Typography, a topic that brings a lot debate around the design table, touches all forms of communication. It is an intricate art that, with the coming of the Digital Age, has opened up as a specialized occupation to new generations of visual designers and lay users. Typography refers to the arrangement of letters – be it Franklin Gothic Book or hand-drawn sketches – that somehow convey a message. It is more than the calculated relationship between kerning, tracking, leading, and point size. It is a way of conveying emotion through letter.
Illustrated typography has recently emerged as a growing trend in print and digital media. Illustrated type stems from the fundamental rules of traditional typography but embraces the merging of letter with image. Designers interested in typography are seeking ways to use their illustrative skills to create something new that is simple, clear in message, and high in visual impact. Inspired by the Digital Age, designers and illustrators seek to escape the common usage of standard typefaces by introducing unique fonts and typographic treatments into their work. Illustrated typography magnifies all elements of traditional typography by exaggerating color and size, experimenting with shape, and employing patterns and textures to better convey the very essence of a message.
So the past is changing. As Espen Brunborg of Smashing Magazine explains in her Respect Thy Typography, rules are changing. In fact, they’ve been changing for a while. Modernist typographers embraced the notions of clarity, legibility, and readability in a fervent protest against the conservative values of tradition by endorsing an objective dominant aesthetic. The grid and clean sans-serif lettering ruled in the search for the perfect typeface that communicated a message as clearly and as cleanly as possible.
But there’s a certain blandness to such a modernist ethos. Sure, the message is clear; you can indeed read it perfectly fine. But the essence of emotion lacks. Thus, as with all philosophies, it was challenged and a counterculture emerged. Some daring designers sought to push the boundaries of legibility and normality by transforming type into objects full of meaning and emotion. Postmodernism gave way to experimental typography and the re-introduction of flourishes in typography that had long been taboo since the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. Designers embraced illustrative typography as a rebellion against the bland sterility inspired by Helvetica. While Jan Tschichold may not have approved, this blatant opposition for the traditional showed that typography can be emotionally valuable. Typography becomes an art form with infinite possibilities for communicating a message. As Robert Bringhurst explains in his classic The Elements of Typographic Style, “Typography exists to honor content.”
But how exactly do we use illustrated typography to set a mood and theme that communicates a message? The magic of illustrative lettering lies in that perfectly beautiful relationship between typography and illustration. The preciseness of the type designer, the creativity of the artist, and the narrative of the storyteller come together to tell a story that is rich in cultural and social expression. While hand-drawn type and letter embellishments may be as old as communication itself – take the beautifully detailed calligraphy of the Renaissance of the gorgeous engravings of the Victorian era as evidence – it wasn’t until the last half-century that illustrative typography transitioned from being merely a reflection of beautiful design to being a reflection of culture itself. It has become a form of beautiful personal expression.
The best examples of illustrative lettering can be found in album artwork, concert posters, and band t-shirts – all appropriate mediums rich with music culture and artistic expression.
“Where pure typography sends a static message, illustrative lettering tells a dynamic story of … self-expression. Gig posters are a particularly rich source of illustrative lettering today. The best of them manage to preserve the artist’s recognizable name and identity, while wrapping it in a layer of whimsy and excitement that parallels the promise of a live show – and that’s exactly what illustrative lettering does, it keeps the core message readable and recognizable while drawing a mood and a story around it.”
The expressive and storytelling power of illustrative typography is found in just about every aspect of culture – not just in music artwork. Its strength lies in its blending of two greats: the power of illustration to tell an imaginative story and the faculty of typography to simply and accurately deliver a message. It results in a simultaneously controlled and beautifully chaotic vessel for communication.
Take the following examples as evidence:
What does it look like?
From these examples, we can pull some commonalities that are characteristic of illustrative lettering – despite how unrealistic it may seem to attempt to categorize such a whimsical and awe-inspiring form of artistic expression.
Under the wing of the Digital Age and the advancement of vector drawing software, typographic lettering has thrived and evolved. The mere click of a mouse can render countless variations in a design, each uniquely intricate and beautiful.
Artist and illustrator Cheryl Graham provides a great summary (as well as examples) of the common themes found in typographic lettering – from the elegant to the grunge. The following are terms she assigns to these themes. While Graham specifically applies these themes to vector illustration, they can be applied to all creation processes of typographic lettering.
For more examples than the ones I’ve provided, check out Graham’s post.
Designers often decorate existing typefaces with intricate vector floral accents that demonstrate the union between the type designer’s typographic knowledge and the illustrator’s artistic emotion.
