Help! My Work Was Shared Without Credit!

When I first started hand lettering, I knew very little about sharing my work online. A little while into my lettering practice, I drew up a Dumbledore quote, inside the shape of a lightbulb. I was proud of this drawing, so I shared in on Instagram and my blog at the time, and then pinned the image from my blog on Pinterest. That pin has now been repinned over 2,500 times, and I’ve seen other pins of the image with several hundred repins as well. I made a rookie mistake, though. I didn’t include any kind of watermark or credit on the image itself, as it never occurred to me that someone repinning the pin might not keep the source link. If you see this image on Pinterest now, it can be difficult to figure out that it belongs to me.  

A few months ago, a good friend of mine texted me to let me know a friend of a friend had posted my drawing! The only problem, of course, was that my name or username was nowhere on the post. I wasn’t really sure what to do. Do I slyly comment on the image, giving myself credit for the drawing? Ask my friend to do it? Call the person out and shame them for not giving credit? Do I just let it go?

If you have to deal with a similar situation, my number one piece of advice is: don’t do nothing - it’s your artwork, you deserve to be credited, and it’s a great chance to make some new connections! I’ve actually run into this issue with that drawing multiple times since then. And I’ve found that it always, always pays to be friendly.

Attribution vs. Theft

There is an important distinction to make here - this person was not taking credit for my work, claiming to have come up with the concept or drawn it. This is an issue of attribution, just someone reposting something they liked and forgot to credit or weren’t able to find credit for. The other, someone trying to claim credit as the artist, is totally sketchy and might warrant less friendly action.

Don’t Get Aggressive

When there’s no attribution, you need to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Often attribution gets removed long before this person posted your work - they’re likely not intentionally snubbing you. Locating the original artist is a large enough obstacle that many people don’t even try and just post without attribution.

You can’t expect that someone wanting to post a pretty image of song lyrics or a quote they like on Instagram would realistically spend more than a couple of clicks (if that) trying to figure out who the artist is. As an artist you might, as you are overly sensitive to this topic, but the average user is not.

Be Friendly

If a friend lets me know they saw my work somewhere with no attribution, I always ask if they feel comfortable commenting with something like “Hey, my friend @ambrgarnr drew this! So cool to see it here!” It’s the most natural way to have credit given - someone with a connection to the post addressing the issue (and, it's reflective of what actually happened!). Then you can come in and reply, since you’re now tagged in the comment, thanking the person for sharing your work. It all looks like an awesome coincidence (and it was!), and you get your work attributed, ninja-style.

If they’re not comfortable posting, I go ahead and comment. I approach it as if I just stumbled upon the post - you don’t want the person to get defensive and think someone sicced you on them!

My friendly comments are along the lines of “Woah, so awesome to stumble upon my work on Instagram! Thanks for sharing!” or “My artwork, spotted in the wild! Thanks for reposting!”. The response has been 100% positive. Sometimes the person will apologize and say they’d have given credit if they’d known, or they’ll reply saying they’re so happy they finally know who drew it.

It’s a win win win - no one aggressively attacks the poster for stealing work, you get credit for your work, and you build new connections.

Don’t Publicly Shame

You’ve seen it before - a person feels wronged by someone, posts a screenshot of the wrongdoing on their own account, and puts the other user on blast.

Have you ever seen this actually go well for the shamer? Sure, their merry band of followers might go and harass the wrongdoer until they comply, but there’s always some backlash. Does the shamer retain the same reputation and level of respect they once had? No. Their devoted fans will remain, but many of their more passive followers will be put off - especially if it turns out that it was all a misunderstanding and they overreacted. Shaming should never be your go-to reaction. If you want to get frustration at the situation off your chest, talk to your friends. If you post something like that online, at best you look pouty or catty, and at worst, you look aggressive and self-righteous - especially if you have thousands of followers. 

Learn From It

If you find your work is being posted without attribution regularly, particularly from a pin that's been stripped of your credit, there's not much you can do for now. But you can protect your work for the future!

Make sure your images always have some kind of credit on the image itself. My friend Jenn at Hello Brio has a super easy tutorial for adding a subtle, tasteful watermark to your images. This doesn't guarantee that someone won't crop it out later, but it adds some additional protection to ensure you get credit for your work.

When you're sharing an image of your work and link back to it on your own site, make sure it's to a URL that's here to stay. Both the Etsy listing and the blog I linked to on my original pins are now defunct, so even if they were still on the pin they'd be pretty useless for leading people to information about crediting me properly.

Have you ever found your work posted anywhere without attribution? How did you handle it?

 

LifestyleAmber Comments
Lettering Layouts: A Guide to Hierarchy & Composition

If a lettering piece is a house, the composition is the blueprint. And a house is only as good as its blueprint.When you walk through a house, you don’t think about where studs and supports are, but you'll notice if a wall or a doorway interrupts the flow of the house. The average person doesn’t consider what decisions went into your design. They see your final lettering piece and notice if something is off, even if they can’t pinpoint what it is.

If your piece is unbalanced, spaced inconsistently, or your styles aren't cohesive, the piece won't flow properly and a viewers’ eyes will get stuck or sent in the wrong direction. It’s your job to understand the concepts of strong composition and execute them in interesting ways.

