Martin Vácha of Displaay: We name our fonts after cheese or after our sons

27 minutes

Displaay is currently one of the most prominent Czech type design studios, their fonts are used by companies such as Nike, Apple and Harvard University. We talked to its founder, typographer Martin Vácha, about the frustrations of graphic designers, bizarre merch, the sterility of Scandinavian countries, deadlines, and how to choose a good font for a website.

You didn't study typography, but graphic design, when and how did typography win you over?

I studied graphic design because it seemed like a field that had a future. First I went to high school to study promotional art, and if you wanted to do it at a high level, then you went on to umprum (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design), where there were two studios at that time - Petr Babák and Rostislav Vaněk, and there was a kind of clash between them, because they had different approaches. I was also excited to study under the guidance of Petr Štěpán Malovec, who was Peter Babak's assistant at that time. I felt that he had some great spirit in his graphic design, and also a sophisticated and high-quality craftsmanship. I needed the craft component rather than the conceptual one at that time, so I started doing internships at school, in type and once in photography, then I did multimedia in London. When I came back, I had my last internship in typography, and because of how immersed I was in it, I realized that it was probably realistic to try to create a typeface for a project alongside graphic design, and I was quite attracted to that. During my studies, I created a few sketches of typefaces, so I decided that I wanted to do my thesis on that topic and that's how I ended my studies. That's the good thing about umprumka, that students can change studios during their studies and try everything possible, either through an internship or going straight to another studio.

Martin Vácha – Displaay

"Graphic design is a service and we have always tried to perform it as conscientiously as possible, but if the other side doesn't help you, it doesn't work. For me, by starting to do type, I was able to take my business from a service to a product."

Do you ever do graphics anymore?

The only way I do graphics is by designing an invoice or editing our website. But other than that, no. I worked at Studio Najbrt for eight years as a graphic designer. I didn't know I'd finish my fonts and sell them one day. They only had a basic set at the time. Eventually, in the evenings, I tried to finish the fonts, then I tried to put them on the web for sale, and the key moment was when I made an Instagram account, designers who thought the fonts were pretty good started following me and started buying them. And after those eight years, when it seemed to me that we were trying to do world-class graphic design at Studio Najbrt, I had the experience that Czech clients still came to Studio Najbrt for only part of their orders. It seemed to me that they would often pay for a logo and some basic manual, and then somehow they would do the rest themselves, but logically, the result was a sad, half-hearted output. Even though clients were told from the start to budget for the execution or we wouldn't get a good result. And yet clients often asked us for world-class execution and designs, saying, we want it to be like Apple. But they completely failed to understand that it's not just about the logo, it's about a massive implementation of a visual language, including good production of media. It's true that at the beginning of each project there was enthusiasm and both parties felt they understood each other on this, unfortunately in the end that wasn't the case and the final results were pathetic. And that made me very sad and frustrated. I thought to myself, how is it possible that elsewhere in the world it can be done on special or nice paper and with hot foil and here it can't be done? I had the feeling that abroad they have bigger budgets or the awareness that aesthetics is not just about the picture, a nice logo and some ordinary graphics to go with it, but that it also includes a perfectly printed catalogue etc. We had the same thing happen with websites, we wanted to address the final execution with the client at the beginning and we wanted to know if they were going to have their own web developer etc., for example, they have told us not to worry about it at that moment, and then they only took a landing page, turning the rest into a complete mess. I think in general abroad they have a different attitude towards aesthetics. In the Czech Republic, the do it yourself for as little money as possible approach still persists. I think Studio Najbrt has the clients with the biggest budgets and they always put it mainly into the product, which is understandable, but then they wanted to indulge in some graphics that they didn't see as much need for fine-tuning at the end. So then over time when my fonts started to sell and it threw together some money that I was able to survive on my own, I figured I'd try to pursue it full time.

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Has anyone ever used a Displaay font in a way you didn't like? How did you handle it?

I don't see our typeface very often in the Czech Republic, because nobody buys it here. Abroad, 70-80% of it is nice stuff, then there is about 20% that is decent, but we don't choose to repost it. We already have some of our own selection and we put that out there to tell people that they can use our fonts and what they can do with them. There's not the frustration that there is with graphic design, because I don't have to forever advocate that the elements have to be in the right proportions, on the right paper, printed correctly, etc.

