Talking Paper Interview Series: Ksenya Samarskaya

Ksenya Samarskaya is a Brooklyn-based typographic designer who has headed up branding and typeface outfit Samarskaya & Partners (S&P) for the past four years. Among other clients, the company has worked with brick-and-mortar businesses on finding just the right style of typeface for lettering that appears on signs, windows, menus, business cards, and other written material seen by potential customers. Such fonts are often designed in-house by Samarskaya herself, with the S&P website trumpeting their, “prowess in sleek and clean designs, hand-drawn charm, decorative embellishments, adapting for different use cases and drawing in extended Latin (including Vietnamese), Cyrillic, and Greek.” Cyrillic has a personal connection for Samarskaya, stemming from her Russian-speaking background and early exposure to Eastern European type. Among the typefaces she has created is “Blesk” (Czech for “lightning” or “flash”), which debuted for sale in September 2014. A chromatic font that comes in four different styles, with the possibility of seven distinct combinations, Blesk was inspired by vintage book covers, and designed for literary uses (as well as animated ones). Currently, Samarskaya is working on a sans serif font called “Wyeth,” the name is partially inspired by an avenue that runs near her home in the loft apartments at 475 Kent Avenue. The building’s history as a live / work space for world-class photographers has already inspired an ongoing Nomadic Press interview series. Yet Samarskaya (who created a useful artist listing for the building, 475kent.com) is part of another group of residents making contributions to the art and business of letters—whether they be printed on pieces of paper, ignited in neon, or fluttering on fabric. An example of such branding is the lit-up front signage of S&P client Sweethaus Cupcake Café at 135 Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. I interviewed Samarskaya for “Talking Paper” beneath the green-and-white striped awning of nearby eatery (and S&P non-client) Marlow & Sons, and discussed clients like Sweethaus and home accessories design house, Light + Ladder. We also talked about the larger business of fonts, Samarskaya’s approach to helping her clients choose the right ones, and its larger impact on effective branding.  

On Her Business

It’s half branding design—which is figuring out the visual communication for a company, or really anyone. We make sure that all the connotations are intended ones, that everything is communicating in harmony, and that they’re reaching their objectives. The other half of my business is straight-up type design. That’s creating new fonts, working with foundries on extending existing ones, and consulting on language additions. It’s for a mix of clients. It’s design firms, type foundries, and every once in a while, it’s a retail store that wants their own font. 

On the branding side, every business has a clientele or an audience or a customer base—thus, needs to communicate with them. They’re all communicating visually. You can’t escape that. They are often communicating using type in a visual way as well. Each company has a different personality, a different thing they’re selling, different people they’re talking to, and different things that they want those people to feel. So my job there is just to make sure that’s all aligned. 

[With type], I add a different feeling. I give people a different option. Some will say there are a lot of fonts out there. But when you actually get to picking and using them, there’s not that many that fit the specific brief a designer searches for. They all have moods and connotations and things that they’re communicating. Like with anything, the more voices and the richer and broader the conversation, the more interesting it is. Because I’m both a type designer and a graphic designer, a lot of my fonts start out with a need that I have in my graphic design practice. So I’m designing something for someone, and I can’t find a font that’s appropriate for communicating the mood, the vibe, or the connotations that we want for that piece of design. A lot of times, I’ll end up starting to sketch one for that.

At the start of 2014, I hired my first person. I was on the branding side, and doing well at winning big clients and campaigns, but it was just me. I wasn’t able to scale up when it came to producing some of the bigger jobs. I had to either limit what I do and do smaller jobs, or expand. Those were the two options in front of me. I was looking for a graphic designer to help me with a lot of the general tasks, but I ended up finding a type designer instead. So for the past year and half, since I’ve been working with people regularly, my jobs have switched a lot more. What I do changes depending on who I’m working with, and what I have available. For a while, I had really great type help, so I was doing less type and doing more design and other parts. Right now, I have a great designer I’m working with, so I’m getting back into doing more type myself. But I try to find people that have a certain skill or talent or something they’re really passionate about, and then I end up doing whatever is left, which gets more and more random.

