Exploring Portuguese Typography: A Visit with Ricardo Santos in Lisbon


As a child, Ricardo Santos often spent Sunday afternoons visiting his grandfathers in the Belém district of Lisbon. Walking along the local seaside parks he absorbed the history of his city and its part in the Age of Discovery when Portuguese explorers such as Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator), Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, sailed out to the Atlantic Ocean and along the coasts of Africa and the Americas until they found what they were seeking—a sea route to the spice trade centers of India and China. For a time in the 1500’s Portugal ruled the seas and established distant colonies as one of the most powerful nations in the world.

(left) A section of the Monument of Discoveries (right) The Tower of Belem. (below) Praying before heading off into the challenges of the uncharted world

prayingSantos’ early experiences continue to influence him today, as in his Lisboa typeface, an homage to his native city. Lisboa (pronounced Lish-bow-a) includes a series of elements drawn from the vernacular of the city—antique sailing vessels, tiles, castles, crosses and the raven. We were drawn to these charming symbols and wanted to learn more from their designer, so we organized a short interview in Lisbon in April, 2016.

The Raven appears throughout the city (a flock are said to have protected and marked the grave of the martyr Saint Vicente) as do icons of Christianity and from the Crusades against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. The Lisboa Dingbats symbols sets are available in a free download at Santos’s web site, Vanarchiv. 


Mr. Santos greeted us at his home studio where first discussed his education, starting with an undergraduate degree in design from IADE (Instituto de Artes Visuals, Design and Marketing) in Lisbon. He has also studied with Portuguese type designer Mário Feliciano. Santos traveled to EINA (Escola de Disseny i Art ) in Barcelona for his master’s degree in type design. To the uninformed it might seem as if studying in Barcelona would be akin to studying in Lisbon, but Santos noted that outside of the Iberian Peninsula people wrongly think that Portuguese are identical to the Catalonians and the Spanish. We may seem the same because of geographical location but in fact we are different cousins, we have very different languages and cultural habits. We Portuguese are more quiet, more shy, not as outgoing and flamboyant. Our geographic position kept us oriented to the ocean because the landmass of Spain blocked our natural passages to the rest of Europe, so Portugal has had the influence of many sea-going cultures including the Phoenicians, Romans, Jewish (Sephardic), Arabs and Christians.”

Maritime culture permeates the country’s, art, food and music. Fado, a ballad form distinctive to Portugal, is centered on the melancholy of departing ship crews and the sadness of long separations. However Santos readily admits that he has no affection for Fado—he finds it too mournful and nostalgic. Santos’ music interest is more electronic, he plays guitar with his group Twilight Void.  Listen here.

The Twilight Void “Dub Sky” 1995. (Played and Recorded by Ricardo Santos and Rui Martins).
A watch cat patrols the design area in this quiet and peaceful design studio in Lisbon.

Early Sans Serifs

Santos’ first job after graduation was in architecture offices, T-Raso and Insectos, where he developed way-finding programs. His research introduced him to the  typefaces of Adrian Frutiger whose sans serif approach greatly impressed the young designer. Santos emulated the German’s approach in Van Condensed (1997-2004). The clarity and compactness of this face is especially useful for displaying information, such as specifications in TAP airline’s on-board publication Upmagazine. TAP’s use of his face doubly pleases Santos as he is an aircraft enthusiast—an inheritance from his grandfather who was one of the naval aviation mechanics for the first plane to connected Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

Comparing sans serifs Frutiger and Van Condensed
Van Condensed used for specifications in onboard magazine for TAP (Transportes Aéreos Portugueses).


Santos’ fonts in use, Van Condensed (left) and Lisboa (right).



