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Listening for Lettering – Society of Fonts

Listening for Lettering

Listening is hugely important for not only life, but also for lettering. Now, I want to note that while I’m talking about listening, I’m going to mix up the senses a bit. This is not just listening in the auditory sense. I’m talking about experiencing, observing, using all the senses. So when I say “listening,” I mean “taking in.”

Also, when I say “I,” it’s because I can only speak out of my own experience. But I also know that many other people share this experience and do the same. So while I won’t pretend to know everything or represent every human, there’s still a good chance my experiences will still apply. Okay, disclaimer done.

Listen without judging.

Judging is assuming I know the value of what I’m hearing before actually listening. I’m the kind of person who wants to put use to what I hear. If I don’t see a use for something, or don’t agree with the premise, I tend to discount it. This leads me to naturally judge the source I’m listening to. If I’m being judgemental, then I can’t really listen. I will end up discounting the source as uncredible or useless, and that makes it more difficult to listen in the future.

For instance, if my son is constantly talking about the Star Wars universe, and I don’t have much use for all the varied names and trivia, my mind will quickly discard this information, because I don’t want to take the mental energy to make room for it in my head if I’m not going to use it. It gets to the point where, without thinking about it, I have judged my son as a source of trivial information. I no longer listen to him with the full attention he deserves.

I need to listen to my son with new ears each time, because something he says may be important. If not to me, than to him. And because he himself is important to me, then I need to know what is important to him, even if it’s not something I’m interested in. I need to listen to him without judging.

How does this relate to lettering?
Consider the words. If I’m going to letter something, I need to know what it means. Sometimes I can judge what I’m writing before I letter it. I assume I know the value of what I’m lettering before I letter it. I assume I know what it means before truly considering the words in all their depth. Judging the words means I can miss an oportunity for fully nuanced interpretation.

Say I’m lettering “Love wins!” I might immediately think of these words in the context of marriage equality. Maybe that means I interpret them with some trope like rainbow letters. While the rainbow is great shorthand for marriage equality, I have prejudged the message. For whom am I lettering this?

If I don’t prejudge the words I may find that this is for a person who has overcome AIDS because of the loving commitment of their partner. Perhaps listening to the story a bit better means that I may interpret the words less politically and more personally. Perhaps a more nuanced approach would be to interpret the letters as ribbon forms in red. Red for love and life and vitality, but also red ribbons for the AIDS movement. It ties in a whole other dimension to the phrase.

Consider the forms. The one thing I can never judge when lettering is the form. I may have a certain context for a letterform, but someone else may have a different context. Additionally, it never hurts to have too many tools at my disposal. I may not like a certain letterform, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never have occasion to use it. (And tastes change.)

So what if I think Helvetica is overused? Should I never need to use a midcentury Swiss grotesk? What if I want to parody? What if it fits the flavor of something I need to letter? It’s like the old saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Listen without needing to take action.

Part of the root of listening without judging lies in my need to take action on the information. If I don’t intend to act on Star Wars trivia, then I’m going to judge it. What I need to do is be open.

Being able to listen without the need to act helps me to:

  • Distance myself emotionally from the information
  • Take it in without judging it
  • Be fully present with the information

How does this relate to lettering?
If I’m lettering someting in particular, and have a lettering style in mind, I’m going to be focused on that style. In focusing on one style I’m narrowing my field of view. I turn on a filter, and disregard everything that doesn’t seem useful to my current project. If I pre-judge that I’m not going to use a certain letterfrom, I won’t pay attention to it. But this is doing me a disservice.

If I can take in more information, including seemingly unrelated information, it gives my brain the chance to cross-pollinate. It gives me more opportunities to have creative flashes of inspiration.

If I can look at every letterform I see with fresh eyes, but without the burden of feeling like I have to act on what I’m seeing, it allows me to take in more sources of inspiration. If I don’t feel the need to act on the information I’m taking in (in this case, noticing other letterforms), then it frees me not to worry about sensory overload. I can just take it in and let it be what it is.

