Tombow Talks to: Illyahna Johnson | Tombow

17 May 2021

Tombow Talks to: Illyahna Johnson

Although Illyahna still considers herself a bit of a newcomer to the world of modern calligraphy, she has many years of creative experience under her belt. From studying fashion and knitwear at the Royal College of Art in London to working in New York, Illyahna has definitely developed a great eye for beautiful design. Her company, Illyboo Designs offers a wide range of workshops, lettering kits and calligraphy for live events, weddings and more. Illyahna regularly runs lettering workshops for Tombow UK so keep your eyes peeled for the next one…

You Studied fashion and knitwear at the Royal College of Art, where did you work after studying and what did you learn from this industry?

After graduating from the Royal College of Art (RCA) I went on to get my first job at a cashmere knitwear company as a junior designer in Manhattan, New York. I was one of the most amazing experience of my life. I was part of a small team of knitwear designers where I got to design high end cashmere garments and homeware accessories, for not only the company’s seasonal collections, but for private label clients such as Henri Bendel and Bloomingdales. I learnt a great deal about the business infrastructure of the fashion industry; the importance of creative collaboration and the joint effort involving not only the design team, but the roles of the buyers and manufacturers to ensure the successful production and completion of a collection.

When did you first pick up a nib and explore the world of lettering?

I had experience of using ink and nibs at design school for illustration, as I always loved the variation of the inky stoke line a nib like no other tool created on the paper: but I never gave much thought to mastering the tools for the exquisite hand writing it’s meant for.

However, I do remember being properly introduced to nib and ink after seeing the new hype for modern calligraphy teaching emerge online a few years ago. I was looking for a new past time, so after doing some research I booked myself onto a beginner’s dip pen workshop with the infamous Quill London (which has now sadly closed down). I had an amazing teacher, (shout out to @LettertbyJulia) who has become a good friend - but after seeing her ability and realising the potential I had with these tools, I knew it was a skill I wanted to master further. 

What do you love the most about brush lettering?

I love the freedom and versatility you get with using brush tools. I like mixing media and playing with different variations of inky marks and textures different brush tools provide. Its versatility lends itself well to not only calligraphy styled lettering but it’s used to create lettering for sign writing and hand lettered typographic styles. The rules with brush lettering are also far more relaxed and easier to interpret and unlike other styles of calligraphy you don’t really need fancy tools to even begin exploring this fun skill. 

Proudest moment of your career to date?

So, I have to two, one is from my time in the fashion industry and the other is a calligraphy collaboration I am currently part of.

During my Masters at the RCA I was selected out of 22 candidates as the first prize winner for the Miss Selfridge young designer Award - “Capturing Femininity Through the Decades”. My winning dress was produced and sold across the country in all their stores, and I was also given the opportunity to complete a six-week paid placement with the company.

My second proudest moment hasn’t yet been launched so I can’t divulge as much I would like, sorry! All I can say is that I am truly honoured to be working with this incredible designer, who is well known within the calligraphy industry.  We are working together on a very special limited-edition item and I honestly cannot wait for its release. It was definitely the most challenging but incredibly exciting and mind-blowing thing I have done to date during my calligraphy career.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to learn modern calligraphy?

Be incredibly patient with yourself and just work consistently! I can tell you how much you will improve if you just give time to mastering your craft. Also, if a tool someone you aspire to be like is recommending just isn’t the tool for you, then go find one that works for you. Don’t make yourself miserable! This is all about having fun, not hating the process!

The current climate is challenging businesses of all shapes and sizes. How has the pandemic affected your work and how have you had to adapt during these times?

I feel I haven’t been scathed too badly by the pandemic. It was definitely a challenge during the first lockdown, as I was trying to figure out how to change my business model as it did totally wipe out my ability to teach public facing workshops. I did however manage to turn my attention to other areas of my business: redesigning my website and creating and launching my brush lettering kits, which through the pandemic became a real success. 

I was then approached by Tombow UK to teach for them in Aug 2020 and this provided another avenue for me to reach a much wider audience and again start teaching properly again. I was new to online teaching so this was a great introduction.

With the pandemic forcing so many of our adapt and run our business online I feel it has encouraged us to look more closely at the talented creatives that we have emerging arounds us. Distance is less of an issue, now that we have Zoom, and as a result it has opened up the doors for me to connect and work with some incredibly talented individuals from all over the world. I’m excited for what’s to come!!

How do you use Tombow products in your work and which products do you find best for lettering?

I use a combination of Tombow Dual ABT, Tombow Dual Colourless Blender and Fudenosuke brush pens. Tombow ABT’s are great for creating larger lettering layouts and because the ink is water based, I have the ability to easily blend colours together to create dynamic and unusual lettering effects with my art work. Plus, have you seen the insane range of colours they offer!! The ABT Blender pen, which has no pigmentation, is great for aiding and perfecting the blending of colours so I always have it to hand.

The Fudenosuke is great for more detailed delicate work. I use this pen mainly to create all my envelope addressing – that’s anything from wedding envelopes to personalising names on greeting cards and smaller stationery items. It’s also a perfect pen for journaling, especially when you want to stylise or emphasise a heading, title or important to-do-list, so it stands out for the rest of your writing. I also teach brush lettering and over the years these pens have become my go-to, due to their flexibility and versatility - so I have found them to be one of the best choices out there for anyone new to this skill. 

Quick Fire Round:

Best advice you have ever been given?

Life is too short to not take risks. I run head first (not always sure that’s a good thing mind you lol) and take risks wherever I safely can, because it’s important to push yourself out of your safe boundaries, so you can really start to understand your potential!

Favourite quote?

“You don’t have to be great in order to start, but you have to start in order to be great!” by Zig Ziglar

Favourite City?

That has to be New York. I lived there for over 3 year’s and loved every part of living in that crazy metropolis.

If you could have dinner with three artists (past or present) who would they be?

William Morris – was one of my biggest inspirations while I was developing my artistic path. I based many a project on his work, and I just love the design of the tea rooms at the V&A museum in London. I could sit gazing up at the ceiling and walls all day. Coco Chanel – I mean who wouldn’t want to meet one of the greatest fashion designers of all time and understand the inspiration behind the little black dress. Finally, Nina Simone – she is my favourite singer. I’m an old soul and her beautifully haunting, yet incredibly powerful lyrics have got me through many a late night while working through a deadline. 

Favourite character for lettering? (can be a number, letter or sign?

This is a hard one because if you know me I like writing out the entire alphabet from A-Z. I just love stylising and playing with all the letters and how they interact together. But if pushed, I’d say the letter A and number 7!

Capital A and number 7. It’s nothing other than me just loving the flow of these two characters when I write.

Find our more about Illyahna and her projects here:



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