On Working with Fonts

Tool-wise, I use RoboFont. I also use a couple of other small applications to help with different elements of type design. There are three main software options. There’s RoboFont, there’s Glyphs, and there’s Fontlab. But my workflow is all through RoboFont. That program is infinitely versatile. You create, you dictate what letters you want to draw, and then you draw them. And yes, it’s the same programs that are used for all languages: Latin faces, Cyrillic, Arabic, and so on. 

The more that I draw my own fonts, the less I can identify other foundries’ wares. When I was just a graphic designer, I could identify a lot of others, because I used them constantly. Now I use a lot of mine, and I can identify recent releases of friends of mine, and the classics. 

Right now, I’m working on a condensed sans serif. The font is called Wyeth, and it’s going to be released later this year. I was using a lot of condensed sans fonts in my designs before and feeling like they were close but not quite hitting the nail on the head in terms of what I wanted people to feel, and what I wanted to communicate. It’s inspired a lot by old subway signage, old New York City signs that I’ve seen, a bit of lettering. Wyeth is good for large signage lettering, because that’s what it was originally inspired by, but it’s pretty versatile. You can do a lot of different things with it. I’m using it on one of my clients that’s a café a couple of blocks up. We used it on a lot of their signage, both inside and outside. We set their menu in it. Friends are already using it for text and for body copy. That’s actually the really fun thing about type: You design it for a certain purpose, and then someone else takes it to do something that you might not have foreseen or expected, and you get to see even more what it can do. This one is good for shorter body text—like a paragraph or two. You wouldn’t set a whole book in it. 

I’ve done a lot of body text for printed copy in the past, but now so much heavy, long-form reading is moving to the web and the mobile experience, so we have another font for that in the works. We were inspired to make it for a magazine client originally, and now we’re changing it up, extending it and re-working it for retail release. In the printing world, it used to be that when you were working in newspapers, you’d work a lot to condense things and see how much you could fit into a narrow space. That’s where those condensed fonts with large x-heights are really good, for getting a lot of text on a page. Online, it’s not a big deal. You don’t have set pages as you can just keep scrolling, so there’s a lot more space and leeway. Yet you still have some of the same issues. You want to make sure that people don’t get tired of reading it, that it’s really legible, and that they can read it small if they needed to. When something is well crafted, you can read a long line without pausing or stopping or getting confused. When the body type is invisible; that’s a success.

On Fonts for Businesses

Everyone responds to fonts; they just don’t realize they’re thinking about them. You encounter fonts and type everywhere, constantly. You have type on your shirt, and it’s saying something. There’s a bank across the street from us; that’s saying something else. These are things you see every day, and you make your decisions based on seeing them. You can see the sign for Marlow & Sons, and think, “Oh, this looks like the kind of place that would speak to me, and that I would want to come to. They might have the kind of ambiance and breakfast that I would want.”

For a lot of companies, they want to send a message that whatever their product is, it’s well crafted. If it’s food, it’s cooked well and will taste good. If it’s technology, it’s not going to break on you. If your type and communication are on point, you’re obviously a company that cares about the details—combined with the specifics of what you want to evoke. Someone might want to evoke a certain '60s magazine style, or a café might want to evoke the Parisian cafes that inspired it. A restaurant that’s serving food from another country might want to have that kind of feel in its look and branding and packaging, even if it’s for a different market in a different language. 