Portuguese Letterforms in History

It is understandable that Santos was initially influenced by the German and French models because at that time there had not been a lot published about early type designers from his own country. More recently however the work of early Portuguese calligraphers has been unearthed and digitized. Writing master Manuel de Andrade de Figueiredo (1670-1735) published his own exemplar for the Portuguese calligraphic letter in his treatise on letterform and language rules, Nova Escola para aprender a ler, escrever, e contar/ New School to learn to read, write, and count (1722) It is likely that Figueiredo was influenced by similar works coming out of Italy and France during the same period.

Four pages from Figueirdo’s treatise on letterform and language rules. You can see the full copy at the BNP (Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal). http://purl.pt/107/3/#/2

Near the end of the same century, António Jacinto de Araujo proposed his New Art of Writing (1793). On the title page Jacinto is described as professor of writing and mathematics. There certainly seems to be a lot of math going on in the descriptions (below) to configure the best angles for controlling line weights and letterform shapes.

António Jacinto de ARAUJO, New Art of Writing [1793?] You can see the entire work on line at the Portuguese National Library site, http://purl.pt/16770 (BNP).
In the 1880’s calligrapher Joaquim José Ventura da Silva (1777-1849) furthered the Portuguese letter by incorporating influences of the open “roundhand” style of English calligraphers George Shelley and Charles Snell into his Methodical rules for learning to write letters in the English, Portuguese, Aldine, Roman, Italian Gothic and German Gothic styles, (1819). (I took at short look through the book—it seemed mostly involved with how to line up numbers in mathematical formulas.) Internet Archive link https://archive.org/details/regrasmethodicas00silvuoft.

The designs of both Figueiredo and Ventura have been made available in digital revivals by Portuguese type designers. Dino dos Santos of DS Type foundry offered Ventura (2007), Pluma (2005) and Andrade script (2005).

Revival calligraphy by Dino dos Santos.


The Manueline Style

The ornateness of Portuguese calligraphy certainly feels in-keeping with a unique style of architecture that began during the reign of King Manuel I (1495–1521). Later known as Manueline (Late Gothic), this short lived (from 1490 to 1520) but highly influential style was financed by riches from Portugal’s spice trade. Dozens of new churches, castles and monasteries were built, many of which remain standing today. Inspiration for the ornate style came from several sources: Italian, Spanish and Flemish architecture, Indian temples and Arab mosques and tiles. Maritime elements (spheres, rope, shells, anchors, etc) are portrayed in undulating stone and gilded wood carvings—the gold courtesy of Brazil.

A continually recurring motif in Portuguese architectural decoration is the armillary sphere, signifying dominance of the seas and alluding to a papal decree that divided new world discoveries (Treaty of Tordezilhas) between Portugal and Spain.
Rossio train station.

Rossio train station.

A Baroque church covered in gold brought back from Brazil.


A Portuguese Letterform?

Lettering along the walls of a Baroque style castle in Sintra, a magical park-town just outside of Lisbon.
An early sketch for Lisboa (2000).

A challenge for Santos is how to get content into his designs. Today he finds himself less concerned with the commercial end of type and more interested in doing what he loves, creating designs with a story “because things without a story do not have much value.”

In early sketches of Santos’ aforementioned design, Lisboa, he sought ways to integrate the flavor of his decoratively styled city and calligraphic design approach (more human). He experimented with the hook-head terminals on his Lisboa, producing a “neo-humanist” typeface with both calligraphic and Iberian flavors (Latin).

While working through this design Santos connected with Swedish type designer, Peter Bruhn (d. 2014) of Fountain Type Foundry who encouraged the young type designer by offering to sell it on his foundry site. The final design is a full-featured typeface light, regular, italic, with OpenType type features and symbols published during 2005. It was selected as one of Typographica’s “favorite fonts” in 2005.

Santos designed catalog for Fountain type’s offering of Lisboa.


Greek cyrilic
Typeface details, top (Lisboa and Lisboa Swash).
Above,  Lisboa Greek and Cyrillic.

