Calligraphy, Lettering & Growing with Instagram – An interview with Ian Barnard

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Ian Barnard, started his career as a generalist graphic designer. But after learning calligraphy for fun, and documenting his progress on Instagram, he attracted big name clients allowing him to specialise as a hand lettering artist. The growth and success of his Instagram feed has also allowed him to develop digital products, courses and more to generate a passive income too, meaning he no longer needs to work with clients.

In this episode we discover how Ian got into calligraphy and hand lettering, the books he used to reference and self critique his lettering work. We also discuss how he used Instragram to grow his business, as well as tips and advice for posting on the platform to attract opportunities.

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Ian Barnard Interview Transcription

 

Ian Paget: Here today you’re a hand lettering artist and I know that’s quite a specialist thing and I can imagine that in the beginning you didn’t start that way. So just to give some background, how did you get into hand lettering?

 

Ian Barnard: So, originally I was a graphic designer. I went through college courses, got a job in graphic design doing quite simple stuff. And then, worked seven years at my first job, left there, then I got a part time job working for a magazine. So I was able to work two days for myself, over a seven year period, build up a small bank of clients, and then leave to go full time freelance. It’s quite a scary thing to go from five days, with employment to five days of “you’ve got to get all of this work in”.

I decided to leave the magazine I was working on, because I was really stressed with deadlines, and it was actually on the day I left that my second child was born. I literally got the magazine to bed, sent it to the printers and came home, picked up my wife, went to hospital, then two hours later my son was born. So, that was an interesting day. If I’d moved house at the same time, that would have been three of the biggest events that you normally do in a lifetime.

But the reason why I got into lettering… Firstly I got into calligraphy. For those who don’t know what the term calligraphy means, it’s derived from beautiful writing.

In evenings my wife would feed our son. The last time when it was my daughter, she chose the whole 10 series of friends to watch, cause she had about 30, 40 minutes while she was feeding her. I was quite a big fan of friends, so I was watching it with her, but this time around, with my son she chose Downton Abbey, and I’m not a big period drama fan. So I wanted to do something else, and I decided I’m going to learn a craft, rather than go back to TV or on the computer.

And so I decided to learn calligraphy. It’s got letters in it… I work with some typefaces and it links with that… roughly. I went on Google, found Calligraphy for Dummies, because that was the level I was that. And then I just started practising every day for 30 minutes to an hour, solidly for six months, because I’d fallen in love with it.

But because you’re making such small progress, day in day out, you have to record what you’re doing. So I used Instagram as a catalog tool. People were using it to catalog what food they ate for lunch, so I was cataloging my progress, just for my own personal gain to see that I was getting better.

But in that process I started to gain a following of people who really liked watching my progress. Either learning from what I was doing, or just the satisfaction of seeing someone writing that way. So that was my introduction into the world of hand lettering.

So I would do calligraphy bits, or I would hand letter a quote. And I just kept on doing that. I’ve always been involved with type, but only as a user of fonts. I never thought that actually I would be on the other side, where I’ll be creating fonts from scratch.

And that’s also led into me building my first typeface, which I never thought I’d do. I thought only certain types of people did that, and I never thought I’d be that person. But niching down opened me up to a whole world of new opportunities. Making a typeface, I never thought that was something I would ever do. It never crossed my mind until I started lettering.

 

Ian Paget: Something I’m curious about… Learning calligraphy… I wouldn’t expect that to turn into a career. So, when you was learning that at the beginning whilst your partner was watching Downton Abbey, was that just for fun, just as a hobby?

 

Ian Barnard: It literally was just starting out as a hobby. There was no intention of “I’m going to practise this, then it’s become my business”. It was literally “Oh, I really enjoy doing it because it was really traditional”. We’re talking traditional dip pens, so I’d have to dip the pen in the ink, write out a couple of letters, go back and dip it in the ink. So you need to have quite a bit of patience. And it was quite a slow process.

My handwriting is terrible and it’s still terrible. People think “oh, you’ve got beautiful handwriting”. No, I’ve got terrible, terrible, terrible handwriting. Calligraphy hasn’t fixed that. I learned just one letter at a time rather than writing in long sentences in a certain style.

But what did happen a year or so in, I  thoughts maybe I’ll experiment doing a logo for a local church I was doing some work for. Every year I do a poster advertising Christmas carols. And I asked… could I hand letter this for you? It’s going to take me three times as long to do the project, but I’ll only charge you for how long it would have taken me to do just using typefaces. So I did that. They loved it. I really enjoyed doing it.

