Peter Bilak: Democratizing Digital Fonts Around the World

By expanding the range of digital typography, he is opening the Internet to cultures around the world.

OCCUPATION: Typographer
AFFILIATIONS: Typotheque, Indian Type Foundry
LOCATION: The Hague, Netherlands

In terms of language, it turns out that the World Wide Web isn’t that international after all. In 2008, Google estimated that there were 25,580 million Web sites on the Internet in English and 2,180 million sites in Spanish. In contrast, there were only 340 million sites in Arabic, and they weren’t equally accessible: Web sites in non-Latin scripts use a variety of coding systems, so Arabic fonts often render very differently (and sometimes not at all). The task of creating well-designed fonts for the world’s languages seems Sisyphean in the digital age. But not for the typographer Peter Bilak.

In October 2009, Bilak’s Netherlands-based foundry, Typotheque, was the first in the world to license its entire font collection for the Internet. “Web fonts, as a concept, have existed for about fifteen years. But there was a lot of resistance from type foundries, because if you put something online, users could copy fonts freely from the browser,” Bilak says. “There’s also a lot of complexity behind what you actually see on the screen, given the different browsers, computer platforms, and versions of software.”

Typotheque not only made its typefaces Internet friendly, it supported them with a robust network of services. Fonts were hosted on remote cloud servers, and a license enabled users to access the fonts instead of downloading them entirely, thus protecting Typotheque’s work. This in itself was revolutionary for the time, but that wasn’t all.

As a student in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, Bilak was often frustrated by the fact that his language wasn’t supported by most typefaces. Even though it’s a Latin-based script, “all the accents weren’t available for Czechoslovak,” he says. “I had to make my own letters to complete the fonts.” He went on to develop typefaces for Russian and Greek, but the real breakthrough came with Arabic—a language he knew nothing about. It took a year of collaboration with the Khatt Foundation and the Dutch Foundation to design Fedra Arabic. “To realize that, as a European, if I was sensitive to languages, and if I did my research, I was able to deal with different non-Latin scripts—it was quite a discovery,” he says.

When Bilak presented his work with Arabic at a design conference in India in 2006, people began to wonder if something like that could work in India, a country with over 100 languages, at least 12 scripts, and provinces that can each designate its own official language in addition to English. Satya Rajpurohit, then a graphic design student, got in touch with Bilak after the conference. “It started with collecting handwriting samples for three languages, and coordinating between here and the Netherlands,” Rajpurohit says. “When we created Fedra Hindi, we weren’t sure if releasing it under Typotheque was the best way to reach the target audience, so we decided to partner and create our own platform.”

Launched in 2009 as the first company to develop and distribute digital fonts in the country, the Indian Type Foundry (ITF) was a risky business from the start, given the culture of piracy in tech-savvy India and the general lack of understanding about font licensing. There was also the problem of software standards. “It’s incredible, considering that Adobe designs most of its software in India,” Bilak points out, “that it does not support Indian languages. This is crazy.” But ITF has had its share of successes in the past three years. Prajavani, a major South Indian newspaper, has engaged the firm to create a custom typeface, something virtually unheard of in Indian publishing.

Typotheque’s Web fonts were released with a full set of characters for four non-Latin scripts—Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, and Devanagari. Armenian joined the family in 2010. Bilak’s roving eye, in the meantime, has settled on the Middle East. “After having designed a typeface for Arabic,” he says, “it is only fair that I work on Hebrew.”

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