The following text and images were adapted from my new book, The Little Book of Lettering (Chronicle Books, 2012):
Typography is far more than just letters and words on a page. In much the same way that tone of voice can alter a message, typography has the power to communicate a great deal simply through the forms of the letters and their layout on a page. Often, without you even realizing, it can completely affect the way you understand and interpret a written message.
In years gone by, when words were constructed with metal letters and inked on manual printing presses, typography was a skill reserved for those with years of training in their specialised trade. With computers has come an explosion of type, not all of it pleasing to the eye or communicating the intended message. Now almost anyone believes they can be a typographer. They have access to computer programs, usually with large collections of fonts, and they can resize and format type to create something expressive with letterforms. The problem is that not everyone can do it well.
In response, there has been a global resurgence of the highly skilled craft of lettering, which is the creation of original or project-specific type. Artists and designers, all with their own unique visions and techniques, are bringing character and new depth to typography. They are moving beyond the use of developed typefaces to create original type as one-off pieces of communication. Whether crafted with pen on paper, digitally, or as 3-dimensional forms, lettering enables words to have a stronger voice and visual presence. In many instances the letters act not only as captions or supporting visuals, but they become images in their own right, enhancing communication and impact as they go.
This renewed love affair with lettering represents a movement away from the computer to a more tactile and personal aesthetic. It is a reaction to the piles of typography we see on a daily basis and a rejection of the perfect and replicable nature of typefaces. Some describe lettering as showcasing the 'consistent imperfection' of the human hand. Through crafting individual letters a new value is added, and the stamp of the artist is made upon the work.
What I love most about the resurgence of lettering is the fact that it has returned typography to a specialised industry once more. In order to create well-crafted lettering, you need first to have a firm understanding of type and letters as forms, and move on from there. While some artists and designers do use fonts as a base from which to work, others rely solely on their memory and knowledge. They use their visual communication skills to further add expression, hierarchy, and, in turn, meaning to the words.
This is not to say that typography using existing fonts is any less important than original lettering. There is of course still a very necessary role for strong and informed typography, and illustrative lettering is by no means appropriate for use everywhere. But the fact that lettering celebrates words and letters, elevating them to an image-equivalent status, is something I hope will bring renewed importance to typography and craftsmanship.
In my new book The Little Book of Lettering I try to show some of the brilliant new work being created by today's lettering artists. Regardless of the medium each practitioner uses, no two styles or pieces of work are the same. Such is the nature of lettering. The process behind each piece is just as intriguing as the final work, with methods varying hugely from person to person and from project to project.