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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

Work / Graphic Design

“I have to print or photograph something ‘real’”: Kai Udema on his approach to design

“When things remain in the digital, I always feel they have never really been finished,” explains Kai Udema, a graphic designer and artist based in Amsterdam. To come to this conclusion means one thing: Kai has a Riso printer at hand, at all times, in his studio that’s shared with several other designers and photographers. “Even when there is a question to design, say, a simple Facebook banner, I have to print or photograph something ‘real’, in order to satisfy myself.”

This relationship between the digital and the physical is something that Kai explores throughout his work. Shifting from the digital to the analogue, and vice versa, is common practice: “how does ‘flat’ form behave in space?” Asking this question, Kai consequently flits between different media – from print to photography, sculpture to exhibitions. It’s in this cross-section that he believes the magic happens: “I suppose graphic design is all about translations.”

Applying this approach, Kai has worked on various commissions for museums, artists, publishers and cultural institutions, and has delivered myriad typographically-led products. A great roster of clients make up his portfolio too, with the likes of Agata Jaworska, ArtEZ Arnhem, ArtPartner, Casa Design, Academy Eindhoven and many others allowing Kai to fully flex his graphic talents. And, most recently, the designer has released a personal project in the guise of a new typeface and accompanying publication, named Nova.

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

“The reason for me to draw Nova came from my fascination with roundness,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I was interested in how round form can make one more aware of seeing. I noticed how round shapes made me actively conscious of the relationship between the positive and negative space of form, more than rectangular shapes.” This distinction between the two forms is what drives the typeface, with the design reflecting an overtly modernistic approach to the grid – “Crouwel-like you could say” – using just horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. Consciously leaving the diagonals thin and the straight lines thicker, replete with rounded corners, means that Nova has both a retro and futuristic tone running throughout. “I chose to have all descenders and ascenders go horizontal, because I wanted the letters to sit closely with each other – in terms of kerning and line height – as opposed to the round shapes that feel blocky,” says Kai. “From there I had to find a balance between these restrictions I had made for myself and legibility.”

Not just a typeface, Kai challenged himself to create an entire project. After drawing Nova came the question of how to release it. “There was practically no context to it at first, which I felt it needed in order to retrieve meaning in the outside world,” he says. Due to the Nova’s ambiguous context – where the future blends with the past – Kai decided that music was the best option, to “contextualise it in an atmospheric, associative way.”

The website enables its visitors to test the specimen, where you can quite literally “write anywhere”, with two playlists playing alongside the typeface. These playlists are named after the two emojis: the dragon and the hillside. “The dragon emoji is an ironic one,” Kai says, “as it symbolises an ancient mythical creature through a highly contemporary medium (an emoji).” The dragon also appears as an enlarged copy on the cover of the publication – “it perfectly summarises the old and new contrast found within Nova.”

Thus adhering to Kai’s desire to transfer all-things digital into a physical landscape, he found that the Riso-printed specimen was a necessary addition to connect the online music with the typeface. “Although the font works well on screen, it was designed for print – so in order to bring it to life and complete Nova as a publishing project, it needed ink and paper.” Containing an extended explanation into Nova’s concept, as well as the music, lyrics and, of course, the glyphs, the publication is a fantastic equilibrium to Nova’s saturated online presence.

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman

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Kai Udema: Nova; photography by Rosanne Raaijman