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a STUDY in

cONTRA STS Zuzana Licko Pablo Medina



phe r s y pog r a B ot h t rowed f rom or h ave b ies-old c e n t u r h a nd m a de e h t o on s of re tw t r a d it i m s , c r a f t i n g d ina a y pe e M t or blo nt le t t e r f y p e f a c e s t h a nd Pa postmode r blis hed a o k t, et a n u ic t t e q s L r i n e r e n a u r u e nd c a Zuza n ica lly d iffe re e rs we r h s e r s a re f ca at olog ie n. d ra m rs whose t t e c h n i s he a v i l y olutio s e e v t e n a r l ig l e k des wor ig ita th th ic ko’s w h ic h the d ced w i produ . Howe ver, L a l med iu m, afte r a t e i l g b h i he a s a v a i l a e d b y t he d k i n g. S to her a c m n e m u i n fl er for e approac h c of t h i s s es i n h ti s h e u s a t i c a l , pr e c i ac te r i s m i s c h a r d i n a, on t he ly m a t he r o c e s s t h a t e ep a g e. M a r e de cp a r t i st i c h nolog ic a l faces wh ic h r med e e o t f p h i g h l y nd , c r a f t s t y r a nd a r e i n g e a nd it a c te ha r a r e r e a h h h t c c i o ndet h n t ic i n s s i i h n ic , h a n f a a o g r r o a l hu m n u is v e r n a c ie n c e, w i t h a e de r i v e s h b y t he H r , e . k p al ex d him s wor person proac h to h i ltu re a rou n for cu ap ce s st yled on f rom t he a nd m ade fa i h t a l r a i n p ins d i t io i n g t ra r e ne w s e. r e nt lu re c u r d i g it a d i n a a l y de s i g n i n g e M d e ic k o a n ate l y a e ac t i v B ot h L hers who a r re approx i m n bor n a p ee a y t y pog r s tod ay. T he c ko h av i n g b i e r. L c t y p e f a p a r t i n a g e, ne y e a r s l a t e i a n e a d ed i n de c a 1 a nd M i n 19 6


dig•i•tal (dj-tl) 1a. Relating to, or resembling a digit, especially a finger. 1b. Operated or done with the fingers. 2a. Expressed in discrete numerical form, especially for use by a computer or other electronic device.


They both began their careers as typographers after obtaining undergraduate degrees in design. Though ten years is a relatively brief period of time in general history, in the age of digital typography, a decade is a considerable span. The technological advancements from Licko’s first years as a type designer to Medina’s emergence are staggering. Despite this, of the two designers, it is Licko who seems more apparently modern in her approach to design.

“Their pride for their country grows so much more by being here, because they don’t have what they used to have, so there’s this amplification of their culture.” - Pablo Medina

Licko’s professional career began in the early 1980s when she was studying graphic design at U.C. Berkeley, California. It was there that she met the photographer and designer, Rudy VanderLans. They bonded over their mutual interests and eventually married. Shortly after graduation, they established their arts magazine, Émigré,


a modest but intrepid publication intended to showcase the poetry and artwork of European expatriates such as themselves. Shortly thereafter in 1984, Apple released the Macintosh computer, the first true desktop publishing computer. Embracing this new tool with eagerness, Licko and her husband moved away from relying on photocopiers to vary their type and layouts. Licko set out to design typefaces for their magazine using the rudimentary software available to her at the time, finding motivation in this challenging and esoteric medium. On this aspect of working with such limited technology, Licko has expressed that she “enjoys things that are like puzzles; anything that is tremendously restrictive, where there are very few choices but you have


“I still get most of my creative energy out of solving these puzzles. When nobody is able to make something work, I get inspired to find out what I might do with it.�


- Zuzana Licko



sI y c hoice too m a n t e y g a I d f to I ou gh it work . . … A lt h e li ke d e to m a ke lm e h fac ove r w g n a ty pe a nd become a si ly desi ore trad it ion a l e e r o m m eative it r I can b c a y st of m h ic h is o w , m x t e le g ip Tr I st il l W he n u la r …. pu zz les. t less mod of solv in g these ork, I ge 1 w g ut eth in .” it h energ y o ble to m a ke som it do w is a I m ight nob o d y out wh at d n y th at fi to f necessit o t in spired n e id is acc nde n t rou gh th the fi rst indepe It w a s th d e d in the a sh e li r est ab ord sp w s A y. Ém ig ré r ic ko nt fou nd e work L p d ig it a l fo mu n it y about th a it ta l b m om per imen ré x e desi g n c ig r e m h É g w it h de for e w a s doin equest s were m a s. I n ti m s, r nov ation in g ty peface in it their e xc to sh a re