Learning About Design Composition

These are the most important concepts in any composition:

  • Emphasis (having some elements dominate while others support)

  • Balance (the distribution of the visual weight of each part of your piece)

  • Repetition (repeated use of styles, sizes, weights, or color)

  • Harmony (commonalities between the style, size, weight, or color elements)

  • Contrast (differences between the style, size, weight, or color of elements)

  • Negative space (the open areas around and between elements)

There are many more topics and terms when it comes to design composition, and grasping these concepts takes time. If you want to learn more about the basics of design composition, I suggest Graphic Design: The New Basics and Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practice of Graphic Design. Both of these books provide great overviews and clarifying examples of all of the concepts and principles of design.

Basic Lettering Layouts

basiccomposition.png

When you start lettering, it’s best to keep your layouts simple, but a simple layout doesn’t have to be boring. Rectangular layouts with straight baselines make it easier to focus on exploring more complex styles and letter interactions.

Even if everything in your piece is on a series of horizontal, parallel baselines, you can find ways for your words to interact - that’s what lettering is all about! Break your own boundaries. Finding interactions, like extending the arm of a letter below your baseline to connect with or fill part of the next line of text, can create visual interest and make a piece more cohesive. Lettering elements feel like they belong together when they play nice with each other.

Keeping your layout basic will also help you learn to create flow through hierarchy. Hierarchy is adding emphasis to more important words in a piece (through color, weight, style or size), and decreasing emphasis of the less important words.

Important words should stand out, and other words should support them without stealing attention.Write out all of the words of your piece. Circle the most important words, underline words that are of secondary importance, and leave the ones that are the least important untouched. The circled and underlined words should be given more visual emphasis than the words you left untouched - this is hierarchy.  

Complex Compositions

As you improve your lettering, increasing the complexity of your compositions can give your designs more energy and visual interest. Injecting a little variation into a basic layout, like adding a curved or diagonal baseline, can make your piece more playful.

You still want to consider hierarchy in a complex composition - your layout is now just another tool to establish it. If you’re adding a few diagonal or curved baselines, those baselines will naturally have emphasis, since they stand out from the rest of the layout. The words that need the most emphasis should generally be the ones on the varied baseline.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. Try drawing your piece within a circle, or within a silhouette that’s relevant to the content of the piece. There are endless possibilities!

Building and Evaluating Your Composition

Because every lettering piece is different, your content will dictate your layout. Sometimes character length or number of words makes one layout style more practical than another. Other times, the personality of the content demands a certain layout style. Don’t just copy a layout you like - cater your layout to what you’re drawing.

  • What needs to be included in the piece?

  • What words need added emphasis?

  • What words should recede?

  • Should the piece be playful or more serious?

Taking the time to consider what your piece needs will help you create a unique design that feels like it’s how those words were always meant to look - lettering nirvana! After you’ve sketched a piece, evaluate and tweak your design to make sure your composition is strong and cohesive.

Does everything work together?

  • Does each element have enough room to breathe? Too much room?

  • Do the styles work together or fight against each other?

  • Does anything look disjointed or out of place?

  • Did you miss any opportunities for letter interactions that would make the piece more cohesive?

Does the piece feel balanced?

  • Do your eyes get stuck anywhere?

  • Is your attention being pulled in the wrong direction?

  • Does any part of the piece feel too heavy?

Is your hierarchy intact?

Is it legible?

  • Is it easy to read every word?

  • Does the piece read in the order it's supposed to?

What's the biggest thing you struggle with when you're building a composition? 

Slow Down: Great Lettering Takes Time

We’ve talked a bit about looking to other lettering artists for inspiration, and I’m sure you’ve seen countless examples of the great work you can find in the form of print ads, book covers, products and wedding invitations, just to name a few. These polished, perfectly imperfect pieces can provide motivation and inspiration, but they can also paralyze you. Will my work ever look that good? The short answer is yes, it can. The more accurate answer is: yes, but not without time and effort. There are no shortcuts.

When I first started lettering, I didn’t realize the time these amazing artists were putting in. It’s hard to get a feel for the time commitment of a project when all you see is the final version. Even if an artist posts process shots, you still don’t see how much time per day, or per project, they’re putting in. This caused some serious frustration, because I was convinced they were achieving detailed, high quality work in a flash - so in my mind, not only was their work much better than mine, but they were putting it out faster, too.

This simply isn’t true. In fact, a lot of them were probably going slower than me - which is part of the reason they were able to create such intricate detail and maintain near-perfect lines.

How Long Should a Lettering Piece Take?

onepiece.png

Obviously, the answer to this question depends on the project and the scope of the piece. The time you put in should scale according to the requirements of the work. A quick piece for your daily Instagram post is a very different time commitment from a hand lettered poster for a client.

My time commitment for an average client lettering piece (not including digitization) is generally 3-5 hours, depending on the piece’s complexity. Many of my simpler Instagram posts only take an hour. Between thumbnail sketching, measuring guides, framing, adding the body, shaping up the style, tweaking, re-sketching, and inking - building a strongly composed lettering piece is no small task.

