Gridfolk: Interview with four
This is a guest post from Ata Syed AKA thalamic and minimum, the fourth in a summer series, continuing the “Focus on Fontstructors” tradition of interviews with members of FontStruct’s designer community. Ata has been FontStructing since 2008.
Imagine this interview is a painting. This painting. The result is the combination of the base layer with details layer on top. While both the layers are meaningful on their own, the experience of viewing them together as a single entity is greater than the sum of its parts.
The painting above is created by the artist Paul Bokslag—better known as four around FontStruct—and he will be the focus in this four-th interview of the Gridfolk 2021 series.
Read on to find out how an artist’s mind works.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where you live and work? What kind of training do you have? What do you do in everyday life beyond FontStructing?
I was born and raised in the Netherlands and moved to Ireland more than twenty years ago, after having studied in Leiden. I am a visual artist and designer and for many years I worked in an arts centre that I co-founded. In my job as a tutor and facilitator, I taught drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and photography to inclusive groups of students and I was a facilitator in a supported studio. I am passionate about the creative process and love sharing that with others. I also worked for a children’s arts and health charity and currently I am juggling my time as a freelancer between my own arts practice, graphic design, giving workshops, mentoring and exhibition installs. When not at work, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, making things with my hands, reading, playing games, canoeing, and going for long walks in the hills.
For a good few years, I had a healthy obsession with cutting paper. Starting with small, framed pieces, these grew into large scale space filling installations. I did not see the connection with type design until I accidentally used one of my fonts for an exhibition poster and realised that it is all visually related. More recently I have rediscovered the joy of painting and working on murals. I am interested in positive and negative space, and it plays a role in a lot of my work, both two- and three-dimensional.
“An Exhibition of Papercuts” poster by Paul Bokslag
How did you become interested in type and typography? What was your first experience of font design?
I have designed a lot of publications, brochures, flyers, signs, posters, and logos, using Adobe software and I was always interested in the visual aspect of letters, but I never had a formal training in graphic design.
How did you start out on FontStruct?
I came across FontStruct by chance, when looking for a particular font. I was immediately impressed by the work in the gallery and wondered if I would ever be able to build something similar. It took a while before I started playing and experimenting with the tool myself, but then I quickly got hooked.
If you had to choose two (or three) of your own FontStructions as favorites, which would they be and why?
Most of my FontStructions are self-initiated projects. One of the exceptions is The Pattern Exchange, which was commissioned as the display typeface for a curated group exhibition of the same name in Temple Bar Gallery in Dublin in 2015. Each glyph is a permutated version of a pattern, made up of a limited number of geometric shapes. Although I love to have the freedom to develop free work, it was wonderful to see one of my creations in use: printed on the programme cover and in vinyl on the gallery windows. The font can still be downloaded for free from the gallery website.
Some of my fonts have also appeared in Typodarium, IDN v26n3 and Edo Smitshuijzen’s Mashrabiya fonts and it is still very exciting to see my work in print.
The FontStruct competitions are both a challenge and an opportunity to explore new avenues and to experiment with concepts. Counter Culture was developed as an entry for the reverse competition in 2017. The design is based around the idea of representing letters as three-dimensional negative space in a two-dimensional medium. The angle in the letters makes it possible to create words as a continuous wall.
Counter Culture by four
What other work on FontStruct do you especially admire and why?
From the start I admired the fonts of some of the early adopters: elmoyenique’s aesthetic, that I feel a strong connection with; beate’s unique and beautiful approach to FontStructing; Frodo7’s possible and impossible 3D work; the theatrical quality of geneus1’s fonts; the fascinating experiments of thalamic and William Leverette; the perfection of fonts by architaraz and Yautja and the hard work of the Video Game Font Preservation Society. They were later joined by others who also developed their unique styles and visual language. Their support and advice have been very valuable over the years.
What are the aspects of FontStruct that make it appealing to you?
Although I have never met other site users in person, I have experienced FontStruct as a very supportive and inspiring creative community.
As a tool, FontStruct is accessible, intuitive, and self-explanatory. You can start using it from scratch and learn about its more complex possibilities and the larger world of type design as you go along. FontStruct instantly makes it possible to quickly compare two versions of a glyph side by side and to look at them as part of the larger family of glyphs. The preview window is an excellent way to quickly get a feeling for the rhythm of a variety of glyph combinations. Changing glyphs by cutting and pasting parts of other glyphs, rotating and flipping sections, it is all at the click of a mouse button.
I love working on a small grid using 2×2 filters. This allows for the use of all curved bricks at a maximum relative size. Features that the amazing Rob Meek has added over the years, such as stacking and the option to make your own composite bricks using up to 16 existing bricks, have hugely increased the possibilities of working on a small scale. In 2×2 filters every brick now occupies four gridcells, the bottom left is its anchorpoint. The other three cells become potential anchorpoints for other bricks that will overlap the original brick by a quarter or a half. The surrounding cells also become anchorpoints for bricks that can be nudged to overlap or fill spaces. Zephram created some tutorials that explain it all much better than I ever could.