I thought maybe this can be something I can do as an add on to my design work. Say if you want a logo, I might be able to letter that for you… customise it a bit more.

So it went from there. It wasn’t an intentional thing. It was just like, “oh, hang on a minute… maybe this is something I could do”. And I think what also helped was that I was purposely pushing myself to work in illustrator using the pen tool. So I’d do something on paper, like a logo, and then I’d try to redraw that in illustrator. I was determined because the pen tool is one of those things that you either love or hate, and it’s quite intimidating, and I know a lot of designers find that.

There was no way I was going to get better unless I spent time just doing it. Sometimes I’d only practice because I got a job in. But I often practiced by making up something like a logo, or a quote… just a few words, or a pretend brand. I’d do it just so I’d have that practice and then I could post it to dribble or Instagram so people could see that I was doing it, and maybe someone would hire me to do a logo like this.

 

Ian Paget: I think it’s really cool that you had the confidence at the beginning to share your progress. I think with Instagram in particular, a lot of what you see when you scroll through is all this flawless, perfect work from the best artists in the world. It can be quite intimidating to share your work. But I like that you was posting.

I guess it’s because you seen it as a hobby, rather than something that would attract work. It was just documenting your process and sharing it. I think that’s a nice way to think about social media, and hopefully inspiring for anyone that’s listening.

 

Ian Barnard: I think I’ve always had the ability to not worry. I think I worry now, but at the beginning when I’m doing something, I don’t worry what other people think. But I do now.

Something that I try and encourage, and it’s something I heard from Gary V, was to close your eyes for two to three years. Don’t worry about what other people think. No one really cares. No one cared at the beginning. You can look back on my Instagram feed and see the minimal amount of likes and comments. At the beginning no one really cares. And that’s a good place to be because you don’t then get caught up thinking “no one’s going to like this”.

My likes now can fluctuate between tens of thousands. I’ve got quite a contrast between something that only gets a handful of likes to something that gets a thousand likes, and that’s quite a massive chasm. Whereas before, when no one was really following me or no one was really looking at my work, I could experiment more and not worry about what people think. And it’s the same with how I worked with YouTube as well.

The problem once you get a small following, you then start to worry about the quality of what you’re putting out. I find that harder now because it makes me less inclined to post because it’s not as good as I could do it. I don’t think I should post that now. Whereas before I was loving creating, finding this new thing. There was no pressure to do. It wasn’t that my income was based around it yet. And so I was just doing it for the enjoyment. Whereas now I’m still doing it for the enjoyment, but I’m also conscious that this is my main income source.

 

Ian Paget:  Yeah, I understand. You want to be seen as the expert. I think that’s a shame because if you thought about it as an offline thing, and people or other designers were coming in to see you, you would sit there and say “Oh, I’m just playing with this. It’s not perfect. But that’s what I’m working on.” You would show that work, so it’s somewhat of a shame that you’re not comfortable to share that now, because I don’t necessarily think it would make any negative impact. But I totally understand it because it’s your main source of income and you’re doing courses and products and all this other stuff around your thing. I completely understand, but I do think it’s a shame.

 

Ian Barnard: I do share share rough stuff, but what I appreciate with Instagram is that they’ve got stories, so I share all my rough stuff there. But I’ve been finding it harder to post recently. I’ve been posting really regularly for the past six years and so you just sometimes get to a point where you don’t know what to do. And sometimes the ideas don’t come.

For me it’s not about the likes really. If no one interacts with it… it’s just all quiet. No one loves it. No one hates it. There’s that sort of indifference, and you say don’t worry, but you do worry. Everyone wants to be liked, that’s the problem. And I think the social platforms emphasise that and it’s just getting that out of your head. No one really matters. Instragram just want to see a regular post, and the algorithm just wants you to post regularly, up to a couple of times a day. Sometimes at the moment I’m just posting once a week to my main feed.

I’ll post regularly to my stories, but, sometimes I’m just like, “I don’t know what to do today that I haven’t done a million times before”. I really appreciate it, but it’s just a weird place to be. You make a name for yourself and then you’re trying to not let that be something that stops you from posting.

 

Ian Paget: I think it’s good that you’ve mentioned that because I’m sure there will be people that will be listening that can relate. Have you found any useful ways of getting out that rut? When you don’t know what to post? I looked at your Instagram yesterday, and you have well over 400,000 followers now, which is phenomenal. All the stuff that you’re posting… going through your feed is incredible stuff. It’s really inspiring, but it’s surprising to hear that someone that’s at that level is having doubts and having insecurities about posting things.

