A Doing Design Guide to …
Type, typography, calligraphy and lettering design; what are these terms? What do they mean? These are the questions I used to ask myself during my study of Graphic Design at university. I struggled to view typography, type, lettering and calligraphy as its own art but after learning the craft myself, with the use of online tutorials, I now appreciate the skill that is needed and goes into this craft, its closer to painting or drawing than simply writing.
But after this I started myself to wonder what is the difference between these things … Do they all the same thing really and are people just being fussy when they correct me?
Turns out, there is a difference. And if you dabble in any one of them, it’s important to know and it does matter.
It all comes down to how the craft developed in the first place.
Being relatively new to type (and being born in the 90’s) I was bound to get confused because if I were writing anything I would go to my keyboard and type it up. But the tools we used to use (and still do) are the reason for the different terms. A Nib or brush would have been the only tool used when lettering (and still the most beautiful in my opinion) and the tool for type would have been letterpress and printing press.
Although there are many similarities, lettering and type are really different disciplines.
Calligraphy is writing a single pass of the pen/tool to write as a form of art.
Whereas lettering consists of built-up letters—drawing with multiple strokes.
Typography is writing with prefabricated, designed letters.
This is, in essence, what really defines the three from each other.
Lets discuss the three:
Calligraphy is a type of lettering, and at the same time, it isn’t.
The Oxford Dictionary defines calligraphy as “decorative handwriting or handwritten lettering”, which is how many people perceive it. I like to also think of calligraphy as a discipline like learning to play an instrument or painting, whereby the practitioner has to develop the skill through constant practice and a considerable commitment in time! Even though calligraphy, lettering and typography all use the same principles for spacing, consistency, weight and contrast to determine what is “good”, they are all distinct disciplines.
I like to think of lettering as having a bit of a split personality. On one hand, it’s a illustration of letters that come together to create a design that is intended for one configuration only. When a designer is lettering, he/she is creating art where the focus is on the whole, unique composition, rather than ensuring the individual pieces could work if thrown together in another way. For most lettering projects, if the individual alphabet characters were to be rearranged, it would most certainly look like amateur hour! On the other, it happens to be a string of letters that we read as words or phrases. A lot of what is described as being calligraphy these days is often really just lettering.
Type designers have to respond to the lowest common denominator. They have to consider an endless array of different letter combinations and design the type accordingly to ensure that no matter the layout, the individual alphabet characters will meld together beautifully when strung together to create words or phrases. Think about how the words you’re reading right now consist of the exact same letter formations, yet look seamless together. That’s from the hard work of a type designer—remember, fonts weren’t always digital files stored in folders; each letter used to be individual pieces of metal, stored in drawers in print shops and assembled as necessary!
Designing type is a very time-intensive process. Many typefaces were in the works for years before being released commercially. Often confused, but actually separate disciplines, type designers create type (manifested as those font files you can download) while graphic designers are often just using and arrange the type in their work (although some graphic designers have also created their own typefaces). “Typography” as a term refers more to the wielding of letters to form compositions, rather than to the designing of them.