Was there a specific reason as to why you moved from doing web design to the lettering design you do now?
Yeah, did you read the interview with Elliot Jasocks when he was doing one of his magazines, the reason was the same as the reason he sort of moved into 8 faces, was, the web was just very ethereal, I started designing on the web a long time ago, 1995 was when I graduated so I was doing very, very early websites and learning HTML very early on when you couldn’t even change the background colour from grey. That really does age me, but anyway, nothing exists of that stuff anymore, I mean you can probably find some stuff on the way back when machine but there’s nothing really there, because the web was so ethereal, because you’d put all your sort of effort and love into this website and then a year later or 18 months later its gone. So there was really nothing to show and the way the technology was progressing it really dates incredibly quickly. So I kind of from that reason fell out of love with it as a medium, then speaking more to the business and the practice side, the last position I really held was I run my own business with my 2 partners for 10 years. And after doing that for 10 years and building the business up to the point where we had like 25 staff and we’d invested in other things and all sort of things, we’d kind of been there and done it, it felt like there wasn’t really any more to do or any that I wanted to do. So it kind of felt like I’d come to the end of that career and it felt like the right thing to do, there was a recession happening, and we had to let go of a lot of our staff which was really gut wrenching. We were at the point where we were building the business back up again and me and my partner kind of looked at each other as we were planning and said do you really want to be doing this in 5 or 10 years time and we were both kind of like not really. We decided at that point to sell the business, we did that in 2013 and haven’t really looked back since.
What got you interested in typeface design?
Well that all happened in college really, you talk to some typographers and they say they used to have interests in it when they were kids and stuff but my interest only really picked when I was at college, pre university, in the very early 90s and people like Jonathan Barnbrook and Phil Banes and Neville Brody and Emma Grey was all at its peak and I was kind of swept away but those things and absolutely loved it. I’ve met some of those people now and interviewed them for 8 faces and am still in awe of them. Anyway I was really into that through college, very much following Emma Gray and using fonts by Barry Deck and things like that and then my first day on the internet, you could use Times or Arial and that just kicked it out of me really. I didn’t realise it at the time, I kind of embraced the restraints of the web, I didn’t feel at the time there was anything unusual going on but for doing it for 20 years I’d just had enough of the restrictions and stuff. At that time, though, Typekit and stuff like that had started coming out so my interest was re-peaked, I think it was the fact that I had re-embraced type and technology had re-embraced type but no where near as much as I had, and so that kind of led me on this path. That was when I basically started up Type Worship, I think that was about 2011, whilst I was still running the studio. I set that up really as just a way to sort of gather my thoughts, what do I like what do I not like and it was really exploritary, it had no vision, and I had no idea that it would grow or anything like that I wasn’t really doing it for that, I was scrap booking for myself. So without any preconception or thought of how it might go I just kind of set it up and people were following and I began to think about it more, talk about it more. I think that is what pushed me over the edge to sell the agency and sort of be like I want to do this full time.
So is a lot of your work hand drawn or digital or a mixture of both? How do you work in that sense?
Erm funny enough I’m looking at a blank piece of paper right now working on something this afternoon. Everything starts off drawn so if you flick through most of the things on my website like the Woman In Black, sort of book cover things you’ll see my sort of process. I used to do this at the studio, its my practice and i’ve really sort of nailed it down now because I’m really comfortable in the way I work and it took a long time to do this. The way I work now always runs in the same way, I run three phases. Phase 1 is always thumbnail sketches, always done by hand in pencil. I don’t use an iPad pro or anything like that, I’ve tried it but the technology is not quite good enough for me. So always just use a pencil and I sketch thumbnails, I sketch a lot of thumbnails. If the client has a particular size or scale or restraint in mind I print out a little template box of that size and sketch within that so I know I’m kind of in the right zone. The piece of paper I’m looking at now has a print off behind the sheet I’m going to sketch on and that print off has a box the right dimension which I’m going to draw inside. So I basically print of a box of the right size, repeat it loads of times in illustrator depending on how big it needs to be. I then stick it to a piece of paper with blue tack and sketch inside. So phase one is always thumbnails, then phase two, which is what I’m about to do this afternoon, is a sort of refined sketch, figuring out more details about what the letter-forms look like and tightening up the composition. Then phase 3 is I start reproducing that digitally.
Do you use a certain programme in particular for that or do you use several?
