Soundtracks & comfort zones — Talking with Luisa Baeta

It has been about 20 months since the last interview in this series was published. Since then, many things have happened & a lot has changed. Returning to this format is incredibly comforting to me. The familiar structure, the visual glimpse into one woman’s life, the personal questions that get such honest replies.

Luisa is a person you want to both hear and read. You don’t want to miss a word, since they are all clear and make you think. Walking with her on the streets of Thessaloniki some years ago, I was lucky to find a friend so soon after meeting in person for the first time. The ease and sincerity of her thoughts are very much apparent in this interview. I urge you to find few quiet moments to read, drink something relaxing (hot chocolate? something stronger perhaps?) and let it sink in slowly, along with this interview.

The warmup

Write three sentences about you

– I grew up in Brazil, lived in the UK for almost a decade and am completing next week my first anniversary of living in New York.
– I want to be in too many places at once, I wish I had a teleporting device.
– I am at heart a generalist rather than a specialist, which I feel is somewhat at odds with my decision to study and work with type design.

What is your soundtrack while working?

I love listening to music while I design, it helps me focus, and if I am home I will often sing while I work. But if I am writing, reading or doing anything verbal, I find music distracting. I usually just put a huge collection of songs on shuffle — it’s easy and allows for serendipity (I love when a perfect unexpected song matches a moment or tells you what you need to hear — I am not religious, but if I were, I might build my religion along shuffle messages from the gods). However, I have several more specific or even “functional” playlists, and it depends on my mood: if I want to get energized during a particularly boring stretch of work on that sleepy moment of the mid-afternoon, I listen to the kind of skater punk rock I used to love when I was 16. It’s better than an espresso! If I want to chill and let the mind wander, perhaps some soundtracks by Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, etc. If I am feeling sad or have the winter blues, there is nothing better than Jorge Ben.

Name three locations: a current location, a location you love, and a fantasy location

– Current: New York, New York.
– Love: Rome.
– Fantasy: 1950s Rio de Janeiro (or 1960s South of France. Or 1930s New York. I fantasize a lot about places I love in different moments in time).

Your favourite glyph to design and the most challenging one?

My favorites are the c and the z. I often get my first sense of the personality of a typeface with the c, which isn’t very helpful (it certainly isn’t part of my Reading-taught “adhesion”, or the often-used “hamburgefonstiv”, “handgloves”, etc.) but it’s where I usually get a good sense of the curve and the hand movement. The z is also great; I love the vitality of the diagonal movement, the bit of freedom it brings, and I feel like Zorro while I’m sketching it! 

My most challenging in the basic Latin alphabet is the f (especially for Roman, italics can have a bit more leeway). I can never get it to look balanced on a first try and it’s usually the last character in the lowercase set that I “resolve”. Funnily enough, I remembered recently that when I was 6 years old I got in trouble because I could not write the cursive f! I remembered the teacher making me practice writing all the loops with my finger on a tray of sand. So I can say the f is a long-time nemesis!

What is something you did that you are proud of?

Within design, most of the things I am proud of are “invisible” and it’s like they never happened. They are mostly related to going beyond what was requested, usually in situations where it wasn’t expected, and I wasn’t credited for it — who gets credit for re-spacing and kerning a typeface within a large foundry? Or designing obscure characters for a fallback font protected by an NDA? Nevertheless, moments like these make me proud, where it would have been easier (and perhaps almost encouraged) to do a half-assed job, but I put in the effort and did my best work.

On a personal level, I am proud of a couple moments where I had the courage to make tough decisions and change the direction in which my life was going.

The visual

A photo of your favorite beverage, and something to eat with it

I don’t know that this is my favorite beverage overall, but I took this during a snowstorm, and it’s a favorite beverage for cold winter days. It’s a very indulgent hot chocolate, including whipped cream leftover from Christmas! To eat with it, some biscuits, of course (although I live in the US now and should probably start calling them cookies, I guess!).


What do you see from your window?

What I see from my window is a fire escape, the building’s backyard (where the trash cans are), and the back of other buildings with their own fire escapes. There is also a tree where lots of birds hang out, and because of that there is usually also my cat, wiggling her tail and obsessing over the birds. On this particular day, there was also a lot of snow (hence my choice of beverage!).


