Inna Oc-Ta delves into the socio-political history of the Cyrillic script and designs Bilibin with her findings

The Russian-born, Netherlands-based type designer questions the cultural role of traditional Cyrillic.

31 January 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read

Dating as far back to 893-940 BCE, the first forms of Cyrillic script shaped languages across Eurasia from the Slavic nations to northern Asia. For centuries to come, the written language spread far and wide, influencing the stories and religious texts that came out of these regions. But in the 18th century, Russian culture and society underwent a dramatic shift, eventually causing the traditional Cyrillic alphabet to become obsolete. As the emperor Peter Alekseevich reformed the Russian state, soon the army, government, economy and culture swiftly followed. He commissioned Dutch printing press masters to develop the alphabet from sketches he had made himself and as a result the new font (known as Grazhdanskii Shrift at the time) became more Westernised.

The new font that emerged saw elements of the Latin script be directly transferred onto the Cyrillic alphabet. Its design recalled roman type, more recognisably known today as Dutch Antiqua. With the invention of the metal press, Cyrillic type was further simplified. Notorious for its multitude of glyphs and accents in its original form, the translation into metal type would be overwhelmingly complicated, and so to make the writing system more accessible, new typefaces were created for ease. Soon after, this new typeface was used across Russian newspapers, textbooks and maps, shifting Russia into a new period. And though it marked a new era of progression, the new “Westernised” type enlarged the stylistic and ideological gap from its original form.

All in all, this deeply interesting and vastly complicated subject, has been the subject of interest for type designer Inna Oc-Ta since she was a student. As a Russian-born, Netherlands-based creative, she’s valued traditional Cyrillic script for its cultural heritage and history. While studying graphic design at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie, she learned to question her interests and in time, she came to understand “typography as a playground for creating systems where the role of constructing and making is more exciting than the outcome,” she tells us. Though the aesthetic style of letterforms appealed to her on a purely visual level, it was the sociopolitical history behind the alphabets that interested Inna most of all.

“The historical and political events, linguistic anthropology, functionality and other crossing aspects are something I have learned to explore through typography. This became the prism for research and a tool for design,” she adds. And in this vein, Inna became increasingly entranced by the visual systems of traditional Cyrillic. She tells us of a particularly key influence, Ivan Y. Bilibin, a designer who extensively studied the writing system and raised the conversation to the creative industry as a consequence. Inna adds, “I most value his typographic work in which Bilibin relied on the pre-reformed type, practicing and experimenting with particularities of traditional Cyrillic font styles.”

Following his lead, Inna’s research into the old language has led her to design a new font, which she’s aptly named Bilibin, too. Merging asynchronous elements, the font attempts to build the bridge between multiple lingual identities of Cyrillic; a result of Inna’s substantial research into the topic. Focussing on the socio-cultural role of the visual language, Bilibin the font, embodies Inna’s research into how the role of typefaces changes over time and depending on a variety of conditions. “For example,” explains Inna, “Poluustav, the traditional book writing Cyrillic script, served several different purposes as a visual language.”

It went from being a central identifier in Orthodox literature, but now, it is more recognisable on the boards of Slavic Nationalist campaigns or on the signs of a grocery shop. In a similar vein, with the design for Bilibin, Inna plays with the historical paths that leads to the repurposing of type. It contains elements of Cyrillic, Skoropic, Poluustav and Grazhdanskii, and importantly, the typeface respects its cultural history and seeks to make its story known.

GalleryInna Oc-Ta: BIlibin

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Inna Oc-Ta: Bilibin

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.

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