Bob Ewing is a hand lettering artist, designer and illustrator. He first introduced his lettering chops by sharing daily custom hand lettered words on social media. With a prolific body of work, Bob has mastered a unique style of bold, curvy and sharp lettering.
Bob is a strong believer in artistic development in schools. He co-founded INCH X INCH, a monthly button subscription. Proceeds go to art programs in K–12 schools.
Pencil or pixel?
It’s a tough one for me because I’m very much…In the last few years, I’ve gone back into pencil. I kind of got away from it for a while and just would jump right on the computer…And then when I started lettering, that kind of got me back to drawing which is something I grew up doing. Something about the analog nature of just putting pencil to paper that’s enjoyable…
Yeah, absolutely. When did you start getting back into drawing and doing things by hand?
It was a couple of years ago. It was almost two years ago. I very much kind of got into the design game later than most. I just turned 34 years old. I’ve only been doing this for about seven…
You and I both, man. You’re not alone.
Yeah! That’s cool. I’m totally comfortable with it. [laughs] I’ve only been doing this for seven years. Lots of people my age have been doing it since they graduated.
So I can of had thought I wanted to be an architect. I went to Ball State which has a renowned architecture program. I spent three and a half years there and then decided I didn’t want to do that. And I did a montage of things — from commercial, electric work.
I moved to Florida for a year I did trim carpentry and window and door installations on big, custom homes. And then ultimately I moved back to Indiana to be with my now wife. Best decision I ever made, for sure.
At that time I had an odds and end window door job for a company here in town and I wasn’t very happy and knew I just need to figure out what I wanted to do.
So I went back to school, a community college. I had to work and go to school, that was kind of important. It was funny, totally different mindset like going back the second time and how much I valued it than when I was there originally. I very much was like, “OK I’m here. I’m going to make the most out of this.” And it ended up being a really good experience. The teachers were amazing.
So I got my associates degree in Visual Communications. That’s the only degree, outside of high school, that I have. Worked in a print shop for a couple of years, a digital print shop and very much just printing other people’s designs instead of my own.
So I finally got hired by an agency in town and I was there doing cool…It was awesome. I was super happy to be there. I was excited with what I was doing but I was kind of in this place where I wasn’t super excited about what I was creating. I was just trying to figure out who I am or what am I doing with this design. It was in kind of a weird place.
I always loved looking at Ken Barber’s work and Ryan Hamrick – just some of these people that do these amazing hand-lettered pieces and just how do the hell do you do that, like it just seems impossible, like I would never be able to create that.
And then, kind of all in one day, realizing that I can do that but it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to get to that point, so that’s when I started the daily lettering. It was September 23rd, 2014, I just made a decision to start, and a week later, I was kind of hooked and I named it #hashtaglettering as kind of a joke, really, because I was just looking for something to call it and a friend of mind always hashtagged…
[laughs] So many hashtags everywhere…
I know. So, it was kind of a joke, but it was available. So the idea was making it very simple so that I could do it in 5 or 10 minutes and then take a photo, edit it, post it to Instagram and then also send it to Tumblr. It was literally that easy.
So that really got me back into drawing which was very much something I did as a kid and all through high school. And even in Architecture, we would always go out and draw. It was a big part of the program and something I just had gotten away from. So it was kind of crazy. That decision to start lettering really kind of changed my design career. Some of the stuff I’m creating now, I never would have really created if I didn’t start on pencil. It just maybe a better conceptor, maybe allowed me to get ideas all faster and quicker. It’s vital. So everything starts on paper now, for sure.
Yeah, we’re definitely going to get into that, into your daily lettering project, or as you mentioned, #hashtaglettering. But, I’m fascinated with everything you just said. You went to architecture school, you got into carpentry, you went to door and window installations, you then took a course of visual communications. You decided to do all these different hands-on things…
Some of that is decided for me. So I worked for a concrete company and that’s where I did commercial electric work.
So when I left Ball State, my dad was like, “You’re getting a job.”
So he was the one that got me a job for the company. He worked for like 36 years. So that’s how that started. Very much was the disgusting, not glorious job. A lot of maintenance, powdered cement that makes up concrete, it’s one of the filthiest substances. It’s like dry, it’s everywhere. It’s just not glorious.
