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All new IT systems at HSE University use HSE Sans  — a font specifically designed for the University. Its creators told HSE University.Digital Insight about their inspiration, current trends in typography, and the so-called Russian typography boom.

Arseniy Meshcheryakov
Head of HSE Art and Design School

— Why does HSE University have its own font?

— A font is the most important element of the identity of any large corporation. At HSE University there has always been a lack of cross-cutting identity elements, multiplied by numerous variations of a common sign. Two years ago, the rector instructed us to deal with this issue. We thought that it would be wise to start with a font that would allow us to collect everything into a single style even while preserving absurdities in the overall identity. This is a very powerful element that could help HSE University to be recognised in the media and communication sphere.


— And then you tried out the new font on the website and Art and Design School booklets and suggested using it throughout HSE University?

— No, quite the opposite. This was a decision for all of HSE University, which was made within the Art and Design School. Rather arbitrary. We had to develop a font that can be used a) at the Art and Design School and b) for products that HSE University asks us to develop, and thereby accustom the community to it.


— Is it expensive to develop a font?

— We have already spent several hundred thousand rubles on this. Given our connections with the developers and the prestige of the order, this is not that expensive. In addition, although we ordered the font from a third-party developer, it is still a co-product of HSE University. It would be more correct to say that this identity was created within the University, but with the help of external experts. This is important both from the perspective of the development of project activity as well as, if we can do work at a high level for ourselves, the potential for doing this kind of work for others. In a few years, we would like HSE University, represented by HSE Design Laboratory, to be able to bid for orders at the level of Sberbank rebranding. The long-term goal here is far more important than the short-term result.


— Who are the developers?

— The famous Russian font designer Yuri Gordon. He is one of the top three to five in terms of qualifications. Font design is a delicate craft, and not every designer is a specialist in it. Now Yuri is making three additional styles. We still don’t have italic and bold fonts. One of the drawbacks of the initial stage of development was that only a superbold font was made as the bold version, and it turned out to be too bold to use on the Internet. That is why the bold font had to be replaced with a font from a different typeface, which is not right. We are eliminating this drawback. 


— Is the approach to font design for printing and Internet use different?

— I don’t think so, although, of course, the Internet has its own specific needs.


— What message does an organisation send to society by using its own font?

— I will answer cynically: identity is a parameter, which is located at a certain point of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. HSE University has led a solid existence for many years without its own font, but its presence, and in general the presence of any high-quality entity, which is also expressed in a font, is a sign of maturity. This means that a company can afford it not just in terms of finances, but in terms of volume and size. In addition to that, any identity is able to be recognised. Any document put before a table of experts, whether it is presented in written form, as a presentation, or a website —represents the University as a whole. I don’t think that your typeface fundamentally solves any specific problem, but it fits into a certain University culture, which then contributes to its image and reputation for many years.


— Is font design taught at HSE University?

— Of course, it is included in the programme. Our students (especially those in the 'Communication Design' course) are required to study typography and create their own fonts. It is obvious that a student’s font is not so technically based, it is more of an art character, more suitable, for example, for theatre or small-scale textual design. Nevertheless, a font is part of a designer’s competence. Any graphic designer should know that.

Yuri Gordon
artist, font designer, co-founder of LetterHead Studio

— Why Sans?

Sans — because it is Sans serif, a font without serifs. Sans fonts are also called grotesques or gothic — in the 19th century, such fonts seemed to be grotesque, ancient, and gothic (that is, originating from dark Medieval times). Now they are just considered ‘clean’. HSE Sans is not that simple. It is derived from the sub-family of geometric grotesques, but with a significant bias towards the humanist side. This is because Dmitry Chernogaev, Executive Art-Director and partner of the Artonika agency and a teacher at the HSE School of Art and Design, and I agreed: we wanted something a little out of the ordinary. Besides, Sans is closely related to Serif, they are cousins with many traits and features in common.


— What was it inspired by?

The whole system for HSE was designed to be academic and austere on the one hand, but human on the other. We were guided by several references, not in terms of inspiration but in terms of solving similar problems. For me, the most inspiring aspect was collaborating with my old friend, Dmitry Chernogaev.


