Focus On FontStructors – Ata Syed (thalamic / minimum)
For the fifth in our series of mini-interviews with FontStructors, we are travelling halfway round the globe (if we start from FontShop International’s San Francisco office anyway). After having spent his childhood and youth in Pakistan, Ata Syed lived in the United States for 17 years before going back to the country of his birth. Living in a third-world country – as he says himself – electricity is a scarce resource. In the monsoon season the extreme humidity has the effect of killing off one’s computer, and in summer unannounced power outages 2, 5, 8 times a day are standard operating procedure. Even while/when he has power, his ISP may not, so there are several internet outages on top of that. In the end, out of 24 hours Ata gets something like three to four hours of internet access on a good day. As he never knows when the computer might shut down or lose the internet connection, he has become “a master S-pusher” to continuously save his work. Yet these setbacks have not prevented him from creating a respectable body of work on FontStruct. He creates quality FontStructions in a slightly schizophrenic manner – under the guise of thalamic he explores the boundaries of display typography, while minimum reveals his more experimental side.
Ata Syed (thalamic/minimum)
Born in 1967 and raised in Karachi, Pakistan; Ata Syed moved to the United States at the age of 19. He attended Drexel University for a five-year degree in Architectural Engineering. Along the way discovered he didn’t want to sit and perform engineering calculations for the rest of his life and quit school in the fourth year. What made Ata change his mind was the guidance of his mentor, Jim Shaffer, who saw that his aptitude lay in design. Shaffer allowed Ata the luxury to develop this in the form of numerous projects, ranging from purely graphic to purely technical (with a design bent on them) and everywhere in between. As Ata was the only design person in an engineering department, there was never a shortage of design-related projects. The challenge was to do the work required for each project while trying to push his own abilities further. Each project taught him some valuable lesson.
Before he realised it 17 years had passed, and in 2003 Ata Syed returned to Karachi. Few people get the chance to start life anew. This move presented a unique opportunity to finally get that long-forgotten degree. The difference this time was that Ata now knew what he wanted to do – he got a Bachelors degree in the Arts from Karachi University and a Masters degree in Advertising from Iqra University. A week after submitting his thesis in typography, he was hired as a teacher in the same university. He now mainly teaches graphic design basics and design software courses. Speaking about his profession he says that it is highly frustrating on a daily basis, yet overall it is very rewarding and can’t imagine doing anything else now.
Your aptitude for design revealed itself during your degree in Architectural Engineering at Drexel University, but at what point did you get bitten by the typography bug?
I discovered fonts much earlier, when I got my first computer in 1983 – the Commodore 64. Before that, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as more than one typeface or even something like graphic design. On that Commodore 64 I had a lot of games, yet I hardly ever played them because game play was not what I was interested in. Only with hindsight I realise now that the fonts and graphics used in the different games were what impressed me so much and got me interested in type. Back then, it was just something that occupied my time. Years later, I came across a Letraset catalogue at work. I was fascinated with it and used to sit and stare at the typefaces in it for hours at a stretch. I guess somewhere between the Commodore 64 and Letraset, I acquired what type was. The funny thing is I never thought about any of this until I answered this question. I really wonder what other unknown influences I might uncover.
And from there, what prompted you to make the next step to actually designing typefaces?
Since my degree is in advertising, the crux of the thesis lay in a complete marketing campaign for a product or service of our choice. Type design and typography had been a long-standing interest of mine, and thus I chose to do an advertising campaign for a type foundry. Just like the management of VW likes to arrive at auto manufacturers’ meetings in their own top-end cars, similarly, I thought no self-respecting graphic designer would use someone else’s typefaces for their thesis on typography, even though creating a font was not a requirement for it. The ad campaign of my thesis revolved around the promotion of a new typeface, so I found myself in the position that I needed to generate this font. It was the first time that I was forced to examine type and fonts from a technical perspective. Since I now live in Pakistan where Urdu is the main language, I decided to design an Urdu font.
