Who will be the next Herb Lubalin, the innovator who not only designs original typefaces, but also fundamentally changes the way the world thinks about type? My instinct tells me that it could very well be Craig Ward, the British-born, New York–based designer who creates astonishing typographical forms and illustrations using various, often unlikely objects.
Many of Ward’s clients are agency art directors looking to infuse their ads with a major shot of artistic and technical wizardry. “Ninety percent of advertising is product shot plus headline,” Ward points out. “I make headlines that art directors can only dream of.” He does it by arranging, carving, burning and otherwise manipulating objects into typographical forms, then photographing them and refining the image digitally. This is all accomplished in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at The Words are Pictures Studio—a loft over-looking the waterfront and stone supply yards, with an interior of exposed brick, pipes and fittings left over from the building’s days as a rope factory.
Ward’s recent projects include multicolored images of the words “Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks” written in light-emitting diodes; a fanciful curlicue alphabet fashioned from candy canes for the New York Lottery’s 2013 holiday campaign; a laser-cut sheet of steel that proclaims, “It’s Not Just a Razor” for Gillette; and a mosaic of blue-jean fabrics for Gap.
On the day of my visit, cartons of products from Pepsi, Quaker, Minute Maid, Müller and Frito-Lay arrived, ready to be unpacked and fashioned into a PepsiCo logo—each eighteen-inch-high letter individually crafted of soda, oats, orange juice, yogurt or chips. Ward and intern Patrick Garbit—who begged his way from Lyon, France, to assist on projects—arranged the products on a glossy white Formica surface and did the photography in-house. “For the liquid letters, we actually painted the soda or juice directly on the surface and let it loosely define the shape of the letterform,” explains Ward. “For the food letters, we outlined the type in pencil and filled it in with the ingredient: chips, oats, yogurt. It was a pretty low-fi shoot, a Canon 5D on a tripod and a lighting setup we could easily move around. The client wanted the images to be editable in post-production, so we shot additional images, like fruit and berries, that could be added to or removed from the digital files on new layers.”
Equally complex was a project for Prudential Financial to address the fact that Americans waste one third of the produce they buy. Prudential engaged Droga5, a 2012 Adweek Agency of the Year, to develop a campaign about wasteful-ness, and Droga5 brought in Ward to create an image for print ads and Prudential’s website. Ward wrapped his mind around the challenge and envisioned numerals built entirely of fresh produce: a giant “?” made of fruits and vegetables with a color gradient from dark green through purple-magenta. The client approved the sketch, and Ward placed a huge grocery order: broccoli, green peppers, apples, grapes, limes, lemons, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, plums, pomegranates. Ward and his freelance assistant at the time, Niral Parekh, a grad student in communications design at Pratt, sorted the produce by color, then arranged it on a big piece of gray seamless laid out on the floor, on which they’d outlined “?” in pencil so light it wouldn’t have to be retouched out. “We built the seven-foot-high fraction, rearranging the fruits and vegetables over and over until the effect I was after was achieved,” says Ward. The image, shot with a camera mounted on the ceiling, is spectacular, and the campaign won a Titanium Award at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity.
Ward was not raised in a place where design, or even art, was much appreciated. He was born in Lincolnshire, a village 200 miles north of London known more for hedgerows and sheep than art and commerce. A child of separated parents, he grew up in a retirement village with his grandparents. “Lads there are expected to become postmen or plumbers or carpet fitters,” he says. “Those with academic ability tee up for proper jobs; they study accountancy or law at Oxford or Cambridge.” He didn’t even know he had creative talent until he was nineteen years old. Ward says that he enjoyed high school art classes, but his grades in English literature were better, so he decided to go into journalism. “I got an internship at a local paper, Horncastle News, covering stories about school sports teams and cars running off the road,” he says. “I met my first designer at the printers. It was fascinating to watch how the stories and the photos came together in print.” That printing plant, Mortons of Horncastle Ltd., is where he fell in love with type and design.