When you were working at this concrete place, what were the kind of things that were going through your mind? What were the kinds of things you learned when you were there?
I don’t really know what I was learning until now, at that time. I knew that I was very much in a weird…Not a weird place. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I was young. I had friends. We’re hanging out. Just being a 24-year-old kid, basically, having a good time. No goals. No looking into the future, just very much living day-to-day.
So looking back, it makes me appreciate what I do now. The fact that I can come to an office like this every day and essentially move and mouse around and I get to create things. So, it’s very much of a comfortable scenario and I very much enjoy what I do and I very much did not enjoy what I was doing back then. It just gives you a little perspective on how good I kind of have it, and there’s always bad days in everything we do, but even the bad days in this job, in my current creative life are far better in what they were when I was just doing maintenance and stuff.
Growing up, I came from a middle class family. My mom was a teacher; my dad drove a cement mixer for 36 years. We very much worked on vehicles ourselves. If something broke, we fixed it.
While at the that time, as a kid, I hated that, like the last thing I wanted to do is replacing a water pump in a ’93 custom van, or anything like that after school. But then looking back, that’s the last thing my dad wanted to do as well but that’s just what we had to do to get by. We very much did all that. Very hands-on.
“If you really want to do something, you’re going to figure out a way to do it.”
At that time, I didn’t appreciate it. Looking back, especially in some of those jobs, it paid off a lot because I have this ability to figure…It kind of taught me problem solving and I could work from my hands. Just basically allowing me to progress.
It’s a huge contrast between doing a lot of labor intensive work and essentially drawing things and working with computers. It’s definitely a privledge. I’m curious. You’ve just mentioned your daily lettering project. Can you tell us how it started? What exactly inspired you to begin it?
I briefly mentioned I was working for an agency – not this one, my previous agency – creating things, working on clients, doing stuff that designer or art director does, but not being super fulfilled at what I was creating. I was always doing freelance stuff but just feeling I’m not creating the stuff that I wanted to yet.
Did you have a lot of local commercial businesses?
Yeah. Lots of local clients and stuff like that and then logos and websites and commercial campaigns. Some of that was fun — photo shoots and TV commercials, those are few and far between, and a lot of those jobs that we’re doing. Just trying to figure out who I am and what am I doing.
I actually read two blogs the day that I started the lettering — two Medium blogs, one by Ryan Hamrick who I had followed forever and kind of had a huge appreciation for because he’s a self-taught kind of guy, hard working, making it happen for himself. So I had a lot of appreciation for him and he was also sharing a lot which was huge because not a lot of people share process. I think it’s becoming more and more popular, not just sharing the final piece, but sharing what went into it and the thought and that very much came from him being self-taught and looking for those kind of resources and not being available. So that really helped me out. Basically it was a blog about practice makes perfect and then another one from Lenny Terenzi – I totally just butchered his last name; who at that time I did not know but now as a friend of mine through Creative South down at Columbus, Georgia. He wrote a very similar article about that and he was very much in a similar place trying to figure out what he was doing.
It kind of struck me. Also it just kind of hit me like I’m not going to get better at anything until I start doing it. So literally I made a decision on my lunch break, this all happened on my lunch break that I did my first lettering piece and I numbered it and it was never a 365 project. It was just like, “OK. I’m going to do this every day and I’m going to number them just to keep track and I’m going to post it on Instagram.”
At that time I don’t really know the magnitude of that decision. Now I look back and it was life changing for me. Social media and that kind of accountability and getting a little bit of feedback the first couple of days is what kind of allowed me figure out what that was and what I could do with it and then it just kind of turned into, “OK, I can do this. I can make it happen, every single day. Whether it’s five minutes or five hours, whatever I have, just do something.
What was it that pushed you to do it for a whole year?
I think at that time, I’ve put few restraints on it. The only restrictions I gave myself was I was going to do it every day and that I had to letter something. That was literally it and then post it. So there’s no time constraints, there’s no timeline, it wasn’t a year project. It was just like, “OK I’m going to do… I knew it would take more than a year to get better at it or improve. If it’s something that I was going to be serious about doing…it just became kind of an addiction and a passion all at the same time and it started to revitalize myself as a creative and get me back into what I enjoyed about being a creative in drawing and all those things.
