Ryan Hamrick Mediocrity is not sustainable

Ryan Hamrick had an interesting path to becoming a phenomenal hand lettering artist. The self taught artist talks about how he learned the craft in a relatively short amount of time, and he gives his thoughts on personal growth.
Interview by Cesar Contreras

Cesar: Pencil or pixel?

Ryan: I’d have to go with pencil just because I can go as far as I want with the pencil and get it to a state that, you know, where I can be totally happy with my work and use it commercially if I wanted to, draw it bigger and bigger. Whereas with pixels, I can’t ever bring myself to start there from scratch and really end up where I want to go. I gotta get that quick iteration out first, so if I had to choose, I’d say the pencil.

Cesar: Beautiful, man. You do have a lot of experience on both ends of the spectrum. A lot with the “pencil or analog” side of things, and then also the digital side of things, which you’ve been experimenting with a lot recently. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself? What do you do, and how did you get here?

Ryan: I’m a lettering artist primarily and I do a lot of design work for clients big and small. I do a lot of logos, a lot of stuff for advertising, just did some stuff for Hallmark for some holiday cards, things like that. And, also t-shirt designs, and whatever. So, I’m at a position now where I can take what I want, and turn away what I want, and kind of be choosy, and keep things interesting for myself, which is awesome. But, before this, I was actually for a long time in retail sales management. Managed a bunch of wireless stores, and then that transitioned into designing for cell phones and for apps and stuff, doing a lot of UI work. And then, I kind of stumbled across lettering on Dribbble, I think mostly and just decided to try my hand on it, and the rest is history. It just kind of slowly but surely took over what I was doing and what people were asking me for, and I was totally thrilled with that because it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done for sure.

Shirt by Ryan Hamrick for Cotton Bureau

Cesar: Let’s take a step back. You mentioned you were in retail.

Ryan: Yep. [Laughs]

Cesar: Talk to us about the transition from retail to what you do today.

Ryan: Yeah, that’s kind of what I was doing from around the time I had my son 11 years ago. I got into my first job managing a Sprint store in Columbia City, Indiana, and it grew from that to managing a few stores and then managing an entire district for Sprint at one time. But then we moved to Pittsburgh in ’09. I had to leave the place that I was at because they didn’t have any presence in Pittsburgh, so I didn’t have any transfer capability of anything. So, I just left that, stayed home with the kids for a little while, while I tried to find something and then I just kind of never did. [laughs] So, I started doing some freelance writing and stuff for a few wireless news sites, and ended up actually running one for a little while.

Cesar: What was the name of that?

Ryan: The name of the site was KnowYourCell.com.

Cesar: Cool.

Ryan: It was a US sister site of a really popular one in the UK, and I ran that for a little while. Zach Epstein from BGR was my editor-in-chief at the time. When he left to go back there, I took over that site for a little while. Then one day my wife decided that she was going to take another job, and it presented us with just the right kind of opportunity for me to make the decision to take the leap and just decide to be a designer full-time. By that time, I had, on the side, been working on a few UI projects and designed a few apps and stuff. And, I really caught that design bug, you know what I mean? I’ve never gone to school for it or anything. I’d never really done anything professionally. I’d done little logos for friends and family here and there on the side, but I’d never really even considered it as a career until I started doing some of the mobile stuff, and I was like “You know what? This could be cool. I could really actually see myself doing this now.” And that’s what I did. I left the site job and just started doing various freelance design projects full-time. It was slow-going at first but it slowly but surely built up, so it was good.

Shirt by Ryan Hamrick for Cotton Bureau

Cesar: When did you make that change from UI design to basically mobile apps and web-related stuff to now this art form?

Ryan: When I decided to turn my focus to design, I spent about that first 6 months or so just trying to teach myself as much as I could. I had been playing around in Photoshop for probably close to 10 years at the time. I’d had bootleg copies of it for years.

Cesar: That’s how we start.

Ryan: I was teaching myself web design and using Google to figure that stuff out, and it was going pretty well. I was just trying to make myself more versatile and valuable to potential clients. It just got to a point where I was really seeing the speed at which everything was growing. Responsive web design was just kind of starting to really take off and blow up. And coming at it totally fresh, no background knowledge of all the old technologies and stuff, it was a really difficult time to try and pick that stuff up. But I was doing ok. I just saw it as something I would probably never really be wildly exceptional at, or be able to set myself apart in any way.

