Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

Category: Experimental Lettering

Fake News in the News, Expressed Through Lettering

Fake News Graphic by Iskra Design

Watercolor,unique lettering and collage © Iskra Johnson

Our meme-maker in chief has ensured that this little word duo remains current. From an abstract design perspective, it is always helpful when words are the same length and lock up with an interesting positive-negative charge. By flipping a few backwards it added even more interest. Watercolor, hand lettering and collage.


Some Experimental Lettering from Coffee Town, Inspired by Balzac

A few years ago I worked on a project for Starbucks with a creative art director who wanted to try something different for a poster design: something with a bohemian flair. He handed me a scribble of a face and a cup on a napkin and said, “go wild.” Ahhhh the golden days of illustration before royalty free pre-fab dingbats had taken over every square inch of the graphic imagination! I drew about fifty faces for the poster, which went into deep focus group and never came back. Later I went back to revisit it as a personal project.

I came across this truly odd quote from Balzac, the original Parisian cool-guy. (How whould he know if somebody was “spiritual” or not? This is the writer who horrified the good ladies of River City in The Music Man with his scandalous prose. Who does he think he is? And how did they translate from the French and come up with the word “grocery store?”) This doesn’t seem right to me. But just because it is so odd, I decided to work with it, in one of my favorite brush styles, “Bohemian Conversational Medium.”*  The face could be Balzac as he imagines he is, or any self-reflective hipster of today, thinking under the influence, at one of our infinite coffee shops.





Coffee Thinker






Experimental writing and illustration using a variety of textures and techniques. Copy and artwork © 2014 Iskra Design.

* No, this is not a font. But it is available as a commissioned style of handwriting. See more examples of expressive handwriting and calligraphy in the portfolios above.

Forget Me Not: A Little Spring Piece Illustrated with Ballpoint Pen

One of favorite drawing tools is the ballpoint pen. Here are two examples of this technique from my sketchbook. "Rosary" is scanned directly and unaltered. "Forgetmenot" has been reversed and colorized.

Illustrated Lettering, "Forgetmenot" © Iskra Johnson

Illustrated Lettering, "Infinity Rosary" © Iskra Johnson

What I love about this technique is its slow meditative quality. And there is no lovelier blue than ballpoint pen ink. I do wish it was archival. If anyone has found a true archival pen please let me know. I have tried all the surrogates, I must have every fine point marker ever made, and they just don't work the same as the ballpoint, with it's little burr of ink and the way it responds to gradual pressure and building up values.

Here's to the inspiration of the garden, where you can find every letter if you look hard enough!

Pause: Personal Typography from my Journal

Last week Christopher Hoff, one of our best plein air painters, passed away far too soon, too young, a huge shock to the community. I had fallen in love with his work, much of which is about the street, and which often featured the Walking Man and other signs that are part of my real and mental landscape. On Facebook and the blogosphere people have posted beautiful tributes, one of which is from Joey Veltcamp which you can read here.

Christopher's passing, and the equally sad passing of the fine calligrapher and font designer Teri Kahan has put me in a reflective mood about life in general. How quickly our days are consumed and how easy it is to lose track of what is important. Typography and lettering design are my job, but also my passion. I pulled out my journal to remind myself to stay on track. From Wayfinding:


STOPSTOP Typography experiments


DoubtAndHopeTypogrpahy Study



© Iskra Johnson

Pages from this journal have been published in Martin Dawber's New Illustration with Type

How Do You Say Coffee? Expressive Mixed Media Calligraphy

When I do expressive calligraphy, expression wins out over technique and traditionally beautiful lettering design. What matters most is the personality of the words, and in this case, the personality of the coffee customer.

I live in Coffee Town USA, yes, that would be Seattle, and I am a confirmed devotee. I do love to watch how people order their favorite drinks. Particularly those people who request the "no-foam-no-caf-non-fat—latte?" I mean, what is this? This is not a latte. It's simply a state of denial. But then I'm in the camp of coffee-is-a-vehicle-for-cream, or why bother.

This piece is done in watercolor, guache, felt pen, pointed pen, brush and a variety of brushes. It was created as part of my ongoing fascination with letterforms as an expression of voice. I see my job as a contemporary lettering artist as being a channel for character. I'm not a stylist with a "hand" but a character actress, making visible the intangibles of tone of voice, personality and unique DNA.

See more expressive calligraphy and calligraphic illustration at