Delve into type designer Rob Clarke's prolific portfolio of letters, logos and custom fonts
You don’t often see a client list like Rob Clarke’s. From finessing the famous Capitol Records logo to redrawing Cadbury’s iconic ‘Glass and a Half’ icon, his custom logos and lettering have been wrapped around some of the world’s biggest and most beloved brands. Polo, Carlsberg and Smirnoff are just some of the recent names that have joined what is an already exhaustively impressive collection of clients that also includes game development giant (and Candy Crush creators), King. With a background in graphic design, Rob’s initial training as a calligrapher’s assistant is evident in his prolific body of work; a process that often starts with hand-rendered sketches. Working from his home studio just outside of London, he tells us about the challenges of tackling strict commercial briefs and how he carved out his own niche in the industry.
Lettering and Type Designer
London and outskirts
Assistant to a specialist calligrapher, London (1994–2002)
BA Graphic Design, Nottingham Trent University (1990–1993)
The Allotment, BBC, Bloom Design, Brand Union, Brash Brands, Bulletproof, Carter Wong, The Chase, The Clearing, Conran Design Group, Design Bridge, Dixon Baxi, Dragon, Duncan Channon, Elmwood, Farrow Design, FutureBrand, Identica, Interbrand, Johnson Banks, JKR, Lambie Nairn, Landor, M&C Saatchi, MLS Group, Moving Brands, Neumeister, The Partners, Pearlfisher, Prophet, Radley Yeldar, Rufus Leonard, Saffron, Siegel+Gale, Start, Taxi Studio, Together, Turner Duckworth, Venture Three, Williams Murray Hamm, Wolff Olins
How would you describe what you do?
I design logos and custom fonts both directly for clients and through collaboration with design and advertising agencies. I've worked on some of the world's largest brands including Air Asia, Carlsberg, Dulux, Tesco, Cadbury and Capitol Records.
What does a typical working day look like?
I start at 9am and work without much of a break until 3pm. I have a few hours away from my desk which involves picking my children up from school and cooking dinner. I then start work again at 7pm finishing at 10 or 11pm. This may not always be the case but it allows for flexibility when working for clients in different time zones, but most importantly gives me valuable time with my young family.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
After spending around 10 years sharing workspace with other design groups in London, I decided to work in my own studio which at the moment is in my home just outside of London. I was concerned it would become lonely and isolated but I actually love the independence…and the lack of a commute! Although I may not become involved with studio chit chat anymore I manage to properly focus on my work without many distractions and can play my music at a ridiculously loud volume.
How does your project-based work usually come about?
Nowadays the majority of my work comes through ongoing relationships or word of mouth. However I’m also active on social media and see opportunities here to promote myself. Being the right person for the job is something I seriously think about. What makes the client choose me over another? It might be something as simple as cost but it may also be reliability, delivering appropriate solutions to the brief, attention to detail, speed, or maybe just being a nice guy to work with?
“University allowed me the space to discover what it was I wanted to aim for as a career and focus on what drove my enthusiasm.”
How collaborative is your work?
Very collaborative, almost every job I do is (virtually) alongside a team of designers, account handlers and project managers. I strongly believe collaboration helps achieve better solutions. The process depends on the job but I might start with a marker or brush pen and do between 10 and 20 sheets of scribbles. I rarely write the whole word perfectly, often piecing together two or three sections. Once scanned and imported into Illustrator I draw a very quick vector over the top. Although some of the points may be in the correct position I don't worry too much about their placement as initially, I'm after a rhythm. I then push and pull the vectors around until I’m happy to present the next stage. When the client has signed off the final route I redraw from scratch with all the anchor points in correct positions, making final adjustments as I go along. Every job is different and deadlines are always tight but a typical project may take between three to five stages of development. I like to keep the client aware of my progress and welcome feedback as I work through each stage.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Unsurprisingly, the least enjoyable aspect of my job has to be the admin…tax returns, invoicing, chasing purchase orders and of course, chasing payments – I’m also not keen on conference calls. The most enjoyable aspects are having the freedom to work on a variety of projects, seeing my work in the environment and hopefully making a difference.
