Fred’s remarkable journey as a global wayfinding designer began with his impressive work experiences at major events like the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup in Qatar.
5 Days of signwriting
Joby is a signwriter and fairground artist who owns the famous ‘Carter’s Steam Fair’ fairground, which is the largest vintage travelling funfair in the world. Years of experience has led to Joby being one of the world’s leading experts on signwriting, fancy lettering and fairground art. I met Joby during a trip to his workshop for a project and was fascinated by his work, having never been exposed to the world of signwriting before. The precision and artistic skills that Joby possessed to have the ability to create such intricate lettering was amazing to me.
I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to take part in Joby’s 5 day intensive signwriting course this autumn. This was as a result of coming second place in his contest last year with my fairground-inspired logo redesign for Odeon. The Department offered me a place on his course as a prize using the Typography Student Fund. The course ran from 9am–5pm on Monday through to Friday, giving me 40 hours of teaching and learning with Joby.
On the first day, we were introduced to the anatomy of roman lettering and the reasoning behind the thin and thick strokes, which mimic the way the brush strokes when painting the letters. We practised precisely drawing letters, copying them from Joby’s examples but accurately measuring each length and angle and scaling them to a bigger size that would be easier to draw at. Having had lots of previous experience in typography from the Department at University, I enjoyed how well I understood the different structures of the letters. We looked at some different typefaces that signwriters commonly use, and again practised drawing these accurately. There was no painting involved on this day as it was all about nailing the shapes of the letters.
On day 2 we got the paint brushes out. Joby showed us how to prep the brushes and the paint, and the proper way to look after your brushes. We each received a brush, a palette, some dipping pots and a mahl stick. We were shown the specific way to hold the palette in your left hand in addition to the mahl stick, which is used to stabilise your right hand while holding the paint brush. This ensures smooth, straight brush strokes and acts against shaky hands. To begin with, we practised painting rectangles in order to learn to control the brush. Once gaining some confidence, we tried rectangles at a 45 degree angle, and then moved on to circles. Joby showed us the technique of twisting the brush at the start and end of the stroke to get a sharp edge, which seemed difficult at first, but practicing over and over again helped to improve technique. Methods like these are included in Joby’s book ‘Signwriting tips, tricks and inspiration’ which I found really useful to follow. Joby got us to use white spirit to wipe the paint off after each try so that we could reuse the boards over and over again. I then practised drawing out some different fonts, and wrote my name in the Switchback style, which I then transferred onto my board by rubbing charcoal on the back and then drawing over the letters again against the di-bond in order to create a trace of my sketch with the charcoal. I used the same green paint we had been practising with to paint within the lines of the letters as we were asked to use this paint up until the final day when we started our own signs due to the fact that it had a long drying time so that it could be more easily wiped off the practice boards.
The third day was similar to day 2, and started out consisting of a combination of painting shapes again and sketching out letters. Joby really wanted us to nail letter structure and brush stroke technique before we got stuck into painting letters. One particular style of lettering caught my eye from a sign of Joby’s in the room we were working – it had beautiful curved letters and flourishes. I asked Joby where I could find this font and he revealed that it was a new one he had designed in his new book ‘All the fonts of the fair‘ called Curveside Nouveau. I borrowed a copy of his book so that I was able to analyse and copy the lettering, scaling it up to a bigger size. I once again transferred my drawings on to the di-bond and carefully painted letters to make the word ‘Font’. This combination of letters allowed me to practise drawing different angled letters with variations of flourishes on each one. I painted some other fonts from Joby’s book and found it interesting how many factors influence the appearance of a font and create a different route for your paint brush.
Today, Joby taught us how to create a block to make a letter appear three-dimensional. This technique is often used by traditional signwriters to emphasise letters. Joby’s method allowed us to get the block drawn on accurately without fail. All that was needed was a piece of cardboard cut into the desired width of the block shape, and then with a 45 degree angle cut from corner to corner on one end to the other. This angle is then used to draw a straight line from each point of the face of the letter to create the effect that it has been extended outwards. The block is usually set to the left of the letter as this is often easier than having to block the curves that are often on the right side of the letter, but it comes down to a matter of preference. Joby demonstrated this to us by adding a block on the right hand side to his Waltzer sign. The E and the R are more complicated to do this way, rather than simply having to block their straight edges if it were to the left. This was a compositional choice that Joby decided on, due to the word Waltzer having more empty space on the right edge of the board.
