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The good type


Neal P. Corpus

Posted on January 30, 2021

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We examine the work of type and graphic designer Jo Malinis, and how she uses her work to uplift and call for change.

“Typography is what language looks like,” says graphic and type designer Jo Malinis, and she couldn’t be more correct. It is, well, quite obvious, but there’s a sense of poetry in the way she phrases it.

We experience language everyday; we know what words mean and we know what they sound like. But words, when combined with a visual equivalent of sound, begin to take on a new shape.

“Typefaces serve as the voice in place for us when we’re not there to explain our tone,” says Jo. “That’s why it feels wrong whenever something that’s meant to be formal is set in Comic Sans.”

And in designing typefaces herself, mastering the skill of adding an aesthetic meaning to words, she has, in turn, harnessed it as a tool to gather people and even call for change.

Jo is quickly becoming one of the country’s top type designers. But it wasn’t something she set out to do: in 2014, while working on an assignment at Plus63 Design Co. (the design studio where she works), she was asked to work on a custom type for a client.

And the rest, as they say, is history. “That was the only time that I started getting interested in type,” she shares, “I explored more of it afterwards and now it is something that I think I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.”

Jo’s parents work in design and publishing, so she knew even from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career within those realms. In college, she took up Visual Communication, which led her to graphic design. Now, apart from being part of Plus63, Jo is also an instructor at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, which has been holding its classes online during the pandemic.

Apart from being part of Plus63 Design Co., Jo is also an instructor at U.P.'s College of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy of Jo Malinis

To the uninitiated, designing a typeface seems pretty simple. In reality, it is one of the more grueling practices of design. “You have to be very patient with your work because it can take forever to finish,” says Jo.

There are countless revisions involved in the process of creating a typeface: “The tricky thing about type design is that you’re not just designing the actual characters, but you also have to figure out how they interact with each other,” says Jo.

She cites a quote from British type designer Matthew Carter that she always refers to when explaining the process of designing a typeface: “Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters.”

Jo’s process begins with a concept that “is honestly inspired by anything,” she says. Many designers look at their surroundings to gather visual cues, while others look at old typefaces to revive.

Jo usually gleans inspiration from music. (“[It] sounds abstract and borderline pretentious, I know, But I promise it’s really what inspires me!” Jo disclaims.) For example, in her most recent type called Hook, she was inspired by the section of a song called, well, the hook — “…a peculiar riff or lyric, repeated throughout the track, that tugs at the listener’s ears,” Jo explains on her website.

Once she nails down the concept, Jo sketches on paper before vectoring the design on her computer. Then comes the aforementioned many, many rounds of revisions. “When you design the forms, you also have to make sure that their spacing and kerning are correct, and that all forms are related to one another.”

When she is happy with her first version, Jo then shows the design to trusted people to critique. “Because I’ve been working on the design for so long, I need a fresh set of eyes to look at it and comment on it,” Jo explains.

A closer look into the curves of Hook. Image courtesy of Jo Malinis

This is when she finds all the kinks she needs to iron out after the first round of designing, she says. “This step gets repeated a couple of times until there isn’t anything left to fix, and then that’s when I can finally release the typeface to the public.”

Even then, Jo doesn’t regard this as the “final step.” “Whatever I come up with is something that another person will be able to use, and to me that is very exciting to see,” shares Jo. “It makes me feel like I’m somehow part of this new thing that they create.”

This inclination for collaborating with others also extends into using her skills for causes bigger than type or graphic design. When Typhoon Ulysses hit the country last November, Jo initiated a fundraiser by completing and putting up for sale a typeface called Salbabida Sans.

Proceeds of the typeface went to victims of the typhoon, including the beloved Risograph press Bad Student in Marikina City, which lost all their equipment to the floods caused by the typhoon.

“I felt powerless reading about their posts, knowing that I couldn’t do anything to help,” Jo recalls, “So when some of my other friends started selling art prints online as fundraising initiatives to help with the studio’s rebuilding, I resorted to creating a typeface.”

Salbabida Sans takes inspiration from the Tagalog word for lifesaver or water floater, and its forms “mimic the inflated rubber vest or object that one can put on or hold to keep afloat in water,” Jo describes on her website.

The typeface began as a single letter S that Jo made for the 36 Days Of Type in March 2020. “I slowly developed a few other characters as the year went by, but at the time, I didn’t think that I would work on the whole alphabet,” Jo shares. But when the call to action arrived, Jo rose to the occasion.

Although the graphic design community in the Philippines is pretty well-established, the same can’t quite be said for type designers specifically. As her interest and passion for type design grew, one thing that Jo realized was that most of the resources for type she found online were from abroad.

“I noticed that while we have a lot of similar art and design Instagram or Facebook accounts here in the Philippines, there weren’t any — or much that I was aware of, at least — that focused on typography or showcased Filipino type-centric work,” Jo shares.

This is what led her to start Type63, an Instagram account that showcases the work of Filipino type designers. “Even on just a personal level I like supporting my friends’ work as much as I can, so creating and managing Type63 allowed me to do that on a wider scale with people that I don’t even know but would like to cheer on,” says Jo.

The logo of Type63. Image from the Instagram page of Type63

With Type63, not only does Jo get to discover the depth of Filipino type design, but she also gets to foster a growing community online. “I truly enjoy posting gorgeous work, and an added bonus is that I get to meet and talk to so many talented Filipino type creatives from all over the world.”

More recently, Jo collaborated with her friend, the writer Miguel De Dios, on an online campaign called “New Year, New Voter” that calls for people to register for the upcoming elections. “[We] have always wanted to create something — even if it’s as small as posting a graphic on our Instagram feeds — that would encourage others to vote,” says Jo.

Jo's design for the New Year, New Voter campaign. Image from Jo's Instagram

The initiative was only supposed to be something personal, Jo says, but with everything happening in the country, they felt it was important to get other people to join in spreading the word. Registering and voting for the right people are two different things, but Jo believes that it’s an important step that can help.

“My personal approach to using design to advocate for change is to do what you can with what you have, and try to do it to the best of your ability,” says Jo. And if good type is what catches a viewer’s eye, to help them read beyond what the language looks like, then that itself is the art of typography at work.

See more of Jo’s work on her website and Instagram. Itching to create some art? Check out our list of artist-recommended materials here.

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