Earlier this year, Brit & Co started its How to Quit Your Day Job series with a chat with me about my background, process and inspiration when it comes to design & handlettering. That article was a more quickly-digestable summary of my responses, so I decided to post the full interview here. They asked some great questions that I often see as emails (but I sadly can't respond to all of them!) and I put my heart into answering them. Enjoy, and big thanks to Brit & Co.
Tell us a bit about your life before design. Did you always know you wanted to go into the field?
Growing up, I was the designated ‘artsy’ kid - I think it’s especially common for creatives to have an I-just-always-knew story. Design, as opposed to fine art, appealed to me the more I saw how it was a constant presence in everyday life. It touches everyone, not just the gallery-goers. I do enjoy creating artwork as a form of pure self-expression, but being purely expressive only works out when people really get you. A designer’s job, on the other hand, is to “get” everyone else - I like the process of deeply considering what I’m projecting, and how it’s meant to be received.
Tell us about your design education (if any)?
None. No formal one at least. For a long while, I despaired that being restricted from going to design school would bar me from the knowledge or opportunities that design students enjoy, but it actually hasn’t disadvantaged me in the long run. I graduated from university without a design degree, but with the knowledge that everything I taught myself was 100% self-motivated and applicable. In the end, I know how to do a lot of things simply because I’ve made a lot of things. Not having that linear path to my career conditioned me to be scrappy, to take curiosity seriously - those qualities have never failed me in the real world.
At what point did you know you wanted to focus on type design and hand lettering?
I can’t imagine that it’s possible to not obsess over type, as a graphic designer. What I love about type design is that there are definitely rules, but ones that are asking to be cleverly broken. In that way, typography has always been the perfect playground for me, and my focus on type grew steadily alongside my interest in design as a whole.
The art of lettering, though, picked up as a popular aesthetic fairly recently. I’ve always meticulously sketched out my type, but that hand-done stage of the process just wasn’t widely valued at the level that it is now. Realizing that hand lettering was gaining a more receptive audience definitely cued me to justify spending more time on it.
What was your job before you paid the bills with design?
N/A. More than anything, I needed to prove that my passion could support me, and I’m stupidly stubborn when my sights are set on something. It’s to the point that I don’t acknowledge legitimate obstacles, or have the patience to dedicate time to anything but barreling forward. I've tried out odd jobs, waitressing or doing admin, completely as an attempt to step back and take a breather, but I’d always end up clawing my way back out to sleeplessly pursue design. I was such a neurotic kid, but I guess it paid off.
What were some of the first steps in pursuing your lettering career?
I never actively pursued the hand-lettering side of my career. When a popular design blog listed me as a “Top Letterer of 2013”, that was the first time I had even heard of the term, much less had I considered myself to be one. Playing with type is purely fun for me. Sharing my lettering explorations has just had the side effect of opening some exciting doors, which I’m grateful for.
What did you have to sacrifice (if anything) to pursue a career in typography?
Looking back, I only gave up things I didn’t need, to pursue type and design. I don't think that chasing a career in typography, or any creative career for that matter, should feel like the uncharted leap of faith that it’s projected to be. If at the core, you are are drawn to a career path, creative or otherwise, it would be the greatest sacrifice to yourself and to society to not pursue it full force. Like any job, design is a commitment that will provide financial and emotional support if you work hard and find ways each day to embrace the choice you've made.
What fears did you have in first trying to pursue typography?
In the beginning of my career, I shied away from drawing letters, or drawing anything, for that matter. This was because I grew up in a very tech-driven community, where there was a more narrow definition of success. I was made to feel that designing computer programs and apps would be the highest level of achievement for someone ‘artsy’ like me.
Now, I can attest that there are no fears in pursuing typography if you fully grasp why it’s so important, why design can change the world. There is no shame, and therefore no fear, in dedicating your life to having a positive impact by whatever means you are best at.
How do you set out to stand apart from other hand letterers?
I’m not interested in being different for different’s sake. I think my work stands apart from others', as much or as little as my personality does. Like anyone else, I have a set of musings and quirks that are unique to me, and these things hopefully show through in my work.
How would you describe your lettering/type aesthetic?
I don’t have as distinctive of a lettering style as many other handetterers do, because I tend to approach lettering with a graphic design mentality - the context of the scenario largely determines the style I choose. In general, though, I enjoy crafting letters that are organic and flowy, in an androgynous way.
What are each of your favorite tools to work with when hand lettering?
For the most part, I’m not particular - it’s a little boring, but I just like pencils the most. I learn a lot about the nature of different mediums just by using pencil to mimic the look of ink, chalk, watercolor, etc. Pen tool in Illustrator is crucial to my process, and also my iPhone - I love capturing textures and integrating them into my work.
Do you have any design testaments that you live by when creating your work?
Above anything else: having intent. Intent separates design from decor, and is just as important to have, as an artistic eye. What does this stroke weight imply? Is there a relationship between these separate lines of slab-serif text? If I can’t answer questions like these about something I placed on a page, it’s time to reconsider its necessity.
Has your philosophy on type changed at all since when you first started?
I haven’t changed it, so much as found new ways of exploring it. Type is the most blatantly communicative element of design; it’s so painfully obvious, that I feel like it teases me to take its communicative abilities to the next level, and give it layers and depth. So, it has the same definition to me, but the horizons have definitely broadened.
Where most of your business comes from?
References from past clients, and design networks, like Dribbble and Behance, have consistently kept work busy. More recently though, I’m enjoying the projects that come out of social media. After finding me on Instagram, companies approach me for my specific style, which makes for a pretty ideal work situation. It’s a little strange, because I have never, nor do I ever intend, to use my own account as a way to promote my business. Ironically, I think that’s why it works - people feel connected to me on a more casual, personal level, which is more pleasant to soak in than a resume or cover letter.
What social media outlets work best for you?
Instagram! I find so much inspiration there, and the insta-community is thankfully a positive, uplifting one (for the most part). Since a good chunk of my professional work is non-disclosure, I just post up my personal musings in the form of illustration and lettering. The fact that people can connect with me through these little squares of my scribbles has really encouraged me to take my personal work further.
What is an aspect of starting a freelance business that was more difficult than you expected?
Time management! It’s a hell of a process figuring out how to schedule things for maximum efficiency without killing creativity. I have to be my own secretary, legal team, HR department, business manager…and going into freelance definitely put a magnifying glass over how terrible I was at those things. In the beginning, I didn’t realize how important it is to analyze what time of day is optimal for emails and contracts, and when to shut it off to allow room for creative juices to flow. However, knowing that doing the non-design aspects of freelance well would facilitate a better design process has definitely motivated me to be super meticulous on all fronts.
Easier than you expected?
Getting good projects onto my desk, and saying no to the others. There's so much artsy angst out there that makes freelance sound like a sure way to get the world to be unfair to you. The responses I got after declaring my full-time freelance status, were always along the lines of “My aunt’s starting a paper doll business, maybe she’ll pay you for a logo... you brave little thing, you.”
If you approach freelance as the struggle it’s perceived to be, that’s what it’ll be. Everyone told me that young designers should say yes to everything, but that would’ve completely put me out of control of my own direction. I’m not saying it’s easy, period - it’s just all about perspective.
What’s your advice for a person starting out in hand lettering?
Look outside of what already exists, for inspiration - the revival of hand-drawn type means that your work can take on fresh, uncharted qualities, so explore more.
Be intentional, be kind to people, work in earnest.
Special thanks to Katelan Cunningham.