Creating Space, An Interview with Mara Zepeda

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Mara Zepeda creates space. Balancing life as a woman in tech and a calligrapher and designer of tattoos. Her dual roles often intersect—one offsetting the other in thoughtful consideration. Mara takes chances. Her discipline in the traditions of letterforms, fused with her philanthropic way of reasoning helped her to start Switchboard, (a community platform for sharing) with co-founder Sean Lerner.

I admire people like Mara and am inspired by her creative gusto. She creates beautiful calligraphy under the name Neither Snow and often moonlights for NPR including: Morning Edition, Planet Money, and Marketplace. She’s passionate about building community whether through the art of tattoos or as the CEO of a start-up. I found her story fitting to wrap up this quarter's theme, Polarize.

She studied in a scriptorium at Reed College. It was founded in 1930 by Lloyd Reynolds, a premier calligrapher of the Northwest. Later the program was taken over by Robert Pallandino, a Trappist monk whom Steve Jobs studied under. People often times reference the commencement speech Job's gave at Stanford, talking about the MAC and his inspiration with typography so early, and the calligraphy courses he took with Pallandino.

She tells me she was a really bad calligrapher having trouble with perfecting traditional italic and Copperplate script. It’s hard to believe when you see her work.

“Although I studied with some of the best teachers in the country, my work was always the absolute worst. At a certain point, I knew I really liked it, and how meditative it was. I liked studying the letterforms and the physical practice of it. But I wasn’t going to be able to replicate another hand.”

In 2009 contemporary calligraphy began to surge and with it Zepeda began expressing her own style and personality through the letterforms she was learning. She started her first business and created a niche for herself in the wedding industry. When her husband began to travel more she cut down on the use of paper and went almost entirely digital. Today she designs commercial identities and editorial but the majority of her work is commissioned tattoos. Part of the requirement in the process of tattoo work is to have the clients send photos and write about what inspires them to get the tattoo, and then she features the stories on her blog.

"It becomes a really nice narrative resolution that highlights them. People get tattoos for incredible reasons, like a child passed away, or they got a divorce, or survived cancer. Every single reason is crazy meaningful."

Today, Zepeda helps to run Switchboard and devotes one day a week towards her lettering practice. Switchboard was bootstrapped in part from the revenue of this, and is probably the only startup to ever be funded with calligraphic forms.

“We’ve done a round of fundraising but it’s not easy to be a woman in tech and fundraise. If there’s a way I can draw a low salary from Switchboard to keep the enterprise off the ground while doing calligraphy one day a week, it’s so much better in the long term for everyone involved.”

Calligraphy has also informed a lot of her design decisions when it comes to Switchboard. One example is white space. When they hired Jessica Hische to do the design of the site, they wanted a lot of white space and for people to feel as if they had landed in an open field. She noted that there are other similarities—

“There’s a pattern that has emerged. People will write posts like letters, very often they start by saying, Hey everyone! There’s a sense of correspondence,which was brought over from calligraphy unintentionally. When you address someone as though they are a correspondent you show them a level of respect and intentionality, that’s really different from a tweet or posting on someone's wall. This notion of correspondence and respect, and taking a beat to address a community in this almost formal way is not something we require. However, it’s remarkable to see so many of the post start out with Dear Community, it’s so nice.

Other similarities is in the act of gratitude. We all know how much we love getting hand written letters in the mail...something that has been lost in today’s digital world. Switchboard encourages this action as well. Once an ask has been fulfilled there is an opportunity to say thank you, and an opportunity to be mindful about the community and your audience.

In July Switchboard turns 2. It’s a startup that is quality driven before quantity driven and a magnet for underserved communities in technology. Their clients are municipalities, education, veterans, farmers, and even design communities to name a few. I look forward to seeing it evolve and the communities grow.

Photos courtesy of Mara