The Letterform – Graphic Symbol of Sounds since the Dawn of Humankind

There’s hardly any Bulgarian in the field of design who hasn’t noticed the graphic layout of the new the Bulgarian identity documents, the communication strategy for joining the EU, the Bulgarian airlines’ corporate identity, the identity of the Ministry of the Environment, the Atlantic club of Bulgaria and a number of other important CI’s. Here we will present their author – the artist Todor Vardjiev – typographer, calligrapher, graphic designer and professor at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Sofia.


He is among the people who had a strong influence on the development and training of some of the leading Bulgarian graphic designers.


Todor Vardjiev was born in 1943 in Blagoevgrad, and studied at the national academy in Sofia. After winning a national contest he left for Germany where he received a degree from the Herder-institute (German language) and in 1972 a MA from the Academy for Graphic Arts and Book Design in Leipzig (professors A. Kapr and W. Schiller). After his return to Bulgaria he worked as Creative Director at the “People’s Youth” national publishing company and three years later started teaching at the National Academy of Fine Arts & Design, where he works to date.


Prof. Vardjiev, how did you discover the letterform as your professional path?


I can’t help but remembering the anecdote: “What do you do?”. “I draw”.”Fair enough, children also do that. But what is your occupation?”
Well, I’ve also drawn since I was a child. Pictures in books always attracted me.


My father did a fair bit of drawing himself – though he did not have any formal training. He didn’t know how to read scores either but he played the violin – an old Czech one. He didn’t force me to play the violin or draw though. Dad was drawing “for himself” – Hristo Botev, Vassil Levski, Gotze Delchev(Bulgarian national heroes). Only in black ink. He was hanging the portraits on the wall in the kitchen, where we stayed most often. They were drawn well, but he always wrote the names of the people underneath in an artistic way. I saw the drawings as commonplace, but the letters were something extraordinary to me. I didn’t know much about the compositions, but everything seemed to be in the right place. And I know he didn’t copy it from somewhere. He was only a milkman. My grandfather in turn was a lime-burner.


Coming to think of it, this must be why I like white. To make it even whiter, I took to the black. And what’s blacker than the letters? We draw them in black, on the monitor they’re black, we read them black. But here (at the academy) we not only think of the graphic black form, but we play with the white – in and around the letter.


To me the highest art is the drawing of the letterform – graphic symbol of the sound for centuries. A phenomenon which has preserved the Civilization to this day.


When I entered the academy the biggest influence on me was professor Dr Vassil Yonchev. He was an extraordinary teacher, the most prominent Bulgarian theorist on type design, author of a remarkable research in the field of Cyrillic type, honored at the Leipzig international book exhibition and winner of the prestigious book design prize “J.Gutenberg”. His lectures at the academy I shall never forget. It was out of love for the type design that I decided to continue my education in Germany.


Why is it important to you that the typefaces are designed by artists? Why is the use of the digital technologies only not sufficient for creating a good lettertype?


This question goes right into the core of the problem. In a market economy everyone can produce whatever he/she wants, as far as it sells well. In Bulgaria there was always demand for diverse and beautiful typefaces and the political changes of 1989 opened up this area to free initiative as well. Brilliant computer specialists started to make Cyrillic versions of existing latin typefaces – which they thought was a simple task. But that wasn’t their thing.


Notions and problems like aesthetics and anatomy of the letterforms, architectonics and ergonomy of the type were foreign to them.
The type is magic and struggle – the art of all times!


Is it enough to be able only to read a typeface?! Where is the aesthetic message, the beauty of the single sign, of the whole ensemble of letters?

Today as Bulgaria is an EU member it is obligatory not only to design for the Cyrillic, but also for the Greek and the Latin alphabets. This requires not just talent and artistic effort, but also qualified people with specialized theoretical and practical training.


Besides typography, calligraphy and corporate identities, you are designing books and posters. Where does the thin line between the craft and the artistic approach in the applied graphics lie?


On the market everyone is free to make anything that sells. A logo or a book, it doesn’t matter, anything is possible to the deus ex machina, the “computer”. Unfortunately all too often people show preference to glamour rather than professionalism, going for the funky colours, the shiny packs…


Please do not misunderstand me. Without the computer the artistic product of the designer is impossible. But the craftsmanship in our work is obligatory. The artist’s work starts on the design front. What really moves the client is not the functionalities of the sophisticated software but in the designer’s artistry. The opposite counts as well of course – brilliant ideas are sometimes ruined because of insufficient skills. That’s why I’m teaching my students to not only develop the ideas in their heads, but to how to have have good control over their hands.



