The differences between hand-lettering, calligraphy, and typography
Have you ever wondered what exactly hand lettering is? Or what makes it different from other terms you’ve heard, like calligraphy or typography? I can’t count the number of times I’ve told someone that I am a hand-lettering artist and have gotten a response along the lines of “Oh, so like calligraphy, right?” Usually I try to explain a little more about what hand lettering is, and how it’s different from calligraphy, but… I get it. To those outside of this world, it can be pretty confusing.
So let’s start to clear things up by giving each of these terms a definition.
- Hand lettering: The drawing or illustrating of letters by hand
- Calligraphy: Writing letters as an art form, usually with a pressure-sensitive writing utensil; decorative handwriting
- Typography: The art of arranging and organizing type so the copy is legible and appealing to the reader. (Think the usage of fonts on a computer!)
Now let’s dive into each with a little more detail!
Hand lettering, as mentioned above, is all about drawing letters. You can think of it as illustrations, and the illustrations always happen to be letters, words, and phrases.
What makes hand lettering so fun is there is no end to the choices of mediums. You can use anything from a pencil and a piece of paper to an iPad and Apple Pencil (my go-to!) to paint and paintbrushes.
Hand-lettering is incredibly accessible to beginners because of its flexibility, and it really allows for your personal style to shine through. Plus, it allows you to erase, edit, change the composition, add texture, or experiment with color. The options are limitless!
Calligraphy, on the other hand, is a bit more of a structured artform. It describes actually writing letters, as opposed to drawing them. Calligraphy usually uses writing utensils such as a brush or pen that creates thin upstrokes and thick downstrokes. This is because as you move your pen up, your hand naturally exerts less pressure, while when you move your pen down your hand exerts more pressure, creating a thicker stroke.
Even though calligraphy is a little more structured, there are still different styles. We’ll take a look at traditional and modern calligraphy.
Traditional calligraphy goes back thousands of years and can also be broken into many different types that have originated from around the world. These include Western calligraphy, Eastern calligraphy, and Arabic calligraphy.
Modern calligraphy is probably what you are more familiar with seeing. This modern style is often done with a brush pen (also referred to as brush lettering). It tends to be a more fun style and looks like cursive except with more pronounced thin upstrokes and thick downstrokes.
“Faux calligraphy” has also become popular and looks very similar. This happens when the letters are written with a monoline stroke and the artist goes back in after to draw over the downstrokes to make them thicker.
Let’s wrap it up with talking about typography. This is probably the most confusing term because its definition is a little more vague. While typography often is a term used interchangeably to describe hand lettering or calligraphy, its true meaning revolves around fonts. It deals with copy being legible and readable for its reader while also being aesthetically pleasing.
So at its core, it refers to how text and display fonts are displayed, as well as how it is created. A font may start from a type designer using hand lettering or calligraphy to create each letter before bringing it on the computer to tweak it digitally until it's ready to be a font.
Typography also incorporates the effective usage of fonts and typefaces. These terms are also used interchangeably but they have a key difference.
- Typeface: A family of fonts including different weights or italics.
- Font: A single set of type from a typeface family.
So, for instance, below is the typeface Mrs. Eaves. Each variation of Mrs. Eaves listed is an individual font that makes up the typeface.
Wrapping it all up
I hope these brief definitions brought some clarity on the uniqueness of each of these terms and how they all relate to each other. I find it to be such a fascinating world, and this is truly just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been a hand lettering artist and graphic designer for years now, and I know I often used these words incorrectly when I first started out. But that’s okay! And I never get after others for using these terms in the wrong context, but I love to learn, and I hope maybe you learned something from reading this today! ✨