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Jessica on lettering versus type design

From: The Creative Spark: Title Case, Typographic Artisans

Video: Jessica on lettering versus type design

Jessica Hirsche: Lettering kind of had a new life because of people's need to customize. They look at typefaces and they find something that is close enough, but not quite right, and that is where lettering kind of steps in. And it takes a while for people to understand where lettering fits in the grand scheme of things. And one of the examples that I sort of give, which is one of the simpler examples of where lettering can happen, is say you have a book cover and you've chosen a typeface, and you love this typeface, but it's a display typeface, and it only comes in one weight.

Jessica on lettering versus type design

Jessica Hirsche: Lettering kind of had a new life because of people's need to customize. They look at typefaces and they find something that is close enough, but not quite right, and that is where lettering kind of steps in. And it takes a while for people to understand where lettering fits in the grand scheme of things. And one of the examples that I sort of give, which is one of the simpler examples of where lettering can happen, is say you have a book cover and you've chosen a typeface, and you love this typeface, but it's a display typeface, and it only comes in one weight.

And you want to set the title, the subtitle, and the author name all in this typeface. If you actually just use that typeface, it would just not work. When the type got really tiny, all your fins would blow out, when the type was really big, it would look really horsey and engrossed. And this is the perfect example of when you would bring in a letterer. You have a clear idea of what you want, but you don't want to hire a type designer to make you like four versions of that typeface, because you're never going to use it beyond this cover, and you're never going to use it at that size beyond this cover. So, bring in a letterer to make you exactly what you need.

You can manipulate type to really fit the exact mold for your project. Lettering is my bread and butter, my life blood, but I do love typeface design, and it's something that I sort of thought was very, very similar to lettering at first, and didn't really realize how different it was until I really dug my heels in. I started in type design because I made this typeface, Buttermilk. I had a few letters drawn from a project that got killed. Type design just seems like a kissing cousin of lettering, and it was something that I wanted to pursue.

And I was like, I can make fonts, why not? And by the grace of God, Buttermilk turned out okay, but because it was my first typeface and I was drawing it a little bit naively, it can never be a web font, because it's just not technically done well enough essentially to be able to translate to a browser, which doesn't support all these OpenType features that help make it so pretty. But, I found my way into Typeface design more because after I released Buttermilk and saw the commercial success of it, I really wanted to pursue it more, but I knew that I needed kind of a better education in type design in order to feel confident releasing another typeface.

And I didn't understand this all myself either until someone really opens up your world to it. I was seeing a lecture by Christian Schwartz one time who is an amazing typeface designer and does the really hardcore text-type stuff, the stuff that I am nowhere near being able to do at my level right now. And he put up these two lowercase A's next to each other, and this was when he was working on his Neue Haas Grotesk revival of like one of the original cuts of Helvetica. So he put up a Helvetica A and then the A that he had been working on.

And to the crowd, it was just like, can you see how crazy different they are? And I was just glazed, no, I don't see it at all. I do not see the differences. But then right after that, he put together two paragraphs of text--one with the typeface that he was working on and one with the other cut of Helvetica--and it was like night-and-day difference. And to be able to see those details is not something that you can do right away when it comes to type and lettering. It's something that does involve--that you only really get after looking at a ton of it, after years of educating yourself. And I actually think, I don't do all that much graphic design work right now. Most of my client work is lettering work.

But I think that if I were to just scrap lettering altogether and become a graphic designer, I would be a hundred times the better graphic designer than I was five years ago because of this knowledge. I think it's something that graphic designers call themselves type geeks a lot of times but without being able to really like hone in on those details, and once you can really see those details, then you're not geeking out as much about the crazy display type that you pick. You're geeking out about, like, oh! my god, this text type that I chose for this piece, because these serifs are shaped this certain way, communicates this thing that, it's so subtle, but everyone will see it.

It's not something that they will know that they are seeing, but they will see it. And what is so freeing about lettering and type is that if you understand the elements that compose lettering and type, the world is your oyster. Instead of having to think big picture from the beginning, you can think about, what does it mean to use something that's extended versus something that's condensed, what does it mean to have the X height this high versus having the X height this high? What timeframe am I referencing if I choose serifs that look this? And those kind of details, being able to start with that as a basis for client work, makes all projects less intimidating, because you don't have to just like scour through the history books every time.

You don't have to think about things in these giant big-picture ways. You can think about the details, that when you add them up in the right way, they equal the right thing for the project.

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