Isn't the main difference that graphic design is more of a service, you need to address the client's needs from the beginning and make compromises, whereas typeface is simply a finished product?

Certainly, design is a service and we have tried to execute it as faithfully as possible, but if the other side doesn't help you, it doesn't work. I've managed to turn my business from a service into a product where it works on a want-want, buy-not-buy basis. By the way, Daniel (partner at Displaay) has a similar story, he also studied graphic design and went through some similar disappointments.

Displaay office
Displaay office

How do you operate? How are the roles in the team distributed?

Daniel and I run it and we design the typefaces, then we have Andrea, a graphic designer who joined us relatively recently, when we said we want to create products that use our fonts, because introducing a new font is no longer about saying "we have a new font" on the website, but creating a microsite or a product (merch) for it. We want to contrast that digital type foundry with physical products that have those fonts on them, and then when designers in studios have a bag or a mug or a poster from their favorite type company, that merch is a constant reminder that we exist and sometimes they logically come back to look at their site to see what they've created that's new. It's not uncommon for type foundries to make their own merch. That's why Andrea handles this section, we call it Offline. Another member is Marek, who studied studio of Typography and Type-design, and his classmates David and Viktor, who have just finished their thesis. The newest member is Veronika, studio manager, who helps us with everything, such as administration and communication with clients.

What's your most bizarre merch?

Probably a ruler made of reflective plexiglass, designed by a Belgian designer Corbin who makes cool stuff. I was buying a t-shirt from him and I asked him straight away if he wanted to make a product like that for us and he made a newspaper and a ruler like that, which is very popular even though it's quite impractical, it's long and it's a weird shape, but it's attractive. Now we also have a new deck of cards for the Jokker font. But other than that, we don't deliberately try to be quirky, we're always looking for something that relates to that particular font. For the font Bagoss, which is named after an Italian cheese, we did a shopping bag that's very big and you put leeks, cheese, everything in it at markets and it's printed with Italian terms for classifying wines.

Displaay office

"I named the first fonts after the songs I was listening to, then I named two after my children - Theodore and Tobias, after my wife I named Azeret, which is Tereza backwards. So we did that family thing, and then Dan came up with the concept that he had a long time ago that he named his fonts after cheeses, so he's continuing with that here."

What do you name your fonts after?

The first ones I named after the songs I was listening to, then I have two fonts named after my children - Teodor and Tobias, after my wife I named Azeret, which is Tereza backwards. So we did that family thing, and then Dan came up with the concept that he had a long time ago that he named his fonts after cheese, so he's continuing with that here.

You should have a cheese factory here and make cheese as merch.

That's the next level. We ordered this Bagoss cheese here once and it's such a big wheel, it's a hard cheese, like parmesan, but it's made with saffron and only in one village in the Alps where they have a certain kind of milk and then they age it according to some traditional method. And there are quite a few types of Italian cheeses, so I think Daniel can get by with that for a while. Otherwise, with the Displaay concept, we often duplicate certain letters in font names, while of course looking for typeface names that haven't been used yet, so one is quite limited by that. We found the font Jokker to be so mocking, because it contains such smirks in various spots. That's why we named it Jokker. It means "jokes" in Norwegian.

Display merch
Display merch

What is the ratio of end customer vs. graphics studios for Displaay font purchases?

About 50/50. You have the opportunity to shop for your client. The graphic designer most often knows what styles the client will need, for what uses, so sometimes the client-designer relationship is that the designer buys the fonts, adds them to his expenses, and then has the option to say that his client is the licensee. That's why we put in the option that the font can be purchased by the client for somebody, maybe as a gift.

You mentioned that about 2% of your purchases are from the Czech Republic, the rest is foreign, are there any countries that lead in purchases?

USA, UK, Australia, many Spanish speaking and Nordic countries. There, aesthetics is somehow valued. When we were there last year on a trip, we were sometimes uncomfortable with the fact that everything is so accurate and perfect and how sometimes in the Czech Republic something is dusty or dirty, whereas there it almost wasn't present. It seems too sterile. When we were in Oslo and Stockholm to visit some of our clients, they had everything designed and cleaned up, with trendy furniture, everything renovated. If you have a dirty wall, at least you know you can lean your backpack against it and it will be fine. But it's about habit, they're comfortable with it because it's normal for them. They didn't experience socialism where everything was everybody's aesthetics was an afterthought. Scandinavians grow up surrounded by designer furniture, they're used to it, so they're willing to invest in aesthetics afterwards. This is also true for typefaces, they are able to buy a relatively ordinary typeface for a big company and use it for two or three years, because they know that they will then approach someone else for a refresh and they will buy a new typeface for that. In short, aesthetics are important to them. But they don't do it mindlessly, local designers shared with us that their clients are also trying to think about their budgets, to think of everything in a way that makes sense economically. Designers around the world face similar challenges.

How long does it take to create a typeface?

From our point of view, I would say that it doesn't have to take long at all, the basic language support and let's say regular to heavy with cursive styles, we are able to do it in three to four months in good quality, the only one who can then holding it up is the client or the commissioner (design studio). But that's okay, they need to think about everything, exchange feedback, etc. So we have some of our net time that we dedicate to it with a clear timeline and then they manage own agenda on their end. We don't put a deadline on when it will be done, we just say how long it will take to us.

When you're creating your own fonts, is it possible to maintain that kind of drive, or is it harder because you're suddenly your own client?

We tried all the options. We said we wanted to release it in certain date and we did our best to get it done, it makes you pretty exhausted. Then we experimented with the lack of a deadline, where we said when it's done, it's done, then again it's unnecessarily drawn out. We're ideally looking for a compromise. But it also happens that some fonts just come out of the blue, they arise naturally, without deadline, and suddenly they're just available.

Display posters

"Nowadays, new and new fonts are being created all the time, designers don't know what to choose anymore and they don't even know which fonts are of good quality, so they often stick with a favourite type-foundry and then go back to its typefaces regularly."

What's your bestseller?

Our bestsellers are Roobert and immediately followed by Reckless, two relatively common fonts, so who knows what causes it. It's a kind of alchemy. It could be because there's more and more competition these days and these fonts are more established and therefore more well-known. The new ones take longer to break through and may not even succeed. Roobert and Reckless are almost a decade old fonts. Nowadays, new fonts are being created all the time, designers don't know what to choose anymore and they can't even tell if they're good quality, so they often stick with a favourite type-foundry and then go back to its typefaces regularly.

How do you feel about those typefaces? Do you ever find yourself going back to your old typefaces and wondering if they need a makeover?

No, once we release a typeface, we don't want to change or alter anything fundamental. I expected that to be the case, but it's not that way at all.

Is there any need for maintenance? You mentioned that the fonts are almost a decade old, in that time technology changes, etc.

The formats are fine, they stick. Maintenance doesn't have to take place, updating only takes place if we add some new currency symbol that the particular font lacked until now and there was a demand for it. All of our trials are complete, so you can test what you buy at the same time. This has undeniable advantages for designers who can show clients everything they need. Plus, who wants to steal, will steal, so there was no reason for us to cut the trial versions of the fonts any more.

Are there any fonts from anyone else which you're currently into?

We don't need to use fonts from anyone else, and we try to create fonts that don't resemble anything already on the market. All of them were created out of a need to fill a gap, to create something that we ourselves lack. And I personally have no reason or opportunity to use someone else's fonts. But it's certainly good to keep an eye on them so we don't make something that already exists.

Is there a current trend in typography that you enjoy or that annoys you?

With the newly discovered variable format came the possibilities to give users some intermediate phases between styles, and it seems to me that designers don't really care about it and don't use it. I've only seen a couple of use cases from abroad in the last five years since the format has been available. I think typographers and type-foundries expected graphic designers to use the variable option more. I thought I'd be seeing it on sites where it could be nicely tinkered with, for example, where the user would read text and it would interact with the user in some way, with lines getting progressively thicker as they scrolled, depending on how much the text was read, or different interactions with the user, etc. For some fonts, in addition to the ability to adjust the boldness, there is, for example, a width axis, so that when a web page is loaded, the font can expand or contract, letting the user know where to look. Today, thanks to the variable format, many styles are available in one very small file (less than one megabyte), so it is no longer necessary to have regular, medium, semibold and italics loaded separately. Google has also realized this and is working with various type-foundries to design variable fonts, and in Google fonts it is now possible to filter which fonts are variable and try them out. With variable, various subtleties and details are possible that might not be apparent to the at first glance, but the result is very effective.