A pile of books

It took me a while to decide on a criteria for that one… I thought of picking some lifelong favorites, but I don’t have them all with me (many books, especially paperbacks, were left behind and given to friends and used bookstores before we moved from the UK to the US). While I generally try to take good care of my design books, I’m pretty unattached to fiction paperback books as objects (sorry for all the purists out there!). Once I’ve read a book I like, I am very happy to give it away so other people can read it, and I also love reading books that belonged to friends and show the signs of wear and tear (like sentences underlined with pencils, marks on the cover that show it’s been carried around inside purses, and once I read a book that used to belong to a friend which had evidently been dropped inside a bathtub at some point. It was a mess and I loved it. So, yes, many of my favorite books have been passed along or been left behind).
Finally, I settled on a criteria: Books I am Currently In The Process of Reading. There’s five of them, but one is on my phone, which I used to take the photo, so it does not appear in the picture.

From top to bottom:
Enormous Changes At The Last Minute, by Grace Paley.
It’s a short story book, and every now and then I’ll pick it up and read a short story, then put it away and not touch it for several weeks. The stories I’ve read so far are set in New York in the early 20th Century and the author has a really strong and witty voice, I’m really enjoying it.

Capitães da Areia, by Jorge Amado
(It’s translated into English, called Captains of the Sands and published by Penguin, if anyone’s interested). It’s written by one of the masters of Brazilian literature, and it’s a moving and often disturbing novel about a group/gang of homeless boys in Salvador, Bahia. I was reading it right before I moved to the US, and with the move it ended up at the back of a shelf somehow, and I even forgot I had it until I started compiling this list, so I’m excited to pick it up again now! I’m almost halfway through and it already has what’s probably one of the most beautiful, moving chapters I have ever read in my life (the chapter called “As Luzes do Carrossel”, AKA the lights of the merry-go-round).

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, with art by Fiona Staples.
This is a comic book (or graphic novel) about a young alien couple with a baby who come from planets that are at war with each other. One of my favorite comics (Y: The Last Man) is by the same writer, and I’m really enjoying this. Fiona Staples’ art is great, I love the way she draws faces. I’ve finished reading up to volume 4 yesterday, and now need to go out and buy some more.

Designing Brand Identity, by Alina Wheeler.
I got this for myself for Christmas after listening to an interview with the author on the Design Matters podcast. I’ve only just started reading it. I’ve been mostly working with branding since I arrived in New York and I’m looking forward to reading more in-depth about this discipline. [podcast link:]

(not pictured)
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene.
This is the book I’m reading on my phone, which I read either in the subway or during lunch when I work from offices instead of from home. I got very curious about it after reading Americanah (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), where The Heart of the Matter is mentioned often. I’m almost finished, and to be honest, it was not initially the best book to read in the subway… It starts off very slow and nuanced, and books to be read in public places should probably be more attention-grabbing page-turners. I’m getting more into it the more I read it, it’s sad and full of subtlety. I haven’t finished it yet but I will be extremely surprised if this turns out to have a happy ending.


The longer bits

First, Marina’s question for you:
Which are the strengths you see in the type communities in each of the countries you lived? Anything you would like to see improving in any of them? (Brazil, UK, US, other?)

Thanks for suggesting my name, Marina! This is a tricky question, I can only answer based on my own experience, but here it goes: in London, I loved the type community and the strong sense of history that surrounded it, and places like St Bride’s Library, that organizes great talks and conferences, aside from being an amazing research facility. With Reading being close by and a lot of alumni sticking around, and other design schools with teachers with a strong type focus (like Catherine Dixon), and foundries like Dalton Maag and Monotype, London had a proper type design “scene” with a long-standing history. It’s very different from Brazil, where people are building a community from the ground up in places that don’t traditionally have a strong design culture or history. I did not know much about type when I lived in Brazil — I did my BA in graphic design in Rio, but it did not focus strongly on typography at the time, and moved to the UK shortly after. In recent years, I have seen, online, the type community in Brazil steadily growing. When I went to ATypI São Paulo (and, later that year, to DiaTipo), it was really exciting to see it all come together. I hope I can contribute more to it, even from afar, in the years to come.

As for New York, I have only been here for a year, so I am still learning my way around, but the most exciting thing about it to me so far is how type and graphic design are integrated. The Type Director’s Club is a great place for the community to gather, and I feel that, rather than a centuries-long historic tradition like in the UK, there is a strong influence of lettering and typographic arts coming from graphic design and advertising throughout the second half of the 20th Century. As someone who is moving from type design back into graphic design, it seems like a great place to be!

