Remember December: Reflections on Arabic literature, calligraphy and type

I have always had a fascination for Arabic literature; I say this not as a native speaker but as a Lebanese francophone who studied in an American university. The multilingual education system in Lebanon gave us the privilege of reading literature classics in three different languages. But Arabic has always had its unique aura, enchanting me with its subtle grammar and with how the interplay of short and long vowels, along with other rhetorical elements, can overhaul its semantics and enrich its rhythm.

This literary enchantment has indirectly played a significant role in my life by drawing me into calligraphy when I was a design student. I used to keep a notebook in which I collected quotes that piqued my interest. The words I had once noted down started taking different shapes in my calligraphy copybook. The desire to bring these eloquent words to life, through beautifully entangled strokes, fueled my discipline and commitment towards doing–and sometimes overdoing—my homework. Only then was the euphoria of reading matched, if not surpassed, by that of writing.

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Remember December: Greetings from the old continent

This spring I got to travel for 5 weeks to Europe. It was my first time visiting Italy and the first time visiting more than a few cities in Spain over the same trip.

I grew up in Venezuela, and a lot of the people back home came from these countries, so it meant a lot to visit. There’s plenty of familiarity, culturally and language-wise, but of course, there’s so much history engrained in these two countries, that it was a real pleasure to discover all its wonders.

Below, what I could capture in between aperitivos, fresh made pasta, tapas and cañitas.

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Remember December: 5 years, 5 lessons

to live to learn to love

Lettering I designed for tattly before leaving NYC.

This day in 2012, I tearfully hugged my parents goodbye at Newark Liberty International Airport. I was leaving New York City to move to Kansas City, Missouri. Joining me were my two cats, a few suitcases, and my best friend Julie for moral support.

A week later, Julie was back in New York City and I was starting my new job as a Typeface Designer at Hallmark Cards. On my first day, I remember getting blank stares when I asked where I could get a bus pass and why I couldn’t get FontLab to open on my computer.

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Remember December: My Year Learning How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Some examples of playing with different tools.

Some examples of playing with different tools.

Despite our political turmoil this year I was determined to stay focused on positivity and ultimately, the things I could control. A long season of learning more about lettering and type design has been one of my professional goals for some time now. I’ve always had an interest/love affair with letters but often find myself in a state of imposter syndrome with it. I focused on exploration, finding communities where I felt comfortable creating work and asking questions, and more importantly, I wanted to keep it relatively casual. I didn’t want to go back to this idea of not knowing what I was doing and feeling like it didn’t count as real lettering or type design.

I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that offers five days of creative renewal, and when I looked at the offerings, I jumped at the opportunity to take a couple of lettering workshops and a Type Design workshop co-lead by a fellow Alphabette, Lila Symons.

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Remember December: Learnings from Teaching Typography 1

As 2017 closes out, I, and I think many others, are reflecting on the weight of everything that has happened in the previous twelve months. It was a year raging with political and climate-inflicted disasters throughout; filled with frustration and feelings of hopelessness. Despite this (or perhaps because of this, as a means of avoidance or way to channel positive energy) it was also personally an incredibly productive year.

Professionally, I started leading a new team in Germany, taking on the responsibility for guiding the design direction for some of the best icon designers around. That, in addition to the brand team I was already leading, would have been enough to call this a good year. But outside of work, teaching Typography 1 at California College of the Arts was the most rewarding endeavor.

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Remember December: An early Christmas present for my students

Few examples of the felt letters and hiragana. From left to right, top to bottom: O す り V / W R ふ か / る い S Z

Students learn best if they enjoy and love what they do. Besides all the learning and assignments, I regard it as essential that they develop passion and joy for their profession. Suffering becomes visible in design, while the joy of creation lets the outcome (no matter whether type, book or graphic) look light, simple and natural.

Some students struggle to develop this joy in the context of class assignments. I have been teaching at a women’s college in Kyoto, Japan since April 2017. And it is sometimes hard to judge whether the young women are actually enjoying their studies or not. Sometimes, we require input from an outsider, as well as a situation that is out of the ordinary. So we held a workshop on a Saturday, run by the Japanese design studio Dainippon Type Association, to trigger the passion of the students.
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Remember December: Remembering Sütterlin

friendship book in Sütterlin

December 1941: A page in my grandmother’s friendship book. Still written in Sütterlin, although the script was officially forbidden since September.

This year my mother showed me my grandmother Wilma’s and my great-grandmother Frieda’s friendship books. Both books are filled with poems about friendship, youth and life, little proverbs their little friends wrote to them. Often the pages were adoringly embellished or decorated with prefabricated illustrations of flowers, cute animals and children out of some super-idyllic fantasy world. There are entries from every month in these books, but noticeably many of them in Decembers. The cold months were obviously the time for this sort of thing.