The bricks themselves are often the starting point of new projects and they can dictate in which direction a font develops. I enjoy being immersed in the flow of that process: the frustration when I just can’t find the solution for one or two glyphs that refuse to become part of the bigger picture and the joyful and satisfying moment when things start falling into place. Sometimes that requires taking a bit of distance. Returning to a font in progress after weeks or even months can give a new perspective. Often a font develops in such a way that in the end I need to change the very glyph that started it all off and sometimes I can’t resist stripping down a font to its essentials.
Oluna by four
Creating a modular font is trying to find a language that is consistent throughout all the glyphs. The challenge is to use variations of certain glyphs and combinations of elements and to repeat shapes and angles without it becoming to rigid. That occasionally requires consciously breaking a typographic rule or breaking the FontStruct grid itself and some FontStructors apply this very successfully.
Sometimes, working on a FontStruction becomes a visual warmup exercise that can feed into other art projects. Even brick shapes and the grid itself have found their way into other media.
If you could add or improve one thing on FontStruct, what would it be?
I think there is scope for a FontStruct foundry, through which the best and most complete FontStructions could be sold.
I also like the idea of a one-day online symposium on modular font design, with workshops and presentations. It could be a nice way to meet and collaborate with and to learn from other FontStructors and others in the field.
Ever wondered why a picture is worth a thousand words? If that is true, would paintings be worth ten thousand words then? The answer is symbolic condensation™. Not the convert-gas-into-liquid condensation, but of the meaning ‘make more concentrated using symbols and symbolism’. What is a symbol then? It is a representation of a physical thing or an idea. The letters of a language script are all symbols, each standing for a particular sound (or sounds in some cases, depending on the context). Look at the letter symbol B and try not to think of it as the letter ‘bee’ despite it being just some shape. It is next to impossible. The power of symbols is unrestrained.
Symbolic condensation is the reason a picture is worth a thousand words because it contains imagery that can stand for more than what is depicted. Furthermore, combinations of different symbols in close proximity to another can concentrate the information even more. It takes a thousand words to unpack all the information stored in pictures. Artistic paintings take this concept to the next level by using only symbols to convey vast amount of meaning as concisely as possible. They have to be worth ten thousand words at a minimum.
The following conversation took place on WhatsApp over 8 hours—edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and privacy. Some words are spelled two different ways depending on who was using it.
I was going through all your published fonts and the thing that struck me the most was the sheer variety of the works you have produced on those teeny tiny grids. Mind-blowing. Please tell me about your font making process.
From A to B by four
I do draw letters that never make it to FontStruct, simply because the medium doesn’t suit them.
The limitations of FontStruct are also its strength. In painting, working with a limited palette can help to make your work more harmonious. The same goes for fontstruct: working with a limited set of bricks adds to the consistency of the font. Working with solid brick shapes also helps to quickly get an understanding of positive and negative space.
Experimenting time varies. Sometimes the first letter dictates the form of a lot of the other glyphs. Other fonts go through different stages before they find their final form and changing one character may mean having to change all of them.
Phoenix Park by four
One frustrating part of working as a visual artist is receiving rejection letters after spending hours or days writing proposals.
Paul Bokslag’s studio (outside)
Sometimes I listen to podcasts or music while working, other times I prefer the silence.
Paul Bokslag’s studio (inside)
The recent events in Afghanistan made me think of a book for young people that a local animation company adapted for a film: The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.
Sorry, got lost in the bookshelves for a while.
Velodrome by four
What kind of music do you listen to?
Ask anyone if they know what love is and most likely they will say yes instantaneously. Ask them to describe what love is and watch most falter in giving a clear answer. Some things are just too difficult to describe in words. This is not because the answer is not known but because as highly developed our languages are, they are not developed enough to convey esoteric information symbolically. In addition, there is further complication of trying to convey subjective understanding through a language that is not equipped to handle it. In fact, if it was at all possible, the brilliant writers and linguists over the centuries would have come up with it already.
Art is like that. It is too subjective and symbolic to be readily described in words. Its meaning is well understood though. We know something is art when we experience it. We can feel and understand its meaning (or at least a meaning) intrinsically, but cannot put it into words. What is more interesting to realize is that universal understanding of what art is is less important than realizing that there is a universal need for art. To be able to connect with something on a symbolic level that resonates within us is an innate need. In short, we cannot do without art.
Painting by Paul Bokslag
I select colours intuitively as I go along.
Mural by Paul Bokslag
It is still strange to see myself on video and hear my voice…with Dutch accent…talking about creativity and process again.
Have you ever thought about doing art with letters?
Offstruct RGB by four
The diversity of representing different scripts in consistent style, yet distinct from other styles, yet still recognizable as the same original script is a constant source of amazement and enjoyment for some. It is no wonder typefaces—specifically display typefaces—are so fascinating. They are design for sure, but they also soothe the soul. You can call them art as well.
Thanks to Rob Meek for conducting the important Base Layer part of this interview.
Thank you once more, Ata and Paul!