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November 29, 2022

Typeface made me do it

Designers Michu Benaim Steiner and Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz on their multi-faceted creative practice, and why designing typeface during the early days of the pandemic provided focus

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The design firm In-House Intl., founded by Michu Benaim Steiner, Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz, and Alexander Wright, has worked with clients ranging from Austin restaurant favorite, Bufalina, to large companies and nonprofits such as Indeed, Meta, the Ford Foundation, the University of Texas at Austin, findhelp and the BBC — all the while maintaining a low profile in its home-base cities of Austin and Barcelona.

Michu Benaim Steiner’s roles have included creative director, strategist, journalist, designer, CEO, marketer, publisher, magazine editor, and consultant. She has an MBA from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and a BA in Philosophy and Comparative Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill. She’s been In-House’s CEO since 2015.

Previous professional lives of Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz include journalist, editor, art director, publisher, documentalist, and festival curator. He is a TED Senior Fellow, a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, and has won awards as varied as a NY Film Festival world medal award and Ibero-American Design Biennial national prize.

Michu and Lope responded to this interview over email.

Cine Mag poster
Cine Magnifico branding by In-House International

Thao Votang: Of all places, how did you end up in Texas? I think the first time I heard of you two was in the early 2010s by way of Gopher Magazine launches at Sonia Dutton’s old gallery, Champion. Back then, the city was growing, and it felt as though the art scene would grow alongside with it. Why did you ultimately choose Austin?



Michu: The story is a little embarrassing, and maybe will trigger some passions. Lope and I had Gopher Magazine. Fresh off the release of issue 1 (which was funded through Kickstarter back in 2009 and came together on nights and weekends), we decided we wanted to dedicate our time to the magazine. We also knew that for the magazine to have a chance, we couldn’t keep doing these crazy contortions for export that living in Caracas required. So, we decided to immigrate to the U.S.

Lope: I should also mention that we were both journalists in a country where a dictatorship was quickly shutting off any remaining opportunities to do our work — we could see the writing on the wall that it wouldn’t be long before our necks were on the line.

Michu: I’ll skip over the immigration process and its peculiarities and get back to your question. When deciding where to go we had a few criteria.

First, we knew we wanted to live somewhere relatively affordable as we were moving so we could make a real go of this “kids becoming publishers” thing. That crossed off a lot of cities in the coasts. Somewhere we could work on the magazine seriously without having to work three jobs. Austin was definitely in that sphere back then.

Second, we knew we wanted to a city that was growing. And ideally not cold.

And third (this is where it gets embarrassing): we didn’t want to be in a city where you needed to have a car to get around. According to our Google searches, Austin had CapMetro. And CapMetro seemed like it was well connected, had lots of bus lines, and was affordable. We saw the UT campus was smack in the middle of the city so surmised students used the bus a lot. We leapt to the conclusion that Austin was not a city where cars were the default form of transport.

By the time we realized this is not a bus-first kind of city, it was too late and we already made friends and had a lease. So. We stayed.

Lope: I just remember Austin feeling so refreshing, having so much freedom, we would walk around our neighborhood at night just because we could, without fearing for our lives. We were fairly involved with the visual arts scene in Caracas and we found the Austin one to be very welcoming and warm. Also, yes, much love to Sonia Dutton who hosted a launch party for our magazine. BTW, she is still doing fantastic work in NYC at soniadutton.com.

Michu and Lope
In-House International co-founders Michu Benaim Steiner, left, and Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz

 

TV: Do you think Gopher Magazine will ever come back?

Michu: It’d be a dream but probably not. Will Conflict of Interest ever come back?

Lope: Hell no! Our time as publishers only confirmed our suspicions that art magazine publishing is a hobby for millionaires, now even more severely knee-capped by digital appetite.

But, even though, as Michu says, Gopher’s not likely to come back, some of the stuff we loved doing for the magazine lives on in our studio: continued relationship-building with talented creative people around the world, for instance. Gopher’s stated mission was to provide a platform for emerging talents. Meaning we spent time and care scouring the Earth for new talents. And this curation continues at our design studio.

