Columns / Insights

Guided by Values

Kevin Cantrell

Kevin Cantrell
How did you get started in design? As a kid I was obsessed with comic books, X-Men in particular. I would spend hours learning to draw by studying Jim Lee’s work and trying to replicate it. I couldn’t have known then how valuable that ability to replicate and interpret would become. Later, when a friend who was studying graphic design showed me what he was working on, it was a moment of rapture. I knew that design was the path for me.

How did you develop an interest in lettering and typography? Seven years ago, I interned for a boutique studio in New York where I first discovered the Victorian, or “gaslight,” style in a promo piece by de Vera. It was breathtakingly beautiful; it really resonated with me. About two years ago I came to a point in my career when I felt passionless and completely dissatisfied with the work I was doing. I had few, if any, opportunities to do work that excited me, so I made my own opportunity. I decided to go back to the roots of what thrilled me about design: lettering in the gaslight style. I was inspired by the Sanborn Map series, and I have a love for the Bible, particularly the language of the King James Version. The combination sparked the concept behind my Luminares poster, which gave me an opportunity to learn a new skill set while creating something with meaning and value. The skills I learned gave me a springboard into new and exciting opportunities in design, and I learned that if you follow your passions, they light the way through doubt and uncertainty.

What is the strangest assignment or project you’ve ever worked on? A commercial for the Home Shopping Network. It required photoshopping the head of Fran Drescher on someone else’s body because the client had difficulties envisioning the storyboards without a literal interpretation.

What would you be doing if you weren’t designing? Writing a fantasy trilogy in which the magic system is inspired by lettering. Actually, that’s in progress right now. We’ll see what happens.

Where do you think the field of design is going? There are so many gifted designers and letterers in the international market, which, with the Internet, is really becoming one amalgamated pool of talent. The need for strategically guided design is increasing, and is becoming the way to separate yourself. The marriage of strategy with beautiful and appropriate execution is the future of design.

Which designers and type designers do you most admire and why? John Passafiume’s work is immaculate. Pretty much anyone coming out of Louise Fili’s studio these days. Dana Tanamachi and Jessica Hische, naturally, but also the up-and-coming Joseph Alessio is as charming and kind as he is skilled in lettering. Dan Blackman, Jordan Metcalf, Gustavo Mancini and many others. I also am greatly influenced by progressive studios and designers such as C2F, Cedric Kiefer and product designer Keenan Cummings. My all-time favorite design studio is Anagrama: the perfect marriage of strategy and beautiful execution.

What’s something that people misunderstand about lettering in the context of design? Appropriateness. There are so many lettering artists whose technical prowess instills seething jealousy in me. But does it matter? It has to be appropriate to have longevity in the consumer’s world. My personal passions definitely lean toward the aesthetic side of design (which tips toward fine art) and I think there’s a place for that. But if lettering is to serve a function in design, it behooves the designer to consider the appropriateness of the lettering style in the context of the intended audience. Sometimes a pre-existing font is appropriate and very useful as a primary logotype and secondary component to a brand.

What excites you about design/typography right now? Limitless possibilities with technology. If you dream it, you can create it. The disparity between inspiration and technical feasibility is diminishing at an exponential rate. The broadened pool of talent heightens the need for consistent personal growth and exploration so you don’t get left behind.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Traditionally, there are two types of design studios: they’re either known for a process or a style. These are lenses that filter the result when a project or client passes through the studio. I believe there is a third lens we must all have: the lens of conscience or a belief that transcends and guides our design. At the end of the day, making something beautiful isn’t enough. A designer must be guided by a set of values or principles.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? You don’t have to be perfect. Success isn’t the absence of failure, but simply getting up more times than you fall down. There are many different paths to success in design, and the best path for you is not necessarily the same as someone else’s, but one that entails following your heart.

Create an Account
Sign In

Sign In