Backstage Talks (Slovakia)

Interview by Zuzana Kvetkova. Published in 2017.

Zuzana Kvetkova: Why do so many designers have an architectural background? To what extent is thinking like an architect useful in design?

Zuzana Licko: I hadn’t heard that before, but speaking for myself, I was enticed to study architecture at the University of California in Berkeley because I enjoyed both visual art and mathematics. The study of architecture offered a combination of both the rational and intuitive disciplines. UC Berkeley is also very big on critical thinking, which proved useful beyond the profession, and probably allowed me the freedom to explore design beyond architecture.

ZK: Do you find the constraints of readability similar to the constraints of structural stability of buildings?

ZL: I think the parallels between typeface design and architecture are modularity, abstraction of form, and illusion. Both deal with creating compositions from repetitions of modular elements. Both rely on balance between positive and negative space, which requires analyzing the shapes as abstract forms. And both play with illusions – for example, how a form can appear heavy or light, regardless of it’s actual weight.

ZK: How did typography win your heart?

ZL: Growing up, I have always been fascinated by the shapes of letters, so much so, that it made the act of reading difficult. I still get easily distracted by the letterform details, and constantly have to re-read the text to get back on track with the written matter.

ZK: Erik Spiekermann said “there is typography that wants to be seen and conveys a message and then there is typography that allows you to read the newspapers without disruptions.” Do you prefer designing one over the other?

ZL: As a continuation to the previous question, I can tell you that I’ve never experienced reading text without being distracted by the letterform shapes, or the layout of the text on the page, because I can’t help analyzing the design, it happens subconsciously. So, I don’t see such a strong difference between the two, and don’t really have a preference for one over the other.

ZK: You rarely create typefaces on commission. Why is that? And how do you decide the tone and style of your next typeface?

ZL: The themes for my typeface designs have emerged organically. I created the majority of my type designs during a time of great technological change in the graphic design field, which was the core impetus. For example, I started with bitmap designs because that was the first type design technology available to me. (See the Lo-Res family.) Then, I worked on several designs that were composed of straight lines because curves were difficult to draw and preview on the crude screens of the time. (See the Oblong, Journal and Citizen Families.) With Oblong, the goal was to make a bitmap design that did not show “jaggies” . So this design has no diagonals or curves, only right angles. Similarly, the curves in Journal and Citizen families are approximated by segments of straight lines. Then, as the technology permitted, I moved on to using geometric arc curves. (See the Modula, Senator, Matrix and Variex families.)

ZK: You were among the first (if not the first) to acknowledge the Macintosh computer as a design tool. Do you still keep up with all the technological advancements?

ZL: I really enjoyed the early Macintosh, with its limited, yet powerful tools. It opened up uncharted territory, which had no preconceptions, so I felt very free to explore. Today, the Macintosh tools are so much more sophisticated, and are much more tailored to specific tasks. So it’s a very different environment, which is opening other areas of creativity. For example, now I can not just design a pattern, but also have it custom printed on fabric in any quantity via the internet. I never imagined being able to do that 30 years ago!

ZK: What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the world of typography and design?

ZL: I’ll leave that for others to figure out. Whatever becomes the reading platform, fonts will be there to make words visible.

ZK: You’ve said that leaving communist Czechoslovakia had given you a different perspective and made you question preconceptions. Could you elaborate on that?

ZL: Yes, I was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, when it was still under communist rule, and I was seven years old when my family emigrated to San Francisco, California. When I entered grade school in the US, it was unfamiliar territory – the language, the customs, everything was new.

So, I was always aware of these differences, as my preconceptions were challenged all the time. I think this made me consider different points of view, and the value of pausing to consider alternate approaches to doing things. And that is at the core of design, evaluating a variety of different approaches, in the process of distilling the final solution.

ZK: Together with Rudy, you dealt a lot with migration and multiculturalism in your work (and life). How do you see the current state of the world?

ZL: That’s a big question. We are just very much saddened and disgusted by much of what’s going on these days all around the world and here in the U.S. The United States took us in as immigrants, and gave us many opportunities. We’ve both lived the “American Dream” so to speak. And we will always be grateful for that. But there are some very dark forces at work right now that concern us a great deal. I’ll leave it at that.

ZK: In an earlier interview, you spoke about the importance of “realising that what we do at home and at work is connected” regarding environmentalism. Is there anything you think people in the creative industry should care about more?

ZL: I don’t want to tell others how to live their life. But I always remind myself that everything you do in life has an effect on others. I try to be aware of the things I do beyond what’s right in front of me.

ZK: It has been over 12 years since the last issue of Emigre magazine was published. How do you see the Emigre era in hindsight?

ZL: Although we didn’t realize it at the time, the fifteen year period between 1985 and 2000 was perhaps one of the most exciting times in graphic design history, which may never be repeated. We were lucky. We were at the right place at the right time. Technologies were changing. There actually was something to be pioneered. We had to figure out a lot of stuff with very primitive tools. We had to figure out how to sell type online from scratch when the internet was in its infancy. The situation is very different today. Young designers today, their bed has been made. The tools are there to do anything they like, which is an entirely different challenge.

ZK: To what extent was Emigre magazine important as a business tool – a showcase of your fonts?

ZL: It was a virtuous circle. The fonts were initially created for the making of the magazine – to make the typesetting economical and more interesting. Then, when the magazine showcased the fonts, it created a market for making more fonts, which went back into the magazine. The magazine allowed us to test the new fonts in a realistic setting, using actual texts. But the magazine itself never made any money. It was almost entirely financed by typeface sales.

ZK: Peter Bilak said that the older his typefaces get, the more commercially successful they become. Have you noticed similar trend with yours too?

ZL: In the past, we’ve had fonts that were big sellers right off the bat. This had a lot to do with the promotional efforts we employed when we launched new fonts such as the magazine, type specimens and later through email announcements. But there are now so many fonts released every day that the same promotional efforts are no longer effective. Nowadays, you have to hope that a font takes off and gets used. It’s the usage in the real world that can help sell a font. And it takes time for a font to become noticed. But the more a font is used, particularly when used in high visibility situations, the more it’s seen by designers, the more it sells.

ZK: In 1997, you created Hypnopædia in order to help people appreciate the creative value of type and see the shapes beyond what they signify. How much has the appreciation of type evolved in the 20 years since then?

ZL: During that time, type design has come out of anonymity and into the mainstream. And, as people have learned to use fonts, select fonts, and even design fonts, they have learned to appreciate details that they never noticed before. Everybody knows what a font is nowadays and most people have a favorite font. That wasn’t always the case. The whole process of type creation and production has been popularized and democratized, and this has expanded the market for type tremendously. It has also expanded the number of typefaces that are being created today. The type market has never been more competitive.

ZK: Do you have a favourite among the fonts you designed?

ZL: It depends on my mood. Mrs Eaves and Filosofia are so familiar to me now, because I’ve seen them used so much. It’s a great feeling to spot them in a bookstore, or on street signage.

ZK: More recently, you started exploring the world of textile design and ceramics. What has led you away from the alphabet?

ZL: I’ve always enjoyed creating ceramic objects and I need this to balance out the ephemeral nature of digital work. I find that my current work on modular ceramic sculptures and fabric prints is actually an extension of type design. I’m using font software to create sketches for my ceramic sculptures, which exist of repeating elements. Each sculpture has a variety of shapes that can be combined to make different sculptures. The font software helps me go through the possible variations. The elements for the textile designs are also created as fonts, which I configure into various patterns. Perhaps my focusing on a physical medium is a reaction against everything being consumed digitally these days.