Typography Spotlight: Jordan Metcalf

ADC Young Guns 11 winner is a front-running in the current "lettering movement"

Sometimes “Hump Day” is a good thing because that means the week is halfway over. But with ADC and Monotype’s Typography Month being such a thrill to present, we don’t want the week to end!

Just like last year’s Photography Month and Illustration Month, ADC Typography Month features a daily Typography Spotlight, highlighting ADC Members and Young Guns who love working with words and letters. Some of the names are already famous within the design community, while others will be new for you to discover, but all of them are card-carrying ADC Members from around the world.

Our next Typography Spotlight takes us back down to South Africa (where the Spotlight began this month) to a well respected designer and ADC Young Guns 11 winner who accidentally stumbled into custom lettering and has not looked back.


Cape Town, South Africa

hello@jordan-metcalf.com | hello@handsomefrank.com


Where did your interest in typography begin? It’s generally not something kids in kindergarten aspire to be. When did you discover that you could actually make a living out of it?

I’ve always read compulsively and had a fascination with words, but it was only once I started studying design and discovered typography in an academic sense that I found an overlap between my interest in visual art and language.

I got into custom lettering almost accidentally, doing experimental type illustrations after hours while working at design studios. I hadn’t really seen much of it online at that point but it became a progressively bigger point of interest for me as time went by. By the time I went freelance I decided to only put the work I wanted to try do more of in my portfolio which ended up being mainly odd little type experiments. I got lucky and it just so happened that lettering was starting to become an international trend. I was incredibly fortunate to have my work noticed pretty quickly and got some really great jobs. This was when I realised there was a career in it.

How much of your ability is self-taught versus through schooling?

Ability is not something that ceases developing at some point. I see ability as an intersection of ideas and the skill to turn ideas into something;. The more work I create the more experience I have to draw on, the larger the bank of techniques and technical know-how I build, and the faster and easier it becomes to manifest the ideas I have into finished work. So I guess it’s an ever increasing amount of self-taught versus schooled in that every day I become more self-taught. It’s the classic reason you shouldn’t quote based on an hourly rate because something may only take 8 hours to make, but it took 10 years of working to get to the point where you could make it in 8 hours.

How would you best describe your style? How did you foster that style? Do you tend to lean towards one type of lettering?

I don’t really have a ‘style’. I got into this in the really early days of the lettering movement that has exploded in the last few years, and barely had the internet back then, so much of what I started out doing was purely experimental and came from a really honest, open place. I’ve tried to keep that as much as possible, looking to do work that excites me, fits the project and is underscored by a strong sense of craft and attention to detail. There are threads that tie my work together and techniques that I’ve developed and evolved over time, but the work itself is pretty eclectic.

“Ability is not something that ceases developing at some point. I see ability as an intersection of ideas and the skill to turn ideas into something;.”

Walk us through your usual type design process.

Process is something I struggle with personally. I’d love to pretend that there is always a big idea right up front, or that I have some step by step methodology that works every time, but in truth it’s messy, chaotic and different for every project. Sometimes I do have a specific visual idea up front and use the most appropriate means I have at my disposal to make it. Other times it’s a case of doodling on paper, messing around in Photoshop, or experimenting in illustrator until a spark of inspiration hits. I’m not a traditionalist in believing in the all-mighty pencil and paper as the only valid starting point. I think we need to embrace using whatever tools we have to explore techniques and ideas. There are things I end up doing though digital experimentation that I would never have been able to preconceive and sketch on paper, and vice versa. Opening myself up to a lack of process has meant that I’m far more likely to find new ideas and ways of working, despite the fact that often I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing as a result.

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

I don’t actually use fonts very often, so my answer may be disappointingly pedestrian to type snobs, but I’d have to say Gotham designed by Tobias Frere-Jones. It’s an exceptionally beautiful family, that has enough nuance to give it personality and modernity, but is classic and simple enough to be invisible and utilitarian if needs be. There is a very good reason it’s become so ubiquitous.

Do you have a favorite letter of the alphabet when it comes to experimenting with design?

I guess it would have to be ‘A’. Again pretty obvious answer, but it’s got a lot going for it: a grand and monolithic symmetrical and geometric uppercase, and two distinct but identifiable lowercase options, the double story ‘a’ which is weird and interesting and unlike almost any other lowercase letter, and the single story version which is simpler but still contains curves and straight lines. That’s a lot to play with as a letterer.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

Depends on where they’re fighting.

The obvious difference between an illustrator and a letter or typographer is that the latter works mainly with words and letters. Name a not-so-obvious difference between the artforms, one that certainly applies to you.

I don’t think illustrators and letterers are that different really, both deal with single purpose visual story telling, but typographers however are a different thing all together. They are creative engineers and the good ones should be treated with mythical reverence.

What other artistic passions do you have? Where else do you find inspiration?

I take a lot of photos that I don’t really show anywhere. I always feel like I should set up a tumblr or something for them, but there is something nice about avoiding the potential pressure that comes with that and just keeping them something I do for fun without feeling like I need to try be successful at it.

I do have a dedicated Instagram account for collecting my photos of utilitarian design and typography though: @typeofutility. It’s not something I promote or anything but it’s actually quite a nice resource if you’re inspired by manhole covers and the like.

Which professionals do you look up to the most in the typography/lettering world?

There are the greats like Herb Lublin and Donald Young of course, but there are tons of great contemporary letterers too. I would say Mario Hugo is producing some incredibly modern and beautiful work, type driven and otherwise. Another favourite is Craig Ward. As well as just being tremendously talented I love that both their work really merges modernity and history in a way that feels timeless. I also like to look at work and not be able to figure out exactly how it was made. The list could really go on for ages though, so I’d rather stop at fewer than risk leaving out anyone really great.

What is the most challenging thing about your career?

I think tied in with the style question, it would be having to drive the conversation forward with clients to avoid ending up in a creative tunnel. Every now and then you do something that people really respond to and then your inbox is filled with briefs wanting that exact thing. At first it’s exciting because that’s initially what you think the end-game is all about, but once you’ve done a few similar projects you begin to see how quickly you can become limited to one style and a thousand iterations of the same idea. So it’s about getting those briefs, unpacking what the client is looking for and offering them something new that still works for that. I’m in a great place where clients send me my own work in their reference boards, but it’s almost tougher when you’re having to convince them that you don’t want to copy yourself. I have no interest in being my own cover band.

At the end of the day, what do you love most about being a typographer or letterer?

As obvious as it may seem, it’s incredible to be able to work with words all day and make a living off it. There is also such a great community that has built up around design, illustration and lettering in the last few years where people are actively engaged with each other’s work and rooting for their success. At the end of the day it’s a job with its own challenges and frustrations, but it’s great to be part of a industry where people are excited to be doing what they do, and to be able to form friendships around that shared passion.