After a month filled with inspiring posts written by many of the ’bettes, it’s time to mark Women’s International Day with a new interview. Although I think the fact that there is a Women’s day shows that we are far from reaching equality, I will still use this date as an excuse to celebrate Alphabettes and the connections that we are able to make here. Our next interviewee will touch a bit on gender roles and sewing, which I find perfect for today.
In the last interview, Shelley nominated Sol Kawage. I didn’t know Sol, perhaps because we missed each other by a year at Reading, but I was so happy to get to know her through this interview. I am sure that you will feel the same, so sit back (with a nice glass of wine and cheese!) and enjoy this read.
Write three sentences about you
– I’m a very curious person. Everything interests me to the point that the only profession adequate for me is information designer, because it allows me to learn and get involved with many different subjects. I love talking with older people, or experts in any field. I want to know more! My job is then making this new knowledge easy to understand so others can learn.
– I love life, it amuses me, it fascinates me. The absurd, the wonderful, the baffling. All of it.
– I’m a 100% extrovert and love making friends and learning from them. I’m an open book, which I know can be weird, but I’m ok with weird.
What is your soundtrack while working?
Three words: Johann Sebastian Bach. When I have to work through the night, I put on the Well-Tempered Klavier twice, which does wonders for my attention span and makes the night go fast. I know it’s not very healthy, but I love staying up all night working.
Name three locations: a current location, a location you love, and a fantasy location
Mexico City: where I was born into a dysfunctional family (to be kind), who in their own crazy way encouraged me to treasure my aesthetic sensibility but never take myself seriously.
Milan, Italy: where I moved on my own when I was 17 and had a decade of adventures before becoming a mother. There I met typographer and engraver Lucio Passerini, who along with his wife informally adopted me and kept me from becoming too wild, and introduced me to typography through letterpress and art printing.
Sterzing, Italy: tiny mountain village where I’ve been living for the past 9 years, having babies, learning German, cross-country skiing and getting a formal design education at the University of Bolzano, with a parenthesis at the University of Reading, where I got my MA in Information Design 2 years ago.
A favourite letter to design and the most challenging one/a favourite part of the design (graphic/information) and the most challenging one?
I’m not a type designer, and I’m not a letterer (I’m somewhat of an interloper here at Alphabettes!). I’m an information designer, and what I like most is the variety of design tasks and situations that I face. I get bored easily, so I crave fresh challenges! Another thing that excites me is how I can push the limits of topics that I can draw from. My MA dissertation was about instructional design in sewing patterns, and I got to do research about women’s fight for gender equality in the process.
However, I have designed a couple of typefaces, and maybe in the future (who knows?) they might see the light of day. I really admire type designers. I wish I could be so meticulous with my beziers for such prolonged time frames.
The most challenging thing for me is to work alone: I’m a natural team worker, I often need a fresh pair of eyes or just a word of encouragement. That’s one of the reasons why I love the type community so much and I’m grateful that Twitter exists. The chance of bonding with amazing women like Shelley and Tiffany, even when we’re ten thousand miles apart just blows my mind.
What is something you did that you are proud of?
The Isokon Gallery in London was an amazing project, one of those things where I kept having to pinch myself. Long story short:
• A modernist building in Hampstead with a rich and interesting history (home of Bauhaus exiles, Soviet spies, Agatha Christie) fallen into disrepair, abandoned for years, resuscitated by visionary architects.
• An empty garage.
• A Swedish entrepreneur who thought the garage should be used to celebrate the history of the building.
• A very busy and generous designer friend.
I entered this story via the busy friend. I needed a project, and asked him if he had something for me. A case of being in the right place in the right time. We worked together for 3 solid and sleep-deprived months, and ta daaa. It’s amazing. Please go see it.
A photo of your favourite beverage, and something to eat with it
A photo of your design process
A photo of your desk, working space
A pile of books, both professional and others
The longer bits
The first question is from Shelley:
“I have never met Sol in person, yet I feel confident that I want to be her when I grow up. She is a very intelligent woman with enormous amounts of creativity, made evident with not only her Masters Thesis topic (‘User motivations in procedural instruction design: The case of sewing patterns’) but with how she parents her two sons. She is funny (making me laugh is high on my list of friendship requirements) and she is adventurous (she lives in the Alps!), and the combination of these two characteristics means that I want to share a bottle of wine (or two, or three) with her and hear her life story. On her front porch of course.
She has an interesting ethnic background (English and Lebanese) and a knowledge of multiple languages (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German). I would like to know how her multicultural upbringing has influenced how she sees design, in particular, usability, such as with her thesis topic. And then, I want to know when I can come over and drink that wine with her?”
I’m very moved by Shelley’s words! I grew up without a mother so I’ve always looked up to other women in order to understand how to be one. Shelley reminds me how lucky I am to always find the kindest and most kick ass women for the job.
Regarding her question, I’d say my lack of roots makes it easier for me to relate to different people of different backgrounds, nationalities and cultures. At least, I hope it does! And I like to think that the fact that I think in 5 languages makes me smarter.
(Shelley: since I moved into my office and out of the guest room, the guest room is waiting for you to come and take over.)
Since you have lived in different countries which vary culturally, I wanted to know how your childhood in the past and your family in the present influence your work? What about the other way around—does your work influence your family and daily life?
I’m not by nature nostalgic and I don’t have a strong sense of belonging, in fact I think of myself as a sort of postmodern world citizen. There is maybe one element in most things I make and design, which betrays my Mexican side: hot pink—we call it Mexican pink—is probably going to make it into my swatch palette!
I have English and Lebanese origins, grew up in Mexico and moved to Italy at 17. For the past 9 years I’ve lived in a place with a similarly schizophrenic history: formerly part of Austria, now Italy, but German speaking. No wonder I feel right at home here, never feeling at home. This translates perfectly into my approach to work: every new project and every new venture is uncharted territory and it doesn’t scare me.
