Why are letters important?

I have to admit, I try really hard to derive meaning from my work. Like most everyone, I want to make a difference in the world. Coming out of college I always used the phrase, “save the world,” like some superhero or monomaniacal do-gooder with delusions of grandeur. I have no illusions now, but I still have a desire to do something that makes a recognizable and tangible difference in the world for the better. I don’t think this is uncommon.

So what’s to stop me from volunteering to build water-purification systems in Africa, or lobby Washington for common sense gun laws, or volunteer at the local homeless shelter? Nothing I suppose—and I may do those things—but I still feel drawn to make beautiful letters. So how does crafting letterforms help make the world better?

Beautify the world

Like the Lupine Lady in Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, I want to leave the world a little more beautiful than I found it. Lettering something beautifully can do this a little bit at a time. Making whole letter systems (fonts) can do this many more times for more people. They are little things, really, but there’s no denying that well executed work brings beauty and pleasure to the world.

Inspire to action

Making beautiful letters is a good thing, but a small thing, and I can do more. Anyone honing a craft needs to practice as often as possible. And what better way to practice making beautiful letterforms than by crafting them into beautiful words. Almost by necessity I have to say something when making letterforms, so I may as well say something that motivates, gives people hope, and inspires them to action. If I’m going to be spending my time lettering, then I may as well say something worthwhile in the process. And who knows the impact that may have without my ever knowing?

Target a specific audience

Tailoring letters to a specific message or purpose means when the time arrives to say something, I can make the world a little better through targeted communication.

Drawing custom letterforms means I can say more than just the words being written. I can tell some of the story behind those words. I can draw into the letterforms the history behind the words, or the aspirations the speaker of those words has for the future. Do these words need to resonate with others in the same position? Visual storytelling through letterforms (whether the forms themselves or through illustrative lettering) can help connect the words to those with a similar story.

Or I can taylor the words to be appealing to a specific audience, so the people who need to hear them the most will stop to read them. Are these words something someone might need to hear but not want to hear? A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Dress up the wolf message in sheep’s clothing. A Trojan horse might not be pretty, but it can be effective. (Thanks for letting me bludgeon you with metaphors.)

Communicate more clearly and accurately

The world is full of unintended consequences, and while we hope that some of those are positive, there will be negative consequences too. Miscommunication happens all the time, either through poor font choice or through illegible or unreadable letterforms. Most of the time this doesn’t amount to much more than minor annoyance. But minor annoyances can add up and lead to worse things. There are times when miscommunication is more than minor annoyance:

  • Conveying medical or health information
  • Way finding in a city or airport
  • Filling out a ballot
  • Communicating cross culturally within a tense or conflict-ridden environment.

Granted, if I’m making a font then it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m choosing how it’s used. But it doesn’t hurt to make one more tool for a designer’s toolbox. Also, there are cases where fonts are tailor made for particular means of conveying information. And of course hand lettering is custom done for specific case use. So when that time arrives to make a message, I can make the world a little better through clear and accurate communication.

Give more options for less-supported scripts

We in the western (and particularly English-speaking) world have the preponderance of type options. No one has to ask the number of typefaces on MyFonts with English language support (31,031 as of this writing). People question the sanity of someone who wants to design yet another font because, well, don’t we already have enough? That point is arguable, but no one would argue while looking at MyFonts that there are too many options for Hebrew language support (912), or Greek (814), or Arabic (197 fonts for the 5th most spoken language on the planet), or Chinese (85 fonts for the no. 1 most spoken language on the planet) or Navajo (there’s not a search option for this on MyFonts, but the Navajo Nation site has 3). And there are some language systems with one or no fonts. So there is certainly an opportunity to make the world a better place for thousands of people speaking under- or unsupported languages.

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So I might still want to volunteer to clean up after a natural disaster, or even just to clean up the streets in my neighborhood, but it won’t be because my work as a letterer is pointless.




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