“An art of tension and release”: Kookie Santos on freedom and restriction in type design

Two sides of the same coin; the Filipina typographer and graphic designer has a vibrant creative practice split right down the middle – with one side pragmatic and professional, one side playful and personal. 

19 October 2021

“In my full-time work, I like being able to dabble into designing structures and systems that can encourage creativity,” graphic designer Kookie Santos tells us. Intrigued by the contradicting notions of systems and creativity, she adds: “I think finding the balance between the two helps bring out clarity,” with guidelines providing the space for creative ideas to come to life. “On the other side I have my personal creative practice,” Kookie explains, “this is the sacred space that I nourish for myself, where I play without limits, experiment with newness, and open up to the unfamiliar.” Seeing it as an opportunity to test new ideas, “curiosity is what takes over here,” she adds, allowing the space and the time for her to get to know herself. Wonderfully summarised, Kookie explains: “In my full-time professional work I start by asking a lot of whys,” whilst, “in my personal creative practice I ask a lot of why nots.” There is a notable shift in emphasis, duty and focus from one to another. “While they may seem like two separate parts of myself,” Kookie tells us, “to me they are more of two sides of the same coin.” 


Kookie Santos: Ampersand (Copyright © Kookie Santos, 2021)

Despite the shift between professional and playful, where the focus goes from the client to Kookie herself, the anchor is her intent and thoughtfulness. “Creativity for me is an act of compassion and generosity,” she explains, “first to oneself and then naturally to others,” and so she hopes to pass on, share and thrive within the light of others’ inspiration. “My big vision is to help provide people with experiences,” Kookie suggests, “where they can learn to appreciate design in their own lives through effective design and communication.”

The manifestation of Kookie’s practice is primarily within the realm of custom typography, where she finds the all-important fluidity and balance between creative freedom and rigorous systems. “It is an exploration of the boundaries between the edges of form and function,” Kookie explains, “for me, it is an art of tension and release,” where one is challenged to question the conventions of letterform design and explore the brink of legibility. “The outcome of this exploration is also a new place to discover,” she adds, “the goal is to never arrive, but to just enjoy the curiosity of what unfolds and what reveals itself in the process.” This exploration throughout Kookie’s practice routinely manifests in warm, joyous and eccentric expressions of typography, bursting at the seams with character and reason.


Kookie Santos for Mulieris Magazine: Face Fear (Copyright © Kookie Santos, Mulieris Magazine, 2021)


Kookie Santos for Mulieris Magazine: Infinite Possibility (Copyright © Kookie Santos, Mulieris Magazine, 2021)

A recent project that demonstrates as much is the dual set of custom letterings – Face Fear and Invite Possibility – that Kookie developed for Mulieris Magazine, with each set utilised between the split covers, and two parts, of the magazine’s third issue. Encouraging her to consider what motivates and halts her, Kookie explains that “upon reflection, I thought to myself that fear and possibility are two sides of the same coin,” whereby fear with possibility becomes idle, and hope without fear becomes “aimlessly optimistic.” With both needed in order to progress and grow, Kookie notes how both sets of emotions need to co-exist. 

Discussing the aesthetic and constructional influence the concept had on the typeface, Kookie explains how they were individually designed to be each other’s antithesis. “Face Fear is sharp, monochromatic and dark,” she describes, “while Invite Possibility is soft, colourful and light,” welcoming both sides of the spectrum, “and everything else in between.” 

Looking towards the future, Kookie hopes to continue her exploration of the supportive creative community found in the Philippines. “It’s interesting to see how designers and creatives here are coming up with initiatives that bring the community together,” Kookie recalls, wanting to see and be part of more collaborative projects. “Even if our communities are still quite small,” she adds, “it’s heartwarming to see how design can be used to invite, involve and engage,” noting the wonderful optimism and progressive nature of the creative community in the run-up to their presidential election. “This is the best that we can do after all,” Kookie adds, “to try to listen and to understand, to communicate with intent and compassion and to help each other out in whatever way we can.”


Kookie Santos: Patience Process Progress (Copyright © Kookie Santos, 2021)


Kookie Santos: Lihim ng Liham (Copyright © Kookie Santos, 2021)


Kookie Santos: Basketball Jerseys (Copyright © Kookie Santos, 2021)

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Kookie Santos: Play Nice (Copyright © Kookie Santos, 2021)

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About the Author

Harry Bennett

After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.

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