Pablo Medina wears a suit to work. He says it's his New Year's resolution. Wear more suits. He looks good in it: skinny black tie, white shirt unbuttoned at the top, clean black sneakers, not too shabby. On his desk at Cubanica, his studio based in New York's Tribeca, are MoMA catalogues, monographs, Sagmeister's Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far—standard fare on designers' desks around the world. Don't be fooled.
Ask him about inspiration—his real inspiration—and from a pile on the floor he'll pull out a beat-up green folder overflowing with cut-and-scotch-taped pages from Read this Zine, a hardcore zine he published in high school. He put out four issues, and he still has them. He even has the letters-to-the-editor he got in the mail. He'll show you a roll of posters for his band the Deviators, formed with his buddy Tom Rosenthal when they were in school at Pratt. Some of them he didn't even make. Medina and Rosenthal worked on their aesthetic and would send out press kits, and when they'd show up for shows in cities they'd never been before they'd see posters up already, filtered through their look. They liked that. Like a lot of hardcore bands, the Deviators was about grassroots marketing as much as music. Punk rock was Medina's first taste of graphic design.
“Buying hardcore albums, it was never just about the album cover,” he says. “I remember when I bought the Dead Kennedys' single 'Nazi Punks Fuck Off,' it came with an armband. Sometimes you'd get stickers or a poster, this whole kit, just for spending three dollars. All these symbols and logos and stenciled typography. I was mesmerized by it.”
On learning the job of design:
Most of my creative and technical learning came from practice. “Wax on, wax off” kind of stuff. Failures and mistakes have also been crucial to my learning.
Punk was something you wore—Sharpie'd Chuck Taylors, slashed jeans—and it was Medina's uniform at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, New Jersey. Medina's father, a poet, moved to the United States from Havana, Cuba, and his mother from Bogotá, Colombia. He was born in Washington, D.C., and moved to New Jersey with his father soon after his parents divorced. He remembers feeling like the only Latin-American kid in school. “I was searching for an identity through the lens of Anglo culture in high school, and I wasn't finding it,” he says. “Then one day I went to a hardcore show at City Gardens in Trenton, and I found that missing piece.” He would listen to the Descendents and 7 Seconds on DJ Randy Now's infamous WPRB hardcore show, and every other weekend drive down to D.C., the epicenter of the East Coast punk scene, and where his mom still lived, to see bands like Scream, Gray Matter and Dag Nasty. “It was about rebellion,” he explains. “Rebellion and anger. And getting that anger out in a creative way: dancing, beating the hell out of your guitar, making fan zines, drawing T-shirts, ripping your jeans.” It was his self-expression: His dad had poetry, he had punk.
Medina's early years as a designer—though he'd hesitate to call himself that then—were messy and exuberant. He'd found his missing piece, but he didn't quite know what to do with it. “I would really struggle,” he says. “I was just throwing it together.” He cut up issues of Time and used its type in his zines before he stumbled upon a Letraset in an arts supply store. As an undergrad at Pratt he learned how to screen print and how to play the guitar, and stayed up until 4 a.m. in the studio churning out T-shirts and band posters. “I realized I was gifted in the arts,” but, he admits, “I didn't have the skills. I didn't know the rules. I didn't know the grid.” So when the band broke up, he went back to Pratt for grad school to focus on graphic design.
On the influence of culture on his work:
I'm infatuated with my cultural background. Studying and interpreting a Latin American aesthetic is one of my obsessions. Many of my projects are influenced by that passion.
What he found was a department steeped in modernism's bitter tea. “It was all Bauhaus. High levels of communication and clarity and low levels of self-expression. It was a complete conflict to what I had been doing,” he says. “But I'm stubborn. I said I wasn't going to let that infuse too much in my work, but I need to know it if I want to make a living. I played the actor.”
He was a good actor, too. His first paid gig was a logo for Serengeti sunglasses: a solitary orange circle, nothing more. “Like the Japanese flag. That's it. And a couple weeks later I got a check. I was pretty psyched.”
In 1990, while Medina was in college, his mother moved to Cartagena, Colombia. Through his annual visits to see her he discovered the heritage he had known little about. “I was on a search for my own culture, and here was a treasure chest of it,” he says. He re-learned Spanish and started digging into Latin American art and culture, which in his Guevara-inspired vision of the continent, encompassed all his heritage: Cuban, Colombian and everything in between. “The first piece of gold in the chest,” he says, was typography—the wild, hand-painted signs that he would gawk at in Bogotá, and the ones he would hunt down and photograph in the Spanish-speaking parts of town in North Bergen, New Jersey.
What he found there became his MFA thesis: three typefaces—Vitrina, Cuba and North Bergen—inspired by the signs. Part punk-rock's found-type quirk, part slick modernist styling and part cultural documentation, the project heralded a new era of graphic sensibility that warped the grid and broke the rules in favor of expressionism, edge and style. David Carson, usher of that new wave, knew it, and bought all three faces as soon as Medina graduated. Ellen Lupton saw it too, and exhibited them in the Cooper-Hewitt's inaugural design triennial in 2000. “I understood that this stuff hadn't been done before,” Medina says. “I was the youngest one at the Triennial. I was there with Rudy VanderLans and Emigre. The Air Jordan and the iMac. It was ridiculous.”
I hate the word “minority”—it has never been more clear that what is considered the minority is very much the majority.
These days, Medina is getting ready to publicly release Playoff, a 20-style typeface he designed for ESPN, and two new faces called Calaveras y Diablitos (skulls and devils), inspired by Fileteado signs in Buenos Aires. He teaches typography and communication design to undergraduate students at Parsons the New School for Design. And he is always on a quest for the next source of inspiration, the next piece of gold from that chest. He's gotten into filmmaking, too. His short documentary, El Play (2008), about a young baseball player in the Dominican Republic, has screened at festivals internationally and won two awards. He plans to direct more film projects in the future. A daily schedule taped above his desk divides up his time. Working on a new documentary (probably about graffiti, he says) is given a 19-percent chunk.
“When I'm curious about something,” such as hand-painted signs or baseball, “I have to ask, 'Now what do I do? Do I make a film or a typeface?' It's like saying, 'Now who am I? Colombian or Cuban?'” For Medina, graphic design and filmmaking, like Cuba and Colombia, are cut from the same cloth: They're ways to understand culture—his culture. “It's not pushing type around. It's living,” he says. “It's important for designers to recognize what they've grown up with, what they connect to, what languages they speak. You have to surround yourself with that culture. Be in it. Not an outsider—in it.”