Mexican Type Design Features

Mexican Type Design

Mexico has taken its time to distill its distinctive typographic flavor.

Jan Middendorp

The story of Latin American type and typography in recent years is one of emancipation and self-discovery. For decades, mainstream design in the region depended heavily on influences from Europe and the United States. Today, local references are confidently mixed in—from pop culture and regional craftsmanship to early Hispanic printing and pre-Columbian visual language. The new spirit in Latin American type design is celebrated through Tipos Latinos, a biennial competition and series of related events that bring together fourteen countries. The sixth Tipos Latinos took place in 2014 in many cities across Latin America and showed a scene that is ambitious, professional and remarkably original.

Northernmost of the countries involved, Mexico has played a central role in the Tipos Latinos movement. Its typographic culture taps into a rich cultural mixture. Mexico has a deep fascination with its own heritage—which includes the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya and other pre-Columbian civilizations, and the Spanish colonial culture that all but erased them—and cherishes its colorful popular culture. To cultivate these influences, well-equipped institutions for typographic education have developed rapidly.

Typographic innovation in Mexico has been gaining momentum since 2000, thanks to a combination of factors. Francisco Calles, an educator who calls himself “a designer of designers,” founded the influential type and typography program at the Centro de Estudios Gestalt in Veracruz, one of the first specialized degrees in digital type design offered in the Americas. Calles also created a recurring event called Tipografilia and the type magazine Tiypo, with Marina Garone as associate editor. In Mexico City, educators Mauricio Rivera Ferreiro, Ricardo Salas and Tullia Bassani brought a contemporary typographic awareness, digital savvy and a broad, international perspective to their respective design colleges. In Tijuana, just south of San Diego, young designer Jhoana Mora founded and directs the yearly Esquina Norte conference, helping to strengthen the growing network of Latino designers and establish links with the American and European design world.

Throughout this remarkable movement, young designer Gabriel Martínez Meave was something of a guiding light. Meave, a virtuoso calligrapher and illustrator, set up his first graphic design studio, Kimera, in the mid-1990s. He went on to create a type library under the same name, showing that manual craft and digital savvy aren’t mutually exclusive. Meave’s type designs are eclectic, ranging from informal handwriting via striking display fonts to serious book faces and corporate type. In his illustrations and letterforms, he references many aspects of Mexico’s complex typographic heritage. “Mexico’s first printing press was installed in 1539, a mere 83 years after Gutenberg’s Bible,” says Meave. “But ancient Mexico had several scribal traditions of its own, including the Aztec, Mixtec and Maya writing systems. Unfortunately, almost all examples of it were lost, burned by fanatic Spaniards in the sixteenth century.”

Meave’s superior stylishness and professionalism have made him a national treasure. He does work for numerous Mexican institutions as well as multinational companies and advertising networks. His most prestigious custom creation was Presidencia, the type family he designed in 2007 for the Mexican national government. In recent years, he has gravitated toward calligraphy and hand lettering. He has developed calligraphic logos and lettered official documents, and he has found a new and eager market as a designer of tattoos.

As an artist specializing in digital type and setting up his own foundry, Meave was a pioneer. Other designers of his generation chose to make type design a secondary activity as they focused on corporate and editorial design, and it is easy to see why. Across Latin America, selling digital typefaces had been problematic. As Argentinian Alejandro Paul has argued, the proliferation of illegally copied fonts reduced retail sales to practically zero. There has been some improvement, but professional type design didn’t take off until distributors such as MyFonts gave small-scale type foundries access to a global market.

Now a younger group of designers has put lettering and type design firmly at the center of their ambition. Among the catalysts who contributed to this shift was Argentinian designer Alejandro Lo Celso. When Lo Celso arrived at the University of the Americas Puebla, in Cholula, Mexico, he brought an interesting mix of skills, having studied type design at the University of Reading, United Kingdom, as well as at the Atelier National de Recherche Typographique (ANRT) in Nancy, France. He was intrigued by the influence of popular visual culture in Mexican graphic design. “Elements from the street—brush lettering, informal calligraphy or wood-type blocks—show up on posters, on book covers, in logos, etc.,” says Lo Celso. “If you walk the Mexican province, you will still find tons of wonderful lettering samples. As new technologies push to replace traditional practices, these crafts acquire a higher status in the collective consciousness and manage to be integrated into the ‘official’ design repertoire with no complaints from the modernists.”

During the time Lo Celso lived and worked in Mexico (he returned to Argentina in 2010), he had considerable influence on the budding type designers who became his students and friends. He became a professor at the Centro de Estudios Gestalt, where he was in charge of type design courses. He also had his own type foundry, PampaType—the one independent typeface company to rival Meave’s Kimera—which made him a role model for type designers who hoped to turn their work into a business.