I practised this method by adding blocks to all my previous letter sketches, it was interesting to see how the style of letter affected the shape of the block and influenced the overall appearance of the word.
I then practised painting the blocks after sketching them. Joby also showed us the effect of a stepped away block, which I did on the left T. This creates an extra outline around the letter face, which is easy to do, but creates the illusion of an extra effect.
In the afternoon, I began to plan the final design for my sign. I had fallen in love with Joby’s Curveside Nouveau due to the beautiful brush strokes and shapes it created when painted. I found it to be a very fun yet elegant typeface, and I enjoyed painting the subtle curves more than painting rigid letterforms. I originally wanted to paint the name of my village, which is a nine letter word. But for the size of di-bond we were given at 62x25cm, this would be too challenging to fit in. I attempted to condense the font, but due to the thickness of the strokes it was still impossible to be able to paint it at a big enough size. I decided instead to paint my house name, as it was only 5 letters and I would be able to spend more time perfecting and adding blocks and shading. To save time, I used some of the letters that I had already sketched out, drew the additional ones I needed and then cut and taped them together, adjusting the negative space between each letter to create a balanced layout. Here is where a lot of what I learnt about typography at University helped me with my layout choices. Having an L and an I next to one another means that there is a lot of negative space between the letters, so moving these closer together creates the overall illusion that the letters are evenly spaced.
On Friday morning, Joby showed us how to add a shadow to a letter. This helps to bring a letter to life and make it stand out from the background. This was more complicated than adding a block and took time to understand Joby’s demonstration. But I had a go at adding a shadow to some of my previous sketches.
I then started to paint my sign, picking out some shades of blue, that wouldn’t take too long to dry so that I could add layers of block and shading. I started with the face of the letter, then added a stepped back block in a lighter shade of blue for the vertical sections of the block. Once this was dry I used a darker French blue for the horizontal blocks which would be more in shadow. I also added some shading using this blue, to fade some lighter sections into darker parts. Finally, I added some decorative curls within the flourishes of each letter. I then decided to add in the word ‘Cottage’ in a small script copied from Joby’s book, underneath the main word. I painted this in the darkest blue which I used for the flourish curls, to tie everything in together. The script font was difficult to paint as the strokes were so thin, I used a smaller brush to help achieve more accuracy.
If I had had more time, I would have liked to try adding a shadow. However, Joby told me that it was more difficult for signwriters to add a shadow in addition to a block that is stepped back, so this would have been challenging for me. In future I would like to experiment with more bold colour combinations, although I liked the elegance of my blue sign.
I thoroughly enjoyed Joby’s course from start to finish and feel as though I learnt a great deal about the world of signwriting and the extensive process involved. Having background knowledge on typography from studying Graphic Communication was a huge help in my understanding of letter anatomy and dealing with spacing. But the process of hand drawing and painting letters has taken my typographic understanding to a whole new level. The act of using a brush to create the curves and the thin and thick strokes of a letter reveals why letters are shaped the way they are, and how they have evolved from the Roman alphabet.
I wish to continue practicing signwriting and the potentially utilise it in a future career. It has become a dying craft since the emergence of graphic design but is a highly skilled and fascinating trade that should be continued and passed down to future generations in order for it to be kept alive. I am so grateful to have been taught by Joby Carter, a highly respected and experienced signwriter who’s passion for the art of hand-painting letters is clear to see. I also want to thank the University and the Typography Student Fund for allowing me to have had this wonderful opportunity that I will forever cherish.
Interested in MA Communication Design? Join us at our Open Mornings and discover our 4 study pathways. Visit the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, chat with lecturers and current students, and get advice about how to apply.
