Chahine & Samarskaya Cochair TDC’S 25th Type Design Competition

Written by Tanya George on December 8, 2021

Nadine Chahine and Ksenya Samarskaya, TDC’s 25th Typeface Design Competition chairs. Competition branding by Tereza Bettinardi.
Nadine Chahine and Ksenya Samarskaya, TDC’s 25th Typeface Design Competition chairs. Competition branding by Tereza Bettinardi.

Historically, competitions have been structured as spaces of excellence and prestige. For design competitions, particularly in the type world, this definition also means that they reinforce established models of quality, taste, and voice. Competitions can at times act as a fig leaf for a sort of geographic and monetary gatekeeping that deters participation. How can one judge excellence if a competition doesn’t allow all of the players onto the field?

So when I interviewed Nadine Chahine and Ksenya Samarskaya, the cochairs of this year’s TDC Typeface Design competition, I asked them some general questions I have about such contests.1 We also spoke about changes that are already underway in the competition’s makeup, as well as what the TDC is building for the future. Our conversation helped me see that type design competitions can be one of the many ways we build and nurture the field. They can act as conductors to highlight the abundance of talent and cultural capital that make designs shine, and can also champion designs for scripts that are not widely supported.

To celebrate that kind of abundance, we must go beyond our definition of what a competition can be. Type design competitions need global participation much more than global scripts need competitions to participate in. For this relationship to be mutually beneficial, more infrastructure needs to be built for communities to grow and nurture talent that can then create the work we want to celebrate. This requires reimagining what it would be like if competitions were a way to share abundance rather than displays of winning. My conversation with Nadine and Ksenya gave me the sense that the TDC hopes to build on making its space more accessible beyond competitions. It’s a welcome trajectory for any organization. — TG

TANYA GEORGE. I wanted to kick this off by getting to know how your relationship with the TDC first began. When did you start interacting with it as an organization?

NADINE CHAHINE. I applied for the competition in 2003, didn’t win, and that was my first interaction with the TDC. Over the years, I met Carol and attended the traveling exhibit and got to know more about the TDC. In 2012, I was invited to speak at the TDC and give a workshop, and last year, I was invited to judge the most recent type design competition. I was also invited to run for the board, which I did. I’m currently sitting on the board of the TDC and I’m cochair with Ksenya for the next typeface design competition.

​​KSENYA SAMARSKAYA. Sometime soon after the TypeCon conference that was held in New York in 2005 — there would be constant events around the city, and I’d just keep running into a lot of the same people, which more and more centered around the TDC space. A few years ago I judged TDC’s type design competition, and then for last year’s competition I was asked to chair. Afterwards, we had a lot of conversations among the judges about the process and experience, about how the new incoming abundance of global scripts was being handled. I’d been judging in a lot of different competitions, and that meta reflection kept coming up for me. So that’s how the conversations with Nadine started, and soon after we saw that we had a lot of the same goals and the same mission, so we started in on attempting to address it together.

Past TDC competition winners. Left: Port Magazin, “Der Content ist der Content” by Carla Baumeister, Antonia Dieti, and Coco Lobinger. Center: Lingering Font by Zhhang Weimin. Right: Maison Dentaire posters by Emanuel Cohen of Studio July.
Past TDC competition winners. Left: Port Magazin, “Der Content ist der Content” by Carla Baumeister, Antonia Dieti, and Coco Lobinger. Center: Lingering Font by Zhhang Weimin. Right: Maison Dentaire posters by Emanuel Cohen of Studio July.

TG. You both already touched on how your relationship with the TDC evolved over the years. I was wondering if you wanted to talk about last year specifically. The TDC went through a difficult time. That’s well documented already — from the accusations of racism to the financial insolvency. How did that make you feel about the organization?

​​KS. That was before either of us were working with the TDC, so we were on the outside at the time. Nadine, you can talk about your experience — but my personal driving mission is longer and more ongoing. And then Nadine and I found an overlap that was also part of the issues she has been thinking about for a while. So yeah, neither of us were on the board of the TDC during all of that — I don’t actually have first-hand knowledge of what was going on inside the organization. I just know my part.

