by Chantra Malee Montoya-Pimolwatana (co-founder)
It is with great pride, and excitement that we announce The Malee Scholarship. Speaking as a female ethnic minority, it has always been of personal interest to fight and advocate for social justice. There has been a lot of momentum for that in this cultural moment, and we wanted to do our part to help people from underrepresented communities find a voice in our industry. The goal of The Malee Scholarship is to identify talented female designers of color, and provide them with financial resources and mentorship to help them pursue a career in type design.
Although funded by Sharp Type, the formation of The Malee Scholarship was a collaborative effort. We wanted to highlight the talented team of women and men who contributed to this project which included a full brand system with custom fonts and a robust website.
TienMin is an incredibly talented type-designer who is just as comfortable drawing Latin typefaces as Hanzi and Japanese scripts. We commissioned her to develop the logotype for The Malee Scholarship to be reminiscent of traditional academic styles, based on ancient Roman stone-cut samples as well as the work of Father Edward Catich, which she executed effortlessly. The Malee Scholarship logotype is restrained, sophisticated, and fresh, and served as the foundation for the type system we would come to create.
Why or how did you get into type design?
I used to work in a branding agency. It’s very helpful to have some type-design knowledge when creating wordmarks, so I went to the Type@Cooper Extended Program where I discovered my true passion.
What has been your favorite project you've ever worked on?
I am currently working on a typeface called Ribaasu. It is a reverse-contrast multi-scriptural typeface including Latin, Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji. Unlike the Latin alphabet, the weight distribution in Kanji and Kana is much more complex. Many strokes are diagonal or curved. Simply reversing the weight distribution may not create the same visual result as in the Latin one, so I have to find other solutions to make it work. It's challenging and fun to explore formulas that can be adapted to different scripts.
What was your design process for the Malee logotype?
After we decided to go with a direction with roman v-cut inscription style, I did some research on historical inspiration. Lucas also sent me photos he took in the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon, which helped a lot. Then I started with a couple of letters with different styles and also tried some different ligature combinations, and we landed with the one that is more classic.
Any words of advice for a new designer entering the type industry?
It requires endless exploration and revision, but if you enjoy this process it’s a lot of fun.
We first discovered My-Lan by happenstance on Instagram. She had just posted sketches of her typeface Rosalie, which immediately caught our eye, and prompted us to connect with her. Within a type industry almost entirely reliant on a digital workspace, My-Lan still sketches all of her ideas first by hand with pencil and broad nib pen. Her skills in calligraphy are impressive, and she even dabbles in stone-carving. Starting with TienMin's logotype, My-Lan developed custom Malee Sans and Serif typefaces for our website and branding.
Why or how did you get into type design?
I have loved drawing letters since I was a kid. It is something I kept doing on the side until I discovered it was an actual job. At that point, I changed my studies with this goal in mind: becoming a type designer. I got accepted into ESAD Amiens and completed a bachelor in Graphic Design before entering the École Estienne in Paris for an MFA in Type Design. By then, my passion was confirmed and I got to work for type foundries.
What is your favorite typographic medium?
I think my favorite typographic medium remains the pencil and paper. I always need to sketch in order to visualize my ideas. This way, I feel free to quickly explore different options. Sometimes it also involves calligraphing, which is an exercise I particularly love as it is closer to writing than drawing. When I have the occasion, I also love stone carving letters. It is really satisfying to produce actual physical letters in a noble material such as marble.
Describe your process developing the Malee typeface.
I developed the Malee typefaces after the logo designed by TienMin. Following her steps, I looked at Edward Catich’s calligraphic capital letters to inspire the drawing of the rest of the uppercase. This way, the letterforms retain a brush-calligraphy feeling despite a more steady and typographic approach. The lowercase was imagined in an equally classic style, to be used for text settings. In a second time came the wish to add another level of text, in the shape of a sans-serif companion to the serif. The idea was to have a sans as delicate as the serif’s hairline. They can be used side by side and the serif becomes the sans’ bold.
What do you think is the greatest challenge a type designer faces?
I think the most difficult part is to find ways to be innovative in a field with many rules and a long tradition. It’s not easy to make something new, unique and good at the same time when we tend to believe that all has already been done or that it will be judged severely. It is a narrow path between being inspired by what has been done but not copying it, and being creative but still, find a place in the type landscape. So, I would say that the most challenging part is to dare and to find the right balance between all that.
