Hand Lettering

Monday, May 11, 2009 | |

A great missive from former New York Times art director Steven Heller about the return of handlettering and its debt to the computer. Check the full read here.

You may have noticed it, or maybe not. It may not be perceptible to the layman’s eye. After all, type and typography are supposed to be a crystal goblet — transparent — seen and read but not heard. Type should not be boisterous or distracting, though it must be appealing. In recent years there has been a veering away from the exclusive use of traditional typefaces (or fonts) to an increase in hand or custom lettering for advertisements, magazines, children’s books, adult book jackets and covers, film title sequences and package designs. Hand lettering is not just used, as it once was, for D.I.Y. youth-cult concert posters and T-shirts.

Owing to its infinite capacity for perfection, the computer has made this kind of hand lettering possible and inevitable. Incidentally, this is not the beautiful hand-crafted calligraphy celebrated by scribes and hobbyists and used for wedding invitations and diplomas. On the surface, this riotously raw lettering looks like it was produced by those who are incapable of rendering letters with any semblance of accuracy or finesse. And while this may or may not be true, a decade or so ago, this lettering was a critical reaction to the computer’s cold precision. It was also, in certain design circles, a means of rebelling against the purity and exactitude of modernism. Eventually it became a stylistic code for youthful demographics (the poster and title sequence for the film “Juno” stands out as a high-water mark in hand lettering, and before that, the TV series “Freaks & Geeks” used the trope), before being embraced by the mainstream (like the aforementioned IBM advertisements).