Dates: Thursday 25 January 2024
Time: 11:00 am to 1:30 pm (UK time)
Where: Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading
THIS IS AN IN-PERSON EVENT
After a welcome from Dr Ruth Blacksell, Department Director of Postgraduate Taught Studies, a presentation about MA Communication Design will focus on our 4 study pathways: Book Design, Information Design, Graphic Design, and Typeface Design. This will be followed by a walk around the Department and a look at our studios, special collections, and printing workshop, ending with a tour of the current Department exhibition.
Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The highly esteemed Japanese design magazine IDEA dedicated an issue to the career of Toshi Omagari with the theme “Typeface design for the voice of the world: The Works of Toshi Omagari”. Toshi graduated with Distinction from the MA Typeface Design in 2010–11, and went on to work for several years for Monotype. More recently he set up his own foundry, and is now also a visiting teacher in the Department.
Toshi’s work spans both original work and revivals, and extends to numerous scripts: he is particularly notable for his work in Asian scripts for which there has not been extensive coverage in digital typefaces. He is also the author of Arcade Game Typography, the definitive book on arcade game pixel fonts, as well as numerous plugins to support font development. His teaching in our Masters spans workflows, design feedback, and approaches to global script design.
At the 2023 IIID Vision Plus conference, Josefina gave a presentation about her, Sue Walker, and Al Edwards’s work on the project ‘Information Design for Diagnostics: Ensuring Confidence and Accuracy for Home Sampling and Home Testing’, which looked at the design and usability of instructions for point of use Covid-19 lateral flow rapid tests.
The talk focused on Josefina and Sue’s experience of applying the research findings and the design approach to a set of documents explaining how to use a test for viral flu. The team developed a toolkit to support the creation of point-of-use instructions, taking account of views from diagnostic industry members to inform an understanding of how instructions are produced currently and what guidance might be helpful.
Plus, the IIID award ceremony closed the conference, and Josefina won an award in the Healthcare category for her work with CwPAMS on their Antimicrobial Stewardship Toolkit. Congratulations to Josefina!
Healthcare was the theme for the 2023 IIID Vision Plus Conference, held in the Design Forum in Vienna. Rachel and Josefina gave a joint talk about their ongoing work looking at documents from the Forms Information Centre Collection held at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication. The documents were produced by the British government in the 1970s–80s to guide citizens in navigating public services. These services included claiming benefits, accessing healthcare, supporting disabilities, and help for those with caring responsibilities.
Presenting at the conference was a good opportunity to share examples of healthcare-related documents that are held in this unique collection. They shared a brief timeline of what was happening during the time that these documents were being produced. They then shared examples of document design that were of particular interest during their initial work. These include how symbols, pictograms, and illustrations were used to communicate healthcare topics, and how colour and layout helped people understand their options and take steps to access public services.
A team of third-year students took on the branding and promotion for this year's degree show.
17 April – 21 July 2023
An exhibition in the Department charting the development of Chinese type and type-making technologies.
Chinese typeforms are the visual form or shape of Chinese characters in a typeface. They reflect the function of reading Chinese and the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy. Compared with Latin typefaces, the larger Chinese character set and the complexity and diversity of its typeforms have always presented a challenge to type makers, typeface designers, and typographers.
This exhibition charts the development of type and type-making technologies in China, from the invention of movable type in the eleventh century to the design of digital typefaces of today. It documents the rich variety of Chinese typefaces created in different eras using varied techniques and technologies, presented in high quality digital reproductions.
The exhibition is an abridged version of ‘Way of Type – Modernisation of Chinese typography’, originally curated by Jieqiong Yue and Zhao Liu, and is a collaboration between the University of Reading and the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. It represents the first exhibition in the UK featuring Chinese typeforms and type design.
Open weekdays, 10 am to 5 pm. Closed bank holidays.