Cesar: Was it because just the speed that things were going?

Ryan: Yeah. I was just way behind, you know? And at the age I was at – let’s see I would’ve been like 28 or so at the time – I mean these kids are learning this stuff in high school now, and getting such a head start and looking at it from a totally different perspective than I probably ever could. So, basically I started seeing some of the awesome lettering stuff that people like Simon Ålander and Sergey Shapiro were doing on Dribbble, and I was just fascinated by it. So I was like “You know, I’m going to play around with this while I don’t have any client projects going on and try my hand at some of this.” So, I did a few things, and the first things were really, really rough, but they were at the same time extremely rewarding. It was the most fun I’d ever had doing anything. I just made the unconscious decision to make sure that I figured out whatever I had to do to make this my thing and get good at this, and learn what I needed to learn to execute it the way I saw other people doing it. Luckily at the time I was able to actually dedicate that time to it because my wife had a killer job. It’s not the same scenario for most people, but I was able to really dive in head-first and get down. And 5 years later or so from there, here we are.

Cesar: So you’re currently about 5 years as a professional hand-lettering artist.

Ryan: Yeah.

Cesar: What were the tools that you started using when you began doing this hand-lettering?

Ryan: I started out with pencils. I used to sketch a lot as a kid, but I hadn’t for so long. If you’re not in design or in the arts at all, you don’t just draw as much, you know? [laughs] Everything was on the computer for me at the time, I was doing more writing, and like I said, the UI stuff. I wasn’t really the type to see the benefits of sketching out UI designs first. I kind of see the merits of it a little bit in retrospect, but it seemed like a total wasted step to me. I wasn’t really even familiar with sketching anymore. I was rusty as hell. When I started doing that I was teaching myself to draw again, and that was kind of the slow part. Just getting back to being able to recreate what I was seeing in my head on paper. It is a skill, I think, that is a practiced thing that you can actually build up skill in and mine was just totally gone. While I saw what I liked and saw some of the things that were making it as good as it was from other people, it was a matter of getting myself to be able to recreate that with my hands. So, a lot of pencils. I, at the same time, I was starting to play around with brush pens and the calligraphy stuff too, which I also ha no real experience in, even less so. I tried to build those two skills up simultaneously. So, after I got a little bit of a feel for the analog stuff, it was then trying to teach myself Illustrator. [laughs] So, it was everything at once.

Lettering by Ryan Hamrick

Cesar: Yeah, getting back to the vector machine. How often were you practicing sketching things out, especially in the beginning?

Ryan: It was pretty much all the time. I was staying at home. I had 2 kids, and they were pretty young at the time. I think when I first started out doing design, my daughter was still not in school yet, so she was at home all the time with me. My wife worked out of the house, so she was out early and not home ‘til late, so everything outside of my son’s school time and the things my daughter needed, it just fitting it in wherever you can. But, because my wife was able to hold down the fort pretty well when I was trying to make this all happen and figure everything out, I was able to dedicate a lot more time than I probably would otherwise. It was just whenever and wherever I could in between everything else. I was probably spending, gosh I’d say probably 10 hours a day working on everything and just trying.

Cesar: Wow.

Ryan: You know, that’s also including some of the client projects I was doing for non-lettering things. Yeah, just trying to cram it all in as much as I could because I was determined to make this happened and get out of what I was mediocre at and get into something that showed a little bit of promise.

Cesar: What were the motivating factors? Family?

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. Family. I was really motivated by trying to get back to a point where I could really contribute to the family. I’ve never not worked since I was 15 until that time when we moved to Pittsburgh, so being home and being a stay-at-home dad for a little while there was very stressful for me. Not that I had a feeling that I should be the breadwinner or anything like that – I’m fine with not being the breadwinner – but not making anything was really bothering me.

