Half Empty, Since 1998

What some people don’t know about type won’t hurt them but they’re definitely missing out. Pablo Medina uses his unique typeography to express his unique take on culture.

Cafeteria Goods

Gillian MacLeod, Pablo Medina. June 5th, 2003

GILIAN MACLEOD: Where are you from?

PABLO MEDINA: Well, I was born in Washington DC, moved to New Jersey for High School, pretty suburban, almost rural town in central New Jersey. I wasn’t comfortable there; I wasn’t really interested in that as my lifestyle, so I figured the culturally furthest place away from that would be Brooklyn, so I decided to go to Pratt. That’s where I’m from. Culturally, my father’s Cuban and my mother’s Columbian.

GM: You’ve been to both places?

PM: Yeah. My mother lives in Columbia still.

GM: Which of your typefaces is your favorite?

PM: I think Vitrina has always been my favorite. First of all, I’m a sucker for Script type. I would put script in everything. My teacher would be like, ‘uhh that won’t work,’ but I didn’t care, it’s script; it’s great. Vitrina was one of the original first three typefaces I designed. It was my favorite then, and it’s funny that it has stayed my favorite throughout. I also designed another typeface, last year, called Marquee, which I’m very happy with in a different sort of way. This would probably be my second favorite. It’s based on the plastic movie letters that you see in the movie marquees. It’s three different weights. It was used in the Hollywood Arms Broadway graphic language. The most interesting thing about this typeface is it comes from movie marquees right? Well, I created the typeface and saw it used in the initial ad for Hollywood Arms a while back, then I was in a cab on 44th St. driving by and I look up and there’s a Broadway marquee for the Hollywood Arms and they had used the Marquee typeface! It found it’s way back. [I like] little idiosyncrasies like that.

GM: What other funny places have you seen your typefaces?

PM: Oh, I was in the Virgin Islands, and I was on my brother-in-law’s boat. We had started in Puerto Rico and we went to the Virgin Islands by boat. In Puerto Rico, the big thing to do is to hook up all the boats together, and whether you know the person next to you or not, you’ll just have this big line of boats, and everyone’s just partying. So we’re hooked up to this boat, and I look over and see this guy wearing a hat, and I was like ‘oh, I know that typeface’. It was for Polo, and it was using my typeface Cuba.

I was like ‘jeesus, I’m in the middle of nowhere and here I see this guy wearing a baseball cap with my typeface.’ Quirkiest place so far.

GM: Cuba is one of my favorites. What’s it based on?

PM: Cuba is based on a letterform that re-occurs a lot in Latin-owned/Hispanic-owned businesses. It’s a sign-painting phenomenon. It’s styled lettering that sign-painters know. It’s like the Helvetica of Latin sign-painters. And you’ll see it in LA, in Mexico, here in different neighborhoods, even in Columbia, and in Spain. It’s a standard. I figured it deserved to have its own life in the Graphic Design community as well.

Vitrina was based on the script face that was painted on a window of a Latin-American restaurant. It just said ‘Cafeteria’ in this script, and me being such a sucker for script, I just loved it. And as soon as I started playing around with tracing it, I knew I was going be really juiced by it.

GM: Many of your typefaces have something to do with New York City. Do you feel inspired by your surroundings?

PM: Yeah, very much so. Granted, I pull a lot from my own cultures – Caribbean and South American, but I think that more than anything else that has inspired me, New York has inspired me. Because you see the stuff here. You see so many letterforms, you see so many different styles in typography, you’re always completely bombarded with stuff. New York is just such an incredible inspiration, on so many levels; neighborhood-wise, people-wise, history-wise, everyday experience-wise. It’s colorful.

It’s crazy, you know, you spend 45 minutes on the subway, and you get out and you’re in exactly the same urban environment. It’s like you travel for so long and the urban-ness of it doesn’t change. The more time you spend the more you notice the subtle differences of the level of urbanism. If you’re in Wall Street, you know that’s about as urban as it gets. That’s about as concrete jungle as it gets. And Queens, although still very urban it’s like suburbia compared to downtown.

GM: Do you think you’ll ever leave?

PM: Well, Lou Reed said you’re not a true New Yorker unless you’re always planning on leaving. So I’m constantly planning on leaving. Um, I don’t know. Of course I have my fantasies of having a house in the country. I recently saw the Jackson Pollock movie and was blown away by how he was just out in the country and he just painted, and would come in for his exhibits. He just lived out there, it was beautiful. I have those fantasies. Nothing realistic as of yet.

GM: What were your motives for doing type, and designing the typefaces? Were you trying to convey some kind of message?

PM: I don’t know if I was trying to say something. I don’t think I was consciously trying to say something; I was more just interested in grabbing something I knew I would be comfortable with and enjoy doing. I don’t think it was a conscious motive. There are the side effects of motive, like well, I’m able to establish an aesthetic that isn’t European modernism, into that world. That wasn’t a motive of mine; it was kind of a side issue that happened, which I’m happy about. I was more interested in just having fun with it.

GM: There is a lot of feeling in your typefaces. They seem conscious, they pay attention.

PM: My dad’s a poet. I guess there’s a little bit of that transferred. I got asked on another interview, “What the hell drove you to font design? What were you thinking? There’s no money in that!” I think it’s because my dad’s a poet, and that has to be the least lucrative career. It’s romantic. It’s just doing it for the love. And doing it for the reward. You know, flipping through the Sunday Times and coming across that [advertisement using Marquee typeface for Hollywood Arms] is extremely rewarding. And like driving in a cab and looking up and seeing your typeface. It’s worth it. It’s nice.

(Included in Half Empty #1.)