Academic chair: Di’an Fan
Curators: Jieqiong Yue, Zhao Liu
Coordinators: Xi Yang, Ping Ju, Liping Du, Yanan Zhang
Assistant designers: Kui Zhu, Yue Chen, Peilin Song, Congyu Zhang, Kushim Jiang, Yangzhi Duan, Tengqi Zhaoxu
Academic chair: Eric Kindel
Curator: Xunchang Cheng
Visual designers: Xicheng Yang, Huati Wulan, Ahmet Berke Demir
Production: Geoff Wyeth
Thomas Mullaney, Yiyuan Ma, Li Xing
Min Wang, Mingyuan Sun, Zhongxiao Cong,
Xunchang Cheng, Guoyan Ji
China Foreign Languages Publishing Administration
University of Reading,
Central Academy of Fine Arts,
China Center for International Communication Development
Department of Typography & Graphic Communication
Co-Innovation Center for Art Creation and Research on Silk Road of CAFA
Arts Committee (University of Reading),
Shenzhen Graphic Design Association,
TypeTogether, LiuZhao Studio
Interested in the MA Communication Design? Join us at our Open Morning and discover our 4 pathways. Visit the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, chat with lecturers and current students, and get advice about how to apply.
Date: Tuesday 25 April 2023, 11am to 1:30pm (BST)
Where: Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading
After a welcome from Dr Ruth Blacksell, Department Director of Postgraduate Taught Programmes, a presentation about the MA Communication Design will focus on our 4 pathway routes: Book Design, Information Design, Graphic Design, Typeface Design. This will be followed by a walk around the Department and a look into the studios. In a Show and Tell session, you will get a glimpse of our special collections. We will close the morning with a tour around our current Department exhibition.
Interested in attending? Register here
This Real Job comes in the form of a contest, something fairly unusual for these briefs. Following a recent social trip to Carter’s Steam fair, a traditional English travelling funfair, members of the department began talking with attraction owner, event organiser and sign-painter Joby Carter. After learning more about his incredible talent and passion for hand painting stunning fairground signs, this competition was developed, giving students an opportunity to experiment with this highly niche style. To me, this seemed like an amazing way of trying a new typographic style, experimenting, and playing with this fun concept.
The brief of this work was very straightforward – to pick a brand and recreate its logo in the fairground style. While specifications of the deliverables were given, being digital or physical and being a 2000px square, the choice was left to us. Joby stated in the brief that he personally enjoys poking fun of serious topics and making the most of the jovial, light-hearted nature of fairground lettering.
Immediately having read the brief, I began thinking about the most serious business that I could put a spin on with this decorative, over-the-top lettering style. My mind raced to topics like finance, law and banking which quickly led to Legal & General, a financial services provider that’s been in operation since 1836. The history of this company was really engaging, reminding me of old legal documents, such as those seen below. The typeface used are highly decorative and ornamental, being somewhat like the fairground typefaces linked to the fair, allowing this to marry well, being a suitable and engaging brand to remake in this unique style.
Beginning this work, I started sketching different letterforms and concepts for a Legal & General logo, having looked through Joby’s work online for inspiration. I was immediately faced with a challenge – my lack of artistic ability. I typically refrain from sketching and drawing, knowing I am stronger creating things digitally. While eager to move onto Photoshop and Illustrator, I knew the importance of these fast-paced, initial sketches. While many pagers were created, below shows the strongest concepts.
Before meeting with Joby, I wanted to refine the better concepts digitally, giving myself a clearer direction going into the imminent feedback session. With my sketches being very rough, this would give a much more blatant presentation of my idea and how it may be executed. I quickly generated these designs, using the umbrella element which I thought was the strongest from this ideation. While the lettering itself was just a standard font, this would be changed later following the feedback.
Meeting Joby Carter
We then had the opportunity to meet Joby Carter, visiting his expansive workshop in Maidenhead. Hearing Joby talk about his work, his process and even watching him hand-paint some lettering was hugely informative for this project and style. The difference between typography and lettering was a really interesting idea mentioned by Joby, with his discussing how different they are treated and how lettering is a largely different skill. While getting masses of inspiration from Joby’s work and enthusiasm, it was clear this was not a skill that could be mastered quickly. I came to the conclusion that, while the hand-made, slightly imperfect appearance is key to the authenticity of this style, I would need to utilise some digital effects and techniques to get close to replicating the skill of professional lettering painters.