 

TV: I was reading this 2011 TEDBlog interview, and it made me think about how you’ve supported Fusebox Festival through the years and designed the logo of Conflict of Interest, an online publication I co-edited with Rebecca Marino (and, haha, will it come back? haha). I’m pulling all these links and taking a walk through these connections and relationships developed during a specific time at a specific place in Austin’s growth. How would you describe Austin’s culture these days? And I’m not trying to be snarky or nostalgic, I take the good and bad in that large serving of tourism that brings funding and people into the city.

Michu: This is a difficult question. I don’t really know how to describe Austin’s culture as a whole, but what I will say is that if Lope and I were thinking about moving to the U.S. today with the same criteria we had back in 2010, Austin wouldn’t be on the list. It’s just too expensive to come here and start building an artistic practice without a full-time income or other sources of support.

Lope: Even back then, there was a balkanization of creative scenes in Austin, as there aren’t many spaces that feature cross-disciplinary programming, bringing together, say, the visual arts and design, filmmaking and performance arts, music and literature, etc. So it’s difficult to learn about initiatives in neighboring disciplines unless you are really intentional about it. Hopefully this will change in the future!

Michu: Right. I’ll risk speaking for both of us and saying our take is that art is community. It creates community, provides shared experiences and offers meeting spaces around ideas that go beyond the daily to-do. The separate creative scenes Lope mentioned isn’t great for community.

Especially now, as high-paying jobs have grown in Austin and it’s become a wealthier city. In an ideal world, this wealth offers opportunities for the arts to grow with the city — support that’s proportional to the increases to the cost of living so we can keep artists and arts organizations thriving.

But that hasn’t really panned out. So, I think we’re at an inflection point. In the past five years, we got Formula 1 and our own soccer team, ACL and SXSW are as big as ever, and we’ve added like a bajillion acclaimed restaurants. We have the audience sizes, the wherewithal, and the resources to have our own world-class culture ecosystem. It’s just a matter of whether we choose to do it.

What kind of city does Austin become without creative people, without daring, magical and transcendent organizations like Fusebox? How do we come together as a city and what do we all share? What do we, as a city, create? If we lose our creative voice — which is so core to the idea of what Austin is — who do we become? I think that for the past few years, we’ve been coasting on this “Keep Austin Weird” artsy, vibrant, alive reputation that attracts people here. But we’re at risk of losing that heartbeat.

Lope: Interestingly enough, maybe the scene that has a world-class level is graphic design! Austin regularly births brands that become recognized nationally and then globally, which is great for the design ecosystem…

Michu: Austin definitely has a knack for creating successful brands.

Lope: And unsurprisingly, we also have fantastic design studios, illustrators, animators. It’s a very “Austin 2020’s” thing that our most robust creative output as a city is so deeply linked to commerce. But I don’t think designers would come here (or stay here) without creative and cool stuff happening here.

InHouse design
PopSci infographic by In-House International

 

TV: I’ve been thinking about social media and how my relationship with it has changed dramatically in the past five or so years. And thinking about brands, I like to joke I’m past logos, and yet I usually take some time to think about a company’s mark. How do you contend with how our relationship to design has changed in the last over the years? We have things like Canva and those fancy iPhones with three lenses at our fingertips. In my reading about the design studio, you’ve had to use ‘storytelling,’ and now maybe the word is simply ‘content’ to describe what In House does. How do the changes in the industry change how you work?

Michu: Design has always been the most visible part of our work, but visual design has never been the whole story. We now do a lot more strategic work than it did when we opened. Most of our projects include some combination of research, marketing, planning, analysis, strategy, business and stakeholder alignment, testing, production, partnerships, project management, writing – including storytelling, in addition to design. So, it’s true we’ve evolved in how we focus. As we got more experience, got to a place as a studio where we work with strategic leaders at our client companies more. We’re lucky that our skillset, interests, and client needs all line up more now than ever.

As for tools changing our relationship with design… our relationship with design is always changing. Tools that give more people access to creating are great. Fearing technology that enables more people to make things is both silly and pointless.

I feel our studio benefits from more widespread design tools. It makes it easier for us to deliver design systems so they get used as intended without becoming a major chore for clients. Fearing technology or competition is pointless. If some of our specialized skills stop being valuable, digging our heels won’t stop anything. That’s true for every skill.