— How do you judge whether a font design has been successful? What are the criteria?

Character. A font has to have character. Ours definitely has it.


— Does the approach to developing and using fonts differ between print and digital formats?

Not for me. The Retina screen currently allows a screen to emulate the printed page, but it will soon surpass print quality. There are some problems with using fonts with expanded OpenType abilities, but these limitations will soon be overcome.


— What are the current trends in typography? 

The last decade has seen the influence of total purification and simplification. Dry geometric grotesques used to be fashionable, and still remain so. In addition, the overwhelming shift of readers to screens has made sans serif fonts more popular than serifs. Right now there seems to be some fatigue from total purity, and trendy, edgy or even simply mad letters are in vogue. Typographers are slowly beginning to understand that what is important is not only what is typed, but also how it is read. The pace of reading, the flavour of a text is not yet a fashion, but is no longer an empty notion.


— People talk about the so-called Russian typeface boom…

Actually, until recently, I felt I was the only one talking about it. J What, there are followers? Of course, there are: in Russia there are now twenty times more font designers than in the Soviet era. And the number of calligraphers has probably increased a hundred times. It is enough to compare what we had in the 2000s with what there is now – the difference is enormous. Of course, in terms of volume, Cyrillic typography is not comparable to its Roman cousin, but among regional writing systems it is one of the most powerful. The font boom is not just happening here —there are local masters and schools in Ukraine and Belarus, too, though they are different from Russia’s. Cyrillic loses in terms of geographical spread but gains in depth and richness.

Dmitry Chernogaev
Executive Art Director and Partner of the Artonika Agency, laureate of festivals such as Epica (Kodak Pro-Prise), Golden Drum, Moscow International Advertising Festival (MIAF) and Bookberry Best Design Award

— Can Sans be called ‘neutral and simple’?

Yuri described everything right about Sans. But there is also a serif version — HSE Slab, which is also in use, though to a lesser extent now. In my opinion, it has a great future. We did not develop an antique font in the classical format, rather we replaced it with a non-slab font — it is very convenient for typing and reading texts, but at the same time it has a certain interesting character: more modern, more scientific, slightly more technical. The bottom line is that short texts are easier to read in a sans serif font and long ones are the opposite. It’s a paradox.


— If there are two of them, they are different, but they should also have the same character and convey the same meaning. How is this achieved?

It’s achieved by a traditional technique that has been in use for a long time and is called a font family. It can include serif, sans serif, or other fonts. They are united by a common character and proportions. The proportions of a font are quite readable and provide recognisability, but there are other characteristic elements, which allow fonts to be combined and differentiated.


— What were you inspired by?

The font was inspired by several sources at once, but ‘education’ was our key word. Both in proportions and in the form of its individual elements, there are features of both Renaissance and even Roman fonts — elements of antiquity, classical education, and modern fonts — relatively speaking, this is Bauhaus. We took the features of classical and modern learning and somehow combined them into one whole.


— As a user, I find it impossible to see that in letters. Is it so noticeable?

You, of course, do not see this character, but you definitely feel it. This is a scientifically proven fact. Some people cannot explain why they relate to something in one way or another, but it doesn’t mean that they are not affected by it. A font that has been developed to be versatile can't have too strong a character as this would narrow its field of usability. So when you look at it, you just see letters. But if you put it next to another font, you will most likely notice a difference. And this is already significant.


— Of the two fonts in the set which is stronger?

It all depends on the task. They complement each other. Moreover, fonts that exist now are not the be-all and end-all. This is a set that was created as a starting point. We continue to work, making new styles to expand usability. We range from a scientific text book to student merchandising.


— Why was an additional font needed?

Actually, they can be considered a single typeface: it has a single central idea in its character and a single recognisable form of key elements. Furthermore, it has a certain number of options: straight or italic, light or bold. All of these features help to broaden its appeal and enable it to be used more widely.


— To what extent will the new HSE font keep up with trends?

It does not ignore them, we are more or less within the same field. But we developed it with a broader perspective. If we consider trends, they change very quickly — every year, or even more often. This is not the case for us, because we develop a style to last for decades. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be changed or added to over time, but we can’t position this project to meet perpetually changing fashions.