It’s truly an honour to announce this months ‘Lettering Legend’. Ruth Rowland is an active member of the Hand Lettering HQ group I manage on Facebook, and is often sharing her work. She is regularly inspiring group members and has been quite modest around her lettering career achievements. It might be that Ruth Rowland’s name is unfamiliar to you, or you may have come across her huge portfolio of work before. There’s a good chance you will have seen her work at some point though, whether you’ve realised it or not. As she has created lettering work for some really huge companies, including Coke Cola and the BBC. Ruth has also created lettering for a number of famous music albums too, including albums by James Blunt, Elton John and Van Morrison.
Ruth really is a perfect example of a ‘Lettering Legend’, she has an incredible body of professional work, and is regularly inspiring others by sharing her practice, play and experimentation, tools of the trade, along with the things that inspire her too. If you’re unsure of what a ‘Lettering Legend’ is, or how to qualify then you can find a detailed explanation here. To summarise though, a ‘Lettering Legend’ is a significant person from the lettering world that has inspired others.
Find information on making a career out of lettering, Ruth’s views on using social media to find work, and tips for dealing with awkward clients plus more in the following interview.
A lot of your lettering work is made using ink through calligraphy tools, brushes and brush pens. If the world went a bit post-apocalyptic and all ink sources dried up, what mediums would you use for your lettering work instead?
“I’ve always fancied carving letters in stone – sounds like it might be a good time to start!”
When did you first begin lettering, and how long was it before you were able to make a career out of lettering?
“I did a few freelance jobs while still a student – most notably for 4AD Records. This came about because Vaughan Oliver was teaching at Newcastle Upon Tyne, where I was studying a BA in illustration. He asked me to illustrate some lyrics for a Wolfgang Press album when he saw my hand lettering on a student project.
By the end of my Third Year I knew I wanted to explore lettering further and applied to study an MA at Central St Martins specialising in experimental lettering and typography. This meant I was now based in London, it was the late 1980’s so the internet was only in its infancy and it was important to be near design agencies and publishing houses to get work. Once I finished studying for my MA, I was well placed to make appointments with art directors and designers to show my new portfolio of lettering – it was nerve-wracking at times but eventually I started to get commissions. I worked out of a seedy rented room in Clapham, as a student I wasn’t used to having money, so I suppose I didn’t miss it.”
You’ve been commissioned to create lettering work across many different categories. Some of these categories include branding, book covers, album covers, advertising and television. Many of your commissions have come from big named companies including Cadbury Chocolate, Coca Cola and the BBC. How have your commissions come about for projects across so many different types of category?
“I still work for some of those initial clients I contacted at the beginning of my career. I’ve been through several recessions so I learnt to be opened minded and expand my search for clients. I started out working predominantly for the music industry but as time progressed added publishing and advertising agencies to my client list. Many of the jobs I do are high profile but I’ve always been happy working for smaller companies or individuals. When I started out, lettering wasn’t as fashionable as it is today, I wasn’t that worried about what type of job it was, as long as it interested me. Inevitably the larger jobs are more news worthy but I’ve worked on a lot of smaller jobs for books, bands, magazines and products that are less well known but have played an essential part in developing my business. I’ve also built some great relationships with clients which have helped progress my work, expand my mind and make my life interesting. You hear a lot about personal relationships in books and films but actually business relationships can be some of the most formative in your life.”
Twenty years ago the way of reaching people with portfolios of work was quite different. Do you think it’s easier for lettering artists to get their work found nowadays, due to social media and the internet? Or do you think it makes it harder, because so much more is being shared online?
“When I started out it was very unusual to see a portfolio of work. In some ways I think ignorance was bliss, you saw great work published in books and magazines but you weren’t overwhelmed by it, it gave you the space to develop your own ideas and direction. Art directors commonly made appointments to see portfolios, so you had the opportunity to make personal contact, present your work and get feedback. My work was mostly commissioned by London based companies and artworks were biked across the capital on completion.
It’s hard to know if the ability to work globally outweighs the increased competition as we compete online in a world market. At its best the internet has opened up the field of illustration and lettering to students so they understand it better. It can be supportive, inspirational and educational. I love that it’s possible to work with anyone in the world at the click of a mouse, send artworks in minutes or chat with someone in Argentina about some obscure letterform during my afternoon tea-break. I think marketing was simpler when I started out but the internet has certainly made life more interesting, even if it isn’t any easier to get work.”
As you have so much experience working with different clients, have you ever encountered any difficult ones? If so, what advice would you give to those starting their lettering careers on how to deal with difficult clients?
“Try not to panic. If you’re unhappy with a deadline or the terms and conditions of a commission, try to talk it through calmly. You won’t lose a job by asking intelligent questions and explaining your position, there may be a simple solution but you won’t know unless you ask. If a client is demanding, set limits early on about how many revisions you will do before charging more money, this can really help to keep a job under control and your relationship cordial. Tight deadlines, limited budgets and constant revisions to a brief can all make life difficult but are all part of the job, the only difference experience makes is that you learn to expect it and hopefully cope a little better.”
Is it best to be comfortable at lots of different styles of lettering or develop your own style?
“Lettering artists seem to make a living from both approaches. I think it’s more important to recognise your strengths so that your passion and interest shine out through your work, rather than follow a set formula for success. You have a lifetime ahead of you to explore different styles of lettering or become known as an aficionado in one particular area. Although I would like to say I planned my career carefully, in fact, it has developed as I’ve progressed, along with my interests and the opportunities that have arisen over the years.”
What advice or tips would you give those first starting out at lettering?
“Be prepared to work hard – there’s a lot of competition for a limited amount of jobs. Focus on your own ideas and interests (rather than someone else’s) and remember to give yourself time to develop, be patient with yourself, everyone progresses at a different pace. I’d always recommend studying if you can, my education was essential to my career, not just because of what I learnt at art college but because it gave me time to develop my own voice. And last but not least – be lucky! A little bit of luck can go a very long way.”
“Thanks for inviting me onto Lettering Tutorial, Tam, I’ve been following the good work you’re doing with some interest.”