Lope: I’m still a firm believer that a beautiful, warm, human world makes life better for everybody; that’s something I’ll always carry with me thanks to the many positive experiences drawn from our relationship with the arts. As we are sadly surrounded more by manufactured goods / experiences / services than by art, I find solace in knowing that at least there is a chance to create a better every day by creating better, well, everything. Art for me has an enormous impact on the micro level, and design has a micro impact on the enormous level — whatever technologies are used to amplify the impact of art or design are irrelevant, as long as those tools are not infringing on privacy and do no harm to the planet and mankind.

And regarding storytelling vs branding or branded content, well, as younger generations become more aware of the environmental, social, and cultural damage that is inherent to commerce, a need arises for more information about everything we consume: is it ethical? Is it backed by responsible leaders? Are its claims just performative? And you can only present so much information as bullet points, storytelling is needed from a basic communication standpoint.

in house
Book cover designs for Deep Vellum Press by In-House International

TV: Your signature line “kick-ass newsletter” reminds me that I really have enjoyed your newsletters over the years! I hope I haven’t been unsubscribed from it due to my own pandemic malaise. What do you think of the trends of email and newsletters? Is Substack already over or is that a silly question? What do you think is next?

Michu: We hope you haven’t unsubscribed either! We’re big fans of a few newsletters that make our day. They tend to have a distinct voice, have insights beyond what everyone’s saying, and have something to share. I think newsletters have become more intimate in a way, like podcasts that are in your personal inbox. The best of them make us feel like a friend has just been in touch. I hope that continues.

Lope: I love the tone, the voice, of the endlessly amusing Web Curios by Matt Muir. Thao, whenever you start feeling the anhedonia creep in just dive into Web Curios! You’ll come back to the surface hours later, still feeling like shit, but with so many factoids! And honestly that’s a great day for anybody in this dying planet.

Michu: Oof, that’s bleak! I don’t have thoughts about Substack. I do like the guest writer thing that people with large email audiences have started to do over the past couple of years though.

in house
Pata Slab font created by In-House International

TV: I’ve heard too many times (in my very humble opinion) that you’re headed back to work after a video call or tennis game. Was that a happenstance with the pandemic or is that something that you say comes with the nature of your work? How do you combat burnout for yourselves and your team?

Michu: It doesn’t come with the nature of the work necessarily, but it is the kind of thing that happens because the studio is on the smaller side. Often the day doesn’t include enough hours to manage everything from admin to sales, creative direction, project management and so on.

It also has to do with the particular setup of our studio: we’re distributed so the team in Barcelona has nearly six hours of their day prior to us showing up here in Austin. So, when in a pinch, we tend to stay later and leave the project management communications, updates, and setup of inputs our teammates need for creative work for the end of the day. That way we use our daytime energy on creative stuff, and go over more mechanical work that other people count on when we’re more depleted.

But, ok, it’s also a bit of our fault for sometimes being a little chaotic and having a lot on our plate life-wise as well as workwise.

Lope: Agree with Michu’s statement on allocating time later in the day to more mechanical / admin work. We are blessed with being able to make a living out of creative endeavors, but there’s only so much energy you can devote to them per day — and yet, the barrage of invisible, admin, project management work never ends, so I personally prefer to tackle some of it after a nice dinner of a bit of tennis. Everyone at the studio is different on that sense.

Ragtag font
Ragtag font created by In-House International

 

TV: You have had the opportunity to do some projects that seem a little more about replenishing than most. Why did you decide to get into fonts and what was the most surprising thing about that work?

Michu: I’ll start by saying that while we do keep kind of strange hours as we just shared, I’d say most of my work feels pretty fulfilling! (Thanks, clients and collaborators!) So, the impulse behind ambitious studio originated projects like the type foundry is more about making a point of allocating attention to stuff we enjoy or want to try or are curious about. It’s replenishing in that sense.

We decided to go into fonts because we kind of always wanted to. Even back in the magazine days, we contrived reasons to showcase interesting type work. As a studio, we have a long history of designing our own typefaces for things like logos or publication titles to ensure they look just right. That plus participating in events like 36 days of type was enough for a while… until it wasn’t.

