Shadows in Typography, Then and Now

What I love about lettering instruction manuals from the late 19th century is how precisely they itemize and present the skills to be learned. If you follow step by step through the over 170 pages of the Elements of Lettering and Sign Painting (written in 1899), you will come out the other sleepless, ink-smudged side as an expert craftsman. They have exacted the practice to as close of a lettering science as one can hope to come, but they are also not shy about sharing their unabashed love and preference for the decorated letter.

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The instructions often indicate to take away the “plain” appearance of undecorated letters. These are words we often read in old lettering text books: “flat,” “plain,” “monotonous.” Unadorned letters fall to an unflattering adjective fate. Shading in Elements of Lettering and Sign Painting does come with a warning to heed: “Shadow letters should be used with caution. They are not well-adapted to use in titles but may be employed to indicate some prominent feature in the body of a drawing. They should be used only when Roman or plain gothic letters have been used for other features so freely as to necessitate a change for the sake of variety.” (p.78)

My personal favorite maneuver in the repertoire of the lettering craftsman is the cast shadow. It gives the appearance of an upright letter raised from the surface of the slanted ground on which it rests.

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Each effect to be learned is catalogued and classified as an anthropologist would who observes an alphabet in the wild. When you reach the “shadow” chapter, your mind flickers back to design classrooms past. Drop-shadows belong to the same ilk as comic sans jokes. But similar to the gradient/split-fountain relationship, the labor hand-painted shadows once required has been all but forgotten.

Here are a few successful contemporary applications of shadows that respect the tradition but also look forward:

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Modern interpretations of Vintage 1960′s Target ads for their 50th Anniversary by Target’s in-house team. The crisp shadow indicates the blending of past and present.

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I also can’t get enough of the exquisite lettering skills of Josh Luke of Boston’s Best Dressed Signs.

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Another stunning example of Josh Luke’s work.

Jeshurun Webb is a graphic designer and illustrator currently working from Boston. Webb received an MFA in graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design. View her work at Formletter.org and follow her at @jeshurundesigns.


To learn more about typography, check out Mastering Type by Denise Bosler.

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