Date of Visit April and May 2012
Part 1: A Conversation with Onur Yazıcıgil in Istanbul
Bankalar Caddesi 11
Part 2: A Conversation with Alessandro Segallini
& Laurie Churchman at Izmir University of Economics
Visual Communication Design
Modern Turkey is built upon a complex overlay of successively changing cultures from as early as 12,000 years BC; Babylonians, Hittites, Lydians, Lycians, Greeks, Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans. Some of them injected their cultures forcibly from outside of Turkey but the most recent and dramatic societal shift came from within via the reforms of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. (1881-1938) Atatürk, the military leader who commanded his troops to victory in the 1919 Turkish War of Independence (“I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die”) was equally as compelling as a peacetime president committed to westernizing his country. Atatürk instituted a secular constitution that separated religion and state in this primarily (98%) Muslim country, initiated women’s voting rights and outlawed wearing of religious clothing ie the fez and the veil.
Another of the westernizing initiatives was the abrupt introduction of the new Turkish (modified Latin) alphabet in 1928 to replace the existing Perso-Arabic script. As then only 10% of the population was literate it was argued that a new and easier alphabet would improve the literacy rate. Numbers written in Arabic were replaced with their Western equivalents and a new set of symbols was added to the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of the Turkish language. At Atatürk’s insistence the language changeover happened within a scant few months. The language reform was dramatic and successful however it essentially severed the country from much of its long and rich literary and artistic heritage.
Ataturk’s strategies for Turkey have borne out well judging by Turkey’s current political and economic successes. The West sees Turkey as the voice of Muslim moderation while at the same time it is an example of economic prosperity and forward thinking for other Islamic countries. Now a mecca for tourism (thanks to a booming economy, a stable and powerful military and a large number of outstanding antiquities) Turkey’s new prosperity could render greater cultural changes than those of any foreign invader or president.
Part 1: Istanbul / A Conversation with Onur Yazıcıgil
Co-founder ISType Conferences and Workshops in Istanbul
As we descended into Istanbul we were greeted by multitudes of slender minarets projecting high over the cityscape but once on the ground and driving through its outskirts modern Istanbul felt the much the same as any large European city. As we entered the historical Sultanahmet quarter our travel companion was shocked at the dramatic changes since he had last visited the city in the late 1970’s. What had then been dusty and crumbling was now completely refurbished and bustling with enormous crowds of tourists. Long lines queued up outside of the Blue Mosque and Agia Sophia— even in “off-season” late April. It seems that the entire world has discovered Turkey as a tourist destination. Located at the junction between Europe and Asia, Istanbul feels both familiar and exotic. Rose flavored candies, Turkish baths and the call to prayer at all hours of the day and night infuse you the exotic while blue jeans, shopping malls and billboards are blandly familiar. We visited most of the major sites before we took a few hours off to chat with graphic designer Onur Yazıcıgil about his part in the Turkish typography scene. Our meeting took place in Salt Galata, a sleekly modernized bank from the Ottoman period and the site of the upcoming IStype 2012 in June.
Even before meeting Yazıcıgil, a review of his resume reveals a typographic force in the making. His undergraduate work at Bilkent University in Ankara and his graduate degree from Purdue University in the US have given him an excellent education plus the ability to network across continents. This has paid off as he has lined up speakers and sponsors for IStype 2, the second typography conference he is co-chairing with Alessandro Segalini. The event, spawned from a casual conversation between Onur and Alessandro, has found form as a lecture and workshop series delivered by well-known participants (headlined by Ellen Lupton) who will discuss international and Turkish typographic subjects. (See the complete program book designed by Alessandro Segalini here)
The Yazıcıgil family comes from near the city of Konya in the conservative heartland of Turkey however they are not conservative — in fact one of Yazıcıgil’s major peeves is the proclivity of his Turkish clients to resist a new or original type design. His experience with clients in the US who tend to be open to experimentation adds to his charge to pierce the cautious armor of the Turkish market. (Although we only spent three weeks in Turkey our observations were that the overwhelming majority of commercial typography is neutral sans serifs.)
Yazıcıgil’s genetic pool, a father who is a professor of Geological Engineering at the prestigious Middle East Technical University and a mother who teaches textile design, created a child who excelled at mathematics (with a special fondness for the beauty of geometry) as well as design. He is the sort that finds enjoyment in tinkering with programs, such as his experimental Text Invader, essentially a virus he injects into Font Lab to convert certain semantic patterns into vectors during the typesetting process.
