Articles about the proliferation of ornamental and decorative lettering are nothing new—I’m thinking specifically of Steven Heller’s “Cult of the Squiggly” in Eye in 2009 and Paul Shaw’s “Letter Centric: Thoughts on Spencerian Script” in Print in 2010. But in the past few years the use of hand-lettering and script fonts has experienced a downright explosion. It’s easy to see the attraction for designers: a hand-drawn quality can evoke the DIY/craft movement as well as, like Heller pointed out, a controlled yet organic reaction to the relative sterility of Modernism. I wanted to know more, so I asked three leading letterers, type designers, and all-around experts on the topic—Ken Barber, Martina Flor, and Ale Paul—to reflect on typography’s nouvelle vague (you can check out some of their work below).
To what do you attribute the growing popularity in hand-lettered typography, whether as illustration or as type design?
Ale Paul: Things have definitely changed over the past few years. Right after technology reached that certain point where pretty much everything from the past can be recreated and superimposed on any given environment, more and more people are doing it and in so many different ways. It’s become a particularly interesting phenomenon because it adds a strange spin to things. In the past, industry was concerned with transforming the handmade into something mechanical (movable type, film type), but now that the mechanical/digital is a given, because that’s where everyone works, we’re trying to tone things back to the original handmade, while at the same time looking for ways to make it fit within our own time. Though from what I see everywhere, this phenomenon is not unique to our discipline. There is an almost invasive DIY streak, with almost no evident rules, happening wherever craft and computers interact.
Ken Barber: Its popularity seems to have risen among graphic designers who don’t specialize in the practice. Social media outlets like portfolio sharing sites allow for instant exposure and viewer input, and seem to be instrumental in encouraging many to make a go of lettering professionally. But the number of typeface designers appears to be growing as well. While there are still relatively few schools offering postgraduate study in the field, that hasn’t stopped people from making their own fonts. As compared to lettering, however, typeface design requires a fair amount of technical know-how, not to mention a considerable time commitment. My guess is that the training, experience, and dedication usually required to produce high-quality fonts deters more from doing it full-time.
As anyone working in both fields can tell you, lettering and typeface design are quite different animals.
AP: We shouldn’t forget that lettering and typefaces are basically individual resources for visual communication. When we do forget that, we tend to sacrifice the content we need to communicate just so we can have some modern or catchy appearance. That level of specialty depth may be too much. We used to demand that designers know how to draw and now we want our illustrators to stay away from design.
Martina Flor: I’ve noticed a steady growth of interest in lettering along with new areas in which it’s used. While commissions used to come predominantly for logo or packaging design, they have spread strongly into advertising and media in the past years, so the use of lettering has broadened into other applications. This interest has also influenced type design and is motivated as well by technical tools (like OpenType features) that allow imitating some of the behavior of hand lettering into a font. OpenType features have been around for years, but nowadays they’re facilitated through forums, social networks, and are even default features in some software. Everyone doing fonts out there can have a grasp of them.
What’s the boundary between lettering and calligraphy? Would you say that every calligrapher is a letterer, but not every letterer is a calligrapher?
KB: Although there’s an undoubtable relationship between the two, I’d put calligraphy and hand-lettering in two different camps. Although both practices require skill and attention to detail, calligraphy is composed of written letterforms with a greater emphasis on muscle movement and the gestural forms that accompany it. Lettering, on the other hand, is drawing. And, while lettering often strives to capture the freedom of uninhibited motion, it’s the result of careful consideration and deliberate planning. Lettering is closer to drafting than to writing, which is the core of calligraphy.
MF: I often also say also that calligraphy embraces randomness and surprise, while lettering decides exactly the shape that a certain gesture or letter should have. Lettering is, in this sense, a discipline strictly related to design and decision making.
