2 Sep 2015

Lettering Layouts: A Guide to Hierarchy & Composition

If a lettering piece is a house, the composition is the blueprint. And a house is only as good as its blueprint.

When you walk through a house, you don’t think about where studs and supports are, but you’ll notice if a wall or a doorway interrupts the flow of the house. The average person doesn’t consider what decisions went into your design. They see your final lettering piece and notice if something is off, even if they can’t pinpoint what it is.

If your piece is unbalanced, spaced inconsistently, or your styles aren’t cohesive, the piece won’t flow properly and a viewers’ eyes will get stuck or sent in the wrong direction. It’s your job to understand the concepts of strong composition and execute them in interesting ways.

Learning About Design Composition

These are the most important concepts in any composition:

  • Emphasis (having some elements dominate while others support)
  • Balance (the distribution of the visual weight of each part of your piece)
  • Repetition (repeated use of styles, sizes, weights, or color)
  • Harmony (commonalities between the style, size, weight, or color elements)
  • Contrast (differences between the style, size, weight, or color of elements)
  • Negative space (the open areas around and between elements)

There are many more topics and terms when it comes to design composition, and grasping these concepts takes time. If you want to learn more about the basics of design composition, I suggest Graphic Design: The New Basics and Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practice of Graphic Design. Both of these books provide great overviews and clarifying examples of all of the concepts and principles of design.

 

Basic Lettering Layouts

Basic Composition

When you start lettering, it’s best to keep your layouts simple, but a simple layout doesn’t have to be boring. Rectangular layouts with straight baselines make it easier to focus on exploring more complex styles and letter interactions.

Even if everything in your piece is on a series of horizontal, parallel baselines, you can find ways for your words to interact – that’s what lettering is all about! Break your own boundaries. Finding interactions, like extending the arm of a letter below your baseline to connect with or fill part of the next line of text, can create visual interest and make a piece more cohesive. Lettering elements feel like they belong together when they play nice with each other.

Keeping your layout basic will also help you learn to create flow through hierarchy. Hierarchy is adding emphasis to more important words in a piece (through color, weight, style or size), and decreasing emphasis of the less important words.

Important words should stand out, and other words should support them without stealing attention. Write out all of the words of your piece. Circle the most important words, underline words that are of secondary importance, and leave the ones that are the least important untouched. The circled and underlined words should be given more visual emphasis than the words you left untouched – this is hierarchy.  

Complex Compositions

complexcomposition

As you improve your lettering, increasing the complexity of your compositions can give your designs more energy and visual interest. Injecting a little variation into a basic layout, like adding a curved or diagonal baseline, can make your piece more playful.

You still want to consider hierarchy in a complex composition – your layout is now just another tool to establish it. If you’re adding a few diagonal or curved baselines, those baselines will naturally have emphasis, since they stand out from the rest of the layout. The words that need the most emphasis should generally be the ones on the varied baseline.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. Try drawing your piece within a circle, or within a silhouette that’s relevant to the content of the piece. There are endless possibilities!

Building and Evaluating Your Composition

Because every lettering piece is different, your content will dictate your layout. Sometimes character length or number of words makes one layout style more practical than another. Other times, the personality of the content demands a certain layout style. Don’t just copy a layout you like – cater your layout to what you’re drawing.

  • What needs to be included in the piece?
  • What words need added emphasis?
  • What words should recede?
  • Should the piece be playful or more serious?

Taking the time to consider what your piece needs will help you create a unique design that feels like it’s how those words were always meant to look – lettering nirvana! After you’ve sketched a piece, evaluate and tweak your design to make sure your composition is strong and cohesive.

Does everything work together?

  • Does each element have enough room to breathe? Too much room?
  • Do the styles work together or fight against each other?
  • Does anything look disjointed or out of place?
  • Did you miss any opportunities for letter interactions that would make the piece more cohesive?

Does the piece feel balanced?

  • Do your eyes get stuck anywhere?
  • Is your attention being pulled in the wrong direction?
  • Does any part of the piece feel too heavy?

Is your hierarchy intact?

Is it legible?

  • Is it easy to read every word?
  • Does the piece read in the order it’s supposed to?

What’s the biggest thing you struggle with when you’re building a composition? 

  • Awesome post! I definitely struggle with hierarchy and emphasis, even though I’ve know about these design elements since high school haha. It’s definitely waaay harder to implement than to just learn about. For me, that’s just something that comes with practice. Loved the way you described the elements of design in terms of hand-lettering, definitely helpful.

    • Hey Kayla! Glad you liked the post. Honestly this is something I’ve had to be really deliberate about to incorporate it into my work! When you take all this time to create a piece and realize your initial composition could have been better, it’s so easy to just decide to live with your mistakes to not have to redo the work. And I agree it’s easy to sort of learn about, but really hard to truly incorporate it into your work! It’s kind of like understanding some Spanish vs. being able to speak it fluently.

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