During the early days of the pandemic we were restless, and knew from experience with a country-wide strike in Venezuela in 2002-3 that in these moments of turmoil one way to take some measure of agency in a great deal of uncertainty is to pursue a creative project. We reached out to Rodrigo Fuenzalida who is a complete ace and has his own foundry. And the timing couldn’t have been better. We got to work on a typeface with our studio partner Alex Wright designing and Rodrigo digitizing, and we launched the In-House Foundry with the release of a type called “Ragtag.”

Lope: Yes, and it has been so interesting, you see, releasing an “element” of design to be remixed incessantly is something that really rewards you with all the emotions on the spectrum: from seeing your typefaces used on a Coca-Cola ad (below) to having them used on posters or merch, to having the honor of having your fonts pirated the day after they are released! Which is both a badge of honor but also crap to see our work be stolen.

Coca-Cola x Twitch ‘Drink Break’ Montage from Motionographer on Vimeo.

Michu: And our work is pretty experimental, what they call display type, which isn’t really a great business. We sell our fonts through marketplaces, and the split is 50-50 with them on the purchase price, so that also factors in. But it is a contribution to the design community — a tool. And what’s really surprising is how it never gets old seeing other people use the typefaces we publish.

Lope: And when talking about replenishing projects, it wouldn’t be fair to talk only about our typeface foundry, we regularly work with non-profits such as Fusebox, Pop Culture Collab, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, etc; and develop our own side projects at the design studio. Every year we release a custom art print that we send to clients and friends, and most recently we have started dabbling on virtual reality, creating our first short film, to be released in 2023.

Michu: We keep busy!

In House design
Book cover design for Deep Vellum Press by In-House International

 

TV: And you’ve recently been designing book covers for Deep Vellum. Is that a dream job?

Michu: Getting to read fiction and poetry and then turn around and design covers thoughtfully for the publisher is pretty great. I’m a bit of a bookworm so it’s like my worlds colliding.

Book publishers if you’re reading this, we love designing covers. Hire us to make more covers! Can this be a pull quote?

 

TV: What are you listening to, reading, or looking at these days?

Michu: This question is kryptonite for me, I’ll tell you about today specifically because I can never remember far back enough and then I’m tempted to dive into, like, my library borrowing history. Or Netflix.

Anyways. I’m reading “Woman of Light” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine which I got at an event last week, and “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” by Laura Warrell and am really enjoying both. Listening to a handful of musicians in Spanish whose work all happens to be kind of echo-y and beat-forward: Ana Tijoux, Lido Pimienta, Karen y los Remedios, King Coya. I recently watched “Mo” and really liked it.

Lope: The pandemic REALLY changed my listening habits. I became part of a music community online called JQBX which sadly recently closed, where users were working with a bunch of tools to stay on top of music that was recently released, among them Crabhands and integrations with Beatport, so I ended up listening exclusively to music released post-2020, never bumping into the same song twice, for 8 hours a day, five days a week, for about a year and half.

My listening universe expanded immensely, and is not like I was a non-curious listener before. Sadly, I’m unable to hold unto encyclopedic knowledge for too long, so is not like I can put together a playlist by snapping my fingers. Still, some recommendations on electronic music would be Tlim Shug, Andy Stott, Coco Bryce, Tiga; and on more rock-oriented things, there’s a band called Shopping which released an album in 2018 (I know, I know, breaking my own rules) called “The Official Body” that just has that sweet London sound and indie basslines — so easy to listen and the album is only like 30mins long. Oh and since I’m in the design world, I started listening to a band from Brooklyn called Uniform because they had some sick swag and now I listen to their industrial, jarring, grating songs when I feel like I need to wake up. I feel guilty watching most trash TV, so I don’t really spend much time on Netflix, but recently got Mubi (H/T Gabriella! Thanks for always being a real one!) and was floored by how vivid and beautiful, in a zillenial way, was Martine Syme’s coming-of-age comedy “The African Desperate” — just another example of something that I decided to give a chance blindly based almost entirely on the typeface they used for their posters and banners.

Michu: So at least that’s one point for “Type Made Me Do It.”

 


Thao Votang
Thao Votanghttps://votang.com/
Thao Votang is a writer and at work on a novel. Votang previously co-edited the online magazine Conflict of Interest and co-founded the gallery Tiny Park.

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