Even if you’re a master hand letterer, your drawing speed has a limit if you want clean lines, and want the image on paper match the quality of one in your head. You’ll either spend the time taking it slow and doing it the right way first, or you’ll spend additional time drawing and redrawing. If you can’t seem to get natural curves and precise straights, slow down and see how you improve.

How Long Will It Take Me To Get Better?

To truly master a craft, you need to show up every day with meaningful practice to address your shortcomings.

I’ve been seriously hand lettering (practicing every day) for over 2 years, and I still see plenty of room for improvement in my work. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept didn’t become widespread for no reason (which has been debunked a bit, but the sentiment of dedication and hard work is still important).

This isn’t to say you won’t be considered good (or even great!) after only a year or two - your initial improvement WILL be much faster than your later improvement, especially if you’re intentional about practicing the fundamentals. But just as you wouldn’t expect to be a piano prodigy with a few months work, you shouldn’t expect to be a Sean McCabe or Jessica Hische level lettering artist right away. You can be good enough to attract clients in a shorter time frame, but don’t think your improvement stops the moment you start building a client base.

Sean McCabe maintains that in order to build an audience and establish yourself as an authority in a field, you need to show up every day for two years. It’s not a magic formula wherein you half ass your practice for two years and stumble upon a pool of perfect clients - it’s about showing up, pursuing your passion, and honing your skills. That’s all fine and good (and in my experience, about right!), but no one thinks about a project, hobby, or skill in two year increments - that’s way too daunting!

The most important thing is to break your improvement into actionable steps. It can be overwhelming when you see all of the different techniques you need to improve upon. Pick one that excites you, and work on it consistently until you see improvement. When you’re happy with your level of improvement on that technique, or feel yourself getting bored or burnt out, pick something new to work on. This is why 30 or 100 day challenges are fantastic for improving your lettering - they provide hyper-focused periods of improvement in a specific area. Chain a few of these together, and you’re well on your way to a polished skill set!

Keep things fresh and make sure you’re enjoying every single day of practice. The challenges of learning hand lettering should excite you, not cause you to procrastinate or dread practicing. In the beginning, it’s about making sure you actually like what you’re doing, if you have any prayer of committing to it long-term. If you hate practicing brush lettering, that technique might just not be your style. But, if you’re jumping around hating every technique you try, maybe lettering is a passing hobby rather than a serious pursuit.

Don’t Get Discouraged

One important thing to keep in mind when you get discouraged about your current level of lettering is this: everyone started where you started. Every expert you see was once a beginner. Scroll back through some of your favorite lettering artists’ feeds, and compare their work from a couple of years ago to now. I’d be willing to bet you’ll notice an enormous difference in the consistency of their letters, the quality of their compositions, and the accuracy of their lines. Improvement may feel slow, but it will happen steadily if you regularly show up. 

Just look at the difference between one of Sean McCabe’s first Instagram posts (213 weeks ago) and one of his most recent. The level of quality now compared to 4 years ago is astounding. Or my own from 101 weeks ago to something more recent. Slightly less astounding, but still a marked improvement.

The bottom line is this: be patient and practice. All valuable skills take time to learn and master, and hand lettering is no different. And I’m right there with you! I know in a year’s time I’ll be comparing my work then to my work now, and I’ll be a little embarrassed at the work I was putting out. Even the best hand lettering artists still have room for improvement - it’d be a pretty mundane existence to not find new projects within your craft that challenge you and push your limits. Draw energy from the challenges ahead, and rise to meet them.

Tips and Tricks for Perfect Sans Serif Lettering

Sans serif type is possibly the most important fundamental style for hand lettering. It’s easy to learn, and it’s versatile - it's a great building block for more ornate styles. There are a lot of subtle features to sans serif type that are crucial for balanced, consistent letters. The average person reading your lettering won’t notice them, but if they’re not done correctly, they’ll be able to tell something is off. As a letterer, though, it's your job to know and address these issues! The major struggles I’ve experienced with drawing sans serif types include:

  • making sure letters are balanced (aka, they don’t look like they’re about to topple over)

  • maintaining consistent letter thickness (weight)

  • maintaining even space between letters (kerning)

I’ve picked up a few tricks to address these struggles - let’s dive in! For this tutorial, I’ll be focusing on the word “DRAWS”. This is a great word to practice with as it has a good mix of straight edges, rounded edges, and diagonals.

Set Up Guides & Frame Your Sans Serif Letters

Set up your guides, similar to how you set them up during the formal script tutorial. For my sans serif style, I like the midline a bit lower, as I like the middle arm of my E and the bars of my H and E to sit lower. With script type, I set up a series of angled lines (called stress lines) to guide the angle of my lettering. For sans serif type, you’re generally going to want vertical lines, to make sure all of your straight edges are upright. These aren’t entirely necessary, but they can be helpful, particularly if your baseline is angled. Space them out every 1/2” to 1”, just like with the script type. This way, you’ll always have a guide nearby.

Once your guides are ready to go, frame out your letters to get a feel for how much space you have in the layout. To allow space for the weight of my letters, I usually start just a smidge (think about 1/8”) in from the edge of my layout and end the same amount in from the edge, and err on the side of spacing letters a little bit too far apart. This gives you a little extra breathing room around your letter frames for the body.

