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Lettering Artist Martina Flor Finds Her Sweet Spot

By Terri Stone

While Martina Flor has been an illustrator and designer of posters, brand identities, and invitations (among many other things), lettering and typography have always been closest to her heart. When she graduated from school in the Netherlands in 2010 and moved to Berlin, she took a gamble and concentrated on those two loves. That gamble paid off, and now she makes a living doing what she likes best. “Since I’ve focused on lettering and custom typography,” she says, “everything has been on the upswing.”

“Moving was essential,” says the Argentinian native. “Typography is a serious subject in Germany. They care deeply about readability, legibility, and functionality. However, these are things my work doesn’t pursue. My work is colorful and playful; sometimes it’s not readable. When I moved here, I was afraid of how the community would take my work. Would they accept it? I think the community actually triggered my work in an unexpected way — it became more expressive and colorful.”

Two postcards from Martina Flor’s Letter Collections, a self-initiated project.

Flor’s projects usually involve both paper and the computer. “If it’s illustrated lettering, I grab a pencil and start putting my ideas on paper; then I move to the computer,” Flor says. “But it’s not a straight line; it’s more like a spiral. Sometimes I’m on the computer and I think, ‘I don’t like this N. What other shape can I come up with?’ And then I go back to paper where it’s easier to try out solutions. When I find the solution, I go back to digital drawing. It’s a dialog between hand sketching and digital drawing.” For other assignments, such as a complex typographic page, she may begin by defining the structure digitally, then printing out the page and sketching on top of the basic architecture.

Watch this time-lapse screen capture of Martina Flor recreating the word

Click the image to watch a speeded-up time-lapse of Martina Flor going from a hand-drawn sketch to a final piece in Adobe Illustrator CC. (Note: There is no audio.)

Adobe Illustrator CC is one of her primary digital tools. “I use Illustrator a lot because it can draw vectors while being versatile enough to deal with textures and images. I scan my hand sketch and open it as a background, but it’s only a reference—I redraw the whole thing in Illustrator and add color and texture. I might use a few subtle effects, such as drop shadows to get more contrast between the background and a letter shape. Other times, I use noise to get the digital feel out of my drawing, or to give it some tactile effect.”

Flor’s lettering is in demand for editorial, branding, and identity projects. Each kind of assignment has its own rewards. “Book and magazine covers have great exposure; I love to walk on the streets and see my cover on the magazine stand,” she says. The letter shapes, colors, and textures in editorial work provide plenty of room for Flor to tell a visual story. 

First slide: Magazine covers for 11 Freunde (art director Sabine Kornbrust), and Net (art director Rebecca Shaw). Second slide:  Sketch and final book cover of Alicia en el País de Las Maravillas (art director Laura Comellas). Third slide: Sketch and final book cover of The Hired Girl (art director Maria Soler Canton).

On the other hand, she also enjoys branding and identity. “They often have more restrictions in terms of colors or what the client wants to say about the brand, which values they want to convey. I like that challenge. It’s fun to have both sides: one brief that’s very restrictive, and one that’s very open. I enjoy switching between them.”

Flor works well with art directors and designers. “Drawing letters is a very lonely job because you’re drawing by yourself on a computer screen,” she notes. “It’s great to have the chance to work with art directors and designers who know a lot about typography and illustration. They can help you to get the best out of your work. I’ve done jobs where the art director pointed out something and I went back to my drawing and came up with another solution that improved the overall design a lot.”

Header for Der Spiegel news magazine (art director Jens Kuppi).

In addition to these cooperative relationships, Flor also enjoys full-fledged collaborations. One example is Lettering vs Calligraphy, a collaboration with calligrapher Giuseppe Salerno. For this project, Salerno and Flor responded separately to a keyword—Salerno with calligraphy and Flor with hand-lettering. Visitors to the Lettering vs Calligraphy website voted on the efforts, and experts from the type and calligraphy worlds chose exceptional letters. Salerno and Flor eventually expanded the concept to exhibitions and workshops.

Lettering vs Calligraphy began with a small idea. “I met Giuseppe and we were very interested in each other's work,” Flor remembers. “We thought, ‘Let’s do something together that combines your calligraphy and my lettering, like a poster.’ And suddenly it went from being about a poster to a blog and these battles we were doing every day, and later to the workshops.”

Left: Quotation illustration for AIGA. Right: Illustration for the Washington Post (art director Emmet Smith).

Letter Collections is another significant project that started small. Flor had created postcards for a retailer that were never used. “I thought I should publish them somewhere, so I started doing cards and posting them on a blog,” she says. One thing led to another and, by the time the final card appeared on the site on December 31, 2015, she had made 100 postcards. Although the project is over, you can still send all of the digital cards by email. Take the time to browse through the collection; it’s an impressive display of lettering talent.

As these examples show, Flor embraces self-initiated endeavors. “Working and doing is my best way to find ideas. I know other people have other methods to get inspired: They go on trips or take time off. My method is to work and do stuff. Many times it leads to nothing, but sometimes it leads to a good idea.” 

Left: Opening spread for AD Design Magazine (art director Patricia Ruigomez). Right: Holiday card sent to Flor’s clients, colleagues, and friends. 

She follows that same philosophy in her paid assignments. “When I’m doing a book cover, for example, I think, ‘I will draw this A differently,’ or ‘I will do this wash on the L differently,’ and these little ideas will make the design a lot better. You find little ideas every day by working. And someday little ideas may lead to big ideas.”

Martina Flor was one of many creative luminaries who spoke at 2016’s Adobe MAX. Visit the MAX website to watch recorded keynote presentations and conference sessions.