An experiment in hand lettering

As I have started to pay more attention to design, new opportunities have started to crop up everywhere. I was catching up on recent episodes of Good Life Project Radio by Jonathan Fields when I came across an interview with Sean McCabe, an internet entrepreneur and hand letterer.

I have always loved words. For a long time, I kept a book of quotes and passages that I found interesting, relevant, or inspiring. I’ve fallen out of the practice now, but it is perhaps no surprise that the idea of artfully rendered prose is attractive to me. Add a layer of beautiful typography, and I am hooked.

I’ve seen hand lettering before, and have always admired it. I’ve played with type, and occasionally dabbled in using fonts to show off words, but the idea of hand lettering as a serious pursuit had simply never occurred to me. After hearing Sean’s interview, I went to his website and immediately subscribed to his mailing list. Within a couple of days, he had sent out a 5 minute mini-lesson on composition, and the next day there was a challenge to try it out.

So I did.





I chose a quote that’s been feeling particularly apropos in these past few months of examining who I am and what I want to be, and just played with it. These two compositions are my favorites from about 4 pages of sketches, iterating through many different options, trying out one thing at a time. I don’t want to burden this baby blog with a massive process post, so perhaps we’ll save that part of the design process for another time.

In the end, I was pretty happy with both of these compositions, so I drew them out carefully in pencil and inked them over with a micron pen.

In the first piece, I like how the shape of the supporting text makes little triangles that balance one another out. I can’t decide whether I find that additional vertical motion distracting or interesting, but it does add a fun intellectual dynamic to the piece. I think that the text size difference emphasizes the right words, and it’s a reasonably interesting composition.

Overall, though, I like the second design better. The centered, square set text feels more organized and less crowded than the first piece. Perhaps it’s the formal story-book rhythm of the quote, but it feels like these words about risk also need something to ground them, to root them in the predictable. I think the balanced, centered text does that more effectively than ragged organization of the first sketch. I also like how the weight and letter spacing change throughout the composition in the second piece.

I’m not happy with the spacing of the “connecting words” printed in lowercase between the highlighted text. They don’t feel even, and it distracts me from the more important words.

I also don’t love the heavier font that I used for “day came” and “risk.” I just made up all of these fonts out of my head as I went along. In pencil, it felt good to have a mix of heavy and light weights, especially in the A and M. In the final piece, I find those distracting. The swoosh at the top of the R* doesn’t feel like it matches the balance of the other letters, especially the S and the D in the same font. Something about the angle is wrong there.

Also, the spacing between letters in “risk” is too big; they feel like they’re floating, separated from one another, rather than collected in a coherent word. This is especially true because they are contrasted with the tight setting for “day came,” where the “da” and “cam” barely have room to breathe.

I do really like the font that I used for “blossom.” I think it lends interest to the piece, but it’s also a tiny bit distracting. The letter sizing and spacing feels right on this one (it’s interesting that the only way to make that true was to shift the “ss” pair off of the center line of the piece), and overall I’m really happy with how the individual word came out. This font actually fits a lot better with those orphaned Rs than the font used in “risk.”

So, pluses and minuses. As usual, I was perfectly happy with the piece when I finished it, but with a few days of standing back and looking at it, some of the weaker points have started to emerge. Still, as a learning experience, it was a very useful place to start.


*(I know there’s a more technical term for this, but I don’t remember it at the moment, and don’t want to get lost down the rabbit hole of the internet before finishing this thought).

One Comment

  1. […] really enjoyed my previous foray into hand lettering, and think this might be a really fun way to explore typography in a more […]