Okay, I don’t mean “saved” like “preventing me from ceasing to exist”, but more like “shifting the way I work”.
Now let me go a few years back, just to give this whole story some context.
After freshly coming out of uni, doing a few years of graphic design and collecting tons of fonts (like I believed a proper designer should do), in the last week of 2017 I decided I wanted to take on a new skill. So my very first salute to 2018 was an otherwise clichéd and clumsy hand-lettered piece. Little did I know that it would mark the beginning of a new epoch in my creative endeavour.
In the following months, I found myself procrastinating from paid work, staying up way past my bedtime and drawing random letters instead, just for funsies. I slowly began to change the nature of the projects I would say yes to, until my portfolio was filled with quirky and colorful letterforms.
Back to the present
Fast forward around 20 months (through all those challenging freelance projects, not so fun day jobs and definitely fun passion projects) and I found myself on my way to a casual interview at this agency my friend has been telling me about for ages now, High Contrast.
The interview went smoothly. The people were friendly and fun, and we seemed to get along nicely. There appeared to be one problem though: High Contrast was actually in need for a web designer and I really, reaaally hated web design. Up to this day, I am wondering why the team would call me back. But they did. In my four-week trial I even produced web design! (A total of 7 layouts that monumentally sucked, one of which contained a contact form with no “submit” button. Ha.)
But what I massively lacked in web design, I made up for in different ways.
How we all got to draw letters together?
In the meantime, my constant rambling about lettering, as the fanatic I am, led me to hosting my first ever lettering workshop at Demisol. It was quite a spontaneous decision taken one morning at the office, after a well-needed nudge from my teammates.
Nonetheless, the event was quite a success and it opened up my appetite for lettering and sharing the knowledge I had gained so far about it even more.
And as it turns out, being insanely and utterly passionate about something can indeed turn things around for you — and, in my case, made me the one in charge of watering the plants, baking the cookies and designing the logotypes at High Contrast.
When letters take over
Before we go any further, I feel I should explain what this lettering thing is:
- Lettering is the art of drawing and building custom letters. You don’t draw the whole alphabet, but solely the letters needed to write the given word or sentence.
- Calligraphy is basically beautiful handwriting. You use your muscle memory to write flawless letters. Think penmanship with an artistic twist.
- Type design is the process of creating typefaces. Here, you would design a system of letters, making sure they will perfectly work together in all possible combinations.
- Typesetting refers to working with the previously created typefaces and arranging them in various compositions.
If you say lettering one more time…
I’m going to say this with the risk of sounding like a broken record: lettering is awesome and entertaining and engaging. You could be thoroughly plotting vector points in Illustrator, ecstatically playing with some textured brushes in Procreate or Photoshop or gently pushing your pen on a piece of paper. Yes, letters can exist in many different mediums and in any of these, the fun is guaranteed.
With time, my work started to expand through all these mediums, transforming into something bigger. From mainly exploring the artistic side of it all, a part of my work became more practical. I learned to embrace and got to actually love the technicalities of building letters!
Thanks to the challenges I’m faced with at the agency, I’m constantly immersing myself deeper into this infinite universe of letters. I’m continually figuring out new ways of building proper letterforms and applying them to a variety of mediums and industries, focusing especially on creating logotypes that work.
Need some (proper) tips?
Watching a designer designing letters is like watching an ice machine make ice.
I find this analogy quite accurate. Why? Because the whole process of designing letters is rather tedious — but oh so satisfying!
Here’s my most valued tips I have learnt so far about designing logotypes:
Proper Tip #1: Stating the obvious.
If you’re simply typing the name of a company with a font, you’re not “designing a logotype”. You’re typing. At least apply some tweaks to the letterforms. And for the love of God, please kern!
Proper Tip #2: Be a chameleon.
If you have a personal style, that’s awesome! But an agency requires someone who can mould their work to fit the client’s specific needs. Your personal style will still shine through whatever you do, just don’t let that define the work you do at your day job. Don’t suppress your personal style completely. Simply postpone it to when you get home and start your passion projects.
Proper Tip #3: Legibility is key.
You could be spending 8 hours on a fancy “a”, but at the end of the day, if it can’t be read as an “a”, you failed. Look at respected designers’ works and observe how they use the shapes. Start analyzing the crap out of all the letters that surround you.
Form a typographic eye and never stop using it.
Proper Tip #4: Watch the proportions.
Be generous with the size of your x-height. It plays a major role in whether a logotype will make sense at small sizes or not. It also influences the white space around the logo. The smaller the difference between the x-height and the descender-/ascender line is, the better. Also, pay attention to the relation of the height and width of a letter. If you have a long word, make the letters condensed. If you have a shorter word, feel free to extend the widths a bit more.
Proper Tip #5: Make sure your logotype is well-fed, but don’t overfeed it.
