The world is full of text, and not all of it is designed to be pretty. Typography, like any creative field, can be dry and boring. One area in which it shines, however, is in hand lettering. This approach adds a distinctive flair to ordinary text and infuses it with personality and unique flourishes you wouldn’t find in ordinary typefaces.
So, how does hand lettering differ from conventional typography? For one, it’s often project specific. Artists and illustrators will write a word that fits with, and is designed especially for, a single composition and the overall style it’s trying to achieve. A fancy greeting card, for instance, might call for an elaborate typeface that has large, sweeping curves. But if you're designing invitations for an 8-year-old's robot-themed birthday party, perhaps stout block letters are more appropriate. With hand lettering, the creative possibilities are seemingly endless.
The fact that a letter form is hand drawn lends itself to idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies—like the spacing in between letters—which might drive some designers crazy. This is, however, what attracts many people to hand lettering in the first place. It's a characteristic to celebrate as you draw.
Popular Uses for Hand Lettering
Stationary is one of the most common places you’ll find hand lettering. Things like greeting cards are considered special occasion purchases, so it’s fitting that they have characteristics that also feel distinctive. It’s also a perfect place to emphasize a letter with illustrative flair.
Emily McDowell, one of our favorite greeting card designers, is a fantastic example of how hand-lettering can elevate a card. All of her witty work looks like it’s written by hand, which makes it feel personalized. Looking closely at her work, she often mixes cursive with printed text to give even her longest sentences a visual flair. But if she’s only illustrating a few words, she will pick one or two to emphasize by drawing it at a different scale or in a different font.
While stationary is a popular source for hand lettering, it’s also a creative way to adorn the things we use every day. An otherwise ordinary notebook can have a fabulous cover when decorated with a written word, or it can be even more unconventional than that; lettering artist Jen Mussari uses her skills—and interest in sign painting—to draw on motorcycle helmets and leather jackets—places you wouldn’t expect beautiful painted text to be.
Hand lettering also offers a valuable opportunity to let your voice be heard. Drawing quotes, whether they're funny, sad, or motivational, is a popular way to practice the art. Social media apps like Instagram allow for interaction between the artist and viewer to have a dialogue about the words on the page. Zachary Smith uses his popular account as a way to inspire his thousands of followers to keep trying their best.
Learn Hand Lettering
Aside from its charming visuals, hand lettering is something that anyone can produce with some creativity and a lot of practice. It might look daunting, but have no fear—there are many resources for learning how. We recommend taking the time to understand the basics and best practices for drawing letter forms. Even though it looks effortless, there is a lot of practice and planning that goes into making it appear just right.
Online classes are a great way to get introduced to the art. Here are three that can help you get started:
Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners, Skillshare: In one of the e-learning site’s most popular classes, lettering artist Mary Kate McDevitt covers everything you need to know about drawing, inking, and transforming handwriting into art.
Hand Lettering 101, CreativeLive: Designer, illustrator, and sign painter Annica Lydenberg shows how to build the skills for your hand lettering—no software required.
Simple Methods for Custom Lettering, CreativeLive: If you’re more comfortable with the computer, Brandon Rike will show you how to hand letter through Adobe Illustrator. He also teaches another valuable skill—how to “match the typeface to the mood of your project.”
There are also blogs dedicated to showing hand lettering tutorials. Hand-Lettering for Beginners is a site committed to showing you where to start. It’s the perfect way to ease into it without feeling intimidated; in fact, one of the first things they do is tell you to “embrace your inner amateur.” Creative Market takes a similar approach with their detailed how-to.