Add the Body

The initial body sketching step will involve a lot of lines crossing over each other - think of this like a blueprint. It’s much easier than trying to perfect a letter’s shape and weight by outline only. Not all of these lines are final lines, but drawing the structure this way will help you maintain consistent widths and keep everything proportionate.

Using your frame as a guide, define the first outside edge of your letter. Then, draw a line parallel to that line - the inside edge of that stroke -  to define your stroke width. Use the tops of those sketch lines to start your next stroke (for the D in DRAWS, it will be the outside stroke of the bowl of your D) - this will help you maintain a consistent width. Then, draw the inside edge of the bowl of your D, making sure it’s creating as much weight as the straight edge of the D. Work through all of the letters similarly, until you get to the S.

Ahhh, the S. The bane of every letterer’s existence. My tried and true way to approach the S is to draw two circles (basically like an 8), with the top circle slightly smaller than the bottom. The top circle will guide the outside stroke edge of the top of your S, and the bottom circle will guide the outside stroke edge of the bottom of your S. Then you’ll just follow along your curved edge to complete the outline. You can see the circles in the sketch above. 

Pay Attention To The Details

  • Upper arms (like the strokes on a K) or bowls (like in a B or R) should not extend as wide (or wider than) the lower arm or bowl - this will make your letters look like they’re off balance. The lower arm or bowl will act as a visual anchor for the letter when it’s wider than the bowl or arm.

  • Crossbars should be a little thinner than your upright strokes. Look at an A, H, or T in a san serif type face - if you measure, you’ll notice the crossbars are probably thinner, but visually hold the same weight.

  • Round letters should extend a little above and below the baseline and capline. The space they take up appears smaller than a letter with hard edges, so you need to compensate.

  • Diagonal strokes shouldn’t connect to the ends of your upright stroke lines exactly - that will make them too thin.

Now that you’ve sketched out the body, it’s time to comb over it to find any problem areas.

Maintaining Consistent Weight

As you go through the rest of the word, look back at previous letters to make sure your structure lines are the same width apart. At the end of your first round of sketching with the full body of the lettering, take a step back - do any letters look too heavy? Too thin? You may need to lightly fill in the letters with your HB lead to get a good feel for the visual weight. Sometimes, when I want to be exact, I’ll bust out my ruler and measure the widths. Note problem letters, and refine your sketch. Repeat until you’re satisfied with the weight and shape of every letter.  

Maintaining Consistent Kerning

When you’re drawing a word, you need to make sure you have room for each letter, but you also need to make sure each letter has room to breath. It takes time to develop a good eye for letter spacing because it’s not based on an exact measurement - it’s often about perceived space (much like how round letters need to extend above and below the baseline and capline).

All letters are some combination of rounded lines, straight lines, and diagonal lines. So within that, you have 6 potential combinations to kern. Here are some quick rules about the relationships between different letter shapes (not all letters are created equal, so take it with a grain of salt...):

  • Two straight edges: Like MN. Visually the heaviest. Should have the most space between edges.

  • Two rounded edges: Like OC. Visually the lightest. Should have the least space between their narrowest point.

  • Two diagonal edges: Like AV. Should be spaced about the same as straight edges, but measured on a diagonal.

  • One straight, one diagonal: Like MA. This one’s the toughest. The narrowest point should be spaced about the same as two rounded edges - probably even a little tighter. The letters will almost touch at their narrowest point.

  • One straight, one rounded: Like MO. The narrowest point should be a little narrower than two straight edges, but a little wider than two round edges.

  • One rounded, one diagonal: Like OA. The narrowest point should be a little narrower than one straight, one rounded.

One trick I use often to check my kerning is to flip my drawing upside down. This keeps you from getting distracted by reading the piece and allows you to focus on the shapes. Over time, you'll develop mental kerning pairs - letters you see next to each other frequently, and are familiar with how to space them - and proper letter spacing will come more naturally.  

Ink What You’ll Keep

Once you’re happy with the weight and shape of all of your letters, you’re going to ink only the lines that actually form the outline of your letter. You can either do this directly over your sketch, if you have a good eraser, or with tracing paper or a light pad.

Voila! You have an incredibly straight and consistent sans serif word. With a lot of practice, this process will get faster, and you’ll eventually be able to skip some steps. You’ll develop some muscle memory about how certain letters are formed, and you’ll be able to work with fewer guides and fewer structure lines to nail it.

Take Your Time

The key to improving your sans serif lettering is to take your time and keep a steady hand - you’re working with a lot of lines that need to be straight. When you see a finished piece out in the world, it’s difficult to appreciate the time, work, and thought that went into the piece. The sped up start-to-finish videos you see on Instagram are awesome for a quick insight into an artist’s process, but they don’t reflect the true pace artists generally draw. Take it slow - you’ll keep a steadier hand, your lines will be straighter, and maintaining consistent lettering weight will be much easier.

Since we weren’t able to cover every letter of the alphabet, I’ve created a printable guide available for download, so you can see how all of the letters in my personal sans serif style are constructed.

