The Art and Artifice of Hand-lettering

Is there a reason we’re so drawn to hand-lettering right now? Why are we craving handmade cards, signs, and posters in this moment? Why do we gravitate towards making hand-lettered flyers and signs and cards as opposed to designing on the computer? Maybe it’s just because we don’t know how to use Adobe InDesign and Illustrator… but we think there’s more to it than that. - Lauren Gallow & Ellen C. Caldwell

Gemma O’Brien | “
Better Left Unsaid” installation view at the Freemantle Arts Centre, 2013. Courtesy of the Jacky Winter Group.

And it’s not just us. We see hand-lettered signs, posters, and murals all over Seattle and Los Angeles – and all over the internet and social media. Unique one-offs and mass-xeroxed posters alike. We see it in the commercial success of letterpress printing, represented by companies like Rifle Paper Co. and 1canoe2. We see it in the graphic design of our friend Molly Kennedy-Darling and in commercial and gallery art like that of Gemma O’Brien, Ken Davis and Gary Green.

Sign Savant’s Japhy Witte | Title Card for the Capitol Hill Wall Project, part of the Capitol Hill Wall Project. 2014. Courtesy of Sound Transit Art Program (STart).

Collection of the authors’ letterpress cards: (Left to right) "YOLO" by Ashkahn, "You're magical" by Egg Press, "Oh Wise One" by Dear Prudence, and "Word Up" by Greenwich Letterpress | 2014. Courtesy of Lauren Gallow and Ellen C. Caldwell.

Gemma O’Brien, Sydney-based typographer, illustrator, and hand-letterer (also known as mrseaves101 on Instagram), uses her love for fonts as her driving force. In a recent interview with Citizens of the World, she described the foundation for her passion: “I’m drawn to words and letters because they are inextricably linked to language, culture and human experience. As an art form they can say so much both in the content and the ideas or memories they can evoke. From an aesthetic point of view it would seem that the familiar alphabet of 26 characters and numerals would be limiting, but those constraints allows for a vast range of creatively representing them.” It is this kind of creativity that we crave and covet.

Why hand-lettering now? Why is there is such a hunger for it? Looking at the history of design over the twentieth-century, we see a gradual move away from the personal, a rejection of all traces of the individual maker. A slow shift towards the machine-made at the expense of the handmade. You can even see this in typefaces. Nineteenth-century typefaces look different from twentieth-century typefaces and the latter are so boring! They don’t reflect the anomalies and peculiarities of actual handwriting. Especially sans-serif fonts, which have reached their near obliteration after decades of simplifying. This is exemplified by the new Apple OS font, which is almost unreadable in its skinniness.

Nineteenth century textile trade ephemera courtesy of Adrian Wilson and iPhone 5s advertisement courtesy of Apple.

We don’t want Apple fonts! We’re so sick of looking at our phones, it hurts our souls it’s so impersonal and sterile. Computers and technology have regularized fonts and formatting so much that we are numb to font and design minimalism. This new coffee roaster in Seattle, for instance, tries to tap into a handwritten aesthetic but in the most impersonal, mechanized, and minimalist way. Our friend Brandon Herrell calls this “flatline” design—a term that captures the detached, dispassionate nature of this style perfectly.

Don’t you crave more irregularity? In a world that is growing more and more technologically programmatic, we crave the handwritten and the hand of the artist, just as it feels like both are becoming obsolete. O’Brien recently addressed this change in brand aesthetic at her inspirational design talk for TYPO SF and we feel her sentiments are quite simpatico to ours. “Something I started to realize that was quite interesting was that brands would take on this kind of brush aesthetic. And rather than being true to a calligraphic technique that was consistent, they preferred it to be incorrect, and to look like it had mistakes. And it was almost like there was this shift in valuing sincerity over technique.”

Ken Davis | “Put A Word On It,” 2012, 18” by 24,” printed in a limited run of 50. Courtesy of Juxtapoz. 

An American Language” | 2012, installation view featuring the work of Mike Meyer, Gary Martin, and Gary Green at the Guerrero Gallery. Courtesy of Guerrero Gallery. Photography by Randy Dodson.

We think it’s precisely that authentic sincerity we are missing these days, so we are craving it more and more. Don’t you want to look at something that makes you cry or laugh or feel something real? As unlikely as it sounds, these hand-lettered things do that for us, if only in a small way. This art is so clearly handmade, it so vividly represents time and care in its handcraftedness, and it just feels more real. It represents a person and a thought and a skill. We want that in the objects we buy and the spaces we inhabit and the cities we live in. We want that in American design.

And thankfully, we are getting it in some really wonderful and unique places. From stationary to street art to signage, and from tattoos to gallery spaces to letter-based canvases and prints, there are hundreds of artists reviving and keeping hand-lettering alive.

Clown Tits (Instagram @clown_tits) | Instagram post from LA tattoo artist with a quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, posted April 16, 2014. (Find out about our artsy Intsagram fall here.)


Lauren Gallow is a writer, editor, and barista located in Seattle.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.  


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