Santos researched some cartography lettering from antique maps for his calligraphic Escritura typeface. There is a strong echo of the hand and pen in his wavy serifs, a more human-like feel than his earlier sans faces. Below is a photograph from his Vanarchiv website, showing how he extracted shapes for the letter a from a 1631 map.


Santos’ Escritura design written in pen and ink (above) and digital (below).


While developing Escritura, Santos drew with broad-nib pen, carved in wood and linoleum, all part of the research and development of the final letterform design. See a video with Ricardo working by Rui Martins below.

Tramuntana (2009), another typeface with calligraphic connections, was inspired by the late Renaissance and Mannerist spirit—Santos’ thesis for his Masters in Advanced Typography in Barcelona (EINA). He took his initial inspiration from Robert Granjon, Garamond and Sabon typefaces.traumuntana

The name tramuntana is the Catalonian word for the cold wind that comes from the Pyrenees mountains. Tramuntana in use on a poster, the Pyrenees mountains (photo: Marc Serarols)

Teaching & The Ruha Stencil Project

There was so much to talk about—however our time was short and I wanted to know about Santos as a type design teacher. He currently teaches the second year of typography (Book Design/Lettering) and then the 3rd year when his students design their own typeface projects at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design de Caldas de Rainha (ESAD.CR).

As part of his teaching philosophy, Santos and two other type designers, Aprígio Morgado and Ruben Dias (more on Ruben below), joined together to form Tipos das Letras. The trio developed a tool for teaching type design in the form of a stencil, a method Santos notes that were historically a means to add consistent and fast lettering to documents.

In Santos’ collection an antique stenciled musical score.

The Ruha stencil goes beyond the creation of just one design, to a device for teaching letter construction, with serifs, stems and bodies that can be combined in a multitude of styles, plus aids for letter spacing and baseline alignment. It is available for sale at http://www.tiposdasletras.com/index.php/stencil/ruha-stencil/). Check below for video of a workshop using this tool. Tipos das Letras (TdL)

Stencil as shown in use in TDL vimeo.

We finished up the evening over pizza with some of Santos’s comrades; of course they also were type designers! Rui Abreu of R-Typography, is the proprietor of a foundry for retail and custom typefaces (he designed the corporate face for Mount Blanc). His work has been selected for honors by the Type Directors Club and ATypi.

Mont Blanc corporate typeface by Rui Abreu.


The now and future faces of Portuguese type design, (from left) Rui Abreu, Ricardo Santos and Rúben Dias. We were joined by Berlin-based writer Jan Middendorp who was in Lisbon for a few days. See his extensive list of interviews with type personalities at Creative Characters for Myfonts.


Dias is part of Tipografia Dias, a letterpress workshop whose Manual of Typography was just selected as a finalist in the Type Directors Club Communication Design Competition. TDC website

Rúben Dias, also part of the Ruha stencil project, is pursuing his doctorate degree on the subject of the typefaces of the Portuguese Royal Printing House. He teaches, organizes conferences and workshops as well as designs typefaces from his Item Zero studio (www.itemzero.com).

Although out visit was brief we were about to embark on two weeks in Portugal, and this encounter helped in viewing many examples of type in architecture, signage and print. Thanks gentlemen for a fun and informative visit!


All photography by Eric Allen unless otherwise noted in captions.

Interview with Ricardo Santos, Lisbon, Portugal. April 2016. Nancy Stock-Allen.

http://www.tipografos.net/historia/ventura-da-silva.html (history of calligraphers)

http://purl.pt/index/livro/aut/PT/225588.html  New art of writing, National Library of Portugal, Nova arte de escrever, (cota COD-8055) plumes

Malsberger, Anna. Print Magazine, June 18, 2009.  http://www.printmag.com/article/hot_type_ventura/

Middendorph, Jan. Interview of Dino dos Santos, for Creative Characters, 2007, myfonts.com. http://www.myfonts.com/newsletters/cc/200711.html

One thought on “Exploring Portuguese Typography: A Visit with Ricardo Santos in Lisbon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s