Have you found any way of getting out of that rut or is it just that you get to a point where you think “I haven’t pasted in a week, I should post something” and you just get on with it?

 

Ian Barnard: The things that really helped me if I do is focusing on things like “How can you help someone?” If I’m going to post something, I need it to either be helpful so people learn from my post. It needs to be inspiring, so making sure that the description is a bit more thought out, so “why have I posted this?” What has it got to do with my life? Rather than just putting an emoji like a thumbs up. Does it reveal something of my process? People really like seeing people’s process. Do I explain what tools I used, how I got there?

So I need to make sure it falls into one of those categories rather than just posting something like “I’ve done this” and that’s it. End of. It needs to be something that’s going to resonate with my audience.

Sometimes I just can’t think of anything to post. I’ve posted so many times, sometimes it’s just hard to think, and I have a blank.

My most recent posts was about doing exercises to help you get out of that rut. So just doing stuff that’s quick exercises in creativity. Maybe have six circles and you need to make those circles into some sort of character. Or use letter grids, part of the products I sell, here’s six of them, fill out six letters in totally different styles.

I’m not really good with colour. So, here’s a limited colour palette, like black, white and a colour. Just use those colours to make something. Make three objects that sing around your studio.

So I’m trying to get into more exercises. If you’re going to the gym, you wouldn’t just go straight in and just lift the heaviest weight. You would do a bit of warm up first. And I think that’s why I’m trying to get myself into… more of a warmup to get my creative juices flowing.

 

Ian Paget: I like that concept as well because in the position that you’re in, having that 400,000 following, I think you doing those exercises will give something for others to do. So they might see the exercises, and think I’m going to try that as well.

Earlier in the conversation when you mentioned about practicing calligraphy, you did one letter at a time and really focused on that one letter. I think that kind of exercise is quite useful. I’ve done some studies of typefaces myself, and I’ve always been surprised as what you should do in order to make it right. How did you go about knowing that you’ve got the A right, the B right and so on. Was you referencing some material or was it just a case of drawing it over and over and over until it looked right?

 

Ian Barnard: So earlier I said I used Calligraphy for Dummies, and that’s what I started off with, and that was quite good because it was a range of different styles. But I finally settled on one style, which was called Copperplate, which is that traditional script style. I thought, I really, really love this style.

And so then I moved onto this book called Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy, by Eleanor Winters, if anyone’s interested in getting that. In her book it would go through letter by letter. That’s why I was doing it. And so I’d have her reference. I’ve still got all this stuff in my loft of pages and pages of me doing an A, for example. If anyone looks back through my Instagram, what I love is the fact that I haven’t perfected my feed, I’ve left everything, all the original posts are there, where there’s loads and loads of me doing an O.

This works in all areas of the creative industries that you look at your work, and the reference you’re trying to practice from and you’re self critiquing. Not in a negative way, but you look at it and you think, where are my letters falling down? Where is the weight in the right place? Is the angle consistent over them all? Is it hitting the right place in the baseline on the X height?

In the middle of the book, once you go through the letters, it then goes on to self critiquing, and she shows a before and after example and what you’re looking out for, and I think that’s really important. Whatever you’re doing is to look at the work, and consider how can I make this better, and that really helped me to understand how to take it to another level.

I see a lot of people lettering, but they’re just doing it with no reference, or not gone through a course or through a book, and just hoping by practicing it’s going to be better. But the problem is if you’ve got nothing to reference, you don’t know if you’re getting better, or how to make it better.

So what I recommend people doing is taking a step back, looking and going through it and marking out what could make it better. Is this all following the same weight? Especially with type design and lettering, there’s certain things like consistency of weight throughout the letters, consistency of the angle if it’s slightly slanted like script is. It’s those little things that can really move your work from good to great.

Especially logo design in general, printing it off and going through with a red marker and just highlighting areas where it just doesn’t sit right. You get that by doing that process a lot and looking at a logo that is weighted right and just seeing “okay, that’s what they’ve done there”.

That’s how I would get better. It was looking over my letters and seeing whether I’ve got it, and then I’d move on to the next letter. Also I’d get to a certain point and I go, okay, it’s just about right, let me move on to another letter or I’ll get really bored of doing the same letter every day.

