4 Feb 2016

Why You Need to Focus on One Lettering Style

When I first started lettering, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I wanted to try ALL THE THINGS! I ended up trying a new lettering style every day of practice. Soon, I realized I wasn’t improving as quickly as I hoped in any styles, and my work didn’t feel cohesive. It looked like a bunch of fragments thrown together on a page.

I pulled my practice back a bit, and started honing a few styles, truly getting to know each letter. By cutting back my options, I noticed areas my layouts needed tweaking and found more opportunities to have my words and letters interact. And, because I was practicing similar movements, my drawing skills were improving faster than ever. Win win win!

I’ve noticed a lot of new hand letterers are just like I was, and want to use several styles in a single piece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but relying on these style shifts to create a visual hierarchy within a piece can become a crutch.

When you’re starting out, there’s far more to be gained by focusing on improving your layouts and  learning a style or two, and really getting to know them inside and out. If you’re worried about being able to create the hierarchy and contrast you want, fear not: you can get a surprising amount of variation from a single style of lettering. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple!

Learn Variety Within a Single Style

Start with a single style and challenge yourself to find ways to create variety within it. You’ll learn each letter more intimately while you explore all the variations you can achieve. And in the future, your learning curve for adding variety to other lettering styles will be that much faster. Simply giving more important words a bold weight makes a world of difference in emphasis.

Variations to Try:

  • Weight: Make important words bolder, and less important words thinner.
  • Size: Make important words larger than less important words.
  • Color: Add color to make a word stand out
  • Non-structural Changes: Add a dropline, inline, or leave some words as outlines rather than filled in.

Learn Other Ways to Create Hierarchy

Sketching One Piece

If you always jump to ornate lettering, you’re missing out on important design principles to make words stand out. Decorative styles are just one skill in your set. Removing them forces you to evaluate your layout and composition, and make sure you’re naturally adding emphasis to the right words.

If you look at your finished piece and feel like something is off, redraw the piece in only a single style. Is your layout strong? Are the words that need to be emphasized naturally emphasized, or did you fake it by changing up the style?

If you need a refresher on composition, check out this post.

Don’t Be A Jack of All Trades and a Master of None

simplicity

When I think of my favorite lettering artists, they tend to be known for a few styles. While they might use a new one on occasion, they’ve focused most of their time mastering their signature styles.

Look at Lauren Hom’s work, for example. Most of her work includes a very upright script and a classic sans serif. She’s definitely capable of drawing letters a million ways, but she has spent a lot of time developing and perfecting these two signatures. And I don’t think anyone would say her work lacks variety. In fact, simplifying her options and mastering her go-to’s has opened up a world of variety for her. She’s able to create instantly recognizable work in all kinds of mediums, all kinds of layouts, and for all kinds of brands.

When it comes to creating emphasis, additional lettering styles are A tool, not THE tool. Once you learn how to properly create visual hierarchy with layout and subtle variances, you can bring in new styles and be intentional about them. Your pieces will be stronger for it.

  • Ariel

    So true! When I first started lettering, I too wanted ALL THE THINGS. My beginning work is in vastly different styles, all a bit wobbly. It got to the point that while this art deco style was cool and that ornate vintage look was awesome, I was having to teach myself a whole new alphabet each time I wanted a new piece!

    After a while I found what I liked – an outline style based on Garamond, and a simple sans serif mono-line style. It satisfied my eternal love for serifs, and the simpler style allows me to really get a feel for the skeleton and form of each letter.

    While I’m sure I’ll pull from art deco niftiness and pretty ornate vintage lettering on occasion, my time right now is better spent getting the hang of serif g’s (those buggers are hard!) and working on my ability to produce steady, straight lines.

    I think it’s important to try all sorts of lettering styles, but pay attention to your reactions and results with each one. You’ll find one or two ‘click’ in your brain, or look especially good, or are just more fun to spend time on, even if they take longer. Then the key is to focus on them, and not get distracted by that super cool ornate vintage lettering piece you saw on Pinterest and wish you could do.

    Great post, Amber! I feel like a lot of people go through the same ‘ooh, it’s all so shiny’ in the beginning and don’t necessarily know to seek out one or two styles to learn inside and out (literally!).

    • Amber Garner

      So glad you enjoyed the post! Oh man, Pinterest is a great place to find inspiration but I also find that it gives me style-wanderlust! Even now that I’m more on my way to a couple of signature styles, I’m always tempted to try new things and get distracted for a while.

      I totally agree that serif g’s are tough – they’re my least favorite letter!! Thanks for sharing your lettering experience – it’s good to know other people experience the same things I do!