“If you enjoy what you do, and you’re lucky enough to be good at it, just do it for that reason.” This quietly spoken – and exceptionally wise – philosophy remained Phill Grimshaw’s guide throughout his career, which was cut short in 1998 when Grimshaw died following a long illness, at the age of 48. Despite creating some of the most popular display faces of the late 20th century, Grimshaw never sought a high profile, and was content to let his lettering and typefaces speak for themselves.
A native of Northern England, Grimshaw was a bit of a character. Utterly unpretentious and prone to mischief, he was once memorably described as “the Jack Nicholson of type.” Drawings were often produced while he sat in front of the television, with a glass of single malt in one hand and a drawing implement in the other.
Grimshaw’s letterform designs possess a vitality and invention that’s as irrepressible as their creator. Each of Grimshaw’s typefaces, from the cool sophistication of Noovo to the hurried immediacy of Bendigo, has a delightful and vivid personality, often providing the perfect answer to the age-old typographic question, “Where can I find a face that says happy/sad/somber/historic...?”
Early Designs for Letraset
During the creation of many of his typeface designs, Grimshaw enjoyed the professional support and friendship of Colin Brignall, Letraset’s Manager of Typographic Development. Grimshaw’s relationship with Brignall was forged when he began to submit ideas for typefaces to Letraset – ideas that Brignall immediately identified as “outstanding, with a remarkable sensitivity of line.” Brignall saw in this young and gifted apprentice someone who combined a highly developed sense of proportion and form with a remarkable spontaneity – both of which remained present throughout Grimshaw’s career.
Grimshaw’s last work involved several calligraphic designs, as well as commissioned projects exploring the work of designers as diverse as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Roger Excoffon. Working on typefaces based on the forms of these designers provided Grimshaw with two opportunities: first, to step into the shoes of other lettering artists and closely examine their thinking and methodology, and second, to re-inspire himself as a creative person and explore new areas of letterform design.
Work files dated March 1998, well into his illness, give proof to Grimshaw’s passion for the typographic arts. Two typefaces were in the final stages of design. Anyone who had ventured into his loft studio would have also seen many more ideas and multitudes of typographic experiments falling out of drawers, pinned to walls, or piled on top of each other. It is this wealth of undiscovered experiment that presents the most frustrating question: “What if?”
This article was adapted from Patrick Baglee’s profile of Phillip Grimshaw, which appeared in U&lc Online. Baglee is Design Editor at Real Time Studio and chair of the Typographic Circle in London.