What should I read to get started making letters?

Here are some recommended books for learning lettering and type design. Some of these recommendations came from Thomas Phinney, or from the reading list for incoming students at the Masters in Typeface Design program at the University of Reading.

I’m breaking these into several sections. The sections are in a particular order. These are not necessarily the order I read these book in or the order in which I’ve learned them. I’ve ordered these sections according to how I wish I’d learned these concepts, as it seems to make sense to me now.

I will update this list as needed.

the art of using letters

It’s good to know how letterforms are going to be used before trying to design them.

  • The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
    This is like the Bible of using letters in text. If you’re going to read any book, read this. Similar in brevity and wit to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, Bringhurst’s book is considerably longer in that it covers far more and in greater depth. And yet he only says what is needed on any given point. This book could have been many volumes in the hands of a lesser author.
  • Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type
    Lupton’s book (and it’s follow up, Type on Screen) is a great primer, going over many of the points in Bringhurst’s book, but with less of the minutiae and more broad strokes, as well as more examples and specific applications.
  • Eric Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep
    Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works is akin to Thinking with Type, but in my opinion not as well rounded. Spiekermann’s book is, however, more entertaining. There’s also more here about type character and personality.
  • Jan Middendorp’s Shaping Text
    Middendorp’s book is, again, along the lines of Lupton’s and Spiekermann’s, but covers a bit more about commercial application of type use, and less history. He orders the book so that page and grid come first, then move back down to type and spacing and line. (Lupton and Spiekermann move from small to big—from letter to page.)

the art of writing letters

Writing comes before drawing. It comes back to the old addage of learning the rules before breaking them. This, in full disclosure, is not what I did. I started out drawing, and moved to drawing lettters. I always told myself calligraphy wasn’t “my thing.” I’m kind of regretting that now, and am trying to learn.

Because I’m stil learning, this list is very short. I’ll add to it as I find more resources. But for the time being, here’s what I’ve been learning from:

  • Mastering Calligraphy by Gaye Godfrey-Nicholls
    I’m still working through this tome, but so far so good!

There gets to be a fine line between calligraphy and hand lettering. When you get to a certain point, it moves clearly away from writing and into drawing. And at that point there isn’t anything that can be taught with a book apart from, “Here, try this.” Which brings me to…

Hand Lettering: 
the art of drawing letters

This section includes books that can essentially be grouped into one of two categories: work books or idea books. Typically they’ll be either tutorials (work books), which inevitably contain ideas, or they’ll be nothing but ideas. So I guess if you’re going to pick up a hand lettering book, it should be in the “work book” category.

These books are the closest thing to what I do, and yet I have consistently found them to be the least helpful. I’m not sure why, though. So take that with a grain of salt.

  • Hand Lettering Ledger by Mary Kate McDevitt
    This book is actually pretty fun. Some of the categories are a little convoluted, or just overlap other categories. But McDevitt creates a decent sructure in which to focus on various aspects of handlettering, and then give them a go.
  • Charlotte Rivers’ Handmade Type Workshop
    This book is mostly an idea book, with tutorials from numerous artists for duplicating one of their projects. It’s a good source for inspiration and experimentation.

idealized letterfroms to learn from

This section actually goes hand-in-hand with the previous two. In order to learn calligraphy and lettering you need exemplars.

Copying is the way to begin learning. Finding forms you want to learn is the first step in learning them. And really taking the time to look at something, which is inherent in the act of copying, allows you to see the forms for what they are rather than what you assume they should be. This is the hardest part of drawing anything: seeing it first.

  • Jason Carne’s Lettering Library
    This is not a book, so much as a collection of materials. Jason Carne has lovingly collected and curated a huge library of old lettering books from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. A steal at $10 per month for 4+ books per month, Jason photographs his collection and sends out the PDFs. It’s a wealth of information. If you don’t want the subscription, you can buy PDFs piecemeal.
  • American Type Founders 1923 Specimen Book
    About as comprehensive as they come for type designs up to the early twentieth century, this is a classic treasure of contemporary type designers. And now it’s available for free as a PDF!
  • Any font foundry
    Have fonts on your computer you like? Print them off and use them for practice! See a style online you enjoy? Find and purchase the font. It’s a good investment if you think it will help you get better at a style you think you’ll use.

    Just remember: copying is for learning, NOT selling as your own!
    Don’t copy someone else’s compositions, that’s plaigarism.
    Copying a font style and then drawing it in your own hand for your own compositions, however, is totally legit. So is reviving an older typeface, as long as you re-create it on your own.

Type Design: 
creating systems of letterforms

Even if you have no intention of making a font, these books teach a great deal about the intent of letterforms, the historical context of popularized letterfroms, and importantly, the best way to digitize letterforms.

  • Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design by Walter Tracy
    A classic for type designers, Tracy’s book is home to the “Tracy method” of letterspacing. This book has plenty of bedrock information on type design. It also contains unabashedly opinionatd reviews of the works of a handful of great type designers.
  • Karen Cheng’s Designing Type
    As an educator, Cheng knows what students find helpful, and this book delivers. She goes through the upper- and lowercase alphabets in both sans and serif comparing the proportions and properties of multiple typefaces for each glyph to examine what they have in common and find out what makes then work. This book is invaluable.
  • Fontographer: Type by Design by Stephen Moye
    Not just a manual for a specific piece of software, Moye’s book goes into the principles of good type design from the technical end. It is not a dry technical work either. Moye’s voice comes through with warmth, wit and dry humor. Fontographer examines not jus the “what” but also the “how” and “why” of digital type design. I use FontLab Studio 5 for type design, and this book is still practical and valuable in so many ways. I highly recommend it.

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This is of course by no means an exhaustive list. As I find more particularly useful books, I will add them. If you have any suggestions for me or books you’d like me to review, please let me know.



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