13 November 2006
Steven Heller
Steven Heller

Poster by Gary Pantner

Centuries before the computer artists and artisans used a very complex tool for making letterforms - their hands. At five digits per hand it was the first digital lettering tool. Letterforms in all shapes and sizes were drawn, carved, and engraved using this tool. And even allowing for its technological quirks, the hand created of some of the most beautiful lettering ever devised. Which underscores the paradox that after centuries of progress we have both gained and lost something of value. The amazing computer has made arduous procedures unnecessary and insured increased precision yet it also atrophied certain instincts needed to create both beautiful as well as beautifully bawdy hand lettering.

For at least three years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the hand. Of course, this is not to be confused with the kind of precision drawing that master type designers honed as a wee lads and lassies, but rather it is a reaction to reflexive precisionist sensibilities that are made so easy by the computer.

Although drawing on the computer is perhaps no less complicated than on paper, the logic inherent in the new tool nevertheless eliminates the serendipitous edge that is endemic to the old one. But there are other distinctions. Typesetting is official; hand lettering is informal. Typesetting is mechanical; hand lettering is expressive. These days, just the word "expressive" connotes liberation from the confines of technology, even though it may only be an illusion.

The computer ensures tidiness and orderliness sometimes leading to blandness, the hand is currently making a comeback in profound and imaginative ways that draw on both past and present. Yet for inspiration designers need not return to medieval times. Though it does help to know the history of hand lettering and understand that it was integral to graphic design for centuries after the invention of moveable type, it does not matter today if designers reinvent the wheel since each person's hand tends to produce unique signatures.

Nonetheless historical rumination is useful to illustrate where hand lettering came from and where it is going. During the early twentieth century typographers and type designers produced precisionist lettering by hand because time, technology, and economy demanded it. When photostats were too expensive or slow, hand lettering was the cheapest and quickest way to create a custom headline for a book jacket, poster, or point-of-purchase display. Sho-Card lettering, as the practice of creating one-of-a-kind, hand drawn display was known back then, demanded of its practitioners a decidedly high degree of lettering know-how; not just copying existing traditional alphabets but devising novel and novelty scripts, gothics, and further hybrids.

To expertly hand letter in the "old days" was the same as mastering the computer programs Quark, Illustrator, or PhotoShop today. But to admire a virtuoso of this form just view lettering created in the twenties and thirties by William Addison Dwiggins for his book spines and title pages (and even his lesser book jackets), they were flawless specimens. Dwiggins' work was more formal than informal because his books were designed to stand the test of time. Yet there were other designers engaged in ad hoc writing simply as a respite from the rigor of traditional typography. It was fairly common for designers to use brush and pen-scrawls as display lettering-cum-personal signature. Paul Rand frequently used a light-line hand drawn script instead of conventional type to give advertisements the informality necessary to intimately engage the audience, and signal a casual rather than institutional sensibility. Handwriting was something of an antidote to the hard-sell gothic type conventions that prevailed in most newspaper ads. It emerged as a signature style in much of Rand's work, and his playful scrawls were ultimately used on packages for IBM computer and typewriter products as well as various book covers and annual reports.

At the same time Alex Steinweiss, the first graphic designer to create original artwork for 78rpm and later 33 1/3 LP record album covers, developed a custom alphabet called the "Steinweiss Scrawl" as a means to inject quirky character traits into his illustrative album designs. Steinweiss' curlicue script was later licensed to the American type-house Photo Lettering Inc., sold as a standard typeface, and was used by those who wanted a more colloquial sensibility in their design.

Similarly, Alvin Lustig, the modernist graphic, interior, and product designer, used handwriting on book jackets to compliment expressionistic collage and montage. Lustig sought to recreate the plasticity of a modern painters like Paul Klee and Mark Rothko in commercial art rather than conform to rigid standards, and his informal hand script contributed to this fluidity. At the same time, a prevailing fashion reigned (particularly in book jacket design) for conventional calligraphy that Rand argued was too decorous and stiff. Alternatively, he believed, handwriting was more natural and, therefore, consonant with the anti-ornamental tenets of Modernism.

By the mid-sixties hand lettering became a socio-political statement. With the advent of the American Underground Press, the clarion of the anti-war, civil rights, and sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll alternative cultures, graphic styles radically changed from precisionist to ad hoc in reaction to the real and symbolic implications of professionalism (and capitalism). Given the formal mainstream design language of the time purposefully artless hand lettering intensified the schism. Words scrawled in an untutored way with Magic Marker were used as headlines in Underground papers and on posters that critiqued the establishment's stance on war, race, and gender.