He stayed in love, studying the work of the creative leaders he most admired. “Herb Lubalin was a major influence,” Ward attests. Also Vince Frost, Stefan Sagmeister and Tomato, the London-based creative collective that does everything from publication design to exhibitions and live performances. “What I love about those guys is how they tear type apart and show me its insides,” he says. “My work involves the juxtaposition of clean, classically designed type with chaotic or organic processes. I guess I’m an evolution or an extension of what I saw in their work. And now I’m living the full-time typography life.” The Type Directors Club of New York has featured Ward’s work in their last five annuals and recently mounted PAGAN, a solo exhibition of his personal work in which archaic English words, many set in his original typeface Epitaph, are burned into slabs of wood.
No one gets solo exhibitions without commitment and years of training. After a printing internship at Mortons, Ward applied to Lincoln DeMontfort University, where he was introduced to everything from color theory to conceptualizing and design software. From there, he transferred to Buckinghamshire Chilterns University, where in 2003 he completed the three-year BA program in graphic design and advertising. “There were about 120 students, and we did packaging, typography and film. We studied Saul Bass film titles, and in studio classes, we did our own title sequences and animations. By the time I graduated with a senior project—a microsite titled ‘Get Young,’ intended to get those accountants and lawyers in suits to rediscover their youthful mentality—I had not only learned some coding and Flash, I felt I was going to make a pretty good art director.”
As luck would have it, a call came from friends at CMW, a London ad agency that needed help on its Porsche account. Ward spent eighteen months there, and then moved to Elvis Communications. “It was a fun time,” he recalls. “We won every pitch. Elvis had interesting clients, like Cadbury chocolate.” After three and a half years, he joined the up-and-coming agency CHI & Partners. CHI is where Ward’s talents really began to shine. His self-initiated work, as well as a notable pan-European campaign for Lexus, earned him enough notoriety to be chosen as a New York Art Directors Club “Young Gun” in 2009. He flew to New York to attend the awards show, where he was approached by a recruiter who asked if Ward would consider working in New York. Wooed by the promise of good benefits and a fast-paced lifestyle, he and his fiancée, Lisa Edwards (now his wife), moved across the Atlantic, where a two-year contract with Grey Advertising was waiting. Their A-list clients were Ketel 1 Vodka, the NFL, Direct TV and Canon. But Ward was ultimately dissatisfied. “Big clients drag their feet,” he says. “After two years, I only had three pieces I could show. I need to see results, not to see ideas die in the boardroom.”
Ward opened The Words are Pictures Studio in 2011. Yes, he still works for agencies, but not on staff. “When they contact me,” he explains, “the campaign is already developed. The concept is sold through.” Some of those concepts have morphed into full-character-set typefaces. Dark White, an elegant, mysterious stencil originally created for a blog Ward did with artist Chris Rubino, was purchased by Calvin Klein for its Dark Obsession fragrance packaging. In addition to Epitaph, the geometric sans serif featured on his pieces for the Type Directors Club exhibition, his other typefaces are Love Child, a kind of overweight serif with swashes; and Killer, which he describes as a riff on Victorian circus type. His work often appears in compendiums like New Ornamental Type: Decorative Lettering in the Digital Age, by Steve Heller and Gail Anderson. His own book, Popular Lies About Graphic Design, which debunks such notions as “longer deadlines lead to better work,” was number one in Amazon’s graphic design category for several weeks and is now in its second edition.
On the home front, Ward and Lisa live in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just south of Greenpoint. “There’s a good quality of life here,” he says. “Restaurants, bars, friends. I can bike to work. And it’s only a few minutes on the East River Ferry to Manhattan.” But life has changed a bit with the arrival of baby Holly, now nine months old. Weekends are more often spent walking in the park with Holly in the stroller than going to gallery openings and plays. Still, it’s great to be a New York designer these days, especially since you don’t need a fancy Manhattan address anymore. As Ward proves, you can keep your name front and center even from a gritty Brooklyn building that overlooks the docks. “I’m pretty noisy,” he says. His social media presence includes 25,000 Twitter followers, e-mail blasts whenever there’s a new piece of work and regularly posted videos of work in progress. He’s also represented as an illustrator by mega-reps Bernstein & Andriulli, who put out frequent news releases.
Ward’s advice to others who want to be well known is simple: “Make the kind of work you want to do. Then get it in front of the people who count. Make them notice what you’re doing.” It sounds so easy, but it’s very difficult for most people to accomplish. When you look at Ward’s work, though, you know exactly why the people who count are noticing. After all, who wouldn’t notice a seven-foot fraction made of fruits and vegetables? ca