Following this event and the following feedback session, I decided to largely restart the concept. Knowing much more about lettering and sign-painting after meeting Joby, I decided to return to ideating, wanting a new concept that was more in line with how hand-painted lettering is constructed and designed.
Going back to square one, I went back to sketching, now having more focus on this style of lettering. These sketches were much closer to what I’d learned about sign writing, providing much more engaging ideas focussed on the letterforms themselves, knowing the rest could come after. Placing the focus on constructing the letters allowed the outcomes of these sketches to being much better foundations for the final outcomes.
For this process, there was much more switching between hand-drawing and digitally creating. Knowing that the imperfect style could only be achieved effectively by hand, I persevered with sketches alongside designing digitally. This allowed me to bring across the more rustic, authentic style of lettering without oversimplifying the designs digitally, using Adobe Illustrator to make things mathematically perfect. This also let me test designs digitally, deciding if the sketches adapt well into a digital space or not. While more time consuming, this meant that the idea I concluded was the best would undoubtably work. After some back and forth, I selected a sketch that was suitable, drawing out the key letters for the brands logo before digitising them. By creating the letterforms by hand, I knew that the end result would have the rich authenticity of hand formed text, but would likely be more challenging and time consuming to create.
I was already much happier with this concept than the previous design – this put much more focus on the lettering, adhering to both the brief and what I learned from Joby, with the careful crafting of the basic letterforms being the key to an effective, successful outcome.
Over this time, there was extensive tweaking and refinement to the characters, with countless iterations being used to mark milestones and save a history of the process to compare changes. The image below illustrates part of this.
Feedback from Baseline Shift
Baseline Shift provided another outlet for feedback on this design. The weekly session happened to be centred around getting advice and tips from various designers in and out of the department, allowing us to get helpful guidance from people new to the project. Wanting to take any opportunity for advice, I presented my current digitised lettering.
The main feedback I got from this was that it wasn’t fun enough. While this was partly down to the colouring, which hadn’t been considered yet, the overall composition was very linear and straight. The various typographers and calligraphers present all agreed that a more dynamic, free flowing structure would benefit this style much more, giving a more organic and fun sense to the letterforms and the overall branding.
I was also advised to use less strict lettering, ensuring duplicates of the same letter aren’t identical. This would allow the type to work better as a full flowing text, the letters adapting to work alongside those before and after. It also provides a much stronger sense of authenticity and a hand-crafted appearance, with each character seeming visually distinctive and individual.
Making Changes and Feedback
Wanting to inject some ‘fun’ into this lettering, I experimented with different layouts, using Joby’s work and other sign-painters works as examples for structuring text. After some quick trials, moving the two lines of text around, I settled on offsetting this and using exaggerated, large first letters. This more stylised appearance is more in-keeping with conventional letter painting conventions, immediately making it more fun and visually inviting. Adding vibrant colours and an offset drop shadow, common features of this genre, also helps quickly make this design feel more in line with the brief’s requirements.
Below are some variations of this concept, simply experimenting with colour combinations and for the main text, drop shadow and background. While still trying alternate background colours, Joby’s use of slightly off-white tiles for his lettering along with its function as a logo encourages me to use a plain white background. From here onwards, I would stick to a solid white background, feeling this had a stronger connection to Joby’s painted lettering.
At the feedback session, where I showed both my original and updated concepts, there was a resounding lean towards the newer concept. The more dynamic, varying design was much more visually interested and had the sign painting-esque appearance. I was given incredibly useful advice on the typographic balancing, and different parts of the letterforms to tweak to give more visual balance. However, I was told again to make the design more fun and inviting, potentially using perspective, distortion or warping to add further excitement.
While the added ampersand completed the logo, finishing the brands name with the simple & symbol, it was suggested that this could match the ornamentation below, adding more consistency to the overall design and making it feel more harmonious and unifying. With this knowledge, I will start making these changes, wanting to try adding a wave or warp stylisation to give the text even more dynamism.
