Jelly Presents: Biff

Characterful artist Biff crafts his lettering with a relaxed style, endless personality and a treasure-trove of pop-culture influences. We sat down with him to find out more about how his style emerged, his love for breaking the rules of lettering, and the endless inspiration provided by people-watching in pubs...

Thursday 30 May 2024

How did you get into typography/lettering?

In my early teens, I was more into character illustration and incorporating them into wild and wacky scenes. Almost like Where’s Wally on mars, on acid. I think I had a lot of energy and I wanted to experiment with every style, every colour and every scenario. At some point I slowly started introducing lettering. e.g. characters would be saying something in a speech bubble or I’d add lettering around the illustrations to give more context/ reasoning to the nonsensical hellscapes. I picked up lettering pretty quickly and ended up just loving the process of it.

With lettering I found that there’s an invisible set of rules, which don’t actually exist. More graphic, design-led lettering standards, imprinted these “rules” you must abide by, like kerning, spacing, tracking etc and I liked the idea of taking something so formal and just playing around with it. Make it wonky, mix uppercase + lowercase, stretch letters out to show movement/ gesture.

Also, being a child of the '90s helped fill my brain with expressive and hand-drawn cartoons and lettering, which is something you don’t see much of these days. It’s something that’s definitely carried over to my style and thought process.

Your sketchbook pages are a treasure trove of characterful illustrations, do you create them with a theme in mind or fill them with what inspires you in the moment?

It’s more of a diary or a therapeutic outlet. It’s a way of being creative without really forcing myself too hard or putting pressure on myself to just make something. If I hit a brick wall and my brains empty of all thought and logic, I can rely on the world around me . For example, a lot of the sketchbook pages usually start off with me sat in a pub, coffee shop or public place. I’ll start drawing what’s in-front of me- usually a chair or piece of furniture. Then maybe what I’m drinking. A song’s usually playing in the background , so I’ll write the lyrics in a style that suits the mood. I’ll eavesdrop into an awkward  first date conversation and cherry pick words or phrases. So it’s kind of capturing a still life of what a normal person would probably describe as a mundane situation. I see it as a goldmine for ideas. Everyday’s slightly different and I find it massively beneficial to appreciate the smaller things.

What's the first thing you think about or tackle when you’re thinking about a brief/starting a project?

An idea usually just appears in my head straight away. Once I have that one idea, it’s usually the best and everything else revolves around it. Although the client is usually expecting a variety of ideas, so I’ll always try and push that idea into new avenues. The client usually already knows what they want to some extent, so there isn’t always much wiggle room for new ideas. So the first thing I try and think about is providing a solid starting point- keeping the client happy whilst remaining true to what I think looks great.

How has your style or approach evolved since you first started?

It’s definitely matured. One of the pros of having instagram is that you can look back at old work and see how much you’ve developed (or haven’t). I pretty much dislike most of my work that’s over a year old- which I see as a good thing. It means I’m improving and developing as an artist. Right now I’m trying to make work with more intention and stronger concepts. I’m also experimenting with different materials and processes to feed my curiosity. So if I’m not enjoying what I’m making, it’s easy to change direction or find a better solution.

How do you keep your style feeling characterful and authentic when working on commercial briefs?

That’s something I struggle with from time to time.  Most clients have an invisible line they won’t cross when it comes to how whacky or authentic they want to be. The characterful essence needs to be there from conception. So I’ll offer what I personally think is the best solution to their brief, whilst keeping their initial ideas in mind. I just make it as interesting as I can with what I’m given and offer multiple options. Clients hire me for a reason, so I try to  make sure that reason is there throughout.

How often do you use pen and paper vs digital tools to create?

I always start off working by hand at first. All mistakes are embraced and are part of my practice. I sometimes draw with my left hand, maybe with the paper at an angle to encourage “mistakes”, as my right hand has become too reliable/ well trained. Making work without risk baffles me. However, I do finish my work on photoshop to colour or shift around, but I’m starting to steer away from it as I want more handmade results.

What is your favourite part of the creative process on a project?

I love to be more involved with the ideas side of things. I worked as an art director in advertising for a short time, which taught me the value of being more conceptual. Simplicity is key. If the idea’s bad from the start, it’s usually very difficult to change once it’s been given the green light. But I try to remember that it’s all about problem solving- which is fun and a valuable skill when you get it right.

A fun commission that comes to mind, is one that I was given back in 2018.  A director from The Chronicle Review attended this crazy convention in the middle of the Arizona desert. It was a convention about philosophy and some of the world’s greatest minds attended to discuss theories on consciousness. I spoke with him for hours, picking his brain and taking notes. Those endless pages of notes gave me a mass of ideas. It was unbelievably interesting and I was able to make a great front cover for the magazine. It boiled down to him having these great thoughts and trusting me to run with my ideas and make what I want. It was more of a collaboration than being told what to do.

What trends are you noticing in typography? How (if at all) do you see these impacting the industry?

It’s so up and down and nearly impossible to predict what’s “cool” or “current”. Styles in typography vary so much that there’ll never be just one sought-after style- If there is, it’ll be fairly short-lived. I think it’s more about introducing specific styles to new markets that haven’t used it yet. So maybe wonky hand lettering to brand a bank? Or 3D, computer rendered lettering on wallpaper?

Your work is often inspired by music lyrics and movies, do you have a favourite album and or movie at the moment?

Good question! Something that has struck a chord with me fairly recently, was when I walked into a big vintage/ junk shop and they were playing an old, western movie soundtrack on vinyl. I couldn’t believe how well it fit into that moment in that exact environment. It was such a unique vibe.

Music - I’m going through a '70s/ '80s cool dad rock and country phase which I’m not afraid to admit. Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Glen Campbell etc.. That kind of music combined with rain hitting the skylight in my studio, is pure happiness to me. Ooo! Also revisited Lianne La Havas’s self titled album. Loving it more now than when it came out.

Film - My wife and I watched Zone of Interest and it blew our minds. I’ve never seen the war from such a unique perspective. To be, what felt like a fly on the wall, in such a horrific time made me feel uneasy, but it felt essential to witness.

What does craft mean to you?

It means I get to wake up everyday and make whatever I want. Something I’m very grateful for.

What are your favourite locations to draw in? And why?

I like somewhere that’s a real melting pot of different people, which usually means a pub. People seem to be more open and relaxed. Coffee shops tend to be quieter, so if I go to one, there has to be something else about it that provides ideas- Fun decor/ props, interesting food, good views etc.. I would like more challenges though. I have a list of places I’d like to draw at, if I were commissioned to do so. E.g. a Hotel, Carnival, small town in Japan. Maybe even something more serious- reportage/documentarian-esque.

Do you have any advice for aspiring lettering designers?

Don’t just rely on style or think you should instantly have one. Use your personality. Inject it into your work and show off who you are and what you surround yourself with.

What are your favourite things about being part of a creative community?

To be honest, I don’t surround myself with a creative community as such. I like my community to be made up of friends from all walks of life. Creative folk are obviously great, but there’s great value in people who don’t consider themselves to be creative (but obviously are). I do have creative friends and it’s nice to talk through problems if I’m unsure about something. I don’t think it’s possible to grow as a human, let alone as an artist, without a community around you- be that creative or non-creative (how many times can I say creative- the irony!). I’m always free for anyone who’s intrigued or stuck.

And what are your favourite things to do when you’re not working?

I like walking my dog, watching films and forcing myself to read. My wife and I recently got married, so now that’s done, we’re looking to go away more and see the world. I need to broaden my tiny mind.