My friendship with the Atheist Bus Campaign font creator

My friend Graham is a wonderful man – kind, funny and endlessly patient. But when he was younger, he had one flaw, which was using other people’s work without permission or payment. He once got in trouble with Getty Images for taking one of their photos from Google Images and using it for his company’s website. And when he came to design the Atheist Bus Campaign posters, he used the font without paying for it.

And so, one day in 2009, I got a message from an American man from Denver, Colorado called S. John Ross. He had created the font we’d used, Dirty Headline, and told me ‘The font was free for private use only. The side of a bus is not very private!’

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Now, approximately 75% of Americans are religious. I could have had the misfortune to have unknowingly misused the font of a Christian fundamentalist, and been sued for a pretty penny as a result – after all, this font had been used in campaigns in 13 different countries around the world, as well as being plastered all over the national and international press and endless Atheist Bus Campaign merchandise!

Luckily, S. John Ross was a very reasonable and generous man, and described himself as an ‘agnostic humanist’. I was skint as I’d been editing a charity book called The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas for free for six months. At my request, the publisher HarperCollins (who were using the font on the front of the book) paid S. John £500 for the privilege. I remember his invoice to them featuring the Bill and Ted quote ‘Be excellent to each other.’


S. John and I kept emailing, giant six-page-long emails (if emails had pages), and soon became firm friends. He told me how much he loved his wife, Sandra, and I told him I wished I could find someone who would feel the same way about me as he did for her. We wrote about all kinds of things, one of which was my fear of flying, as the Sunday Times wanted me to go up in a tiny two-seater Cessna to cure my fear of planes.

I told S. John that Anaïs Nin once said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”, and that this quote was helping me. In response, he wrote me a wonderful email which used another Anaïs Nin quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” He then added: ‘That’s a day to seek out, to strive for.’

So when I was asked to take part in a photography project, holding a quote that meant a lot to me, I used S. John’s. I also went up in the Cessna, clutching a sweaty printout of S. John’s email, and had my article about the experience published in the Sunday Times’ Travel section a few weeks later. It was my first ever article for them.

Me holding S John Ross quote 2

Sadly, S. John and I stopped writing around six months later. It was my fault: I was having a major nervous breakdown and just stopped emailing him without any warning or explanation. He was very hurt, but I hope he knows now that my mental illness was the true reason and not an excuse.

These days, we keep up with each other on Twitter. He’s at @SJohnRoss and is a super-smart and talented guy – as well as creating numerous fonts (which is no mean feat) he also makes role-playing games for a living.

I feel lucky to count him as a friend – and Sandra is a very lucky lady.

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This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss,, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

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5 thoughts on “My friendship with the Atheist Bus Campaign font creator”

  1. Getty Images are total crooks – of course photographers should be rewarded for their work, but Getty try to extort individuals who have naively used images for no financial gain. Their debt collection firm tried to claim £1,000 from my firm because I used a minuscule image on a website that averaged a dozen hits a month. I had no idea the image belonged to them. I apologised and took it down, but that wasn’t good enough. I wrote offering them £2.50 in full and final settlement, as this is what I could have purchased a similar image for. They didn’t like this very much, so I withdrew the offer and told them they’d missed their only chance of getting any of my money. I refused to be bullied by their threats of court action and eventually they gave up.

    I won’t deal with them now. Pixabay, Pexels and Unsplash are excellent free image libraries, for personal or commercial use.

    I screwed up with the font, though. I’ll give you that.

    1. Hmm, well you are my friend and I love you and stuff… but as someone who used to be a Getty user and who knows Getty photographers, they have to protect their commercial interests with a £1,000 deterrent against illegally using their work (and they only litigate against firms, not individuals). If they said ‘You’ve illegally used our work, give us £2.50’ there would be nothing to stop firms from stealing their creative property and they wouldn’t *have* a business. They didn’t know how many hits the website got. They probably backed off because they realised you’d learned your lesson. Re. ‘I won’t deal with them now’, given your other suggestions I very much doubt you would ever have dealt with them! But before you start blowing steam out of your ears, I repeat: you are my friend and I love you, and I’m glad you didn’t have to pay them £1,000.

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