Posters produced by the 1968 French radical student design collective, Atelier Populaire, never contained real type but instead such phrases as "Fascist Vermin," "Order Begins," and "We Are the Power," violently inscribed by a designer's hand, underscored the polemic import of each message. There was also a more aesthetic side practiced in the United States by psychedelic poster artists who fashioned meticulous hand rendered lettering based on the resurrections of old Victorian wood- and Art Nouveau metal-types. Victor Moscoso, who helped mastermind psychedelic alphabets, rendered the negative spaces between letters rather than the positive letters themselves as a means to create vibrating sensations. Every detail was achieved by hand because it was necessary to maintain total control to achieve the typographic optical illusions that he invented. Moreover, there were no technologies available that could match his obsessive artistry. As a radical style Psychedelic lettering did not last long, though hand lettering continued to be popular throughout the seventies and into the early eighties.

With the introduction in the late eighties of the Macintosh as graphic design's primary tool hand lettering diminished as an overall conceit. Type designers scurried to adapt old typefaces for the new digital platforms as they experimented with bitmapped and hi-resolution concoctions, which led to a post-modern typographic style rooted in new traits such as degradation and distortion. Nonetheless, a unique phenomenon arose that married hand lettering concepts together with high-tech digitizing software. Designers in the nineties, many who never designed a typeface before, used the new programs to transform otherwise one-of-a-kind hand lettered beauties -- and monstrosities -- into downloadable font packages. The age of ersatz hand lettering began.

The most ubiquitous of all the digital hand lettering alphabets was the late Frank Heine's 1991 "Remedy" (published and distributed by Emigre Fonts). With its happy-go-lucky curlicue conceits it recalled the Steinweiss Scrawl and soon became (along with Barry Deck's Template Gothic based on handmade stencil lettering) the most emblematic font of the period. Many other hand lettered-looking fonts followed and graphic designers used these simulated hand-faces to express jocularity. The "reinvention" of the hand doubtless was in part an anti-digital reaction that inspired some designers to return to the one-of-a-kind-Sho-Card-inspired quirky hand lettering.

Ironically, the scanner and digital camera have made it easier to use hand lettering that is painterly and abstract. The computer's ability to digitize anything is phenomenal. But digitization inevitably results in mass production and mass production invariably removes the quirkiness from any letterform. How can someone claim to be eccentric when two or more other designers are using the same packaged expressionistic lettering? Arguably, one reason for today's renaissance in hand lettering is to thwart such predictability.

Hand labor offers tangible and intangible results. The hand offers serendipitous expression that speaks personally. Hand lettering enables a designer to make a distinct mark. James Victore's dirty hand is all over his posters and book jackets. Influenced by the legendary Polish poster artist, Henryk Tomaszewski, who painted his posters with words, Victore's rough-hewn graffiti rips into his paper to give the words, indeed the overall look of his work, an aggressive aura that could not be achieved through standard typefaces alone.

A less aggressive, but no less expressive method can be found in linoleum cut letters, which not only convey a distinct illustrative graphic personality, they colorfully enliven a page with vibrancy that type alone would not allow. Linocut letters do not mimic classic typefaces but follow a tradition of woodcut letters that recall the German Expressionists. And while this may be a time consuming way to make design, after spending untold hours with a key-board and mouse, as most designers do, writing or cutting by hand is decidedly cathartic.

Although a computer can be programmed to reproduce the quirks and idiosyncrasies of humans it will not automatically spit out something that has a sublime watercolor scrawl. Nor will it credibly produce the transcendent messiness of the brush marks or scratchy doodles. And it will certainly not replicate the words carved into wood or other malleable surfaces. Although a good programmer could train the computer to almost anything, why bother?

Moreover, even with all the frequent upgrades for PhotoShop and Illustrator it is still easy to discern what is hand produced from what is digitally mastered. Eventually everything goes through the computer, like food passing through the digestive tract, if only to be digitally prepared for backend printing. But in work that originates from the hand the sources of inspiration are unforeseen because they rely on mistakes, misplaced marks, and careless (or carefree) juxtapositions. As design becomes more computer-generated, as programmed special effects are increasingly integrated into the designer's vocabulary, the human factor must not be underestimated. The hand is graphic design's oldest tool - and for now it is also the best alternative to formulaic solutions.

About this article
This article was originally published in form 196 (May - June 2004).

About Steven Heller
Steven Heller, is the art director of the New York Times Book Review and the co-chair of the MFA/Design program at the SVA, New York. He is contributing editor to Print, Eye, and Baseline magazines and author of several books on graphic design, popular art, and satiric art, among which: The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?, Design Literacy, Design Literacy Continued, Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital, The Graphic Design Timeline, Design Dialogues, Typology, The Graphic Design Reader, Citizen Designer, Merz to Emigre: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century.

He is currently writing a biography of Alvin Lustig.

About form Magazine
form is one of the leading design magazines in Europe and is issued in both German and English. Renowned specialist writers report six times a year on the latest trends in industrial design, graphic design and interaction design. Since 1957, form has been been an authoritative source of information and inspiration to designers, entrepreneurs, lecturers and students alike. The internationally oriented magazine founds its reputation on thoroughly researched articles, lavish photo sequences, noteworthy interviews, a vivid layout and high print quality.