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Interview By Kathryn Weinstein
Photographs and Artwork Courtesy of Liz DeLuna

Interview first appeared in UCDA’s
Designer magazine (Vol. 41, Issue 2, Summer 2016)

Elizabeth DeLuna is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at St. John’s University. She received an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University and her research focuses on typeface design and motion graphics. Her client list includes: Showtime (where she spent two years as a staff designer), HBO, Cinemax, The History Channel, The Sundance Channel, TruTV, Cablevision and Public Affairs Television, and PBS. In this interview, Professor DeLuna shares a little bit about her life, interests, and projects.

Tell us a little bit about your background?
I grew up in New York City. My mother was an artist and an art teacher. My father was an illustrator and an art director for a company that published children’s books. Watching my father draw was an inspiration. I went to Laguardia High School, which was in Harlem at the time. We lived in Soho in the 1970’s so I experienced that neighbourhood as an industrial area of factories and artists lofts. All the artists’ kids hung out. We played frisbee at night on the deserted streets and garbage picked during the day. Great refuse on the streets then: wooden skids, large corrugated equipment boxes, leather and fabric scraps, single shoes and sneakers and great furniture. Before college I had a job at a restaurant called Food that was owned by Gordon Matta Clark.

Your first degree was a BFA in Film from the San Francisco Art Institute. Why Film and what was studying at SFAI like? Were there any teachers/experiences that were particularly influential?
Studying film at SFAI was a really interesting experience. I initially attended of Oberlin College in Ohio. After ‘art’ high school I turned to liberal arts because I didn’t know what I wanted to study, and it felt like it was time to study something other than art. I knew I didn’t want to be a starving artist like my parents, and I definitely didn’t want to do graphic design, which looked too commercial and formulaic to me. But ultimately Oberlin felt too academic and structured. So I dropped out, went back to New York City, where I found my best friend (who had also just dropped out of college) and got on a Greyhound bus and went to San Francisco.

Film had already started to seem like a natural transition. It was art, but moved faster, and wasn’t as static as graphic design. Not really knowing where I was going, I just kind of gravitated in that direction. At SFAI our course work dealt mostly with experimental film and filmmaking, something I had never been exposed to before. We watched a lot of films from the Canyon Cinema Archive; films by Peter Kubelka, Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Bruce Connor. Our teachers included known experimental filmmakers Gunvor Nelson, Jordan Belson,Al Wong and The Kuchar Brothers. At that time SFAI was at the center of the Punk music scene, with students Freddy Fritz of the Mutants, Penelope Houston of the Avengers, and Debora Iyall and Frank Zincavage of Romeo Void, as well as performance artist Karen Finley. We also had great visiting artists mostly I remember Laurie Anderson and The Kipperkids.

Top (header): Liz with her mother, growing up in Brooklyn

Above: ‘Dominatrix’ music video in the MoMA permanent ollection

What were the types of jobs you had after you graduated from SFAI and how did you find employment?

After I graduated I returned to New York. I decided that I wanted to be in the film business, and coming back to New York City, where I had contacts and friends, seemed like a good place to start. The first film I worked on was a film called ‘Vortex’, with artists Beth and Scott B. From that experience I met a network of people that got me onto other projects. I worked on a lot of music videos and independent films. I worked on a short film called ‘Volatile Memory’ with Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Gretchen Bender and Sandy Tait and a music video for the thrash band ‘Megadeth’ directed by Robert Longo. Eventually I got into the union and started working on commercials and larger budget productions.

How did you become a graphic designer? And what attracts you to the field?
Basically after 10 years in the film business, five years doing lighting and five years in the art and prop departments, I was exhausted. I injured my back and needed surgery. My career of heavy lifting was over. Someone I had worked for previously had just started his own motion graphics company. He offered me a job, and told me he would teach me After Effects. I worked for him for five years, doing broadcast graphics for Showtime, The Sundance Channel, HBO and ESPN. I was grasping the technical part, but I felt I lacked proficiency in the design aspect, especially in my knowledge of typography. I started taking continuing education classes at night at Parsons. I remember James Victore was one of the visiting lecturers. I loved those classes and I felt like I was suddenly exposed to a whole new world of design.

Why did you decide to pursue a MFA in Graphic Design at Yale University? And how did attending Yale impact your approach to design and/or career trajectory?
After my classes at Parsons, I decided to go to graduate school. I looked at quite a few schools. Cranbrook, RISD, SVA Yale and Art Center. It was a big decision after being out of school for so many years. I got into Yale, and it kind of seemed like a dream of a lifetime to go to school there. I went through a three year program, which appealed to me, because I wanted to hone my skills with some foundation level graphic design training. Yale definitely changed my life, but not in ways that I expected. I never had any intention of teaching. I feel very grateful that that path came to me.

When did you become interested in designing typefaces?
My type design teachers at Yale were Matthew Carter and Tobias Frere Jones. That definitely inspired my desire to draw type.

Clockwise from top left: Style frames Showtime: Black Experience; Yale thesis project; Yale thesis project / Digital versions of internal pages; and Yale thesis project / Digital versions of internal pages; Style frames The Sundance Channel / The Cutting Room; and Style frames Showtime / Boxing.

What was the process for designing the Bequeath typeface?

It started unintentionally from a fascination with cemeteries and gravestone typography. In one of my cemetery visits I came upon some letterforms that were quite unique and thought it would be an interesting challenge to make them into a typeface. I did some rubbings of the letterforms, and then did some research about the stone carver, who had fortunately signed many of the gravestones, and the history of graveyards and cemeteries. After some initial sketches I started drawing the letterforms in Robofont. The rest of the process was a lot of trial and error. The challenge was to try to keep the eclectic hand made feel of the letter forms yet create a cohesive digital typeface that could function in a contemporary design context.

Do you have a set of go-to typefaces for projects and if you do what typefaces are in the set?
Gotham, Trade Gothic, FF Kevit, Interstate, Helvetic Neue.

If you were a typeface, what typeface would you be? And why?
That’s a hard question… it would have to be something eclectic yet sophisticated like RETIRO by Jean François Porchez.

If you had access to unlimited funds, what would be your dream project?
That’s another hard question….I have quite a few side projects going on. At this point I am really interested in creating digital typefaces from lettering originally carved in stone, and am working on a grant project that involves reviving and ultimately digitizing a collection of 19th century ornamental metal typefaces, and giving them a contemporary life and context.

What’s on your reading list? What shows have you recently seen or plan to see?
I’m addicted to Elena Ferante’s Neapolitan novels and the Netflix series Sense8.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
In graphic design 99% of the work takes 1% of the time, and the final 1% of the work takes 99% of the time.

Don’t procrastinate. Be proactive and follow leads. Networking is key.

Clockwise from top left: Investigating Legibility / Typeface design project at Yale; Bequeath Typeface / Key letterforms; Specimen sheet; and Bequeath Typeface / Promo postcard

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