How to choose a good font for a website?

It depends on what the client wants to present on the website. If it is a large functional website, where there are a lot of small sizes and it is supposed to serve the users in some way and the traffic is gigantic and there are also different languages, you can to use free fonts from Google fonts, because they have that language coverage and are tested by giant companies on different devices and in different formats and sizes. Alternatively, Adobe fonts, which also tries to test the functionality and readability of their fonts. Then there's the other case, where you need to present a certain aesthetic and character of the company, or it's a product or service presentation site and it's not a big deal, so anything is possible there. I think that's what designers do all over the world, they tend to pick fonts that have some character and then see if it works in all browsers, all sizes and on all monitors. But it's more the assumption that most of the active market and clients have the latest devices, the latest browsers, and so it’s finaly possible to overlook outdated technology for a long time and I think that's fine, that's actually driving the industry itself forward. You can't look backwards forever. So in terms of the other cases, that's where aesthetics play a role and anything can be chosen, depending on what product is being presented. It's all up to the designer to design the visual language that will be used to communicate. If they choose to use one expressive font everywhere, and both them and the client are willing to endure a little illegibility in some places, then why not. But even the percentage of users who will struggle with such a problem will eventually read the text, at least that's my experience.

Speaking of Google Fonts, you have made one font - Azeret - available for free download from the Google Fonts database. Why did you do that and why that particular font?

Just one family from three. Azeret has three families, one proportional, the normal one we can say, different widths per letter. Then there's semi-proportional, that's a blend between proportional and monospaced, we've grown relatively fond of that in-between phase. And the third one is the monospaced version. Monospace is relatively legible, but by trying to make the horizontal space of each character the same width, especially wide characters like W, w and M, m are hard to fit in, they're always kind of shrunken. Other characters, on the other hand, are terribly stretched to fit in the horizontal space and the letters always look a bit comical and deformed, but they're in a uniform grid, so great for tables. We only put the monospace one in Google Fonts. We were willing to provide it for free to make ourselves known again through a different channel, in a different way. The other Azeret families have to be purchased from us. The uploading process was challenging and complex, it's not just about exporting and uploading the font, but you have to meet a lot of prerequisites and Google criteria that had to be checked, there are quite extensive manuals for that. Even though we were able to do it in the end, the desired effect wasn't quite there. Maybe it's also the type of the font, it's generally not that popular, we don't know why it is, if it's the times or trends. We then tried another font of ours to give away for free, it's called Documan STC (Stencil). We've already given that for free, but only on our website.

So you believe that there are better ways to make yourself known? What else do you use to make your presence known? You've already mentioned your offline products and merch.

In graphic design, it is generally said that 50% is presentation and 50% is work. Both are important. Just doing the craft is no longer enough. I've gone to visit our clients who have bought fonts from us, once in New York, then last September I was in Oslo and Stockholm, now we're planning to go to London... Our offline products are good for that. When you meet a person and you can give them a catalogue or some booklets and they get something directly in their hand from you, it's very different than when they see you in their Instagram feed. However, Instagram is still the primary tool where type-foundries present themselves and make their presence known. Twitter has gotten hurt by the whole situation around it now, so a lot of designers have fled. We don't even keep up with all the networks anymore. I wish there was some sort of functional tool that would carefully repost everything to all channels. We're keeping Twitter, LinkedIn, and the Instagram. Our newsletter hasn't had much effect, I'd say we haven't built an audience that's used to reading it. But we have a lot of subscribers because when someone buys a font or downloads a trial, they leave their email address. We send it about eight times a year, usually with an introduction to a new font or offline product. A good example of effective email communication for me is the typeface company Dinamo, which takes a lot of care over the content of their newsletters, they send funny emails full of different memes that are quite fun for everyone to read. At the same time, they then recycle that content and use it a lot on social media. I'm sure they have like two or three people putting that content together. They're showing that the newsletter is not a dead medium, you just have to know how work with it.

Daniela Kadlečková

Martin Hakl

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