Letters to most are simply building blocks to compile words with. They are utilitarian, a means to an end, a crutch of communication. While most of us spend our entire days looking at letters, few of us ever stop to consider the very nature of what makes them work. Or in some cases, what makes them not work.
For me, letters and the art of creating them is a passion. A lot of my time revolves around letters. I critique them, draw them and simply think about them. It’s so central to what I do that “Lettering” is in the name of my business. But I’ve found that where understanding is lacking, appreciation is also in short supply. So is often the case with lettering. I want everyone to be able to appreciate letters the way I do, so I figured I’d share a little bit about what makes this idea of custom lettering so huge.
First, an important disclaimer: lettering is not synonymous with styles of writing like cursive or script. Sometimes the two overlap, but lettering actually refers to hand-drawn letters, or letters created from scratch.
Below is an example of some type I created for a logo that is not at all cursive but is still considered lettering.
The reason for this is because I spent a long time building these letters from simple shapes like rectangles and circles. For this specific project, custom lettering was a better solution than a typeface because I wanted to mirror the curves of the red “GS” mark in the shapes of the letters used in the name. The similarities are subtle and the point is not that people would immediately connect that the red mark and the type are mutually exclusive, but that the entire logo would simply work in harmony.
Below you can see how I built the letters from just a few similar shapes.
Now that you have a general idea of what lettering is, the big question is: who cares? Why does this matter?
Custom lettering is such a great tool because it appeals to the current cultural affinity for handmade things. Services like Etsy are thriving because in a world of mass-produced products, people are desperate for something with a personal touch. The same can be said of the letters we use in design. When I’m creating letters, my goal is to design in a way that is functional and reads well while developing a style unique to the client.
In a world of mass-produced products, people are desperate for something with a personal touch.
Another case for using custom lettering, especially as an alternative to script fonts, is that they provide a unique look that’s impossible for prepackaged typefaces. With most script fonts, letters connect in odd places, and design compromises have to be made to create a “one size fits all” typeface. Don’t get me wrong. These solutions can be very useful, but again it goes back to the idea of creating things that feel human and authentic. The cookie-cutter look many script fonts produce just doesn’t cut it.
Take a look at these examples from an abandoned client project. Each one has its own individual direction and is custom to this specific job. The bottom right concept is a great example of why custom scripts can be so useful. The letters interact in unique ways to form something that can’t be achieved with an font!
The last, and most important reason, for making use of custom lettering is that the possibilities are truly endless. Whatever direction the client wants for the lettering, nothing is out of reach. The issue many designers face is knowing what their client wants but not being able to find a suitable font that fits it. In most cases, if I can’t find a font that suits the design needs within 10 minutes, I set out to creating my own letters.
Do you want a custom logo built from paintbrush-like strokes? Custom lettering makes it possible. How about a script made to look like a continuous piece of cabling? Custom lettering makes it possible. This doesn’t mean every idea is good or easy to develop. That’s something the designer and client must navigate together. But after achieving a solid foundation in the art of building letters, the chances for exciting new styles are without limit.