One key takeaway from this stage was the colours – this designs dark green and murky pink complimented each other and the golden yellow ornaments well. I quickly concluded that this colour combination could be the basis for my final outcome, being highly suitable and similar to the wacky but visually pleasing choices of Joby Carter.
Refining the Letterforms and Warping
With this feedback in mind, I began to move forwards with the design. Despite my eagerness to play with the waving and distortion of this lettering, I knew I would have to correct the letterforms themselves before taking it further.
These corrections to the letterforms were very time consuming to alter – having created these letters by hand, these imbalances were much more prominent than having used an existing typeface by a more experienced typographer. But, as emphasised by Joby, a typographer and letter painter are very different professions, and building this type from hand ensures some imperfections and authenticity remains in the final outcome. The quantity of these changes is illustrated in the below images, where the key iterations are shown.
For example, the two ‘A’s are of particular interest. I altered the way the crossbar works on each one, the first having the curved stroke going inside the letter and the second going out. This tweak to the second instance allows much better balance, filling in the negative space and creating more visual engagement between the letters.
After a brief trial of warping the text in Illustrator, I concluded it would be simpler in Photoshop, applying a single wave effect to the whole design before reading the ampersand and ornamentation. Having quickly completing this, I created the drop shadow and a white stroke to separate the main text from this shadow. While beginning by offsetting a pink version of the letterforms beneath the main design, I then connected the two with hand, adding the outline in after. This subtly change made the design feel less artificial and impersonal, with the minor inconsistencies in perspective making the result seem much more personal and in-keeping with this disciple.
While not mentioned much, the ornamentation was something that subtly evolved throughout the design process. From its initial creation, this has been altered and tweaked, both in shape and style. I was advised to make this element have varying widths, looking less uniform and have a more hand-created style similar to the letters themselves.
While this began as a symmetrical component with the ‘EST. 1836’ text in the centre, I began experimenting with an asymmetric structure, creating more visual engagement and helping to account for the lettering’s visual balance. This structural change causes the umbrella to be removed from this element, but I knew it was a feature I wanted to include in the final design. Trialling different strokes and decorative flares (shown below), I found a solution which worked effectively, feeling balanced below the focal lettering.
During the final feedback session, there were much less tweaks to change (a reassuring sign). The main thing to note was the balance of the hanging ornament. It was said that fitting this ornament into the negative space below the wavey text, the whole concept would feel much more balanced and the two would marry together better. A straight bottom was also advised, helping to ground the flowing text to a horizontal line. This worked well, achieving both and giving a nice sense of visual balance.
I re-added the umbrella element, adjusting its stroke width to better fit the other similarly styled elements. Placing this below the enlarged ‘L’ and alongside the large ‘G’ helped to further balance this concept. It’s place here allowed it to be a relevant visual for the brand without over-complicating or crowding the design. The use of colour also helps keep the lettering distinguished from the ornamentation.
To add a final bit of depth and hand-made authenticity, I added a subtly gradient to the offset drop shadow by hand, allowing for some subtle imperfections. With this desire for a slight rustic feel being key to my design process and choices, I felt it important to continue it in every element.
Final Outcome and Self-Reflection
Looking back at the final deliverable and my process, this has been undoubtably challenging but very rewarding to participate in. This style of design, particularly the hand-made nature, is out of my comfort zone as both a designer and typographer. Particularly when developing initial ideas, I found this Real Job tough. Meeting with Joby Carter was the first step in the right direction, with his knowledge on the subject really helping in each aspect of the following design phases. The continual feedback throughout this work also helped immensely, allowing me to show different ideas and get alternative opinions on work.
While I by no means compare my work to that of talented, trained professionals like Joby, I am happy with my outcome. I believe it achieves the brief well, fitting the style of fairground lettering and appearing hand-made and authentic despite being a digital asset. While this is not what I expected to be doing on a Graphic Communication course, this project has given me an immense appreciation for this disciple and the incredible talent and craftsmanship that goes into making such effortlessly stunning hand-painted lettering.