Sweethaus is a café that’s on Metropolitan Avenue. The owner came out of the McNally empire. She is American, but grew up as kind of an army brat moving all over Europe, going to the cafes over there. All of that personal experience is something that she’s bringing to her food, and to the way that she wants people to feel when they’re in her space. So in working on the brand, I’ve been trying to extend that, and trying to translate that into the visual realm. We created her logo and her signage, including the neon sign out front. We had a sign painter to come in and paint on the outside and the inside of the space. We’re working on all her product packaging right now, and kind of rolling it all out slowly. Basically, it’s about getting people to know what to expect when they come in, or when they’re ordering, and it’s getting them in the mood for that experience that she provides with the food. We used a custom script for her logo, then I consulted on the interior with her, and we’ve worked closely top to bottom on crafting the look and feel and mood of the space. It’s been great. People walk in there and she’s constantly getting responses of, “Oh, this reminds me of this and this,” and everything that they are listing are exactly all the  things that we wanted people to feel and reference. It’s part classic diner, part European café. It’s comfortable; it’s a place to linger.

Light + Ladder, which creates products for the home, is another client we’ve loved working with. The founder, Farrah, is trained as an industrial designer, and her approach is geometric—it’s abstract, it’s aspirational. She’s trying to bring something new and clean and minimal into people’s lives and homes. Again, that’s been a fun thing of “How do you extend what’s inspiring her in making the product? How do you extend that all the way out to the logo that people see, the packages that they receive, the tags that are on the items, the website?” For me, a successful brand continues what’s already started, explaining it accurately and getting people excited about the product. 

One disappearing but always fascinating element of branding is getting to do the business cards. It’s a really fun constrained moment where you use everything in your grasp to add layers of communication and make sure it’s aligned to set up really beautiful layered stories. Working with printers on different printing techniques, different papers. Calling cards in general—I still love them. I’m someone that works digitally so much, and I’ve tried to find something that replaces cards, but there’s still nothing that does. It’s still the fastest way to give your contact to someone else, and kind of serve as a nice little reminder of who you are, what your personality is, and what you’re about. Again, different things are going to serve different people well on a card. It’s about how much you want to fit in, versus how much do you want to stand out, and what message do you want to say. Are you more high-end, or are you going for something that’s more accessible? You can condense so much into that little space, communicating with what you choose to put on it, and what you choose to leave out. How do people contact you? What do you say that you do? Type choice? Paper choice?

In the design world, there’s been a trend toward using really heavy cards with really thick card stock. When it first started, it was a way to stand out. There’s an elite aspect about it. But now if you go to a design event, that’s what all of the cards are. They’re really thick, and you can fit maybe four in a wallet. It became almost like an arms race in card weight. I redesign my card every year, because it’s too much fun not to. You always have to think about your context, and think about your audience. I was like, “This is the context that I’m normally in. This is who I’m giving out cards to, or exchanging with. What can I do? Well, if everyone is zigging it makes sense to zag the other way.” So, if everyone’s card is getting thicker and thicker, what is a way to go super thin, but still be high-end, elegant, functional, and versatile? What else has those same requirements? I landed on Bible paper. It has to be super thin, because if you print a Bible on regular pages, it would be the heaviest and tallest of books. I believe it’s around two thousand pages. War and Peace is a little over half that. It needs to be really durable—people leaf through Bibles a lot, they thumb through them. It needs to be opaque for printing on both sides. You need to be able to write well on it for marginalia. The paper has a really smooth, nice feel. It’s pleasurable to the touch. The paper’s been so refined and crafted to be both elegant and a workhorse over millennia. So that was my decision for where I wanted to go with my cards in the last round. It was right for me, it was right for my audience, right for my context, right for where my business is and where I see it going. 

On Latin Versus Cyrillic

There is definitely a richer, longer history and tradition of Latin metal typography as compared to Cyrillic. Cyrillic is rich, but not a lot of it has been made into fonts. Digital fonts only started around the 1980s, so if you’re looking at who’s requesting and making fonts in that era, where the money was, the Western world is definitely ahead.