Yeah its mostly, for any type work I do even if there’s a lot of illustrative elements I use Glyphs which is a font creation programme and I do that because it offers way more control over beziers and stuff that illustrator could do. Illustrators not really the right programme to design type in. Even if there’s some intricate, decorative work, like I’m working on a beer bottle label for an Australian beer company, they have a lot of filigree, decorative work and I do that in Glyphs too because I can get the bessieres absolutely perfect and there’s a lot more control. But then I will move all of that into illustrator so I basically copy and paste all of the type shapes and specifically, carefully designed filigree into illustrator and then embellish it with the illustrative elements or anything decorative or adding a third dimension or anything like that, goes in via illustrator. Then the final stage might be, so the thing I’m working on today for example is for the post office and royal mint are doing this Victorian thing so it needs to look a bit Victorian. Then I’ll bring that illustrator file into Photoshop and add a texture or sort of a sepia tone if I need to. It will go through all three processes if necessary. So you said about the technology not being good enough right now. It would seem like it might be hard for some people to keep up with the technology but for you it seems like an advantage.
Have you ever really struggled with the change of technology because in design that is such a big aspect and for us going into the future we will experience this. Is there any sort of advice you can give to keeping up with technology? I think you have to constantly be curious about is there a better more efficient way to do this. You could get into trouble if you put yourself in the position where I’ve got my process, like the process I have, but I’m never going to change it. For example if I said that that 3 stage process that I have is never going to change I’d be wrong because I’m sure technology will open up to the point where I put my pencil down for example and do it all digitally, and I’m looking for that point. The thing is I think to be curious and inquisitive about the technology all the time, if you shy away from that, that’s when it could over take you and that’s when the trouble could start. I must admit I have shied away from a few bits of technology, mostly around coding, I never really learnt HTML 5 and CSS and things like that, at that point there were people who were much better places in the company to do that then me so I didn’t do that. Then the other thing I’ve shied away from a little bit is learning python in my type design work , again I thin there are people who are better that that at me and if I really needed to get some subscripting done I’d probably turn to them. But in terms of the tools to produce things that are not necessarily script based then I’m going to hunt those down,look for that, see people doing it on Instagram or whatever and think I wouldn’t mind having a go at that. Like I’ve been trying out the Ipad pro and the Wacom and all those things I keep looking at those. SO I think that’s what I would say just keep looking and don’t get too fixed in your approach.
Going back to you starting off your typeface designs, we saw in the Helvetica documentary one of the typographers stated that he begins designing a typeface using the letter h. Do you start with a particular letter or try out a few?
Yeah so that was probably Matty Carter saying that one wasn’t it? He then did go on to say that he starts to design using the word shoplift I think it was. Funny you should say that because I actually went through that a few weeks a go, I did a search to see what people use. When I went to Reading we’d use the word adhesion because that pretty much contains all the main letter forms except the diagonal which is tricky because you need to set the width and the style of those, so they’re V X W Z A. I suppose you could use a capital A in adhesion but the lower case ‘a’ is really important for the look of your typeface because it appears so many times so you really want a lower case a anyway. I use a combination, I use ‘adhesion’, ‘shoplift’ and then there is Neenda Stoshinger uses ‘tree-frogs’ and Type Together recommend another one as well, so I use all of them because there’s a lot of shared elements in there. In terms of first letter, lower case n, absolutely and upper case h. The lower case n, the reason that is chosen is because of restricted sides, you can start spacing everything off of the n. So when you start spacing your typeface in the lower-case you’d usually use the n and space everything between that because its got a very specific counter shape so that the hole in there and if you were doing a fairly traditional typeface that counter-space would usually represent the left and right side bearings, the spacings either side of that letter. So if you put to n’s together, the space between them would pretty much match that counter-space so therefore you’ve got the building blocks of starting all of those upright letters and then the same thing with upper case, that is why you use the H again because its a very rigid letter and then you move on to round shapes so you’d do lower case and upper case o. So its upper-case H and O and lower-case n and o.
We were wondering how your mindset to design might have changed from working a Microsoft to working in your own business maybe having more freedom and less restriction. Did it change how you approach design?
