Back Story: Design inspiration tends to hit home when the mind is in neutral and the mood relaxed, creating a heightened receptiveness to new ideas and observations. At moments like this, the insane plumage and postures of a bird of paradise can seem like a great starting point for a typeface. At least, it was for Cristian Vargas when he came across an online source full of illustrations of the strange bird—denizens of the tropical rainforests and jungles of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and parts of eastern Australia—while he was studying at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Netherlands.
For Vargas, the lavish drawings sparked a memory of a BBC video he’d seen years ago on the same subject. After revisiting it, Vargas realized there was a similarity between the shape of the birds and a set of numbers he’d recently sketched out. Then he drew on some larger connections: male birds of paradise completely alter their appearance during elaborate courtship rituals, flashing long, colorful, tufted, trailing plumes to attract females. To Vargas, the “normal” non-courting state of the bird, in which it looks like a basic bird very much like any other, felt analogous to a text typeface—both are more functional than visually attractive. In that vein, a bird of paradise in showy, courting mode was very similar to a display typeface: transformed, striking, and meant to get maximum attention. Just like that, he’d found the visual concept for an entire typeface. Salvaje won a medal from the TDC in 2017.
Why’s it called Salvaje? Salvaje means “savage” or “wild” in Spanish. As Vargas explains, he started designing the typeface backwards, starting with the numbers, then translating the logic into uppercase, lowercase, and symbols. “Usually we start with control characters and then expand the idea to caps, lowercase, and finally numbers and symbols,” he says. “Here everything started with sketches of numbers, which I thought were interesting in a way that I couldn’t explain. The experience was like trying to domesticate a wild creature.”
The name, he says, is meant to allude to something “exotic, beautiful, extreme, and weird, that you can only find in the deep woods of an island like New Guinea.”
What are its distinguishing characteristics? Salvaje has two display and two text styles. Its wide reverse contrast letters combine thick and thin organic forms that create visual illusions of depth, almost like folded shapes. The text and display faces are equally charming, a tough trick to pull off. The display’s italics push and pull their stroke weights around themselves, almost like twisting a flat stiff ribbon—or a feather.
What should I use it for? The designer prefers not to suggest a specific use. “This typeface has a lot of personality and it’s not neutral at all,” Vargas says. “It’s quite open and varied—so far the people who have contacted me to buy it have mentioned they wanted to use it on magazines, book covers, logos, album designs and even a clothing line related to capoeira.”