We are thrilled to announce the inaugural recipient of The Malee Scholarship. Get to know Clara Cayosa, her design work, and her aspirations in this interview.
Clara Cayosa is a designer from the Philippines and a member of And A Half, a branding and graphic design studio in Manila. Growing up, she learned the belief that a viable profession is either in law, medicine, or engineering. However, she knew she was meant to pursue a creative career, and blazed her own path to realize her dreams. During her time at Ateneo de Manila University, she was introduced to graphic design and recognized the power it has to confront social issues. Since then, Clara has made a commitment to leveraging her design skills and expertise to advocate for others.
In addition to having social justice bent to her practice, at the young age of 22, Clara has demonstrated incredible leadership skills — organizing community events as a way to foster collaboration and conversation around design. One of her most notable events was Tipong Pilipino, a typography exhibition that represented design studios and designers all over the Philippines. As for the future, while becoming a better type designer, she hopes to start local archives focused on type and the Philippines.
The Malee Scholarship team was thoroughly impressed with Clara’s passion for type design, leadership, dedication to social justice issues, and commitment to give back to her communities. We are honored to award the scholarship to her and are confident that she is a rising star in the type design world.
When did you first get interested in letterforms?
Creating brand identities was my foray into typography. When I started working for a studio, I saw how the seemingly simple act of choosing a typeface could affect the entire brand identity. The trajectory towards letterforms was gradual. Looking back to my university years, I actually loathed working with type and layout, and initially gravitated towards logos, icons, and illustration. After years of being exposed to more experienced graphic designers, I recognized how type is fully integrated in everyone’s lives. Now I find it hard to stop the urge to pursue a custom logotype for every identity project I get!
“My roots are everything to me. They’re who I am. They’re what I know.”
How does your background and upbringing shape who you are?
My identity is a blend of regional Filipino cultures. My mother is a Bisaya from Cebu City, located in the Visayas islands in the south, and my father is an Ybanag from a little coastal town on the northern tip of Luzon called Pamplona. I grew up not far from Pamplona, in Tuguegarao, a little rural city smack in the center of Cagayan Valley, where the heat pours down from the surrounding mountain ranges. Compared to life in the urban center of Manila, everything in Tuguegarao is slower and simpler.
“I’ll always be ‘that girl from Tuguegarao’, and will always create work from this perspective.”
My roots are everything to me. They’re who I am. They’re what I know. My parents, who are lawyers, slowly built their name in a city where neither of them grew up. Despite their numerous accolades and current standing, they never forgot where they came from. They inspire me to stay grounded, while not limiting myself to my personal context, and to move forward and aim outwards. When I moved to Manila for college, I proudly proclaimed where I was from and my identity as a probinsyano. Everyone referred to me as “the girl from Tuguegarao”. But instead of letting this description bother me, it actually made me more confident to embrace my upbringing, and to love my identity as it is, rather than attaching it to how others think it should be. Since I was young, I was never apologetic about my identity and the probinsyana in me will never go away. I’ll always be “that girl from Tuguegarao”, and will always create work from this perspective.
For those who don't know, can you describe the meaning and context of being probinsyano in the Philippines?
Probinsyano/probisyana and the slang term promdi refers to a person who is from the province outside of the city. It’s common for most probinsyanos to leave for Manila for “better opportunities.” Manila’s social, economic, and cultural development have outpaced the growth of provincial cities that it is seen as an imperial center. I went to Manila for university, where I lived with students from other parts of the archipelago. I became conscious of the experiences some students and I shared as probinsyanos, such as being casted away by people born and raised in more sophisticated cities like Manila. In the first few weeks of college, I was asked absurd questions such as “do you have cable TV up in the north?” “Do you ride a horse/carabao (water buffalo) to school?” In my brief stint as a cheerleader, when I got accepted to the squad, someone on the team said, “I didn’t know you’re from the province because your English is so good!”
While being probinsyano may often be ridiculed by those from more urban cities, there has been and always will be innovation born out of more insular communities.
What impact do you hope to have on the type industry?
I’m hoping to bring a seat to the table for Filipino graphic design. Our country is rich in beautiful, decorative, regional type. Since we have grown accustomed to them, we sometimes forget how they are truly treasures. Through Tipong Pilipino and other activities, I hope to continue bringing graphic designers and letterers together, and uplifting Filipino type design as a whole.
“The goal is not necessarily to modernize or transform the way things are, but to enrich them with graphic design and bring out the beauty that’s already found in rural life.”
I am fascinated by graphic design’s ability to develop a product or instigate a space, especially when these are approached in a multidisciplinary manner. The goal is not necessarily to modernize or transform the way things are, but to enrich them with graphic design and bring out the beauty that’s already found in rural life.
What are some examples of typography unique to Manila and your hometown in Tuguegarao?
Most streets of Tuguegarao are filled with tricycles, locally called tricy, that are color-coded based on city government’s standards, and personalized with hand-painted lettering of the driver’s barangay (village) name, names of family members, and sometimes include stickers. Tricys have a dingy but charming aesthetic from the wear-and-tear of everyday trips. You can also find hand-painted letters on karitelas (horse-drawn carriages). Alongside highways, you can find hand-painted streamers advertising appliance sales or municipal announcements. Our city is so small and open, you could see the signmaker set up shop along the highway, painting the same streamers over and over again to be scattered around different areas of the city.
In Manila, the Jeepney signage and designs are considered iconic. The "Kings of the Road" make up a major part of the metropolis’ visual landscape. These types of placards are also used on buses and other modes of transportation. Looking around, you can also spot hand-painted signs on empty lots, concrete walls, and parking lots as DIY urbanism.