What The Studio
We discovered Sara Landeira and Ekhiñe Domínguez, founders of What The Studio, after their project launch for The Theater Festival in Amsterdam using Sharp Grotesk. After meeting them in Madrid where we were previously based (they are originally from Spain), we were eager for the chance to work with them, and thought their aesthetic would work very well for The Malee Scholarship. They are two of the most professional, meticulous, and creative designers we’ve had the chance to work with. They connected instantly with the mission and vision we had for the scholarship and put in many hours to develop and perfect the Malee brand.
Tell us about yourselves, and how you started What The Studio.
Each of us moved to Amsterdam some years ago, attracted by the long-standing design tradition and strong creative sector of The Netherlands. We also wanted to learn from the bold, functional and conceptual approach of Dutch design agencies. In 2014, we met each other working as designers at one of these agencies, and we quickly connected. First on a personal level, but we quickly discovered we also shared a similar vision on design, and that we both had the ambition of starting our own design studio one day. We felt ready for it in 2017, which is when we started What The studio.
Working together, both as graphic designers, how do you divide tasks? What is your collaborative process?
The reason why we started What The studio was for having as much creative freedom as possible. At the start of every project we are both equally involved. It is the part that requires most creativity, including concept development and actual design work, which we enjoy doing the most.
We begin every project by coming up with different concepts and finding ways to visualize them. First, we sketch different directions, then we discuss them all, and afterwards we focus on developing the one or few that we believe work best. In this process, we exchange our design progress with one another, take cues from each other’s work, all the while looking for opportunities for new approaches and perspectives. This way we push ourselves to make the best out of every project, and try to learn new things every time.
Once the concept, creative, and art direction of a project is defined, we divide tasks. There are always different projects running at the same time, so it is necessary to split the work. But our team is small, so it’s easy to discuss each other’s work. We have conversations about design constantly and are always cross-checking our approach.
How do you decide which typefaces to use for your projects? Do your designs inform which typefaces you use, or the other way around?
We love typography and we try to stay up to date with new type releases, and continually read and learn about older ones. For every new project we search or create typefaces that help to express a visual identity’s concept or brand values.
Normally, we think of a concept that informs both the design we create and the typefaces we use, so, it all goes together for us. It is great when we get the chance to have a whole new font specially created for a project, as was the case with The Malee Scholarship. We are proud that Malee (serif and sans!) has been designed by ‘Women of (Sharp)Type’ ;) That’s a privilege that small design studios like ours don’t enjoy very often.
What aspects of the Malee brand and web experience are you most proud of?
We enjoyed it all, particularly the trust and autonomy we got to develop a concept that involves a lot of content creation. We came up with the section ‘Women of Type’, through which we really wanted to show the existence of many women designing great typefaces already. They are the inspiration for future generations. We also had fun creating the copy for the quotes of this section, and we are happy to see how our split-in-two website concept has boldly come to life.
Last but not least, we are of course very proud of being part of The Malee Scholarship team, an important initiative that makes you think: how come something like this didn’t exist before? It is so necessary!
Once classmates with Sharp Type type designer and technical director, Connor Davenport, Trevor Carr and Jen Evans have since opened a web design & development studio together in Baltimore. Upon our first meeting, I knew I wanted to work with them. Their portfolio was chock full of creative and thought-provoking concepts and well-executed visuals. They thrive on challenge and problem-solving and have a special interest in social justice issues. Needless to say, they were the perfect team to work with on Malee and went above and beyond to develop our website.
Tell us about yourselves, and how you started Default Value.
We are two designers who met at MICA, moved to the Midwest, and then started a design and technology studio. Starting a studio felt like a natural extension of how we were already working. It also gives us personal flexibility we wouldn't have otherwise. Our work is one-third working directly with clients to take an idea to fruition (strategy, design, and production); one-third consulting; and one-third self-initiated projects, teaching, and research. It's important to us to balance the making-a-living part with the making-unique-contributions part. The best projects are when we can do both.
What first got you interested in web development?
Making websites allows for a quick feedback loop of starting with an idea, creating a solution, and getting people’s response. It’s an interesting space where anything is possible. Technology is always evolving and creating new opportunities to experiment. The web can either be a great equalizer, or plunge us deeper into inequality; our duty is to work on the side of equality. What is your ideal project? A digital-physical exhibition that requires collaboration between the in-person gallery visitors and the website visitors. We’re interested in exploring how the web can output to physical experiences. We want to work within the push-and-pull space of multiple formats and mediums working together. What were the greatest challenges with the development of the Malee website? The greatest challenge was building the ‘Women of Type’ slideshow. We needed to ensure the slideshow would scale to the correct size on any device. It also required accommodating different paragraph lengths, languages, alignment, long words, short words, and more. We look forward to seeing how it works as new fonts are added in the future!