After a masters and some years working professionally as a full-time typeface designer, you decided to switch back to graphic design. Can you share your thoughts and ideas around this new old-new direction?

When I started to study type design, it was supposed to be a quick detour, not a career change! I just wanted to dive deep into typography to become a better graphic designer. After a year studying in Reading, there was still so much to learn that I decided to continue focusing on it for a while, and then the “detour” turned out not to be so quick… I am very excited to be back in graphic design (and branding) and to find out the many ways in which this type design experience can help and influence my graphic design work (surprisingly, it’s not just with typography!).

You moved from Rio to London and now, as you describe it, “finally,” to New York. What are your hopes for this move? Professionally, personally, both?

Personally, this was a life-long dream, and I came to the point where I realized it would be now or (probably) never. Professionally, first of all, most of my favorite graphic designers are based in New York. But there’s a professional hope that is also quite personal: I have a tendency to be insecure about myself and my work, and I am trying to grow out of that. I feel that in the UK, with the self-deprecating humor and understatement, I could become quite comfortable in my insecurity (it was socially acceptable — almost expected!). I think in New York this is not the case, and I hope this city will help me get out of my comfort zone and put myself out there in ways that I didn’t while I was in London.

You are full of ideas and have a very clear way of articulating them.  Do you feel that this is apparent in your designs as well? (Process and outcomes.)

Well, I have no idea if it shows in the outcomes, but it’s interesting you mention that! I have been recently discovering that articulating ideas verbally (even if I keep it to myself, just writing down a paragraph about it) helps me clear my mind and understand where I am trying to get to. I have always been a little jealous of people who carry around notebooks of beautiful pages where they articulate ideas directly in visual form (my “notebooks” — often napkins and found scrap paper — usually have messy doodles and written notes). I am now finding that writing helps me get there.

I am curious about Bligh. You received many good reactions to it, and I personally love how not-neutral it is. Have your views on it changed with time? The process was probably no plateau either. I am interested in your view up until now.

It’s funny, I have not managed to use Bligh yet, as I have not found a graphic design project where it answered the needs of the project. I almost did once, but the fact that it has no italics was a problem. It is not the most versatile typeface, and I half wish I could go back and change the uppercase set to make it less condensed (or add a wider small caps set) — and I would love it to have italics. Now that I am in a position of using type more often than I design it, what I like best is the regular weight in small sizes, where the flavor is still there but it’s not as obvious. Having said that, I have seen it in use in a couple of projects where it worked really well (the first time I spotted it was watching TV in London, on BBC Weather Watchers, and even after years living in the UK, where discussing the weather is a national past-time, I have never been so obsessed and excited about seeing the weather on TV).

How is the move from a full-time job to a freelance life? What are the biggest perks and concerns?

The biggest perk is the ever-changing routine and all the learning opportunities that come with it. This year I have worked as a freelancer in a few different studios and agencies in New York, and it’s great to spend time in a different office, learning how they work, meeting new people, getting to know a new neighborhood. The biggest concerns are financial — if I stay a couple of weeks in between one job and the other, it may not seem like much, but in New York money runs out fast (and with no national health service, having to pay for my own health insurance also adds up). I would happily work full-time if I found a place with great fit, but since I enjoy freelancing, I am being quite picky about it!

You can see Luisa’s work here.

Next interviewee …

Luisa is nominating the next lady to be interviewed:

The person I choose to be the next interviewee is Elena Veguillas. She is a brilliant researcher from Spain doing her PhD in London, and she’s someone with a contagious passion for letterforms. She’s also a dear friend and I miss her terribly!
Here is my question for Elena:

You have a wide variety of type-related practices: running a publishing house, researching, designing type specimens, and more. Is this compartmentalised (researcher by day, designer by night!), or do your different lines of work influence each other (and how)?


On a (very) personal note: 
I am holding my second baby girl, one week old now, and diving deep into Luisa’s answers. She takes me to places and years past and is full of self-reflection. I’m also reflecting on choices in life and pushing ourselves into unknown territories … Thinking of what we have accomplished and what is yet to be done … Taking some courageous steps, in order to carefully build the life we want. I am leaving comments open for a short while, so please share with us what you thought.

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