e n r p im

ill ages w ital im g etrates r i n d e o p t i A s it ched . a t n t o a i s trol the s ly profe r rent lly con u a e c h n t r o s o s r v r e te fa ble to p ner s en and dis f desig ner s will be a ticism o p e n k o s i t e a g er si of th ew gen omputer s, de “Much Licko r as a n c a uzana h Z e t i p p w a .” s e e e c dis r i t g c e ted d ay pra ever yd n unpreceden a o t work


w e d e v o r

their magazine would shift focus into a publication about showcasing and discussing ground-breaking design ideas and implementation, with Licko’s typefaces lending their distinctly digital aspect to the look and feel of the publication. Their business flourished with each new development in digital technology, Licko continuing to lead the way with confidence in her chosen medium. In a prescient statement on the future of design made early in her career that demonstrated her faith in this still nascent technology, Licko noted that “much of the skepticism and disfavor currently attached to digital images will disappear as a new generation of designers enters the profession, having grown up with computers at home and school. These designers will assimilate computer technology into the visual communication process. As it penetrates everyday practices with computers, designers will be able to personally control their work to an unprecedented degree.”2 Pablo Medina experimented with graphic design as a young man, purchasing Letraset type from art supply stores for use in promotional flyers for his punk band. However, by the time he would reach the point of formally designing his own typefaces, digital type technology was well-established. Medina published his first typefaces in 1996 as part of his masters’ thesis at New York City’s Pratt Institute. His set of three fonts, North Bergen, Vitrina, and Cuba, were inspired by vintage signage in the Latin American community of New Jersey where he grew up. This early work would typify Medina’s oeuvre as a type designer. Medina’s aesthetic continues to be deeply informed by the pre-digital


Base Mono Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./ Filosofia Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./ Matrix Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./

Modula Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./ Triplex Bold 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./ VARIEX Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./



filosophia MRS. Eaves



base mono matrix senator VARIEX







1st Ave


north bergen

1ST AVE Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+|:”<>?[]\;’,./ CUBA 9 PTt A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Zz 1234567890 ! :”? ;’,./ CALAVERAS Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./ DIABLITOS Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%^&*()_+{}|:”<>?[]\;’,./

NORTH BERGEN Regular 9pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz 1234567890 !@#$%&*()+:”?[]\;’,./ VITRINA Regular Nine pt AA BB Cc Dd EeFf Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz !:?;,.


age, within the realm of the vernacular; all of his typefaces reference a time when computers did not play a dominant role in typography, and reference signage in cities of personal significance to him. One influence of this artistic path may be Medina’s formative years as a designer during the 1990s, which was a period of heavy experimentation and rule-breaking in the world of typography and design. Like other designers of his generation, Medina reacted against the precision and minimalism in Bauhaus and Swiss design ideologies in favor of the anarcho-punk ethos of the 90’s NYC arts and music scene. As Medina noted when I interviewed him, to him the modernist ideal “seemed very neutral and very bland. That was part of the rebellion against what I was

Licko’s Citizen is modeled after the technical advances in laser printers.



being taught. I wanted my work to breathe of humanity. I wanted my work to breathe of the hand — of the handmade. And I wasn’t seeing that; I was seeing machines in Helvetica. I was seeing machines in modernist design. I wasn’t seeing humans.”3


After his graduation, Medina worked as a designer for various clients including major advertising agencies, and has since become an established typographer and designer. He has run his own design firm, Cubanica, since 2000. He continues to create typefaces, most recently designing a custom family of faces for ESPN that evokes the lettering of classic baseball cards. Zuzana Licko’s fondness for and comfort with implementing new technology isn’t all too surprising considering her background. Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Licko spent the first seven years of her life in a Communist nation, which she says imbued her with a tendency to challenge and question everything. 4 The rest of her years were spent growing up in California, where her mathematician father played a significant role in the shaping of her intellect. With his influence, Licko became familiar with computers at a very young age, playing with



to his father’s literary talents might have informed his own artistic sensibilities. Medina uses snippets of poetic language to showcase his fonts on his website which, if not the words of his father, certainly evince similar moods. In doing so, Medina invites us, intentionally or not, to make parallels between the work of father and son.

