Posts tagged getting started
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


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?


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.

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?