In his type design Yazıcıgil stays firmly in the European tradition— his graduate thesis topic was humanistic sans-serifs versus grotesque sans. Duru Sans, his multilingual typeface (designed with four weights, small caps, alternate glyph sets and italics) was first used as the exclusive type face for the 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art in Istanbul during fall 2011. The design is now licensed by Eben Sorkin’s independent Sorkin Type Company, an enterprise which has supplied Google with 60 new “web tuned typefaces.” Duru Sans is now a libre font and one version can be downloaded on the Google Web Fonts directory. Another font, Lokum Sans, was primarily designed for display but also capable of scaling to text size. The name Lokum refers to Turkish Delight, a sweet confection that comes in many flavors—our favorites are pistachio and ginger. Onur’s Turkish contemporaries also tend to the sans serif, such as Mehmet Gozetlik‘s Antrepo and Taner Ardali’s Embrio.
When we asked if any Turkish type designers were exploring the potential of incorporating their rich regional or historical heritage into type design Yazıcıgil reminded us of just how shocking Ataturk’s reformations were on the design psyche of Turkey. The cultural whiplash from the abrupt cessation of 700 years of Ottoman arts is still being felt and he feels that anticipating a “Turkish style” is premature. “In order to develop a particular style such as the Swiss-International, it has to be through structured education. Since the country had shifted to another convention in the writing system, it was required to start over again in building identity–style–attitude–voice–tone. It will take time and if we could be patient, it will be quite rewarding to reflect the richness of the cultural background upon the typographic scene.” Yazıcıgil’s frequent presentation topic, The Lack of Latin Typographic Heritage and Type Design in Turkey, defines how he, a native Turk and a typeface designer, reconciles Turkish type with the international typographic community. He also cites the influence of the internet—predicting that regionalism might lose more and more importance in a connected world. Perhaps our sixty years of age makes us naïve or an anachronism but personally we advocate for preserving any cultural uniqueness that secures the world’s rich visual diversity.
We have no doubts that Yazıcıgil is best qualified to know the right path for the future of Turkish typography but before he can fully commit his attention to that endeavor he has a conference to oversee and then six months of compulsory service in the Turkish army. We sincerely hope that both experiences are as rewarding and peaceful as possible.
Part 2: Izmir University of Economics/
Visual Communication Design
We started our visit to the archaeologically rich region of Anatolia in the city of Izmir—Pearl of the Aegean. The city, one of most secular areas in Turkey, has a lively nightlife along its extensive harbor. We enjoyed its historic market and Hisar Mosque (1529) as well as the sparklingly modern transportation system and upscale restaurants.
On our second day we dropped in to visit the Visual Communications Department at the Izmir University of Economics. We connected with Professor Laurie Churchman, a recent AIGA fellow from Philadelphia, who was in the final weeks of her third year of teaching at the University.
Perched high atop a hill on the site of a former casino the university is, according to its catalog, ranked among the top 2,000 private universities in the world. The department of Visual Communication Design is housed in a newly designed building also home to Architecture, Fashion, Interior and Industrial/Product design. There are about 120 students in the VCD department who, by their third year, select an emphasis in either graphic or multimedia design.
Professor Churchman guided us through series of outdoor spaces where students were blowing off some academic pressure in school sponsored activities—bashing each other in the head with soft cushioned bats and jumping on inflated bouncing platforms to loud rock music. In the state-of-the-art Design building the atmosphere was more serious as students stared into computer screens with that pressured focus that comes at the end of any senior design year. Churchman’s senior Graduation Project class sat patiently through our presentation featuring student work from Professor Dorothy Funderwhite’s Drawing as Design Process class at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. There had also been an earlier video exchange of student presentations between the class and a group of Moore senior graphic design students who were studying branding under their teacher, 2012 Philadelphia AIGA Fellow Rosemary Murphy.
We asked a few questions to take the pulse of the class. 1. How many of you consider yourselves as artists? (1 out of 15) How many consider yourselves both an artist and a designer? (2 of 15) How many define yourselves strictly as a designer? (14 of 15). 2. What do you believe is distinctive about Turkish graphic design compared to the rest of the world? Hesitantly one student offered that since Turkey has such a complex history of cultural changes that it was difficult to point to any one particular thing that is unique in her country. (We had so wanted someone to answer that for us so we did not have to discover it ourselves!) 3. How do you see your employment prospects after your imminent graduation? Their faces remained neutral but their eyes were screaming “Don’t ask that question! We just want to graduate and worry about that later!” Our old teachery instincts kicked in and a pep talk ensued to point out that their prospects were bright—certainly much better their American contemporaries who are facing a much gloomier job market.
Although this group looked and acted much like American students Professor Churchman has experienced a difference between her Turkish students and those in the States. Her students in Izmir approach their creative work with more restraint because the Turkish primary and secondary schools use rote learning rather than the freer exploration and experimentation of their American contemporaries. Some experts on the Turkish educational system point to a societal habituation to rote learning, such as memorizing the Qur’an. For whatever reasons these students come to design with a different set of conceptualization skills.
