Behind the scenes with lettering expert extraordinaire Seb Lester

29 Sep 2019 0 Comments Feature, Interview

In issue 2 of Simply Lettering we chat with Sussex-based lettering artist and designer, Seb Lester, who has developed logos and type illustrations for some of the world’s biggest companies, including the likes of NASA, Apple and The New York Times. Read on to find out more about Seb’s inspirations and process.

Tell us a little more about yourself.

My name’s Seb Lester and I’m an artist and designer based in Lewes, East Sussex. The focus of my work is letterforms, although in recent years I’ve also started exploring patterns, ornamental design and heraldry. It’s all good fun and it has been pleasing to discover that many of the same principles apply to drawing patterns and ornament as letterform design. It’s all drawing at the end of the day. I became interested in letterform design when I discovered a book – The Graphic Language of Neville Brody – in the college library when I was 19. Mr Brody has got a lot to answer for because letterforms have been one of the primary focuses of my life since then.

Do you have a favourite style and why?

In terms of calligraphy I am rather partial to formal pointed pen styles like English Roundhand, but also italics and blackletter styles. The broad nib pen is an amazingly versatile tool. I’m keen on flourishing in general, curvilinear flourishing, cadel flourishing and more experimental, contemporary approaches.

What tools could you not live without?

Calligraphy-wise I would say my Pilot Parallel pens, Manuscript italic fountain pens and Nikko G nibs, with oblique pen holders. I’m a big fan of Rhodia blank paper as well. I’ve always thought of myself as an Internet calligrapher, or a stunt calligrapher, more than a traditional calligrapher. I’m self taught and more of a calligraphic doodler than someone who produces highly worked final pieces using traditional tools. For extremely polished pieces I would combine traditional and digital tools because I spent 10 years working at Monotype as a senior type designer designing typefaces for big multi-national companies. So I can draw letterforms digitally very quickly and with much more precision than is possible with traditional tools.

What has been your proudest moment throughout your lettering journey?

There have been several, but getting a million followers on Instagram was a pretty big deal for me in 2014, somewhat overwhelming in fact. It was significant for me because it’s when I went from having followers who either worked in or were studying the visual arts to crossing over into a mainstream audience. Signing a one-year contract with Apple in 2017 that involved me appearing in a commercial for the iPad Pro was a career highlight. The advertisement was filmed in Berlin and my lettering was featured prominently at the Apple WWDC event in San Jose and in Apple Stores worldwide that year. That is a pretty big deal by any standards, a first for a visual artist working with Apple. The starting point for all this goes back to the college library in 1992 discovering that book, so it was quite an emotional experience for me in lots of ways. It was more than just business, it was a deeply personal type of success.

Do you have a single favourite piece of work you have created?

I am proud of all of my limited-edition prints, so I guess one of the high points has been my Jerusalem limited-edition print, which was developed with traditional tools, then digitised and refined. It is based on William Blake’s Jerusalem and I’ve tried to capture the intensity of the words in my interpretation. It was intended as a bit of a tour de force of lettering and flourishing. I released that in 2015 and I’m still very happy with how it turned out. I have to say I’m also very proud of my typefaces – Neo Sans, Soho and Scene – as well.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I’m very interested in beauty in all of its manifestations. Beauty can be incredibly seductive and powerful. Most of my work to date has been an exploration of beauty in one form or another. So it might be a beautiful piece of music, some Renaissance textile design or a Medieval illuminated manuscript that gets my creative juices flowing. I’m very interested in trying to understand what makes certain forms and structures more beautiful than others. Acanthus leaf ornament, for example, is something that goes back to ancient Greece, but you can see it weave its way through history right up until the present day. This style of ornament has endured for millennia and can be said to have a universal and timeless beauty to it. Insight and understanding into what makes something beautiful can be a key to creating work that resonates powerfully with both the masses and connoisseurs.

Can you tell us some things you wished you’d known about lettering when you first started?

Learn from the best, ask lots of questions and don’t be too hard on yourself. I would suggest people focus on making something beautiful or funny or just different in some way, rather than follow trends. If you want to make a career working with illustrative letterforms it’s very often about finding your own voice, distinguishing yourself from others. You don’t necessarily have to be better than everyone else, it’s more about finding a way to stand out.

On this note, do you have any advice for readers who are just getting started?

Your work is going to be pretty bad for a while – you won’t necessarily realise this, but just focus on having fun and studying the work of the best practitioners and the best exemplars you can find. I would personally focus on learning a style of lettering that you particularly like the look of, because it’s going to take a while to get the hang of it and it will be easier to stay motivated. I wouldn’t necessarily post your work on social media at the beginning, as people can be very rude and it can become rather demoralising. Do a calligraphy class; get feedback from your peers.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished a commission for a very big beer label. Several possible projects are in the pipeline, and I’m starting to think about working on a book of fantastical letterforms. The idea is in its early stages but it’s an area of letterform design that interests me a lot at the moment. Extremely intense Neo-Rococo letterforms. I like Erté’s Art Deco explorations of ornate letterforms with figurative elements for example, so something along those lines but even more vivid and compelling.

What do the next five years hold for you, or what would you like to achieve?

I am very ambitious, but also superstitious about discussing the details. I would say that I’m going to continue to try to work very hard in a very focused and diligent way, and we’ll see what happens. I want to feel a sense of progression in what I’m doing, even if it’s not apparent to everybody and the work is less popular. I want to keep learning and developing. There’s nothing wrong with being a stylist, but I’m really interested in bringing traditional and digital tools together to try to create progressive, fresh work that isn’t a style as such and hopefully evolves and endures. Work that draws from the past but also feels very contemporary and tries to build on our rich tradition of letterforms in the west.





Class teaching Italic Calligraphy for beginners

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