Peter Bil'ak is a Slovakian graphic & typeface designer currently based in The Hague, Netherlands. I was intrigued by his metaphoric perspectives on type and multiple interdisciplinary projects undertaken for sheer exploration.
Bil'ak is also the founder and editor of Works that Work, "a magazine of unexpected creativity", now in its 8th issue. I came across the magazine on a random Instagram trail. So many things about it stimulated an inner "yes!". The in-depth, yet grounded essays that talked about people, and solutions that they found. The deliciously tactile paper it was printed on. The original typeface, designed by Bil'ak specifically for the magazine. Even the distribution model was unique: instead of shipping orders of the magazine, friends and students who were traveling to another country would often carry a few copies and hand-deliver them.
Whenever I met someone I thought would appreciate a good thing, I would give them a copy of the magazine. A surfer, an electronic musician and political activist, and my 93 year old grandfather, a Holocaust survivor and still practicing electrical engineer, all read it from cover to cover. Finally, I reached out to the editor to become the first Israel stockist of the magazine, and for a conversation about choosing print in the age of digital:
A spread from WTW Magazine Issue #4 courtesy of Works that Work
Knobbly: As you said in an interview on DesignBoom a couple years ago, "people don’t consider letters to be designed". I imagine most people who read the print or digital edition would not be consciously aware of the typeface at all, or even feel that it mattered. Yet, I read that when you started working on Works that Work in 2012, one of the first things you started working on was its typeface, Lava. How do you feel type makes an impact, even when the end user isn’t aware of the structure and logic behind it?
Peter Bil'ak: Of course, I am biased, but I think typefaces function like human voices. Just like some voices are more effective than others, some typefaces are more direct to communicate their message. When I started working on WTW, I was trying to define that ‘voice’ of the magazine, and after printing several font candidates, I wasn’t satisfied, and started sketching a new typeface.
Different editions of the magazine (print, online, ebook) change their medium, format, design - the only thing that connects them is the typeface. So it is an important element of the project.
Knobbly: You build both your typefaces and WTW for digital and print simultaneously. Why do both? What do you feel a printed magazine has to offer that digital doesn't, besides nostalgia?
PB: We started the magazine with crowdfunding, offering digital edition for 8 euro, and print for 16.
91% of our readers chose print, even if it is more expensive. Many people spend so much time in front of screens, mobiles and computers, that when they read for pleasure, they prefer to go offline.
Of course, print is also great for long form reading, strong photography, and tactile experience. We design a magazine that people like to keep, which is different from the digital media.
Proofing WTW, from Instagram
Knobbly: You chose an interesting distribution model for the print magazine. Wherever possible, copies are delivered by hand by friends, students and readers of the magazine traveling to the buyer's location. What was the thought process behind this "social distribution" model?
PB: Besides publishing the magazine, we (our company, Typotheque) publish fonts. We always look for the most direct way to reach our clients and cut the middle-men. When we started the magazine, we tried doing the same, looking for the most direct way between the publisher and the reader.
It was also directly influenced by the experience I had with the previous magazine project, Dot Dot Dot, where a distributor took 82% of the cover price - which left nearly nothing for us to produce the magazine. This is because most of magazines are funded by advertising, so revenue from sales doesn’t go back to the publisher. It was clear that with WTW we have to rethink the distribution model, as we want to be funded by sales of the magazine, and not selling our readers to the advertisers.
So for WTW, we reached out again to readers for help — to bring it to their favorite places, not necessary bookstores, to sell the magazine. And we are happy to pay them for their efforts. It's about the engagement with the readers. Many readers feel strongly about the contents and operations of the magazine and want to be part of the growing community. Their engagement goes beyond buying the magazine: they are involved in suggesting content and helping the operations of the publication.
Once a year, we also let readers choose how much to pay for the magazine, and make our operations very transparent.
From Sámi Self-Sufficiency. Courtesy of Works that Work
Knobbly: Creating a printed product that can be held in one’s hand and then passed on in a face to face meeting, social distribution - you’re actively going the hard path in order to make your magazine an agent for connection. Why is it important to you? Do more of your projects revolve around this same vision?
PB: Most of my work is self-initiated. There is no client behind it, there is no external funding. When we create our own projects, we want to make them right - imagining myself being on the other side, being the reader, or whoever the project is for. I want to create a magazine that I’d like to read myself, and the model of financing it, and distributing it, has to match too.
We apply this logic to all our work: since we finance our own project, we work closely with our audiences. There is another project that we recently started called Fontstand, which rethinks digital content distribution, which is becoming a dominant model for consuming films, music, books these days. Netflix, Spotify, Pandora made content streaming very popular, but this model doesn’t work well for the authors that create music or films.
We made Fontstand to make work with fonts easier for the users, eliminating piracy, but we also addressed the perspective of the authors and make sure that they get compensated fairly for their work.
Works that Work Issue #4: Extreme Environments is available here.