Seb Lester has created typefaces and letterform based illustrations for some of the world’s biggest companies, publications and events, including the likes of NASA, Apple, Nike, Intel, The New York Times, The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and JD Salinger’s final reissue of The Catcher in the Rye. Previously a Senior Type Designer at Monotype for nine years, he developed custom typefaces for clients including British Airways, The Daily Telegraph, H&M and Barclays. But as he tells Steve Simpson, in recent years his love of calligraphy has pushed his work in exciting new directions.
Were you always a calligrapher? What was your first job?
My background is in graphic design and type design. One of my claims to fame is the first job I got out of college was working on a Rolling Stones tour book. I got a call after a designer saw my portfolio at my degree show at Central Saint Martins in 1997. I subsequently had plenty of lows in terms of my career, along with the highs, but it was a pretty exciting way to kick things off. I started doing calligraphy in 2011 almost by accident. My partner got very sick and I ended up being her carer for about 14 months. I couldn’t work; the only creative outlet I had was occasional sketchbook doodling with calligraphy pens. She is in remission now, fingers crossed, but it was a very tough time for us. Calligraphy started as a means of escapism and therapy for me and things progressed from there. I had no idea it would end up changing the trajectory of my career so dramatically. Some clouds do indeed have silver linings.
So we all love your little calligraphic movies? Is there a name for them?
Calligraphic movie is fine actually.
Were you surprised by the reaction you got with those?
Yeah, I really have been absolutely surprised. It’s been quite amazing the effect it’s had in terms of it’s really changed the trajectory of my career. I’ve got a very high profile now in terms of online following and I’m getting offered a lot of work that’s come off the back of social media and calligraphy. I could never have anticipated it. It’s really uncharted territory for me.
It was only 18 months ago when we were both speaking at OFFSET Limerick that the Instagram sensation had happened for you.
One of my films was shared on the official Instagram account. From that one post my followers went from literally 13,000 to 72,000 in 24 hours and now I’m close to a 1,000,000 followers now on Instagram. It’s quite bewildering really. My followers seem to come from every continent and every walk of life. The last time I looked there was a pet shop in Iran following me, a pole dancer in Las Vegas, and a kid in Mongolia was trying to emulate my calligraphy videos. That is a humbling, surreal and beautiful thing. The hand drawn logos project came about because I realised that almost everyone has a favourite logo. It occurred to me it was a great way to engage people from outside the visual arts. If I write out the Star Wars logo you don’t need to have to like letterforms or calligraphy to like the results, you just have to like Star Wars. Those logos are a demonstration of skill to some extent, but they’re really just meant to be fun little magic tricks. Calligraphy as entertainment.
So what are the main changes then in the type of commissions you’re getting since all of this has happened?
I mean I’ve been really lucky, to be honest. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve always been offered quite a lot of work and quite a lot of prestigious work, but now a lot of commission’s people want are more calligraphic in nature. I just did some work for Tiffany & Co. for their Christmas campaign they wanted some social media calligraphy so that’s a good example of the changing kind of work I’m being asked to do.
The way you price jobs must have completely changed.
It’s a very subjective thing and I always struggled with pricing. I think I’m certainly in a position to ask for more, as I can also offer to show work to my social media followers, the 1.6 million accounts following me now. I’m still trying to figure out the value of what I’m doing and it’s a difficult one. I’m completely overwhelmed and I’m currently I’m looking for an assistant to come and help me because I’m definitely at the point where I need some help in delegating because otherwise I’d just be spending all my time queuing in the post office which isn’t really what I should be doing with my time.
I’m sure there would be a long line of people queuing for that job, Seb. Are you finding time to do personal stuff because I know selling prints has always been a big part of your work?
I’m in a fortunate position at the moment as a lot of the success I’ve had, almost all the success I’ve had, has come from personal projects and putting out personal ideas and work online and getting people interested in it. And it’s something everyone really needs to make time for. I’m actually currently spending 80% of my time working on personal projects because I recognise how important it is do that and for my own development and I want to try and do profoundly good work, work that’s progressive and significant in a format that endures and I think the way I work to get the best results, I need to devote quite a bit of time to personal projects. My Jerusalem limited edition print, released last year, is one of my best pieces of work to date. I really pushed myself creatively and consider it something of a break through. There were a lot of false starts but I really put a lot of work into this one and I’m very proud of it.
Who or what has had the most impact on shaping your professional aesthetic?
I worked at Monotype as a type designer for nine years. I do like legibility and I suppose that stems from designing corporate typefaces, where legibility is paramount, for so long. I have very mixed feeling about that time, but it certainly laid the foundations for much that has followed. I had a great mentor there, Robin Nicholas, and I learnt my craft there. Robin was a great boss, he was patient and offered gentle guidance and support in the early years. I’ll always appreciate that.
You spoke in Limerick at the mini OFFSET, probably two years ago nearly now. You then spoke at OFFSET London so you’ve been building up to the big one. Are you excited about OFFSET Dublin?
I am excited but I’m a bit nervous. I know it’s a very big crowd but I’ve heard from the organisers that it’s a warm and receptive crowd so hopefully it’ll go OK.
And the fact that you’re the last speaker that means you have to buy them all a pint afterwards.
It means what?
Seb absolutely blew us away as the final speaker at OFFSET Dublin 2016. His beautiful work combined with his humour and wit meant he received a much deserved standing ovation to bring the house down.