If you have any tried-and-true tricks you use to form certain letters, please share them! What letters do you struggle with the most?

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Hit a Plateau? You May Need a Side Project

Let’s be honest: as important as practicing the fundamentals is to improving your lettering, it’s not always the most exciting thing. When lettering begins to feel like a chore, a good way to spice things up, reignite your passion, and keep your creative juices flowing is to develop a side project. A good side project starts small, and scales up as you decide to commit more time to it - it doesn’t need to have a perfectly coded, dedicated internet home. Some side projects work best with a dedicated website, Tumblr, or Instagram account, but most are fine if they’re just something you post on your existing accounts in addition to your regular work. Integrating it into your existing web presence leverages your current followers for feedback on the project and makes the project a part of your personal brand, while a dedicated space for the project gives it some permanency.

Benefits of a Side Project

They keep you creative and productive.

A big part of culture while working at Google includes encouraging employees to spend 20% of their work time exploring other creative pursuits or working on side projects. Google found that this increased productivity, happiness, and collaboration among their teams. Google benefited immensely from this side project policy - 20% projects are credited with the development of many of Google’s products - and your lettering work can benefit, too.

Your regular lettering work will improve.

Creative hobbies have proven time and again to can increase work performance, and help employees bounce back from the stress of their everyday work. When your deliberate lettering practice begins to stress you out, your productivity (and rate of improvement) will suffer; it’s time to develop a side project!

The right side project will inject excitement into your lettering, and motivate you to keep going - in both the side project and your regular work. The lettering you do for your side project will also act as additional practice to improve your overall lettering skills.

Bonus: You might gain notoriety (but don’t bank on it)!

Many lettering artists have gained notoriety for their side projects, because side projects are naturally shareable content. The common theme or interesting twist the work is united under makes a side project more shareable over your regular body of work. (“This guy does calligraphy” isn’t quite as interesting as “this guy does calligraphy with vegetables.”)

However, notoriety should not be your motivation. A side project should excite you, and that is what will make a project great, which is what will make people want to share it. Focusing on notoriety will kill the side project magic.

Types of Lettering Side Projects

There are a few different structures you can build a side project around. Most end up being a cross section of at least two of these structures - a numeric technique-focused project, for example, might have you practicing vintage lettering styles every day for 100 days.

Set a numeric goal or deadline.

Numeric side projects are pretty simple. Pick a content area, topic, or tool, and commit to doing it for x number of days, or x number of words or letters. Numeric goals are generally centered around something you want to explore or focus your practice on for a limited time - they’re a great way to challenge yourself to learn a new tool or technique. Terence Tang recently completed 100 days of calligraphy videos - he committed to posting a video of his calligraphy process to Instagram for 100 days in a row.

Focus on a specific lettering tool.

A side project can be a great way to learn how to use a new lettering tool (or think outside the box and use a non-tool as a tool), and really see your progress from start to finish. Trying new things is an important way to reinvigorate your love of lettering and create a well-rounded body of work. Calligrapher and letterer Ian Barnard used vegetables as calligraphy tools, to inject some fun into his work. He wasn’t worried about perfection - he was focused on experimentation.

Focus on a specific lettering technique or style.

If there’s a specific lettering technique that intimidates you but you’d like to try, a side project is a low-risk way to feel it out. Maybe you’d like to practice blackletter calligraphy for a week, or create a series where you’re drawing representative type for different words (like drawing the word lightning to look like lightning, for example).

Focus on a specific topic or content area.

Topic-based side projects frequently don’t have a specific end date, so they’re great for an idea you have that you think you’ll be able to continue to come up with content for. Some great examples of these are Lauren Hom’s Daily Dishonesty, and Shauna Panczyszyn’s We Need To Talk. Both of these talented ladies stumbled into a content idea from something that struck them in their everyday life, and developed fantastic side projects around expanding on that idea.

The best content-based project concepts tend to come about organically. I purchased some Crayola markers to try some brush lettering techniques with them, and realized it would be fun to create lettering pieces with all of the old craft and art supplies I loved as a kid. Thus, my Throwback Thursday lettering series was born!

Choosing Your Side Project

Be ambitious, but realistic.

Don’t overcommit. Unless you have nothing to do all day, setting a goal of creating digitized, ready-to-print pieces under a specific theme every day for 100 days is probably a recipe for failure. A good side project pushes your creative boundaries and skills, but realistically and in a low-stress way. Set enough constraints to give the project some definition, but don’t box yourself into a stressful, too-serious undertaking. Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap is a great example of evaluating your deadlines to maintain quality and make sure you're enjoying the project. She initially wanted to put out one alphabet a week, but realized that would be too much to keep up with and adjusted her (and her followers') expectations. 

Find an idea that truly inspires you.

Shauna Panczyszyn’s neighbor left garbage out on the porch, attracting raccoons, and she hand lettered a note to leave on his door about it. Her friends loved the note and wanted similar passive aggressive notes - enter “We Need To Talk.” A side project doesn’t have to be life affirming or world changing - it just needs to spark something in you that will make you excited to generate content under that theme. In fact, many creatives think stupidity is the key to a great side project idea - the less seriously you take it, the more stress-free and exciting it is to work on.