“I might start with a marker and do between 10 and 20 sheets of scribbles. Initially, I'm after a rhythm. I then push and pull the vectors around until I’m happy.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
It’s impossible to name just one. It can be exciting to work on a well-known brand that you’ve known for years and grown up with, such as Polo mints or Carlsberg Export for Taxi Studio in Bristol. But similarly it’s great to work on a fledgling brand such as Bronx Banner for Elmwood in New York or Glacialis for Carter Wong in London.
What skills are essential to your job?
The ability to analyse the brief and deliver appropriate solutions is probably the most difficult aspect of my job and takes experience to nail it. If you want to make a sustainable living from designing type and logos then time management is also essential. It’s easy to get carried away on an enjoyable project but you must have discipline and stick to a strict timetable. This doesn't mean cutting corners, on the contrary, it may mean working late in order to give the next project your full attention.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
Yes, but this is very rare. I hope to produce one or two self-promotional posters. Whether these will ever materialise remains to be seen.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Nothing special. Soft or mechanical pencils of various widths; Pentel markers; brush pens; paint brushes; layout pads or any scraps of paper lying around (backs of printouts). I use an iMac and the majority of my vector work is done in Adobe Illustrator, Fontlab but I’m just getting into the Glyphs app.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A policeman at first but then a computer games designer. I suppose I was a bit of geek at school and spent any spare moment creating games on my ZX Spectrum.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
There is no history of a design career and my family come from humble beginnings where nothing came easy, so I guess a strong determination and work ethic was instilled in me from a young age.
“I’ve learnt to not cut corners trying to save money at the detriment to the quality of the job.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Very useful. I studied general graphic design and still see myself as a graphic designer although what I do now is very niche. University allowed me the space to discover what it was I wanted to aim for as a career and focus on what drove my enthusiasm.
What were your first jobs?
I’ve only ever had one other job which was as an assistant to a calligrapher and it took a few years before I was let loose on real projects. At most, there were four or five of us but its small size gave me experience of dealing with all aspects of working life, including supplying estimates, presentations and time management.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Leaving suburbia and moving to London has to be the biggest step I ever took. It opened my eyes and made me more ambitious.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Not really but some years ago I worked on my own logo and this gave me licence to try a few different things. It proved pretty successful and gave me some exposure on a few blogs. Since then I’ve been asked to produce many other logos in a similar style.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’m constantly learning but my most important objective is to be creative. I try to keep up with technology and new software but I must admit I’m finding it harder and harder.
“Leaving suburbia and moving to London has to be the biggest step I ever took. It opened my eyes and made me more ambitious.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I’ve done a few silly things over the years but these are 99% based around money. Working without contracts can be dangerous and I’ve had my hand bitten on a couple of occasions. It’s always good practice to get the cost agreed before starting any work and if possible get at least 50% payment upfront. I’ve learnt to not cut corners trying to save money at the detriment to the quality of the job and have increasingly collaborated with the best and most appropriate people.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
No, it’s better! I guess I’m kind of lucky to find myself in the niche of lettering which has become increasingly popular since the turn of the century.
What would you like to do next?
I don’t really have a plan. Maybe do more self-initiated projects as much of my work is commercial and follows a strict brief. I think I work too many hours so I should probably work less and party more!
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I have no aspirations in setting up a larger company with people on the payroll. I’m happy with my situation; I would have loved to work in a different city or country but this passed me by what with starting a family…but never say never I guess! Over the last few years I’ve tried to mentor and help whoever I can that shows an interest in a career in type. On this basis I would love to continue to give something back.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a type designer?
There are an increasing number of designers emerging under the umbrella of ‘hand lettering’ so think about what will make your work stand out. Be versatile; if you don’t have a particular style then you may fade into the background but having a strong style may also deter potential clients. Have patience, don’t expect things to happen overnight. Challenge yourself, take risks and be proactive, sometimes work can appear from unexpected places. Do your homework, read the brief thoroughly, ask questions and research the client or company you’re working for. Don’t sell yourself cheap and don’t work for free unless there is something in it for you. Most of all, have fun, follow your passions and love what you do. In the words of Steve Jobs: ‘The only way to do great work is to love what you do.’
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Rob Clarke