Obituary: Phill Grimshaw

Patrick Argent
Sunday 27 September 1998 23:02 BST

THE TYPE designer occupies a unique role in graphic design, creating printed lettering and alphabets which determinine the look of all visual communications, and thus much of our environment. Phill Grimshaw had just such an influence. His skills as a calligrapher and natural feel for lettering enabled him to produce a diverse range of fonts, from painterly brush scripts to formal copperplate typefaces, evoking disparate moods, effects and historic looks. He created some of the most popular typefaces of the late 20th century, including 44 complete fonts for Letraset and the International Typeface Corporation of New York (ITC).

When the Glasgow School of Art celebrated their centenary in 1996 Grimshaw developed hand-drawn lettering by the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh into a full production typeface. It was used, reversed out, on a series of huge banners between the massive entrance columns of the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the winter of 1996-97 to announce the Mackintosh retrospective being staged there. This had originated at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, and subsequently travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago and the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles.

Grimshaw was born in Bolton in 1950. He attended Bolton College of Art where his tutor was the internationally-renowned lettering designer Tony Forster, who later became a close friend and ally. With Forster's encouragement and guidance, Grimshaw earned a place at the Royal College of Art in London (1972-75), where he shared a sink with David Hockney. Here he was taught by another eminent practitioner, the graphic designer John Gorham.

His early designs were influenced by the "ideas" graphics - rather than decorative graphics - of Bob Gill, a partner in the 1960s design group Fletcher/Forbes/Gill (later to develop into the international consultancy Pentagram), yet his leaning towards letterforms, be they formal, informal or calligraphy-based, indicated his true future vocation.

Returning to his native Lancashire after graduating from the RCA, he established his own commercial lettering studio. With an idiosyncratic yet pragmatic approach to his work he began to earn a formidable reputation as a type designer.

Grimshaw was passionate about both disciplines of letterform creation: calligraphy and typography. His typographic design was subsequently influenced by calligraphy and vice-versa, a cross-over technique typical of his experimental methods. In particular his more calligraphic work was much sought after by art directors in the London advertising industry; among the companies for whom he worked were the British Council, Marks & Spencer, Gale's Honey, Littlewood's, Scottish and Newcastle Brewery, and BBC North.

His first typeface design for Letraset was Oberon, in 1986. This marked the debut of his professional liaison with Colin Brignall, then Letraset's Type Director, who recognised the outstanding quality of his work. During the Seventies and Eighties Brignall was a key figure in the development of British type design at Letraset's drawing studio in London, responsible for the production of over 500 dry transfer typefaces - i.e. that transfer on to paper.

Under Brignall's patronage Grimshaw embarked on a productive and creative period in which his type ideas flourished, fuelled by his ability to recognise gaps in the typeface market. Due to the increasing move towards computerisation in the graphics profession, Grimshaw's 1992 typeface Hazel became the last type design to be produced by Letraset as a dry transfer product.

The advent of the Apple Macintosh computer in the mid-Eighties provided him with the ideal medium with which to develop his designs into marketable commercial typefaces: providing speed and accuracy as well as flexibility - a means of manipulating designs on screen; where hand-drawn lettering might take a day to draw, on a machine the same task might take an hour. His natural skills as a designer and draughtsman combined with the computer's capabilities as a studio tool made the later years of his career particularly successful.

From 1992 to 1995 he contributed alphabets to Letraset's Fontek range of digital typefaces (available on disc or CD-rom). From 1995, when Letraset relinquished its interest in type development, Grimshaw and Brignall continued their collaboration under the auspices of ITC, generating a number of type designs including Braganzo (1996), which won the New York Type Directors Award for that year. Another, ITC Kendo (1997), a calligraphic-based font, illustrates Grimshaw's dexterity and ability to marry balance, form and curve with sweeping exuberant pen strokes and a decisiveness of line, typifying the spirit of freedom and gusto prevalent in all of his work.

Phill Grimshaw was essentially a robust, no-nonsense Northerner, but he was also a diversely talented man: an accomplished watercolour artist, a self-taught musician and a model maker. His scholarly enthusiasm for megalithic monuments led him to become an expert on them. His legacy is the typefaces that enjoy world-wide usage in advertising and graphic design.

Phill Grimshaw, type designer, calligrapher and artist: born Bolton, Lancashire 1 February 1950 ; married 1987 Penny Air (two sons); died Manchester 27 July 1998.

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