How do you see the typographic design of the contemporary books designed and published in Bulgaria?


In spite of the poor choice we still have in the Bulgarian version of the Cyrillic alphabet, there are a number of typefaces allowing us to deal with our artistic tasks. We at the National Academy of Fine Arts & Design are faced with the issue of normative differentiation between the Bularian and Russian versions of Cyrillic – which still has to be solved. This is another important theme for further consideration but after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU it is a pressing question. Our goal is to convince the European institutions to accept the Bulgarian Cyrillic typeface with its specific difference between the upper and lower cases.


Regrettably even in Bulgaria there are newspapers still using the Russian version. In this respect, I do appreciate that your magazine continues to use the contemporary Bulgarian version of the Cyrillic. Generations of Bulgarian designers and artists have put their energy and fantasy into developing the Bulgarian tradition and their contribution to our culture merits due respect.


Undoubtedly there are plenty of professionally designed editions on the market (I mean Cyrillic printed material) – all of them the product of well-trained people. We do have good equipment and the printing of a certain project is not a problem.


Also, there are beautiful examples of an artistic approach towards the book design.There are also young designers with high level of graphic culture and training. Of course there is no lack of printed matter where image and text are simply poured together without a consistent graphic concept. Hopefully there will be less of this in the future

Do you think that the contemporary designers have a mission to influence the customers’ taste or should they follow the tastes of the masses?

The professional artist, confident in his mastery and artistic taste does not have to consider the mainstream.


He knows what the contemporary look of a printed matter should be, and, in the popular idiom, he’s sure that there “will be passengers for his train”. As another saying goes, “I am not rich enough to buy cheap stuff”. As time passes by beautiful editions enjoy more and more appreciation. Even if they are not immediately marketable, they will sooner or later fall in the hands of the experts who would appreciate them. It is rather a pity when the artist has to comply to the taste of the editor rather than that of the more aesthetically sensitive customers.


For a long time now you have been busy educating the students at the National Academy of Fine Arts & Design into a subtle understanding of graphic culture. How important is artistic training in the work of a graphic designer?


There are many who passed through my training at the academy indeed. I keep track of teaching methods abroad as well. If there is something I want to achieve, it is to involve our students in projects outside the academy assignments. Now we are starting with the graphic concept for a EU magazine “Shalon”. The students are really keen on working for it.
Concerning the aesthetic sensitivity of our young colleagues to type styles, it is always a long process and the academy provides a good base for it. Many of our students proved their professional training in artistic practice abroad. They are energetic, talented, passionate about their work, but discipline and endeavor are important too, as the great Italian master of the type Bodoni once said.


The role of the artistic training in the work of the designer is not a straightforward issue. It is an important contributing factor to solving certain assignments though. As I already mentioned, the training one receives at the academy high- level and practice proves it. I am familiar with good work coming from colleagues in design field without any academic training though. I give them as an example to my students to show them that interest and gusto are essential in obtaining one’s goals. Since the Renaissance we have such examples. Take the works of the brilliant cartographer Mercator whose calligraphy blazed a trail in the history of the graphic arts.


What do you wish for your younger colleagues who are now making their first steps into the field?


If there is anything keeping me in the academy for the past 30 years, then it is our young colleagues indeed.


I was lucky to have great teachers: Prof. Vassil Yonchev here at the National Academy, Prof. Albert Kapr, Walter Schiller and Hildegard Korger in Leipzig – all of them exceptional professionals in the field of typography and the aesthetics of type. To my joy we also established great personal relationships, not only a professional bond. I am trying to reproduce this interpersonal “magic” with my students. I go to my classes to meet colleagues and friends. I am always proud of them – be it when I browse through a new book they have designed, hear that they have won a prize or achieved success.

Translated for PLOTKI by Assen Ivanov and Hristina Karageorgieva

The interview was taken by Kapka Kuneva for “Pro Grafica” magazine, issue 5/2008.

Many thanks for their kind cooperation on behalf of the PLOTKI editorial team.


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