​​NC. We only have the external view of what was happening, at least for myself and the other judges. We had already been asked to judge by the time the news broke of that tweet. And of course, we all know Juan and like him and so it was obviously a shock. As I remember, we texted internally with the judges wondering, what is going on? Do we still want to judge — what does this mean? And some of the board members had meetings with us and explained what was going on. Not in detail, but they conveyed the seriousness with which they took the accusations. They took it to heart. And with that feedback that we had — and here I’m speaking for myself, not on behalf of the other judges — I was encouraged by the seriousness with which they approached the issue and the maturity shown in how deeply and strongly they wanted to find a resolution. If there was a hard look to be taken in the mirror, they were willing to do so. And because of that, I — and perhaps for similar reasons the other judges — said that we would continue to judge. Since then, it has been an issue that has been looked at with a lot of care and seriousness, that’s all I can say. The TDC has the Anti-Racism Pledge on its website, and we all take it very seriously.

“It’s a complicated, nuanced, tangled situation on how to deal with global typography, how to judge it fairly and accurately, how to give everyone a voice.” — Ksenya Samarskaya

​​KS. Right, and I don’t think this is a set of problems exclusive to the TDC; I think these’re industry-wide issues. I’ve spent time judging a lot of different competitions, and I think dealing with diverse scripts is a large, complicated, nuanced set of problems to try to address. It’s a growth shift that’s happening overall in type design. And as we get more into the approach that Nadine and I took, how we negotiated the adjustment to the competition for this year, it’s an issue without one obvious solution. It’s a complicated, nuanced, tangled situation on how to deal with global typography, how to judge it fairly and accurately, how to give everyone a voice.

​​NC. When I suggested we expand the categories, the insolvency was not on my mind. So I can definitely say that the reasons we are expanding have to do with how the TDC needs to expand its mission for excellence in type design into a truly global mission. This is not a reaction to anything that might have happened in recent times. This is purely an evolution of where the TDC was going.

TG. The reason I asked the previous question was to get some context for the changes that are happening, to understand where they came from. You say this was a natural progression and not a reaction to what happened.

​​NC. Yes, it might be good to just take a step back and tell you the story of how it came about. I think we came across a unique combination, where I was a judge, and then I became a TDC board member. And Ksenya was the chair. At the end, to wrap up the competition, we had this very interesting chat about how we deal with world scripts when it comes to the competition. I had already been invited to be the chair of the next one. And then I invited Ksenya to join me in organizing the next one — so it was a really nice series of fortunate events, that there was continuity, because normally, you don’t have a judge becoming a TDC board member. So we had the opportunity to take the lessons from one competition and apply them directly to the next one. And while Ksenya and I were having this conversation, we were saying that it would make sense, given that the volume of world scripts in terms of percentage of applications to the TDC has been growing gradually over time, that we would expand the categories and bring in specialized judges. The portion of winners of world scripts as well has been growing proportionally over time. So that’s why I say it’s an evolution of what was already happening within the TDC. Because in previous years, you would have a selection of script experts who would be consulted, and then they would advise the judges, and the judges would take that into account, and then would go ahead and do the judging. And that system worked for many years.

​​KS. Right, which was already more than what many other competitions were doing.

​​NC. Exactly! So that was already beyond and above what other people were doing, but still. Once the volume became so large, it made sense to break out categories, because there were so many, and because we know there are many experts who can come and judge; we invite them every year. All of this is flourishing, we see a renaissance, we see such great design, so much talent coming up. And so this is a recognition of what is happening in the industry in terms of higher levels of expertise, because of higher levels of maturity in type design. I can speak for Arabic. The place where we are today in Arabic type design is very different from how it was twenty years ago, when you would get maybe one typeface a year being published. Now you get, I don’t know…twenty, fifty, a hundred? So the times are shifting, things are changing. We now have enough to be able to say that we can have our own categories, focusing on Arabic or focusing on Indic or focusing on CJK. This would be the start. Of course, when the volume for other scripts also increases, then hopefully, in the future, maybe there would be categories for those as well. We cannot say what will happen in the future, but what we can say for now is that this is purely a reflection of the reality within our community of more entries, more typefaces being designed in these scripts, and the high level of expertise we are recognizing. It also means a lot.

“It means a lot when the TDC says that we have a special category for Arabic or a special category for Indic or a special category for CJK.” — Nadine Chahine

I’ve said this to the rest of the board. It means a lot when the TDC says that we have a special category for Arabic or a special category for Indic or a special category for CJK. For me as an Arabic type designer, it means so much that there is recognition from the top institution for excellence in type design, that it says that we can have a special category for you because we are seeing interesting things coming and now there’s enough volume, so let’s give it the space and time. Let’s make space for these conversations.