AP: I think calligraphy and lettering are different, but somewhat complementary skills. Lettering is a kind of “designed” or “drawn” calligraphy. Calligraphy itself is done with repetition and refinement with a given tool, while lettering is a more rational endeavor. Some people can do calligraphy, some can do lettering, some can do both, and some can’t do either. Seeking out some kind of philosophical exclusivity between background subtleties between calligraphy and lettering would probably be futile, as far as overall visual communication goes. It’s up to the graphic designer to know what’s needed for the project and, accordingly, seek out a calligrapher, a letterer, or both.
You all teach workshops on lettering. Have you seen an increase in enrollment? Do the attendees look to learn how to create (and possibly sell) their own fonts or just get better at one-off illustrations, or both?
KB: It’s reassuring to find that there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of folks who are interested in learning letter-making skills to implement in their design work. Personally, attempting to teach typeface design over the course of a day or two is too formidable a challenge. For that reason, I stick to leading hand-lettering workshops. Yet, while the two disciplines have their differences, it’s always great to hear from folks who have used lettering basics from my classes as a foray into creating fonts.
MF: I’ve mainly hosted workshops around Europe for the last five years and there continues to be interest in it. The reasons to attend a lettering workshop might be initially the aim of being able to create lettering commercially, but many get to realize that mastering the practice requires much more than a workshop. However, it does train their eye to work with typography in general and understand the principles in letter design, which is a great tool for the creative work of a graphic designer.
AP: I do quite a few lettering workshops all over the world, especially in Latin America, where typographic tradition is very recent. The internet and social media have triggered enormous interest in the region. Now it’s at the point where there are two postgraduate programs alongside the many undergraduate ones. The students’ objectives vary; some publish their own fonts, some go into analog directions, and some do both.
If a designer wanted to integrate hand drawn, or embellished type, or a script font into their work for the first time, but not create it themselves, where should they look? If they’re hiring a letterer, what criteria should they use to assess the quality of his or her portfolio? If they’re buying a script font, what criteria should they look for there?
KB: Lettering and typography are essential components of graphic design. Knowledge of these practices is indispensable, even for designers with no professional aspirations in either discipline. A typeface course or lettering workshop goes a surprisingly long way in helping to recognize well-made letters. In appreciating good lettering, it’s important that the artwork always fulfills its intended purpose. The letterforms should be suited to their environment and perform well in the ultimate application. While fashion may sometimes overshadow readability, the content must be legible while stylistically complementing the message. And the letters should be impeccably produced, even in cases where a deliberately naive appearance is desired.
Typographers should look for fonts that are both well-drawn and well-engineered. In other words, they should look good and work well.
From a practical standpoint, in most cases it’s crucial that the letters appear even in volume, with respect to both positive and negative form. Like lettering, typefaces should have a clear voice that supports what’s being communicated without detracting from it. Text faces work best when they go unnoticed, while display faces can have much more personality. Most importantly, a typeface needs to function according to its intended purpose.
MF: When judging a piece of lettering, focus should go primarily on the letter shapes and legibility. When I look at a lettering portfolio I set my eyes on well-drawn letters, good pieces of artwork, and a high level of detail. I’m also interested in the variety of work. When hiring a letterer you’d be most interested in someone who’s capable of solving a lettering piece that suits your project rather than applying the same lettering style across all projects.
For script typefaces, look for well-designed letter shapes connected nicely with a fair amount of alternates and automatic features. I appreciate typefaces that have a fair amount of glyphs, including diacritics and punctuation marks. That said, recognizing good letterforms is not a piece of cake on the first place. I agree with Ken in that courses on both type and lettering design are a great way to develop an eye for typography.
AP: I agree with Ken, too, and I’d add that graphic design is not for its own sake.
Design is a response to a need for communication. What works in Pinterest will likely not work for a butcher.
Design produces a communicative identity and anything that goes in it (calligraphy, lettering, etc.) should serve that particular goal. It’s important to know how the tools work and distinguish between them in order to achieve the result that’s ultimately needed. So even a simple thing like knowing the difference between a pen and a soft brush is quite essential for good design work.