For type designer Jo Malinis, music helps her dream up new letter forms

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The type designer reveals the personal rituals that bookend her day, the importance of surrounding her workspace with items that make her happy, and how productivity apps are important “illusions” while keeping busy.

Rizal (CNN Philippines Life) — Days leading up to our interview date, type designer Jo Malinis warns me via email, “Please don't expect too much, my life is very meh!”

But what seems like every other work-from-home situation this past year reveals a personal and professional system that is far from ordinary: Malinis divides her time between work as a designer for local creative outfit Plus63 Design Co, a branding studio that has worked with brands such as Panaderya Toyo, the UP Fighting Maroons, and Uniqlo; and as a professor of print production and visual design and communication classes at the University of the Philippines Diliman. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she wears her designer and typographer hats in the studio, and on Wednesdays and Fridays, she teaches. Malinis gives herself Mondays off, but she sheepishly admits that she spends her weekends working on personal projects or client work that she’s unable to do during her strict four-day work week.

As far as her personal work is concerned, the designer has also kept herself occupied. In late 2020, Malinis released Hook, a subtly romantic serif that finds its playfulness in the small curls and twists in certain letters. The designer herself points to the idea of hooks in songs as inspiration — “a peculiar riff or lyric, repeated throughout the track, that tugs at the listener’s ears,” she says on her website. (She credits Maggie Rogers’ music as something she would listen to throughout the creation of Hook that would have her reaching for her sketch pad to dream up new letter forms.)

Hook took a while to take off because Malinis submitted her work to an international mentorship program that meant other type designers and creatives could flesh it out for improvement. And while she appreciated the feedback (“The whole experience was very rewarding, kasi I learned a lot”) she became frustrated by the constant back and forth that eventually delayed Hook’s release. It was more than just a desire to maintain her pace; Malinis saw Hook as a means to prove something to herself.

According to Jo Malinis, "Hook is a display type inspired by the hook of a song — a peculiar riff or lyric that repeatedly tugs at the listener’s ears."

“Hanggang ngayon naman may parang imposter syndrome pa rin [ako,]” she says. “One of the main reasons I was itching to release Hook was because people kept calling me ‘Type Queen.’ Sobrang na-appreciate ko yan, but at the same time sobra 'yung pressure sa ‘kin. Kaya noong na-release ko siya parang, okay! Pwede ko na mas i-embrace 'yung label na type designer.”

The idea of typography as a specialization only became clear to her in 2019 — just two years ago. She says she came across it by accident in 2014 when she was assigned to work on the hand-painted letters in the logo of one of their clients at Plus63. She remembers how at the time, there weren’t a lot of accessible programs for budding type designers, and that she joined the type industry just as it has become a more democratic space. Today, Malinis is now her studio’s go-to type designer, and has fully embraced that this discipline is indeed a part of her growing body of work.

And it’s clear that work, regardless of what she’s doing at the moment, is a source of satisfaction for Malinis. Teaching was a huge part of her professional dreams for herself — and though it challenged her, it did not deter her that her first ever time to teach would also be the first semester that schools would be conducted purely online, due to the pandemic.

“How do I explain this without being cheesy…” she says. “Pangarap ko kasi talaga magturo. (Laughs) Noong nangyari siya, I was so happy it was going to happen, but I never expected it to happen this way.”

“It was so weird,” Malinis says, recalling her first ever online class. “It felt like I was giving a monologue lang, ‘cause no one was reacting, and I didn’t know how to ask them to react and stuff. But they were nice naman to have their cameras on so I could see their faces.”

Malinis was agile about adjusting to the set-up — it wasn’t something that she had experienced for herself, even as a student — so she would conduct lectures by recording videos of herself speaking, and making Keynote presentations to complement her spiels. (“I guess the good thing is that millennial ako so techy naman ako,” she says with a laugh.) She would eventually give her 27 students 10-minute intervals of her day for consultations, making sure that she’s built good rapport with them individually and kept up to date with their work.

Maroons Type was used in Plus63's redesign of the UP Fighting Maroons brand identity. The initial logotype was designed by AJ Dimarucot and Jo Malinis developed the typeface. Photo courtesy of JO MALINIS

“It’s really about the relationship with your students. It’s less about what you’re teaching them, parang if you’re not able to check up on them the whole semester, it doesn’t matter if you’re able to deliver good lectures,” she says. “Kasi 'yung pacing talaga nila kailangan bantayan. Especially because I see this in UP, not all of them have access to good internet connection and equipment. Kailangan mo talaga sila tutukan.”

Though Malinis’ discipline suggests why she’s becoming known as a leading type designer in the country, it’s clear in her language and cadence that she’s a natural teacher. She’s thoughtful with her words and before jumping into a topic that might seem technical, she sometimes pauses and says, “How do I explain this…” as if to say that she’s not concerned about only telling you, she wants to make sure that what she says is comprehensible.

And suddenly it makes sense that Jo Malinis’ work focuses on that: on teaching, a skill that shapes minds; and on typography, an art form that sees the shape of a word bearing equal weight as the word itself. Words, after all, are meant to be understood — in some cases, admired.