​​KS. There’s a level of nuance and conversation that you have when there are multiple experts in a single script or genre, debating and bringing those disparate opinions to the forefront. I find that when it’s one expert, or none directly in the room — the safer designs tend to win. There’s a lean toward not making a mistake, not overstepping. So you get more middle-of-the-road or traditional entries winning, or ones that translate into something in the judges’ native scripts that they can easily understand. So by bringing in multiple contrasting viewpoints of different scripts to debate the entries, it allows for a richer final book, and a richer learning experience for those in the room.

​​NC. Yes, it allows more risk-taking. Because what we don’t want to be is an award competition purely for conventional design — there’s already plenty of space for that. But there is space for innovation, for the cutting edge, and you need that expertise, you need that conversation to happen to bring it out, to flush it out. Basically, you need to create a space for these conversations to happen. This is only one small room in which a conversation can happen, but hopefully we will open many more spaces.

Past TDC competition winners: Arabic lettering workshop by Khajag Apelian, Kristyan Sarkis, and Wael Morcos.
Past TDC competition winners: Arabic lettering workshop by Khajag Apelian, Kristyan Sarkis, and Wael Morcos.

TG. It sounds like the TDC is opening up the frameworks that previously existed only for Latin scripts to global scripts and scripts that, historically, have not had the sun shining on them.

​​NC. Exactly. But now the sun will shine on all of them, hopefully!

​​KS. And it’s bringing in an awareness that other scripts can be judged according to different parameters, from different viewpoints. We want to move away from looking at it from a Latin-centric point of view, from that type of hierarchical point of view.

TG. Two questions come to mind. One is a broader question of how do you evaluate something as subjective as a typeface? And then maybe later, we can go into how do you select the people who evaluate these typefaces?

​​KS. I would begin with how we evaluate the people and then kind of hone in later toward how we are evaluating the typefaces themselves, because Nadine and I definitely had a lot of discussions in terms of who the judges would be. As chairs of the competition, that was specifically our role — at TDC, the chairs select and wrangle the judges, host events, lead and moderate the conversations, but they don’t review the entries or get a vote in the judging.

​​NC. Ksenya, jump in if I don’t do a good summary of this, but what we’ve tried to achieve with the judges for this year is to bring a variety of voices within the list of experts. So, for example, even if you look within Indic or within Arabic, we wanted to bring experienced type designers who are more mature, who have a little bit more experience in type design, fifteen or twenty more years, say. But we also wanted to bring in people who, while excellent designers, are younger, with a different point of view, a different life experience — a different generation, basically — to be able to allow this variety of expression to come out. Because whether it is in type design or in culture in general, when you talk about Gen Z or Gen X or millennials or baby boomers or whatever, there is always this shift in worldview because there is a shift in the world itself. The world that we live and work in today is different from how it was ten or twenty years ago. So the formative years are different. My formative years were in the 1990s. They were quite different from people whose formative years were in the 2010s, right? So we need to reflect that, because it will affect how we view type. We are a product of our environment. To be able to have that variety of expression, we needed that variety within the judges, so that they aren’t all speaking from one part of the world or from one generational aspect. Even geographical locations, we wanted it to be as spread out as possible. That’s what we were going for in the people who would judge.

​​KS. Exactly. It was balancing for contrast within everything — gender, style, point of view, background, region — with the hope that that would lead to interesting dialogue and conversation among the judges, who each would bring their own points of view as to how the work is to be judged. Which might be a good time to plug the talks if you want to, Nadine?

​​NC. So like I was saying before, we are very interested in the conversations that will happen as part of these new categories. Starting with Meet the Judges on December 9th, where there will be a set of three back-to-back roundtables with the judges for the three new categories, where we’ll have a chance to sit and have a nice, long conversation about how do we judge excellence in type design in a particular script? What is the trend in this particular script? Where are we in the broad history of Arabic or Indic type design? Where do we place ourselves now when it comes to CJK? How do we understand recent developments in type design? Is there a trend? Are people asking for certain types of typefaces? Are there challenges that need to be resolved? Is there advice that needs to be given to people who are starting as type designers in these scripts today? It’s a very different world — when I need to give advice to someone who’s an Arabic type designer, starting today is very different from advice I would give to someone who is starting in Indic, or someone who’s starting in Latin, these are different realities, because the development of typography within these different scripts is at a different pace. And so we want to allow these conversations to happen. We’re super excited about opening up this space to talk and exchange notes. And yeah, it will be fun. Ksenya, would you like to add anything?