Awesome! Going to change it up a little bit. So Bob, you have a couple of kids, right?
Two. I have a daughter who’ll be 4 in January and then my son just turned 1.
Nice. I notice that you incorporate your hand-lettering with your kids. Can you talk a bit about some of the projects that you’ve done with your kids and your hand-lettering?
Yeah, that’s like one of my favorite things to be able to make…I’m very much in…If you follow me on social media, it’s not just lettering. I very much have to sprinkle in my family life because it’s super important to me and that’s trying to tell that whole story of this is who I am, that this is more important than lettering, although a lot of times it looks like the lettering and design is the most important thing. I have to make sure that they’re in there for sure.
What is it that you do with the lettering and your kids?
The most recent one…Outside of designing invites and getting to do stuff for them when we have events or stuff like that, the one I started to do with my son, it was kind of a growth chart. I did it like 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and then I’m getting ready to do the Year 1. And it was really just born out of OK, I want to take photos of my son as he grows… and I want to do something bigger. Often times sketching and you’ll have notes somewhere small, so I want to start creating stuff that’s larger scale. So I figured if I created something that’s his size then not only is he going to get incrementally get larger the first year…
But it will just allow me to work with something different or work on a bigger scale. So that one’s been awesome because although I’m lettering it, he totally steals the show because he’s awesome. And then we just set him down and take 200 or 300 photos and pick a couple out and share…
Wow! 200 or 300 pictures?!
Yeah. With kids you’re just taking a whole bunch. The second one, the sixth month one, I did beef cake and it literally looks like he’s flexing, like he has his hand on his shoulder and it looks like he’s flexing…
I remember that one…
It was total dumb luck, like it just happened that I just captured it. He was moving his arms and I just happen to capture it. In the digital age, you know, it’s just a memory card so you just rip off a bunch of photos and you get to pick your favorite one. That’s been super enjoyable, for sure.
So that’s what it takes? It takes a few hundred and then just get that right one…
Oh, yeah. With kids, like you’re just spraying and praying.
As they call it in the photography world.
It’s a good quote. I like that.
Did you come across any challenges especially when you’re doing your 365-day project, your #hastaglettering? Anything that you like to share that you kind of came across that was close to stopping you from doing that project, from moving forward with it?
Oh, yeah, for sure. Often those things happen. From the little things that…Then the biggest ones where a lot of times I did them after my kids went to bed so I very much did not…As a creative it’s hard to turn things off when you go home. You’re always thinking about something…
Trying to be present for my kids…I wouldn’t do anything until after they would go to bed. But then at that time that I’m just sitting on the couch and I was often working on freelance stuff, too, so it was like, OK I need to do my lettering and then I have some other work to do.
The biggest challenge and the one of the main reasons why I stopped is while it didn’t affect my relationship with my kids, it was starting to affect my relationship with my wife where we were just kind of hanging out together and I was doing my own thing and she was sitting on the couch next to me but not really communicating. That’s still something to this day that this work-life balance that is a huge struggle to try and figure out and it’s still something that still trying to figure out.
So that was definitely the biggest challenge and the reason why I stopped the daily lettering. The main reason. I should have stopped three or four months earlier, I honestly could’ve. I got to a point where I wasn’t getting as much out of it as I was putting into it. And that’s why I made this change of just focusing on larger projects and sharing more process.
Me and my wife decided…We had many conversations about effect that it was having. That’s when I said it was kind of becoming an addiction in a way because I just felt like I needed to continue, like I couldn’t tell myself to stop. When I did finally stop, it was 534 days straight, so I didn’t miss a day.
In my head, it was like, “OK. You, what’s next?” It’s like, “OK. Two years is next.” But, like I said, I got to this point where I wasn’t getting as much out of it. So I just had to stop. And that day, that night, the 535th day, like when I didn’t have to do the lettering, it was like, A. I didn’t miss it, which I thought was going to be the case and it was kind of a relief that I didn’t have to do it. So, while it was very valuable, that was the biggest challenge.