Staying away from super thin logotypes is generally a smart idea. You want the audience to actually see and feel the logo, not just assume that there should be one. Similarly, having a logotype that’s way too bold will only result in an illegible blob.
Use the squint test: if you can read the logo while squinting your eyes, you can give yourself a high five.
Proper Tip #6: Know your type history.
Before you even start thinking about designing logotypes, make sure you know at least some basic things about how letters got to evolve. Sans serif. Serif. Script. Traditional. Humanistic. Transitional. Modern. You should know the characteristics of all these. Feel the letters and what moods they convey. Otherwise, you can end up using letterforms that have quite the opposite emotion to what you are looking to express. Which would make the client confused. And your boss angry. You don’t want any of those.
Proper Tip #7: Research.
That brilliant little head of yours suddenly starts filling up with countless possible directions for the logo. Calm. Down. You first have to decipher the brief and then spend multiple hours surfing the internet in order to build a proper moodboard. From logo examples to images and textures, look for anything that might communicate the brand’s tone. Once you’re done researching, you’ll see there’s a much clearer direction to follow.
Proper Tip #8: Grid it out.
Grids are logotypes’ best friends and you should never design a logotype without one. It’s okay to sketch without grids in the first stages, until you get the overall style settled. Once you do though, grid it all out! Start finding mathematical rules and apply them to the letterforms. Use rectangles and circles. Have the “shift” key pressed at all times to keep those handles straight. It seems intimidating, I know. You’ll manage.
Proper Tip #9: Revise and fix.
You finished the logo. You send it over to your team for feedback and realize that everybody is seeing mistakes that you didn’t even think about. Question your life choices and feel like you really haven’t got the slightest clue of what you’re doing. Snap out of it and fix those mistakes, creating 20 new iterations.
Don’t overthink it though. There’s always room for improvement but at some point you have to stop and move on.
Proper Tip #10: Present, don’t show.
Rather than showing the logo to the client, you have to present it. Don’t assume that others know the ideas and reasons behind your process. Carefully wrap the logo in a presentation that shows your inspiration, the process, the possible use of color as well as a few applications and mockups. Help the client visualize a whole world based on the logo, rather than showing them just a glimpse.
Proper Lettering Tip #11: Teamwork makes the dream work.
Never assume you can do it all by yourself. You might be able to, but there’s just something magical about joining forces with others to create awesome work. Teamwork multiplies the knowledge, skills and experience put into a single project, which makes the end result that more valuable.
The key in collaboration is finding that common ground. Defend your ideas but accept that you might not always be right.
Don’t let your ego run wild. Respect your partners and their ideas, just like they should be respecting yours. Play nice.
Make a mess and have fun
The fact that I get to work on my two favorite things at the same time makes me feel like I’m walking in each day into a playground, rather than a job.
Design is nothing but serious play.
The more you play, the better it gets — both the process and the result. Allow yourself to experiment and most importantly, to fail. Don’t be afraid to start over. Not having fun while designing is like forcing yourself to sleep after you just had an enormous cup of coffee. Why would you do that?
Don’t get used to having it too good
Remember my (basically non-existent) relationship with web design? Well, these sharp-minded individuals I now call my teammates never forgot about it. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, they gave me another chance at proving my worth.
Considering the fact I didn’t have much web design experience and that I genuinely tried to stay as far away from it as possible, it was a pretty fun and rewarding experience. I even got to make friends with this beautiful beast called Figma, that everyone at the agency seemed to praise. Calling it a beast because at first, it seems beyond intimidating and scary, but once you start figuring out its tricks you realize it’s quite beautiful how it accommodates your every move.
I’m still far from throwing panicked cries of help at my deskmate every time I open it, but I’m slowly easing into it.
Need some (not so proper) tips?
When it comes down to getting hired at a cool agency, there’s really not much to teach.
You go in and try to seem super professional. Fail at it. Say some weird things and end up obsessing over them late at night over the next few weeks. (Hopefully) impress everybody anyways because you’re such a delight. Wait for the callback.
You got the callback. Now you have to prove yourself.
For starters, work for 4 weeks straight on a web design trying to impress people doing web design for 20 years now. Get them to laugh out loud when they see your contact form has no “submit” button. Feel like crying. Suck it in and don’t let them see signs of weakness.
Time for plan B.
Think about something that everybody likes. Cookies! Decide to bake peanut butter cookies. Find out that half of the team doesn’t eat sugar. Remove sugar. Find out that the other half of the team survives on sugar. Panic. Find out you have that one teammate who is allergic to nuts. Remove nuts. Remove some more ingredients because everyone seems to be allergic to something. Bake improvised cookies. Get the entire agency to smell like a bakery. Serve the cookies. Get everyone to smile and praise the cookies.
Keep being insanely passionate about that one thing. Be endlessly curious. Never stop learning.
You’re family now.