April 26, 2015

Folklore and Mars: Fernando Rosales, Designer and Typographer

It was by way of his interest in the cosmos, particularly his logo for the Mars Initiative (logo), that I discovered the work of Fernando Rosales, who works in editorial, publication, branding, and interactive design. Here, he shares his thoughts on connecting with literature and the outer space.

On being a graphic designer and typographer:

How did you arrive at doing the kind of design work you do? 
Was there an initial encounter of design that played 
a memorable role in your career path?
I remember first seeing the work of modernists Jan Tschichold and Josef Müller-Brockmann. You can’t go wrong with those guys. Their work was like some ineffable revelation where things like layout, grids, and typography suddenly started to make sense. I’m the kind of person that is drawn to the more formal design approach of the modernists.

Which came first: the interest in typography
or the interest in design?
I grew up in Miami surrounded by the Art Deco buildings and neon-signs of Ocean Drive. The city’s unique design sensibility, with its eccentric colors and typography, certainly made an impression on me, even if I wasn’t conscious of it at the time.

My landing in design was kind of a natural evolution from an initial interest in art that further developed into an interest in digital art, which allowed for me to integrate fonts. This segued into graphic design pretty neatly.

What is your process of realizing a creative project, 
from notion to completion?
First of all, I usually like to have a good understanding of what the subject matter is. This could mean a talk with the client, asking for a brief, or personally guided research.

Typically, I’ll be writing notes and sketching things in a notebook or on loose sheets of paper as I’m doing research. For the Mars Initiative, I began with research notes, sketches, and then some light mood boards of color, typography, and references from sci-fi movies and anime (below). If it were a print project, then it would involve paper stocks, textures, as well as Pantone swatches—so so so many Pantone swatches.

Then I begin exploring the designs on the computer. Whether using Illustrator, where vector graphics are concerned, or Photoshop for digital work, this part of the process can take a long time. I try to print things out regularly to see the designs off-screen and mark up with a pen, then go back to the computer and make adjustments, rinse, and repeat. The process can involve the client as you share design rounds and get feedback in return. For example, I shared Mars Initiative logo options until a direction was chosen.

Usually an idea starts off more complex, and I slowly take away and simplify it, making for a clearer overall final design. Ideally, this means reaching a point where you achieve a balance between being aesthetically pleasing and functional. For instance, I actually wanted to make real patches for the Mars Initiative and I had to simplify the design further and further until it worked for the embroidery process (above). The physical requirements of the final product ended up informing and shaping the design.

Considering the increased awareness of space travel, 
I admire your logo for the Mars Initiative. How did you get 
to design it?
I’m a big space nerd. Particularly fond of Mars too. I’ve read lots of scientific papers and science fiction centered around it. I follow planetary scientists and the Mars Curiosity Rover. So I was all over something like the Mars Initiative.

I have a romanticized notion of space and what the visual language for it should be (informed by popular culture, movies, etc). Unfortunately, this expectation is usually met with disappointment. I’ve noticed that many space and science-related startups or non-for-profits have poor design acumen, which is a shame as these subjects need to be engaging and inspiring in order to reach both kids and adults. So I contacted the Mars Initiative team and offered to lend a hand. Still more to be done.

Your interests also piqued my curiosity. Let’s start with 
literary history: who and what from the history of literature 
influences you and why?
As far as literary history, transcendentalism really is one of the most memorable. Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets and writers—period. She didn’t shy way from existential questions that at the time were pretty unconventional. Outside of America, I’d say the literary traditions of folklore in Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Wales are some of my guilty pleasures. The stories are creative, witty, and full of wisdom. They surprise you even now.

History, in general, though is fascinating. Much of our current world was defined by choices made hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Typography for instance is tied to the history of language. For example: What are those weird “f”s that are used as “S”s in writings prior to 1800s? Well, they’re called long “S”s and went out of favor in the 19th century for being confused with standard lowercase “f”s. But it’s fascinating to know this bit of history as the long S was in use for hundreds of years.

Regarding your interest in the cosmos, who,
and what influences you and why?
Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” and particularly his famous passage entitled “The Pale blue Dot” were my first introductions. Professor Brian Cox with his series Wonders of the Universe and of course the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” reboot are doing a wonderful job of continuing in Sagan’s footsteps.

As mentioned above, Science and Space are lacking in design. I’ll never forget how the CERN lab in Geneva, when presenting the world-changing discovery of the Higgs Boson in particle physics, did so using comic Sans and atrocious PowerPoint slides. Scientific discoveries deserve better than that.

How did you arrive at your interests in literary history 
and space travel? How do you keep them relevant in your work 
as a graphic designer and typographer? How do you 
sustain being a “History, Science, and Folklore aficionado”?
Simply put, I love books. Particularly science-fiction or history. This may or may not be directly relevant to design.

However, to quote Michael Beirut in “79 Short Essays on Design”: “Not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything.”

Hypothetically, if I work on a History Channel piece that takes place in the 1700s, I’ll know to use the historically correct long “S” as I described above. That just makes things fun.

