He/him | We spoke on 30th September 2020
Hey Dan, hope you are well and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. The first time I heard about you was with the Men of letters exhibition. Please tell me more about this exhibition.
Hey Megan, no problem. So The Men of Letters exhibition was a celebration of the lives and work of my Dad Tony Forster and his close friend and former student, Phill Grimshaw. It was perhaps the largest exhibition of hand-created lettering and calligraphy work ever staged in the UK. Bolton Museum was the perfect location given my Dad was a former teacher there, and Phill a former student.
How the exhibition came to be is a long story. It was over a decade in the making. My Dad, Tony Forster, passed away in 2008, and left behind a staggering amount of calligraphy and lettering work. Being the other ‘creative’ in the family, the task to clear out his studio was always going to fall to me. Before I’d even begun this process, several of his friends and former colleagues were calling on me to design a book or put an exhibition on showing my Dad’s work. I was immediately daunted at the prospect. But at the same time I felt a kind of responsibility show his work to the world.
My Dad wasn’t really into self-promotion or publicity, he simply just loved doing what he did. As a result, the vast majority of his work had remained unseen. However, he wasn’t very organised either, and everything he made was with pen and paper – so I was literally faced with mountains work. Also, barely anything was labeled, dated or filed. So I didn’t have much choice in deciding that the world would just have to be patient, while I set about trying to tidy up, identify, and organise his studio. It took me about 8 years, to get it into some kind of order. And it still not 100% complete.
It’s a similar story with Phill. Tragically, he died much younger at the age of just 48 but he was very prolific too. His wife Penny was a huge help and had kept his work in great condition.
At the end of 2018, I met Anthony Roocroft (Lecturer in Graphic Design at Bolton University) at a University event at Bolton Museum. During the evening he managed to convince both myself and Penny that we could stage an exhibition in early 2020. So with Anthony, the university, and Bolton Museum, all the support was there to get the exhibition together. It was a lot of hard work, but for me personally, having the opportunity to celebrate my Dad’s and his work in this way was quite emotional and incredibly rewarding. Hopefully, we can do it again at a new location after the lockdown.
Your work is exquisite and I can only imagine that it has taken years to perfect it. How did you get into this bespoke lettering was there a large influence from Tony?
I guess the influence of my Dad was inevitable. I grew up surrounded by his lettering and design work – so I’ve always had a fascination with type and letterforms. However, it’s not something I fell in love with or pursued until much later in my career. To the contrary in fact – at first drawing letters was nothing but frustration. I remember first trying calligraphy in my early teens and wanting to tear up everything I made. It was just so hard to make consistent letterforms. Of course, I’d made the fatal mistake of comparing my work to my Dad’s.
Over the years, during both college years and once I started work as a Graphic Designer, I always dabbled with lettering and calligraphy and my work often had a strong bias toward typographic solutions. It wasn’t until 2008 when my Dad passed away and I’d begun the process of organising his Studio that my interest was rekindled. I was so inspired by the lettering work I was finding that I finally picked up a pen again and start drawing letters. This time I stuck at it.
Eventually, I started posting some of my sketches online and over time I started getting commissions. A few years later I made the switch to focusing on lettering full time. It was hard at first, getting my name out there and finding clients – especially with not many actual client projects in this area under my belt. I was pretty much starting my career all over again. I believed I could be good enough though. I think it was basically this belief, plus persistence and hard work that got me to where I am now.
You have worked with many large clients such as Jessica Walsh, Royal Mail, Big Brother, and Flora. How did you get into these positions and do you have a favourite project?
Projects can come from anywhere. I’d say it’s partly down to chance and partly being in the right place at the right time. Having said that, I definitely believe that you make your own luck.
Being a freelancer or working for yourself - the bottom line is that no one is going to approach you for work if they haven’t heard of you. Even then how likely are you to be on their radar at the exact moment they need you? So it’s really important to try and stay in front of mind with those that you do know, and then do your best to make yourself known to those who’ve never heard of you.
You need to be continually making small efforts to put yourself out in the world – I like to think of these efforts as ‘lottery tickets’ – the more lottery tickets you put out there, the better chance you have of winning.
The project with Jessica Walsh was the result of me posting a quirky letter ‘a’ on Instagram. It was the start of the 36 days of type project. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to complete all 36 days that year, so I almost didn’t post the ’a’. I’m so glad I did though, as she saw it and got in touch. Otherwise, the project probably wouldn’t have come my way.
The Flora project came via a new contact I made on LinkedIn. Big Brother – through keeping in touch with an old friend who remembered me. Royal Mail was luck – through freelancing with an agency at the right time.
The Lost Fox Screen Prints is a joint venture between you and Jan. Tell me more about this is this something you are passionate about?
Jan is my partner in life and well as The Lost Fox. We came up with the idea while we were traveling in South America about 15 years ago. It’s a side project where we design and make limited edition screen prints. We both love it, but it’s recently had to be on the back burner while we’ve been renovating our house. We’ll be back though soon.
The year 2020 has been a tough year for everyone. What advice would you give for recent graduates and even students who are worried about what the job prospects will be when they leave?
The best advice I can give is this – be persistent. Keep applying for jobs, contacting people, and get your name out there. And keep going – make yourself a ton of those lottery tickets! It’s important to understand and accept that you will get rejected and even ignored. This is not down to you or the standard of your work, but the nature of job hunting. If you contact 20 agencies you might get 2-5 replies. This is standard, regardless of the current situation.
However, there is always someone out there who is looking for you and your skills. It’s just a case of finding them. If you keep pushing at the door, it will eventually open, but you need to be prepared to work hard and be persistent. Also, if you’re open to relocating your chances will increase dramatically.
In the age of everything being digital, how important do you think a pen and paper is to designers?
Crucial in my opinion. I see a lot of young designers jumping straight on to the computer and starting to draw detailed logos before they’ve done any brainstorming or figured out what ideas might be relevant. Ideas should always be put down quickly and loosely with pen and paper – you can work much faster this way, reject what isn’t working, and quickly progress the better ideas.
The mouse is probably the worst tool you can use for drawing and especially scamping out ideas. iPad’s these days are increasing replacing pen and paper but they can always crash or go flat when you need them most. My advice would be to always keep and note pad or sketch pad to hand.
Another thing I will say here – drawing is an underrated skill for designers. All the best designers I know can draw well. The better you can draw the better you can express yourself and your ideas visually. If you can turn your hand to drawing type too, the possibilities for designers are extended far beyond the limitations of your font menu. So get drawing.
For my last question, what is next for Dan Forster?
Well, I’m about to open my own shop selling all manner of type-based work. It’ll be largely prints to begin with, then slowly adding more goods over time. Eventually my own typefaces too. Which is something I’ve been studying and getting into behind the scenes for a while now. I’d also like to learn more about 3D software to help with some of the experimental lettering and type work I do. I have a vivid imagination and there are just some things you can’t realise using Illustrator and Photoshop alone. Again, though – most ideas are first put down with pen and paper.