The thing is with calligraphy it’s just shapes. I think when I first started I over complicated it, but actually it’s just circles or lines, and what you’re doing is trying to get your head and your hand working together so that those circles look right. What you’re trying to do is a draw a nice oval shape rather than a potato shaped circle that’s a bit wobbly and uneven. The lines just need to be lines, and the more you draw a line, the better you’re gonna get.

 

Ian Paget: I really like that whilst learning, and you’re still doing it today, you’re quite self aware of when something’s not quite right. And it sounds like that book, if it does teach you how to be observant, and critique your own work, then you’re going to be continuously improving. I definitely think that’s one of the key reasons why you’ve progressed your skills and have become so incredibly talented with hand lettering, because you are able to create something, step back from it, look at it in a different way and analyse and critique your own work to develop it further.

 

Ian Barnard: Yeah. But I’ve got a caveat to that. When I’m recording a video of me doing something, it takes me between half an hour an hour to do the piece, it can then take me three hours to edit it. So the problem is that I don’t spend as long on the piece for Instagram that I normally would. And it’s something I heard in a video recently where the person said, I’m going to stop trying to get to 100% perfect on my videos, and just do them 70% so I can actually get them out.

So what I think I’ve been struggling with is that if I’m doing a sign or logo for someone, I would spend a lot more time on it because it’s for a client. Whereas when it’s for me and for posting to my Instagram, I have to be quite quick and I don’t have that luxury of that time to refine it over and over again. I know there’s things I can improve, but it’s up on there and it’s done. But I wish I’d spent more time on it. I wish I spent more time refining that A, or whatever that may be. But, it’s getting into mindset of being happy with that 70% because it means I’ve got that content out there.

Like for instance, with YouTube it’s a great mentality to have, to do it to 70% because just getting the content out there helps you to become a better YouTuber, rather than worrying for ages about this a 100% video that nobody will ever care about, but you’ve spent forever on it. You don’t get to decide what is going to be popular and what’s not.

Some of my most popular posts or products have taken me less time, and I didn’t think they would do very well. Whereas some of the things I’ve really scrutinised over have done rubbish. So you don’t get to decide what’s going to be amazingly liked or commented on, but putting out post after post for yourself, some of those will really connect with people. You don’t know what that’s going to be and that’s been what’s helped me to get to a certain level over the last 6 years, to just keep posting, and to not worry, to just keep posting.

With digital stuff there’s no finite, you can just keep going, and you can keep tweaking it. But posting is a bit like a deadline with a client, when it’s done, it’s gone… It’s finished, which you need to do to be able to move on to the next one. And I make that next design a little bit better rather than just staying on one project forever.

 

Ian Paget: I think that’s the way you need to be. I’m like that with client projects, and my podcast too. I set aside time in my diary, and I have to get it done on time. You work through it, you get it to a point where it’s good enough, and you put it out there. It means you get it done, it helps others, and it helps you too. I very much doubt that you would be where you are now if you worried about to getting everything to be 100% perfect.

 

Ian Barnard: There’s a book that I recommend called Atomic Habits by James Clear and it’s all about getting rid of old habits, and starting new habits. There’s a story in the book where it talks about the British cycling team, how they were rubbish for ages until they bought on this new coach who suggested that instead of just looking at one area, and just trying to push that out to 100%, he said to push every area up by 1%. So this was looking at things such as painting the inside of their vans white so they could see any dust particles that would get on the bike, or check what pillows or mattress the athletes were sleeping on, the temperature of the room, the temperature of the training room, the clothes that they were wearing etc.

So if every area, you can up by 1%, which is a tiny amount, overall that’s a massive increase. They went on to win gold in every aspect. So if you think, every time I post the next post is going to be 1% better, which is tiny, over the space of a year it’s a massive percentage of how much better you’re going to get.

I think we can get quite overwhelmed with the journey, and we can compare ourselves to other people. But it’s just about how much better you are than yesterday, or the last time you post. Just think about what one thing you can tweak. Just that little 1%. For me, it might just be to spend one more minute on that letter E to make it a little more refined, or spending one more minute on tweaking that colour to make it look better.

Then you look back over that year and you just see how far you’ve come. That’s the same with video production. Every time I do a video I try a different lighting setup, or change the microphone setting to see if it’s an improvement. It works, but those 1% improvements over a long period of time add up.

 

(The transcription is in the works! More coming shortly…)

 

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Calligraphy, Lettering & Growing with Instagram

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