Right out of school I took a degree in Finance—in my family, artistic, aesthetic inclinations were seen as the road to perdition, so for a while I tried to acquiesce. I sometimes regret it as a waste of time, but is there such a thing as a waste of time? I didn’t know it back then, but those 5 years made me a better information designer, who is able to see arid subjects as a challenge, happy to have a chance to make them less so.
I also trained and briefly worked as a chef, which gives me perspective when I’m tired, because there are few things as exhausting as a restaurant kitchen, (which is why I don’t do that anymore).
Nowadays I arrange my working schedule so I don’t miss those fleeting childhood years, and I love designing for children. At the moment I’m developing a didactic tool for teaching languages to young learners and it’s fun and it’s convenient to have two members of the target audience at the ready.
You have chosen to live in a very (VERY) beautiful and quiet place. What are the pros and the cons for living in such a place in matters of influence on the work? (I am thinking about networking for instance, living in a remote place can make gatherings more challenging)
You touch a raw nerve with this question, since I recently turned down exciting job opportunities because of my location. However, living here has its perks: my children walk to school, we live in our own place, with inspiring views and in-laws keen to help. Life is good here, but I’ve been flirting with the idea of a PhD, so there might be a move for us in the future.
Being part of design communities like Alphabettes and twitter, and being able to jump on a plane with a certain ease, as well as taking advantage of all the tools available to work remotely attenuate the remoteness and sometimes I don’t even think about it.
In your designs, you are using a particular style of lettering—quirky, very un-industrial with a hand made feel. Can you share with us the motivation behind those choices? Are you working on the lettering yourself?
Ha! I really enjoy the charm in imperfection (as long as it’s not a jet plane engine or say, brain surgery), faces that have a certain character, like a big nose for example. I’m also a recovering perfectionist and that’s probably the only way I can move forward: get stuff done. If I can count on a collaboration with a specialist, that’s great, but if I have to do my own lettering or illustration or photography, you name it, it’s going to be my own, non-fastidious way. When I decide that my way isn’t good for the project, I tell my designer friends: “hey, come here. I need your expertise and here’s your cut”. But me, I’m a jack of all trades and the quirkiness is a product of that. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll specialise and start churning out perfect things, and the challenge then will be to make things that aren’t stiff and stilted.
I saw that you have an interest in sewing. Each time you focused your work on either women or men (boys). Your dissertation from Reading on women’s sewing patterns and also the book “Sew can boys” which is a “boys’ guide to building with thread”. Although the two projects cannot be compared, what are the differences in matter of approach to gender? What conclusions or interesting anecdotes can you share? And what makes you drawn to the world of sewing?
I love sewing, cooking, knitting, pink things and Richard Curtis’ films. I’m also a feminist, and I’m a mother of two boys and I curse like a sailor (fuck is my favourite word). With my MA dissertation I tried to learn more about these humble information design examples, and I soon realised that their history and design is so tightly connected to the history of the fight for gender equality, that I could hardly manage my excitement. In three words: Skill is power.
In the case of my “Sew can Boys” book, I was trying to challenge that boys’ things are neutral things, and girls’ things are girly. If we are going to knock down cultural stereotypes we have to do it from both sides!
Can you write about the process of designing information? How do you even begin to deal with a pile of information in its raw form?
Don’t we all want to be understood? For me, being understood in an intimate way is more important than say, being loved. And when your job is to make things clear and understandable, then it becomes very personal. So you get your raw material, it can be anything—lately research results, a finicky floor plan, the attributes of Star Wars characters, baroque music concerts—you take it in, and you shake it in your brain until you find the patterns. There are patterns everywhere. Then you try to see it all with double vision: that of someone who is encountering the information for the first time, and that of a real expert. You are lucky to have the most versatile and wonderful tool out there, which is typography. And bam! You tweak and stretch and swap things around about 950 times, until you’re happy and your client has to pick up their socks which were knocked off.
In all seriousness though, it’s a learning experience both content-wise and design-wise every time, and I can’t say I have a recipe, yet.
You can see Sol’s work here.
Next interviewee …
Sol is nominating the next lady to be interviewed:
For the next interview I’d like to choose the brilliant Nina Stössinger. I admire her work and her attitude towards work, and her focus. I have this idea that she’s the exact opposite of me—Swiss v. Mexican? I can’t imagine anything more antithetical. I love Ernestine (every time I see something set in Archer I think: uhm, I bet it would be better in Ernestine), try to use Selavy whenever I can, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Nordvest, whose design process I’ve been following on twitter since she started it. She’s focused, she’s so knowledgeable and I always learn something interesting from her.
My question for her is: what aspects of the design of Ernestine would be different if she were to design it today, after her time in Type and Media. And more broadly, what are her thoughts on her work before t]m, in light of her experience there.
On a personal note: I’ve read this interview so many times before hitting “publish”. Each time I noticed something new in Sol’s answers. An almost magical feeling. Indeed, Sol is not a type designer, and perhaps because of it I found our discussion to be refreshing. The approach to information design reminds me a lot of my process while researching and designing typefaces.
Through her many studies in different fields, Sol showed me that design is connected to everything. This helps me understand my path better, and I appreciate her so much for not taking the easy road (I’ll rephrase, not taking the road she paved each time) and starting over again and again. Sol’s choices of where to live and how to spend her time are inspiring, and make me want to learn how to integrate work and private life better. Such a personal challenge of mine these days. Thoughts of living in a small place makes me reflect on my choice not to live in the “big city”, and know that you can make it anywhere.
And while we’ll continue to celebrate a women’s day everyday, I want to wish all of you reading this post, women and men, a lovely day of (any) celebration.