There are lots of terms in the lettering world that relate to how letters/words are created, styled and composed, so many terms in fact that it can start to get pretty confusing, especially for a beginner!
This post aims to share with you an easy way to separate these terms in your head, terms like lettering vs. hand-lettering vs. calligraphy vs. typography, etc.
Knowing the difference in these terms will help you seek out resources pertaining to a specific area of lettering you want to study. (Plus, just “speaking the lingo” will help you start talking like a pro letterer!)
Defining Basic Lettering Terms
Lettering is the art of drawing letters where each letter acts as its own mini illustration. Rather than simply writing letters in a print or cursive style with a continuous stroke, the thing that sets “lettering” apart is the individual attention paid to each letter and its role within a composition.
Lettering is the umbrella term often used to talk about anything that involves drawing letters versus writing letters. Lettering can be created by hand on a non-digital medium, by hand with a stylus in a digital program OR with the click of a mouse to create vector curves by a digital program like Illustrator.
Hand-Lettering is a more specific subset of lettering that refers to the art of drawing letters specifically by hand and not creating them in a digital program like Illustrator.
Calligraphy is the art of writing letters and is related to the idea of penmanship. It traditionally uses specific tools like a nib and ink, and it is marked by a variation in width for the upstrokes and downstrokes of each letter (which is what separates it a bit from cursive writing.) Calligraphy is more likely than lettering to be used in longer written pieces.
Typography is a repeated system of letters. It’s the style and appearance of a printed material or the art of arranging type. It’s not a specific style of writing or creating letters and words, but more the arrangement of how those letters appear together in a system. Sources differ a bit on whether “typography” is considered under the larger “lettering” umbrella, but if you’re utilizing a font or typeface that can be repeated, it’s safe to use the term “typography.”
A caveat: It is actually possible to create an “illustrated typeface” or a “hand-lettered font” which begins with a hand-lettered alphabet that is then turned into a font file which creates the repeatable system. That’s why you see a lot of popular fonts now that look hand-lettered (they likely originally were created by hand) but once they are used in a repeatable, type-able fashion, they slide more squarely into this typography category.
Typeface vs. Font
You might be wondering what the difference is between a font and a typeface. Most people use these terms interchangeably, but if you’re interested in the very slight nuance, here’s a great definition from Fontshop:
“A collection of letters, numbers, punctuation, and other symbols used to set text (or related) matter. Although font and typeface are often used interchangeably, font refers to the physical embodiment (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) while typeface refers to the design (the way it looks). A font is what you use, and a typeface is what you see.”
For a really in-depth history lesson on how these different art forms began and developed as time went on, check out Joseph Allessio’s Understanding The Difference Between Type And Lettering.
In A Nutshell
I saw all of this distilled into one pretty easy to remember distinction over on Ian Barnard’s Instagram account which I think is worth sharing here for those of you that just want the nutshell version:
“Lettering is the art of drawing letters; Calligraphy is the art of writing letters; Typography is the art of using letters.” Definitions by @ianbarnard and @inch_x_inch
You’re looking at a group of letters but don’t know which category they fall into? Try this test:
Question 1: Is each letter unique and unrepeatable?
If you’re trying to determine if a piece is considered typography or hand-lettering, try putting the letters in a different order and see if they still look good and orderly like they belong together. If it doesn’t make a difference what order the letters are in and the lettering still looks good all together, it’s likely typography. If it looks all mismatched and less cohesive after you mix up the order of letters and words, it’s more likely a hand-lettering piece of art. I also will look for a letter that is used more than once and see if the “L” for example in one part of the piece is identical to the “L” used in another part of the piece. If they’re identical, it’s typography; if they’re different, it’s likely hand-lettering.
“...in a lot of lettering, if you rearrange the letters it would look pretty crappy - it’s meant to be seen and used in that configuration and that configuration only.” - Jessica Hische
Question 2: Is each letter its own individual drawing?
If you’ve already determined your system is not repeatable (and therefore, not a typeface) but are still unsure if it’s hand-lettering or calligraphy, try identifying the complexity of each letter. Does it look more like a long continuous stroke in each word or do the letters each look like they have multiple strokes with varying weights and details to their form? If the letters each look like they have a variation to their form, it’s hand-lettering. If it looks like a continuous flow of writing, it’s more likely calligraphy.
Question 3: Was it originally drawn by a person’s hand?
If you know the source of the final piece -- if there’s an accompanying sketch for example -- well then that makes the whole thing a heck of a lot easier! That’s hand-lettering!
What makes hand-lettering so awesome among all these options?
While this site serves to bring you resources and quality information across these varying subsets of lettering, there’s a reason the focus is on hand-lettering. It’s simply my favorite!
Here are a few reasons that hand-lettering stands out to me specifically among this list:
1. Hand lettering is where the meaning of words meets the beauty of art.
When you see inspirational quotes or words that resonate with you, and then you’re able to add art to that in a visual way that makes you feel something, it’s like a double whammy because you get the meaning of the words with the beauty of the art.
2. In the art of hand lettering, imperfection is celebrated!
If you’re creating lettering within a digital program, everything is very precise and perfect. In hand-lettering, however, you’re able to experience more freedom and surprise as you put your pen to paper with a more tactile approach. Those marks of imperfection, mistakes and humanity are what make me feel connected to letters and to the person that created them.
3. Style points are everything in the world of lettering.
You know how in some Olympic events you have a technical score and a style score? Hand-lettering is ALL style points. Some hand-lettering is very precise and technically sound, but the beauty is that you don’t have to do it that way. Part of the fun is adding your own flair to it and developing a style that feels completely your own. It’s an art form with a million different ways to draw letters, and it’s unique to whatever comes out of your hand.
Understanding the difference between different lettering art forms will help you learn more specifically in the direction you want to go with your lettering. Sometimes calligraphy resources are helpful for hand-lettering, but most hand-lettering resources are not very helpful for aspiring calligraphers. Some typography books are great to study letter forms but won’t teach you about brush lettering.
Now that you have the basic terms down and the differences between them, you can study, talk about and recognize lettering in all its beautifully different art forms!