Six years ago, Sebastian Lester was uneasy about the career prospects associated with type design. Now, he’s one of the UK’s leading typographers.
I didn’t realize you could work fulltime as a type designer when I applied for the job,” says full-time font designer Sebastian Lester. “I was worried that I might be going out on a limb.”
Despite his reservations, Lester has forged an impressive career, establishing himself as one of the UK’s brightest typographic stars. Since joining font foundry Monotype Imaging in 2000, Lester has helped design fonts for Waitrose, Opel, and British Airways.
He’s redesigned the mastheads for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers, designed the Barclaycard logo, and his Scene font family has been selected by Intel to feature in its branding.
Passion for type
He is passionate about type, but hasn’t followed a straightforward route to get where he is today. “I was always going to be a designer of some form or another,” he says.
“What’s been consistent in my work is an interest in craftsmanship and attempting to achieve a kind of objective perfection or ‘correctness’ in my work,” he says.
He started to gravitate towards type while studying in Birmingham, and later chose Central Saint Martin’s College in London on the strength of the student designed typefaces in the prospectus.
He enjoyed London, and developed his contacts book. After graduation, he got a lucky break – his first freelance job was designing a tour book for the Rolling Stones. He spent the next few years designing for the music and games industry, but it wasn’t his forte.
“I studied at the London Animation School,” he says, “but I didn’t do a huge amount of commercial work.” What he did do was font-based: 3D animated typography for a Genesis world tour, and animated typography for Konami.
At the same time, he was designing fonts for fledgling foundries like Garage Fonts. “I submitted some of my work when I was at Central St Martin’s, and they liked it. I guess most of the work I did at that point reflects the era quite strongly in that it’s quite experimental and irreverent.”
When he started designing type, his work’s usefulness was not his primary concern. “Designing type was a means of self expression more than anything else. That’s what’s changed the most,” he says.
Lester says the technical side of type design is often overlooked. “Type design can be a strongly creative area to work in but it has a pronounced technical side that can involve many hours of testing and debugging.”
He adds: “Extreme type design sounds like an oxymoron, but it requires an extreme amount of time, effort and patience to develop a large typeface family, which might cover all European languages including Greek and Cyrillic.
“The level of attention to detail when every contour, stem, or kerning pair is mathematically correct is extreme. I’m working on a typeface at the moment that will have 50,000 characters when it’s finished.”
Lester worked on Scene – the font family that Intel has picked out to use in its branding – for two years. “Scene was developed for corporate-identity use,” he says. “I took so long deliberating about character sets, shapes and x-heights.”
The work paid off though. “It’s one of the most legible typefaces around, even at tiny point sizes. And it’s widely used today.” Lester’s design process is detailed and painstaking.
“First I’d do some research online and in our library. I’d then spend some time sketching ideas on paper. I’d also speak to my boss about which ideas are worth taking further.
“I’d then design some test words specified by the client. Once we’ve settled on a design the client is happy with, it’s developed into a full character set, spaced, kerned and what we call ‘productized’. This involves making the font formats the client wants and testing in various software applications.”
Despite the obsession with miniscule details, Lester says it’s a rewarding process. “It’s great watching the launch unfold and seeing what people have to say about the new typeface.”
And while Lester was originally dubious about the longevity of a career on typography, he’s now optimistic about the future of type design. “There’ll always be an appetite for new fonts,” he says.
“Serif faces are starting to enjoy a renaissance as display faces, after taking a back seat to sans serifs for a long time.” And in the near term: “What I am most looking forward to is getting my new typeface out there. It’s a Pro font, which denotes a specific large character set and OpenType format.
“It’s provisionally titled ‘Soho Pro’, although I’m still not sure about the name. It’s a gigantic multi-weight, multi-width type family and I’m finally really happy with how it’s shaping up.”