The Daily Heller: Making Typographic Music With a Latin Beat

Posted inThe Daily Heller

The Type Directors Club’s managing director, Ksenya Samarskaya, has launched her tenure with two significant Type Drives Culture conferences in less than a year: 2022’s Ezhishin, the first devoted to First Nation type and letter practitioners, and Cha Che Chi (March 3–4), devoted to Latin American typography. This virtual event is curated by Sol Matas, a Berlin-based type designer originally from Argentina, and Laura Scofield, a Brazilian-born, New York–based designer, strategist and educator. The focus is in many ways on type, but as Samarskaya says, there is a lot of emphasis on lettering “because those are the seeds that later become type.”

The aim is to show the regional differences where new directions in type design originate. Samarskaya says this is not a conference “to give you your Swiss-Army-knife-one-size-fits-all typeface,” it’s a conference for participants to talk to a more global audience.

I asked Samarskaya, Matas, Scofield and another conference participant, designer Nubia Navarro (who designed the graphics for Cha Che Chi), to weigh in on their respective reasons and goals for this impressive event. Join the festivities here.

Oliver Siegenthaler

Type Drives Culture is living up to its name in exploring type’s various roles throughout the world. Obviously you have a lot more to discover. Why is Latin America your current focus, following on the heels of Native American type?
Ksenya Samarskaya: Sol Matas joined our advisory board at the start of 2022, and this is an initiative driven largely by her and what she was noticing in terms of a need in the community. The TDC Advisory Board is part advisory on the quotidian running of TDC, and part incubator, where the TDC helps those that come on board put their vision out into the world, whether it’s a curatorial vision within an existing event (such as the Type Drives Culture conferences) or a standalone initiative. 

Sol Matas: I’ve always been involved in events nurturing the type community, starting in Argentina and continuing in my chosen home of Berlin. So when I joined the TDC board last year, this project seemed a natural way for me to contribute. Ksenya Samarskaya helped me pitch the idea of uniting the broad global reach of the TDC with the cultural richness of Latin America.

Cha Che Chi is the most intensive exploration of Latin and South American type design and typography that I know of in the US. Where did the inspiration come from, and how did it evolve from idea into reality?
Matas: The type community in Latin America has come together for nearly two decades now in its Biennial Tipo Latinos. Cha Che Chi is here to show off that energy to the rest of the world, allowing us to inspire each other. The beautiful artistic and crafting traditions of Latin America come with political ideas and always with passion. Handed down from generation to generation, disparate, but with a thread of continuity in the materials and colors. Latin America’s type community has arisen in a difficult environment, struggling with economic crises, violence against women and LGBTQ, and political corruption. So our themes cover a lot of territory: business, women, queerness, political activism and craft. We hope this focus has a wider empowering ripple effect, and that the practitioners, their stories, and their work can inspire other Latin Americans, established European and American markets, and others who similarly haven’t always been granted a focus on the main stage.

Samarskaya: As Sol and I were initially discussing the conference, it seemed beneficial to add a Portuguese speaker to the curatorial team, balancing out the dominant Latin American lingua-spheres. I’ve worked with Laura Scofield in various capacities before, and always appreciated her perspective and attitude. So we invited her to come on board as a co-curator to help in the discussions, and help balance out perspectives in a way that I couldn’t. Scofield’s engagement, connectedness and charm has made this process much more fun, and proved invaluable in the discourse that happened behind the scenes, the panels you’ll see on screen in March, and also in making the local parties happen. … Have we mentioned the parties yet?! There’ll be four: two in Brazil (São Paulo, Belo Horizonte) and two in the US (New York, Pasadena).

Julia B Aguiar
Julia B Aguiar

By the way, what is the meaning of Cha Che Chi?
Matas: In primary school, I learned that the fourth letter of the alphabet, what we called “che,” is represented by the union of ‘c’ and ‘h.’ Two letters for a single sound, which in 1803 was recognized by the Royal Spanish Academy as the fourth letter of the Spanish alphabet. However, in 1994, they removed it again. This sound echoes in Spanish words like chabón, chango, chava, chela, checar, chicha, chichón, chido, chimichurri, chulo, churro. … But in the rich mix of Latin America, we also hear it in words from indigenous languages, and in Portuguese. Like the famous Pichação “wall writings,” political statements painted in tar. Argentinian Che Guevara made this sound so frequently we forgot his given name, Ernesto, and his nickname “Che” became a global icon, evoking the image of the bearded guerrilla leader. The Mexican band Café Tacvba salutes the “ch” with the song “Chilanga Banda,” composed by Jaime López. From south to north, the sound of the “ch” echoes with a Latin American voice. 