I remember formative experiences in feeling the distinction of Cyrillic letters versus Latin letters. Modern-day Cyrillic was inspired by Latin, so there are a lot of glyphs that have really similar shapes, but they’ve diverged over time, and have different personalities. I remember moving [to the US] as a kid and seeing these similar letters, like the letter K. After the Cyrillic K, which gets a lot more elaborate, the Latin one felt bland and off-balance. So I remember it wasn’t the letters that were different that bothered me when learning English, or stood out. It was the letters that were similar, but just seemed like they were constructed wrong.

Part of what I do is draw Cyrillic. Sometimes I’ll be drawing a new font to fit a brief, a mood, or a technological need. Other times, I’ll get fonts that Latin designers have started, and then my job is to fix them up or extend them. I have done logos for some Russian brands. Sometimes, they will come to American agencies for their branding, so I’ve worked with them to refine logo types or create new ones. It’s not so often that I have Cyrillic clients though. It’s more common that they’re US-based clients looking to expand into the Cyrillic market: computer manufacturers, phone manufacturers, large corporations, type foundries, magazines.

I spent some time delving into different scripts at Apple. Apple is a fascinating company on that end, where they’re completely global. As someone that’s into language and typography, it was fascinating to work for something that covers the entirety of Earth, so everything is relevant. If you’re at a smaller company, you design something, but you don’t get a lot users, or you don’t know if it has succeeded or failed in different environments. With Apple, you’re actually affecting a lot of people. Everyone’s going to see and use your product, and as a designer, you learn a lot from that. 

Latin gets used in so much of the world: North and South America, Europe . . . a lot of African countries use primarily Latin, but their sounds aren’t identical to ours, so their alphabet differs, as well. When you’re drawing for so many languages and cultures, it pays to be sensitive to it. It’s important to be attuned, to understand how they’re used to seeing these letters, and what different ways of drawing them might imply in their culture. Even in Cyrillic, earlier today I was doing additional research to try to understand these two letters that get used in Serbian but not in Russian. So I was looking up a range of sources that I could access from here, talking to people. You push and pull, always trying to refine and achieve something that feels good and authentic and true to a native reader.

The Internet helps a lot. It’s pretty amazing with all these people taking photos of signs or books in a country, and you’re able to find someone in that country and start up a conversation. I try to do as much research as I can. That’s a lot of the critique that I have with people drawing scripts that aren’t native to them. Even if it’s possible to find a good example and copy it ad infinitum—and it’s not necessarily that it’s being drawn wrong, though it can be, but it’s also that things get watered down—it becomes boring.

Like, here, take the typeface on the Marlow & Sons sign. It has an R that curves up—really lovely—and it fits with the mood. It has this old timey-ness about it that works, and it’s well balanced with all of the other letters. As English readers, we see that is an R. It’s very easy. It’s very obvious. It’s not getting in the way. If you had someone that wasn’t a native English speaker drawing that R, they wouldn’t know that they were allowed to do what was done with the leg of the R. So what would happen is they’d look at something like Helvetica, and they’d be like, “Oh, it’s a leg that goes straight down. That must be all I can do with this letter,” and they would draw that. I have seen a lot of that happen with Westerners drawing Cyrillic—where it’s not that it’s illegible, it’s just kind of bland. It doesn’t fully get all of the mood and feeling that you want into that typeface. If it’s something that happens repeatedly over years, it kills a lot of the diversity, and the breadth, and the range of a culture. Before, everyone always had hand lettering for their stores and their signage, because there were no printers or computers. Each one was done by an individual craftsman who was attuned to a lot of these details. You had words, but you always had people. It’s like how language is a living conversation that gets richer from many people using it. When you had the introduction of digital computers and digital sign shops, no one was crafting anymore. They’re picking whatever the standard font is, and they’re hitting print. On a lot of levels, that doesn’t fully communicate the richness of the store that you’re putting that banner on. The store next door and the store down the block sell something totally different at a completely different price point, but they’ll have this exact same font and banner in use. As each one of those signs comes out, that covers up what would have been there in the past. Each time you have that Helvetica R, you stop seeing this little R with the tail, and then it gets cut out of the typographic conversation.