The odd thing about Urdu is that it is almost always written in cursive, and having stylised fonts is neither a necessity nor an indulgence of the local designers. The one thing that always struck me is the disparity in the design (the look-and-feel) between Urdu and English typefaces. While in the Latin alphabet thousands of different type designs are available, each with its own distinct style and atmosphere, Urdu fonts are almost always devoid of any personality. Furthermore, as almost all commercial ad campaigns in Pakistan run in both English and Urdu, there is a clear discrepancy between the English and Urdu language versions. My idea was to try and design a typeface that comprised the character sets from both languages in a very similar, if not identical, design treatment. This would allow for a similar look and feel in both scripts, and the impact of the campaign would remain consistent in either language. Not only did the typeface prove to be a challenge to design, I also had to learn all the technical aspects involved in the creation of digital fonts in no time. This experience forever etched in my mind what an incredibly involved process type design is. As a result I now appreciate each typeface – even the really terrible ones – as an achievement by someone, at some stage of being a typophile.
Owing to the extreme shortage of time Bilingual – the typeface I designed for my thesis – ended up being modular in nature. I think it may have something to do with my engineering background that I always think in grids. After experimenting with few of the characters on a quadrille pad, it became evident to me that there would be a lot of repeating elements in the characters and that they could be designed in smaller modules, or bricks, as it were. Not only did this save me time, but in the process it also gave the font the consistency between the two scripts that I was looking for. One could consider this first attempt to be a manual FontStruct, so to say. It is no wonder that I’ve loved FontStruct ever since I StumbledUpon! it in early April, 2008. Since then almost all of my free time is spent online building fonts with bricks.
Oh, you found us out! (laughs) Well, I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive person. There was a point when almost every other comment posted on the site was mine, or I should say, thalamic’s. It felt like I was monopolising the site and considered stepping back a little – a sure case of easier said than done. That’s when I created another account to keep thalamic to a ‘minimum’. Without realising it myself, minimum evolved into my experimental FontStructions account. Though I’ve tried to keep the two ‘personalities’ distinct, the core type ideologies I embody are clearly visible in both. Observant and much respected fellow FontStructor DJNippa was quick to pick up on it. Frankly, I was flattered he paid such attention to my work and made me resolve to live up to such scrutiny. The beauty of FontStruct and its incredibly generous user community is that it makes one grow without even realising it. That is exceptional for a website. And really, calling FontStruct a mere website is like calling the UN a mere organisation.
How much do you flesh out your character sets?
It depends on the font. Some of my fonts only contain the lowercase set, some just the uppercase letters, and on rare occasions the extended latin characters as well. Most of my fonts are limited to the upper- and lowercase, numerals and basic punctuation. For me personally FontStructing in its current state is for exploring letter forms and not so much for developing fonts for every typographic need. FontStruct is improving every day and I certainly don’t want to imply that it is not a proper font creation tool, which it truly is, especially for pixel fonts. FontStruct provides a quick and practical tool for experimentation that would take a lot longer using Bézier curves with other font creation software.
The other languages in Pakistan are written in Arabic script. Have you designed Arabic characters as well in your FontStructions?
I would like to but I haven’t… yet. The reason is that languages using the Arabic script are almost always written in cursive. The Arabic characters currently supported in FontStruct are limited to the equivalent the uppercase characters in the Latin character set. Full cursive writing in Arabic and derivative scripts, like Urdu, requires three additional forms – initial, medial, and terminal. I promised Rob Meek to provide him with the list of all characters required to write cursive Arabic a long time ago, and still I intend to get that done for him one of these days… if only I can tear myself away from FontStruct for a good block of time.
The Arabic script is rooted in calligraphy far more than Latin or Greek or Cyrillic. Does translating swooping curves and small diacritic marks to the FontStruct grid present additional difficulties?
Yes, the Arabic script is certainly rooted in calligraphy; deeply. Although modern Arabic script gradually becomes less calligraphic. It is evolving with the times to better conform itself to the limitations of displaying type on the computer screen and the rules governing the creation process (say, OpenType standards). However, languages other than Arabic that started out with borrowed Arabic script, like Urdu, have been less willing to adapt to current standards, and still clearly betray their calligraphic roots. Overcoming this requires font designers to use thousands of ligatures. Either Urdu script must evolve or OpenType standards must expand. The status quo does not suit.
