My name’s Alison Carmichael, I’m a hand lettering artist and I’ve been creating hand drawn typography for about 20 years now. I work from a home studio in London mainly creating lettering for ad campaigns and brand marks but also have been involved with pop promos, body painting, lettering made from ketchup, whipped cream, sugar sprinkles and all kinds of different stuff.
I was interested in hand writing and drawing lettering from a really young age. I graduated from Ravensbourne with a graphic design degree and whilst on that course, I became interested in Calligraphy and illustration so incorporated that into my work. At the time I left college, it wasn’t really clear to me how I would make a career out of lettering but I did various work placements in different types of companies so that I could find out how things worked commercially and discovered that advertising would be a really good starting point to try and get some commissions.
What was the journey like from working with type and letters as a hobby/curiosity to somewhat of a job now? You’ve worked professionally in the field as a letterer for many years now, what was the most valuable lessons you’ve come across?
This was long before the days of online web portfolios so I did things the old fashioned way – I trudged around all the ad agencies with a small portfolio of work getting advice from all the art buyers and designers. I learnt pretty much on the job how to approach commercial briefs, how to research, visualise and work to a deadline and also how to market myself and project manage. It was a steep learning curve for a good few years as at that time, I didn’t have an agent and there weren’t really many other people of my age doing commercial hand lettering so I had no one to compare to. It certainly didn’t happen over night and it was only after about 7 years of working by myself that I decided it was time to get myself an agent because it was proving harder and harder to manage it all by myself.
I used to create style sheets which I would mail out to ad agencies to show them my work. It seemed natural for me to continue this when I created my website because when creatives are time poor, it can be helpful to just see an overview of styles to reference, even if just as a starting point to nudge things in a certain direction. I don’t think that it’s necessarily important to be completely versatile in all styles as a lettering artist. In a way, I think it might be better for aspiring lettering artists to specialise in an area that they can evolve just so they have something distinctive about their work to set them apart from everyone else. There are so many lettering artists now so finding a niche is pretty hard!
I generally work to commercial briefs which tend to be pretty specific so that’s what generally directs the style. But when I do personal work, I do find it hard to commit to a style of work! My main influences are designers from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s like Herb Lublin, Paul Rand, Alexander Girard and Saul Bass. I love the simplicity of their work and the elements of hand craft that makes their work so beautifully distinctive and individual.
My creative process always starts with a pencil and a layout pad. When a brief comes in, I’ll start by gathering any references, making a few notes and doing some very loose sketches. I use this time to establish a hierarchy of layout and shape of design and then gradually tighten things up whilst getting feedback from client along the way. Once the design is approved by agency and client, I will go ahead and create the final artwork by hand, scan in the elements and piece it together. Then depending on the finish required, it may be vectored but a lot of my work doesn’t require too much digitisation.
I work from home so no commute – I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘perfect work/life balance’ when you’re self-employed as you naturally take the work when you get it and sometimes that means have to juggle things a bit -I think designers are naturally obsessive creatures which helps.I actually don’t like it when I have too long a deadline. It’s typically my initial idea or sketch which is the one I go full circle and come back to! I’ve always loved doing personal projects when I have time as it is an opportunity to treat yourself to being the art director without client compromise. I love collaborating and I’m always open to using someone else’s skill set to push my own work in a different direction and visa versa.
There are so many trends in lettering mainly because instragram has created this incredibly vast global community of hand lettering artists. Trends naturally emerge but it is important for young artists to try not to emulate other lettering artists work and try to be original. This is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Sometimes it’s good to switch off the tech and try to find influence elsewhere.
I wish I had studied fine art and learnt how to paint properly! I think it’s a skill that I would get a lot of mileage out of. I think it’s all too easy to rely too heavily on digital means to create art and it can end up looking very homogenised and “samey” – creating art digitally can give instant gratification and therefore makes it tempting to do moreso than crafting something by hand over time. There’s nothing like pure hand craft to give an artist total individuality – the happy accidents that happen when you re painting using ink are often the nuances which make the work distinctive and unreplicatable.
I think that if you want to work in the creative industry as an illustrator or designer, you really have to be prepared to take constructive criticism well and not take feedback personally. I also think that these days with most of our communication happening online, it is very important to get out and try to meet people face to face when you can. You can make a much stronger impression in person and also, I think my biggest advice to any young aspiring designers/artists would be to be polite – people will always remember what you were like to work with and being polite, punctual with deadlines and just generally a great person to work with will take you a long way.