DIY Lettering

As a graphic designer, I spend much of my time setting type, choosing fonts, and working with letterforms. But the artist in me is always looking for ways to customize and craft these pre-designed glyphs into something unique.

There are all kinds of tricks out there to do just that… applying layer effects in Photoshop, adding texture, roughing it up with various filters and masks, warping the shape of the text, and so on and so forth. But even with all of these tools and methods to digitally transform type, there is nothing that can truly rival the art of hand-lettered text. The skill of hand-lettering dates back to times B.C., and only in our modern era through the advent of computers and digital technology has it become a sort of "lost art." Lettering is seeing a new renaissance, however, in the last few years, as more and more designers are opting to include analog methods in their work. The new method is typically a hybrid approach, starting with traditional media like ink, pencil, and paper, and then finishing up on the computer, using familiar apps to vectorize, add color and detail. Check out some brilliant examples of this here and here.

I recently had the opportunity to apply this approach to a project for a client's Christmas event. To give it the feel of warmth and home that it needed, I decided that picking a font or using some other form of type manipulation would not do it justice. I first sat down with my sketchbook and began drawing the letters and words together into various arrangements. I wanted a flowing script look, so I ended up with this sketch after several attempts.


At this point, other designers (who are better than me) would probably redraw this arrangement multiple times until they got one that was just right. But to save time, I went ahead and scanned in my sketch, then manipulated the shape and angle of the grouping and boosted the contrast in Photoshop.


From there I placed it into Illustrator to begin the vectorization process. Normally, I would trace the letterforms with the pen tool, resulting in nice smooth curves and lines… but I didn't want such a clean-cut look for this, since the original goal was to keep it looking hand-crafted. So to that end, I used the built-in live trace feature as a starting point, then painstakingly went over every line and curve with the oft-overlooked pencil tool to both smooth out and roughen up the paths. As you can see in this screenshot, it's vitally important to set up a number of guidelines to keep your letters at the appropriate angles and on the same baseline.


For the inner decorative lines, I simply drew a path down each letter stem with the pencil tool (again, so as to avoid perfectly straight lines) and applied a default stroke width profile (number 3) for the tapered ends.

From there, it was just a matter of applying the right colors and adding the type into the overall design. Not a real comprehensive step-by-step as far as the process goes, but hopefully an interesting behind-the-scenes look, nonetheless. Here are the finished pieces: main graphic, poster, and event tickets (gold border courtesy of the talented Juliet Towner)