A funny thing happens every so often: a forgotten design discipline, buried by technological innovation, suddenly experiences a renaissance. Hand lettering, or perhaps more accurately “typographic illustration,” is not new; stemming from the early 1900s craft of show card lettering and sign painting, the practice was largely abandoned because of printing’s increasing accessibility and the 1990s rise of digital media. Now, hand lettering and typographic illustration have exploded onto social media, in branding and in ad campaigns. So why has the discipline come back into style with such a vengeance? The answer may well be personality, as demonstrated by these five hand letterers and typographic illustrators, who show their personalities through their diverse approaches.
It’s important to mention that typographic illustration and hand lettering are different from calligraphy. That difference is what Martina Flor set out to highlight in the web-based project “Lettering vs. Calligraphy” (letteringvscalligraphy.com), which pit her against calligrapher and friend Giuseppe Salerno. “We created one letter per day for over a year,” Flor explains from her coworking space in Berlin. Each day’s letter would be assigned an attribute, “[like] a sexy S or an introverted E, so each piece would tell a little story,” she says. “[Salerno] would execute it with calligraphy by writing the letter, and I would with lettering by drawing it.” The finished pieces were uploaded online, displayed side by side and voted on by the site’s visitors. For Flor, the project’s lasting impact came from the practice of drawing more than 200 letters with distinct personalities. “That’s a big library,” she says. “If I get a little bit of a block or don’t know what direction to take, I go back to this library for inspiration!”
For clients such as Levi Strauss & Co., Random House and The Washington Post, Flor breathes personality into her work through its letterforms and their compositions. For a book cover for Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama (Candlewick Press, 2006), Flor researched Victorian-era typography to match the novel’s setting; her finished work encapsulates the book’s atmosphere with gilded type, fine line work, and swooping ascenders and descenders. Book covers make up some of Flor’s favorite commissions. “You have to condense a book—maybe 300 pages—into just one image,” she elaborates. “At the same time, [the book’s sales] depend on you and the artwork you make. It’s an interesting challenge.”
One half of the indomitable San Francisco–based duo Title Case—the other half is Jessica Hische—and cofounder of the lettering blog Friends of Type, Erik Marinovich discovered his love of letters through his work at design firm Landor’s New York office, where he modified fonts for packaging to give them a custom feel. After moving to Los Angeles, he began noticing that his letterforms increasingly overtook everything else in his sketchbooks. “I’d had a bad freelance meeting,” Marinovich recalls. “I drew this doodle and sent it to one of my old coworkers in New York. He said, ‘This is awesome! You should post it somewhere.’ I asked, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Let’s make a blog!’ Within an eight-hour period, Friends of Type was born.”
What was on that doodle? “Well,” Marinovich says with a laugh, “swear words always tend to come out in moments of conflict, and it was a really bad meeting. I wrote, ‘Thank you and fuck you.’”
Those bold words, in equally bold orange letters, hint at the intersection of classic techniques and modern culture that Marinovich explores in his work for clients, like the Criterion Collection, Google and the New York Times. For a Sprite limited edition can design, he created a set of sixteen illustrations from song lyrics by Missy Elliott, 2Pac and J. Cole, using a different lettering style for each artist. This project had its origins in a self-initiated series by Marinovich, an avid hip-hop fan. “Each artist has this signature sound or phrase,” he says. “So I thought it would be interesting to listen to a particular song that [has that], and then—in a Lubalin- or Carnase-type of way—evoke that personality into the letterforms.” From the rounded letters of Elliott’s verses to the angular forms that represent 2Pac’s lyrics, Marinovich’s dynamic approach energizes each letterform.
“When I got an opportunity in my second year at [college] in Sydney to work in the letterpress studio, I had a tutor who taught me how to set type by hand,” Gemma O’Brien says from the attic studio of her home in Sydney, Australia. “That was, for me, the starting point for my passion in lettering and words.” Initially, O’Brien dove deep into typography’s history, but instead of pursuing straightforward type design, she sought to combine her loves of type and illustration. “I always wanted to fuse typography with illustration and bring it to life by adding dimension, depth and texture,” she explains, adding that she felt limited by working solely on the screen. “I started to draw and combine illustration with lettering. Even if I was working with existing [typefaces], I was like, ‘How can I take one to a new level by adding something unique to it?’”