Set deadlines.

Set deadlines within the project to make sure you’re committing to working on it. This deadline shouldn’t overwhelm you or stress you out - you should look forward to the next time you get to work on it. If you commit to working on the project more frequently than you can handle, you’ll burn out on the project and it will become a chore. The best part of a side project is that you can structure it however you want - and you don’t have to make it public until you’re ready.

What’s your project?

Side projects are a fantastic way to boost your creativity, try a new skill or tool, and learn to not take yourself and your work too seriously. The right side project will be a source of stress relief and excitement, and will make your regular work much more enjoyable and productive.

What are some of your favorite side projects? Do you have a side project of your own right now?  

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How to Sketch Effectively

**The winner of last week's giveaway is Darcy T! Darcy, I'll be in touch soon about how to send you your prize!** Sketching is the most important part of the hand lettering process - your polished piece is only as good as your sketch. Done right, sketching helps you break a design into manageable pieces, build new lettering styles from their base, and plan an interesting and balanced layout.

Over the years, this sketching process has helped me make sense of approaching a complex design. An effective sketching process gives you a polished drawing ready for tracing with ink or lets you skip inking altogether and go straight to digitizing. 

Start with Thumbnail Sketches

Thumbnail sketches are a quick way to evaluate compositions rather than relying on the picture in your head when you start a full size sketch. Before committing the time it takes to lay out a large, detailed sketch, I create very small versions of my chosen phrase to play with different compositions. I usually just frame out the skeleton of the letters, but if I know the style is going to affect the layout, I'll roughly sketch that here as well. This sketch is not supposed to be perfect (hence my lovely photo above).

This is the most effective and efficient use of my time, as it allows me to reconcile most layout issues before I get too deep into a sketch, and strengthens my overall compositions.

Thumbnails also help you be more open to experimentation - if a layout idea you have doesn’t work out, you haven’t invested a ton of time in trying to make it work. Get creative! Don’t feel obligated to stick to straight, perpendicular lines. Try out some slants or use curves. Or, letter a word or phrase inside a relevant shape.

Pro tip: I keep ALL thumbnail sketches as a catalog of layout concepts. If a concept doesn’t work out for this idea, it’s helpful to keep a visual of it in case it will work for a future piece!

Set up your Full Size Layout

Once you’ve landed on a layout you like based on your thumbnails, it’s time to set up for your full sketch. Here are a few tips that have helped me set up my sketch right the first time.

Effective sketches happen in layers. Start with a lighter lead (HB) for your guidelines and initial sketch, all the way through. Then move on to a darker layer as you start to finalize lines.

Measure, measure, measure! Draw guide lines so you know what needs to fit where. Often I won’t set an exact width for the layout, particularly if I’m just drawing one word. Sometimes you’ll want a more exact approach, and other times you’ll want to be more relaxed with your guides. It all depends on how precise you want your piece to be.

As you draw more, you’ll get a feel for how much space individual letters need to fit in a certain area. The great thing about hand lettering is you can turn a limitation into a creative opportunity, like adding style pieces to fill gaps in your layout.

Sketch in Stages

Once I have my guidelines drawn, I sketch in three major stages.

First, I draw out the skeleton of all of my letters. This is just the basic, monoline shape of them, like a thin sans serif font. If flourishes, accents, or connections between letters are going to be a significant part of your design, add the skeleton of them as well. If you know the style you're going to use will add significant width to your letters, give them some additional space in the skeleton stage.

Don't worry about being too perfect here. You want to be accurate in terms of the size of the letters and underlying details, like how high crossbars will sit or how circular your curved letters will be, but these will not be your final lines.

Next is the body - this is where you add the weight to each letter, as appropriate. Sometimes, all you’re going to want is the skeleton (particularly for less important words in a phrase). But generally, your letters are going to need a little more to them than the thin frame. Don’t worry about adding cosmetic style yet. 

If you're imitating calligraphy, thicken the downstrokes (anywhere in the letter your hand moved down the create the line - this is when a calligraphy nib would open up, allowing more ink to flow across a wider line, making the stroke thicker). If you're creating block letters, maintain consistent width across all parts of your letters.

Finally, you can add the style, whether it be some ornaments inside the body of the text, serifs on the ends, median spurs, shadows, a 3D effect - you name it! This is also where you should evaluate your composition, and identify where you may want to add flourishes, ornaments, or other features to balance everything out.

This is often where I find ligature opportunities that may not have been obvious during my initial framing. Sometimes, even with the best layout plan, you realize at this point that it will look better if you extend the tail of your “y” a bit, or connect two letters together that you didn’t see an opportunity for before. Once you've figured out which lines are your final lines, use an eraser (or eraser stick, for finer details) to erase the other lines and clean up your sketch. Then, use a darker lead to darken the lines you're keeping. This will help you avoid any confusion when you start tracing your sketch with ink.

When it comes to style, focus on legibility over everything else. Don’t get so cutesy with your layout or style that the words are difficult to discern, whether it’s just hard to read or the words are emphasized in a way that makes them naturally read out of order. A hand lettering piece should be imperfect - after all, it is hand drawn. But if it’s not legible and the words don’t flow properly, what’s the point?

