Alejandro Lo Celso and Gabriel Martínez Meave interviewed by Jean François Porchez.
As France is categorized as Latin country, we’re always interested to see what happens in other Latin countries. It looks like we have something in common, culturally, with respect to Italy, Portugal and Spain, perhaps; but in fact less with Latin America countries.
Does legibility is a key factor in your designs?
ALC In Quimera, basically a display serifed type, inspired in the legendary Antique Olive by Roger Excoffon, legibility wasn’t a big problem. It is supposed to be used in display sizes, though I used it small and it is still as readable as many types that claim to be for text! But Rayuela was a more extreme project in terms of legibility. Its main idea was to gain a legible text type with an extra little bit of rhythm, something I tried to do by associating the roman to an hypothetic handwriting. I studied how to relate strokes so they would bring a fresh calligraphic effect to the letter without getting far from a structure of a letterform intended for text. Some people might find its half-serifing a disturbing feature for text, but the fact is we read very well italics in small sizes! My problem was then to create a suitable italic for Rayuela, as a good counterpoint to a — already italic like — roman. So a more nervous effect was tried in the italic, still coping with the half serifing concept.
GMM In general, it is a key factor. But there are cases in which I have sacrificed legibility for the sake of — I hate the word — experimentation. But perhaps the right concept is rather search for communication. A font could be not very legible by certain standards, but be communicative for a group of people, which read it because they are interested. And for me, that’s better than the cold, expert and aseptic “legibility” found in many fonts today. Sometimes I have executed this little experiment: I give children or even old people, who don’t know I am a type designer (’¿There are type designers?’ they frequently ask) a page or two of text — from a novel, for example — set in the most unlikely font, like my Neocodex. Then I tell them to read it. And most of the time, people just read it. They go straight to the meaning of the text. None has ever complained of the font. I have noticed that most people in Mexico don’t have those kinds of established mental conventions about type categories that we usually find in the USA or Europe. People just read them, straight ahead. It’s no wonder, then, that many Mexican taxis and buses have signs lettered in the most rococo Fraktur, or street lettering in a vertically-displayed manuscript Anglaise, or rest-rooms signage lettered in a Precolumbian Rotunda, or popular brands that combine geometric sans-serif letterforms with baroque flourishes, or even national monuments with long, literary texts carved in all-caps, square letters. In most of Europe and, above all, Anglo-Saxon countries, people are taught to expect things a certain way. They expect a novel to look like a novel, a soap to look like a soap, a restaurant lettering to look like a restaurant lettering. In Mexico, and many parts of Latin America and, I suspect, the world, I have found that people don’t necessarily expect that. On the contrary, many times they probably distrust a book that just looks like a book, a magazine that just looks like a magazine, and so on. Which is a natural thing, I think. Typography conventions don’t have to be the same everywhere, mostly among people who were no asked to agree with them, to whom those conventions were just imported into their place, without any further explanation. And many times this issue of “legibility,” like other issues in the world, is somehow linked to the so-called “globalization,” where cultural issues are commonly governed by an influential handful of experts in some place of Europe or North America, frequently resulting in that a lot of signage or publications in Roma, Mexico or Kuala Lumpur are all set in the same boring Times, Helvetica or Meta. In my view, cultural diversity is better than cultural uniformity. Legibility, then, should be a flexible issue that can not, should not, override communication between people with different typographical standards and conventions. Because of this, I have chosen not to categorize any of my fonts as “text” or “display” designs, in order to give people the chance of deciding where, how and for what they want to use them.
Superposition of the different weights of Quimera by Alejandro Lo Celso. Note the missing serif on the top left, one of the feature of this family inspired by Antique Olive.
Text showing of Arcana by Gabriel Martínez Meave. Note the lopped final y on the second line.
Does there is an interaction between the Spanish language and Spanish design?
ALC Tijuana-based designer Jorge de Buen has thoroughly accounted for all information related to the Spanish language within its good use of typographic subtleties, and compiled it in a recently published book: Manual de diseño editorial. Me, I have been fiddling around for a while trying to figure out how features such as diacritics, distinctive use of punctuation, specific letter combinations and special features of a language might influence the process a type designer takes in building a typeface, and how it might be related to the way he arranges the letter fitting of the fonts. I was caught by an idea by linguist Hans Wellisch, referred to by Richard Southall some time ago (1), of certain “graphotactics,” meaning the features that are expectable in a language and that could condition the work of a typeface designer. But I haven’t found any more references nor new partners for discussion, including the highly professional ATypI forum. I wonder if people just find it too far from Unicode or Python language matters! I don’t think language issues have been deeply covered yet from a type design viewpoint.
