Freelance designer Rob Draper has made his mark in the design world by drawing where you wouldn’t expect him to. Coffee cups, envelopes, IKEA pencils, toilet paper, bagels, and even hot dogs — yes, hot dogs — have all been anointed with his exceptional graffiti-like lettering skills. The result has been well-deserved praise and attention. (His Instagram account alone has more than 23,000 followers.)
We had a chat with the England-based designer about his ongoing project to reclaim discarded objects with beautiful lettering. In the process, we unearthed a few valuable lessons for lettering-lovers and creatives.
1. Discover Your Creative Passion, Then Nurture It
Draper’s love of lettering is something that began in his youth when he discovered graffiti. “Graffiti art really engaged me at the time, because it was a chance to do art, but draw letter forms.” He adds, “I just love the fact that you were rewarded by how experimental you were. It was just about creativity and what you could do with letterforms.”
It’s that creative spark that’s followed him throughout his life and kept him passionately pursuing lettering. “I’ve always drawn on things constantly, whether it be desks or telephone pads,” he says. Eventually coffee cups became his target, and after posting his first one on Instagram, positive feedback followed. The rest is now history. Draper does a lot of teaching, and finding one’s creative passion — the way he did — is one thing he tries to impress upon his students: “Whatever you’re doing, whether you’re a writer or a musician, there’s a spark of creativity in you. You’ve got to feed that and nurture that. Do with it what you can and push its boundaries as much as you possibly can.”
2. You Can Find Design Possibilities in Unexpected Places
For Draper, the appeal of his project isn’t just about pursuing a life-long passion for lettering. It’s about the creative potential of what he’s drawing on. “I love the contrast of taking something so worthless and spending a lot of time developing something on it that shouldn’t really be there; on things that you see every day when you’re out and about and that are destined for the trash—whether that’s napkins, disposable coffee cups, envelopes.” It’s a big reason his project is so inspiring. He demonstrates there’s no object or space that can’t be claimed in the name of art.
3. Make Sure You Have the Right Tool for the Job
Every artist needs their tools. For Draper, he likes to use black pens for his lettering. But he’s discovered that not all pens are created equal. “With a lot of blacks pens, you almost have to go over them two or three times to get a nice solid clean black,” he says. That’s why Draper gravitates towards Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pens. “They’ve got a really good black to them. I tend to get through hundreds and hundreds of those.”
4. Keep Your Creative Mind Open and Always Searching
Because of a busy freelance career, Draper works on his lettering between paying projects. But that doesn’t mean he stops brainstorming. “I never really switch off. I might see something like a discarded coffee cup and think, ‘That’ll be a great canvas for a design.’ Then that’s logged in my head. In two weeks’ time, I might think of some lettering that suits it and then put them together.”
It’s not just designs, but also interesting objects that get collected for later. “If I’m out and about and see something that’s free, or something that’s disposable, I’ll straightaway think, ‘Well, I’ll pick that up and I’ll put it in my pocket.’ Then it’ll start me on that thinking process.” He admits with a laugh, “Yeah, there’s a shoebox of things that’s waiting for lettering.”
5. Find a Healthy Balance Between Preparation and Improvisation
Draper doesn’t spend a lot of time pre-visualizing his lettering, but he does create a fundamental foundation to build on. “If something crops up in my head, I’ll just quickly put the basics of a pencil sketch down. Then I’ll go back and look at it and think, ‘Well, how does that become a design on the rim of a coffee cup?'”
Once he answers that question, he’ll do a bit more work on the lines. “I’ll perhaps sketch up some verticals and some horizontals to keep the balance and proportion. So, if I’m lettering four words on the object, there’ll be four verticals and two horizontals. A top and a bottom,” he says. Then it’s all about instinct. “As long as I’ve got the proportion straight, I just start working into it from there. I go from pencil to pen and start embellishing it further and further.” A balance of planning and improvisation is a design lesson that can be applied to anything.
6. Sometimes You Have To Scale Back Detail to Make a Project Work
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges Draper faces is drawing smoothly on the non-flat objects he gravitates towards. “If you think about things like food, it’s much more difficult to get a straight line and a clean line,” he says. He tackles that challenge by sacrificing the detail he can achieve on flatter surfaces. “You have to scale back the detail to a degree, whereas on some other things like the big coffee cups or the envelopes, you can get as much detail in there as you want.”
The lesson: scale your ambitions to what is logistically possible.
7. Your Craft Is a Muscle — Exercise It
If there’s one major lesson Draper has personally learned, it’s this: “Work hard and keep going. I always liken it to something like playing the piano. If you were to go and sit at a piano now and spend 10 minutes on it, there’s a good chance you’d be terrible. If you spent an hour on it, there’s a good chance you’d be terrible. But if you spent an hour, three days a week, there’s a good chance you’d start picking it up. I liken it to that that because graphic design is really just like anything else: it’s a craft.” Will there be creative stumbles and falls along the way? Naturally. Draper has advice for that, too. “Dust yourself off, learn from it, keep your head down, and just keep pushing forward.”
Top image and all photos by Rob Draper.
Or, for more design tips, check out the following posts: