Jan 15 2014

“Balance, rhythm, draftsmanship, composition…” Students interview Ian Brignell

Bigelow crest


Two graphic design students from Humber College (Toronto) contacted Ian because they wanted to feature him and his work for a project assignment. Part of their project included this interview. Our thanks to Austin Anthony Louis Mateka and Ryan Yake for allowing us to post it here.

What inspired you to get into the field of typography, lettering and design?

It may sound strange, but it all began for me in grade 4 during reading class. I remember being fairly bored with the book I was supposed to read, and my mind wandered until it was struck by an idea. I decided to sharpen my pencil as much as I could, and then I attempted to duplicate, size-as, the 16 point century type that was on the page before me. It seemed like it might be amusing. And it was. I no longer have this early example of my work, but the results were good enough, I guess, to hook me for life. It’s as if letters became living, real entities for me.

Besides this moment, which was specifically about type, I should mention that I was always drawing and painting in my spare time. Art was probably the most significant thing for me as a kid, besides playing sports and watching tv. I’m pretty sure that drawing is the most important skill in what I do now, since it forms a foundation for things like balance, rhythm, draftsmanship and composition.

In grade 10, I was lucky enough to be in Miss Esford’s art class, and she introduced us to calligraphy. I loved it, and soon I was doing the graduation certificates for the school, yearbook artwork and signs for local businesses. I bought books, and I practiced all the time, just because it was so satisfying. If I were to give one piece of advice to someone who wanted to pursue the sort of career I’ve had, it would be to learn calligraphy. Besides being the structural foundation of Roman type, it teaches most of the lessons you need to know, and once you’ve done it for a while, you’ll never wonder which stroke of a capital “A” should be the thick one. (Don’t laugh—it’s a very common mistake)

Where did you study design?

I studied graphic design at Sheridan college in Oakville (Toronto).

Who and what influenced you and your designs?

While I studied at Sheridan, I found a Graphis Magazine annual in the library, which contained some work by Herb Lubalin and the letterers he primarily worked with: Tom Carnese and Tony DiSpigna. I was amazed by the power and grace of the scripts they drew, not to mention the contemporary feel they were able to impart to an old style of lettering. I wanted to do stuff just like that.

I also found myself drawn to much of the packaging work done in the 19th century, because it contained so much energy, exuberance and high level of craft. I have an entire book about cigar box artwork that I bought 25 years ago, and it’s still an endless source of inspiration for me.

How do you go about your creative process?

The brief is my guide on any project, and is the starting point for ideas. One of the first questions I ask a client is “Why do you want to change this logo?” and “What do you think is wrong with it?” I should point out here that virtually all of my clients are design studios or ad agencies, so I’m always dealing with creative directors who are able to explain in visual terms what they’re after. I almost never work directly with the end client, so I depend on the creative director to filter the clients’ needs accurately.

Many clients also send me references of work that they like and think is appropriate for the project we’re working on, as a way of kick-starting the process. If they send me a lot of these references, I like to have a chat with them on the phone to narrow down the range, since sometimes they send examples that ultimately aren’t applicable.

Once I feel that I know exactly what the client wants to express with their logo, I’ll usually sketch some loose ideas with pen or pencil in order to work out the basic structure of the piece, as well as the relationships between the letters. Then I’ll usually do some larger sketches that explore the detail of the letters, and work toward a cohesive style. (Sometimes I’ll only do a few of the trickier letters in sketch form, because it’s faster to draw the simpler letters on the computer.) Once I’m happy with the larger sketches, I’ll scan them and convert them into outlines that I can manipulate in Adobe Illustrator.

Everything I send my clients is in vector format (as Adobe Illustrator files), since they always want to drop my work into a layout or package design, and need to manipulate colour etc.

What skills and applications do you use daily?

My primary skill is drawing, which I use every day. Even if I’m not sketching out ideas, drawing informs the way I assess and adjust letters, determine balance and establish rhythm. Calligraphy comes second in the skills department, because the ability to manipulate a broad pen or a flexible pen can help generate ideas very quickly and fluidly.

Strangely, diplomacy is also a much-used skill on the business side of my work, since sometimes you have to convince a client not to go down a particular creative path, and you have to do it with a gentle touch.

In terms of computer applications, I use Adobe Illustrator to do most of my vector work, and I use it to generate all the final artwork that goes to my clients. I also use Image Capture for scanning, and occasionally I’ll use Photoshop to adjust a scan before outlining it. Fontlab and Fontographer, the font creation programs, are very useful not only for designing the fonts I create, but they’re also very useful for things like cleaning up vector artwork and changing the weight of letters. I often use Fontlab for autotracing as well, since it’s much better and quicker than the Illustrator feature.

What is one of your favourite projects you have worked on?

I really enjoyed working on the Miller High Life beer project, since it had many different elements to consider, and there was a lot of really good archival material from the company to use for inspiration. Not only that, but the creative director is a real type nerd as well as a friend, and we’d have these long conversations about type and lettering as we worked through the process.

And lastly, how do you stay on top of all the current design trends?

To a large extent, I stay on top of trends through my clients. At the beginning of a project, they will often send references of work that they feel might apply to the project at hand, and this is often current work that I might not have seen on my own. It’s a bit like a clipping service, and I will put much of this work into my own digital reference library. It’s very convenient.

To be honest, I don’t collect design annuals and that sort of thing, since my approach is to try to add as much of my knowledge and experience to a piece as I can, as opposed to imitating the work of others. Having said that, I’m pretty observant when it comes to design work, which is all around us all the time in the form of magazines, websites and television. So I guess current design seeps in constantly, all on it’s own.

I hope that this has been helpful to you, Anthony, and best of luck with your studies!


Note: The image at top is the crest Ian Brignell designed for Bigelow’s