These moments inspired me to focus on Filipino typography for my own design practice as well as for this exhibition I co-organized last year. I went back home to Tuguegarao due to the pandemic, and this has been the longest I’ve stayed here since I first left for school. I’ve noticed that the longer I’ve been here, the things that might have been mundane to me in the past, visually have started to really enrich me and my work.
You mentioned that design is still up-and-coming in the Philippines, what changes do you hope to see in your community in the future?
I would like to see more experimentation on graphic design that is unbounded by any constraint and disrupts the local conventional/traditional ways. At the same time, I acknowledge the fact that living in a developing third world country, this is very difficult to achieve. Clients prefer to play it safe by sticking to structures that worked in the past, leaving little to no room for design innovation. The financial capacity to execute out-of-the-norm ideas is another limitation that designers face. However, I find that there is optimism in the growing community, with more designers putting out their work online, building and forming relationships beyond their circle through social media.
We are inspired by the way you’ve used your design work to advocate for social justice issues. Could you tell us more about some of these initiatives such as Ateneo Women’s Desk, and Aha! What are some challenges you faced?
I am influenced by my lawyer parents who both extended their profession to help those in need: my mom fighting against violence and abuse towards women and children, and my father being a staunch lawyer for the environment and human rights. This approach to design was further heightened by my Jesuit college education, imbibing my university’s culture of being a man for others.
Ateneo Women’s Desk was my college thesis project. At the time when talking about on campus harassment was taboo or kept under the table, this project aimed to be a safe space for victims to speak up about perpetrators, who can either be students, professors, or any employee. Within the parameters of a famous Catholic university, it was challenging to launch this because some administrators not only felt like this wasn’t a need, but also did not offer any alternative avenue for victims.
Despite this, I partnered up with the student council to organize student leaders. With a handbook I designed, they could be equipped with the necessary information and guidelines, facilitate reports, and connect the victim-survivors to formal institutions for medical, psychological, or legal assistance. Graphic design created a channel for effective communication between victim-survivors and the people manning the helpdesk. Since the completion of my thesis, there has been significant progress to establish this more formally within the school.
When I joined And A Half, my first project was a pro-bono rebrand for AHA! Learning Center, an NGO that offers after-school programs to fill in the gaps of Philippine public school education. The overall brand was designed to cater to all communities of the center: the students, volunteers, and parents. In order to achieve this, we volunteered to get to know the process. It was a joy working with everyone, including their proactive founder Jaton Zulueta.
What first inspired you to start the Tipong Pilipino exhibit? What were some challenges or surprises you experienced along the way? What are your future plans for this initiative and where do you hope it will go?
I was interested in researching Filipino graphic design as an attempt to pinpoint visual cues of what makes certain design Filipino. I was introduced to Vince Africa, a graphic designer who shared similar goals for the local design community. Vince and I started talking about putting up an exhibit as one of the activities in Manila’s Escolta Block Festival. We were both inspired by how handpainted signs are a prominent feature in defining a city’s character, and decided to roll with the idea of Filipino typography. Through research, we realized that this culture of hand-painted type is shared by everyone from the capital, rural provinces, and islands of the archipelago. Regions do differ in style and form but altogether can be collectively identified as Filipino. We found this to be the most fitting prompt to show how type can represent the identity of a particular area and ultimately the entire country.
From that point on, I stepped out of my comfort zone to get the project moving. It was a big commitment to work on the exhibition, on top of my day job and freelance work. However, since the design community rarely saw this kind of event happen, we were motivated to bring this to life. Connecting with the participants also opened my perspective and showed the diversity of design we have in this country. On opening day, we made sure that the designers were present to discuss their works.
After setting up the groundwork, I found time to participate in my design studio’s own custom typeface submission to the exhibition. Our idea was to create a font that could eventually be used in Manila’s transport system.
This entire experience became a cornerstone in my life. I realized the potential of type not just in my own career as a designer, but as an entity to define Filipino graphic design. We may not be advanced as most Western countries in terms of design applications and program innovations, but we do have a rich and distinct graphic design culture that has the potential for immense growth. We don’t have to trade our loud, horror-vacui for the Western standards of design. One of my biggest influences, Clara Balaguer, a Filipino design researcher, said it best:
“Rather than aspire to objects that blend in with what is consumed in “the rest of the world”, we could be intent on forging a distinct character that is instantly identifiable...For the new school of Filipino design to be unidentifiable, even under our own scrutiny, the quickest way to ensure that we will be nothing more than suppliers and executors of globalized tastes, instead of captains and experts of our own design.”
Since Tipong Pilipino was well-received by the design community, I feel driven to find a more sustainable framework for the project. Due to the pandemic and the closure of physical exhibits, I am currently working on an online counterpart. Apart from showcasing Filipino made fonts, the goal of the website is to educate people on type design’s past and future potential, so that there is more appreciation around purchasing fonts and other creative work. The end goal really is to uplift Filipino type, so this means catering not just to digitally savvy type designers but also to artisans, craftsmen, and sign painters who are also major sources of inspiration for local graphic designers.
Who are some of your favorite type designers in the Philippines, and beyond?
I feel extremely grateful to work in And A Half with Mike Parker, who piqued my interest in type. Other Filipino type designers I admire are Aaron Amar, the man behind Cubao typeface that was inspired by jeepney placards and Jo Malinis of +63 Design Co. I absolutely love Optima, so I’ll include Hermann Zapf.