GMM There are important interactions, but probably not too different from those in other languages. The main ones are, I think, the use and shape of accented characters and certain frequent combinations of letters (or the absence of letters, common in other languages, but not in Spanish). Other issue is that of punctuation marks and their use. All these issues have a practical and a historical perspective. First, Spanish is a language that is written as it is spoken (with a few exceptions), unlike French or English. So letters have a very definite role, in relation to the sounds they express. Because of this, combinations of letters or diacritics like ch, ll and ñ were for a long time considered as single letters, having individual entries in dictionaries and directories. Although this classification was abolished in 1993, the idea persist that these combinations are somewhat significant, so I decided to include in my fonts a special glyph for the combination ch, also used in many European languages as well. By the way, Rubén Fontana of Argentina did just that before, in his Fontana font. (I also explored the idea of having an ll ligature but it proved very difficult to achieve a satisfactory design, so I left it for good!). Another example is the word “que,” which is extremely frequent in Spanish (also in Portuguese, by the way). It’s so frequent that many calligraphers since the Middle Ages and printers since the Renaissance used to make an abbreviation very similar, if not exactly as, a q with a tilde. Curiously enough, many present-day students and office people, in their every-day scripts, happen to make almost the same abbreviation, without knowing anything about typographical history! This abbreviation is so useful and logical that I wonder why it hasn’t ever appeared in modern typography, so I included it in my fonts. There is a similar situation with the word “de,” also very common. In fact, many old colonial inscriptions and vernacular lettering make use of a D-E ligature, in caps. So I decided to include this one too, together with a lowercase version, in my typefaces.
Mexica by Gabriel Martínez Meave is a very structured calligraphic face — some what a lively latin version of Hiroshige! This angularity is more usual in Fraktur typefaces generally.
How you design typefaces, your methodology?
ALC For text types I always make drawings, with pencil on paper. Then usually scan refined versions of them over nice tracing paper. But when I go through the shapes into the screen, the forms get day by day a little far from my drawings. I don’t find this a problem, rather I believe the drawings, even if fine, provide me just a good feeling of the spirit of the type I intend to make. I experienced with an old version of Ikarus at Reading: it was fantastic. You learn how to place key points for the program to render the outlines in a very different way than within Bézier curves. I believe experiencing with different techniques makes you understand other dimensions of your type you didn’t expect in its plane outlines! Otherwise we should ask Matthew Carter if his early experience in engraving punches does not count at all! I wanted myself to make punches, so I went to the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris to ask Christian Paput if that subtle job was still possible to be learnt, but the future of the press was at that time — and I think it is still? — delicately unsecure.
GMM Most of my designs usually start their lives as pencil sketches in a notebook. Then I refine them over a period of time, ranging from two weeks to two years! When I am satisfied with the idea, I make a very detailed, 4 to 6 cm-height, ink design of ten or twelve model characters, which I scan and re-trace in Bézier curves. I run several laser proofs to establish firmly the main features of the design, and then I execute the rest of the characters directly on the screen, with the help of numerous laser proofs. I have found that the most difficult part of the type designing process is to tune-in the exact spirit or personality of the typeface. This personality is “embedded”, so to speak, in the shapes of the letters themselves, and can be distorted or even lost with an uncautious click of the mouse. So my job is mostly just trying not to interfere with this spirit and try not to enforce my personal opinions into the forms, but rather let those forms tell me where they want to go, or what they are trying to express. I try to respect their inner character, their inner life, and from that, build a typeface.
Borges by Alejandro Lo Celso is a quite narrow text face with horizontality counters and oblique axis. Until now, this is a key feature of most of Alejandro typefaces. It can be interesting to see how this obsession will develop in his future designs?
Enlargement of key forms together with text showing of Borges.
How did you discover type design, and when?