Mexico is growing up. It is not a typographic teenager anymore, but it will still take several years for it to mature.”—Leonardo Vázquez Conde

In 2007, a group of type design graduates founded the Círculo de Tipógrafos, an organization that promotes higher typographic standards in Mexico City through research, education and promotion. The member list of this small type circle (it has never had more than 20 members) includes many of the names that matter today in Mexican type design: Cristóbal Henestrosa, Raúl Plancarte, Isaías Loaiza, David Ortiz and Oscar Yañez, the organization’s main spokes-person. Lo Celso was invited to join, as were teachers Ferreiro and David Kimura. The group’s activities reached a high point in 2009, when Mexico City hosted the annual ATypI conference. The organization had an exhibition around the work of Boudewijn Ietswaart, a Dutch lettering artist and designer who had briefly worked in Mexico around 1961 and had a lasting influence on Mexican book design. The group also collaborated with the long-retired Ietswaart (1936–2010) in developing Balduina, a suite of display typefaces based on his 1960s lettering for major Mexican publishers.

Individually, the younger members of the Círculo de Tipógrafos are having very diverse careers. Henestrosa is probably the most colorful of the group. He came to type design through literature—alongside his design career, he was also a literary student and a writer. He designed his first typeface, Espinosa Nova, as part of his final project as a design student; the typeface was a reinterpretation of one of the types used by Antonio de Espinosa, the most important Mexican printer of the sixteenth century. Henestrosa went on to study type design at the Centro de Estudios Gestalt in Veracruz, and in 2010, he completed the type design program at Cooper Union, New York City. Throughout his studies he worked on professional type projects, including custom typefaces for the preeminent publisher Fondo de Cultura Económica and for one of Mexico’s largest bookstore chains, Librerías Gandhi. For the Ghandi typeface (commissioned by Kimura+Varela via ad agency Ogilvy) and other projects, Henestrosa collaborated with Plancarte, his partner in a type design company called Letracase.

Being a writer as well as a type designer, Henestrosa also served as an ideal partner for Laura Meseguer (Spain) and José Scaglione (Argentina) to co-write the type design manual Cómo crear tipografías (How to create typefaces), published in 2012 by Tipo e in Madrid. The book has been translated into Polish, and there are plans for Portuguese and English versions.

Among the other recent successes on the Mexican typographic scene is CocijoType Foundry, a joint venture of type director and developer Elí Castellanos and designer Manuel Guerrero. The name CocijoType refers to the Zapotec civilization that once thrived in southern Mexico, where Castellanos is from. Cocijo was the Zapotec deity of rain.

Ancient Mexico had several scribal traditions of its own, including the Aztec, Mixtec and Maya writing systems. Unfortunately, almost all examples of it were lost, burned by fanatic Spaniards in the sixteenth century.”—Gabriel Martínez Meave

Rather than aiming for commercial success by following global trends, Castellanos says, CocijoType focuses on making work that is fresh, original and decidedly Mexican. By incorporating references that range from sixteenth-century printing to vernacular lettering in all its manifestations, its designers hope to contribute to a contemporary Mexican approach to type design.

The young company’s ambitious mission has won it the confidence of a few seasoned designers who have started to issue their unpublished typefaces with CocijoType. Leonardo Vázquez Conde, designer of the text typeface Lectura, studied type design at the ANRT while working in France (1998–2001); in his home country, his main commissions are in editorial design. Conde, too, cares about typographic cultural identity—he likes his typefaces to emanate some of his “chaotic Mexican background.” Recently, CocijoType began publishing retail fonts by Yañez. Now a high-profile publications designer currently working in Dubai, Yañez has quietly built an impressive body of custom text and display fonts, mostly developed for the magazine redesigns he has directed.

CocijoType has produced some custom typefaces for cultural institutions as well, but the foundry specializes in retail fonts. “Developing a retail library,” says Castellanos, “allows us to sell type globally, focusing on the European market.”

Other type designers are going similar routes. Based in the Puebla area, where he was a student of Lo Celso, Jesús Barrientos runs the Talavera Type Workshop. He prefers the term “workshop” (taller) to “foundry,” as research and education are part and parcel of his company’s mission. Barrientos has studied the history of calligraphic models as well as printing type (with a focus on printing in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Netherlands). This has resulted in a remarkably diverse collection of fonts, which Barrientos offers through international retail platforms. His work shows influences that range from blackletter calligraphy via Baroque-era punch cutting to modernist experiments. Loaiza is another former student of Lo Celso, also based in Puebla. A lettering artist, calligrapher and information designer, Loaiza has worked on some prestigious corporate type projects, including the security type for the Mexican passport office. He trains a new generation of designers as a teacher at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla.

Although it’s obvious that there is something very special and individualist about contemporary Mexican letterforms, its identity is not as defined as, for example, type design from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Vázquez thinks it’s a question of time: “Mexico, while strongly rooted in its cultural traditions, is a bit lost in the search for its contemporary identity. [There are] historical discrepancies between Mexico and other ancient cultures, and one of these is in type design. If Mexico was the country with the first printing shop on the continent, why didn’t it create a type industry? We are still building the answer. Mexico is growing up. It is not a typographic teenager anymore, but it will still take several years for it to mature.” ca

A Dutchman in Berlin, Jan Middendorp (janmiddendorp.com) has written and edited several books on type design and typography, including Dutch Type and, most recently, Shaping Text and Hand to Type. He is a consultant and editor for MyFonts, Monotype and other type companies. At the ATypI conference in 2009, Middendorp presented the brilliant, but little-known lettering of Dutch designer Boudewijn Ietswaart, who worked in Mexico in the 1960s.

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