Although I have not yet attempted to create an Arabic FontStruction, I can say this with some assurance that a curve is a curve. If a curve can be approximated for a Latin based script font, the same must hold true for any other script. Translating them to FontStruct should not pose any significant challenge beyond what countless users face – and overcome – every day. As is clearly evident by thousands of beautiful fonts already available on FontStruct, the limitation is not the medium but rather the imagination of the user. Allow me to point you to Funk_King‘s 400+ currently shared FontStructions as an example of diverse ideas converted into typefaces, or Intaglio‘s 150+ currently shared FontStructions as an example of exploring what a text typeface can be. As far as I can see – if you can imagine it, you can do it in FontStruct.
But this interview has taken a serious bent towards Arabic. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is not what thalamic is about. The Arabic is just a minor aspect of my background and not visible at all in my FontStructions.
Now that you bring it up, what is thalamic about? Is there an overarching theme or research in your work? Are there specific things you are experimenting with?
I had a feeling that was going to be the next question. (laughs)
It’s interesting that it is always easier to define what something isn’t then what something is. To say that thalamic is not an astronomer is a no-brainer. What thalamic is, well, that’s a stumbling block. As anyone else, thalamic is an amalgam of all of my past experiences. Why, you might ask, do I want to involve (indulge, even) in type design as opposed to any of the other past experiences? For one thing, we all gravitate towards that which is pleasurable or stimulating somehow. For me, typefaces and type design are definitely a case of “and”, as in: pleasurable and stimulating. When you hit upon that winning combination, it is hard to let go. After all, no one asks why they like ice cream, do they?
Many years ago, a colleague of mine told me how he motivated himself to get up at 5am to go for a jog everyday. While getting up so early was as difficult for him as the next person, he did it because he knew how great he would feel having done it. And this is the key – you only work for how you will feel after having done it, any of it. Similarly, for me completing a FontStruction is always the goal. Having the whole set make sense in its own context is the requirement to reach that goal. Everything else on top of that is the icing. The trick is to see the icing as the bonus, and not to expect it to be an indispensable aspect in the process of completing a font.
In doing shapes, I’ve come to admire/dread the double reverse curves of the “S” or “s” for usually it is them that causes a font to reach an undue pause. And if you reverse the process, when you start with “S” or “s” other glyphs suffer. “A” and “V” are easier to design but tend to be on the wide side. This sometimes does not work with the style of the FontStruction and you end up making compromises. For every one shared font, there are three that refuse to be moulded. Sometimes you are the master, sometime FontStruct resists. But oh, when you and FontStruct are in sync, then it is sheer magic – the bricks just seem to fall into place. FontStruct really is the Tetris of this generation.
Do you explore specific concepts in some of your FontStructions, or are they primarily formal experiments in shapes and moods?
It’s been said many times that there are no original ideas left; everyone is influenced by something, be it natural or man-made. Since my interests gravitate towards graphic design I come across thousands of images every day, and inevitably they have an impact on me. If I know what my inspiration source is for a specific FontStruction, I reveal it at the time of sharing. For example Grayscale was inspired by a single character I discovered on a submission for a poster design contest on CrowdSpring. Most of the times though, shared FontStructions start off as mere experimentations, by placing one brick next to another. If in doing so I get one letter done in some particular style, I can usually visualise the rest of the glyphs in my head. Then it simply becomes a matter of placing the rest of bricks where they need to be, like in hello.
Yet it also happens that I start with a vague concept in my head, for instance building a shadowed font like The I, creating a text face like fs_tributary, conducting experiments double line design like Helix, or whatever crazy idea I may come up with, like abc etc. – all with varying degrees of success. It is rare for me to start off with a really distinct idea. That usually happens when I am bored in class and start doodling in my notebook. The lowercase of Penmanship came about that way.
The interesting part is that – no matter what the starting point is – you always have to adjust your ideas to what the modularity of FontStruct is allowing you to do. In its own game, FontStruct usually wins. The challenge/fun is getting the match to a draw, learning from it, sharing the outcome, and then move on to the next match. Interestingly though, the ball seems to always end up in my court. What keeps me going is the question: “What do I do with it this time?”
The FontFeed is a daily dispatch of recommended fonts, typography techniques, and inspirational examples of digital type at work in the real world. Eat up.
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