Obviously, when you’re staying at home, you’re contributing in all kinds of other ways, but I enjoy work. So, it was something that I was missing in my life a little bit. I had a ton of fun with the kids those few years. My daughter was like 1 at the time I think, and my son was 4, so it was an awesome time to be able to spend some extra time with them. That was an awesome time that I would never take back. But still, it was a thing that bugged me that I was not doing anything for myself so much, and so getting back to that was a big motivator for me, and just having fun, doing something I really enjoyed. That was something I hadn’t really had ever up until that point. I didn’t hate any of my jobs, but I didn’t love them with all the passion in my heart either. It was something that I knew right away that was going to be super important to me for a really long time.

Cesar: What was that one project that just turned things around for you in those early days?

Ryan: Let’s see. One of the first projects that I did for a client for money that kind of opened a lot of people’s eyes to me was I was part of an artists’ series for a brand called Holstee. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them out of New York.

Cesar: Yeah, they were famous for that poster about their manifesto?

Ryan: Yeah, the manifesto poster, yes. They contacted three artists — I wasn’t really considering myself as an artist at the time – to do a piece for a poster that was inspired by the manifesto. A lot of us were taking chunks of it or certain parts that really resonated with us a lot. I did a poster that was basically the words “Share Your Passion” from their manifesto, and my whole process of trying to learn lettering up until that point, I’d really made it a point to share a lot of what I was doing, and a lot of my trials and all the failures that I was having, and also a lot of the fun things I was figuring out. Learning in the open about it. So, when I saw that part of their manifesto, that “Share Your Passion”, this thing that I was still pretty new at at the time was the closest thing I could call a passion, as far as work goes, that I’d ever done. So, I did a lettering piece for that. And then we did a process video of the behind-the-scenes creation of it, and a little bit of me talking and stuff. That video went around quite a bit at the time and really sparked a lot of inquiries for lettering, which I hadn’t really been getting a lot of at that time. So, that kind of put my name in the circle of people that you should probably want to know or contact if you want to do lettering and stuff, so that was a pretty big one for me.

Cesar: Sweet. I want to talk about your writing. You mentioned that you use to write a lot.

Ryan: Yeah.

Cesar: Especially for this blog you were running back in the day, but more recently, I think maybe 2 years ago, I would say, you had this really neat project that you were doing. A very helpful one, actually. Can you talk a bit about that, and what sparked that idea?

Ryan: Oh, was it the mediocre movement one?

Cesar: Yes.

Ryan: Ok. Yeah, the lettering industry today is even wildly different from when I started a few years back. At the time there was just such scarce information out there for trying to learn how to do this stuff. The places to go to get really good training in this were super expensive workshops in New York or Delaware with like Ken Barber and such, and when you have a family and , and your wife is bringing the money in and can’t leave work and hold down everything while you’re gone for however long, a whole weekend, it just really wasn’t feasible for me. So, I was looking around online Googling “how do I do this?” or “do that?” like I had done with web design and had really found that useful, it just wasn’t there for that. So, it ended up being just a bunch of trial and error, and studying other people’s work. Today there’s a lot more resources available, but the really good ones are harder to come by. The popularity of lettering obviously has blown up completely in the last 5 to 10 years before I was involved. With that popularity, a lot of people who come in and want to dabble and that is absolutely awesome. I encourage anyone to try it ‘cause it’s the funnest thing that I’ve ever done.

The Saskatchewan provincial motto.

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So, while there’s that, there’s also a side of things where because everything is so popular, and everybody’s calling everything and anything lettering in a lot of cases, there’s sometimes scenarios where there’ll be somebody who has a super large following on Instagram or something, for instance, and they get a lot of positive feedback and encouragement from people, which is always great, but there’s a difference between taking that encouragement and using it as motivation to continue to progress and to grow as an artist. Or, in a lot of cases what also happens is someone will take that as a sign that they’re doing everything right, and the time to grow has stopped, and they’re going to start turning this into an opportunity to teach and to sell products.

It’s fine. With a lot of that… it perpetuates a mediocre level of skill that because of someone’s popularity or their follower count, it comes across as an authority to speak on that or to represent their work or their style that is a little bit half-baked as the standard. To people outside the industry that maybe don’t know all the details of what makes lettering good or bad or whatever, it just slowly but surely lowers their view of what lettering should be. The design industry has always been one where people are worried about hurting people’s feelings, and giving people honest feedback anymore. It’s tough, you know. You want to be nice, you don’t want to be a total dick, but at the same time there’s the people that need feedback. If no one’s giving it to them, and all everyone’s doing is praising them, then what incentive do they have to change or grow?