mainframes and easily taking to complex programs such as Pascal. Her first typeface design was a simple electronic Greek face for her father, for use in mathematical calculations. This early introduction to designing with computers, particularly in such an analytical milieu, likely shaped Licko’s approach to type design as she grew older. While Licko’s father puzzled over formulas and equations, Pablo Medina Sr. crafted phrases. A successful poet, Medina’s father’s writing is rich in melancholy and nostalgia. It is easy to imagine how Medina’s exposure

Perhaps more significant to the shape of Medina’s aesthetic than his father’s profession is his ethnic background. As an American child born of immigrant parents, Medina longed for more exposure to the cultures of his Cuban father and Colombian mother, particularly as he matured:“My mother comes from Colombia and my father comes from Cuba. They came [to the United States] in the early 60s. There’s an inherent nostalgia to that sort of process; there’s a quality of looking back and learning about my culture; wondering about what could’ve been had as a culture, as a family, if we stayed. And so there’s a lot of that nostalgia. For better or for worse, part of my interests have been about rewinding time to see what I missed. Like, what is it that I missed by being born here and living here my whole life? I need to go back in time to relive all that stuff that my family and my parents lived that I didn’t. So that’s really where all that nostalgia comes from. I think it’s pretty typical of the family dynamics of immigrants; they get here and they miss their countries so much. Their pride

Cuba olombia

“I think that the one word that will connect all of my work is CULTURE, and my interest in just learning about people.” - Pablo Medina


for their country grows so much more by being here, because they don’t have what they used to have, so there’s this amplification of their culture.”5 Medina’s parents divorced during his childhood and his mother subsequently returned to Colombia. Medina made his first trip to South America to visit her in the early 90s. On that trip he was exposed to typography he had not encountered in the United States. He felt particularly drawn to the handpainted signage of local merchants and the dance-hall posters plastered on the streets of Cartagena. He became infatuated with the anachronistic and unaffected quality of what he saw, particularly as it satisfied that part of him that craved connections to his cultural roots. He took that inspiration with him when he returned to the States, and it appeared thereafter in much of his design work, most particularly in his typeface designs – something that continues twenty years after his initial visit; he recently released a pair of Latin-American inspired typefaces based on the signage of Buenos Aires:

orderly/mathematical/controlled Calaveras (skulls) and Diablitos (devils) named after a song by a punk band from that city, and inspired by a hand-painted calligraphic technique originating from that locale known as Fileteado. While Licko and Medina both work in the digital medium, they have two radically different approaches to their craft. Licko’s affinity for digital technology allows her to feel most at home designing typefaces directly on the computer. She creates her letterforms with minimal handwork, mostly marking up printouts for minor refinements or corrections. Licko designs with and for her medium, shaping the way she approaches her character


ideations based on the inherent qualities of her chosen instrument: “Licko felt a need to redefine their ideologies. Instead of forcing established standards to fit the computer, Émigré decided to seek new standards derived from the computer itself.”6 Preferring to create within an intentionally restricted framework, her typefaces like Citizen, Matrix, and Modula were inspired and informed by the technology with which they were created.




Licko’s approach to design is logical, orderly, mathematical, and controlled – very much how one would characterize a “left-brain” thinker. In fact, she is left-handed. This caused problems for her when she took her least favorite class in college: calligraphy. Her lack of enthusiasm for the craft was in part because she was forced to use her right hand to draw the letterforms. It is possibly this frustrating experience that steered her even further away from considering a hand-formed style of type design when she became a typographer. Yet in side-stepping those traditional techniques, she flourished as a digital-typographer and her typefaces are uniquely her own, with an individual character that sets them apart from the designs of her contemporaries — a kind of “outsider artist” in the type realm. Though innovations in digital technology have now made it possible to have endless variations in digital type design, Licko’s work has consistently retained a certain

mathematical and restrained quality. Her sans-serif typeface, Solex, designed in 2000, has angular bowls and succinct brackets that are reminiscent of her earlier digital typefaces.







