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Designing with Hand Lettering and Calligraphy

If you are here it is likely because you have searched hundreds of fonts and no matter how much you have squeezed, extended, or customized individual letters, you haven’t found a solution that’s right for your project. You are considering something custom, but you may not know quite how to explain what you are looking for. This series of questions may clarify your search.

Do you want something typographic, that looks like a font, but subtly different?
If so you’ll want to consider a hand drawn letterform with attention to unique serifs, ligatures or distinctive accent characters. Starting with hand drawn forms imbues the letters with grace and ownability difficult to achieve when starting with computerized art or existing fonts.

Do you want a logo or headline that shows the mark of the hand?
In this case the art is best created with calligraphic pens, brushes or other tools. Words are formed directly on the paper through gesture rather than through a process of drawing and filling in.

Should the edges of strokes be crisp and clean, or rough, as though done on textured paper? Is the look historical or contemporary?
Typically a rough texture suggests a sense of history, authenticity, rusticity, or human spontaneity, of organic versus mechanical. Without retouching almost all calligraphy will show a slight texture, which can be preserved in a high resolution scan. Alternatively, a high degree of mechanical retouching or vectorizing will give a more polished or slick quality to the work.

If one of your main concerns for a brandmark is ownability, how do you want it to differ from its friends and neighbors? 
In many cases the branding process has included an extensive investigation of a product or business’s competition. It is helpful to send that to the lettering artist with a written description of the qualities the brand should convey and ideas for how you think this can translate into typographic style.

If the words are written in handwriting, who is writing and who is the audience?
Often handwriting in advertising takes the place of sound in a televised campaign. Even if the speaker is not visible, the reader has to feel that the speaker is real. The character of the handwriting must take into account both the speaker’s demographic and the audience, so it is accesssible. The reader has to feel “spoken to.” Since handwriting is a form of acting, it is helpful to have a brief describing both the speaker’s background, age, gender, and quirks, and the hypothetical target audience you wish to reach.

How do you balance handlettering or calligraphy with other typographic elements on the page?
Here the basic principle of “Harmony or contrast: pick ONE”  usually resolves nearly every question. If you have commissioned a logo in a formal calligraphic style, a clean sans serif font creates an arresting contrast with no competition. This sets the calligraphy off as art in a very contemporary way. A serif font works equally well by creating a historically harmonious, traditional and elegant setting. When a layout with custom letterforms doesn’t work it is often because the style of the typographic surroundings is not clearly in harmony or chosen for sufficient contrast: in-between rarely works.

If you are using expressive lettering think of it as illustration and give it adequate scale and room to do its work. Styles with texture need to be reproduced at a size where fine details can be seen and appreciated and look intentional rather than accidental. Reversing the art, giving it a different color background or enclosing it can help tone down competition from other elements when you have a busy page with photos, illustration and lots of type.

When in doubt, ask yourself, How would this page sound out loud?
Writing is late to the game in terms of the history of human communication. For centuries language consisted of murmurs, whispers, chants, shouts, and storytelling both eloquent and raucus. Sometimes a visual dilemma finds resolution in an unexpected way, by listening.

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