To celebrate our talented and diverse membership, the TDC profiles one member each month. Brazilian letterer and calligrapher Jackson Alves answered several intriguing questions put to him by TDC board member, Elizabeth Carey Smith – how he began his design studio in southern Brazil, what inspiration moved him to begin making letters, and what advice he gives to students.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your work?
I am a Brazilian letterer, calligrapher, teacher and also a father of two beautiful princesses, Nicole and Nivea. I live in Curitiba, a city in the south of Brazil, where I’ve run my own studio since 2012. I earned a degree in Graphic Design in 2003, but I started specializing in lettering and calligraphy in 2010, mainly through studying on my own.
In 2011, I started teaching typography at a Graphic Design college in my city. Since then, I’ve also been conducting calligraphy workshops in Brazil, internationally, and online. I work for clients all over the world, usually in calligraphy and lettering projects, but occasionally I also work with custom type projects.
I feel like my greatest strength is translating the emotions and feelings of others into a readable format. Before you even read the content of the message, I want my lettering choices to give you the emotional context in that instant, before your mind has a chance to explore the logic of the message. That’s what I love about the art form — context and emotion explained instantly and then an additional layer of language.
Do you consider yourself a maker of letters, a user of letters, or both?
I was about to answer that I’m a maker, because I usually prefer designing my own letters to choosing a typeface. But as I thought about this question more deeply, even when I am creating a custom typeface, I will be using those letters eventually in some way, because we create letters to communicate something, no matter if it’s a text or just a feeling. So I guess that as artists, we are all both makers and users of letters.
What piece of lettering really blew you away at some point early on?
This piece below is one of the most influential in my life and career. In 2010, I was just a typical graphic designer working at a small local studio. However, after this piece found me, my career changed very quickly. I knew the designer personally and seeing him create something as powerful as this piece really pushed me to learn how to manipulate those flourishes and letters contrasts myself. I mean, if he could do it, what was stopping me?
So, I started reading a lot of books about typography and calligraphy, attending workshops, and really devoting a lot of time to my craft. In July 2012, I became 100 percent freelance and began to support myself and my family entirely by designing letters.
Do you prefer music, podcast, or silence while you work?
Music is really integral to my process. Calligraphy and typography are about translating a feeling or emotion into a visual. When I surround myself with a musical equivalent, the brush finds the rhythm. I have pieces that when I look at them, I can hear the music playing from when I was creating them. I’d like to think other people get the same sense.
I like listening to all genres, so if you have any strong prejudices against a certain style of music, don’t try and follow my playlists on Spotify. You can find me listening to NWA and 2Pac in the morning, Jimi Hendrix at lunch, and even Britney Spears in the late afternoon.
Is there a particular bit of advice you have heard and would impart to others about the process of making letters?
Practice makes perfect. I’d always heard that phrase and I never gave a damn about it. But as I started to learn calligraphy and typography, and tried to create letters, I noticed that the more time I invested, the more I learned.
So, I always try to convince my students of the importance of study and practice. I’m afraid a lot of them still don’t understand, but they will in the future, because there is no substitute for putting in the hours. There is no work-around for discipline. You have to sit your ass on that chair and hit your basics again and again and again. That’s true for music, sports, writing, or art. It’s not the most interesting or glamorous part, but the returns on that investment are well worth it.
What is your favorite city to travel to and look at letters?
It’s hard to pick only one, because all cities have their own particularity, their own style, their own energy. But if I had to choose one, it would be New York City. I love walking on the streets and staring up at the signs, especially vintage ones from years ago that still maintain their impact and power. I’m always searching for inspiration that I can use, ideas I can borrow, and styles that I can outright steal.
The mural that I painted with my friend, Cyla Costa, during 2014 in Philadelphia.
Are there any dead type designers or typographers whose work is either under- or over-appreciated, or a designer that you would like to be dead?
Man, I’m not one to judge the departed. If I slam their work, their zombies might rise up from their graves, stagger all the way to Curitiba, find me, and eat my brains! Anyway, I don’t think any designers are overrated, but I do feel that certain typefaces have become too trendy or fashionable and it has stifled some of the creativity of the community. Just because something’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s well done. We should always be pushing the envelope and trying new things, and when we need to choose a typeface, try and judge the quality objectively, no matter how popular it is at the moment.