In contrast to Licko’s decidedly digital approach, Medina loves to draw and prefers this medium for type design as well. He does most of his type design sketching and drafting by hand, with very little refinement to his designs by the time he is ready to work on the computer. His process is all about the hand-made, not only in the way he conceives his letterforms, but in the inspiration for his concepts; most of his typefaces are derived from hand-made signage – such as with the painted bull-ring signs of Spain for his typeface, Sombra and the hand-cut mosaic tiles of the NYC subway system that inspired Union Square. Medina’s approach to design as a whole is far more organic and free form, with a deep emphasis on the imprint of humanness, and its




Licko again approached a classic redesign when she created a revival of the well-known typeface, Baskerville. She named her typeface after Baskerville’s wife and erstwhile mistress, Mrs. Eaves, in part because, as an innovative and thus somewhat controversial typographer, Licko had sympathy for the aura of scandal around her typeface’s namesake. Indeed, Mrs. Eaves was received with a strong mixture of praise and criticism. Many heralded her effort as a triumph, but others accused her of robbing the original letterforms of their humanistic grace. Regardless of its mixed reception among her peers, Licko managed to create one of her most popular typefaces to date.

sa or t a s ef f i h al t ed rson scr i b r “pe e e d on i,” h o f no c B od o L ic k i i r t t g a nt a e om nstr n ele e o a g s m a de em e for i a se r en c losof i F r ies. prefe , en t u ome c s e o h t t a nd w e en e bet g d i br


It is this character in her work that made her reinventions of popular classic typefaces so interesting. For her creation of Filosofia, Licko worked from the centuries-old Bodoni. Licko described this effort as a demonstration of her “personal preference for a geometric Bodoni,”7 and to some, Filosofia seems an elegant bridge between the centuries.


sign painting. Whatever the culture may be, the great by-product of creating is the learning process; the learning about culture and people. And that really informs how all of my work gets connected.”8

inherent flaws and inconsistencies, in all aspects of his work. In one of his earlier typefaces, First Ave, a homage to the aging neon signage of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the letterforms are highcontrast and textured images based on photographs, full of little imperfections that well-reflect the characters they were based upon. Medina underscored the clear importance of the human element of his work when I spoke with him: “I think that the one word that will connect all of my work is culture, and my interest in just learning about people; learning about people through a specific activity like baseball or


Zuzana Licko and Pablo Medina are two exciting contemporary typographers who have availed themselves of the benefits of the digital age in which their careers began. They continue to expand their horizons, expressing their distinctive artistic characteristics in their typography. Both designers were strongly influenced by their upbringing, most notably, Licko through her father’s anyaltical profession, and Medina through his ethnic identity. While both designers have always used digital technology to produce their typefaces, their techniques and styles contrast strongly with one another. Whether she is redesigning a popular classic typeface or inventing a modern font of her own, Licko’s work is largely informed by the methodologies available within her preferred medium of the computer, and the technological nature of her personal taste. Medina’s work is conceptually as far removed from the digital medium as can be, revitalizing the down-to-earth, flavorful letterforms from the vernacular of his personal experiences and heritage. He uses the simplest of tools – pencil and paper – before translating his designs to a digital format. Though the finished products of both designers are generated using the same software, the results are completely different and speak to their creators’ unique design styles.

Cited References 1. VanderLans, Licko, Gray, & Keedy. Emigre: Graphic Design into the Digital Realm. New York: Wiley, 1993. p18. 2. Vanderlans, Licko, Gray, and Keedy. p6. 3. Medina, Pablo. Personal interview. Telephone. 22 October 2011. 4. Reprinted from Pascal BĂŠjean, Pascal. Ă&#x2030;tapes Magazine (France) on Web. 16 October 2011. 5. Medina. 22 October 2011. 6. Vanderlans, Licko, Gray, and Keedy. p5. 7. Friedl, Cees. Creative Type: a Sourcebook of Classic and Contemporary Letterforms. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005. 8. Medina. 22 October 2011. Typefaces Used Medina: 1st Ave, Calaveras, Cuba, Diablitos, North Bergen, Vitrina Licko: Base Mono, Citizen, Filosofia, Mrs. Eaves, Modula, Senator, Triplex, Variex Photograph & Illustration Credits p8 Puzzler wrapping paper, p17 Matrix collage and self-portrait, Zuzana Licko. p18 (both images) self-portrait, Medina. Designer: Lita Ledesma Course: Typography 3 Faculty: Francheska Guerrero November 2011

c ol op h on




a look at the typographers Zuzana Licko and Pablo Medina


a look at the typographers Zuzana Licko and Pablo Medina