How do you attract work and clients?
As of now, I have work coming in from different avenues. I’m a part of Working Not Working, a freelance network through which you can update your availability so you are not receiving email inquiries when you’re already working, and vice versa, so you can get work when you’re free. It makes freelance much less of a guessing game for both agencies and designers alike. So I’m very lucky to be a part of that.

I also seek out other projects that interest me personally through my studio, or the type foundry Templar Type that I just started with three other partners. For Templar, we are now doing custom type work for magazines such as ESPN, Entertainment Weekly (below), and GQ, as well as working on a few personal fonts.

I would recommend having multiple outlets for work to come in through. Keeps things interesting, as you’re not stuck doing the same thing over and over, that would drive me crazy. I like to switch things up periodically. So if I’m doing a website for two months when it’s over, I might like to work on a font, or do some letterpress work, and leave the laptop screen entirely for a change.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to your career?
As a creative person that’s now starting a few businesses, and has been freelancing a lot, my growth has been to become more responsible and knowledgable when concerning the business side of things. How to negotiate contracts, when to turn down jobs, and then, of course, the actual practice of running a business. It’s a side of design that unfortunately gets left out of design education generally.

“Growth” can be a very personal thing as well. It requires a sense of progression. So if you’re making progress getting better at something, even if it’s slow, it’s still progress. Pat yourself on the back. Dust that dirt off your shoulder, etc. Think long-term goals for growth. I’m working on sharpening my type-design skills currently—that’s going to take years to get to a place where I’m comfortable, but I’ll get there eventually.

On creativity, design, working:

Both your Twitter address and Blog 
are named “Alternate Matter”, what does this mean?
Ha-ha, interestingly Alternate Matter has become a sort of personal brand apart from my own name.

Started out as a blog name, but now it’s become my go-to name for all social media and even my Xbox live gamer tag. (I like to be consistent if nothing else.)

The term is derivative of scientific discoveries such as anti-matter and more recently Dark Matter, some as-of-yet-undiscovered principal of astrophysics. In a different way, it can be taken to mean matter, as in the subject matter of the work I do, or matter in a design sense as printed matter. It’s open to interpretation, which is why it suits my interests.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
I think there are disagreements between you and the clients, and also those between your own team. I see them as a natural process. Questioning things should be welcome at every stage. Everyone has opinions, some are just more valid than others. Hence, moments where you have to flex your designer-logic muscles and convince the client that their obsession with dolls, apart form being mildly discomforting, has no place in the branding of their product. Disagreements between coworkers is another thing entirely—myself, I try to leave egos in check somewhere far away and dark at all times.

What part of your work is particularly trying, 
and how do you deal with it?
Burning out and Time management. I’m literally the worst with time management, late-night binges of work is a staple. At times, I’ve become nocturnal. I’m certainly not alone in this. I think freelance allows for freedom which sounds fantastic, but can backfire to the point where you never stop working. If I can give any advice, it’s to provide some separation of life and work. Having an office or desk away from home to work is great, so you can work 9-to-5, or marathon for a few months, and then take a month off for vacation. Whatever works for you.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate, and get things done?
I think Slack is a pretty good resource for a small team to use, as it facilitates communication and collaboration very well. Dropbox is a must, of course, though Google Drive works just as well. Prototype.io is good for mocking up prototypes of apps or sites fairly easily for the intermediary proof of concept design stages. Personally, I prefer to use a Wacom Tablet these days over a mouse, as it’s more versatile, also more comfortable.

What is your definition of bad design?
The standard answer is bad design fails to solve a problem. Too vague though. I’ll elaborate with design that’s trendy just to be trendy. See Trend List. There should be a turing test or beschdel test for trendy-ass design. If you check positive on a certain number of Trend-List trends then you better rethink your design.

Dieter Rams said good design is long-lasting. Trends are the complete opposite. That being said, the definition of a trend is subjective, and there are some trends that are functional—these can be forgiven.

If you were approached with: 
“Fernando, I want to do what you do.” 
What’s your response?
It’s common to be asked how one can become a graphic designer. It will take countless amounts of grueling godless human-hours of practice, and then staring at typefaces, until you can name the font in use on the packaging of an edible thong.

In all seriousness though, I’m an optimist about design as a career choice. You won’t get any doom and gloom from me. If you want to pursue design, I say go for it. The amount of work in New York City alone for artists and designers is staggering. If print is dead, than we’ve hit the second coming.

How does the city of Brooklyn, New York,
contribute to your work? And what makes it special
for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
The Brooklyn community is very supportive of design and illustration. We don’t exist in a vacuum here as you might feel is the case elsewhere. (Albeit, this may also apply to Manhattan.). But it facilitates a positive culture for freelance creatives with plenty of co-working spaces such as Bat Haus, Makeshift Society, and Brooklyn Desks. There’s an appreciation for print design here that is so invigorating, whether it be magazines, books, comics, or posters.

There are all kinds of printmaking studios for some forays off-screen. I recommend The Arm Letterpress, if you’re interested in printing some wood and metal type, and Drink ‘n’ Draw for figure drawing sessions to polish up on your Illustration game. All this adds up to a community that makes it easy to meet like-minded folks.

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All images courtesy of Fernando Rosales.

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