10 Misconceptions You May Have About Lettering

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10 Misconceptions You May Have About Lettering

Whether you're a lettering beginner, an art lover, or simply curious about lettering, chances are you've been told things that aren't actually true.

I always enjoy a good old myth debunking session, so buckle up, and let's have a closer look at 10 inaccurate things you may have thought you knew about lettering.

1. Lettering = calligraphy = typography

If you're a letterer, this one makes you cringe all the time. If you're not, you're wondering why we're all being so tight about it. Let's break this all out very simply:

  • Lettering is the art of drawing letters. It has a lot more in common with drawing than writing. It requires drawing skills much more than a good penmanship.
  • Calligraphy is the art of writing beautiful letters. It's a very tough game in which you learn to write perfectly formed letters in a single pass with writing instruments, such as fountain pens or even goose quills.
  • Typography doesn't refer to one very specific art form, but it has a lot more to do with printing than any form of hand-written discipline. Arranging characters that are already set (fonts), printing documents the old-fashioned way with lead glyphs, this all fits into the broader typography category.

Yes, the lines are quite blurred these days, everyone has its own definition and one discipline can lead to the other; yet it's important to know the difference to make sure you and the people you're talking to are actually speaking of the same thing. Especially if you plan on doing business together.

2. You need good handwriting to be a good letterer

As said above, lettering has a lot more to do with drawing than writing. Obviously, you'll most probably study letters and learn how they're supposed to look from calligraphy ductuses, but in the end, it's all about your drawing skills.

I actually have a pretty bad handwriting if I'm not careful. Years and years of typing have hurt my penmanship, but that's okay, because I'm still practicing at being good at drawing letters every single day. And this is all I need to stay relevant in the game.

3. Lettering is doing logos

Logo design is a well-represented discipline among letterers, but this certainly isn't the only things it allows you to do!

The Fantastic Flourishes by Drew Melton
The Fantastic Flourishes by Drew Melton

Drew Melton, my favorite letterer, is quite polyvalent with lettering but he mostly focuses on creating custom fonts.

Washington Post - Food Fights by Danielle Evans
Washington Post - Food Fights by Danielle Evans

Danielle Evans creates unique food lettering pieces for all sorts of client needs, from corporate advertising to editorial illustration, not to mention ornamental installations for events.

Cider Original Drink of America - Simon Walker
Cider Original Drink of America - Simon Walker

Oh, and should I mention Simon Walker and his beer tags, book covers and record artworks?

4. Lettering requires fancy equipment

Frankly, there are very few artistic disciplines where you need less things than in lettering.

Lettering requires only 3 items to start: a stack of paper, a pencil, and an eraser. That's it. Oh, and add a pencil sharpener. There, you just spent less than $20 and you're all set for at least a year.

I know you see all your favorite lettering artists use fancy lead holders and pretty Microns, but that's really not a prerequisite when you're just starting out. Really effing not. Believe it or not, but I only use printing paper. It took me years to switch to lead holders; before that I used an ordinary HB mechanical pencil (the kind you used in geometry class back in school). Stop trying to find excuses not to start and start: trust me, if you're not getting the results you want right now, it's because you don't practice enough, not because you don't have the right equipment.

5. It's impossible to make a living off of lettering

You'd be surprised to know how many people do lettering as their main activity.

Casey Ligon is mostly known for her chalk lettering. Everyone in the lettering industry has heard about Casey and her eye candy Instagram account. Casey is a full-time freelance lettering artist, and it seems like she's posting shots from new lettering gigs every single day.

I really like something she once said on a shot she posted on Instagram:

"Make something every day. Start small and just keep going. I started lettering by posting something once a day to Instagram, and I owe my current business to that practice."

It's not that your field is too niche. It's not that too many people do what you do. It's that nobody knows you because you're not posting enough.

Failure is Success in Progress by Sean McCabe
Failure is Success in Progress by Sean McCabe

Sean McCabe is probably the most well-known contemporary lettering artist out there. Type "lettering" in Google Images, 90% of what you'll get is his stuff, even though the guy has stopped doing lettering for several years now.

Sean still gets work requests that any lettering-artist would kill for. He's also notorious for making close to $100,000 in the first 24 hours of launching his course, Learn Lettering. And most of his success, he attributes to working his ass off to post lettering daily for years.

6. Lettering is too niche

It's very common for generalist designers who get involved with lettering to be on the fence with specializing. Lettering sounds like such a tiny sub-discipline that so few people know about, and it feels crazy to drop what could be very lucrative activities to make a name for yourself as a letterer.

Well, guess what, lettering is actually too broad. Yeah, you read me. Lettering has literally exploded in the past few years, and it's a fact that "just being another letterer" doesn't cut it anymore. It's not 2010 anymore, now everyone and their mom does lettering. Every single day, I see people I used to follow for generalist lettering starting to specialize in one very specific subset of the discipline, such as food lettering, chalk lettering, even Crayola lettering!

Stop calling yourself a "designer with a soft spot for lettering" like I used to. If this is where you're going, being a hand-lettering artist is what you need to start pounding so people actually stop wondering what it is you do.

7. Too many people are doing lettering already (for me to stand out)

As an echo of the previous point, lettering may feel like a big pond. And I'm not going to lie, it's getting bigger every day.

Yes, but only letterers know. From the inside, lettering is definitely a very popular design discipline, and yes, it's going to take time and a shitload of work before you start to get recognized by your peers. From the outside, and this means from potential clients' perspective, nobody has a clue about what's going on here. If people have heard about lettering, they may know a name or two, but believe me, they're not following thousands of artists like you do. There's still huge room to make a name for yourself in the lettering world, and that could be you, but only if you seriously commit to your craft.

8. Lettering is just glorified penmanship

If you've never heard of lettering before, that may be your first instinct. This, of course, is incredibly far from the truth. But hey, you know the expression "one picture is worth a thousand words"? Just look over #4 of this article and have a lot of fun.

WPF’s 805 Million Names by Alexis “Tyrsa“ Taieb
WPF’s 805 Million Names by Alexis “Tyrsa“ Taieb

9. Lettering is easy

My mom always said "if it's done right, it looks easy". The amount of amazing lettering work is so huge that it may look like "anyone can do it". After all it's just letters, right?

Well, what you don't see is all the bad work that it took to achieve these amazing results. Some letterers actually show their process, imperfect drafts and leave their old work online, but most of the time you'll only see the finished, polished, edited pieces that will make you feel like letterers just pop out art pieces like... let's stop here with this metaphor.

Like with any other art form, being good lettering requires a lot of practice. It's always easy to look at a final piece and think "this isn't that big of a deal" but what you don't understand is that, while you're seeing the end result and comparing your ability to replicate it, there are good chances that you may have never been able to come up with the same thing from scratch.

10. Lettering is hard

Lettering isn't any harder than painting or sculpting (minus the physical effort). Lettering isn't inaccessible. Lettering isn't reserved for those who "can draw".

I strongly, firmly, deeply believe that anyone can do lettering. Why? Because I've seen the debut work of my heroes and trust me, they all sucked at first.

The only difference between you and your heroes are the amount of work they've put out. The number of hours they practiced. Not talent, not luck, just sweat and tears, and sleepless nights slaving over a freaking ligature.

Everything worth doing is hard. You can either complain about it, or accept it and push through, but it won't change the fact that there are no shortcuts to greatness.

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