Cesar: Yeah there’s no growth.

Ryan: Yeah. I talked a little bit about being honest with each other, and not continuing to perpetuate this mediocre style that is really not benefiting anybody, and is not sustainable. So it’s just about taking value in what we see as valuable, you know what I mean? If we value ugly things then why would anyone make anything beautiful anymore? I don’t know. That’s kind of the long-winded gist of an even longer post, but I’ve been writing a lot about that.

Cesar: Yeah, it’s great that you are talking about that. Let’s get away from the mediocre, and let’s talk about the great stuff. So, I’m curious. Who do you look up to? Who are the artists that you’re like “Man, that’s where I want to be, I want to be just like that”?

Ryan: There’s a bunch man. Ken Barber is one who I’ve come to know a little bit over the last few years, and he is kind of the poster boy for really excellent total mastery of a super wide range of classical styles and modern styles, casual stuff. He also does a lot of what I hope to do in the near future, which is he does a lot of teaching. I think that the right people teaching this stuff is incredibly important, so that we can try and boost the excellent work that’s out there and make more of that instead of making more of the mediocre stuff. So, he’s doing everything the way that I would love to hopefully consider myself having done in the future.

Doyald Young was a major inspiration the past several years back. His books have been unbelievable for me with trying to figure this stuff out especially before I knew anybody else really, and had anybody else to reach out to. I lived in those books for a while. Other people. Rob Clark is a typographer in London who does incredible work. If you look at his site, you’d probably recognize about 75 logos that were from various brands and stuff that you never knew the same person did.

Bob Ewing is a buddy of mine in Indianapolis and he is kind of taking the same approach to all the stuff that I had. Just trying to constantly focus on growing and getting better and never settling for something that the general population thinks is really cool and totally good enough. He wants to keep growing, and he values a lot of the same things I value and I admire that more than anybody who’s just diving straight in and focusing only on the trends. I could probably stay here and name a million people all day long but those are some of the ones that I really admire and always look to for inspiration.

Cesar: Yeah you just mention Bob Ewing who was a guest previously on the show, and he also has a lot of good things to say about you, man. It’s pretty cool that he drew inspiration from what you were doing and your story since you have shared your story before, and I could definitely see the similarities there. He just decided to jump into lettering. I mean literally, this was just a couple of years ago, right?

Ryan: Yeah.

Cesar: It wasn’t even that long ago.

Ryan: Three or four I think for him.

Cesar: Yeah, but he’s still trucking along. He keeps, like you said, pushing and trying different approaches, new things. One thing that I really admired about him, as well – this is now becoming the Bob Ewing show by the way everyone is that he’s big on community.

Ryan: Yes.

Cesar: I really admire that he’s building community and not only locally in Indianapolis, but also all over the place, all over the world. This is sort of a message for everyone out there. If you have a formal education in something like lettering, or design, or illustration, that’s great. That’s fantastic. Hats off to you.

Ryan: I wish I could do it.

Cesar: Yeah. But, it’s also a message to those who want to pursue something like this but feel like “Hey, you know what it’s not in my league. I haven’t been trained, I don’t know much about this”. You know, it’s a matter of doing, just trying it.

Ryan: Yeah.

Cesar: Just like yourself, you were saying you wanted to do it. You were interested in it. You kind of come from a tech background, if you will.

Ryan: Right.

Cesar: And writing. And then you said, “Hey, this lettering thing looks really cool. I’m gonna give it a try.”

Ryan: Right.

Cesar: Anyone could do it.

Ryan: Yeah. It’s true. I really do believe that. I think everybody should try it for sure, and ask questions and try and learn everything you can because there’s so many wonderful and amazing little subtleties that make up our very limited alphabet that allow you to do some seriously incredible things with it. It’s just a never-ending, vast range of possibilities that you can have with the stuff. And being able to explore that anew with every project and with every new combination of letters and stuff is just the most fun. It’s awesome. I think that with the right kind of dedication, you don’t have to have a super awesome design background or know the right people or whatever. You’ve just got to try. You’ve got to ask for help sometimes.

