calling mr papazian

He has posted to Typophile 5,707 times (in a moment, that number will increase) and is at once designer and aficionado, teacher and student, critic and commentator, provocateur and pundit. Even so, I haven’t a clue about who he really is. I do, however, know that even among a cadre of artists, Hrant H Papazian is just different. Amazingly different. I can’t think why I didn’t interview him sooner, but far better late than never.

JC: Why type (i.e., when did you get interested; what maintains your interest)?

HHP: I started on the bitmap side, in the early 80s. I wanted to type in Armenian on my Commodore-64, so I hacked a font on its 8×8 grid. Then I figured it might be fun to do Arabic as well, although in truth it became the sort of thing only a peculiar minority of people would call “fun”...

I actually managed to sell some of this very first work, but that doesn’t seem to have been the central reason that I continued making fonts (mostly Armenian ones) when I got my Amiga in the late 80s. Then thanks to the Mac emulator on AmigaDOS* I started using Fontographer, and shortly afterwards I was commissioned to make my first serious outline type, for the launch of a high-gloss magazine that was to be published (in separate issues) in English and Armenian, using the same layout/illustrations in each. From that experience I realized how deep and dark the world of type really is, and it was like a tractor beam.

* I have a funny story of how a Fontographer tech support guy hung up on me when he found out, but not before sputtering: “You’re not supposed to be doing that!”

For a while I had a nice niche retail market, but when that dried up I still had the essential reason I like type design: discovery. And one thing I’m grateful for is the UCLA Research Library: they have an incredible collection of typographic books, and can get anything through ILL; it’s hard to estimate how useful this has been to me in terms of education/exploration.

Although I work more on outline than bitmap fonts now, it’s possible to see my continued – in fact increased – fascination with type as being more purely expressed in the bitmap field, since the compromises (what I consider to be the meat of any sort of Design) are more literal.

I think there are two things that are required to be a good type designer in this age: one thing that’s old – the pure love of shape, the frisson you can get just looking at an abstract black/white form (this is something Goudy pointed out); and one thing that’s pretty new – the ability to think analytically. This is important for things like good spacing, and that’s one reason why this wasn’t a central requirement in the past: you could just draw the glyphs and get somebody at the foundry to do the – supposedly – menial technical tasks. But in truth there is no Black without White. And that might in fact allude to another appeal that type has for me: the impossibility of perfection. I don’t know if that makes [enough] sense.

JC: What are some of the more important questions in type design today? What are some of type design’s more pressing problems?

HHP: I enjoy seeing room for improvement in anything, all the time, so it’s easy for me to point out problems in virtually any of the many aspects of type – and sometimes I actually do something about it besides complain. For example I see a huge gulf between the onscreen type we have versus what’s possible, and that’s why I made Mana (originally in 16 but now available in 13 pixel size as well). Mana is a pixelfont that uses shades of gray – carefully painted by hand – to try to achieve an optimal balance between letterform fidelity, even color, and crispness of rendering – instead of the two extremes we’ve been stuck with for a while: full-fuzz rendering like in MacOS where too much reliance on fidelity ruins crispness; or totally crisp but uncomfortable 1-bit (black & white) type. The reason grayscale fonts have to be done by hand is simply that there’s no algorithm (yet) which can achieve good automatic grayscale rendering from a font’s outlines, at least not under about 22 PPEM.

But virtually everything I complain about in type (even the stuff I take action on) is essentially trivial in the context of the needs of the world. Except for one thing: increasingly I become more worried about Latinization – the imposition of Latin alphabetic ideals on other scripts. It’s really nothing short of cultural imperialism, even cultural genocide. To me Latinization is a henchman of globalization, and anybody who feels that cultural variety is a central pillar of life being worth living needs to fight it.

JC: We’ve known about two of your more recent Latin faces – Patria and Harrier – for some time now. How are they progressing, and how do you envision them eventually being used?

HHP: A soap opera. Patria comes from Harrier, and Harrier comes from Nour, an Armenian font I drew in Yerevan (on paper) during the summer of 2000, motivated by two things: a wish to apply my understanding of readability to Armenian; and a desire to forestall the rampant Latinization of Armenian.

A curious thing happened though when I took the idea of Nour with me to the ATypI conference in Leipzig: I realized that this would be a great opportunity to give Nour a subordinate Latin “slave”. It would look as Armenian as possible. Payback for all the times it had been the other way around. Sweet revenge. And I drew it. And I liked it, and called it Harrier, after the dog breed – not as a slight – I really love hounds, they’re the newspaper fonts of the dog world. I think Harrier would make for a very interesting book face, with its rigid slant and generous extenders. In a way, Harrier is actually a slanted-Roman, but not the stubborn ideological stuff Morison was preaching.

