Ian Clarke’s interview with Ian Brignell for HeyThere.ca

January 16, 2014

1. 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. Since high school, I have devoured books on the subject and honed my craft. In college, my skills in this area stood out and although lettering, logo and font design was not part of the curriculum per se, I was seen as a specialist. Professors hired me to work on their freelance lettering and logo design projects.

Even so, upon graduation I followed a traditional path and opened a design studio in partnership with my friend, Don Dool. We did all sorts of different work; annual reports, restaurant menus, brochures, etc. Happily, we also got lots of logo and lettering design work primarily through our college connections who were familiar with my expertise. 

Running that studio was a great education. I learned that I don’t like relying on other people to get a job done. I felt like I was constantly apologizing to our clients for delays that were caused by our suppliers. I don’t like to apologize. I like to get work done on time and on budget. 

By the time Don and I closed shop and took off for Europe, I knew that what appealed to me most creatively also made me happiest: lettering, logo and font design. I followed my passion, my talent and my temperament when I chose to specialize and I’ve never regretted it.

2. Most Canadians would have two or three pieces of your work in their houses at any given time. You’re 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.

3. Do most of your commissions mostly coming from Agencies or directly from clients. How do you build up these relationships?

Agencies. I get 99% of my work from agencies. My design work is all about collaboration 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 and by that I mean that you do the best work you possibly can each and every time.

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.

Do all this with every job and trust is built. My clients don’t want to manage people, they are too busy for that; they want to trust people. They trust me.

I’d like to add that there is huge latitude for creativity within this model because frequently, the brief I’m given, the design problem that needs to be solved, is couched in terms of feelings. “This logo needs to feel warm, soft” or “Our brand needs to pivot toward women (or men, or youth or whatever) so our logo needs to feel open (or modern, or friendly, or edgy, etc.). I love this because to me, lettering design, when done right, has the ability to express the whole range of human emotion. My work is very satisfying.

4. 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. I like this because ideas I’m working on for one project can cross-pollinate over into another project.

The busier I am the more creatively efficient I am. Again, maybe that’s a temperament thing but my design flow works best when I’m busy. 

5. What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing my work everywhere.

6. 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 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 are some serifs but not serifs throughout. I asked a lot of questions about what characteristics they wanted to maintain; like letters touching, the tight spacing, etc. 

I had to make a lot of decisions especially about certain letter structures because I only had four letters to work from. Also, designing the numerals was quirky but fun because my options were so wide open. 

The timeline was tight. One week. There was very little back-and-forth with the client after the initial brief.

7. 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, 

8. What are the technical challenges of launching a type foundry?

Launching a foundry has been a life-long dream for me.  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  so that meant we needed a digital design team that could build-out a well designed and sophisticated ecommerce website. 

We 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. 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! 

9. What is your process for designing a font from start to finish?

Unlike other foundries, I draw every single character myself. (One man. One hand. Every letter.) 

Designing and drawing a font from start to finish is a very long process but I will 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. 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 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 really is just a way for me to begin designing and drawing the family.

I complete all the Latin characters first then I begin to design and draw the italics. 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 stuff that gets messed up with the slanting. Depending on the type of italic, you might have to completely redraw four or five characters because different italic styles are completely different from their Roman forms. Italic is like a completely separate font design.

Next, I draw the Capitals, numerals, punctuation, accented characters then the extended character set and finally the italic version. 

I complete all the Latin characters first then I begin to design and draw the italics. 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 stuff that gets messed up with the slanting. Depending on the type of italic, you might have to completely redraw four or five characters because different italic styles are completely different from their Roman forms. Italic is like a completely separate font design.

Throughout the typeface design I am testing and retesting the spacing, the hinting, readability; the works.

10. What is the arsenal of tools you use to create your work?

My computer, my waycom 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 people tend to forget about them. 

Finally, I get so many great ideas just by walking around. Old signage, tags, street murals, posters; design inspiration is everywhere.

11. 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 an 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.

12. What to you is the most exciting thing happening in the typography world right now?

More and more designers are genuinely interested in excellent typeface design. They are educating their eye and they care about quality. Designers are more discriminating and that’s a good thing. 

13. 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 custom commissioned work. 

14. 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 has been very good to me. I have great hopes for IB Type.

If you are worried about piracy, don’t open a type foundry.