The other one is just, you know, you’re sick, you don’t feel like you had a bad day and the last thing you want to do is come home and work, because at some point it did seem like work. But the whole point was just to do it no matter what. I made a commitment even if it sucked. And some days, it did suck. Like not only did it suck, like spending the time on it, but honestly the piece I did sucked, I wasn’t happy with it. But I still did it, I still persevered through that. So at some point, I learned a lot about myself, for sure, in that time.
What kinds of things did you learn about yourself?
Some of the big things were that I really enjoyed drawing. Like I really missed doing that. It was something that I’ve gone away from…I think that was the biggest thing. I think that’s the thing I enjoy most about lettering is…I’m very much not like a calligrapher. I’m not proficient with the brush pen or anything like that. Lots of people can brush out or write beautifully and that’s not what I do. I literally am just drawing letters. Some people draw landscapes but I just so happen to have this affinity and affection for lettering.
You know, I feel the same way. I have an affinity for hand-lettering and I really enjoy your work. Thank you for sharing this because it’s difficult to talk about this. And I’m not trying to make this a therapy session or something [laughs] but thank you for sharing.
And I think honestly that’s the stuff…Us creatives are very emotional people. I feel like what’s going on in your life can really affect what you’re creating or how you’re solving problems…
…or thing that you’re working out so much in your head…I think it plays a huge role in it…I don’t know, it’s just one of those things that part of…I enjoy sharing in general, whether it’s just the lettering process or…I guess I just don’t have anything to hide. [laughs] I think it’s all…kind of get what you get with me, I feel like for the most part.
Some of us may be interested in starting a daily, weekly or monthly project and staying committed to it but that doubt can creep in and we could become paralized by failure. Do you have any tips or advice that you could give to someone who would like to start a project like this?
What things have you learned and what advice or tips would you have for someone who wants to start something like this?
Ultimately, the consequences of me failing at this…Nothing bad is going to come out of it. And you know, as you get older, you kind of realize that you learn so much more from failure than anything else. I think you’re not going to do anything if you don’t try. It’s like the oldest wise bit of information…I’ve heard that like a hundred times, a thousand times, probably. It’s like you can’t do anything if you don’t try.
I think as humans we have the ability to surprise ourselves, especially us creatives, you just got to give yourself a chance.
One thing that was really important too was the community. The whole idea of Instagram, I just kind of liked Instagram like a platform.
One thing I didn’t count on or didn’t foresee was this kind of lettering community that I kind of ingrained in and almost by chance, it just happened. It was just by creating lettering and then people naturally find you.
So it’s kind of cool to grow… Literally there is a few lettering artists that I’ve kind of grown up with…I feel like that we’re very much in a similar state as me. And then also reaching out…don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help from people that you look up to.
I’m very much in meeting a lot of these people that we kind of idolize or put on platform because we appreciate what they do for design and what they can create. They’re very much as normal people and really down to earth for the most part, from my experience. So don’t be afraid to reach out to them and ask for help. You can’t expect to get a response back immediately all the time because people are busy but just reach out and ask for that.
I think relationships is a big part of this, and not just socially. You need to have good support staff around you in the physical realm. Get out and be a part of the community, not just online. Conferences were big for me.
Creative South, I mentioned that earlier, that kind of changed the game for me too. It’s an amazing conference. Started by Mike Jones and put on by a whole bunch of people in Columbus, Georgia. It was awesome because that was the first opportunity I got to go out and meet some of these people that I’d followed on social media so actually getting to shake their hands and have real conversations with them in person and talk about stuff was a big benefit.
I think for anyone, just start. If you fail, figure out why you failed and then that’s the biggest thing, the idea of retrospect; learn from your failures, why did you fail. Is it because you got lazy? OK well next time, if you really want to do it, don’t be lazy. Because a lot of time it’s cut and dry and we know the answers. A lot of these stuff, it’s just a matter of being true with yourself and pushing on. If you really want to do something, you’re going to figure out a way to do it.
I do this all the time saying that I’m busy, I got a lot going on, but with lettering, I am busy and I have a lot going on, but if I really want to do this, I’m going to make time for it.
Solid advice. Thank you.
With hand-lettering, there’s a lot of it out there, what do you think of the future of it? Do you think we’re going through a trend? Do you think it’s something that’s going to last a long time?