But then I realized that made me just as bad as the Latinizers. And furthermore I suddenly saw the opportunity to take multiscript type design to the next level, overcoming the one-dimensional, us-against-them formula that’s been in place for ages. I do much of my best thinking while walking my beagle (Garmir, which means “red” in Armenian – yeah, he’s a bourgeois commie like me), and during successive walks I nailed down something I’m pretty proud of: a network of fonts that supports both hierarchic and parallel setting under one stylistic umbrella. A “master” design for each script, each with a “subordinate” in the other script. The two masters can be set in parallel and/or each can have some embedded text in the other script. The [admitted] complexity of this system is a feature, not a bug; it reflects the complexity of cultural relationships.

JC: Have your ideas about boumas changed or evolved at all since you first wrote about them? If so, how?

HHP: They do evolve, but slower now – the model of reading has been converging in my head for years; the “bumps” that cause shifts are decreasing in frequency, although you could say they’re also increasing in relative amplitude – if you get my drift. One big bump recently was Kevin Larson’s talk at the ATypI Vancouver conference: although I wasn’t there, the follow-up research I did based on his rejection of the bouma model helped clarify a gray area I had (specifically what happens in the fovea). So although his insight didn’t derail my model (it has accumulated way too much “weight” for that to happen easily – there are in fact many ways I can show that Larson is essentially wrong), it helped refine it in an important way. In evolving a model like this in your head, you can’t reject others’ findings outright – you have to keep assimilating everything and making your model larger and deeper. It’s tiring.

One thing I’ve had to constantly maintain is the pragmatism necessary to prevent a fall into the chasm of formal science, always keeping an eye on the big picture, the whole point of improving readability/functionality. My approach is not conformant to contemporary science, and narrow-minded formalists effectively use this to counter my conclusions, although I have to hope that clear thinkers see through this. My way is what you could call the “ancient” way of science, where introspection and wisdom (or at least attempts at these) are just as important as the data. Data can be very easy to come by – but it’s the interpretation that’s tricky; and when the data is missing that’s still not an excuse to avoid plain old thought, and the resultant action. We need to apply what we do know, even lacking “hard proof”. Proof can be seen as another form of Opinion anyway.

I’m ranting (easy to do for me: just take away the “h”). Here’s maybe a better angle: you have to try to interpret the empirical data in the context of the anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is never totally reliable, but it’s “real”. For example we know that serifs aid readability. If you happen to believe this enough (irrespective of empirical evidence) you then have to figure out how to interpret the existing empirical data – but logically – to support this. If you happen to find too much data that counters the anecdotal evidence, you can then break from it and go further towards the source of the issue to see what might really be going on. It’s a fuzzy and highly iterative process – but to me it’s the only way forward. Taking the empirical data too seriously can only spin you in circles. You need faith to make real progress.

JC: How do your ideas about boumas translate to your non-Latin type designs?

HHP: I guess the main way is that it helps me see the different ways in which different scripts need to use the Cartesian area. For example Arabic has a tiny “x-height”, and the “information” it conveys is greatly spread out over the vertical span of a line, while it uses less horizontal space. In comparison, Hebrew (even though it’s also a Semitic script) is mostly in very tight horizontal blocks. Latin is somewhere in between. These differences partly determine the inherent readability of a script. Even so, the Cartesian usage of a script shouldn’t be normalized with respect to another – that would just be naïve Modernism; the Cartesian tradition is part of the functionality. So for example I think the descending “f” in the conventional Latin italics is bad. This is also why each of the fonts in Nour&Patria has its own vertical proportions.

JC: In your article, Improving the Tool, you concluded that, “In the end, we have to abandon the idea of making the Latin script much more horizontally economical.” But what role do you see for particularly narrow faces (e.g., Octavian and Kinesis) or for condensed/compressed variants?

HHP: A nice technical question. The role of narrowness (virtually in any horizontally-set script) is interesting. In terms of readability, it generally helps boumas fit the shape of the retina better: since visual acuity drops off in a circular pattern, boumas that are as tall as they are wide are more efficient. But there’s also a lower limit to the narrowness, and not just because the letters become distorted beyond easy decipherability: the most important attribute of a bouma is its width, and boumas are differentiated by their absolute width; when boumas are narrower overall they enjoy less of a difference in absolute width, and this makes them more confusable. But it’s hard to tell where the cutoff is.

