How Birgit Palma creates satisfyingly isometric illustrations & letters

Illustrator and lettering artist Birgit Palma on working systematically, creating alphabets for Adobe and why some limitations are good.

We caught up with Barcelona-based illustrator and lettering artist Birgit Palma at design conference Typo 2017 in Berlin last week. Birgit was hosting modular lettering workshops alongside Daniel Triendl

Adobe Germany approached Birgit two months ago with a concept for a collaborative project – a workshop to create a digital typeface showcasing tools and basic shapes available using Creative Cloud. 

Daniel and Birgit collaborated on a modular type system, and have now created multiple alphabets based on basic, geometric shapes as a result. Artists participating in their workshops are encouraged to share files and collaborate real-time to design within the shapes for each letter of the alphabet. The alphabet for Berlin (seen here) is one of four Brigit and Daniel have made – there’s also Vienna, Munich and Zurich alphabets, the cities in which they will also host workshops.

Austrian born 3D genius Birgit is known for her isometric illustrations that pop with colour, and always look like they’re about to move. After studying MultiMediaArt at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg with a focus on 2D and 3D illustration, Birgit interned with New York-based agency Vault49 (back when it was just co-founders John Glasgow and Jonathan Kenyon).

She worked under them before going on to explore more lettering techniques at graphic design studio Vasava in Barcelona, before setting up her own studio. She’s now also an adjunct professor at Fachhochschule Salzburg in multi media art.

Image: The letter H from her 36 Days of Type project

Birgit is a big fan of illustration, illustrative type, lettering and "systematic design", with a recent focus on isometric illustration. She works mainly in Photoshop and Illustrator. 

Miriam Harris: What’s your background?

Birgit Palma: "I studied MultiMediaArt in Salzburg - I studied 3D and 2D design. I like 3D a lot but you have to be a very nerdy person. I spend a lot of hours in front of a PC but they did double or triple to get good, so I thought I'll do design. In my internship I had huge possibilities to learn a lot about illustration."

Image: Birgit Palma

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MH: Tell us about the Adobe Make-it Alphabet workshop.

BP: "It is a collaboration with Daniel Triendl. I like detail a lot, and he’s into bold geometric patterns and colour. We wanted to work together for a very long time but it was hard to find a project which would fit. We are doing one alphabet in two days. One day you’re working out what style works, and what style doesn’t, but once you have that, creating all the other letters is super fast.

"We thought we should focus on cities, because there’s a lot of different culture in Berlin. We had the urban street art and graffiti style. Vienna was the one we started with. It was more or less the basic playground.

"People who participate in the workshops are different. They're not always from Austria and Germany, but they have different motivations, which is really nice."

MH: What other recent projects have you finished? 

BP: "Another recent project was an illustration mapping design for a laser show in Dubai. I've never done something like that before. The [client] gave me the facade of a super huge building, and said 'Make a face for that and we will animate it'. I don't know animation but I always think it fits well with my style."

Image: Birgit had to make two different designs, and isn't sure which one was eventually chosen, but this is her favourite. 

MH: Why are you into systematic and isometric illustration at the moment?

BP: "I’m very easily distracted; I’m pretty day dreamy. With designing it’s easy to get focused on one corner and stay there forever. Whenever you have something systematic, you need to stay with it. The range of things you do gets smaller. I try to break out of the shapes in an illustrative way, otherwise if you do whatever you want, you don’t know where to start. You need some borders.

"I teach classes in Salzburg to students, and I give them a lot of limitations because in the end they’re lost if you say 'Make whatever you want'. 

"Sometimes [the limitations are] too much, but most of the time it helps you to get started."

Image: Birgit Palma

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MH: Tell us about your creative process.

BP: "Lately I haven't been looking anything up. If I have a general brief I try to limit it down to some kind of symbol, which means you get rid of everything you don’t need. You find a symbolic idea and then you start working from there. It’s easier because you don’t get lost. 

"For example, I’m doing a lot of isometric illustrations for a communications brand. I tried to get rid of all the information I didn’t need which is misleading. I think if you have an idea, there’s already a shape in your head. From the simple thing, you start to illustrate it out or start to develop the idea.

"Normally I have an idea and I sketch it out. For me, I don’t think it helps if I start with Photoshop or Illustrator straight away. My sketches are very bad, I’m not good at drawing, but as a sketch it works. Mainly I show the sketch to the client. Every client needs to agree on what you’re going to do."

Image: Birgit's illustration for the 20 year celebration of Multi Media Art with Jasmin Herz

MH: How did you organise interning at Vault49?

BP: "You always have to organise everything on your own if you want something. I really think you have to be persistent - people don’t have much time to look at your portfolio.

"I know a lot of people who won’t call. You have to call if you wan to check if they’ve seen your portfolio. Having a personal contact helps. I got my job at Vasava because I sent my portfolio, they lost it, I called, they said they hadn’t received it, and so I got the email address from the creative director. If I hadn’t called, I wouldn’t have worked there. It has something to do with talent but it’s mostly to do with being persistent with what you want."

Image: Birgit's Make It Your City illustration for Adobe 

MH: Why did you move into illustrative type and lettering?

BP: "I moved into lettering because there's a lot of illustration and lettering in Barcelona. I hadn't done lettering before I worked at Vasava, but there I got in touch with it pretty quickly because we used to do a lot of designs for Nike.

"I haven’t done lettering before because I knew it existed, but I thought it would be super difficult, but actually, it’s just basic rules you have to respect. You have to stay inside those rules and work inside those shapes. Typography is really rigid. It doesn’t move.

"I’m coming from illustration; I’m not a type designer so sometimes I don’t care about those rules. It’s really nice to give the letters a second hierarchy. Everybody knows the letter I is the letter I, but with illustration you can explain a second hierarchy. You’re reading and you’re seeing, which means you can double express the letter, which is really nice."

Image: Birgit's editorial illustration of stairway numbers for Yorokobu magazine

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