​​KS. You summed it up perfectly.

​​NC. Thanks! So there’s still a bit about how we judge a typeface and I think every type designer is different. And graphic designers will judge differently. I will give you my personal way of how I judge. It’s like a pyramid, the hierarchy of needs. We have the hierarchy of type design, and at the bottom of it is the quality of the drawing. Because something that is not drawn well rarely makes a good typeface. Rarely. Sometimes, yes, but usually not. And so you will have those basics of: Is it drawn well? Is it spaced well? Is it technically executed well? And then you have the next one: Do the letters talk to one another? Do you have a coherent system of relationships that governs the typeface so that when the letters come together, they want to become words, and the words want to become paragraphs? So that’s the next level. And then there’s the level on top of that, which is: What feeling is this typeface giving? Is it a typeface that is able to fulfill its function? So there’s that functional aspect. If you want it to be for text, but it cannot be set in text, because it seems too high-contrast or too tightly spaced or whatever, that needs to be part of it as well. So: How fit for purpose is the typeface? And then on top of that, again, is that je ne sais quoi, you know, of when you see a typeface, and you immediately breathe a sigh of relief, because the typeface is able to say something that you cannot put into words. That’s the paradox of type design, that you are able to give meaning to words that the literal sense is only able to bring up to a certain point. The perfect harmony between language and type is when type is able to take you that last 5 percent over the edge, to really have that harmony between messages, visually and literally. There is that essence of the typeface that really captures the mood, so when you look at the typeface, you’re like: Oh my God, I want to speak!

​​KS. Right, right! Because for me, I tend to assume excellence is kind of the base point at which you start talking and you start really looking at things. And then, from there, what does it add to the conversation? How does it affect the ecosystem surrounding it? How does it push culture? What is it reflecting?

“One main reason to have typefaces is to give expression to cultural output.” — Nadine Chahine

​​NC. Yes, I think it’s a very good point to also focus on the cultural aspect. It’s the luxury that Latin typefaces have that many others don’t, in the sense that in Latin type design, there are so many typefaces that you forget that one main reason to have typefaces is to give expression to cultural output. But when you come from a region where we don’t have many typefaces, you really feel that lack. You feel it, and you suffer it. And it drives you to want to design typefaces that are able to add to that cultural conversation, to that expression of who we are as cultures.

TG. Yeah, I see that. That makes sense. Something else I’ve been curious about in type design competitions in general, but maybe you can speak about this with regards to the TDC: How do you keep it from becoming a specimen design competition?

​​KS. I think that’s part of it — and that’s perfectly okay. I think if you’re designing a typeface, you should be thinking about its use. And you should know who it’s for, you envision it in context — it’s not just a collection of beautiful letters, right? And a specimen design is something that brings all of that together. So I definitely think paying attention to how the type is showcased and presented is an inherent part of the work.

​​NC. I think that’s definitely an important aspect, but it cannot be purely about that. I think that’s the question. Like, we need to be able to see how the typeface works as a typeface.

TG. Particularly for global scripts. I know for many Indic scripts, reordering is an essential behavior. What you type is not what might appear. So, I mean, is it a functional font? Because there is craft to that too. And there are all those factors that you just spoke about. But does it actually do the things it says it does? And I wonder if that’s something you have considered.

​​NC. Having three people who are experts in Indic type design, they will tell us that. If you had only Latin type designers judging Indic, which is not the case with the TDC, non-experts or non-native judges will just be looking at beautiful shapes and beautiful specimens, and they will have no clue how the typeface works. And they will pick typefaces that might look good, but they don’t actually read well, or might not even be good typefaces, it’s just that the curves look nice. Because you can draw good curves, but the typeface is not good. That’s perfectly possible. But that’s why we have experts, that’s why we need them. Actually you’ve just given us an extra reason why we really need to be doing this!

Past TDC competition winners.
Past TDC competition winners.