In her own words, the type designer reveals the personal rituals that bookend her day, the importance of surrounding her workspace with items that make her happy, and how productivity apps are important “illusions” while keeping busy:

Daily schedule

“Nasa kama palang I start checking work na, which is bad. But then after that, I try to take my time with skincare kasi trying to save ano, the last remaining regenerating cells. (Laughs) Pero ayun, afterwards I go directly to work na. That’s just my small time to myself, trying to pamper myself with skin products. It’s nothing complicated — it’s just cleansing, and then toner, tapos kaunting moisturizer and sunblock. Kahit nasa bahay lang, pero it helps in a way kasi parang there’s this small window in the morning na reserved for myself before I get to work.

It helps that there’s this schedule, so I can always say no to studio work on Wednesdays and Fridays ‘cause I have classes naman. Pero ewan ko, dahil wala nang concept of time this pandemic, parang nag-blur na 'yung lines.

[Puts on a BT21 Koya headband] Hindi talaga nawawala ‘to, so pag Plus63 meetings, sinusuot ko siya kasi di ko na siya tinatanggal. Ito talaga 'yung productive headband ko. I feel happy when I see it, and sometimes I forget that I have it on, then I go to the restroom and I see myself in the mirror. Parang, 'Oh, okay. Kasama ko si [Kim] Namjoon!' (Laughs)

Malinis with her BT21 Koya headband. She says, "Hindi talaga nawawala ‘to, so pag Plus63 meetings, sinusuot ko siya kasi di ko na siya tinatanggal. Ito talaga 'yung productive headband ko." Photo courtesy of JO MALINIS


Right now, may parang designated work spots. Here, I’m in my small corner of the house that has [good] internet. This is where I work usually. But when I work on personal stuff naman, I get my laptop and move to the dining area. ‘Cause it’s closer to the plants and to the window (Laughs) para may change of setting lang, ganon. And I never bring my laptop to my room. Pag sa room, phone nalang or tulog na talaga. It’s important to have that distinction na my room is my place of rest.

A shot of Malinis' desk. Photo courtesy of JO MALINIS


I always have my sketch pads. Hindi sila nawawala at all. I also have a ruler. Parang nakasanayan ko na kahit sa studio, kahit hindi naman everyday nagme-measure, I just like that it’s on my desk. The usual stuff lang, like my tablet. And I always have a glass of coffee, tea, or water. Always on my desk. Pag walang ganun parang may kulang. And my phone. Simple lang.

The other [BTS merch] is in my room. Hindi ko na sila nilalabas. I also have BTS washi tape — it’s somewhere here.

Some of the works from her friends that Jo Malinis liked recently (clockwise from top left): Raxene Maniquiz's sketch of a waling-waling; a poem by Miguel de Dios; a motion graphics practice by Janina Malinis; photography by Petra Gana; cross stitch work finished by Marla Darwin; and Myka Arnado's risoprinted work through the Bad Student workshop. Photos from their respective accounts on INSTAGRAM

Screen time

Every time I just get messages from friends, na-eexcite ako agad kasi you know, you just miss them. Mabilis ako ma-distract pag ganoon. Pag may bagong work online — since most of my friends are designers rin — pag may bago silang work na pino-post, siyempre madidistract ka tapos iha-hype mo friends mo, tapos enjoy mo nalang 'yung time na yun. Later you’ll realize na parang oh, I spent an hour on my phone already.

Early last month, I discovered na pwede ka pala mag-limit ng time sa iPhone for certain apps. So I’ve been doing that since November. So na-limit ko 'yung time ng Instagram and Twitter to just one hour a day. And then ino-notify ako ng phone ko, 'You have five minutes before your time is up for the day.' Pwede mo naman siya extend, pero at least there’s a huge notification on your phone na tapos na 'yung one hour mo sa phone...

Actually kalokohan 'yung one hour. Kasi sa phone lang siya, eh 'yung computer… (Laughs) The illusion helps!

Lately I’ve been watching different things online on YouTube. I like watching cooking shows. I used to watch Bon Appetit. But you know what happened... Right now I’m back to watching K-drama. Right now I’m watching 'True Beauty.' It’s based on a webtoon that I used to read. And cooking! I like cooking.

Hook type in use by CMYKa. Photo courtesy of JO MALINIS


(Laughs) Inaantay ko nalang talagang tawagan ako ng Red Velvet. But seriously, 'yung dream ko is magamit talaga ['yung Hook as a typeface] sa isang K-pop album or campaign or something. Na sana 'yung gusto ko talagang group (Laughs) hindi 'yung random. Pero siyempre ma-appreciate ko naman! Noong na-release 'yung sa EXO, 'yung kay Baekhyun [by Alli Cunanan], ayun na talaga. As in.

Feeling ko maiiyak ako pag hindi.”

—as told to CNN Philippines Life


Links to Jo Malinis' favorite recent works: @raxenne, @migueldxdios, @janinamalinis, @petragon, @marladarwin, @cmyka.type