A peek inside Brazilian vernacular typography

Fresh, imaginative and honest.

Written by Renata Szlachta
Creative at VBAT

Vernacular typography at a glance. Source: Renata Szlachta

In the past decades Vernacular Typography emerged as an exciting movement in Latin America. Gaining inspiration directly from their roots and giving it a platform through the design lenses, Brazilian designers are reinventing what design is all about for us in a meaningful local way. In the Brazilian context, vernacular typography is a fresh, imaginative and honest way of telling who we are as creatives.

Vernacular, per definition according to several sources, stands for: something characteristic of a country; genuine, correct, pure; without mixtures or influences of foreign elements; the native speech or language of a place; any medium or mode of expression that reflects popular taste.

So in a nutshell, you could define vernacular typography as any kind of handwritten letters or alphabets made by the common people.

Graphic Design as we understand today — in a formalised academic shape — came into Brazil by the late 50’s, with a strong heritage and influence from the scholars from the Bauhaus School. The academic formal expression and the popular calligraphers have belonged for a long time to two different worlds: the utilitarian X the kitsch; the structural X the fluid; the rigid X the emotional. Naturally, within no time these two worlds started to mix and mingle — how could a pure German tradition survive in this form inside the rich melting pot that Brazil is? It is only expected that the local culture would play its role as well.

Although still very present in Brazil if in comparison to Europe, vernacular typography is slowly fading due to easier and cheaper access to printing. In the late 90’s, funnily enough alongside the digitalisation era, you start to see a change of scenery. The newer generation of designers, challenging the Eurocentric and cultural colonialism, gave a new platform to this local expression while assuming it into their own designs and projects. I still remember being presented to those sort of projects as a University student — they felt bold, honest and above all, just made a lot of sense.

One of the first projects from this time around vernacular typography is the typeface Brasilêro from 1999, by Crystian Cruz.

The typeface is a result of his analysis of hundreds of hand-lettered signs from the urban landscape in several cities of Brazil.

With that he was able to find out which were its most common characteristics: randomness of shapes, creativity, inconsistency and reversed letters — revealing at times the low level of literacy of those who are producing this signage. Brasilêro to this day remains one of the most popular Brazilian typefaces of all times, being largely used in commercial projects.

The Brasilêro Typeface. Source: Renata Szlachta

One of the most recent known projects is Andrea Bandoni’s set of crockery from 2017. Her inspiration comes from the unique “Pixo” found in the city of São Paulo.

“Pixo” is similar in method to tagging, but in a more cryptic style. The aim of these groups is to make a statement about social injustice, poverty and government corruption.

By applying into her designs common “Pixo” sentences such as “All creation is first of all an act of destruction” she addresses the polemic relationship between the arts and the “Pixo”, offering us a reflection over this urban movement.

‘Pixo’ on various buildings in Brazil. Source: Renata Szlachta
Andrea Bandoni’s set of crockery, inspired by ‘Pixo’. Source; Renata Szlachta.

In the past couple of years there has been some criticism around vernacular typography being wrongfully appropriated by designers, when taken out of its context in a disrespectful way and used just as an aesthetics expression. There is indeed a fine line difficult to be traced between putting attention into local culture and performing cultural appropriation. Would that have a positive impact on helping broaden the acceptance of certain expressions within our visual culture or is it diminishing and prejudicial in other ways?

It is important that we constantly re-evaluate and discuss these matters so we can keep Brazilian culture alive, but always real and true to itself.

One thing for sure is common sense amongst us Brazilian designers and I could not agree more: vernacular typography is genuine to us but more than that, it tells about designers and graphic artists owning their roots and being proud about them.

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written by Renata Szlachta, Creative at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT