"I'm not an Erik Spiekermann type who can spend years and years and years perfecting an ampersand."Type fanatic Swifty talks to Ed Ricketts about independence, boredom, and his pioneering acid jazz style...
You should never underestimate the therapeutic power of the garden shed. Long recognised as a place of refuge for the beleaguered family man, sheds can also be a tranquil hub of creativity. Roald Dahl used to write in his, while typographic legend Ian Swift - more commonly known as Swifty - uses his impressively customised model as the base for his design studio.
That may be surprising if you know anything of Swifty's career. In the 1990s, you were more likely to find him at an acid jazz club, or pumping out excellent record sleeves for the likes of Mo' Wax, as well as creating his own unique typographical experiments.
But then little in Swift's life has been predictable. Born near Liverpool in 1965, he left school at 16 with five O levels and later studied design at Manchester Polytechnic. At the age of 21, luck or possibly talent led him to The Face magazine and the tuition of one Neville Brody. "I was lucky enough to train under Neville, and I actually helped him draw up some of his most famous fonts," says Swift. "One of my first jobs was to draw Brody Bold at The Face. The fonts were all drawn by hand, so from very early on I was always into drawing type, and then the software came along."
With his work at The Face and later Arena, Swift soon became noticed in the specialist world of typography. "People like Erik Spiekermann saw my fonts and got me to talk at Fuse," he says. "For a while I was one of the new talents. But I quickly fell out of favour, I think, because of my staunchly independent attitude. I didn't want to flog my fonts under Fontshop and only take 20 per cent of the profit. I thought that was outrageous. So I pushed ahead, first for fonts to become cheaper - for example, two fonts sold on a disc with a book for £35. At the time it was an outrageous idea, because you'd spend £70 on just one font."
The issue of independence and retaining creative control is paramount for Swift, and one that he returns to time and again. His refusal to join the elite typographical club spurred him on, if anything, to pursue his own independent projects, the most notable of which was a magazine called Straight No Chaser.
A magazine with soul
Straight No Chaser was (and still is) a fiercely independent magazine aimed at the jazz, jive and soul aficionado. Although it was already in existence when Swift first joined the team in 1989 as art editor, it's fair to say he defined the style and approach that it would embody until the mid-1990s. At the same time, Swift launched his own font outlet, Swifty Typografix, and then embarked on a hugely prolific five years during which he juggled work on Straight No Chaser with font design, record sleeve and club flyer design, and many other offshoots.
"There was this thing on MySpace recently that described me as 'the godfather of the sampling generation'," he says. "When The Young Disciples asked me to redesign a Blue Note sleeve, I said 'yes, let's do it'. Stylorouge and similar studios wouldn't touch it. But I would take the inspiration from those older days and make them my own by changing it and doing my take on it. This whole aesthetic has now become everyday practice."
"I think it's very difficult to consume stuff visually and then not have it in your head somewhere, whether you like it or not," Swift continues. "That was the whole idea behind the whole acid jazz style I pioneered, using older influences rather than modern ones. I had the whole scene to myself for five years. I was the only guy tapped in on the ground level, who knew everyone."
Swift was an integral part of the scene, friends with the likes of Gilles Peterson and practically the only designer any self-respecting acid jazz label would commission. "It wasn't a conscious move, but I just met Straight No Chaser and it all went from there," he explains. "It went ballistic from there on. I never picked up the phone and rang around for work, it was a constant flow of meeting new people. Just the amount of people passing through the Straight No Chaser office... We pioneered the whole Hoxton Square thing. The whole place was just a pile of rubble back then. It was a dump and a dangerous part of town. Lots of people slowly moved in around us and the area became what it is today."
When Hoxton, and his later home Ladbroke Grove, became too trendy for his liking, Swift found himself at another crossroads. "By the mid 1990s, I thought I'd kind of done all the things I'd wanted to do, in the space of five years or so. So for a few years I was in this strange place. I started to employ people and the studio got bigger, because I thought that's what I should be doing. It took me a few years to realise that was a very wrong move for me. I didn't like being the governor, I didn't like going to loads of meetings and telling other people what to do."
Although he continued with Straight No Chaser and the record sleeves, Swift decided to return to his roots as a lone designer, and soon drifted into another area - TV title animation. It's not, he believes, all that different to static typography. "I got into After Effects and before I knew it I was fully immersed," he says. "I literally went to the library and got a book on animation. Obviously you've got a time line to work to - you cut it to music, you're conceiving graphics for motion. But the good thing about After Effects is that it's essentially Photoshop, but moving. Once you've wrapped your head around that you're away."
Swift's first job was for Channel 4's Smack the Pony in 1999, and along with notable sequences for Derren Brown's programmes, he continues to work for all the major channels. "I do like the fact that I can design a title sequence for a film and then quite happily move into the DVD post stuff, marketing and so on," he says. "It's nice to be able to say I can do all of this for you, and keep good continuity."
Font design, however, remains a constant thread throughout his work, with the skeleton of many fonts arising through his other projects. "I've just done [a record sleeve] for Far Out Brazil, so I drew up some letters for that," he explains. Those letters remain on his Mac for a while, and he may use them for another project, gradually adding to the set and gauging client feedback. Eventually, and with luck, the font will become a fully-fledged set. "Generally, if you see something in Straight No Chaser, it means it's about halfway there. I use the magazine very much as a testing ground."
By his own admission, Swift is no 'font head' - it takes him a long time to finish a complete design. "I'm not an Erik Spiekermann type who can spend years and years and years perfecting an ampersand," he laughs. "After a couple of hours in Fontographer, I'm bored. I keep dipping in and out and that's why it takes so long to finish. I get to the point where there's enough punctuation and other stuff to tide me over, and I leave it at that."
One current plan he has is to enlarge the range of fonts on his website, and to reduce their prices. With so many free fonts around, and imitators in the market, he knows his work won't appeal to everyone. But there's a hardcore out there, those who loved his work from the acid jazz days, who will appreciate his more exclusive designs, which hark back to cutting-edge days.
Shedding the image
These days Swift works from home in his shed, complete with panelling, sofa, desk, computers and a range of toys. "It's a great little escape hole," he says. "In the summer, the kids come in and do bits of drawing or homework. I do love it."
And that fiercely independent streak remains part of his nature. It is, as he says, just the way he works. "After all these years of designing work for others, you come out of the end of it and think, well what have I actually got? Nothing. I did all this work for other people. You don't actually physically own anything."
With three children, he has neither the time nor the inclination to re-live the go-go lifestyle of his 20s, and is happy to pass that baton to younger designers. "There's a lot of good design out there and a lot of clever marketing, but then there's a lot of crap," he says. "It's a shame that there are some companies who aren't very good at what they do, but have good sales people. I increasingly find myself sort of sidelined, which hurts sometimes, because I see people doing things that I would have done better and getting props for it."
He pauses, and conscious of how this might sound, adds dryly, "My missus thinks I'm just bitter and twisted, which I am a bit."