Here is an excerpt from a 2020 issue of S P A C E, in which Jas Plac interviews typography designer Pilar Cano, whose beautiful work on Thai typefaces caught our eye.
Pilar Cano: Mastery of type design ‘is a really long process, months and years… you really need to like it. You look at cognitive processes… how we read, how our brain processes, and the eyes, how you… want the eyes to see things. There are so many layers, and you learn many things.’
JP: A lot of people I know would love to be a type designer. But lack discipline. How did you make it?
PC: Well, for me to make it as type designer meant being able to make a living from designing typefaces only. Now there are more foundries, but [when I started] there were just a few places that hired type designers: a few big companies and a couple of small ones, so I tried to take my freelance career in that direction, but that wasn’t possible. Then I saw an ad from Dalton Maag in London, which back then was much smaller than today, and applied, and got hired.
JP: Can you talk about the Thai and Khmer typeface design experience?
PC: Khmer and Thai are complex writing systems.. In Latin everything is rigid, there is a clear place for x-height, ascenders and descenders… In Thai, and other complex scripts, things are more flexible In the West we are kind of rigid with our empiric science and blah blah! But there is energy [in the Thai script] and I’m interested in a culture surrounding writing systems, it’s really important to understand the cultural aesthetics, because to me every writing system is a representation of its culture.
JP: Would it be fair to say that that’s a cultural thing? Rigidity, I mean. Of the west… versus flexibility in Thailand, and stuff.
PC: Yes, I think so!
JP: Cool. So, what else helped you learn more about the culture there? You mentioned eating a lot of food.
PC: Yes. Food is an important part of culture! It’s sort of an advantage in not being able to read [Thai]. You are out of your comfort zone, and you look at things deeply. Also, you see shapes as merely shapes. There are lots of people doing it the other way around. Lots of [non-native speaking] designers doing Latin typeface, and they’re amazing.
JP: How did you get started?
PC: It was obvious to me that I wanted to do [type design] professionally in my second year of graphic design. I had taken a very basic course on type design, but that wasn’t enough… so, when I was developing my final project, I went to study in Finland. There, the graphic design department head Tarja Nieminen, told me about the master’s [programs] at the University of Reading and the Hague. I chose to go to Reading the following year.
I graduated of the ma in typeface design at the University of Reading in 2006, then I freelanced for a while, then I started working at Dalton Maag where I had the opportunity to work in several writing systems such as Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, Khmer and Thai. Since 2010, I’ve been working exclusively on type design, and teaching typography and type design. I got specially caught by the Thai beauty, working there I designed Nokia Thai and hp Thai. [Editor’s note: see: https://www.hp.com/th-th/solutions/helping-you-adapt.html]
JP: Since 2014, DK has been based in Phnom Penh. So we really want to know abouty your Khmer type!
PC: Well, that was just by chance, while working at Dalton Maag, I had the commission to design the Nokia Khmer. After I had designed the Thai companion of the typeface, and as the two scripts are related, it was a kind of natural follow-up. I have to say that is a very hard script to design and its technical development is really complex, I had the help of the technical team at Dalton Maag and consultancy from Zachary Quinn Scheuren.
JP: What are you working on now?
PC: An Arabic typeface for kids’ books.
JP: The scripts of the Southeast Asian countries were new to you, is that right? So, given the unfamiliarity, how did you even begin?
PC: You beging by researching the writing system, how it was written originally… the tools used… calligraphic tradition, how… type has developed historically. I also used to practice handwriting with kids’ books. This gives me a sense of the structure of the letters, it is hard to explain, but when you write, you internalize the shapes in a deep way, and [then you can] understand why they are the way they are. When we work with a new script, the first few times, we work with an expert in this writing system in order to learn first, and another few times in order to make sure we are doing it well. There are many type designers that are experts in a particular scripts, and [who] offer their services to other designers [so it works by] hiring the services of a consultant, for a few rounds of feedback… in order to make sure we are doing it well.
JP: That’s a lot! Does the commissioning agent help with this?
PC: There are no comissioning agents involved. The type design world is not huge, and we know each other, also having studied at Reading where people work on many writing systems, we have a good network of people surrounding us.
JP: Any early lessons learned?
PC: Something which helped me is definitely the experience of going to study type design to the uk. I had not much money when I went there, just enough to pay the fee of the first year and a couple of months of survival, so I had to find a job quickly. I did my master’s part-time, in two years, because I needed to work to be able to complete the two year’s stay in Reading. Reading was the turning point of my career, even though it took me a few more years to be able to make it as type designer. I worked in many different places, having small jobs, for some time I had three jobs simultaneously. Some very funny ones! I taught Spanish to teenagers in a Catholic school, worked a few hours a week in a stationery shop, and on weekends I worked at a football stadium’s bar! I didn’t have a laptop, so I had to work at the university with limited access hours. Several times during those two years I thought I would not make enough money to survive, and saw myself packing and going back home. [But] fortunately that did not happen, and I achieved [my goal] to graduate, against the odds.
JP: Letterjuice. What’s it like?
PC: I co-founded Letterjuce with Ferran Milan after we both left Dalton Maag. We knew each other since we studied graphic design in the same school in Barcelona, we met in 2001 or so. We became good friends, then we kind of followed the same path: I went to Reading and a few years later, he did the same. We have a similar way of seeing things, so that makes it very fluid. We work very comfortably together; we even had been flatmates. We both have the same way of seeing our profession and I would say life, so it was a matter of time that we would do something together.
Design Kompany publishes a weekly e-mag, S P A C E. No ads. No endorsements. No BS. Currently we are fundraising for our Autumn 2021 series, which will feature more local and vibrant stories co-created with our collaborators where we are at the moment, namely, Vietnam. We care about real people sharing their real stories; that’s why DK embarked on the journey of discovery in early 2013 to see what was in Asia, and find people and learn about them to develop honest stories of those places and the time that we are in. It’s about field reporting, journalism, discovery, and collaboration. But mostly, it’s about building trust. Which requires time. And authenticity. These are the hallmarks of Atelier S P A C E. Help us continue to create S P A C E the weekly e-mag, by making a donation of any amount at the crowdfunding page.
Here’s a link.