So back in the day I worked in a couple of agencies before joining Microsoft doing web design and so when I joined Microsoft I was under a fantastic designer called Adrian Green who still does web stuff and I suppose I knew more about web design than most poeple at that time just because I’d come out of university and been very lucky and gone straight into a web shop. But what it did mean was, in the very early days of Microsoft, the web was still the wild west and everything was up for grabs in terms of interface and all those things. So actually the freedom of that job was incredible, we were designing the msn website back in 1998 or 99. The infrastructure hadn’t been set yet, there wasn’t any standard so we were playing with all sorts of ideas about how the navigation could work and all sorts. Anyway, it was actually very flexible and very free and there was a lot of exploratory work going on there. There was still sort of the commercial aspects, things we needed to do, but slowly as the web matured, well actually quickly as the web matured, that job as you can imagine became more restrictive. We go the interface lock-down and really you’re sort of running this website and filling it and yes it did get much more restrictive. Then when I did the European role it did get more restrictive again because I was almost enforcing the design principles across Europe about how we design. That became a bit of a design policeman’s job which is one of the reasons I knew it was time to leave. Then yeah going into my own agency, funny enough one of our biggest clients was Microsoft because they were like well why don’t you take some of this work with you and so that didn’t change from that perspective. But of course as more clients came and we were trying new things and the technology kept evolving we started producing games, a lot of games actually and lots of sort of competitions and mechanics to get people involved in something. We used all the, sort of, enjoyable tricks to get people to engage and that was really good fun. But yeah I suppose it did change to some extent but not as dramatically as you might think.
So I was wondering about who you’ve collaborated with and if having your own business gave you more of an opportunity to collaborate with people?
So a lot of the work, I would say the work I do, mostly there would be an art director. There would be someone with a vision of where it’s going, so with the beer bottles, the art director there was actually the person that put all of the frame work together for the bottle and all the different elements. So I was asked to come in and really refine all of those elements, do all the lettering and the type and some of the illustrations but all the framework was there for me. So absolutely there’s a lot of collaborative stuff and even the thing that I’m working on this afternoon for the Royal Mail and the Mint, my lettering is going into a certain position within that design so its very much a collaborative you know ‘what do you think of this’ and ‘here’s some ideas’. So back to your question about choosing and how I work with people, one core think that I can share with you that’ll give you some clarity on this is I always have, or have been lucky enough to have a typeface project in the background and so if I’m not working on lettering commissions which is the other side of my business, then I just go back to the typeface and start working on that. Sometimes there’s a bit of conflict between the two because sometimes I really want to do some lettering work and sometimes I really want to do some type work and it doesn’t always work like that because you have to take commissions where they come. If I’m at a crucial point with the typeface I’ll turn down commission work or if I have too much commission work I can choose to turn in down where as in the agency world you try and do it all and high contractors try and help you grow as big as you can the whole time and juggle as many plates. Where as I’m in a lucky position where I don’t need to those crazy things, the most I’ll take on is maybe 2 at a stretch 3 commissions and generally the way I prefer it is to have one at a time but you’re not always lucky to have that, you’ve got to take them where you have them. For example I was going away recently, this is the sort of tricky thing being a one man band in a way, over august I had to turn about 3 jobs down while I was going away which is a bit gutting because one of them was really exciting but you know you just have to live with it. Yeah but I’m lucky I’ve kind of manipulated the way I work so that I don’t have a lot of down time. I think that would be a very difficult thing for someone going into illustration today I’d imagine, and also when I started there was loads of downtime, I didn’t know where the next project was coming from. This time was spent sort of doing my own work but I wasn’t really making any money, I had to invest my own sort of time and money to keep me going.
Would you say its fairly easier sorting clients now that you’re more established and have a big portfolio of stuff that you’ve done previously?
