Versatile in style and in media, Isabel Urbina Peña is a letterer, book cover designer, and type designer with her own foundry. In June she was named one of Print’s “15 under 30” New Visual Artists. She teaches at Skillshare (do yourself a favor and take “Good Letters, Great Words: Drawing a Cohesive Hand-Lettered Piece”), and she just launched the impressive and valuable Yes, Equal, an online directory of women in creative fields. On the site, Peña writes about the genesis of Yes, Equal and, with many eye-opening charts, illustrates just how unbalanced gender diversity in design is, even in 2015.

yesequal.us homepage

On the page titled “1+1=2” on Yes, Equal, you clearly lay out the backstory on the project and provide some surprising data. Tell us a little bit about the conversation that ignited it all and what pushed you to spend the time it must have taken not only to devise and design the website, but to do all the research behind your somewhat shocking, yet still optimistic essay on the sorry state of gender diversity.
The Twitter discussion regarding the lack of female representation was, in a way, the last straw, and I felt that I needed to do something. One of the things mentioned in this online discussion was that “women are not as interested in speaking” or “don’t have the drive to promote their work.” I was baffled by these comments, primarily because I know of women who applied to speak and had great talks, and also because I know many who are interested in speaking/teaching/working or doing anything you can think of to showcase and promote their work because they’re passionate about what they do. I decided to start the site because I thought that if the information was “easy” to find a few things could happen:

  1. It could provide a better sense of community—who’s doing what and where they’re located.
  2. As a tool for organizers—if they want a change, this will make it easier to reach out.
  3. To raise awareness—it’s so easy to think “it’s all good, it’s 2015 and sexism is a thing of the past.” But then you see the numbers, you gasp. Yes, there’s been progress, but things haven’t moved forward that much in a relatively long period of time. We should be doing more.

The stats were really important to me, mostly because I didn’t want to make just an opinion piece (even though I did share some of my thoughts there). People might disagree with what I think about gender bias or why I decided to make this site, but it’s harder to disagree with stone-cold facts. I also want to dig deeper and present the stats of different specialties, so people can learn more about where we stand in each field and where we need to work harder. Since the soft launch on August 28, I’ve gotten over 300 new submissions. It’s overwhelming to see the positive reaction from people, and that makes me think this was really needed. I’m already talking to some developers about expanding and making a v.2.0 of the site. Right now I’m checking each entry manually (so be patient, ladies, I’ll get to you!), and hopefully this resource can keep growing and help everyone make the creative world more balanced.

Your cover designs remind me of those of my heroes, Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig. Yet I read in your Q&A with The Casual Optimist that your design heroes are Venezuelan designers Gerd Leufert, Gego, and Nedo Mión Ferraro, whose work isn’t as well known in the United States. What are some of the aspects of their work that influence yours?
First, thank you, what a great compliment. I think Leufert, Gego, and Ferraro are in the back of my head because I learned graphic design with them as role models. Our teachers were taught and influenced by them and always pointed to their work. Also, learning from their work helped me understand conceptual thinking and the beauty of a form or shape. Their appreciation and infatuation with typographic systems fascinated me and eventually that interest led me to type design.

Your book covers are often a blend of lettering and illustration. Even when there’s only type, would you say the process is sometimes illustrating with letters?
In a way, because I’m trying to communicate a story or mood with the lettering, but I don’t consider myself an illustrator. I use illustration as a medium to represent the ideas, if I think it’s appropriate for the book. Also, the fact that lettering is a unique piece, that won’t be reused for anything else, makes me think there’s a strong connection between the two.

You also have your own foundry Letra Type, where you offer your typefaces Galea and Laureate, both created while you were studying in the Type@Cooper program. Why take on the hassle of sales and support yourself instead of selling through a site like MyFonts?
I decided to start my own foundry because type design requires a great amount of work: laborious hours and tons of fine tuning. I’m a supporter of independent production and a big DIY-er—I make zines and love experimenting with printing methods whenever possible—so it made sense to start hosting typefaces myself. I eventually gave in and started to sell through MyFonts as a sort of marketing experiment. It’s been quite interesting to see who buys what and where. At MyFonts, people get a single weight and it reaches a very different audience, while on my site people seem to come for the whole family and it’s mostly designers and art directors purchasing.

What has the response been like—you seem to have quite a few Galea #fontsinuse sightings.
The response has been really great. The first license I sold was to Lucky Peach magazine, which bought the full family, which was extremely exciting. They used it all over the Seashore issue in a variety of ways and styles. It was a great first start. Overall, it’s been rather fun to sit on the other side and see what designers make with your creations.

With these three gorgeous websites under your belt, you must also feel comfortable as a web designer. 
Before Type@Cooper I worked at C&G Partners, where I did a lot of web design and a little bit of everything: exhibitions, branding, print, etc. I’ve always had a thing for learning programming languages, but I only do it for fun these days. So I’m comfortable but I rather leave it to the pros.

I found your course in hand lettering on Skillshare via Twitter. I’ve dipped my toe in and love it. Your presentation is warm and encouraging. What brought you to Skillshare, how do you make your videos so professional looking, and what has the experience with students been like? Do you plan on creating more classes?
I’ve always been interested in teaching. My parents are architects. They both teach architecture and design and it’s always been appealing to me. I was a Teacher’s Assistant for three of the classes after my Type@Cooper year and really enjoyed it. When I was contacted by someone on the Skillshare team and they offered to send a videographer to shoot, I couldn’t resist. It was hard work, but a great learning experience. It’s quite different to interact with students online instead of in a classroom. Everyone gets to go at their own pace, so it’s a bit more challenging to encourage a dialogue and make a connection. It’s been super fun, though. The online platform has an incredible reach and I’d love to create more classes or eventually teach somewhere in New York City.