Trying to capture Ukrainian character through creation of an all-purpose font

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Jan. 12, 2012, 11:07 p.m. | About Kyiv — by Mariya Manzhos
Font is probably the last thing you would think of when pondering the image of the country. After all, it’s all around; you hardly notice it – like the air that you breathe. Yet Mykhaylo Ilko, head of Stairsfor design studio and member of the national Mystetsky Arsenal Charity Fund Council, decided that Ukraine needs a modern font that would contribute to its business identity, and would give a sort of a “facelift” to Ukraine’s corporate style.

This is how the Ukrainsky Shryft project was started this year. Its aim was to yield a modern Ukrainian typeface that would be a working font for official documents and would be accessible and free of charge for all. The font was to be modern, official and Ukrainian.

“Like a corporate logo communicates the ideals and values of its business, the new Ukrainian font would reflect Ukraine’s national character in official documents,” says Ilko. The project was privately funded, largely by the main host Stairsfor design studio and gave out Hr 130,000 in awards.

The official release of the new font “Arsenal” that won the competition this year is intended for the summer. Apart from yielding a new product, the competition raised awareness of the art of typeface making, organizers say.

While globally typeface design has boomed in recent years, Ukraine has been lagging behind, says Mykola Kovalchuk, a typography senior teaching fellow at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Even though nearly 2,500 of digital fonts have a minimal set of characters for Ukrainian cyrillic, only a few dozen are made in Ukraine and even fewer are professional grade.

One problem with Ukrainian fonts, Kovalchuk says, derives from the complex structure of the Cyrillic alphabet, while Latin is much more efficient and simple in its construction and had a rich heritage of fonts before computers were even conceived.

Among Ukrainian users, the culture of appreciation is not high either, which is why people are not concerned with the choice of the font. “Especially in highly efficient business environments, where content trumps design, people resort to default fonts,” says Kovalchuk.

The lack of educational resources in Ukraine results in low professionalism of typeface designers, who often have to learn on their own, explains Kovalchuk. The pool of top-notch professionals is about 5 people, he says.

Andriy Shevchenko, a 38-year-old designer from Berdyansk, is one of them. The father of “Arsenal,” he beat about 20 others in the national competition.

He had several other prize-winning fonts in his portfolio, which bear traditional names like Oksana, Osnova and Bandera. The new typeface brought him a trophy prize of Hr 100,000.

“The new font is ‘quick’ or readable, which is essential given the amount of information our society is exposed to,” says competition organizer Ilko. “‘Arsenal’ is also neutral, which means that the author’s imprint doesn’t overpower the content or distract the reader; and transparent, it’s compatible with other kinds of fonts.”
Like a corporate logo communicates the ideals and values of its business, the new Ukrainian font would reflect Ukraine’s national character in official documents.

- Mykhaylo Ilko, head of Stairsfor design studio

Shevchenko manually designed each letter with a pencil and polished the design with the help of a computer, a meticulous process that took several months. However, that was not the biggest problem for Shevchenko.

“The demands for the font – that it be modern, official and Ukrainian, were not formalized, so I intuitively had to figure out how these traits would reflect in symbols,” says Shevchenko.

Even though Shevchenko can’t pin down exactly what makes his font “Ukrainian,” Ilko believes that “Arsenal” can be described as “elegant and lyrical,” traits inherent to Ukrainian culture and tradition of calligraphy.

However, designing the font was only the first phase of a laborious process. The next step is converting the design into a functional digital base, including creating options for bold font, italics, numbers, and the Latin alphabet versions.

But more difficult still is popularizing “Arsenal.” Ilko will make the font available for free downloading at, and will work with email providers and social networks to make the font available within their sites.

But Kyiv Mohyla’s Kovalchuk doesn’t think the project will create much hype right away. Most new computers come with a set of traditional default fonts installed, which people tend to use in their daily work.

He says even if “Arsenal” could somehow be installed in Windows or enforced as a mandatory font for government organizations, there is no guarantee that it would be used.
Ilko, on the other hand, is optimistic about “Arsenal.”

“Whether the Ukrainian official font gains popularity among the professionals is a question only time can answer, but it is a great product Ukraine offices here and abroad can benefit from.”

Staff writer Mariya Manzhos can be reached at

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