My great-grandmother Frieda’s book has entries from December 1919 to 1939. My grandmother Wilma’s book shows entries from December 1941 to 1947. I am oddly fascinated with these books, because the innocent wishes from 7-to-10-years old children stand in such a crass contrast to the awful and extreme things which also happened at these times.

To see these books was obviously intriguing on a personal level, but also very interesting from a designers/type designers perspective because many entries are written in Sütterlin, an old German handwriting style. Sütterlin is familiar enough to normal Latin handwriting that it makes you think you should be able to read it, but in the end you usually cannot. Some letters are very similar to their modern equivalent, some are completely different.

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Remember December: I Lead Two Lives

I can’t believe we’ve almost made it to the end of 2017. There have been some dark days this year where I wasn’t sure we would get this far. Too many horrible things have happened. I’ve too often awakened to bad news, outraged, and thought, it can’t possibly get any worse. They have to fix it. But it does get worse. And they don’t want to fix it.

I feel like I’m living two lives. One, where the mad foul beast capering around in the big white house is sucking the life out of the planet and out of me. Some days, I become so overwhelmed by utterly preventable mass shootings and natural disasters made worse by the human factors in global warming and our rights being stripped away that I just yell at the TV or Facebook or the newspaper and often end up sobbing.

I dread what will happen when that blank-visaged, ice-haired second-in-command with the soul of a scuttling cockroach takes over for the orange demon in charge when that thing finally drops dead of massive congestive heart failure after downing a mid-morning snack of two Big Macs, two Filet o’ Fish, forty-eleven Diet Cokes, and six puppies. Monster Number Two is but a skittery beating heart away from building his dream homeland of conversion camps and women’s detention centers where he can house us all as breeders in Handmaid’s Tale fashion—except for that robotic shell of a mate he calls “Mother.” He has to have something handy to feed on when the sun goes down.

The life smothered by the daily awful is wretched and despair is ever ready to strike. But that’s not all there is.

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Remember December:
The Dinner Date Question

Despite a daily slog of despondency and rage at the state of the world, there were many personal and professional high points this year: the Alphabettes Variety Show at Typographics (and Indra yelling “Bingo!” during the conference), visiting the Letterform Archive and the San Francisco Zoo with my mom, son, and the wonderful Tânia, and a whirlwind trip to LA for the AIGA design education conference I helped organize. I also got tenure and my daughter is finally potty-trained. Those last two are equally significant.

I was already planning to attend ATypI in Montréal when Liron asked if I would like to interview conference speakers and attendees. Finally, the chance to realize my dream as a typographic talk show host! Boasting almost zero professional on-camera experience, I said yes. With designer, letterer, and ATypI-volunteer-who-happened-to-be-at-the-volunteer-table-when-I-showed-up Luke Norrad as the camera guy, we were ready to roll.

During the conference, Luke and I very professionally wandered around with our very professional gear, asking attendees a very professional question: If you could have dinner with any type person throughout history, who would it be? Some popular answers included Hermann Zapf, Beatrice Warde, William Addison Dwiggins, and Herb Lubalin (I’d totally go to that dinner party, by the way). However, there was one person whose name kept coming up as a favored guest. Luckily, he was in the room and had some ideas of his own.

The official interviews are available on the ATypI YouTube channel.

Remember December: Thursdays Are For Therapy

At 2:30pm on Thursdays, I take the key to the bathroom to reapply my lipstick. I wrap up whatever email I’m writing or article I’m flowing and at 2:45, I walk across Madison Square Park for my weekly 3:00pm appointment.

My therapist is kind and empathetic. She knows how to watch for the moments I physically zip my anger inside myself, lodging it in the base of my throat. She knows how to listen to what I’m saying and how I say it, probe into the thing I’m dancing around, and coax the hurt and the anger out. She is possibly the only person in my life who consistently asks me questions about myself that I don’t know the answers to. (I hate not knowing the answers, but if your therapist isn’t asking you questions that you don’t know the answers to, you are smarter than they are, and you need to find a new therapist. If you’re seeing a therapist, and you probably should be, you’re paying them enough money to be seen and heard, and if you’re not seeing a therapist, you still deserve to be seen and heard. Seriously.)

Some weeks, our sessions are light and easy and I crack jokes about the neuroses I inherited from my loving parents (we all have them) and the emotional ineptitude of those men in my life (we all have them). Other weeks crack me open in ways I’m not always certain I’m ready to be broken open and these sessions are hard and painful. I pay a good chunk of change for these sessions but they’re always too short and after the hard sessions I need to buy hot chocolate to calm myself down before going back to work. And I’m lucky—I have the means to go and the support of my studio. Alissa, Ben, and Nathan: I’m so grateful.

But these sessions are exhausting. Necessary, but exhausting.
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