You hear people talking about lettering is kind of trending right now or it’s hot. I think that comes from this idea that we crave craftsmanship. Our father, my father’s father, they grew up making things by hand and not for art’s sake, but because that’s how they made things.
As a society, we kind of got away from that and things start to look the same when technology is involved, unfortunately, so I feel like lettering has this unique human quality about it and I think that’s why it’s going to last. Even if you’re just taking a font and altering it to make it unique, by hand, or if you’re adding something to it, that’s still making sure that you’re doing something with your hands.
I do think it is super popular now and I think that’s good for lettering because I think it’s good for us as creatives because it gets people thinking. It separates people that are just creating everyday things and…I don’t know if that’s the right way to say that. I don’t want to sound like an ass here. [laughs]
No, I understand.
But people that are very much creating things that look similar to everything else and then people that are creating things that are truly unique, even though everything’s been done before but there’s always a new spin on it or it’s your own spin. I think that’s why I think lettering, it’s what I enjoyed about it, for sure, and why I see that I’m not going to stop doing it. Like I said earlier, it definitely change me as a designer and how my whole thought process and design process goes.
You made a great point. A lot of digital things tend to look the same after a while. So hand-lettering is a good transition to designing by hand, if you will.
I think it is. I had the opportunity…My agency started a workshop series called Few Sessions. That started because I have been wanting to go to New York to Cooper Type and take one of Ken Barber’s workshops and it just wasn’t feasible for me so I’d approached the ECDR, our Executive Creative Director about it and he kind of saw a bigger picture of like this is a void in Indianapolis that people aren’t doing these creative workshops so what if we start a series? Let’s commit to doing four of these and try them out and we’ll start with Ken Barber. So that very much made my day.
When Ken came, he talked a lot about foundation that’s why he teaches formal script which is something I’ve not…I was all basically learning off the internet so I have had no training in lettering. But one thing he said that really made sense and why I think why your point is very true, is like an E is an E. It’s already established. So an E looks like this and if you try and draw an E that doesn’t look like an E, it’s similar to speaking of…If I just got on here and I was talking gibberish, you’d have no idea what I was saying.
So, now you can put your own spin on that and you can change it. You can make them fatter or wider, thinner, whatever you want to do, but the letters exist already. So lettering is an easy way to, “OK. I can draw this and then learn how to make that my own, or customize it to fit whatever it needs to fit.”
That’s awesome. You guys are making a dent in the Indianapolis design scene.
Yeah. I think it’s all about of being proud of where you’re from. I grew up here. I very much live 4 miles from where I grew up. I live in Marion County, the county that Indianapolis is in. Just trying to make our own space and put Indianapolis on the map and let people know that we’re doing cool things here and there’s a lot of good creatives here and just trying to make it somewhat of a draw.
It just makes me think of Nick Sambrado and how proud he is to be from Orlando and being somewhat jealous of what they have going on down there. Or you know, really, it’s Orlando. It’s the house of the mouse…
I think it has a lot to do with Nick.
Oh, I know. He’s such a good dude. I consider Orlando second home, for sure. Even though I don’t go there often but I think they claim me down there.
And then same with Tad Carpenter and you know what The Made in the Middle and what it’s doing in Kansas City. The beautiful thing about what we do now in this age, you can do it wherever, it doesn’t matter.
There’s no reason why we can’t do awesome things in Indianapolis. That’s really what that’s all about.
And then it’s also about creating a better creative community in Indianapolis. It’s a smaller market so there’s not a lot of camaraderie, I feel like, in our creative community here. Even though we have AAF and AIGA and there’s events like that but I don’t feel like we’re super supportive of what other people are doing. That’s what it’s really about. It’s bringing the people together in Indianapolis.
I think you’re playing a key role and really putting Indianapolis on the map.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
You guys are doing great. You’ve mentioned the studio that you work at right now, where is it that you work and what kind of projects are you currently working on?
I’m art director for an agency called Element Three. I’ve been here just over a year. It’s been fantastic. I’m going to say I wouldn’t have gotten this job if it wasn’t for…I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. The lettering and the stuff, that kind of upped what I was creating somewhat and there was all stuff on my own, mostly and some of the stuff I was doing at work, and that’s what led to this job.
