written by:
photos by:
January 26, 2009
Originally published in The Craft of Design
as
Letter Perfect

The alphabet is as easy as ABC, but for typographer Peter Bil’ak, the way language looks is a never-ending exploration.

1 / 18
NDT, Due a due
Photo by 
2 / 18
3 / 18
Bil’ak’s designs for the 39- and 78-eurocent stamps were inspired by the patchwork of the Dutch landscape as seen from the air. The width of each letter, set in Bil’ak’s Fedra Serif, determines the width of the surrounding color block, echoing the centuri
Bil’ak’s designs for the 39- and 78-eurocent stamps were inspired by the patchwork of the Dutch landscape as seen from the air. The width of each letter, set in Bil’ak’s Fedra Serif, determines the width of the surrounding color block, echoing the centuries-old art of metal typesetting. Bil’ak sees the stamps as an homage to Dutch traditions.
Photo by 
4 / 18
5 / 18
6 / 18
7 / 18
8 / 18
Bil’ak takes a meticulous approach to Arabic type design, although he is unaware of the words’ meaning.
Bil’ak takes a meticulous approach to Arabic type design, although he is unaware of the words’ meaning.
Photo by 
9 / 18
10 / 18
11 / 18
12 / 18
13 / 18
A cover graphically riffs on the magazine’s title, Dot, Dot, Dot.
A cover graphically riffs on the magazine’s title, Dot, Dot, Dot.
Photo by 
14 / 18
Bil’ak designed the NDT Choreography Workshop poster using dancers to spell out “workshop.”
Bil’ak designed the NDT Choreography Workshop poster using dancers to spell out “workshop.”
Photo by 
15 / 18
Bil’ak collaborated with Mark Thomson, art director at HarperCollins, on a new set 
of dictionaries that exclusively employ the Bil’ak-designed font Fedra.
Bil’ak collaborated with Mark Thomson, art director at HarperCollins, on a new set of dictionaries that exclusively employ the Bil’ak-designed font Fedra.
Photo by 
16 / 18
Bil’ak conceived of the dance performance Due a due, in which what appears 
to be a dancer’s shadow is in fact a projection of another dancer.
Bil’ak conceived of the dance performance Due a due, in which what appears to be a dancer’s shadow is in fact a projection of another dancer.
Photo by 
17 / 18
In Bil’ak’s studio, he and his staff assemble and hand-draw the cover for issue #7.
In Bil’ak’s studio, he and his staff assemble and hand-draw the cover for issue #7.
Photo by 
18 / 18
bilak peter dot dot dot no six cover

Peter Bil’ak is a polymath of a designer. His activities encompass type design, typography, graphic design, Web design, set design and choreography, publishing, writing, and much more that can’t even be categorized.

Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Bil’ak moved to the Netherlands in 1997. His studio is in a converted modernist school in The Hague, near the quiet harbor of Scheveningen—a far cry from the design ghettos of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ renowned creative hubs. But this suits his practice, which exudes self-sufficiency. Here, Bil’ak generates much of his work, and his core role as a type designer exists in a rarefied world more typically distinguished by technical expertise than creative flair.

“Type design is formally a printing business,” says Bil’ak. “You work in the print industry. I teach type design, and I’m always struck by the technicality of the discussion. You’re almost blocked by the technical aspects of typography from looking at the larger issues.”

bilak peter dance performance 1 black and white
NDT, Due a due

Bil’ak trained at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, in what is today Slovakia, but his experience there was rounded out by time studying in the United States, England, and Paris. He ended up in the Netherlands after spending two years at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, taking a job with the graphic-design firm Studio Dumbar in The Hague.

Now running his own type foundry, Typotheque, with his wife and business partner Johanna, Bil’ak has created typefaces that have been used on everything from postage stamps to dictionaries. A specialty of Bil’ak’s work is developing fonts that work in both Latin and non-Latin scripts. He first started working with polytonic Greek and Cyrillic, and is now working on Arabic typefaces, despite the fact that he does not speak the language (“I know about 15 words. And I can count,” he says). “When I was in India, people were saying, “You really should work on Hindi scripts,” but I don’t know. If you had told me two or three years ago that I would be working on Arabic, I would have laughed.” Despite his incomprehension of the words he creates, his fonts use standardized baselines and orientations for letters, to give complementary characteristics to different alphabetical systems.

bilak peter arabic font sign

One of Bil’ak’s most high-profile commissions as a type designer was developing a new font system for Collins dictionaries, with HarperCollins art director Mark Thomson. The new dictionaries, which are available in the United Kingdom, the U.S., South Africa, and Australia, are clear and spacious. Bil’ak and Thompson removed the bells and whistles produced by the marketing mentality of publishers in favor of a calmer attitude that recalls a lineage of great typographers of dictionaries who didn’t have contemporary visual tricks at their disposal. “Mark did a whole research into it,” Bil’ak explains. “There’s surprisingly little difference between dictionaries from Samuel Johnson’s era and today, and that was the motivation for the change. If you look at that dictionary from 1755, it worked. It didn’t have the luxury of having different weights of fonts, bold and light; they didn’t exist. They didn’t have small caps. Basically all these layers have since been put on top, and we had to remove some of that.” The dictionary uses a single Bil’ak font family, Fedra, in different weights and with italic and bold versions to denote different functions.

bilak peter arabic font 1

Bil’ak’s work is meticulous and often done at the micro scale of an individual descender (the part of a lowercase letter that hangs below the body). But he has a parallel interest in the metanarratives of his métier. He writes regularly, and is coeditor (with British graphic designer Stuart Bailey) of Dot Dot Dot magazine, which he founded in 2000 as a critical journal of theoretical texts accompanied by Bailey’s experimental graphics. His theoretical education took place principally at the Jan van Eyck Academy, where he was initiated into poststructuralist linguistic theory. But isn’t there a contradiction between the craft-oriented, intuitive method of the type designer, and the views of the academic intellectual?

Bil’ak responds: “Printers used to design [fonts], and they’re not really intellectuals who would be able to articulate theories. But you’re talking about the representation of language in form, which is fascinating.”

Bil’ak’s fonts start life as sketches of individual letters in notebooks, which are then redrawn on a computer in FontLab, a Russian-made type-design tool. “The computer production process is part of the creative process, too,” he says. “The computer is not just digitizing [something already fully formed]. We use it to decide the rules of the typeface. I don’t separate production from creation; before, it was always separated.”

He begins in earnest to explain the process of making a typeface work. “An interesting thing about looking at type is that you think that you design a letter ‘e’ and it’s isolated. But if you look at an ‘e’ standing next to an ‘a,’ what you start perceiving visually is not just those forms, but a silhouette between letters.” He sketches an abstract shape between the right edge of a letter “e” and the left edge of an “a.” “As soon as I have a few letters, you already make tests using different combinations to see what happens when one is followed by a straight character, or if it’s followed by a round or semi-open character.” Despite the methodical process, the results of these tests are not objectively measurable.

Bil’ak’s attitude is that the legibility of a font, and therefore its success, cannot be concluded until it is in use. He writes, in an essay ironically titled “In Search of a Comprehensive Type Design Theory,” that “type design is not an intellectual activity, but relies on a gesture of the person and his ability to express it formally.” In other words, success in this highly technical field still depends on the artist or designer’s ability to make formal gestures of beauty and appropriateness.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016