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What is Hand Lettering Exactly?

Hand lettering in the context of art, graphic design, and typography, is the creation of hand-drawn letters on a surface.

Sounds simple right? It is in theory. But to answer this question, I had to take a deep dive into many online resources which I will share. In addition, I wanted to document some other topics and information around this popular art form.

Hand Lettering Vs Calligraphy

The difference between hand lettering and calligraphy is actually easy to understand. It comes down to drawing vs writing. Hand lettering is most commonly described as drawing letters to form words. On the other hand, calligraphy involves writing words. This is important to know if you work in these mediums, or if you are hiring someone who is.

Why Is Hand Lettering So Popular?

I did a bit of research on why hand-lettering is so popular. However, the most obvious reason is social media. Platforms like Instagram, Pintrest, Behance, Dribble, and Facebook have given designers and artists the ability to share and reach a global audience. As a result, we are seeing lettering evolve rapidly and taken mainstream.

Another reason why hand-lettering is so popular is that design trends shift between extremes with each generation. Artists and designers rebel against the status quo and look to the past for inspiration.

  • 1940: WWII Propaganda!
  • 1950: Edward Bernays creates modern advertising philosophy.
  • 1960: Hippies revive art nouveau for rock posters
  • 1970: Conservative international style rises in polarity (Eames chair)
  • 1980: MTV  brings Pop Art is back with a vengeance.
  • 1990: David Carson breaks the grid, hip-hop and surf culture collide.
  • 2000: Minimalism facilitated by web browser limitations
  • 2010: Return to pre-war design trends (Art Deco, Bauhaus design, Subway faces, Hand lettering, vintage letterpress, custom type, etc.)

Where can you use Hand Lettering?

There are many uses for hand lettering. Especially for Graphic Designers and Artists. I’ve noted a quick list below. But it is critical to know that in design practices, Hand Lettering should only be used when it stylistically makes sense for the client or brand.

Hand Lettering Styles

I’m fascinated with the different styles of hand lettering, and how lettering artists put their own spin on those styles. Which lead me to another question: what are the most common styles?

Hand Lettering Composition

I remember crumpling up pieces of paper regularly until I learned to properly plan the hand lettering composition. The composition can be considered the most important part. It’s kind of like the foundation for a house. I have read a lot of information and watched a few videos on composition. I broke it down to a 5 step process.

1: Choose Your Quote

You can choose your own quote, or search Pintrest. Either way, I recommend choosing a quote you like and is not too wordy. 3 to 10 words is usually good. In general, I find it harder to compose a longer quote, as there are more spaces to resolve.

2: Pick The Words to Highlight

Next, you should write out the quote to see how it flows. Also, read it out. This will give you an idea of what words should be emphasized.

3: Arrange The Shapes & Guidelines

Now that you have the quote written out with the emphasized words selected, the next step is to set your guidelines and draw each word inside the shapes. The most common center aligned composition will need a center guideline. After that, emphasized words should be placed inside bigger shapes.

The non-emphasized words can go in smaller shapes. Often the negative space will dictate where small words are placed. Finally, spaces between shapes/words should have consistent distances.

There are so many shapes you can choose from online. Or you can draw your own. If you want to cut down on time, Stefan Kunz and some amazing composition grids and other hand lettering resources here:

4: Choose The Lettering Styles

Choosing what style of lettering will ultimately depend on what the price is for. You need to know what kind of look and feel you are going for. Then you can choose from the lettering styles we mention above. I recommend practicing the different styles on a separate sheet of paper before you create the final piece.

5: Draw Your Letters!

Now it’s time to put it all together. You have your quote. You have picked the important words to emphasize. Shapes and guidelines are arranged. Lettering styles are chosen for each shape/section. Finally, it’s time to draw your letters! Start with a pencil, and ink after. As for finishing touches, don’t hesitate to add flourishes and illustrative elements.

Here is a great video on hand lettering composition from Stefan Kunz.

Hand Lettering Tools

If you are starting with hand lettering, you might be wondering; what tools do you need? I remember asking myself the same question. So I’ve gone back to do some more research and found there are so many different tools and resources out there.

Having the right tools from the start is important. For this reason, here’s my list of necessary tools for hand lettering.

1: Pencils For Hand Lettering

Considering the importance of foundation in a hand lettering piece, you will need a quality mechanical pencil. I recommend mechanical pencils because they are precise and durable.

I also recommend choosing easily erasable lead such as the Stadler 780 or Stadler 925 07.

2: Eraser Pen

Eraser pens are not necessary. But trust me, once you use one, you will never go back. You will feel these are super rewarding to use. You can erase in small areas with precision. In addition, there’s way less smudging.

Tombow MONO Zero Eraser

3: Paper For Hand Lettering

I can’t stress this enough, please don’t mess about with inadequate paper. The wrong paper will mess up a piece. Quality paper will hold ink better, erase without lifting fibers, and smudge less.

My go-to paper is the Canson XL Mix Media. Great for pencil and ink, smooth, and thick enough so it won’t bleed (with most pens).

4: Ruler For Hand Lettering

Having a ruler is crucial for hand lettering. You can get by with any ruler or straight edge object. However, if you try out a rolling ruler, you might have that ah-ha moment like I did. Rolling rulers make it easy to layout consistent spacing between guides/lines. In other words, went you draw a line, roll down or up, the edge stays perfectly consistent.

Rolling rulers can be found here.

5: Ink Pens For Hand Lettering

When choosing a pen to ink your letters, it ultimately comes down to the size of your piece. For most cases, medium to small scale, I recommend the Sakura 30062 6 piece Pigma. This set will give you flexibility in line thickness. If you need to fill in bigger areas, you can bring in the Sakura Brush Pen.

Hand Lettering Inspiration

Stefan Kunz

Erik Marinovich

James Lewis

How To Digitize Hand Lettering

How to take your analog masterpiece to digital is a common question for those who are not trained in graphic design. The overview is this:

  • Create your lettering piece
  • Scan the artwork
  • Open the scanned image in Adobe Illustrator
  • Manipulate and clean up the vector art so it best matches the original.

Lettering Daily has a great video featuring James Lewis, where he teaches how to digitize hand lettering. Here:

Camden Taylor

Author Camden Taylor

Camden is ARTURTH's Chief Editor, Senior Graphic Designer, and artist from the Pacific Northwest.

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