Freelance, IB Type Inc.
Lettering Designer & Typographer
Your work is very specialized in the larger field of graphic and communication design. How did you end up focusing almost solely on lettering and type?
I have been fascinated with letters since I was a kid. In high school, I made extra money as a sign painter, lettering artist and calligrapher. I devoured books on the subject and honed my craft using pens and brushes whenever I could. In college, people noticed my abilities in this area and although lettering was not part of the curriculum per se, I was seen as a specialist. Several professors actually hired me to work on their freelance lettering and logo design projects.
Even so, when I graduated I followed a fairly traditional path and opened a design studio in partnership with my friend, Don Dool. We did all sorts of different work; identity projects, restaurant menus, brochures, etc. Happily, we also got lots of logo and lettering design work primarily through our college friends, all of whom were familiar with my love of drawing custom letters.
Running that studio was a great education. I learned that, unlike other designers, I really don’t like relying on other people to get a job done. I felt as though I was constantly apologizing to our clients for delays that were caused by our suppliers. I don’t like to apologize. I like to do the best work I can and get it done on time.
By the time Don and I closed shop and took off for Europe, I knew that what appealed to me the most, creatively, also made me happiest: lettering, logo and font design. So I followed my passion, my talent and my temperament when I chose to specialize and I’ve never regretted it.
Most Canadians would have two or three pieces of your work in their houses at any given time. Your work is in our bathrooms, our kitchens and our beer fridges. How does this make you feel?
Giddy with delight. That my work is so ubiquitous is the most satisfying part of my job.
Do most of your commissions coming from agencies or directly from clients? How do you foster these relationships?
Agencies. I get 99% of my work from ad agencies and design studios. My design work is all about collaborating with creative directors and their team.
My relationships with people have been forged over time. I like to think that you build these relationships by doing a good job.
A “good job” begins with listening to your client. You have to take the brief seriously, review it over-and-over, give the art director what they ask for based on the brief and get the work done on time. Bring the art and bring the business.
I find that when I do all this with every job, a high level of trust is created. My clients don’t want to manage people, they’re too busy for that; they want to trust people. They trust me.
How does work flow through your studio? Do you work on multiple projects at once or focus on one at a time?
I work on multiple projects, usually four or five at a time. It’s hard to say no to a lot of the projects that come my way because many of the brands are big and the design challenges are exciting. This works well for me because I find that ideas for concurrent projects can cross-pollinate one another.
The busier I am the more creatively efficient I tend to be. Again, maybe that’s a temperament thing but my design ideas flow best when I’m busy.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Seeing my work everywhere; especially on huge posters!
The You font for the Coca Cola “Share a Coke” campaign (where you can find your name on a Coke bottle) is one of your most visible pieces. How complex is it to work on a project like that, from designing the font and working with the limitations of the bottle shape and the printing capabilities of the various substrates?
My job was to create a custom font based on the Coke logo. That’s the beauty of specialization – it keeps my life simple. The studio that hired me handled all other design and implementation details.
In terms of the font, the word Coke actually provides a lot of design information upon which to base a full font: the weight of the letter forms, weight contrast between thick and thin, the vertical versus the oblique stresses, pointed terminals on strokes that go from thick to thin, etc.
The Coke logo is fairly clean. It employs a hybrid serif design, which means that there are serifs on some strokes but not serifs throughout. I asked a lot of questions about what characteristics the client wanted to maintain; did they want the letters touching, did they want the font to match the tight spacing of the logo, etc.
At the same time, I had to make a lot of decisions about certain letter structures, descenders for example, because I only had four letters to work from. Also, designing the numerals was fun because my options were so wide open, and I always find that there’s latitude for quirkiness in the drawing of numerals.
The timeline was tight. One week. There was very little back-and-forth with the client after the initial brief.
In December of 2014, you and your partner, Catherine O’Toole, launched IB Type Inc., a new digital type foundry based on your own typeface designs. What kind of work is involved in launching a project like this? And, what are the technical challenges of launching a type foundry?
Launching a foundry has been a life-long dream for me, and the launch has taken an enormous amount of time and effort.
