Sydney lettering artist Dave Coleman is passionate about letterforms, and the impact they have on our day-to-day lives. He also has a super quirky retro-style and a playful sense of fun.

Dave recently returned from TypeParis and we sat down with him to find out what makes him tick.

Describe yourself in few words.

Happy and positive. Equal parts energised and exhausted by contact with other people. Love drawing letters. Husband to Laura and Dad to Isla. Sometimes moody. Like learning about coffee, how to extract it and taste it. Love using Béziers to make nice shapes. Chronic people-pleaser. Enjoy identifying what I like, and then learning as much about those things as possible.

How did you start out as a letterer or typographer?

When I was a kid I was always drawing. I remember thinking bubble writing and block letters were so cool. I carried a ‘cartoony’ style with me for most of my years growing up and was always inspired by Looney Tunes, Disney, and illustrators like Terry Denton, Quentin Blake, and Dave Hackett.

I steered more into graphic design when I left school, but for many years worked for a children’s entertainment company, drawing caricatures for people in shopping centres and at events. I would always ask for the person’s name and scratch it with a Tombow marker at the bottom of the finished drawing. This, I believe, was my gateway into lettering. It was around this time that hand lettering was exploding, and greats like Jessica Hische, Jon Contino, Eric Marinovich and so on, were doing incredible stuff. I started paying more attention to drawing the caricaturee’s name than their face.

Around the same time, I began working as a junior graphic designer. It was 2012. My commute to work was about two hours both ways, so I’d use this time to draw letters. My improvement was slow but steady. I quit my graphic design job after a year, began freelancing, continued working on my lettering skills, discovered type design soon after, and here we are. I’ve been freelancing ever since.

How do you hone and refine your skills?

Learning on the job has comprised most of my creative education so far. Saying yes to a project requiring skills I want to posses, then hastily ‘acquiring’ those skills, through whatever means necessary/available and applying them to the project. Then repeating the process for the next job. Certainly not the best method for skills acquisition, but it’s the method I’ve used, for better or worse!

Attending TypeParis has been my most active participation in an educational program, and being a part of it for the last two years / three summers has been invaluable to my improvement as a type designer. Can’t recommend it enough if you’re interested in learning more about type design.

Master of One or Jack of all Trades?

Ooh, a bit of both. I get a lot of satisfaction out of a variety of disciplines, but in the last few years I’ve focused heavily on type design and lettering, and it’s been the best decision for me. Now I get to pour most of my energy and passion into type and supplement that with my interest in other things like animation, graphic design, illustration etc.

What advice or tips would you give to people who want to improve their lettering skills?

Lettering—particularly lettering that leans more towards writing/calligraphy, as opposed to more illustrative styles—relies heavily on muscle memory. There is a very interesting relationship between your body, the tool and the drawing surface. The more you practice, the more instinctively you’ll move, and over time the improvements to your letterforms will be noticeable. It’s a cliché, but one of the best ways to improve your lettering skills is simply to draw a lot of letters.

Tell us about your lettering habits. Do you have any daily rituals?

It’s easy to write the above, about practising lots. I wish I would practice what I’m preaching! I don’t have a good daily routine. This is due to a number of things, not least of which is my struggle with discipline and motivation. I have a generous helping of laziness baked into my personality, so I have to work to overcome this on any given day. However, perhaps paradoxically, I feel incredibly driven to pursue my passion for letterforms. I think this is at a higher level, so broadly I feel driven, but often struggle with the follow-through. Working through this is a journey. I tend to take advantage of moments of inspiration or an influx of creative/happy feelings and draw during those times.

How do you avoid creative burnout?

I consider myself very fortunate. I have a wife and a kid (with one more on the way!) that I love incredibly. Laura and I often make travel a priority in our lives, and we leave ourselves as open as possible to opportunities that come along (particularly when they involve getting on a plane and flying somewhere new). I think these things help stimulate my brain in areas outside of my ‘day job’. I try to avoid my phone and social media as often as possible (it’s a constant struggle). It sounds so clichéd, but it’s amazing to me how little I pause to appreciate nature, and how potently rewarding it is when I do. These things help avoid burnout for me.

What are your time and energy management strategies?

I’m a freelancer, so really the theory is that I’m in control of my time, and thus can find the sweet spot of busyness and down time. Obviously, it doesn’t always work that way, particularly when you add a growing family, skills development, and travel to the mix. Laura contributes a lot to the management of my schedule, so we work together to make sure I’m not getting overwhelmed. We try to identify what ‘too much’ looks like, so when new work comes in we can schedule accordingly.

Do you have any favourite apps or tools to run your business?

Over the years, and thankfully less-so now, I have been a real app-strumpet; hungrily searching for the newest and best tools for managing time, clients, projects, to-do lists etc. Sometimes this search would replace actually doing the work. Mark Simonson talks about this in his recently published article about procrastination.

I have since learned to simplify, and Laura and I now use a combination of OmniFocus for day-to-day scheduling of tasks, Mail.app for email, Calendar.app for calendars, Dropbox for cloud syncing, Dropbox Paper for rich-text note taking and collaboration, iA Writer for mark-down and plain text notes, Xero for accounting and invoicing.

At this point we don’t have a need for a dedicated client/project management tool, we manage just fine with the above.

Do you have help in your business or do you do everything yourself?

Currently, it’s just Laura and myself. I think this will change sometime in the near future, as I transition out of graphic design and more into type design. Type design projects take such a long time from inception to completion, so we’ll be looking for some part-time help, both in graphic design and in some type design production tasks.

How do you get new clients?

Word of mouth primarily. Historically my main sources were Instagram/Dribbble, and occasionally other social media platforms. Since entering more seriously into the type design industry, and spending some years building my portfolio, I’ve found referrals and recommendations have overtaken the random enquiries, and I think this is a good thing.

What excites you most about speaking at Typism?

Very few of those closest to me are actively passionate about type design or lettering. When I get opportunities to be around like-minded people, it energises me so much. I love it. I remember thinking about my Typism talk the other day, and commiserating with Laura “What if I bore them with all these specific, nerdy, type design concepts!?” Then I remembered that the people listening are there for exactly that sort of thing! And I got really excited.

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See Dave speak at Typism in September

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