Past trends and styles are always recycled – especially in the creative realm. Artists and creators find inspiration in the old, often either replicating it or refurbishing it by mixing it with the new. Old aesthetics – Art Nouveau, steampunk, Arts and Crafts, the many themed decades – inspire the creation of new old typefaces and ornamentation.
We all love the pop of color and the rebelliousness of the 1970s’ graffiti culture. The grunge of the streets makes for popular typographic lettering.
Typographic letterforms can take on characteristics that mirror their message or meaning. Its makes for an extremely dynamic and expressive form of communication.
While the previous refers to individual letterforms that look like their message, some typography can be molded to create images. The letterforms become the building blocks that create an actual image. In a design with a message related to water, for example, rather than a letter taking the malleable form of blue water, the words and characters come together to sculpt water by controlling color, size, etc.
6. All together now!
These motifs don’t always exist on their own. Often, they work together to better illustrate a message with the most profound emotional impact possible. These creations are often the most successful – as long as the artist doesn’t get too carried away.
So what’s the secret?
While these motifs are a great summary of what typographic lettering might look like, they offer little direction for a novice who may find the realm fascinating but doesn’t know where to start. And while there exists no collection of founding principles of illustration and lettering, the following tips function as an appropriate starting base:
1. Explore and experiment
As with any creative endeavor, the best thing to do is to be fearless and to jump right into the project. Heavy experimentation is key for developing a personal style, strengthening technical skill, and staying current on recent trends. Client commissions inherently have restrictions, but in the case of personal development and exploration, embrace the freedom and run wild.
Explore typefaces, trends, and styles and keep archives of uncovered treasures for future inspiration and reference. Experiment with different drawing tools, techniques, mediums, approaches, objects, colors, patterns, etc. ¬– both digital and traditional. Manipulate and customize existing type. Limitations are traps and inhibit improvement and learning.
2. Develop a comfortable (and unique) style
Throughout the exploration and experimentation process, take note of any developing personal styles. While trends can inspire, creativity thrives on creation that reflects individual personality. Learn from these trends, but build upon them and remain true to personal creative beliefs. There is no pressure to develop a style early on. Allow for mistakes that will help develop methods and techniques that will build a consistent professional practice.
Little by little, a personal style that people recognize will emerge.
3. Balance readability
The magic of illustrated type is its character and unique voice. Legibility often has to be sacrificed to a certain degree. The role of the designer lies in striking a balance between convincing graphics and legibility by manipulating space and character relationships. Most often, lettering is supposed to be read – so it better be legible. If a client is involved, the situation called for a design that makes sense to everyone. If the message is lost in translation, then the design is worthless.
The safe route is to favor readability over boldness, especially in commercial work. When in doubt, build the illustration off an existing font and make original modifications that still retain a certain degree of distinguishableness. The interaction between type and background also influences a design’s simplicity. Complex typography is best paired with a simple background. It needn’t be just white or black, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the type. Designer often also like to create an environment in the background that somehow relates to the type or the message.
4. The drawing board
Most artists discover their passion as juveniles with a precious sketchbook. The creative process – lettering or not – often begins with jotting down ideas in a sketchbook. There’s no permanence to putting pencil to paper, and it makes for quick work. There’s a certain freedom to the act that feeds creativity and invites experimentation. The best practice is to keep drawing, creating and revising versions of a design without technical restrictions. The key is to land on a confident design before bringing it to Illustrator and bringing it to life.
5. Have a purpose
While stylistic exploration and experimentation certainly has a purpose, certain projects have no room for delaying. Before committing to a project that has some weight (commercial project, perhaps), focus on the illustration’s purpose and develop an artistic intent. Develop a schedule or limit the amount of time dedicated to the project.
The end bit
New digital tools and techniques continue to revolutionize graphic communication, pushing the limit of the relationship between text and image and allowing for increased cultural expression. Embraced for its youth, vibrancy, and visual impact, illustrated typography blends the preciseness of the type designer, the creativity of the artist, and the narrative of the storyteller in order to tell a story that is rich in cultural and social expression.Illustrated lettering pays tribute to the deep typographic tradition at its roots, but it proves that typography can be emotionally valuable.
Respect Thy Typography by Espen Brunborg
Illustrative Lettering as Cultural Storytelling by Maria Popova
Evolving Your Illustrative Typography by Alex Beltechi
Developing Illustrative Type to Compliment Your Style by Jonathan Wan
Adventures in Illustrative Typography by Mia at dezignmatterz.com
Alphablog: I is for Illustrated Type by Owen Jones
Illustrated Typography by Michael Mercer Brown
Inspiration: 45 examples of Illustrative Lettering in Vector by Cheryl Graham