Start Inking!

At this point, your sketch is ready for ink! Your final sketch should contain every single detail you’re planning on putting into ink. Don’t plan to resolve anything while you ink a sketch. If you take the time to be thorough in your sketch, it’s far less likely you’ll have to start over during the inking process due to an errant line of ink.

This process may sound a little more time consuming than just diving in and winging it, but sketching this way is part of a deliberate practice process. It will help you improve and vary your layouts and lettering styles.

Do you have any additional sketching tips I missed here? 

Two Essential Exercises to Develop Your Hand Lettering

When it comes to learning hand lettering (or anything new), it seems like figuring out how to get started is always the hardest part. The best way to think of lettering is as a combination of typography and drawing: you need to have a solid understanding of typography concepts, but you also need to work on your drawing skills. I’ve come to love these two hand lettering exercises, which have helped me explore new variations and learn how to apply them to any character. They get your creative juices flowing and warm up your drawing muscles, which makes keeping a steady hand for your serious work that much easier!  These exercises complement one another to round out your warm up.

A Quick Type Overview

Before we start, I think it’s important to go over a little introduction to the basic categories of type. Depending on who you talk to, there are a number of ways to categorize type, but I personally group them into 4 major categories when it comes to lettering: serif, sans serif, script, and decorative. This isn’t to say that all typophiles would agree with this (they probably wouldn’t) or that these categories are mutually exclusive - there can be a lot of overlap, but here’s a quick overview of how I define these categories:

  • Serif type includes any type with small lines or extensions added to the ends of a letter’s strokes. There are a TON of serif styles, but here’s a handy image that shows some of the variety out there. Times New Roman, Cambria, or Georgia are good examples.

  • Sans serif typeincludes all non-script fonts without serifs. Fonts like Arial, Helvetica, or Gotham are great examples.

  • Script type includes anything made to mimic handwriting, whether it be calligraphy, plain cursive, or brush lettering. The letters in script type usually connect, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

  • Decorative type is my mental catch-all for styles that don’t fit nicely into one of these categories, including more ornate letters or those of a more illustrative style (like creating an “O” that looks like a donut, for example). I include blackletter in this category because I haven’t learned those calligraphy techniques, so I approach it as a detailed, decorative drawing style.

Now that that’s over with, let’s move on to the exercises!

Exercise 1: One letter, infinite possibilities.

Pick a single letter of the alphabet (I pick one I haven’t focused on in a while, or a prominent letter from a specific piece), and draw it as many ways as you can. It may sound daunting at first, and you probably think you’ll only come up with a few, but once you get going you’ll start coming up with new styles faster than you can draw them!

There are an infinite number of styles you can create when you’re drawing a letter. To get you started, you can:

  • Add flourishes

  • Try different serif styles

  • Tweak weights of up and down strokes

  • Experiment with the way a letter might extend to interact or connect with another letter.

There are a few different ways I like to approach this exercise, depending on what I’m working on.

Set a numeric goal.

Megan Wells turned me onto this approach in her Introduction to Lettering post on Alisa Burke’s blog. She talks about drawing one letter 100 different ways, but if that seems like too much, start with 25 at first, work your way up to 50 the next time, then 75, and so on.

I like to focus on a numeric goal if I’m just warming up and don’t have a certain style or mood in mind.

Pick a category.

Often I’ll outline a specific piece and know I want to use serif lettering for part of the layout, but beyond that I’m not sure what I want it to look like. I set that as my parameter rather than a number, and draw as many serif iterations of my chosen letter as I can. This is a great way to push beyond the standard looks within a type style, and helps you find your own personal style.

Pick a mood or personality.

Recently I was working on a few pieces for a client where my major art direction was mood/personality-based, rather than specifics about typographic styles. I picked a prominent letter from the piece, and started exploring different styles that might express the mood. One was playful and young, and another was sinister and ominous. I’d never done this exercise with this criteria before, but it was a refreshing way to look at letters and now it’s one of my favorite warm ups!

Exercise 2: One style, every character.  

Pick one of the styles you drew in exercise one, and determine how you will apply it to every single letter of the alphabet. When I started doing the first exercise to explore new styles, I’d often pick a style from my warmup, apply it only across the letters I needed for my piece, and move on. Then, weeks down the road, I’d want to use that style and struggle to figure out how that style would apply to a new letter. Taking a detailed style from an N or an A, and making it work for an S or an O can be extremely difficult (life throws you curves, am I right? I’ll see myself out). I started incorporating this second warm up exercise to nip this problem in the bud.

What characters you include in your final set is up to you. Lowercase and uppercase? Numbers? Punctuation? Some of my styles belong in all caps, and others need both sets of characters. Don’t get discouraged if you have to redraw some letters multiple times before you get it right - that’s the point! The more you do this, the easier it will get.

Once you have every character you need sketched out, create a more polished guide. I may not work in alphabetical order during the exercise, as it’s often easier to knock out similar letters consecutively, but I use my light pad to trace the final sketches of each character in alphabetical order, and file it away for safe keeping. Whenever I think I might want to use that style, I pull out my guide, and it’s much easier to recreate the style consistently!

