Why Handlettering is Not Type

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When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

—Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll


Illustration by Kurt McRobert (www.kurtmcrobert.com)

“No typeface would have worked as well as this hand-lettered type by …” writes Ilene Strizver in the latest edition of Type Rules! The Designer’s Guide to Professional Typography. If there is a phrase—with or without the hyphen—that drives me nuts, it is “handlettered type.” It is everywhere. It is in books and magazines (including Print) and on blogs. It is on Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr and Tumblr. It is a contradictory phrase. If it is type, it is not lettering, and vice versa. With one tiny exception (read on), there is no such thing as “handlettered type.”

Contrary to Humpty Dumpty, being the master of a word does not mean defining it however one wants. Words are defined so that people can converse and understand one another. Words can, and do, change their meaning over time. Witness “font” and “kern” since the advent of the Macintosh and the broadening of the world of type to include anyone who uses a computer. Words are invented when old ones fail to fit a new situation. Thus, “blog” and “email.” But “handlettered type” is neither an old word that has taken on a new meaning, nor a new word coined to describe something that has never existed before. It is simply a sign of ignorance or laziness.

“Type” refers to prefabricated letters that can be set, rearranged, disassembled and reused. Its forms are fixed by a designer, not created by a user. This is true whether the type is cast from molten metal, routed out of wood, imaged on film or constructed of pixels. “Lettering” describes letters that have been drawn by hand, no matter whether the tool is a pencil, ballpoint pen, quill or even a vector-based software program. It involves combining letters to form a composition that is greater than the sum of its parts. The individual letters cannot be taken apart and put back together to form another word or phrase without some damage being done to the overall design.

In the 1990s, Stephen Doyle designed a Champion paper promotional brochure containing an essay by Václav Havel, then the president of the new Czech Republic. At first glance, the printed piece looked as if it was set in type, but then it became apparent that something was weird. The letters were not perfect, especially as the text progressed—and presumably Doyle’s hand got tired of drawing lots of tiny letters. This is the only situation where the phrase “handlettered type” is appropriate: when lettering deliberately tries, tightly or loosely, to mimic a specific typeface. But lettering that looks like type is still lettering and not type.

Sure, type—even much digital type—begins life as letters created manually, by someone doodling, sketching, drawing or writing with a pencil, pen or brush on paper. But at that point there is no type. There is only a sketch or a drawing for what will eventually become a typeface. The often-reproduced drawings of Gill Sans and Optima letters by Eric Gill and Hermann Zapf, respectively, are not type, but only stages along the way.

The present-day confusion about the distinction between lettering and type can be blamed on several factors. The first is that those who were born after 1980 have grown up in a digital world. Type is no longer tangible, something that can be held in the hand. Pixels have replaced metal and wood. Today, type exists as an image, something that can be seen. For those familiar only with fonts, every letter onscreen or in print is presumed to be a character in a typeface.

The second factor is that, in the past 20 years, the discontinuation of classes in penmanship in American elementary schools has left many designers under the age of 40 with little experience in the physical act of creating letters. They have been “writing” with keyboards their entire lives. They may be adults, but their handwriting frequently resembles that of young children. They struggle to write notes, and most cannot even sign their name with any semblance of personality. No wonder design students are astonished when they see someone like myself making letters by hand, without the aid of software, using only a pen or brush, a bottle of ink and some paper. It is not magic, but the product of skill born of experience.

A third factor is that in the late 1960s, most American design schools abandoned classes in calligraphy and lettering as irrelevant in a world of photocomposition and Letraset—a decision that was reinforced with the shift to digital design in the late 1980s. Educators believed that hand-skills were antiquated. Thus, most young designers have not had firsthand experience learning how to draw letters outside of a program like Adobe Illustrator. Not only do they not know how to draw letters, they don’t fully understand the hard work that is required to achieve lettering of quality. Instead, anything done by hand is applauded. Witness the fawning adulation that greets the overwhelmingly mediocre handlettering work posted online in recent years. Or look at the largely abysmal work gathered in the Little Book of Lettering by Emily Gregory (Chronicle Books, 2012). (At least the author doesn’t describe the work as “handlettered type.”)

What has driven the use of the term “handlettered type” is the resurgent interest in things crafty, from letterpress printing to sign painting. There is a new interest in nondigital letters. It has fueled the popularity of lettering walks in cities (often erroneously called “type tours”) along with new classes in lettering and calligraphy. “Handmade” is a badge of honor in contemporary design, like “organic” is in the world of food. We thus get the other oxymoron “handmade type.” The growing excitement about letters made by hand is a positive thing. But a proper understanding of the differences among the various branches of letter making—calligraphy, drawn lettering, sign painting, letter carving and type design—is essential. And so too is an awareness that not everything made by hand is intrinsically good; that, like any other human activity, lettering ranges from the God-awful to the transcendent.

Do you design your own typefaces? Have you created stunning type-centric design work? Have you produced a gorgeous handlettered project? If so, we want to see your work. All too often, typeface designs, typographic designs and handlettering get overlooked in competitions—which is why Print developed a competition that gives the artforms their full due and recognizes the best designers in each category. Enter Print’s Typography & Lettering Awards today.