The other thing to consider about width is economy. We might think that narrowness is economical – and that’s obviously true at the level of single lines – but a paragraph is not a bunch of single lines, it’s a series of lines; a wider font can be set smaller, maintaining apparent size, and gaining vertical space in a paragraph. Furthermore, a wide & small font is less susceptible to the “wasting” effect of linebreaks: a narrow font that accumulates small amounts of gain per line can have all its savings trashed by a linebreak; while a smaller font will save space per line no matter the linebreaks. On the other hand, a wider font causes more hyphens (in inverse proportion to the column measure), reducing both readability and economy. So it depends on a number of factors; but it’s important to remember that narrowness isn’t necessarily more economical.

Yet another thing to consider about narrowness is its “atmospheric” value: elegance. Narrow fonts appear more classy and refined, while wide fonts are more rustic and friendly*. And sometimes this “emotional” factor needs to override issues of economy, which can go either way anyway.

* When the LA Times replaced its somewhat narrow Century derivative with a notably wider face, readers complained that it started looking like a provincial newspaper.

In terms of specific fonts, it’s worth considering Octavian, which contains much typographic maturity; and Adobe Kinesis, to me the best font in that house’s collection – no exceptions. It’s also worth considering Sumner Stone’s Print, which seems maybe a hair too narrow for comfort.

JC: Your reformed face that appears in that article – will it ever be available for license?

HHP: I’m still suffering for that wishful thinking I did back in '98! What I showed was not a font. It was an instance-set of structures. An idea made visible. But I learned that you simply can’t do that – when people see forms they can’t help thinking it’s an end-result. My reformed alphabet is a concept, a set of formalized but intangible structures. But for better or worse, you can never really show structures/concepts; you can only explain them.

That said, a font based on my reformed alphabet is not only possible, but in fact the whole point! This effort isn’t about academic masturbation, it’s about helping the reader. But first I need to re- stabilize my understanding of the model of reading: it’s become a bit hazy again, and the reformed alphabet might need some more tweaking first. On the other hand, what I do consider pretty firm does get used in my fonts, for example the lower case “d” in Patria.

JC: Bold and italic variants of typefaces attact attention and convey emphasis, and in that sense, communicate some meaning. Your Daam typeface goes one step further; along with Twin, it might be one of the first “semiotypes” – types whose varying letterforms themselves introduce a glyph-based semantics, and can therefore accentuate, soften, or conflict with word- or sentence-based syntax and context. Are these faces novelties, or do you see them as more important in the years ahead?

HHP: Yet another lustrous virgin forest in the world of type! If you believe that a typeface carries emotional associations in its forms*, then you have to conclude that the conventional practice of having only italics for emphasis is one-dimensional. There can be many kinds of emphasis, many nuances a discerning typographer might want to give snippets of text. So what would be nice is a system of fonts than can nest into each other and convey various emotions, such as stress, sensuality, whatever. What do italics convey? Mostly informality and motion – not necessarily what the text being marked is about.

* And if you don't, how do you justify making yet more fonts?

There have been some efforts (like Twin and Daam) which try to do this on the display level, but that’s just kid’s play. The real gold is in the subconscious, in the potential for affecting the mood of the reader through text fonts, with no explicit realization by the reader; triggering conscious appreciation of the typography is sure to dilute the full effect of subliminal textual moods. So we have to find ways of “flying under the radar” of the reader, so to speak.

I’ve actually been collecting samples of typography where the designer has mixed off-the-shelf fonts in this way, hoping (without any real “proof”, but much faith) that the fonts help amplify the message, even if (because?) the reader doesn’t realize the “trick”. I’ve found a few (not many) in some “famous” works (like Baudolino by Umberto Eco), but curisouly the best one I’ve found was in a cheap paperback novel called The Interior Life by Katherine Blake (a pen name).

JC: You’re a prolific contributor to the type lists and forums. How do you balance your writing with your type design – and oh yeah – with your day job and family?

HHP: I think the worst thing I could do to anybody who might actually be interested in this question would be to truncate their stimulating guesswork. An exposition of the reality – in fact merely my perception of such – would certainly be less motivational than what the average imagination can create.

JC: What’s next? Any long-range goals in typography/type design?

HHP: Yes. I want to have a private jet that I’d use to fly to the four corners of the world and instruct people on how to make the type in their newspapers and on their websites more culturally authentic and more readable. For payment I would only request good food, decent lodging, and invitations to the local social scene. Oh, and more fuel for the plane. I know that’s not a goal in tune with this century (and maybe not even with my abilities), but it’s really the only thing I can think of – sorry.

Most of all though I feel like I’m seriously behind, no matter what I decide my goals should be. I’m going to be 36 soon (that’s 3 cycles) and still have nothing notable to show for it.

25-April 2004