On Type Foundries

A type foundry is anyone that is drawing and designing and creating new type, and then licensing it.  The word “foundry” exists as carry-over from the letterpress days, when it actually was a metal foundry that made small metal type castings. So people would draw the fonts, someone would carve the initial shape at the print-size, and then pour all the individual metal casts, and sell those. Foundry is a throwback to those days. Today, it’s all digital. It’s drawn on screens, on computers, the way that everything else has migrated. 

In the digital world a few years ago, there used to be three or four middle-sized foundries. Now, not as much. It’s going toward where there’s this one huge foundry on one end, and there’s a lot of small independent shops like what I’m doing on the other side of things. 

My business of branding and type feels like a somewhat rare thing to combine in the US. Usually, type foundries are just type foundries, and design companies might understand a little bit of it and do a display font or two on occasion, and branding is on the other end of that. Branding becomes more about strategy, there’s more psychology in it. So it’s somewhat rare to fully integrate the two. That just happens to be where my overlap of passions lay.

On the Aesthetics of Fonts

It’s funny for a designer to say, but I don’t think of fonts in terms of aesthetics. I think it’s all about communication, and whether it’s the right tool for the job.

Helvetica is good for some things. It has certain connotations, and the way it’s been used before all carries over with it. There was an era and a place where it was designed. Those are things that are signaling it’s good for signage. It’s not the best for body text or user interface (UI) elements, because it’s a more geometric rationalist font. A lot of the shapes look very similar to each other, which when you’re reading a lot of text or glancing at something quickly, it can cause you to mistake one letter for another. So there are things that are not ideal. There are really poorly constructed fonts that exist out there. But otherwise, there’s not one thing that’s great. It’s all about the usage. How is it being used? How much text is in there? What is it being displayed on? Who do you want to align with? What are the other signifiers you want to send? 

Comic sans has a reputation. It’s a reputation comes in part from it being too widely available, and people misusing it or overusing it. It’s not that badly drawn, especially compared to some of the other stuff that gets used out there. It’s just drawn for a certain use—comics or something similar. When it gets used in something that it’s not meant for, it ends up feeling wrong or bad to people. A lot of this also ends up about access. If something becomes your default font, or one of only a dozen or two dozen fonts available on your computer that comes with it, you’re going to use it. Microsoft, Adobe, Apple—they’ve all played a hand. Google now as well. A lot of people will default to what’s easy in everything, and it’ll solidify. Then you’re seeing things come up where they shouldn’t, because there was no thought put into it.

On Fonts in Books

Like so many things, you don’t notice fonts unless something’s going wrong. I’ve been reading a lot of odd-printing pop-neuroscience books lately, and one of them is an older ‘90s printing. That was when computers were becoming big, and were an exciting new thing. So the entire book is set in this tall super-condensed really techy font that actually gets pretty illegible. Because of the geometry and ultra high x-height of the letters, the text felt very monotonous and words stopped jumping out, so you would really be almost sounding out letter by letter, reading like a kid would. And it speaks so strongly of early computers and a nostalgic tech fantasy that you’re not focusing or thinking about the actual writing as much.

The serif face that we’re working on right now—we talked about it a bit earlier—but it works really well for long reading, especially on screens. It’s smooth and traditional without being fussy. We have it in a range of grades, from text to display. Several of them match up, so you could pull a low-res optimized version on older screens, and a more detailed and refined version for retina screens, but still have everything match up . . . it can happen seamlessly in the background, with no design elements shifting. With each version is optimized for a different size and screen, means you can always get it to be really, really easy reading. With a larger size or higher resolution, you notice more, so you’re able to finesse and refine more details. When you’re dealing with a really small size, intricate details might get lost, or they might actually work against you and muddy up the page.