Lettering: Art, design, or both?

For a long time I’ve thought lettering to be a part of design. As a designer who pays attention to typefaces on signage, logos on retail stores, and layouts of restaurant menus, I associated lettering with design. How alphabets interact with their space, and each other, is something any graphic designer pays attention to. Not to mention, I know one too many designers who are also letterers, and vice versa.

(Famous examples include Jessica Hische and Timothy Goodman)

Jessica Hische | Lettering artist
Jessica Hische | Lettering artist | Source: Jessica Hische's website
Timothy Goodman | Lettering artist and designer | Getty Images
Timothy Goodman | Lettering artist and designer | Source: Getty Images

But while some of us associate lettering or handlettering to typography and design, there are others who associate it with something else, like bullet journaling. And usually the latter blossoms from the artistic side, where text alone never does the trick, but maybe some doodles, characters, images, or stickers go along with it. These are also usually the ones who learn the infamous brush lettering, and then letter everything beautifully around them. From wedding mirrors to chalkboards, you name it. And I didn’t know about this until I told people I handlettered and I got one of two reactions. (Actually, one of many reactions, but here’s two.)

Monthly bullet journaling spread with yellow highlights

The “Oh, like typography” reaction which usually meant the former. Or the “Is that like cursive handwriting?” And I know it’s the latter. As an artist and designer, how people view the act of lettering only enhances one aspect over the other for me. Even though there are no set rules to what qualifies and what doesn’t as handlettering or whether it’s art or design, in general I tend to see differences between the way lettering is practiced.

  • Artists tend to see it as fancy writing, while designers tend to see it as a form of expression.
  • Artists enhance their lettering with doodles, comics, or images, while designers enhance the alphabets themselves.
  • Artists tend to see the bigger picture while designers tend to focus on the details.
  • Artists modify letters/alphabets that are already conceived, while designers conceive letters/alphabets through study and history.

So where does lettering fall? I’m sure there are a lot of differences, and probably a lot more similarities as well. For some of us how lettering is categorized matters and for the rest of us it doesn’t. Where and how do you think handlettering should be categorized? Leave a note in the comments.

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