TG. Okay, I want to zoom out a little bit now and ask about the big-picture stuff. What do you think are the benefits of winning a TDC medal, especially in countries where the TDC is not really active or might not be familiar as an organization? What do you think are the benefits for people who might want to participate?

​​KS. The TDC’s competition is still one of the most recognized — if not the most recognized — typography competitions out there. So there’re a few things that it does. First, by getting in, the designer is able to reach new markets and audiences for their work. I’m not sure how it is in India, but I know for Cyrillic, a lot of the larger commissions and clients still come from the western world, from large established corporations as they expand into new regions. Getting recognized by the TDC gets the designer seen by potential clients, while assuring the often risk-averse corporation that their work is vetted.

​​NC. There are many benefits. One is between you and yourself. When you look at a type design competition, one as recognized as the TDC, and with the type of judges that usually judge it — when you win, it’s a confidence boost. It’s a recognition by people that you look up to and respect, who are telling you that your work is excellent. And sometimes that confidence boost can in and of itself help you open doors, even if no one knows of the TDC, when you open the door to a meeting or an interview, knowing that the top experts in your field have recognized your work. And recognized that in one of the best — if not the best — type design competitions worldwide. So that’s really nice. But also, for people who have not heard of the TDC, if you say I have won an award from a professional organization based in New York for the recognition of type design excellence, globally, that already might make them want to know what the TDC is. Or at least you’ve won an award, and it could be also that you see who the judges are. So for example, from this year’s competition, in Arabic, we have Mamoun Sakkal and Khajag Apelian and Borna Izadpanah. And if you, for example, get a judge’s choice from Mamoun Sakkal, he is one of the best type designers alive today and he is brilliant. Because it’s not just the name, the excellence associated with the TDC, that the TDC lives and breathes — it’s through the people that it invites to judge, it’s through the board and what they vote on, how to keep this competition alive. It’s a moral compass at the heart of everything the competition is doing.

​​KS. And then also, for designers — it’s still a fairly niche profession. There’re only so many type designers globally, and in many ways it’s still a rather young field. So I think there’s a lot to be gained by participating in these conversations, as an industry. In asking: What makes good type? What constitutes an important cultural contribution? What overlooked parts of history are worth restoring, or looking at anew? What assumptions are we making when we say that a sans serif type is more legible, and that speed in legibility is a positive attribute? And these remixes of judges, these books, these spaces that push people to really grapple with these bigger problems — not just hastily respond to client demands — serve a larger cultural function.

TG. The competition is just one aspect of what the TDC does, right? There’s the book, there are these exhibitions that happen. But there’s also a community. There are other workshops and salons that happen as well. But that doesn’t really build the community beyond New York, although maybe within the US it is easier. But beyond those shores, how do you make the case?

​​NC. When I ran for the board, I asked them to put as my aim in running for the board that I wanted the TDC to grow beyond the New York and US base to promote excellence and typography globally. It already does this up to a certain extent, but it can have more, it can play a bigger role globally. And that’s what I wanted to do. That’s why I ran and that’s how I got elected. And it’s been the driving force behind the things I do on the board.

​​KS. Speaking again for the competition, since that’s the only part we were chairing or have direct knowledge of, the competition is actually rather global already. In 2020, we received entries from fifty-four different countries. Works from forty-nine of those countries went on to win a Certificate of Excellence, and ended up published in the book. So while there’re definitely regions with less visible representation, addressing that is also part of the work we’re doing now. The TDC is growing; it’s expanding globally. And the shift to greater acceptance of online events and discourse is also one of the features allowing for a lot of these questions, and interrogations of what is — to go beyond just New York, beyond the United States. The Meet the Judges event we’re having on December 9th, we have people dialing in from ten different regions, spanning time-zones from Seattle to Tokyo, with panelists from Europe and India all participating live. We have two more conversations like that scheduled for January, with just as broad of a set of panelists.

​​NC. When the TDC started in 1946, it started as a club in New York. But we have seen the TDC grow. When we look at the TDC, we need to see it as an evolution and as a changing entity. The organization is expanding to promote excellence in typography in all these different ways. But also, we cannot tax the TDC with more than what it is. The TDC is made of its members. If most of the members are sitting in New York, there will be a heavier New York focus. If suddenly there are more members coming from a different part of the world, they will have the power to say: “Let’s organize events locally, let’s create a community locally here.” The TDC, at the end of the day, is run by volunteers. It employs only one person: the director of the TDC. Everybody else, we’re all volunteers, unpaid volunteers. And so it’s on us — whether as volunteers on the board or people who want to volunteer as members or just regular members — to take on that mantle. Because a small organization built by volunteers cannot, on its own, become a global force for conversations around type without the engagement of the people on the ground.

