«Especial Lettering», published in Iconographic magazine 03

*  This article was first published in Spanish in Iconographic magazine, a late Spanish magazine typography related, April 2010.
** Top image credits: lettering by Iván Castro, published in Iconographic magazine.

It is difficult to reconstruct the visual history of graphic design, even more if this gaze is directed towards the present, and it is particularly difficult if you field of study is a phenomenon as lettering, a discipline between calligraphy and typography. Perhaps, the the best way to begin is by defining the fields of action of each one of these disciplines (1).

In the written or calligraphic process the production and the result are simultaneous. This procedure is related to the physical act of writing itself —using the hand, foot or nose— not necessarily with pencil and paper, on any surface and material: writing could be on sand, on wood or slate… Another interesting feature of writing is that the significant part of each letter can be make in one stroke; the  serif, although written later, does not add meaning, and therefore can be discriminated from the main parts of  the letterform. In general, the calligraphic works are more fluid and spontaneous, and there is no possibility of correction.

If we start cutting or copying the letterforms, then this would become lettering, and they would stop being calligraphy. Therefore in lettering the letters are constructed, not written: each part of the letter is made with as many strokes are necessary. For example, if we want to build the letter “l” thinner in the middle than at the ends we would need two strokes to build the stem. (2) It does not have to be only  with pencil and paper, it can be either set in stone or it could be a neon sign on the street. One its main features and basic difference with writing and calligraphy is that lettering allows corrections, it is generally a thoughtful and slower work, with a lot of retouching and changes.

What defines and distinguishes both lettering from calligraphy is the process of creating every letter. The immediate consequence is that differentiating a lettering work from a calligraphic one could be quite difficult,  increasing the complexity of the work of classification and study the history of lettering.

In terms of its development, the history of calligraphy and lettering took a sharp turn in the early twentieth century with the calligrapher Edward Johnston. The publication of his book Writting, Illuminating and Lettering in 1906 —in which he rediscovered the techniques of medieval calligraphy lost long time ago—(3) and his lessons of calligraphy and illumination since 1899 were a lettering renaissance. (4)

The atmosphere in England, still under the legacy of the Arts & Crafts movement led by William Morris —that claimed the work of the craftsman against the mechanical processes developed under the Industrial Revolution— allowing further study and development of lettering as a discipline. Johnston’s influence can be seen in the work of the English Eric Gill and David Kindersley (5) —his students— but also in Germans as Paul Renner or Jan Tschichold, whose bedside book was precisely Writting, Illuminating and Lettering.

Beyond Johnson the history of lettering is blurred and there are not many treatises that summarize the history of this discipline throughout the twentieth century. The personalized letter was used —  and continues to be used— in signage, advertising, magazines, book covers, etc., whenever it was necessary a custom and unique style. In many cases the designs authoring remains unknown since it was not usual to quote the designers. (6)

Technological advances and improvements in printing techniques in the sixties —especially phototypesetting— shifted the lettering history, leaving its pure form,  the stroke over stroke,  out of the commercial race. The reason could be in the technological changes but also in the change of consumer tastes. However, in those years lettering was still used though not as profuse as in previous decades, particularly during the fifties.
In recent times, as a result from the graphics generated by computers, increasingly uniform and impersonal, there are trends claiming the error as a human quality, trends that have pushed to a revaluation of this field in search for an individual, more exclusive approach. (7)

On the next pages we want to display an overview of some international work showing the evolution of the discipline in recent years, works with a traditional approach in its techniques, as those of Ricardo Rousselot or Laura Meseguer; or those closer to typography illustration, using the computer as the main tool, but still meeting the characteristics of lettering: stroke over stroke, with a lot of fixing and correction, and having at Alex Trochut and Si Scott as to two of its major exponents.
As the reader would saw, the line between the lettering, calligraphy, writing and typography illustration is very thin and sometimes almost imperceptible.


(1) Definitions of lettering and calligraphy obtained from: Smeijers, Fred. Counterpunch, making type in the sixteenth century, designing typefaces now. Hyphen Press, London, 1996.

(2) Samples obtained in various conversations with Iván Castro, 2009.

(3) Takach, Andrés. “Edward Johnston: Mano de calígrafo y cerebro de tipógrafo”. La Sociedad Tipográfica de Montevideo retrieved from www.tipografiamontevideo.info

(4) The Society of Scribes and Illuminators. “Calligraphy’ 84”. The Monotype Recorder, n. 4. October 1984.

(5) Taylor, Michael. Contemporary British Lettering. Michael Taylor Rare Books, London, 1984.

(6) Hugues, Rian. “Vintage custom lettering”. Ultrabold, The journal of St. Bride Library, n. 6. St. Bride Library, London, 2009.

(7) Pelta, Raquel. Diseñar hoy. Paidós, Barcelona, 2004.


[f1] “Clean Me”, Alison Carmichael, 2009. [Image de seanandben.com]

[f2] “Best Wishes”, Tyrsa (Alexis Taieb) with “iLK” for tyramisu.com, 2009.

[f3] “Cultura hecha a mano”, Joel Lozano, 2008-2009. Cover of the magazine El Duende de Madrid.

[f4] “The Big Mouth”, Luke Lucas.

[f5] “Annemie”, Unengel, 2009.

[f6] “Albatross Feastgiver Tour”, Zeloot (Eline Van Dam), 2007.

[f7] “Balti-tour”, Post Typography, 2006.

[f8] “Xabier Rudd”, Timba Smits.

[f9] Tyrsa (Alexis Taieb), 2008.

[f10] “Peralta”, Laura Meseguer, 2005.

[f11] “Fenoglio”, Roballos Naab Caligrafía, 2006.

[f12] “The Homestagers”, Laura Meseguer, 2008.

[f13] “Piazzolla”, Roballos Naab Caligrafía, 2003.

[f14] “Quill Skill”, Denis Brown www.quillskill.com, 2004.

[f15] “Le Miroir Vivant”, Niels Shoe Meulman, 2009.

[f16] “HyperDunk”, Alex Trochut, 2008.

[f17] “Cul de Sac”, Ricardo Rousselot, 1982.