A drop shadow, a flourish and a flash of inspiration

Jason Smith Inspiration
5 May’16

Ask me where and when the seed of Fontsmith was first sown and I might well turn to a book on the studio shelves. Herb Lubalin: Art Director, Designer and Typographer was published by Rizzoli in 1985, collecting together logos, letterheads, mastheads, posters, publications, advertising, book jackets and typefaces from the 40-year career of one of 20th century design’s most influential figures.

In 1992 I was studying Calligraphy, Lettering & Signwriting at Reigate School of Art. I’d been introduced to the work of Herb Lubalin by one of my tutors, Ben Manchipp. A female friend and fellow student also happened to own a book on Lubalin, and thereby secured my devotion, at least for a time. I was like, wow, this is amazing. All of it was hand-drawn, none of it was digital or based on existing typefaces.

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Compared to the kind of typographic developments that were firing up other design students at the time – the New Wave movement of digital type anarchy and the editorial work of Neville Body – the highly ornamented Lubalin look might have seemed terribly dated to many of my contemporaries. I never discovered Brody until I left college, I was purely into lettering and letter shapes and signwriting. This book was my introduction into graphics, almost, and to how letters could work together to form a logotype or packaging label… Doing things to letters to make them work as a single unit. Lubalin himself described his craft as ‘designing with letters’.

The book mysteriously came into my possession. And several flashes of life-changing inspiration followed. Lubalin’s art direction of magazines such as Avant Garde and Eros, which drew widely from art, illustration and photography, made me realise there’s a big world out there of really talented, specialised people that spent time creating commercial art for the public. And I realised I could be one of these people.

But it was Lubalin’s logos that had the biggest impact. The thing that made me go wow was the Mother & Child logo – the most famous logo that’s never been used (designed for a magazine that was never launched). 

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That ampersand within the ‘O’ just epitomises how typography can convey an idea, a message, an emotion and an intelligence. That, and his other logos, showed me why people pay designers for ideas, not for decoration, and that I could create an idea with letters; I didn’t need a symbol or colours or a style.

I talked about that for months with friends, family, anyone who’d listen. They were like, ‘Yeah, it’s good, get over it, Jason.’

The Mother & Child mark and all of Lubalin’s other logotypes started life as a rough sketch, of the kind collected on the book’s inside front cover.

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He’d use these sketches to convey his visual ideas to colleagues such as Tom Carnase, who had the craft skills to transform them into artwork. That thing of turning a sketch into a beautiful piece of lettering really resonated with me. It wasn’t just about crafting letters; it was about crafting an idea into a beautiful piece of design.

I developed an eye for design and shape and lines that hopefully makes a difference in Fontsmith’s work. That attention to detail and balance stayed with me, and it’s something I try to pass on to the guys in the studio.

All we can say is, thanks, Herb.

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