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Peter Bil'ak & Typotheque
Variety is the spice of type

by Angelynn Grant

A small etched house fly: that’s just one of the ingenious design solutions featured in the premiere issue of Works That Work, Peter Bil'ak’s new magazine that he describes as a “National Geographic for design.” In the case of the fly, a quirk of human nature is behind its success in solving another quirk of human nature. Found in the Schiphol airport, it is elegantly executed—as elegantly as something in a urinal can be, that is. (The problem, as the reader has surely discovered, is about aim.) The prose is thorough, enlightening and just plain fun. Other delightful and detailed articles in the WTW debut include a feature on dabbawallas, Mumbai’s unique home-cooked lunch delivery system, a photo essay on DIY “bastard” street chairs in China and Hong Kong and Bil'ak’s own interview on the sensitive art of translation with Linda Asher, former editor for The New Yorker and translator of seminal Czech writer Milan Kundera’s French writings.

Peter Bil'ak wears many hats, but is primarily known as a type designer and head of the type foundry Typotheque. Greta Sans, his 2012 release that includes a plethora of weights and a wide multilingual scope is currently used here in Communication Arts. Beyond a typeface family, Greta is a type “system” and, as such, a good choice for publications. “Magazines traditionally use a variety of different typefaces to be able to differ in voices and to be flexible in design,” Bil'ak observes. “Greta Sans achieves this flexibility within the range of available widths and weights. With its 80 styles, it is able to adapt to content and, at the same time, preserve the identity of the magazine. Additionally, the fonts work well on the web, so the same identity can be maintained in print as on the web.”

"Proofs and first offset-printed sheets of Greta typeface specimen.
The family started in 2007 with serif versions and was expanded by Greta Sans in 2012.”

The serif companion, Greta Text, originally designed for a newspaper in 2006, was released widely the next year and grew to include display cuts, Cyrillic, Greek and Arabic. “Four years later, I began work on Greta Sans, exploring how far I could push the idea of a type family, interested in extremes of the design space, the hairline, the extra bold, compressed and extended. I was wondering if even in these extreme proportions I could keep the overall character of Greta, adapt it to new widths and weights. When you compare the shapes, they are very different, but if you look at the text, it feels related and familiar. It’s like a human voice, sometimes slow-paced, sometimes high-pitched and excited, other times speaking with rigor and soberness. One recognizes a familiar voice even with significant changes in tonality.”

A particular interest for Bil'ak is extending into non-Latin alphabets. “Lately we are working on an Arabic version for all Greta’s styles, an unprecedented feat in the world of Arabic typography, where the largest type families include just three or four styles. There is no reason why non-Latin types should be so limited.”

© Mano Strauch

Bil'ak explores this idea in his article “A View of Latin Typography in Relationship to the World.” Written in 2008 and found on, along with many more writings by him and others, it questions “Euro-centric type terminology.” “In other disciplines, language and terminology have adjusted to the wider environment of the global village, reflecting the progress that society has made in the last couple of decades, and we no longer find a boxed set of paints with the name ‘flesh’ given to a light beige color. Only typography continues to display a shameless bias toward western civilization.”

A prolific writer as well as designer, Bil'ak has published articles about type design and design in general for many publications including Print, the French graphic design magazine Back Cover, the Dutch magazine Items and the online version of Sweden’s Cap & Design. His editorial “We don’t need new fonts…” written for the British typography magazine 8 Faces, suggests what we do need are more fonts based on original ideas, something he teaches his students at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and which he practices himself. “I draw type, publish it and sell it and obviously I try to bring out typefaces that don’t exist yet, or that couldn’t have existed before. New typefaces shape the profession and move it forward. Publishing ‘cover versions’ of successful typefaces stops this process of evolution, and type design as a discipline stagnates. That’s why I require from my students, and from the types that we publish, that they bring something new and that they are personal, full of character, yet highly functional. Sometimes this contribution is achieved by shapes or relationships between shapes, sometimes by reaching out to different cultures, sometimes by making technological contributions." Grant
Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.