Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

Expressive Calligraphy | Personal Work

Calligraphy and photo collage by iskra design

A Father-Daughter collaboration, calligraphy, photography, watercolor

There are certain phrases and titles of books that I have been going back to for years as a touchstone. Nabokov’s memoir, Speak Memory is one of those. I could design the cover of that book a thousand ways. This version is a personal elegy to my father. Before he became a newspaper reporter he took about eight “art photographs” and put them in a little album which was passed down to me. The flowers are from that album, a tiny little black and white snap from the time of film and sprockets, when dust and scratches made themselves without a filter.

I do adore photocollage, and the infinite ways we can now merge media. Here I have blended my father’s photography with a painting and calligraphy of my own, a script done with a ruling pen and walnut ink. To collaborate in this way is a lovely way to bring someone who is gone back into your life.


The Orange Project: Graffiti Refined for Branding

inspiration board for graffiti logo

A Logo Project Inspired by the Street


This month I had the opportunity to use my obsession with street art in a logo design for a client. Seven large ad agencies had recently merged to form a new agency called Sandbox. One of the original seven, GA Communications, wanted to create a specific look for its community outreach division that would express the attributes of its internal culture. Among the ideas given as reference: “Collaborative, Creative, Fun, Social and Confident.” A logo for the name, “Orange” had already begun in-house, based on a standard script font. It was close to what they were looking for, but it didn’t feel distinct or proprietary and the design team wanted to see a new approach reflecting the energy and creativity of graffiti. I was also asked to make a little movie or otherwise document my process.

Photographing the street is one of my favorite ways to spend my time, and in my archives I have thousands of pictures of graffiti, abandoned buildings and the shredded poetry of telephone poles. I knew there was a good chance that the final logo would end up being quite conservative, but this project seemed like the ideal opportunity to open things up and go wild. I did a photo shoot looking for everything orange on the street. I experimented with many media, ranging back and forth between the different languages and moods of graffiti. This was heaven.




I started out with black ink, working quickly to find new twists on the fonts that had been sent as reference.


brush and pen calligraphy by iskra

expressive watercolor calligraphy by iskra

bold brush lettering

Switching things up I started working with actual orange, what a concept! With colored ink and paints the weight of pigment in the water makes for a different feeling in the brush and leads to subtle differences in how the letters emerge.

brush lettering by iskra

Brush calligraphy by iskra expressive watercolor caligraphy by iskra graffiti lettering by iskra graffiti-painting-by-iskra expressive calligraphy by iskra watercolor lettering by iskra

To start this project I went out to study walls for a day. I think I have fallen in love with balloon letters. They are insanely creative and all kinds of design problems get solved in an instant on the fly with a spray can. Even if you are trying to be a bad#ss you can’t really convince anybody if you use this style. Balloon letters are fundamentally friendly and silly. The world could use a lot more of that.

graffiti painting by iskra graffiti-wall-iskra

The final choice of style came down to these two. On the top, dry brush on watercolor paper, and the lower one, pen and ink on offset paper. After many iterations to finesse legibility the lower one was chosen. The influence of graffiti is very faint, but I hope some of the spirit of adventure can be read between the lines.

brush lettering for a logotype

Take a look at my portfolios to see more expressive lettering for advertising design.

(Do) Judge a Book by It’s Cover: Design Process for a Bestseller

lettering design tools

Olde skool tools for modern tymes. In my process I use everything, but I have a special place in my heart for these timeless shapers of letters.

Designing a cover for a women’s novel  isn’t as easy as it used to be. The line between “romance” and “literature” is getting increasingly blurry, and all of a sudden (with the merciless invention of the Kindle) nobody seems to want to be caught reading something that looks like a romance. So even if a book is about Love, somehow it has to look neutral. Yeah, Love. Whatever. I’ll call you, but maybe not. It’s cool . . . .

This cover for author Emily Giffin was a lengthy process. There is a lot at stake in a cover design for a major author. Even if a book is found online and is never picked up before purchase, the little half-inch avatar on the screen that represents the book has to capture the imagination. Once the book is in someone’s hands the job of the book cover is to support the reader’s belief in the words inside and to create a loyal bond. The book jacket also has to sit around, sometimes for years, when it isn’t being read. While it seems to be languishing idly on coffee tables and night stands it is actually working hard, whispering to anyone who walks into the room, come over here, sit down, fall in love with the world between these covers. It has to have presence.

I started out this cover design by testing scripts that could express different flavors of modern love. Casual, sophisticated, breezy, or nostalgic (just a little) for the days of holding hands.

Iskra Design, custom calligraphy for a book title
New direction came in to go a bit retro, and “ornamental/but not.” Very tricky to get these particular words to lock up decoratively, and still read quickly at one-half inch on a small smartphone, the ultimate test these days. This one was drawn with pens and curves and then I laid in color and charcoal.
 Vintage style script by Iskra Design
Another meeting, a new direction: let butterflies say romance and dial the letterforms back to a classic hand-drawn typography. (I did not do the butterflies or other illustrative elements, and it was decided early on to keep the author’s name in a font.)


Hand drawn typography by Iskra

On the other hand . . . maybe hand drawn is where we want to be, but looser. Pen calligraphy with watercolor, letting mistakes happen and not trying to control the process very much.Watercolor calligraphy by Iskra Design

Book cover lettering by Iskra

I refined and clarified the script design, returning to a typographically drawn style, and the charcoal texture I created was further distressed and integrated into the whole. The finished cover is very spare and open. When I see this book in a field of covers that rely for impact on color photography it stands out for its feeling of light and optimism, as well as the simplicity of the elements. This is an unusual combination of modern and retro styling, and it could only have emerged out of the process of a lot of back and forth and human collaboration. (#designbyhumans #notatemplate )

To see more of my book cover design and lettering check out my full portfolio here.

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If you have a project in mind I’d love to talk. Get in touch!