Jon Contino is a New York based lettering artist who has built up a body of work that has caught the eye of many. The style in which Jon creates is very unique and isn’t confined to levels of perfectionism that are almost impossible to achieve by hand, and can stop some lettering artists from ever progressing. His skills don’t just centre around lettering, he is a proficient illustrator too. Jon combines his lettering and illustrative skills to create original well executed pieces of work that have a lot of thought put into them. His work is not just limited to paper or the digital world either, Jon has created mosaic murals and his lettering has been used on apparel and will soon feature within his own line, the ‘Contino Brand’.
By working hard Jon has encountered some amazing opportunities throughout his career. He has worked with The Art Directors Club, Adobe, Harper Collins, Microsoft, Jameson Whiskey, Element Skateboards and Nike. There are many more established brands, businesses, magazines, organisations, entertainment providers, fashion entities and others that Jon has had the pleasure of working with too. He has also been honoured with various different awards whilst working as a lettering artist.
Jon is very deserving of being classed as a ‘Lettering Legend’, he has inspired many with his way of working and has helped to keep a classic vintage style of lettering alive. Jon has created lettering and illustrations for packaging and clothing that not only inspire artists alike, but the people that end up with those products in their homes and businesses too. He has also at present created two Skillshare classes, Illustration and Lettering: A Hands-on Approach to Label Design and Layouts for Lettering: Hierarchy, Composition, and Type Systems. In both of these classes he shares his knowledge, skills and passion for lettering in an honest and helpful way.
After reading the following interview you won’t be left struggling with how to start lettering if you haven’t yet begun, as Jon shares some really specific tips. He also talks about how he was able to come up with so many different lettering concepts for the Book of Life film, how he was able to get past imperfection in his work and discusses more too.
To learn about what a ‘Lettering Legend’ is and how to qualify you can find more information in the ‘Lettering Legends’ Intro article. If you’d like to view previous ‘Lettering Legend’ interviews you can find them under ‘Resources’.
You get the opportunity to design a monogram and rebrand any existing superhero, which superhero would you choose and what style of lettering would you apply to the monogram and rebranding?
“Ironic question because I literally just finished a project doing branding for a superhero, but I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about it yet. If I had to pick a different one, maybe I’d go with Spawn? I feel like he could use a little updating. I’d probably make it a weird neo-gothic style with a hint of modern linework to make it feel a bit more up to date.”
A lot of your lettering features textures that look hand made, is this the case and do the textures get transferred when you digitise your lettering or do you add them after? Do you have any tips for applying texture to lettering?
“It’s actually a little bit of both. I’ve been photographing and collecting textures for almost 20 years, so any time it’s not hand-made, they’re pulled from a vault of stuff that I’ve been hoarding for the better part of two decades. Honestly, every single time I apply a texture it’s an experiment. There’s no one way to do it and a lot of times I’ll mess around with it so much that I won’t be able to duplicate it again. It can be a Photoshop layer, Illustrator noise, scanner experiments, iPhone experiments, or just plain hand-distressing. Whatever the piece calls for really.”
Packaging and product design are both areas where lettering is often used. When working on these types of projects yourself do you plan and create the lettering to specifically fit the product or packaging you’re designing for? Are there any other things that need to be taken into consideration when designing lettering for this kind of work?
“Every single project is the same. There’s a problem that needs to be solved and a means to an end. It doesn’t really matter if it’s packaging or a billboard or a logo. Everything follows the same path of execution. The only difference with packaging is that a lot of times you need to consider the legalese that’s there for one reason or another and how to work that in. Sometimes it’s hand-drawn, other times it has to be a font for legal reasons. If it is though, I try to accommodate that into the style of lettering so it doesn’t look super out of place.”
You collaborated with 20th Century Fox to create lettering, illustrations, branding, a font and more for the Book of Life film by Guillermo Del Toro. You came up with so many different and varied styles of lettering when designing for the project, and retained a high level of consistency throughout. How did you keep things so consistent whilst coming up with so many different lettering styles?
“This is one of those intangibles that’s hard to describe. For that particular project, we had a world that was already extremely vivid before I stepped into the branding side of things. We also had the Day of the Dead as a backdrop. So between those two things, there was basically an infinite amount of possibilities of how to put it all together. For me, I like to get engrossed in the topic. Research takes up about 50% of the work I do, at a minimum. If I’m not living and breathing the world I’m working in, then it’s next to impossible to create realistically for it. I remember one of the best compliments I ever received was from the film’s creator, Jorge Gutierrez. He said, “I can’t believe you’re not Mexican!” It was really funny at the time, but I mean, just hearing that meant that I got into the swing of things just right. I felt really accomplished hearing that, so I knew that my mindset was exactly where it needed to be to go off and create all the pieces necessary for the robust branding package.”
Some artists strive for perfectly smooth and crisp edges in their hand lettering, however sometimes this can take away from the hand made look and feel of work and eliminate character. You’ve built a strong portfolio that doesn’t rely on portraying smooth perfect edges in all cases. Did allowing character to show in your work come naturally to you, or was it something you needed to get comfortable with over time?
“Years ago, before I really went down the path of hand-lettering, I was a wannabe typographer. But my hand shakes, I have no patience for anything, and the concept of doing things a thousand times to make them perfect sickens me. So instead of fighting it, I decided to embrace my limitations and just do what my body was telling me to do. The second I realized that it’s ok to make mistakes is the second it all fell into place. Finally I felt comfortable and free to draw however, and it felt gratifying. When you’re younger, you feel like you have to be a certain way in order to achieve your goals, but sometimes you need to evaluate who you are and what you’re capable of and take it from there instead. The more and more I drew things naturally, the more I realized I was able to be honest with myself as a designer…and a person for that matter. It’s a lot easier to be inside your own head when you can handle the things bouncing around in there. As a creative person, it’s pretty easy to feel like you’ve got crazy thoughts that should never see the light of day. But a little guts and a lot of honesty can go a long way.”
Is it best to be comfortable at lots of different styles of lettering or develop your own style?
“It depends on who you are. Being flexible is always great, but so is being an expert in something no one else is. I feel like it depends on what your goals are as a creative. Then again, I believe it’s possible to be great at a ton of different styles, but still achieve them through your own voice. I feel like that’s probably the best solution if you’re constantly struggling with that question.”
What advice or tips would you give those first starting out at lettering?
“LEARN THE BASICS OF TYPOGRAPHY FIRST. I cannot stress this enough. So many people want to just start out doing lettering. It DOES NOT work like that. You cannot break the rules unless you understand them first, and lettering is all about breaking the rules. Learn how to draw Helvetica, Garamond, Bodoni, Clarendon first. The cornerstone styles of what type is. You need to understand these before anything. Then learn how to draw with script. You don’t have to become a master calligrapher, but at least learn about it. Then learn how ligatures and swashes and flourishes should work when they’re integrated into words and phrases. Then double check to make sure you understand composition, because if you don’t, what you’re writing won’t make sense. The flow of the words is more important than how they look and for some reason a lot of people forget that part. Lettering really isn’t something you should just dive into because you’ll get into a lot of bad habits very quickly. Learn the foundation of type, then experiment with it when you’re comfortable.”
More from Jon Contino
If you would like to see more of Jon’s work he has a large portfolio on his website joncontino.com where you can view his projects grouped into sections. You can also find Jon on Facebook, Twitter, Dribbble and Instagram.