ALC Rubén Fontana, knowledgeable graphic designer in Argentina, was my first typographic mentor. I fell in love with typography during his three-year course at the University of Buenos Aires. The first level introduced us to the intimate shapes of letterforms, by doing formal and expressive calligraphy for minuscules, and using black fine coal for tracing epigraphic forms or cutting them on plaster. The second level was concerned with editorial design, but from a very deep type perspective. We did posters, magazines, books, newspapers, handbooks, those sort of projects. Concept was then more important as our skills in communication were supposed to be better. The third level was certainly difficult: we had to solve very intricate problems, such as improve legibility in official tax forms. Have you tried that already? It’s amazing how can you learn from such tasks! Later on, Rubén started his type project for its use in his own tipoGráfica magazine — a type that is today happily published by Neufville foundry of Barcelona. I had the chance of closely following that project, as Rubén asked me to teach him the software so he might be able to do it by himself. I think that was the last stimulus to leave for England to change my life — added to the fact that seven years in the mass media was enough unhappiness for me! My experience at the University of Reading was fantastic, it made me get into type design in a very profound, intensive and enjoyable manner. Rayuela is basically the outcome of that year. The “Atelier National de Recherche Typographique” was different. I guess I had a project on my hands when I arrived, then it was the perfect place to keep working on it, taking advantage of its great material resources and its fine teachers advisors.
GMM I started to get interested in type design in my early college years, around 1991-92, or probably a little before. But I had no idea of where to start, or what were the means to create a typeface or the process for it, so I went basically self-taught. But I had a professor in college, Eduardo Nieto, who introduced me to the basics of typeface design. He was very enthusiastic about type, notably by the work of Adrian Frutiger, and he had studied at Basel, Switzerland, with professors André Gürtler and Wolfgang Weingart, among others. From there I started to play with alphabets. Later on, André Gürtler gave a short workshop on letterform in Mexico, which I attended. I was encouraged to continue working on alphabets. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Fontographer 3.0, which I started playing with. I learned the program from its manual, since I found no one who had ever used it. About that time there was an exhibition of some works by Hermann Zapf, Rudolf Koch and other type designers/calligraphers in La Ciudadela, a museum in Mexico City. I was completely impressed by the incredible quality and force of their work, especially Koch’s. Since then, I have become an absolute fan of type and calligraphy. I especially admire the work of the Didot family, John Baskerville and Roger Excoffon, as well as Black letters and Chinese calligraphy. I also like very much work of Jonathan Hoefler and Frantisek Storm, from Prague, and, last but not least, of my Latin-American coleague, Alejandro Lo Celso.
Neocodex by Gabriel Martínez Meave remind me some earlier font manipulation from the begining of the computer era. He seems to have built his design concept pushed to an extrem, on an usual mistake of the counter moving of the e and other similar lowercases.
Now, both of you teach, why? in what area: Typography, graphic design, type design?
ALC As I said before, teaching means keeping in touch with the constant need of explaining things, putting them into perspective, criticizing them, understanding their essence. And you do this while interacting with many people and their different views. That pushes you to very rich learning paths. Concerning the students’ projects, also there are not the constraints of reality, which leds you to encourage experimentation in all senses. Students have to understand the rules of tradition and their critic in modernity, and then learn how to react to that, trying to get the best of themselves in solving communication problems. After many years of having a traditional degree in Graphic Design, the UDLA decided to change its direction to a different program, tuned with most industrialized societies, where information design needs to be focused in a more complete perspective. Interactivity, interdisciplinary, information architecture, semiotics, and design theory play an important role in that training. And indeed type is a very important key to that, since typography is still the principal medium through which we experience visual messages. I am happy to be part of this project right now.
GMM I teach because for me it has been an encouraging experience and a challenge to transmit some knowledge –however small– to others. I mostly have given classes in Calligraphy and type design, but also on logos and identity.
Arobes by Gabriel Martínez Meave. He demonstrate here is ability in typeface design game. His double beginning of the arobes loops are particularly fascinating.
Last, but not least, what is your preferred typeface among those you already designed?
ALC That is maybe a better question to answer for Gabriel. I am afraid I haven’t got so many typefaces done, as it is the case of my lucid Mexican colleague. So shall I pick up one of Gabriel’s? In that case I believe my choice is pretty obvious: the gorgeous Arcana. It makes me feel proud to be included with him in this interview!
GMM This is a hard question to answer, because each one has been my preferred typeface while I was designing it!. But looking back, my favorites probably are Mexica, Arcana and Rondana, if I can choose three of them.
(1) Richard Southall, “A survey of type design techniques before 1978,” Typography Papers, no.2, 1997, p.35.
Jump to Part I
Copyright 2002 Alejandro Lo Celso, Gabriel Martínez Meave and Jean François Porchez. Thanks to John Downer.