I know in my case, and in Bob’s as well, when you see somebody who’s really putting in the effort and trying to really better themselves, and they’re looking for feedback and they’re coming to you with the humility to say “I’m having trouble with this or that. I’ve tried it 50 million different ways and it’s giving me a little trouble,” when you see those people who are clearly very dedicated to trying to figure this out and to grow, I’ll drop everything and help those people, and answer those questions.

Me and Bob had a few of those kind of conversations early on when he was starting out, and I could tell from the jump that he was legit. He was trying to really pour himself into this, and I was happy to give him everything I could. I probably sent him a few novel-length emails a couple of times just getting in too deep of what he was even asking for just because I was just excited about him and his passion for it as well. So, you know, just reach out, and practice your ass off. You can do it.

Cesar: I’m not trying to down-talk, like “Hey anyone can do this, you can just jump in there and do it.”

Ryan: I mean they could, probably, but not everyone should.

Cesar: That’s another thing. But then also, those that could and do have the potential, you’ve gotta bust your ass. Stick with it.

Ryan: Yeah. It all comes down to practice. You can learn great tips from so many people. I’m a big proponent that you can learn something from anybody. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t come down to tools, it doesn’t come down to the right frickin’ teachers, or whatever, it’s about the practice. You can learn the concepts and see it all day long, but until you get your hands used to doing that stuff, that’s where the magic lies, the repetition and the building up of that skill.

Cesar: This is going to counter what you just said about tools, but this next question is what’s your favorite tool now?

Ryan: Let’s see, I have a lot of favorites, but I’ve been really enjoying an Apple iPad Pro lately and the Pencil. It’s by far the best tablet and stylus experience that I’ve come across so far. I love the Wacom products for sure and I still have several of them around, a little bit collecting dust in some cases. But, the mobility of the iPad has been huge for me and ended up turning into something I use way more than I thought I would when I bought it. Just having an ‘undo’ button is just killer for quickly iterating stuff. But, I’ll never leave my pencils behind. I use Staedtler lead holders and that can get super sharp, which is crucial for sketching and lettering and getting the detail in the edges. Love those. I feel like there’s a new brush pen to try every time I turn around, so with those I just keep trying any one I see and seeing how it goes. Crayola Washables are also one of my favorites. It doesn’t have to be expensive; you don’t have to go searching the ends of the earth for the best tools. Look in your freaking art bin or whatever that you’ve had since high school or something. [laughs] It’s all useable and you can do amazing things with anything if you practice and have the method down, you know?

Cesar: Definitely. I want to ask if you have any last piece of advice, guidance for anyone who wants to get into lettering or for someone who is maybe stuck in a rut, who might be a designer currently or illustrator or artist. What would you tell anyone?

Ryan: Don’t be shy. One of the things that really paid off well for me was being active on social media and talking to people. Not being afraid to inject myself in conversations between people that were talking about the things that I was interested in and wanted to be a part of. And, the more you do that the more your name is recognized in the circles of people that are talking about that, the more those people are willing to respond to you ‘cause they know that you are adamant about trying to really learn this stuff. And, I end up following a lot of those people who end up asking me a lot of those questions. I’ll follow up and see what it is they’re doing and I’m kind of invested at that point. You’ve answered a few questions for people and given them a few tips, you want to see how they’re applying those things, and if they’re taking it and just running with that and not growing any beyond that then you can think, well I tried.

A lot of times those people take those and really apply them, and really try and get after it and learn the stuff. So, my best advice is to just be active on social media, talk to people, ask questions, ask me questions! Send me an email, you know, I’m always happy to answer questions. I might be a little slow to respond sometimes, but I’m happy to still. There’s people out there that would love to help, so if you’re stuck feel free to ask anybody. Everybody I’ve ever asked has always been super gracious and awesome, and I try and be the same. It’s an awesome community of very helpful people if you approach it right and ask nicely, we’re happy to help.

Cesar: Ryan Hamrick, thank you for being on the show, man.

Ryan: I appreciate it. Thanks, man.

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