​​KS. Just like we talked about bringing together groups of judges to represent diverse perspectives and global touchpoints, the same thinking is behind selecting and voting on the TDC’s advisory board, an approach aimed at including diverse perspectives and experiences.

​​NC. Absolutely. I mean, look at the current board: I’m Lebanese, currently sitting in Spain. We have someone from Afghanistan. We have someone from South America, someone from Zimbabwe. You can hear this variety in our feedback. Like when I give feedback, I’m giving feedback from someone who’s active in Arabic type design, but also someone who lives in Europe and has lived in Europe for almost twenty years. So my frame of mind is very European in that sense, because this is where I have had my career, but then someone who is practising in Zimbabwe might have a very different worldview, because the state of design there is very different from Europe or the Middle East. So that openness to engage with diversity is something we experience on every board call.

Past TDC competition winners.
Past TDC competition winners.

TG. One of the things that comes to mind when I think about the competition, wanting to open it up to people from across the world, is the cost of it. Let’s start with this: Why is this a paid competition?

​​KS. The TDC’s entry fees are some of the lowest in the industry, which is something we reviewed when updating our prices this year. For all students it’s a $35 flat fee. We also have discounted rates for different countries — we realize a design firm from Pakistan likely doesn’t have the same kind of capital as one based in Germany, so there’re some 138 or so countries that automatically receive discounts upon checkout.

None of the costs are prohibitive, or they’re very much designed not to be. And if they are for anyone, you’re always welcome to get in touch. But having some costs also makes people more considerate about what they submit. As Nadine mentioned, the TDC board is run entirely by volunteers, the competition judges are all unpaid volunteers. And they’re spending multiple days reviewing all the entries, and getting into some fairly nitty-gritty discussions. Really looking at and reviewing them. So it’s also about respecting the time that so many people are graciously donating to the TDC.

The costs of running it — from the websites, to the brand, to the book, to the servers — they’re real costs. And as we’re very much aware of by now in the world of free software, if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Keeping entry fees allows the freedom of discourse, and freedom from untoward influence, that we’re overwhelmed with elsewhere in our lives.

​​NC. I mean, I definitely keep an eye on TDC costs, but like I said, the TDC is run by volunteers, an advisory board, and then one paid employee — but it also has expenses, and the competition is the main financier of everything the TDC does. How else can you function? So basically, when you are applying to the TDC competition, you are supporting the existence of the TDC. If there is no paid competition, there is no TDC. That’s the end of it. We live in a world where people have come to expect a lot for nothing. But usually when you’re getting nothing, you’re getting advertising on the side. In this case, it comes back down to the heart of it. The competition has expenses, it has archives, it has a salaried employee, it has all sorts of things, like any institution has. The exhibit has to travel around the world, someone has to pay for that. Right? All of this overhead: telephone, printer expenses… It’s an operation with costs and the competitions finance those costs.

​​KS. These nonprofit organizations, they’re somewhat akin to an industry union, right? The other way that you could show it off is through corporations or through companies or things like that. This is actually an organization that comes together just for excellence and typography and rigorous discourse and advocating for the industry and pushing the industry forward. So I think if you care about the industry, if you care about typography as an art form, if you care about typography and culture as a form of communication, this is something that you would be more than happy to support. Because when organizations like this are deemed irrelevant or unnecessary, all you have left is corporate interests. And they’re going to be pushing their agendas, and they’re not going to be good for culture or individuals, or small foundries or the dialogue around type.

​​NC. Absolutely, because if you are not able to finance via a competition or membership (because those are the two things that bring income to TDC), then it’s only sponsorship. And once you are reliant on sponsorship, you don’t have independence, like Ksenya was saying, of being free in deciding what is excellence in type design. Who gets to have the TDC medal this year? Who gets recognized? Who is on the board?