So there you have it - two of my go-to warm up exercises. Calling them hand lettering exercises seems a little like a bit of an undersell. Iterating like this frequently will help you discover your own unique lettering style. These exercises will also help you improve your drawing skills, your understanding of type, and push your creativity - think of it as mind mapping, but for letters!

Do you have a go-to exercise you use for warming up? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Getting Serious about Hand Lettering

Hand lettering has blown up in the last several years and has earned widespread attention, even outside the design and typography community. Businesses rely on hand lettering more and more to bring a relatable personality to their brand. When you see the amazing hand lettering examples all over Instagram, it can be really intimidating -- I know it was for me! But with some focus and time, you can hone your skills and become a great hand letterer. Whether you’ve dabbled a little in lettering but haven’t practiced seriously, or are entirely new to the field, here are some important things to think about if you’re trying to get serious!

Simplify your supply list.

Lately I've been seeing a lot of hashtags like #whichpendidyouuse popping up on Instagram (many artists point out how frequently they're asked this question, which, despite its best intentions, tends to subtly imply that the pen is somehow responsible for the work being awesome). While it might be true that different techniques and styles can be more easily achieved with certain types of pens, it’s a myth that you need all kinds of pricey supplies to make great work - and if you don't know the proper ways to use expensive, specialized pens, they're going to do nothing for you. Those Instagrammers' great pieces weren't a result of their pen choice.

You can do an awful lot with a shopping list pencil you can grab for free at Ikea and some basic graph paper. I’ll be doing a post later on about my go-to tools, but if you have a sharpened pencil, a ruler, printer paper, and a felt-tip ink pen, Sharpie, or a plain old marker, there’s plenty for you to work on! There’s no need to break the bank to say you’re serious about improving your lettering.

Start small and master the basics.

It will be easier to practice individual letters before you work your way up to more complex tasks like drawing words, experimenting with how letters can connect (called ligatures) within or between words, or creating layouts of lengthy phrases. If you start with a lengthy quote or verse, you may quickly get frustrated at the complexity.

Master the basics first. It can be a little tedious, but working with individual letters will help you learn how to apply the same styles to different shapes and understand the negative space each shape needs for legibility.

I’ve been hand lettering seriously for nearly 3 years, and I still do this kind of practice frequently as a warm up. Think of it like a pianist practicing scales or a basketball player practicing free throws; it’s important to build a foundation and keep those skills sharp.

Learn about letters.

I can’t overstate the importance of understanding basic typography concepts. Learning how to distinguish between related styles and how the attributes of different styles can affect mood or readability will be immensely helpful as you start exploring different lettering styles. There are a ton of awesome books out there to give you a solid overview of the fundamentals of typography and lettering. I’ll create a more exhaustive list later on, but The Complete Manual of Typography is a great standby, as is The Anatomy of Type.

I've also found it helpful to look at compare different fonts to more basic fonts like Times New Roman or Arial. What’s different? What’s similar? What kind of personality does the font have compared to Times or Arial? Why? Once you start to realize how different attributes lend certain personalities or tones, you’ll be able to combine them in interesting ways to create your own unique lettering styles.

Practice every single day, deliberately.

As with any skill, you’ll never get the hang of hand lettering if you’re not consistently showing up. There’s also a difference between mindlessly doodling and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice will help you identify your weak areas and focus your improvement. Set out each day to improve on one thing. Are the curves of your rounded cursive letters not looking so hot? Practice some u’s, o’s, s’s, and n’s! Having a hard time maintaining consistent weight in all of your block letters? Get on it (and maybe use some graph paper)!

If I could give myself some advice on this 3 years ago, it would be to focus on deliberate practice instead of what I thought would look great in an Instagram post. Deliberate practice may not always result in Instagram-worthy work, but it's essential to improvement.

Try new things.

You’re bound to get a little bored with practicing basic shapes over and over again, so find ways to spice things up as you go along. Play around in different mediums, like brush pens or watercolor. Draw one letter as many ways as you can. There are endless possibilities to add character and distinct style to letters. This is a great exercise in creativity and learning about the tone and personality of different lettering styles. You'll start to understand what attributes are necessary to maintain the integrity of a letter (we’re getting a little existential here, but what’s needed for an A to stay an A?).

What’s to come

I’ll be back next week with an overview of two hand lettering exercises that have become my go to for warming up or finding and perfecting new styles, so stay tuned!

When I first started hand lettering, it felt like there weren’t many resources for me to use to learn, and it took me a while to really get serious and learn about purposefully improving my work. What was out there was scattered around, without a centralized place for me to find what I was looking for. So, I’m starting this blog in an effort to be that centralized resource for you.

The goal is to create tutorials and resource posts I think will be helpful to you and wish I’d had when I was starting out, including links to resources from other fabulous artists that have helped me learn along the way.

So, I want to hear from you: If you’re a more experienced hand letterer, what’s one thing you’d wish you’d known in the beginning? If you’re just starting out, what’s something you’re having a hard time getting the hang of that you’d like a tutorial on?