November 16, 2018

The Best is Yet to Come: Maria Montes Improves and Grows as a Freelance Designer, Illustrator, Letterer and Calligraphy Teacher

Designer and Artist Maria Monte’s work in illustration and letterforms is tremendous—and fantastic in scope. Been revisiting her wonderful work over the years. Excited about her opinions on creativity and craft as part of my Design Feast series celebrating remarkable Makers. Here, Maria gives a detailed peek into her world, from her beginnings to getting established to continually improving her illustrating-lettering talents to shaping a creative community—and being shaped by it for the better.

How did you arrive at the desire to become a designer and an artist who makes her design and art—her life’s work?

My grandmother has been a huge influence in my life. She was a fashion designer and a dress maker. With her support, at the age of sixteen, I started to cut and sew my own garments and I loved it.

At the age of eighteen, I applied for a fashion degree. I was not convinced that you can make a living as a fashion designer, so I decided to enroll simultaneously in a graphic design degree. That year, I spent my days drawing fashion silhouettes and my nights typesetting in Pagemaker and QuarkXPress.

In 1995, while studying fashion and graphic design, Paco Rabanne released XS. I remember discovering the perfume’s packaging. Something about these letters caught my attention and I could not stop thinking about them for months. By the end of that academic year, I decided to specialise in graphic design so I would have the opportunity to learn more about letterforms.

Graphic design, typography and illustration have been part of my life since then.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and establish yourself as a calligrapher and designer?

First came calligraphy, then typeface design. Through textile design came illustration and finally lettering as the sum of it all.

I learnt calligraphy for the first time in 1996. During my first year at university, we had to study nine months of formal calligraphy as a compulsory subject.

After working as a graphic designer for a decade, I felt that I needed to go back to the foundations. I consider typography the main tool for a graphic designer and I felt that I needed to up-skill my knowledge.

In 2011, I enrolled for a postgraduate course of advanced typography in Barcelona. During that course, I studied formal calligraphy again with Keith Adams and Oriol Miró. I was shocked by how something you love so much can be forgotten for so many years. I grabbed my calligraphy nibs again and I have never let them go.

After my postgraduate course in Barcelona, I came back to Melbourne and started a collaborative project on textile design. I learnt how to illustrate, create patterns and all things related to CAD from my bedroom. I rediscovered that drawing was another one of my big passions.

My collaborative textile project was going really well—I was illustrating all day, every day and learning a great deal of new stuff.

The experience of learning type design in Barcelona was so good, that a year later I decided to enroll in a condensed program on typeface design at the Cooper Union in New York City.

Type@Cooper was a turning point in my career. By that time, I was illustrating full-time and writing calligraphy every morning as a personal development. At the Cooper Union, I learnt a new method of drawing type by hand, and I decided to apply the same methodology to illustrating textiles.

In 2013, one of my typography teachers at university died and I received an email asking for submissions to pay homage to Josep Maria Pujol, a great typographer, teacher and type historian. This motivated me to send my first lettering submission to a group show.

Lettering made so much sense to me. I see it as the result of combining my interests in writing letters and drawings patterns, which is drawing letterforms.

Nowadays, my practice sits between graphic design, custom lettering projects, illustration commissions, textile design and calligraphic-personal development. I currently teach calligraphy workshops in Australia.

Very difficult to select which work of yours to dive into. One that I keep revisiting is your awesome “We Cannot Not Change” print. How did you arrive at this idea? What was your process/workflow toward this realization of typography and illustration?

“We Cannot Not Change” is a personal artwork originally submitted to a group exhibition in Melbourne, Australia.