Tulio Cerquize
Tulio Cerquize

Since type in the US has been traditionally taught as a Eurocentric language, is the reason for this focus on Latin and South America to rectify an imbalance?
Samarskaya: Type evolves, and is very micro-cultural. Take Cyrillic; there’s been active advocacy from a cohort of Bulgarians in advocating for stylistic derivations, and now alternates for Bulgarian are an expected standard when drawing Cyrillic type. But these kind of minute preferences and historical deviations exist everywhere, and absolutely come up in something as sprawling as all of Latin America. So community conversations such as Cha Che Chi become a space where those preferences can be noted, where patterns can be observed and dialogue can take root as to how the community wants to continue being represented. (So, in short, yes.)

Laura Scofield: Cha Che Chi is an amazing opportunity to showcase and broaden the awareness of the quality and distinction of Latin American design. The conference follows on the heels of TDC’s Ezhishin, the first-ever conference dedicated to Native North American typography held last fall and organized by Ksenya Samarskaya. She is really making an effort to bring exposure to all types of design around the world in an inspiring and inclusive way. I believe when the reach expands, so does the quality of design conversations. Whether it’s Belo Horizonte, Lima, Bogotá or an entirely different corner of South America, being able to connect with these diverse talents is a special occasion. These designers will not only share a one-of-a-kind creative process, but they will also share a piece of their own story and history. Their solutions are as diverse and multicultural as Latin America itself. I’m thrilled to watch these folks together on the same stage for the first time.

Nubia Navarro: A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit the United States and give a design talk, sharing my experience as a Venezuelan designer living in Colombia. During my visit, I had the chance to chat with people and hear their opinions on Latin American typography and design. To my surprise, the majority had little to no knowledge of the subject. This was especially curious, given that it was a design and creativity conference, where I was sure someone could answer my questions or point me to an artist or style. This experience further highlighted the disparity that exists in terms of visibility, recognition and support for Latin American creative communities. I believe that Cha Che Chi is an important and valuable event to bring attention to the work of designers and artists from other latitudes.

Beatriz Lozano
Nubia Navarro

Is there a distinctive aesthetic that exemplifies Latin American type and typography?
Scofield: It feels difficult to narrow in on an aesthetic that encompasses the vastness of Latin America. Our plurality defines who we are. But there are three things (or ingredients) that come to my mind when I think about Latin America: playfulness, rhythm and color. Our design overall is a blend of craft-based traditions, organic movements and vibrant colors enhanced by a rich Indigenous identity. We are free-spirited people who aren’t afraid of play.

In this vast cultural mix, it’s essential to mention the presence of foreign designers among us. Over the two centuries of Brazilian design, for example, among the most outstanding professionals, foreigners were always present—Portuguese, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese. They were independent designers who settled in the country organically. The best production of the two centuries of Brazilian design also passes through them. We are, inevitably, a miscegenated country. It’s a hard task to define who we are or what aesthetic exemplifies our typographic production, but seeking definitions is the least promising way to find answers.                

Navarro: Latin America is full of varied and distinct aesthetics: pixação, porteño fileteado, Mexico’s vernacular typeface, Bogotá’s bus typefaces, Ecuador’s painted walls, Peru’s shrill style and more—all of these visual gems can be found in cities across the continent. I could spend hours talking about them. I love it when I can recognize a style on a street sign, trace its origin and understand its purpose. But I also appreciate how it can be reinterpreted to create something new. Culture evolves quickly, while still always keeping some of its roots. 

Marc0 Avilez

Is there a fundamental distinction between North American and Latin American formal and/or methodological approaches?
Matas: The approaches have converged somewhat, but from very different starting points. Although a history of lettering existed in Latin America, type was always handed to us, first from Europe, then America, up until a few decades ago. The transition to computers put the tools of production into our hands, and what you see now is a collection of upstart communities finding their voice as distinct from the European and American traditions. This change opened the floodgates. We’ve seen new designers and new work coming out of Latin America because it’s possible.

