Duncan Sham: Meaning and Feeling

ADC Member channels Bruce Lee's "no style"

Happy Friday! Isn’t April just flying by? And so is ADC and Monotype‘s Typography & Lettering Month!  For us, it’s a joy to feature the many ADC Members who make their mark with letterforms. Whether they’re designing brand new digital fonts for the world to use, or they’re creating free-flowing calligraphy to adorn a wall, these artists know that there is more to written words than just their meaning.

Closing out this week is a New York-based letterer and illustrator who got his creative start in an unlikely place — his family’s restaurant!


Typographer / Illustrator
New York, NY



Where did this crazy adventure in lettering all begin?

Before I begun to study design or even consciously realizing I was interested in the arts, I did have somewhat of an indirect creative upbringing which was born out of necessity. My parents owned a Chinese restaurant for about 30 years in a small town in England, and grew up working in this family business. As well as working in the kitchen and waiting tables, I got handed the responsibility for all the advertising and marketing material for the restaurant… only because I had the best English in my family and sort of knew how to use the computer.

Back in those days, access to big printers was very limited and also very expensive. So when it came to creating the big posters, I was forced to hand draw all the type. I guess this was my first introduction to the world of typography. The next typographic task I had to undertake was painting and constructing the restaurant’s signage outside. Due to a limited budget, we couldn’t afford to hire professionals to do this job. So as I mentioned, these creative jobs I was tasked to do was purely born out of necessity.

What made you realize that you wanted to make a career out of this, and what convinced you it was even possible?

As I was studying graphic design, I started to understand the concept of typography, layouts and composition. The more I learnt about these principles, the more important I felt it was for all businesses (large or small). That is when I first realized there is a demand for something like this and could potentially be a career.

When I graduated from university, I was unsure about what design direction I wanted to take, therefore I decided to do a few internships at different agencies which focused on different design disciplines. This way, I was able to experience the work involved and to see whether I enjoyed it or not. After interning at an award winning design agency, Vault49… they offered me a position and I was with them for about 5 years. During this time, I really learnt the art of illustration from them and developed my skills as an illustrator. The projects I was assigned to do were so creative and a lot of fun, and I guess my passion for the arts just continued to grow rapidly.

Coming from a graphic design and illustration background, this naturally progressed into the typographic illustration work I currently do today. A fusion of these two disciplines really gave me the opportunity to express typography in many different ways. After working for a few years, it was evident that a lot of clients were wanting custom typographic work that is uniquely crafted. I do see a great demand for these typographic illustrations, especially in the past few years!

“I do see a great demand for these typographic illustrations, especially in the past few years!”

How would you best describe your style in a sentence? Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

As a designer, I love to explore and experiment with different things, therefore I don’t really have a particular style. I feel a style would limit my creative expression and I hate to be restricted or bounded to just one style. Bruce Lee told this best!

Walk us through your usual creative process. How do you know when you’re “finished”?

Typically when I first receive a project, I tend to dissect the brief and really understand what the core message of the piece is and what the client wants to convey. I’ll then brainstorm, how to communicate that message in an interesting way and a style that works well with my idea. When the idea and style is decided, I usually start the design process digitally and experiment with the composition, content and colors. This method of working allows me to be a bit more free, creatively… and not confined to a sketch. This is how you will often get more unexpected results, which is fun.

What is your favorite ‘practical’ typeface, one for everyday use?

I don’t have a specific typeface, but I like to use a lot of Erik Spiekermann‘s typefaces, because they are designed with practicality and function in mind. He is definitely a type genius I really admire.

What’s your favorite letter of the alphabet when it comes to experimenting with design? Why is that your favorite?

When I am getting my eyes tested at the opticians, even with my terrible eyesight, I always seem to make out the letter “A.” I think its a very distinctive letter and can be manipulated in many different ways and still remain its qualities as an “A.” You can use a triangle, an Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler or Flatiron buildings (As my, “The city that makes or breaks you” piece) and it can still pass as an “A” in a typographic illustration. You can be very playful with this letter and thats why its my favorite to experiment with.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

There’s only room for one Serif in this town! (Sorry, if that was a bit cheesy!)

“Wait, what is that you do again?” How do you explain what you do for a living to people who aren’t in creative fields? What’s the thing they can’t quite grasp about it?

I actually find it difficult to explain EXACTLY what I do, because the projects I undertake are sometimes very diverse from each other, especially in the execution of the work. I guess the common thread in what I do is simply art and design or visual communication. I usually explain the different design disciplines I do which is graphic design, illustration, type design, 3D design etc. The common reply I usually get is “So, you do a lot of drawing?” Which is partly true, but a typical misconception at times. I go onto explain that I do draw, but digitally draw something… whether it’d be an illustration or a logo. And, there are also times when I have to physically build a piece in which then becomes photographed, or times when I have to design a website or a piece of packaging. Ultimately, it is crafting a visual together, and the executional technique may vary from project to project. Then they usually end with… “Oh, cool.”

Tell us about your favorite project to date. What set it apart from everything else?

The Curiosity & Exploration project, which was a proposal I put together for Google’s interior space. This would be one of my favorite typographic pieces because it made me think beyond the page. There were multi-facets of things I had to consider, from a brand and work philosophy perspective, user interaction etc. Above all, it was so much fun developing this piece.

What would be your dream project/assignment/client? What’s something you’ve never had the opportunity to do thus far, but would kill for that chance?

As a creative, I really love collaborations! Learning from other talented people is something I thrive off. I don’t have a dream project or client, but I have a massive list of people that I really admire and can only dream to work with, such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Kaws. As well as their stunning and mesmerizing visuals, I love the grand scale of their work. The collaboration will never happen, but you did ask what I dreamt of!

What is the most difficult thing about making a career out of what you do? How do you get around that, and what advice would give to others facing similar challenges?

It is a very difficult and competitive industry, therefore you always have to stay on top of your game. I believe that exercising your skills as a designer is very important. For example, progressing your drawing skills, handy craft skills, learning different design software etc… will only make you more flexible as a designer. It creates less restrictions for executing an idea and more opportunity to bring to life an idea without being bounded by a specific style, medium or skill set. Which as a result, there are more chances of winning a project or being hired.

What other creative outlets do you have? Where else do you find inspiration?

A lot of my inspiration for my typographic illustrations come from hearing a quote or a song lyric. When a cool sounding quote captures my attention, I begin to string a story/narrative together and think how I can visually bring this to life.

Which professionals do you look up to the most in the typography/lettering world and why? Have you had any creative mentors?

There are some great typographers that I really admire the work of. First being Alex Trochut, because he approaches type on a couple of different levels. A visual level, where the type is communicated as an image! And, a functional level where the type delivers the message. His work to me is always very expressive and entertaining.

Craig Ward is one of today’s great typographers who goes above and beyond in the execution of his pieces. I am constantly blown away by his unconventional image making techniques and his aesthetic quality.

The whole Vault49 team is filled with an unbelievable amount of talent and are inspirational from every design standpoint, from typography, illustration to art. They are always unafraid to explore different design disciplines or style territories, and their attention to detail, storytelling and craftsmanship in their work is a reflection of pride and passion for what they do!

When all is said and done, what do you love most about being a typographer or letterer?

I love taking type, quotes, phrases and interpreting them into illustrations and giving them another dimension of meaning and feeling.

Typography & Lettering Month takes place throughout April, and is open exclusively to ADC Members. Not yet a Member? Join today!