The inspiration behind this piece comes from two events that happened during my attendance at ATypI Conference, Barcelona, in 2014. During the second day of the conference, Raquel Pelta gave a fantastic talk called “Graphic design and typography for social change.” I admire Raquel very much and her talk was very inspiring to me.
 The second inspiring event at the conference was typeface designer Erik Spiekermann’s sending of a mailing tube to ATypI containing a poster with the message “You cannot not communicate.” Spiekermann’s poster referred to one of the five basic axioms supported by communication theorist Paul Watzlawick:
“One cannot not communicate: Every behavior is a form of communication. Because behavior does not have a counterpart (there is no anti-behavior), it is impossible not to communicate. Even if communication is being avoided (such as the unconscious use of non-verbals or symptom strategy), that is a form of communication. ‘Symptom strategy’ is ascribing our silence to something beyond our control and makes no communication impossible. Examples of symptom strategy are sleepiness, headaches, and drunkenness. Even facial expressions, digital communication, and being silent can be analyzed as communication by a receiver.”
Combining both ideas “Graphic design and typography for social change” plus “One cannot not communicate” gave me the inspiration to create a piece based on the idea of change, the theme of the group exhibition.

The first idea behind my artwork “We Cannot Not Change” was that in our physical human nature (illustrated in the background), change is inevitable. The second idea was that change is imperative to improve social conditions, create a sustainable living, respect nature as our own family and take responsibility for our actions.

Change must be as driven of a force toward responsible consumption and production; more inclusive, safe and sustainable cities and communities; universal access to water and clean energy; awareness of the effects of climate change and the conversation of the sea and its ecosystems.

I will use a fragment of Raquel’s talk to close my idea:
“Experts say that we are in the middle of four huge scale crises (financial, energetic, food and democratic) and citizens are demanding substantial changes, the question arises, what is the role of graphic design and typography on these changes? Could they become agents of social change?”
One of my favorited quotes is by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” How do you maintain your calligraphy/lettering discipline?

Calligraphy, lettering and typography are all about learning to see and understand that the foreground (positive spaces) and background (negative spaces) have both the same volume of importance.

As a beginner at anything, it’s very common to say “this is shit,” or my personal all-time favourite “this is not good enough”—whatever “good enough” means.

I learnt Copperplate calligraphy in 2011. I sucked at it for a very long time. This style of calligraphy never came natural to me and it has taken me many years to reach a point where I am feeling comfortable with the pointed pen and finally feeling the flow.

My teacher Amanda Adams once told me, “Your pens are like your dogs; you take them for a walk every day no matter if it rains, it’s cold or hot, you just do it.”

In my personal experience, there are no shortcuts, only practice. And if you decide to put your pens down to sleep for a few weeks/months, be prepared to feel all the shakes again, guaranteed.

How is typography, from drawing letters to designing typefaces, a coping mechanism in these turbulent times? How are design and art helpful in these turbulent times?

Letterforms are a tool for communication. We now have access to multiple platforms where we can amplify our voice and talk about the issues we really care about.

I ask myself this question many times: What responsibility do we, in the design sector, have? As designers, we translate our client’s ideas. As artists, we become the vehicle for our own ideas. Are we using our knowledge and skills for designing for good?

Is there a work of calligraphy/lettering/typography that you keep admiring, that you happen to re-experience?

For some reason, I go back often to the logotype “Families,” designed by Herb Lubalin in 1980. The simplicity and visual clarity of this logo makes me reflect on the importance of a great idea expressed in a very concise and minimalistic way.

I recently watched a talk by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman where he mentions that the idea is first and craft must come second. And this has resonated deeply with me.

How did you arrive at the idea of making your Green Fairy typeface? What was the process in getting it real?

The origin of my Green Fairy font family is the lettering I designed in 2015 as part of my illustrated cocktail artwork called “Absinthe. La Fée Verte” (The Green Fairy).

Right after creating the full-colour artwork, I designed a fountain-letterpress print version in collaboration with Ladies of Letters, a.k.a. Carla Hackett and Amy Constable, from Saint Gertrude Fine Printing.

At the beginning of 2016—and thanks to the project @36DaysOfType—I found the motivation, most importantly, the deadline, to draw the rest of the twenty-six letters of the uppercase alphabet.

I started 2017 with having my first two calligraphy courses sold out, so I took this amazing opportunity to devote myself to Green Fairy for nine months straight.

I purchased the font software Glyphs and I started to re-draw all twenty-six letters of the uppercase alphabet again, followed by the numbers, currency symbols, diacritics, punctuation marks as well as spacing and kerning.

