Formular which read “No words. Propaganda kills.”


Problems with designing monospaced Cyrillic

Gayaneh explained why the monospaced version of Formular was released in Latin only and what kept her from designing monospaced Cyrillic as well.

The main problem is the amount and distribution of the white space. As we know, all characters in a monospaced type have the same width. Space between words is therefore wider in monospaced designs because it has to fit the total width of other characters. Letters with one vertical stem have to be designed wider, while letters with three stems have to be squashed. In Latin, there are six characters with one vertical stem and only two characters with three vertical stems. On the contrary, in Cyrillic, there are only 2 letters with one stem and 10 (!) with three stems. So imagine a text set with generous spaces between words and very tight spacing inside the words – it looks ugly and illogical.

“The squashed white space inside the words completely distorts the mere idea of the Cyrillic monospaced typeset,” summed up Gayaneh.

Gayaneh  Bagdasaryan

Gayaneh Bagdasaryan

Type Designer (Moscow)

A graduate of Moscow State University of Printing Arts, Gayaneh Bagdasaryan has designed Cyrillic localizations for most major type libraries, including Linotype, Bitstream, The Font Bureau, ITC, Berthold, Typotheque, Emigre, and ParaType. She began her type design career at ParaType in 1996 and started her independent business with Brownfox in 2012. Her work has won awards from a number of international type design competitions, including Kyrillitsa’99, TDC² 2000, and Granshan 2013. Gayaneh is the mastermind behind Serebro Nabora, a prominent annual international type conference held in Russia.


From Latin to Cyrillic and back: K, k and к

According to Gayaneh, there is a common misconception among foreign designers that Cyrillic is easy to design because it is so similar to Latin. However, it is in fact a difficult task even for native Cyrillic designers. “I’ve done many Cyrillic extensions, but I don’t take such projects any more”, says Gayaneh.

Explaining her statement, Gayaneh tells us that she was once forced to change the shapes of the Latin letters “K”  and “k” in her own typeface in order to make the Cyrillic “к” and “ж” look acceptable in the extra light weight.

Otherwise, the letter “ж” looked rather like a snowflake than a decent letter. It was possible since Latin was also designed by Brownfox designers, but that would definitely not work in cases where Latin is done by someone else and therefore inviolable.

By the way, the Cyrillic letters “К” and “к” are quite problematic in general. There are many shape variations of these letters and some of them are not relevant anymore in the Cyrillic environment. Foreign type designers still tend to design a “true” Cyrillic “К”, while native Cyrillic designers have been in favor of a simpler, more “latinized” shape for a while. Gayaneh promised to clarify the “К-issues” during her workshop within TYPO Berlin 2015.


Beyond type design

Gayaneh finished her presentation by looking for some analogies in type design and the history of art. Brownfox often presents their typefaces by associating them with some art movements or artists. Gayaneh believes that such a presentation helps their customers feel and understand the character of the typefaces better. One of them, Nolde, was named after German painter and graphic artist Emil Nolde. “His graphics are close by spirit to our typeface,” explained the designer.

Gayaneh strongly believes that type designers must not be isolated in their profession – a wider range of interests and universal education are necessary for creating novel work, even if it is just a letter. /JR