It seems like the word “type” is bandied about quite a bit. “Lettering” is barely a blip on the social lexicon, and when it’s used it’s often conflated with both type and calligraphy in confounding ways. This blog post is here to clear up some of the lexicon of the letter making field.
Lettering is bespoke
Right up front I’d like to define lettering:
Lettering a set of letters created for a single, unique case.
There are many, many kinds of lettering, which is why the terms can get confusing. I like to break them down into two categories: written and drawn.
Written lettering is lettering created by hand quickly based on a system of prescribed movements. This includes handwriting, penmanship, calligraphy. Written lettering is anything from a 6-yr-old’s print to a master penman’s mellifluous script. If it’s handwriting, whether casual or formal, whether for a grocery list or a marriage certificate, it’s lettering.
Now, when lettering artists or designers or creatives or the like talk about lettering, it’s assumed they aren’t talking about grocery lists. It’s all about intent. But I’ll get into that more in a bit.
Because calligraphy is included in the writing category of lettering, it is lettering. So while all calligraphy is lettering, not all lettering is calligraphy. Calligraphy is a subset. That’s where the whole lettering-calligraphy confusion happens. It’s like talking about squares and rectangles—I don’t call a square a rectangle just to avoid confusion, even though it is a rectangle. I’m simply being specific. But I would be mistaken to start talking about all rectangles in terms of squares. And I wouldn’t being doing justice to the majestic square to refer to it simply as a rectangle (because, y’know, those equal sides are pretty special).
Where was I? Oh yeah, the other category of lettering: drawn lettering.
Drawn lettering is lettering created by hand slowly according to an image in one’s mind. It’s basically any kind of lettering that is not written. (How’s that for specific?) This category includes letters that are drawn in the traditional sense, letters that are painted, sculpted, chiseled, or crafted.
Once again there ends up being confusion when we get into brush lettering. Calligraphy can be done with a brush, and “quickly” is all relative. What about sign painting? That’s often done based on a prescribed set of letters, so is it written or drawn lettering?
To that I answer: who cares? The purpose of breaking things up into categories is to be able to talk about and understand them better. Some categories overlap and blur boundaries. And that’s okay. As long as we can understand what we’re talking about, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately it comes down to intent. Why are we drawing lines and putting things into boxes? What are we trying to understand about the thing, and why? As long as the end goal, the understanding, is reached, then it doesn’t matter what box we put it in.
This brings me to my next point, which is intent. And this is big.
Lettering is not tool dependent, it’s purpose dependent. Lettering at its most basic is just making letters. It doesn’t matter how the letters are made. When I think of hand lettering I think of pencil on paper. But lettering can just as easily be made point by point digitally, or chiseled into stone, or built out of plastic, or cut out of metal, or carved from wood, or formed out of light projected on a surface, or landscaped into the terrain. It doesn’t matter how it’s made. It’s lettering if it’s made once to solve a specific problem.
This is the huge advantage of lettering: it fits any purpose. It is tailor made to solve a particular problem, to communicate a particular message, to speak to a particular audience.
This same advantage can also be a drawback. Lettering can be too specific. It is more often than not a polygonal peg that won’t fit into any other hole. It’s a suit that fits one person perfectly, but would be completely inappropriate for someone else. This is where type comes in.
Type is replicable
The very thing that makes lettering limited is what makes type powerful (and vice versa). This is a great place to define type:
Type is a set of letters created from a system of glyphs for multiple uses.
The biggest difference (and really the only difference) between type and lettering is that type is from a multi-use system, and whose constituent parts can form different arrangements.
Notice I don’t say that type is the system. The system used to create type is a font. Fonts produce type. This is also super confusing, because we talk about type design as the art of creating type, when it’s closer to the art of creating typefaces or fonts. The fonts are the systems type designers build, and the fonts produce the replicable letters, the type. So to say “type design” is accurate, because type designers design the letterforms in a systematic way so as to be used for multiple purposes. But it’s easy to see why “type” and “font” get thrown around interchangeably so often.
(Side note: Typography is the art of arranging type, or in other words, the art of using fonts.)
I like to think of it this way: Letters printed with metal slugs are type. The set of metal slugs themselves are a font. All of the different sizes of the metal slugs with the same flavor of design are the typeface.
Here’s an example: Helvetica the typeface would include multiple sets of metal slugs containing the same letters but at different sizes, weights, widths, and slants. Each set of metal slugs with the whole set of characters is a font. So the set of metal slugs with 12 point Helvetica Regular is one font, and the set of slugs with 36 point Helvetica Regular is another font, but both sets are the same typeface.
Taking this example into another medium, digital type, there is a single digital file containing Helvetica Regular, but it can be output at any size. So in this case all possible sizes of Helvetica Regular are one font, because they are all contained in one file.
No matter what, though, if the letters produced are part of a system that rearrange and repurpose the parts, then it’s type.
Type starts with lettering
Like lettering, type is not tool dependent, it’s purpose dependent.
The main reason why lettering and type (and fonts) get conflated is because type starts with lettering. Every system of letterforms first has to be designed. Before it’s a system, it’s just a bunch of letters.
The earliest typefaces were modeled on lettering, or rather, on writing. This makes perfect sense, given that before movable type* books were all copied by hand by scribes using formal handwriting. (I doubt “handwriting” as a term even existed pre-Gutenberg, as it would have been totally redundant.)
Gutenberg’s type was based on blackletter popular in Germany at the time. Later, in Venice, Aldus Manutius created the first italic type, which was based on the Chancery hand popular in Italy then.
Then, as now, type starts with lettering. Even very contemporary, cutting edge designs today have to start with singular letterform ideas, most likely on paper. I can think of extreme edge cases where the letterforms are designed directly in a font editing program from the start. But by and large, letterforms intended for type begin as lettering. It may be lettering on paper that is intended from the outset to be a type system, or it may be digital type that began as lettering but was later repurposed as a type system. Regardless, lettering is what gives shape to type.
Because almost any lettering can be made into a font (albeit perhaps a really bad font, bit still…), it is easy to see why lettering and type so often get confused. It is so often possible to make fonts that replicate hand lettering it is often assumed hand lettering was produced using a font. Fonts are lettering chameleons, and there are almost as many kinds of type as there are kinds of lettering.
There have been multiple attempts over the years to categorize type (and by extension lettering—thanks, type nerds!). The most widely accepted method is the Vox-ATypI classification. While this is unabashedly western, to be fair, the west is where modern type developed, so it was categorized first. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that we type nerds still need to work on categorizing non-Latin scripts in a way that recognizes their history, methodology, and character to the same degree as western typefaces.
The taxonomy of letterforms goes as deep as desired. It is like classifying art: things can get really detailed (and really fuzzy) really fast. But again, the point isn’t to make sure everything fits into a nice box. The point is to wrap my head around it as much as I need to so I can understand what I’m talking about with someone else in the context of a particular problem.
So the next time someone calls my lettering a font, I have to ask myself, “Does this person want to purchase a license to use these letters in a new arrangement in a different context?” If not, I’ll just smile and nod.
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*Movable type? There it is again, that overlap of type and font! This kind of use is well established and accepted, because everyone understands what’s being talked about, so it doesn’t really matter. But eventually in other use cases it can create confusion. Rectangle!