What IS Lettering? (And What's Not?)

January 29, 2016

Typography. Lettering. Calligraphy. Fonts. Typefaces. Handwriting. There are so many words for how we visually represent language! As these areas have increased in popularity, many designers have added one or more of these skills to their arsenal. This, along with the rise of using computers to create work, has caused a lot of confusion about what each one means, how they are different, and what they have in common. Many of these terms are often mixed up, but they are not interchangeable. They have distinct meanings and each represent a specific discipline and skillset. They do share some commonalities, and even frequently draw inspiration from one another (lettering styles often imitate typeface styles, and some typefaces imitate a calligraphic style, for example). Typography, lettering, and calligraphy all rely on similar principles, like character spacing and consistency in weight and contrast, but they approach these principles in very different ways.

Let’s take a look at what’s what!

What Is Lettering?


Lettering is the art of drawing words (whether on a computer or with a pencil, pen, paint, or some other artistic medium), rather than writing them or typing them. A lettering piece is the result of sketching many layers of detail to create a final piece, just like figure or still life drawing. This gives designers freedom to experiment with ligatures, flourishes, and ornaments to create a truly one-of-a-kind piece. Lettering is made up of multiple strokes, not always following the natural flow of writing. This is very unlike handwriting or calligraphy, which create letters and words in a single pass. 

The words in a lettering piece are drawn for a single design only - nothing is meant to be rearranged or reused. When you create a lettering piece, you only create the characters you need, rather than the entire set of letters, numbers, and symbols. 

What Is Calligraphy?


Calligraphy means "beautiful writing", and that describes it pretty accurately. Characters are written with only a few strokes, rather than through drawn layers like in lettering. As it involves creating characters in a single pass (even if a character is broken up into a couple of strokes), calligraphy is much closer to handwriting and penmanship than to drawing.

I like to think of learning calligraphy as very similar to learning an instrument. Calligraphy involves a specific tool set (dip pens, fountain pens, or brushes) and is a skill developed through regular, structured practice. Like playing the violin, true calligraphy has a strong emphasis on muscle memory.

Note About Brush Lettering/Calligraphy: Brush pens are an area where the terms lettering and calligraphy are most often mixed up. If you use a brush pen to write script in a single pass (even if it's multiple strokes), you are actually practicing calligraphy techniques, but this is also commonly referred to as brush lettering. It confuses the issue, but c’est la vie.

Where Do Typographers and Typefaces Fit In?


Typography is focused on the arrangement of type. A typeface refers to a specific, complete set of characters. In short:

  • Typographer: Chooses and uses typefaces to arrange text

  • Typeface Designer: Designs a complete set of characters, aka a typeface

A typeface is a set of characters made to be reused over and over, in endless configurations and combinations (eg, Arial, Georgia, etc.). Typefaces can have stylistic alternates and ligatures, so you can mix up how characters look and imitate some of the variety available in lettering, but repeated letters are identical. Typeface design is a highly skilled, technical endeavor, and much more focused on perfection (even if the goal is for the typeface to look a little imperfect!).

Quick Note: A font and a typeface are not technically the same thing, although merging the terms is becoming more widely accepted. If you want to get really nerdy about it, this is a great explanation of the difference.

What About Handwriting?


Handwriting is using a writing utensil to forming letters and words in a single pass. Handwriting typically demands the least focus on principles like spacing and consistency (though those with great penmanship may disagree!). The goal of handwriting is communication, focusing on content rather than artistic form. Some people use their own handwriting as an accent in lettering work, but writing words is not lettering. 

That was a lot.

Let’s do a quick recap:

  • Lettering: Drawing words for a single use, focusing on artistic form

  • Calligraphy: Writing words for a single use, focusing on artistic form

  • Typography: Using typefaces to arrange content

  • Typeface Design: Creating a system of characters that can be reused in endless combinations

  • Handwriting: Writing words, focusing on content

Hopefully that clears up any confusion! With the recent growth of many of these areas of design, it’s important to understand what’s what. Whether you’re interested in learning one of these crafts or interested in hiring someone working in these fields, it'll keep you from looking silly! And it will help you find the most suitable resources for what you’re looking to learn or commission!

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