Hand Lettering is making a huge comeback. It’s replacing the cold, digital world of type that many of us are used to. It’s an unapologetically imperfect art form that is currently taking over the graphic design world. Logos, packaging, book covers and advertisements are benefiting from whimsical charm of hand lettering.
Lets talk about the history of hand lettering. I’m not going to go too far back; we don’t have to talk about ancient scribes from the middle ages and the art of calligraphy. That’s a separate lesson for another day. The “history” I’m talking about is relatively modern, exceptionally impressive, and was very close to being a lost art. I’m talking about sign painting.
SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from samuel j macon on Vimeo.
Sign painting became popular after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The increase in literacy rates lead to an increase in signage. Itinerant artists traveled across Europe painting signs for pubs and taverns.
Sign painting was affected by capitalist industrialism in Europe and North America, and by the 19th and 20th century it was everywhere: big, bold and bright. People started integrating it directly onto buildings themselves. Sign paintings transformed cityscapes into typographical canvases, and I can’t help but imagine it must have looked magical.
This art form was nearly abandoned with the invention of vinyl signs created on computers and cut by plotters. Computer software programs can generate pixel perfect signage in a fraction of time that was required of even the most skilled artists. This has significantly reduced the cost of signage and largely reduced the need for sign painters.
Thankfully, in the 60s, there was a sudden surge in the general public’s interest in type. From the psychedelically misshapen letters of the 60s and 70s to the ripped and cut grunge letters of the 80s, by the 90s people were seeing type as more than just letters. They were seeing individual characters for what they were- tiny illustrations, each with their own unique style and personality that could only be properly captured by the hand of a person, not by the pixels of a computer. And thus, hand lettering began its long and powerful comeback.
After two decades of growing popularity, hand lettering has positively taken over my life and yours, whether you realize it or not. PrintMag summed it up nicely when they said “The beauty of is its flexibility and adaptability. It can be found in so many forms and so many different types of media that it appeals to almost every audience. From whimsical to elegant, and old school to new school—there is inspiration out there for everyone.”
Here are some of the people who make hand lettering great:
Theres the people who we all know..
Mary Kate McDevott
And then theres the lesser known but still incredible hand letterers who have influenced me.
But lets bring this full circle. Sign painters didn’t just pave the way for hand lettering graphic designers. They also paved the way for modern sign painters, muralists, graffiti artists, street artists, or whatever else you want to call them. This takes shape beautifully in the mural arts program's A Love Letter For You
Here’s a quick blurb from mural arts’ website:
One of the most (if not the most) popular projects in our history is Steve Powers' A Love Letter For You. Composed of a series of 50 rooftop murals from 45th to 63rd Streets along the Market Street corridor, the murals collectively express a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their neighborhood of West Philadelphia. The murals are best viewed from the Market/Frankford El.
Powers, a West Philadelphia native now based in New York, is a former graffiti writer who became an established studio artist, illustrator, and Fulbright scholar. In Powers’ own words, Love Letter is “a letter for one, with meaning for all” and speaks to all residents who have loved and for those who long for a way to express that love to the world around them. He considers the project “my chance to put something on these rooftops that people would care about”