Font Production Process

Green Fairy was born as one weight, but quickly turned into a layered/chromatic font.

Green Fairy’s characters have been specifically designed to accommodate its loops and ornaments following a modern font structure.

Green Fairy Font has four chromatic weights:
1. Green Fairy Outline
2. Green Fairy Dots
3. Green Fairy Stencil
4. Green Fairy Full

The Outline weight has been created as the base or structure for the other styles. You can combine these weights as well as add colours to obtain multiple effects and type styles.

Green Fairy font has also three combined weights (combos) to simplify your workflow, for these occasions when you only want to use one single colour in your font:
5. Green Fairy Dots Combo
6. Green Fairy Stencil Combo
7. Green Fairy Full Combo

Green Fairy is the result of an intense nine-month-full-time personal investment and I couldn’t be happier with this release! The font is now available commercially at MyFonts.

What is the one tool that helps make your work more accomplished and pleasant, as a result, making your life good? In your creative work-kit, what are your go-to digital tools, the ones you love using because they prove reliably effective?

I get bored easily, so my favourite part of my work is being able to jump between analogue and digital mediums or combine them both, if possible.

My desk is divided in two areas, the analogue and the digital one. I spend at least 2 hours a day writing. When I am teaching calligraphy at my studio in Melbourne, I focus these daily hours of practice on the specific calligraphy style that I am teaching that weekend.

In the analogue area, I have an A2 lightbox that I use on a regular basis. Most of my lettering work starts with calligraphy, so once I have a good calligraphic sketch, I start to redraw on top of it using paper, a mechanic pencil and a fine marker.

For my calligraphic work, I started to use a portable easel and my neck feels better. I use Brause & Co. nibs and bamboo pens with walnut ink or liquid watercolours. For my Copperplate calligraphy work, I use Nikko G and Zebra nibs.

I have recently purchased an Arttec bond layout pad and I love it. The paper is Bleedproof 70gsm which allows you to see the guidelines clearer. If I want to create a beautiful original, I use a few different papers depending on budget. From Canson watercolour paper 300gsm, to Canson Basik 370gsm, to Moulin Du Gue 270gsm to handmade paper.

In the digital area, I have a vertical mouse (due to my back problems) and a Wacom tablet. For my lettering and type design work, I use the Glyphs app. Accounting app Xero is my new best friend; I started using it last year and I am loving it.

And lastly, I have a big annual calendar stack on my bedroom’s wall, and I use fluro colours to map out the entire year; it helps me to have a bigger sense of my time instead of just having a weekly vision.

How do you get the word out about what you do? How do you attract people to your work?

Firstly, by word-of-mouth. Normally, recommendations come from peers, people who have worked with me in the past, or students who have attended a calligraphy workshop.

Secondly, via social media.

In running your creative business and managing all of those moving parts to live and keep yourself busy, how do you take care of yourself?

In 2015, I experienced a massive creative block after my first solo exhibition; I learned that this is called “post-exhibition blues.” So this year, after opening my second solo exhibition in Spain, I was not going to make the same mistake again.

Going for a walk in nature is one of my best recipes to give myself a break. Physical activities, where my body moves more and my brain works less, typically work for me. And that is exactly what I did in July and August this year.

Being surrounded by friends and family, and disconnecting from social media are pretty good remedies to keep myself healthier mentally.

Now, I’m back at my office in Melbourne being conscious about having a better work/life balance if that exists. I’m reminding myself the importance of doing exercise, and taking distance from my work, as I get too obsessed sometimes.

If an aspiring illustrator/letterer approached you and said, “I love to draw and want to become a working artist,” what’s your response?

Good shit takes time. Social media, smart phones and instant messages are creating the illusion that things happen in a blink of an eye, getting an instant, short-lived result of gratification.

These are a few things I have learnt along the way:

Never stop learning
Work very hard, trust in your potential and find the people who believe in you and stick to them.

Keep yourself fit
Stick to your daily practice (whatever it is) and record/file all your work in progress. Being able to see your own improvements is one of the biggest motivators to keep you moving forward.