Students in Latin America learn type like their North American and European counterparts, but the resources available to them are still quite different. Latin America doesn’t have the same deep physical history and availability of artifacts that are in Europe’s libraries and museums. The teacher to student ratios point to structural differences too. I learned typography in Buenos Aires elbow to elbow with 200 classmates. A class in Berlin would have been a fraction of that. This hints at both the size of the industry and the great interest in the populations.

Scofield: Our design taps into a rich cultural mixture, and the outcome is abundant and expressive. Since I moved to New York, I constantly hear people saying that we, meaning Latinos, are very creative and uninhibited. I love when I hear “uninhibited”—it says a lot about our creative process. It’s like Brazilian soccer! We don’t want to just play and score; we have the ginga, we dance with the ball. We improvise and adapt. 

Navarro: The methodological approaches to typography definitely vary according to the environment and practices in which they are taught. However, there are certain fundamentals that lead us to agree on many things. I have friends who have started their typographic studies at universities in Latin America, as well as shared their experiences of studying in Europe. The distinction may be found in the fact that there are more established schools in North America with new digital approaches and ways of teaching typography, leveraging that technology. In countries such as the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Colombia, independent communities have been created to support academic teaching and to help those with the interest in typography, however, only a few of these have official certifications and they are not as intensive, without the same standardized methodologies. In addition, though there may be fewer options for now, the cost of education is much cheaper than what one finds in the USA, allowing for greater access.

Carlos Bocai
Carga Maxima
Carga Maxima

Are there any forgotten, hidden or secret languages (such as indigenous languages) that will be explored and introduced by speakers during Cha Che Chi?
Samarskaya: We can see what the speakers will bring of their own volition, but we’re in the works on an entire conference focusing on Indigenous and Native Latin American typography for this coming fall, co-curated by Sol Matas with Sandra García. So you can expect Cha Che Chi to provide the greater context of contemporary Latin American design and typography, and then a deep-dive follow-up of how different cultures coexist within that.

Cyla Costa

What role does hand work, vernacular or decorative (like the Fileteado style) letters play in the development of Latin American type design?
Scofield: Latin America is particularly rich in terms of vernacular heritage. I see it as one of the main sources from which all of our typographic expressions derived. I would also add that, from my perspective, foreign influences were and are as relevant as local vernacular production. Cultures have been exchanged for much longer than current discourse suggests. In Brazil, for example, the influences of European design and the Portuguese typographic tradition landed in 1500. These influences ended up being appropriated by the local, cultural and technological environment in which we live. As new technologies emerge and take over more traditional practices, our craft and hand work are becoming more appreciated. In São Paulo, the largest city in South America, buildings have been covered by a unique and unprecedented form of calligraphic graffiti coined as Pixação since the 1980s. Inspired by heavy-metal lettering, it consists of tagging done in a distinctive, cryptic style. Some people still have a hard time acknowledging Pixação as a form of art or design. However, in recent years it has garnered a lot of attention and has become increasingly commodified. For example, Brazilian soccer jerseys designed by Nike for the 2022 World Cup featured the word “Brasil” written in a typeface that was obviously influenced by Pixação.

Navarro: Hand-drawn letters and their characteristic styles, such as Vernacular and Fileteado, have been fundamental throughout history. They helped form the visual texture in a given region, and opened up new possibilities for diversity in letterforms. Initially, the employment of this style was commercial—filling a simple need to be punchy and capture attention. Though this has mutated over time, and opened up space for them to be valued for their aesthetic and inspirational elements, in turn giving rise to new projects with a distinctly Latin American flavor.


Of course, all contemporary typeface design must be compatible in multiple languages. How do the designers represented in Cha Che Chi address issue of global accessibility?
Matas: This is partially true for a narrow sense of language. In terms of latin script typefaces, the bar is a lot higher than it was 20 years ago, when you could publish a typeface without an Ñ. But even today, many typefaces are published without Vietnamese diacritics, for example. This conference isn’t necessarily aimed at global solutions. We’re starting locally, surveying the state of type design as it is, and how designers are handling the market requirements. In our next conference, Native Latin America Scripts, we’ll dig deeper into designing for Latin American native languages. Global accessibility happens on the ground, one region at a time.

Posted inThe Daily Heller Typography