How Calligraphy Can Improve Your Typography

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In the last several years, the world has seen hand-lettering and calligraphy experience a resurgence in popular culture. This is a direct result of the Maker Movement, and a by-product of the desire for creatives to better understand typography, calligraphy, and the lettering arts as a whole. I present this article as to why calligraphy is an important area of study for artists considering type design or lettering work in their projects.

To be up front, let’s quickly establish the difference between lettering and calligraphy. Lettering is a sort of umbrella term that refers to the act of creating letters. It could be drawing letters, sewing them, painting them, building them, or even bending them out of neon. Calligraphy, by comparison refers to any of a number of styles of writing. (The word ‘calligraphy’ actually draws its origin from the Greek words ‘kallos” meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘graphein’ meaning ‘writing’) Though there is some argument for where the clear delineation between calligraphy and lettering lies, suffice it to say that calligraphy is often written in single movements, where lettering is built up with many.

Related: See our collection of the best calligraphy fonts.

The benefits of a strong foundation

A foundational knowledge of calligraphy is a great way to start your journey into lettering and type design. Being that modern typography stems from the writing systems of the past, there are many places you can look to understand how the relationships of letters came about and creative ways that they might be utilized.

According to 2012 Cooper Type graduate Chavelli Tsui: “In order to make better letterforms, one has to know the shapes of letters, and understand why they are formed the way they are. The letters you create will be informed by the forms that you know, which is informed by the shapes you write, which is informed by the tools you use. Why are certain parts of letters thick and others thin? Short of studying the whole history of writing (which would be about calligraphy anyway!) it is through writing single strokes, and understanding the original tool that formed these shapes, that you develop this knowledge. An intimate understanding of these forms is essential to a lettering artist regardless of the eventual tool that you decide to use, be it pencil, nib, brush or bezier curves.”

When you begin to practice drawing letters, you might realize that you don’t actually know what letters look like. Sure, we’re familiar with with general shape of glyphs like those used in the freight-text-pro on this page, but are you able to recall from memory how the lowercase C in this paragraph has a hanging ball terminal at the top of it? Without looking, can you correctly describe the shape of the lowercase G’s ear?

letterform comparisons

The fact of the matter is that as users, we consume type incredibly fast. Indeed, the same could be said for handwriting. The goal is to transfer information, not capture the attention of the reader, thus distracting them from the utility altogether. As a result, it takes special attention to become familiar with the underlying architecture of letters and how they can be used to convey information efficiently and with personality, without getting in the way.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to become familiar with any given alphabet is to consider it for the common parts shared between its letter groups. In calligraphy, we refer to this as “ductus analysis” which literally means to analyze the order and direction of the strokes used to form the letter. Combine this with consideration of the tools used, and the purpose for such writing, and one can begin to understand why the lowercase G might have an ear at all, let alone an angular asymmetrical one. (hint: similar to serifs, it’s used for legibility at small sizes.) 

Appropriate uses of calligraphy

As we mentioned above, one of the main goals of writing and type is to convey information quickly and efficiently. As a result, it doesn’t make sense that every piece of a design should be rendered by hand. The uniform nature of fonts is a large part of what makes them so efficient at imparting information and easy to look at. This is why you don’t often see body copy being replaced by hand-lettering. It just doesn’t make sense from an artistic, economic, or user-centered viewpoint.

Smaller selections of lettered text can be used to contrast the uniformity of standardized type to great effect. This is why we often see lettering and calligraphy being used in headings, titles, and logos. With fewer glyphs in use, there is room for the eye of the reader to become confused by the irregularities between forms that should share common elements. With smaller designs, there is more flexibility for creativity, which opens up opportunities to introduce style elements otherwise lacking in a design.

One great place to look for examples of such designs are in print ads from the early 20th Century. At the time, the ability to draw, and write beautifully was a very lucrative skill, and as a result, we see the emergence of some pretty incredible designs.

Here are several small ads published in the September 1900 issue of The Penman-Artist and Business Educator.

lettering example from Tom H. Pound
lettering example from the Terry Engraving Company
lettering example - Learn to write and draw

As you can see, the above designs aren’t very information-dense, which is what allows them to get their messages across rapidly, while maintaining a unique and imaginative approach to the individual lettering styles.

You’ll also notice that each design includes several lettering styles which can trace their origins back to different types of calligraphy. For the cursive script lettering seen in the “Write and Draw” sample, you might look to the Roundhand writing of the 17th-century masters from Europe like George Bickham or Charles Snell. For the bold capitals, one might read up on the work of Edward Johnston and his handbook Writing & Illuminating & Lettering.

The point is, when you look at typography, you’re seeing the echo of calligraphic writing systems that were developed incrementally over hundred and sometimes thousands of years. By familiarizing yourself with the origin of certain styles, you can make more informed decisions about pairings, letterform construction, and type design as a whole. 

How do I get started?

There are a number of hands that are commonly recommended for beginners, and it really depends on what you’re looking to do with it. For a general understanding of calligraphy and how it can be applied towards both the study of type and used to inform basic hand-lettering projects, it is recommend that you seek out a class on Italic, Foundational, or Copperplate (Roundhand) writing.

Many community colleges will have entry-level calligraphy classes, and most metro areas have some kind of a guild or organization dedicated to hosting workshops and events. If you’re serious about adding a generalized understanding of calligraphy to your toolbelt as a designer, that would be the best place to get started. Dip your toes into one script at a time, and constantly question if what you’re learning is going to be helping you develop for your specific interests in design work.

In Review

If you’ve determined that a current or future project of yours would benefit from calligraphy or lettering artwork, there’s really no time like the present to begin educating yourself and refining your knowledge of letterforms and their associated rules. Pick an area of interest and look for ways to trace the styles you find most interesting back to their origins.

Remember that there is a time and place for hand-lettered artwork, and it depends largely on your project’s budget and timeline. In many scenarios, a pre-packaged font and a few hours in Illustrator may be an economical alternative.

Lastly, there are a vast number of calligraphic scripts that can be studied, and each would give you a unique perspective into lettering. To become proficient in EVERY script would take longer than most people have to dedicate towards something like writing. You don’t have to become a calligrapher to gain the benefit of studying the history and background of letters, but you do need to take the time to look with an open mind and special attention to the smallest of details. 

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