Tracing the line

Hand-lettering has become increasingly popular in recent years as companies look for ways to move beyond the impersonality and repetition of set fonts. Anna Richardson reports on the rediscovery of calligraphy

When was the last time you received a beautifully crafted, handwritten letter, or practised writing your name again and again? With the rise of computers, the everyday joy of handwriting has become somewhat obsolete – a US school last week even replaced handwriting with ‘keyboarding’ lessons.

However, hand-lettering has proved increasingly popular in the commercial realm – from informal, hand-rendered typography on book covers and in advertising, often used to convey a more personalised message, to the beauty of meticulous and inventive formal calligraphy.

Clients tend to love the idea of hand-lettering, says lettering artist Alison Carmichael, who has worked for the likes of Stella Artois, Land Rover, ITV and Virgin Atlantic. ‘They seem to find it refreshing and interesting and are usually amazed by the wealth of flexibility it can give,’ she says. ‘Perhaps they are bored with the perfection and duplication of pure computer graphics and recognise that there is a lot to be said for the charm and individuality that working with something handcrafted can bring.’

US lettering artist Jill Bell agrees that hand-rendered type can make a project feel more personal, ‘more classy and elegant; it makes lettering proprietary and ownable’, which is ideal for branding projects, for example.

Many illustrators have no training in calligraphy and there is a certain cartoon amateurishness to a lot of the hand-lettering used, buttraditional calligraphy offers additional possibilities. Calligrapher Natasha Mileshina, who studied typography, font construction and calligraphy at Moscow State University, says, ‘You start the traditional way, with precise swashing and alignment, hours of monotone beauty, and then you get bored and start experimenting with new materials, tools and techniques.’

Calligrapher Denise Lach, who teaches at the Basel School for Design in Switzerland, encourages her students to study letterforms through playful experimentation and believes it is as vital to the layman as it is to the designer to dabble in handwriting and calligraphy.

Her new book, Calligraphy: A Book of Contemporary Inspiration, published by Thames & Hudson, urges readers to look beyond legibility and use letterforms as building blocks to interpret natural motifs.

‘The creative design potential of calligraphy and lettering is almost limitless,’ says Lach. ‘Even a blot or mistake can become a design element, as long as you let it. Of course, calligraphy is a technique that you can learn, but to develop lettering further has to do with the personal access to creativity.’

Combining a graphic design skill set and expertise in calligraphy is rare, believes Kuwaiti graphic designer Farah Behbehani. She started learning about Arabic calligraphy for her thesis at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, in which she interpreted poems of the classic text The Conference of the Birds by Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar.

Behbehani studied under renowned calligrapher Khaled al-Saai, her thesis was published last summer and today most of her work involves calligraphy. ‘I use traditional forms of calligraphy, but the part of my work that draws people is when the calligraphy is taken beyond what it’s usually used for,’ she says.

She believes that Arabic calligraphy can add invaluable possibilities to a project. ‘[When you learn about calligraphy], you realise that the standard forms that are available on a computer are nothing compared to the possibilities that can be produced by hand,’ she says. ‘You can write a word in a hundred different ways in Arabic calligraphy, whereas a font is very restrictive.’

‘The possibilities of lettering are endless,’ agrees Lach, who also stresses that lettering shouldn’t be confined to pen and paper, rather the computer and the importance of handwriting are not mutually exclusive. ‘It’s entirely compatible and you can even use the computer as a tool. We can go so much further; write with light, or water or paper, inspired by the environment.’

French type consultancy Chevalvert used light calligraphy projected on to the walls of Paris buildings for the Langues en Fetes festival earlier this year, while Carmichael has worked on pop videos, window displays, exhibitions and fashion design and ‘would love to get involved in more animation and film titles’.

With so many creative possibilities it’s a shame that the importance of handwriting is increasingly neglected at schools and design colleges – it might be time to dig up those exercise books, dip nib in ink and get practising once more.

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