​​KS. Outside of this, where can you go to have the longer conversations about what a valuable typeface is? These groups have diverse judges and people coming together to openly discuss and battle it out and communicate that there’s nuance and there’s perspective and there’s difference of opinions. Otherwise, all you’re going to have is what Monotype releases, and their press release saying what the best typefaces are. Or a single YouTuber who’s really good at SEO.

TG. Right, and I see that. And I definitely see the value of the TDC as an organization — it has so many years behind it, there’s a lot of weight that carries too. But a lot of these things that the entry fee funds — the exhibitions, the book even — are not necessarily things that travel, at least in the case of India, or they haven’t travelled to India in the past.

​​NC. Are we judging the competition by the past or by where we want to go? Because if suddenly there is more interest, like from India, if there are more entries from India, then it becomes natural that the exhibit would go there. I speak here not as a board member, I speak as an Arabic type designer, not Nadine who’s on the board of the TDC. If we want these big international institutions that have historically been focused on Latin type, if we want them to pay attention to, say, Arabic type design, or Arabic typography, it’s on us to stand up and say: “Look, we have interesting things to say. And you should listen to us.” And they will, if we take that approach. The TDC exhibit has not come to the Middle East, as far as I know, but I am not holding that against the TDC. Because we haven’t had a lot of community interest from within the Middle East. So there’s a lot of work that needs to happen on the ground. And it’s not easy to transform into a community that is very active. Almost everyone who was active in Lebanon has now left Lebanon, and I’m Lebanese. I can only speak to what happens in Lebanon or a little bit in the UAE because I’ve been there a lot. These things take time. But the first step comes from us, because if there is nothing on the ground, no one will come to hear what we have to say — because we will not have anything to say. But if we start speaking among ourselves, and then suddenly we are having interesting conversations, suddenly people will want to interview us, they will want to listen, because there is something happening. It starts from within, it doesn’t come from outside. The validation of a great community starts from itself. And so TDC coming, or another competition coming or another international institution coming or being interviewed by whoever that comes at the next step, the first step is on us. But I can’t speak to all the other countries. Every country is different, and every script is different; I can only share with you my experience as a Lebanese type designer.

TG. In India as well, I think the past decade or so has seen a lot more type designers designing for Indian scripts. And I think that speaks to the fact that a lot more jobs are coming to Indian type designers — and that then sort of fuels people’s interest and helps build that community. And because that’s still growing, because that’s not really mature as of now, or it’s in a transition period, it’s still figuring out what it is as a community and what they can and should invest in, that will help them professionally. I know the TDC is relatively not that expensive if someone is earning in US dollars or euros, but even winners having to print and ship all eight copies of their designs to New York along with subsequent fees become additional hoops to jump through.

“Besides the student discount, there’re also discounts for approximately 138 countries with the lowest per capita GDP. [And] there’s no longer a hanging fee.” — Ksenya Samarskaya

​​KS. There’s actually no longer any need to print or ship anything to participate in the competition — just an online entry form, and uploading digital images or files for the entry. Besides the student discount, there’re also discounts for approximately 138 countries with the lowest per capita GDP that get 50 percent off the entry price. And, as always, if you feel like there’s something we overlooked or you’re facing a specific hardship, our email inboxes are always open.

TG. The physical copies you send and then the subsequent additional payment is once you become a TDC winner.

​​KS. We’ve gotten rid of that this year. So all it is is the initial entry fee. There’s no longer a hanging fee. That was another thing that Nadine and I did: we reworked and we clarified the pricing, so it’s not as complicated. Students are always getting a steep discount, and all of these additional countries are also at a steep discount now. And I think the prices for most people would actually end up lower than they were last year.

TG. That’s really great to know. Because that definitely was on my mind. Otherwise, TDC winners paying to be part of the book and exhibition felt strange.

​​NC. I totally hear you. And I think what we need to do, especially now that we have the category for Indic scripts, is make sure the exhibit travels to India, because we’ve already — and here I speak as the TDC — gone through the step of saying, “We recognize that there’s a lot of really interesting things happening in Indic type design. And that’s why we have a special category for Indic with three specified expert judges.” There’s already that first step of recognition.