Another purpose for our visit was to speak with Alessandro Segalini and therefore we left the students grappling with their final design solutions. Later we were able to speak briefly with a few remaining students and glimpse into their design process, similar to American students (perhaps due to their American teacher or the universal tenants of good design process).
Co-founder ISType Conferences and Workshops in Istanbul
We met with Alessandro Segalini in his university office where we discerned that it might be more interesting to chuck our prepared questions and allow him to chronicle his career to date. Born about 60 kilometers outside of Milan in Piacenza, Italy, Segalini admits to a rambunctious youth. His obsession with lettering, especially the proportions of certain letterform combinations, was expressed on the walls of his city via his custom graffiti tag. Despite using a pseudonym of “otye,” his identity was uncovered but it was his parents who paid the price— €1000. He then channeled his youthful energies into the ultimate male dream mix of disk-jockeying at clubs (his handle “Exsor”), skateboarding and forming a band. The group, Kala-Azar (the name refers to Leishmaniasis, a nasty disease spread by the bite of a female sand fly) provided him with a CD cover where he and mastermind Davide Barbieri could coalesce his design and graffiti skills. The critical reviews described Kala-Azar as reminiscent of 80s European groups, i.e. Kraftwerk, incorporating psychedelic and industrial sounds on “a journey through the mists where one finds a cure to evils in hip hop.” Segalini (alias Dj Exsor) is credited for adding “vinyls and scratch” to the sound. You can listen to some of Segalini’s mixes online on SoundCloud.
Segalini enrolled in formal design studies at the Polytechnic of Milan (including a stint in Visual Communication at the University of Art and Design of Helsinki in Finland) and earned his MSc in industrial design. He submitted an extensive collection of design work hardbound into a book, Graphic Anthology, to gain entrance to the program.
He moved to Rome where he was unhappily employed as the in-house typesetter for a publishing house. The schedule pressures plus the lack of appreciation for his expertise led to a dramatic truth-telling session with his boss that ended in immediate unemployment. He started freelancing and assisted artist/designer Vladimir Radunsky on a children’s book, Fire! Fire! Their budding collaboration ended prematurely when Segalini accepted an invitation from Marek Brzozowski to teach at to Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He remained there for only one year but it was there that he met his friend and future ISType partner, Onur Yazıcıgil.
Through all off his transitions and dislocations Segalini labored on his original typeface design, Hemingway, inspired by his favorite novel, The Old Man and the Sea, but without formal training in commercial type design he needed to be versed in the professional end of the art. He learned to be judicious in sharing his original ideas after innocently seeking advice by posting his in-progress sketches for public critique on Typophile’s forum. The type gods protected him in the form of John Downer who telephoned from the States to warn him against the pitfalls of posting unfinished work.
Additionally he learned that there is a huge technical chasm between the creation of a design and the production of a commercial typeface. That chasm was leapt with the help of Steve Jackaman, proprietor of International TypeFounders, creators of the Red Rooster Collection, based near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When we learned that Jackaman mentored and hosted the young Italian for a month in his family home we had to call and ask the reason for such generosity. The answer was two fold—first, Segalini had a referral from the late type designer Phil Martin, and secondly the design of Hemingway showed commercial potential. Jackaman “selects type designs and designers based on their potential, perhaps not always immediate, but with an eye to the future.” When Segalini arrived with the genesis of Hemingway, Jackaman realized that major refinements would be necessary for the family’s eight weights as well as a new approach for the uppercase characters. With thirty-years of typographic experience behind him Jackaman has observed that mentoring and advanced technical instruction are what separates commercially viable type designers from those who are merely creative. The majority of the technical work for Hemingway was completed after Segalini left for his new position in Turkey. The face is now available for purchase and was selected for the UK Creative Review Type Annual 2011 in the Display Types category. Red Rooster is currently working with Segalini on a second design, Pacioli Old Style.
After his year in Ankara Segalini moved to Izmir and his current position where he now appears to be putting down roots— recently receiving a university medal for 5 years of successful teaching. In addition to teaching he co-chairs the ISType Conference and maintains a seriously extensive list of links on his website As8.it. The site is definitely worth a visit.
Now married to his Turkish wife, Esen, the father of young daughter
and anticipating the birth of his son in the autumn, and new born son, Segalini must juggle the challenges of designer/educator/parent. How to balance his typographic work with the demands of teaching? What will it be like to raise his children in Turkey? Economically Turkey is in a much better situation than Italy and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Having once been a parent/teacher/designer ourselves we advised him to concentrate on staying put, enjoying his young family and creating more beautiful typography.