I love letters. All kinds and types of letters: small, large, drawn, sketched, painted, rough, smooth, serif, sans serif, script, roman, italic, oblique, digitized, old and new, uppercase, lowercase, all materials and media, three dimensional… Yes, I love letters, except for those that are poorly or incorrectly proportioned. For those poor ugly letters, I feel pity and sadness.
In the hope of creating an appreciation of beautiful letters and avoiding further letterform abuse, I try to share my passion for letterform design with my graphic design, typography and calligraphy students at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
My challenge in teaching calligraphy and typography is to make letters and words come to life: to make letters exciting, tangible and meaningful. My objective is to instill in my students a passion for the inherent beauty and integrity of letterforms, an understanding of history, terminology, structure and proportional relationships, and a highly developed sensitivity to the selection and application of alphabet designs for effective and powerful communication.
Helping students with letters. Photograph by Elizabeth Torgerson-lamark
It has been my experience that not all students come to typography or graphic design with an innate love of letters or type. Over the years, I have tried many methods of infecting students with the type virus…the term I use to describe the typographic obsession acquired by designers. I have found that introducing calligraphy in my typography courses has been the most successful, fun and interactive way to reinforce fundamentals and to develop a high level of typographic sensitivity. It is a far more satisfying approach than tracing letters, which is viewed by most students as torture and which they pursue as such. Calligraphy, on the other hand, is a rewarding and meaningful skill that reinforces lessons learned in typography lectures and demonstrations. Graphic design student Elizabeth McGrail said: “Calligraphy is very beautiful and it was fun to learn about it as well as learning how to do it. I love knowing that I know calligraphy and I can do it whenever I want!” This year’s Hand Lettering Club President and graphic design student Elizabeth Wells stated: “After studying calligraphy, I felt that I understood the anatomy of typography better. Making characters by hand makes you think about every aspect of the letter and the words as a whole.”
Photograph by Elizabeth Torgerson-lamark
Drawing letters is an interactive, physical experience in which students learn proportions, stroke sequences, anatomy, and letter, word and line spacing without even realizing it. They begin to see letters as beautiful and functional symbols that have artistic and expressive potential. Students develop a comprehensive understanding of the systematic nature of typographic design. They see letters as physical forms and not just as shapes on a screen or a page. This in turn helps students understand the process of designing an alphabet and the challenges faced by a typographer in creating a new typeface. Many design students have an AHA! moment when drawing an oblique letter such as a W, finding that they understand stroke weight variation for the first time. Similarly, a student drawing an O by hand may comprehend the meaning of stress for the first time, although he or she may have traced an O or read previously about typographic stress in a book. Mysteries of letterform design and structure are solved when students have firsthand experience drawing letterforms. As graphic design student Lauren Spath said, “Calligraphy was one of the most eye-opening things I have done in awhile. It showed me how to appreciate the letters in typefaces I use every day and changed how I think about letterforms and their intricacy.”
In this 6–9 hour exposure (two or three studio sessions), students use broad-edged steel nibs and ink to draw the minuscules of Chancery Cursive. Drawing families of similar letters (such as n, h, m, r, u) helps students see the systematic foundation of alphabet design. When creating bowls, counters, serifs and flourishes, students become highly aware of the tiny, yet critical details and nuances that give typefaces personality and uniqueness. As they begin to write words, students practice the letter proportions, and incorporate letter and word spacing. In writing sentences and paragraphs, students begin to understand the importance of line length, sense breaks, and line spacing. Graphic design student Emily Butler expressed this well when she said: “Learning calligraphy helped me to understand how the letters flow together. Each character needs to work with the surrounding characters to create words and to look beautiful as a whole. Calligraphy opened my eyes to the different widths and heights of individual characters as well as the terminology that goes with typography. Calligraphy was a great introduction to learning the mechanics of typography.”
Studying calligraphy also provides students with great respect for the challenges faced by lettering artists and typographers in the creation of alphabets. This makes it less likely that they will bastardize typefaces in the future. (Bastardization is the term I use for pseudo-italicizing or scaling type on the computer without making visual adjustments.)
At various times during this process, students have an AHA! moment when they see the connections between the past and present and the hand-drawn and the machine-made. Letters become exciting, tangible and meaningful.
Although today’s students have little experience in drawing letters, I have found that they LOVE working with their hands. In fact, they CRAVE it. Certainly, a part of the attraction is that it is a new experience and a welcome break from the digital world. As graphic design student Giovanni Leoni said: “The art of calligraphy is extremely zen and relaxing. It causes the artist to focus on each and every stroke, revealing the secrets of typography.” And graphic design student Samantha Watson described the experience: “Having calligraphy in a course was a very relaxing way to end the day… the kind of homework I would save as a treat because I looked forward to it.”
In addition to the change of pace drawing by hand provides, I believe the current trends in calligraphy and expressive lettering represent the human need for personal, unique and expressive communication that is difficult to achieve exclusively through digital media. Inspired by lettering seen on websites and blogs, students regularly experiment with lettering in their projects. A fundamental understanding of letterform structure, proportions and relationships is more important than ever if we are to help students create gorgeous, competent letters and not more ugly ones. It is critical that students have a fundamental background in order to create alphabets that are cohesive and aesthetically pleasing.
This is one of the many benefits of the the RIT Hand Lettering Club, a multidisciplinary group consisting of illustrators, fine artists and photographers in addition to graphic designers. Offering lectures, demonstrations and workshops, the club provides students with no typographic background with the key fundamentals of good letterform design with feedback and encouragement. Hopefully, this contributes to the creation of some beautiful new letters!
Image of demo letters. Photograph & letters by Lorrie Frear
Through the years of incorporating calligraphy in my typography courses, I have used the terminology and information from both areas in a reciprocal, back-and-forth dance. This has assisted students in gaining sensitivity to typography that occurs naturally and with a sense of personal accomplishment. I have also found that introducing calligraphy as part of a university typographic education increases refinement of design issues such as the use of negative space and composition. Graphic design student Autumn Wadsworth stated: “Learning calligraphy and lettering by hand makes a huge difference in your design skills. Every little typographic detail just makes so much more sense, and my typographic and design skills have improved because of it.”
In conclusion, graphic design student Rachel Nicholson provided her viewpoint:
“I have found an outlet in lettering. Whether it’s calligraphy or custom hand lettering, there is something so powerful about language and words in general and then to pair that with the artistic ideals of composition and balance and flow…there is a real a beauty in that. The natural connection between the pen, hand and paper is relaxing, rewarding and immediately gratifying. Lettering allows you to see the alphabets as shapes and lines. I found this new way of “seeing” not only to be a challenge, but a wonderful lesson in design: to simplify the world around you into contours and forms that have endless potential to inspire, create and function.”
It is greatly rewarding for me to introduce students to calligraphy and type, to witness their genuine enthusiasm for letterform design, and to observe their growth as they explore and improve. It’s an inspiring, humbling and magical experience.
Header: Photograph by Elizabeth Torgerson-lamark
Lorrie Frear is an Associate Professor in the School of Design/College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, where she teaches graphic design and calligraphy. Lorrie also conducts calligraphy and lettering lectures and workshops nationally that are tailored to the needs and interests of the audience. Her professional and student work can be viewed at the RIT website.