​​KS. The traveling exhibit hasn’t been run by the board. It’s something initiated by Carol Wahler, who has been running the TDC as the sole executive director for the past thirty-seven years. And I think it’s down to what partnerships in these local communities she was able to find and connect to. So anyone reading this, if you’re interested in bringing the travelling competition to your region or your area, you can reach out directly to Carol at [email protected], and try to help arrange a showing. Because there’s a lot to it, everything that’s happening behind the scenes. The logistics, and work, and costs, and so many volunteers coming together to make each exhibition happen. It’s all mostly run through goodwill and partnerships. And a lot of volunteers on the ground.

Past TDC traveling exhibitions. Left: Aukland, New Zealand, 2020. Right: Beijing, China, 2018.
Past TDC traveling exhibitions. Left: Aukland, New Zealand, 2020. Right: Beijing, China, 2018.

TG. Oh great, that sounds good. Now what do you do if you get an entry for a script for which you don’t have a category? Would it fall back to the previous method of reaching out to an expert?

​​KS. Exactly. We would reach out to an expert, or experts, who would be able to comment on its validity, and ask them to answer any questions the judges might have to help them inform their opinions. There’s an official Script Advisory Board (ScrAB) that’s been coordinated and run by Maxim Zhukov, I’m not sure for how many years, possibly since the typeface competition started twenty-five years ago. What they would do in the past was critique and assess the type submissions for entries in the script they specialize in before it got to the judges. What we’re hoping to expand on this year is to provide more bidirectional dialogue (between the judges and the additional experts), and more than one expert opinion for every script and submission that comes in.

TG. You mentioned that the TDC is a future-facing organization that is thinking about what is ahead, rather than what’s in the past. How have you all thought about how you might evaluate typeface submissions in the future? Variable fonts come to mind, because they’re newer, but are there thoughts about a framework in place to future-proof the competition?

​​KS. We are working on updating the categories, to adapt to what’s currently being done. We weren’t able to get that in for this year’s competition. But I think by next year, there will be updated categories to reflect where type is seen and how it’s used today.

​​NC. An important point to note is that when it comes to variable fonts, this is a question of technology. It affects, of course, how you create the forms, but it doesn’t affect what you design. At the heart of it, you are still designing masters.

​​KS. Right, variable fonts are just multiple masters. It’s just whether it happens in the type software that it’s existed in for decades, or directly in the browser.

​​NC. Right, the variable family has not replaced what previously used to exist, which means our way of showing it is somewhat adequate. I think there will be more that potentially we could refine in terms of how we can show off the variability of the font. This could be via GIFs or animations or something like that.

​​KS. I think right now, you’re not limited to just PDFs or still images. I think we do allow the entries to have videos.

TG. Yes, I think videos are allowed.

​​KS. But the best way to future-proof, if we’re talking about that, is by having it be a living breathing organization. Nothing we did this year is set in stone. It’s just one move toward what we’re seeing happening in the type world today. And all of it is infinitely malleable by those who will carry the torch and continue carrying this competition forward. Future members, future advisors, future volunteers.

TG. Okay, I think that’s about it, we’ve had more than an hour’s worth of conversation. I’m very happy to see, to hear, about the direction the TDC is going in, and I’m looking forward to what the competition brings this year.


  1. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. — Ed.
  2. The touring exhibition has traveled to the following countries: Poland, France, Germany, Croatia, Czech Republic, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Iceland, UK, Russia, Israel, and Turkey (in Europe); Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, China (in Asia); New Zealand (in Oceania); and Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and the United States (in the Americas). This is an evolving list. — Ed.

Tanya George is an independent typographer, type designer, and design educator from India. She worked as a graphic designer before getting a Masters in Typeface Design from the University of Reading. Currently, she is pursuing a wide-ranging freelance practice that includes type walks around Mumbai, as well as workshops and writing about type.


  1. It is wonderful to see this energy and drive at the TDC. Nadine and Ksenya should be applauded for a genuine effort to make the competition more accessible and the judging process more transparent. It is also good to see a mention of the nearly twenty years of work volunteered by Maxim for the TDC, through which several important typefaces by designers from outside the NW were awarded.

    It would be interesting to read more about how the renewed TDC competition positions itself with respect to past efforts by ATypI (Bukva:raz, 2001 and Letter 2, 2011) and the ongoing Granshan (2010 onwards).

    In the meantime, 🙌

  2. Nice seeing you in here, Gerry. I would be all sorts of happy to have the nuanced dialogue with regard to other international competitions, and future TDC directions. Let me know where to show up, and I’ll bring the good vodka.

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