Also a good friend of mine, Drew Hill, that I went to high school with, who’s the co-founder of INCH X INCH. We started that together…
…which you definitely want to talk about. I worked with him in my previous agency. He was talking to our Creative Director here and they were looking for someone else so he was like, “Hey, I know someone else that might be looking to make a move.” We both came over at once so he’s been a huge kind of a mentor and support for me as a creative. Even though he’s a year older than me, he went to Design School right out of high school and has been doing it since then.
So Art Director at Element Three, we have a mix of local and national clients. Newmar is a big luxury coach bus company, motorhome company that’s up in Northern Indiana that we are…Is that right? I’m not sure. They’re not my client so…They may not be in Indiana. [laughs] I think they’re in Wisconsin.
And then Airstream is another one of our big national clients. You know the aluminum…So that’s a cool client. Lots of history there.
I currently work on a company called FBI Buildings which builds post-frame buildings, so barns, and they also build this multi-million dollar livestock facilities which is cool…I think why I really enjoy the agency life is getting to come and work with super creative people. We have a full digital team and we do all our web/dev in-house. So getting to collaborate with awesome people that are really good at their jobs, is awesome.
But then it also provides some sort of a contrast. Even though I grew up…My dad was a farmer so the buildings, the post-frame buildings is very much in my wheel house. I’ve had lots of clients that I knew nothing about before I started working with them so you get to learn something new and it kind of put your spin on the industry that may not be the coolest thing but it’s all what you make of it, you can do cool work for anyone…It’s been fun.
It’s super supportive. It’s just a great place. The Few Sessions, INCH X INCH, those are two huge examples that I don’t think would have happened had I still been at the previous place. There’s just much more of visionary and good support staff here.
You just mentioned INCH X INCH which is a monthly button club. How did it all start?
I mentioned Drew Hill, my good friend. We went to high school together. We’re friends. We took all of our classes together. And then we kind of went our own ways and then we kind of met back up at the previous agency we worked for. So we’ve worked together for 5 years now but didn’t really get to work together. Pretty much I would help him out on some stuff but then we were looking to do something together. We both had this fondness for 1-inch buttons and the challenges when you make something that small…It’s just a challenging design for something that small. We’ve collected them and our kids would have birthday parties and we’d make 1-inch buttons because you have to.
So we were just always talking about them and he’s like, “What if we did something with this.” Literally it was like a 15-minute text conversation. That’s how this all came about. He’s like, “What if we do something with buttons?” and I was like, “That sounds cool.” And it just turned into this much bigger idea of ultimately, like selfishly, we just wanted more buttons, but we were like, “Well, we don’t want to create the buttons.” That’s more work that we just don’t want to take on so then this idea of featuring artists and building this kind of network and then giving back.
I think as parents, your kids, and you’re just thinking about future a lot more and they’re stripping art out of school systems which is tragic, because we know…There’s so many stats around of the importance of art at a young age. And even up into high school, I actually just saw a stat that in high school, kids that have 4 years of arts score like 100 points higher on SATs. So it’s crazy.
So just thinking about how can we give back and how can we start to leave our mark and affect some change in a good way to something that was super important to us. So that’s how we decided we’d donate all of our profits to charity that support youth art education.
It’s just been amazing and we’re over 500 members which is…When we first started, we were like…Well, you know, some of our friends, family will sign up because they’ll feel bad for us and it just kind of took off and a lot of that is a testament to the cause, I think, of what we’re trying to do and people very much aligning with that.
And a lot of us are artists, too. For instance, Friends of Type, we started with them and they crushed it for us. They’re so instrumental in helping us launch this off. Each artist after that has just been amazing and just helped us grow it.
Now it’s about what’s next. We launched a store so we’re offering t-shirts…It’s super cool to see Draplin and Allen Peter’s buttons…It was designed for 1-inch and how it still holds up on an 18×24 poster which is super cool. So just starting to figure out ways that we can raise more money for our charities. It’s been awesome.
I wish it to to grow exponentially. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Thanks so much for having me!
Them song by: Pencil vs Pixel
Images and work are used with permission of the owners/creators or their representatives.
Interview by Cesar Contreras
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