You say that but there’s always the self doubt where I look at my portfolio and say still not quite enough and there’s still not quite enough of this thing that I quite want to do. So, I suppose, you’re right, realistically it has become easier – but there’s always this sense of I could be doing more. I could have more on the portfolio, I could have more examples on the style I want to follow on the portfolio. I don’t think it ever gets to the point where you’re happy, otherwise there might be a danger to stop. There’s constantly the feeling that you’re trying to improve, to have more, do better, that kind of thing. So, is it easier? It’s easier in the fact that people contact me with jobs rather than me doing any chasing. I don’t have an agent or anything like that. I pretty much rely on word of mouth and people coming to me really. So, yes that has definitely become easier, but you have all there sort of incredible worries. We saw that you lived in Sydney for a while, we were just wondering if the design world there was different to working in the UK? Did you still work on typography design and illustration whilst you were there? Yes, I did. I was sort of sheltered from the industry to a greater extent because I was still very much establishing myself and working on my own projects and typefaces. Before I went I did speak to a few art directors and things to just understand what the environment was going to be like. The sort of thing that came back again and again, that I experienced a little bit, is that it’s pretty much as fast paced and there’s still a high expectation of quality that you would expect from any major city – but the budgets were slightly smaller. There was obviously less work than in a city like London for example. Other than that it was pretty much the same in the commercial things I did in Sydney. A lot of the freelance and entrepreneurial designers in Melbourne and Sydney was very much the agency kind of world. It’s more where the bigger businesses are based, and so there’s a big agency culture there. Whereas there’s a lot more smaller, independent things going on in Melbourne. If you were choosing to go out that way you’d have to think do I want to go for a more corporate agency style – in Sydney, or do I want to go more freelance, ethereal side of things in Melbourne. That’s what I took away from it. I loved being in Sydney. There wasn’t as big a design community there that I felt there was in Melbourne. So I knew more designers in Melbourne than I did in Sydney. When you think about type again, I pretty much knew all the type people in Sydney, the major players at least, so: Wayne from Australian type foundation and Dave foster were two of the big people in that area, and obviously Gemma Eves. I met all those people while I was there and I’m really good friends with Dave and Wayne. That was it really, whereas in London I know tonnes of designers. It’s slightly different, a smaller scale I would say. Is it as much of a close knit community, because I imagine when there’s fewer of you that you know each other a lot better.
In London it must be hard, people say that when you’re in a big city it’s quite lonely, that kind of idea, is it harder to find a community?
It can be, I think people in Australia really went out of there was to make design buddies. Dave and I are still really good mates, he still mentors me and we keep in touch. I suppose relationships were closer because of there being less of you. I think that would be fair to say. I know a lot more people in London – and the surrounding country obviously – maybe those relationships aren’t as close, but because there’s so many of them, I think that evens them out. Is there a good community here in Bristol? How do you think in general Bristol affects your work? That’s a good question. I’ve only been here about ten months, I think, so not too long. When I was thinking of coming down, Tom Lane used to live in or around Bristol. Ginger Monkey, do you know them? Look his stuff up, he’s an amazing, amazing letterer – we talk on email. I’ve still never met him even though we used to go to the same typographer meet ups in London, run by Rob Clarke. So he set these up and I never managed to meet Tom there. Elliot Jaystock who I worked on eight faces with, who lives in Pensworth, so not a million miles away from where I am, so we meet up every now and again. I haven’t really meet any typographers here, I’ve been to a couple design meet ups, but not met those types specifically – so I’m not sure if there are those here. I imagine there must be some, but after ten months you might not have found the community Yeah exactly, I’m hoping to, I’m hoping to. I go down to London around once a month and there’s typography events going on there so St. Brides library they have them and then there’s type Tuesdays, or was it Thursdays? That’s probably why I keep missing it. I can go there and guarantee that I know quite a few of the faces there, whereas here I went a few of the design meet ups and I don’t know anybody. I’m still finding my feet. Yeah of course.
Just to end it really is there any sort of advice you’d give anyone coming out of university who would want to enter any of your lines of work that you’ve been in?
It’s a big question, and I think you could break it down in a lot of different ways. I think it’s important to design the work that you really want to end up doing. Someone told me once, a long time ago, clients buy what they can see. What they meant by that was that they don’t always have the imagination to pick an idea out of the air and say I want this thing. What they generally do, is look at designers and work and go “sort of like this”, and they point at either my work or someone else’s work and they want my spin on it. So, my main advice would be to have a portfolio of work that shows the kind of work that you want to produce and really get to the bottom of the process of making it. Refining the different ways that your work can go. This is very different to having a style. Having a style is not necessarily very helpful. If you’re someone like Malika Favre, the illustrator, who does those beautiful flat illustrative pieces. She has a style, you know it’s her style from a mile away, but if you’re starting out I think that might make things more difficult. Whereas if you can bottom out a variety of styles that you like, that you really want to do. That will be the most helpful thing. People will look at that and say not only do I know what this person likes, but what this person is capable of and I can see some ideas on here that I might be able to use on X Y and Z.
Interviewed By Ruairi Madine, Daniel Schenck and Rachel Bonner
Jamie Clarke is a professional and active designer who has worked in Bristol, London and Austrailia. He creates beautifully illustrated typography for mostly promotional purposes, as well as full 3D typefaces. Throughout this interview we go through his process and get an interesting and intimate understanding of how he conducts his projects, from begging to end. He talks of his past professional work and where he is now. To accommodate this all we have created a series of animations that communicate what he is saying to you, the viewer.