Whether creating intense typographic compositions or simple brush scripts, O’Brien elevates messages beyond semiotics with dimensionality and high-level concepts. Among her favorite projects are murals, which she has created for the 2016 AIGA Design Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, the apparel brand Volcom, Inc., and others. “[My mural] work for Volcom … was the first large illustrative large-scale lettering I did,” O’Brien recalls. “For an event, I painted [its] slogan, ‘True to this.’ It took two days of painting.” The finished slogan was displayed in an event space for 24 hours and then painted over. The ephemerality and scale inspired O’Brien to create an installation for the Laguna Beach, California–based LCAD Gallery in 2016. “The text that was used was taken from digital commands, [like] when you’re filling out a form and it says, ‘Prove you’re human,’” O’Brien explains. “To me, these phrases spoke to something in relation to life and legacy. I brought them to life in large-scale lettering that you have to experience by walking through it. It’s like the opposite of typography on the written page.”
Expressive ornamentation and abstractions that harness multiple geometric planes can be found throughout the work of Jordan Metcalf, who astutely experiments in the hand-lettering scene from a shared space in the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa. Already experienced with print design, web design, and directing and designing animated commercials, he began exploring typography and illustration in his personal work; those experimentations were the catalyst for new commissions. "I'd been uploading these experimental typography pieces that I'd been playing around with on the side to Behance," he recalls. "I got really lucky, and they featured my projects a couple times. They were basically collections of random illustrated words or phrases, but it resonated with companies, like Nike, seeing typographic illustration as an emerging illustration trend with commercial merit."
For Metcalf, a project for Nike was just the beginning. He has since gone on to create work for an impressive group of clients, including Adweek, Reebok and WIRED. For National Geographic’s Yellowstone issue, the magazine commissioned Metcalf to create an illustrated cover to frame painter Heinrich C. Berann’s panorama of the national park. The resulting piece utilizes classical typography and ornamentation peppered with hidden images of Yellowstone’s camping, scenery and wildlife. “What I jokingly say about the National Geographic job is that … people who aren’t designers suddenly understood what I do,” Metcalf says with a laugh. “My parents got really excited about it; they bought copies and showed all their friends who would come to their house.”
For Danielle Evans, the inspiration for her style came from a conversation she had with a friend about design. “Good design is like a cup of coffee that offers you a beautiful experience—the heat from the cup, the aromas in your nose—instead of just drinking it to survive,” she explained to her friend. “I want people to feel those ‘feels’ when they look at my work.” Her friend responded: “Well, why don’t you make something out of coffee?”
From her studio in Columbus, Ohio, Evans pushes hand lettering into three dimensions with illustrated sculptures, exploring the typographic qualities of everything from coffee grounds to plants to shoelaces to whole lobsters. “I found that when I used objects or materials, there were no rules,” Evans says. “Like shaving cream: as much as I want it to be smooth and slick, that’s not how it works. It’s fluffy. It squirts out inconsistently. It’s its own master. I started realizing that every object is this way—it has a breaking point, a bending point and a point where it will do what you want it to do.”
Evans imbues the unique personality of each material into every piece she creates, for a client roster that includes Disney, Target and the Tazo Tea Company. An assignment for the Seattle Times brought her to Columbus's Huntington Park baseball stadium; the brief requested that the phrase "another fresh start" be made from peanuts and Cracker Jack to celebrate the Seattle Mariners' new season. "The fact that it was in this specific environment with these graphics that alluded to old-timey baseball cards—it was very magical,” Evans says. “Surrounding yourself with a powerful environment can push work that much further to be purposeful.”
“And I helped the stadium discover it had an ant problem!” she cheerfully adds.
THE RETURN OF CRAFT
Hand lettering’s reemergence can be tied to a larger renewed interest in craft, in response to an inundation of digital design. From the 1990s to today, digital design ruled the scene; although it opened design’s doors by offering everyone pixel-perfect fonts and desktop publishing, it also increased homogenization. “Automation and the ease of access to fonts and the democratization of design—that’s all amazing, but how do we keep it human?” O’Brien asks. “I think that is what drove this shift and return to [craft]. It’s got texture. It’s got evidence of human touch. It feels … real.”
Now that hand lettering’s back in the public eye, it’s fairly safe to say that the discipline will appear on many murals, book covers and designs to come. Flor, who has previous experience as an art director, notes the discipline’s lasting power. “The design community has realized the power of using hand lettering in communicating a brand or [for] book or magazine covers,” she says. “I think it’s becoming one more tool in art directors’ and creative directors’ tool sets.” ca