One Minute With…
Hi Seb, thanks for taking time to chat with One Minute With. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I’m a designer and artist. I love letterforms and they’re the focus of much of my life. I recently moved from London to Lewes in East Sussex, where I now live with my patient partner, Pamela, and our cat Pye. I have been described, mainly by myself when I’m drunk, as a leading image maker.
Walk us through a typical day in the life of Seb Lester.
It varies, but I’m currently working on a huge Christmas campaign. First thing in the morning, before work, I go out on my BMX to a local skatepark. It’s a good way to get some exercise and think about what I have to do that day. I work long hours and tend to do my best work in the early hours of the morning.
When I’m not working I spend time with my partner, practice calligraphy, doodle, develop ideas and post stupid pictures on social networking sites. I try and socialise a couple of times a week.
How did you get into design? Was there a defining point in your career, and if so, how did it shape you as a designer?
I was always going to work in art or design. I suppose being offered a full time job as a type designer in 2001 was a defining moment of sorts. I was pleased when my typeface Neo was the official typeface of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and when I designed the book jackets for J. D. Salinger’s back catalogue. He signed the work off personally shortly before he died. I hope my book jackets didn’t send him over the edge. But when I look back at my life I hope these aren’t real defining moments. I hope they’re simply fun things that happened along the way.
How do you approach a new project? What’s your creative process like?
I try not to be a stylist. Bruce Lee believed in being ‘formless’ in his discipline and I aspire to be the same in mine. Ideally I want to try to constantly evolve and progress, with quality being the only theme running through my work. It’s easier said than done because clients tend to want to commission work that looks similar to something you’ve done before, which is often commissioned work based on other work you’ve done. But it’s achievable. No one would guess the project I’m currently working on, for example, had been done by me.
Time is the most valuable commodity we have, so I increasingly try to only take on projects that really excite me. If a job is too prestigious and well paid to say no to that can tip the balance as well. Otherwise my time would be much better spent working on new personal work.
When this client project is over I will be focusing entirely on a major personal project. I’ve wanted to do this project for three long years but haven’t been able to for a number of reasons. I’m very psyched up about finally being able to do it because it’s going to challenge me enormously. This project will happen. In all seriousness, unless Giorgio Armani calls personally to say he wants to fly me over to New York to write calligraphy all over Claudia Schiffer’s glorious naked body for a global ad campaign, I will be fully booked for six weeks.
Like a lot of designers, you sell prints of your awesome type work online. How beneficial have you found this?
Very beneficial, they’ve opened doors and kept me sane. I’d spent nine years designing corporate typefaces for clients like British Airways, H&M, Barclays, Intel, The Daily Telegraph and many others. I needed an outlet during this phase for my own ideas, which was why I developed the typefaces Scene, Neo and Soho. But they’re still corporate typefaces, which means they’re relatively conservative. They’re driven by functional requirements and common corporate aesthetic themes. I really needed a counterbalance to that so I started producing what are often very elaborate, intricate, showy, expressive prints. Thankfully people seem to like them. They sell well but, as time passes, I find myself less motivated by money. I’m more motivated by trying to fulfil my potential, whatever that may be, and produce the best work I am capable of.
You’re perhaps best known for two things: Great lettering, and fantastic fonts (such as Soho Gothic, Neo Sans, etc.) – How do the two disciplines compare? Which do you prefer, and why?
I love both. But designing typefaces can be a bit like designing currency or street furniture. Your work can end up being all over the place but almost no-one knows who designed it, especially when you work for a large corporation. With art and illustration it’s very different because work of this nature has broader appeal and people associate you with it more. I like that.
If, in some Freaky Friday-like situation, you could live the life of another designer, illustrator or creative, for a day, who would it be, and why?
Paul Franck. He was a calligrapher working in the 16th century. His most impressive work is a set of capital letters he produced. They look incredibly archaic now, but they have been described as the last word in flourishing. They’re so intensely florid and rich. He was very talented and I’d like to get inside his extraordinary head for a day to see what made him tick.
What design tools could you not live without?
I really just need sketchbooks, pens and pencils, a scanner and FontLab and I’m ready to go. I am burning through sketchbooks at the moment.
And finally, what tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in design?
Mother Teresa once said “Work without love is slavery.” Work hard. But think hard about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Ask for and respond to honest feedback from a variety of people. If you’re an illustrator be aware of trends but don’t partake in them. Find your own voice. The best work transcends fashion. It’s timeless and based on the quality of the idea and its execution. If you think and work hard enough the big clients will come to you. Life is a fragile and fleeting experience. Don’t spend all your time helping other people realise their dreams with your work. Aim to fulfil some of your own.