Find your tribe
Being surrounded by other creative people that inspire your work and being able to collaborate with them is one of the greatest advantages of our industry. So please take it: be generous, share your knowledge, connect, collaborate and support the shit out of each other.

Do you want to work for a company, be a freelance artist or both?
Being a solo full-time freelance designer means you have to absolutely believe in what you do; have the passion and tenacity for it; don’t give up when things go wrong or very wrong; hope that all your hard-work will somehow pay-off and have faith in yourself—and that’s a lot of things to carry on mentally on a daily basis. The idea of freelancing is not a romantic one.

Find as many resources as you can. Talk to as many people already doing it as possible and take care of your finances.
I would recommend to go to the Association of Illustrators and read, especially if you live in Australia, “The Barefoot Investor.”

How would you describe “good design”?

I have recently read a very interesting thread on Twitter by art director Eric Hu that made me think a lot about the idea of good design and plagiarism versus sincerity.

On this thread, Eric mentions “It’s not about making a solution no one could have thought of, it’s making a solution that makes people realize no other solution would have been more appropriate. Do that and it will be its own thing.”

And while reading it, my mind went straight back to Lubalin’s “Families” logo (1980).

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?

Community and studio culture are the most important elements in my workspace.

Having people around that respect, support what you do and understand the emotional mindset of a freelance designer is very important to me.

Being surrounded by other creative people that inspire your work and being able to collaborate with them is the second great deal about my studio.

Other factors that count is having natural light, a good internet connection and a space where you don’t freeze in winter and don’t dehydrate in summer.

I feel really lucky to be at Rotson Studios since it gives me the opportunity to work and teach calligraphy in the same space.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going as a designer and an artist?

My life motto is “the best is yet to come.” Keeping myself positive is the key for not losing it.

The inspiration behind my work comes from my day-to-day life. The people I am surrounded by, my neighbourhood, my partner, my family and the nature in Australia.

What is your vision of satisfaction, as it relates to your chosen career?

I have done a couple of conference talks. Both of them have been super-positive experiences and the satisfaction I got from them was worth all the stress before going up on stage.

In terms of my craft, satisfaction is a feeling that only lasts for six months. After that period of time, I look back at my own work and I can only see mistakes. This is, in fact, a good thing, as it means that my eye is improving and I am growing as a designer.

What drew you to relocating yourself to Australia from Catalonia? How does Australia contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

I moved to Australia looking for a big adventure, wanting to learn English and work as a graphic designer overseas to strengthen my portfolio.

My original plan was getting sponsored by a design studio, spend two years in the country and then move to NYC. It’s been twelve years since I moved to Australia! Living in Australia has definitely changed my work. I think my dressing habits are now aligned to my work, whereas before it wasn’t like that.

Australia is a young country full of opportunities. We are building our own story, and there is plenty of room for young and upcoming voices.

From splitting your time between Melbourne and Barcelona, any traveling pro-tips?

I never imagined I would spend twelve years in Australia, so I never had an strategy regarding airlines. I always chose the cheapest option available, and that sometimes became the most expensive one.

Once I purchased a one-way flight from Melbourne to Barcelona for only 480 euros. The flight’s duration was forty-two hours and I would never do it again! My ankles were the size of my knees by the end of the flight, I got sick and I experienced the worst jet lag ever.

Second tip: Don’t fly with Aeroflot, it can be the most scary experience of your life!

If you are planning to visit three or more cities in different continents, I would highly recommend booking a round-the-world ticket.

If I could go back in time, I would have picked a good airline and become loyal to them from the very beginning. By now, with the amount of flights I have done between Melbourne and Barcelona, I would have accumulated enough points to fly for free or to upgrade and treat myself for once!

Nowadays, I use Singapore airlines, Qatar or Emirates. These flights have only one stop over and the duration is between twenty-one and twenty-three hours which is “pretty fast” considering the distance.

Lastly, I take Melatonine natural tablets for the first seven days in Europe; they help me to get a good sleep.

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All images courtesy of Maria Montes.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of 370+ Interviews with people who love making things.

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