First, Catherine and I had to work out a business model that reflected our creative mission and our personal and corporate values. We found an intellectual property lawyer to work with us to develop a licensing agreement that reflected these goals and values.
We decided not to use third party vendors (like MyFonts) so that meant we needed a digital design team that could build-out a well designed and sophisticated ecommerce website.
We also sought a partnership with Adobe Typekit through a Licensing API agreement as a courtesy to our website design clients who might want to use Typekit to serve their webfonts.
Protecting my typeface and other design work emerged as a priority so that meant more IP legal work. Also, we needed a corporate lawyer, corporate accountants – and, I needed to complete the full Latin set for 18 fonts (comprising three font families) in time for launch.
Did I mention that we only decided to start this foundry in March of 2014? Happily, I do all the design work and Catherine does everything else!
What is your process for designing a font from start to finish?
Designing and drawing a font from start to finish is a very long process but I’ll try to keep my answer brief and focus on my retail typeface designs for IB Type, where I’m building font families, as opposed to my custom font design work.
I begin by designing lower case because these are the more complicated letters and they allow for a lot of design expression. Next, I draw the capitals, numerals, punctuation, accented characters then the extended character set (which means all the accented characters that apply to languages outside of Western Europe). I like to start with the lightest weight and work until I’m relatively happy with the basic set before turning to the boldest weight.
Once these two weights are finished, I put the fonts through a bunch of technical stuff that interpolates the in-between weights. This phase has many design hazards because interpolation doesn’t spit out cleanly drawn characters, it merely gives me a starting point from which I then refine all the characters in the family.
Once the roman weights are finished, I do the italic versions.
There’s a lot of latitude when drawing the italic version of a typeface. If it’s a simple sans serif, you start by slanting it and then you have to fix all kinds of geometry that gets messed up with the slanting. Depending on the type of italic, you might have to completely redesign four or five characters because different italic styles are completely different from their Roman forms. Italic is like a completely separate font design, but of course it has to work seamlessly with the roman in terms of weight and spacing.
Throughout the typeface design process I am constantly testing and retesting for proportion, the spacing and readability.
What is the arsenal of tools you use to create your work?
My computer, my Wacom tablet and an excellent optical photocopier are key.
I always start playing with a design idea on paper first so I collect any tool that can make a mark on paper: old fashioned flexible nib pens, pens, brushes, synthetic brushes that work like flexible pens, toothbrushes, chalk, paint, flexible brush markers, mascara, eyeliner…and pencils. Pencils are really, really great and it’s easy to forget about them.
I have a flexible fountain pen with a broad nib, called a Namiki Falcon, which I use all the time. By manipulating the pressure on the nib and the angle at which I hold it, I can get all kinds of different expressive effects which can vary depending on whether I’m using smooth paper or rough paper. It’s one of my favourite tools ever.
With web and screen technology finally catching up with print in terms of the quality of on-screen type a lot of type designers are refining their work to be used online. What is your take on this and is it a real area of interest for you?
Webfonts are as much a priority for IB Type as desktop fonts. Every IB Type typeface is available as both.
What to you is the most exciting thing happening in the typography world right now?
More and more designers are genuinely interested in excellent lettering, logo and typeface design. They are educating their eye, they’re concerned about craft and they care about quality. Designers are more discriminating and that’s a good thing.
I also really like the fact that vibrant graphic influences from around the world are becoming more visible in North America, which extends the design vocabulary for everyone.
Aside from lettering and type, you do illustration. A lot of it is calligraphic in nature. Are these personal pieces? And if so is their a goal to them? Do you see them as exercises to refine your skills?
All my illustrations were done for clients,and for many different types of businesses. I really enjoy working in the calligraphic style you mentioned, that of the 18th century writing masters. By that I mean creating images from continuous lines with varying weight. I’d also like to add that every project, illustration or otherwise, is an exercise in refining my skills.
Type foundries have suffered hugely from pirating and it’s very hard for a significant number of people to make a living from type design. As you look to the future can you see things ever changing to a more positive environment or will it still be a labour of love for most?
Custom lettering, logo and font design have been very good to me, and I have great hopes for IB Type.