Say I’m drawing decorative dimensional letters from the late 19th century. I might be on high alert for those kinds of forms. And that’s great. But say I’m looing around and notice a 2017 chamber of commerce member plaque in the coffee shop I’m working in. The letters on there aren’t what I’m looking to draw. But I’m I’m open to seeing them, later on I might realize that the way the joint on the upper right side of the 7 is formed lends itself really well to the dimensional effect I’m trying to acheive on an uppercase E. Had I not been open to seeing things I might not use, I never would have gained a helpful insight.

Be aware of the information.

I need to let the information in without letting it just flow out again. I need to be present and aware of what I’m listening to. The practice of listening without the need to take action can be freeing, but it rides the line between seeing everything and seeing nothing.

There is a difference between seeing something and being aware of what I’m seeing. I can hear to my son talk about Star Wars trivia and allow the information to wash over me, knowing I don’t have to take action. However, if I hear with the intent of never taking action, then I might not really listen. I have to be aware of what I’m hearing.

How does this relate to lettering?
I can’t just see letters and then forget them. The important part is taking note of what I see. There is freedom in knowing I don’t have to act on what I’m taking in, but I still have to do the work of being aware.

I’ve subscribed to Jason Carne’s Lettering Library since it’s inception. It’s a phenomenal resource of old lettering books. It’s also a lot to take in. Each month I get four (or sometimes more) PDFs of photographed books from Jason’s collection. Ach of these volumes has dozens, hundreds, or thousands of varied lettering samples and styles. It’s easy to look through them and gawk, as if I were scrolling through my Instagram feed. The pretty letters go in my eyes and out my brain.

What I have to do is set aside a specific amount of time to really take in what I’m seeing. I’ll look slowly, and I’ll note if there are things that catch my eye. I tag the files in Finder with color codes for different styles or ideas.

As I write this I realize a better approach would be to copy certain letterforms in my notebook, not because I need to use them, but because I want to really take note. The point is to make sure I’m not just wasting my time with eye candy. I have to make sure I’m aware of what I’m taking in for it to be of any use later on.

Be self aware while listening.

Not only do I need to be aware of what I’m listening to, I also need to be aware of myself in how I’m listening. Am I judging? Am I looking to take action on the information? Am I present with the information? This is pretty meta, yes. But it’s important to be intentional.

How does this relate to lettering?
Essentially, this is about process. If I can be aware of what I’m doing and the outcome it producess, then I can recognize a process and improve on it. Of course, to be fully aware of it, I should document it. I can write my process down.

Once my process is written, I can try following it. Then I can note what parts of the process are helpful or unhelpful, complete or incomplete. Then I can change the process as necessary. If I iterate on this, then it helps refine my process and improves how I work.

Listening helps develop my voice.

When I’m open to listening, I take in varied sources of information without judging and without needing to take action, I’m aware of what I’m taking in, and I’ve examined how I use it, it’s time to put it all together. I can now listen—that is, take in new information—and when I reproduce the information I can apply my take. I can use my listening skills, apply past information to it, run it through my process, refine it. Now it will come out with a sense of having come specifically from me. It will be “me flavored.” This is how I develop a style.

This, in turn, becomes useful to other people. Others can learn from my perspective. Then the cycle can start again. And it makes the world a varied, beautiful, and better place.


This is a lot to take in, so I’ll recap:

  • Listen without judging.
    Don’t assume I know the value of what I take in.
    Consider what I take in.
  • Listen without needing to take action.
    Take the pressure off by taking things in without an agenda.
    More input means more opportunities for inspiration.
  • Be aware of the information.
    Not needing to take action doen’t mean intending not to take action.
    Take note of what I take in. Be present with it and aware of it.
  • Be self aware while listening.
    If I’m aware of what I’m doing and the outcome it produces, I can make a process and improve on it.
  • Listening helps develop my voice.
    Taking in information intentionally and critically gives me fuel for originality.

It’s a difficult practice, listening this intentionally. And I won’t pretend to be a master at it (or even particularly good at it). But working on my listening is always fruitful, and worth the work.






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