Typography, Lettering & Calligraphy – what’s the difference?

on Calligraphy, Design, Lettering  

I often see these three terms confused for one another, but yes there is a difference! The technicalities might seem pedantic, but it’s important to get the terms correct if you are practicing these arts or are a client commissioning them. The definitions can be fluid and overlap in places, but here’s the general gist:

Typography

Typography is the art and process of arranging type – letters, numbers and symbols which have been designed and made to be reusable. Back in the early days of traditional printing, every letter in every font had to be designed and cast in lead or carved from wood. The process of arranging these letters into words was a difficult process requiring quick hands and a fair amount of skill, particularly for display advertising and other uses needing artistic flair.

Printed typography
Traditional letterpress typography
Traditional letterpress typography

These days of course typography is a largely digital process, working with pre-existing typefaces on a computer by graphic designers. The key is that typography works with pre-designed letters which are intended to work in any arrangement.

Lettering

Lettering is the art of drawing letters, usually with multiple strokes in a way that sets it apart from writing. It might draw inspiration from both typography and existing type faces, but the letters are drawn for one specific composition, with a far greater level of flexibility than typography. It can appear rough and quirky or clean and polished, depending on the purpose and desired effect. Lettering also takes far more time and skill in both drawing and composition, which is why it tends to be priced higher.

Hand lettered cover page artwork
Hand lettered cover page artwork
Hand lettering a logo design

Lettering can be drawn with pen and paper, paint and brushes or digitally, usually with a tablet or stylus. It’s quite often referred to as hand lettering, emphasising the fact that it is drawn by hand rather than making use of fonts.

Calligraphy

Lettering is the art of writing letters beautifully, usually with a single pass strokes similar to regular writing. Western style calligraphy, using the Latin alphabet, started appearing around 600 BC in Rome. The styles were improved, adapted and evolved over many years, with a large number of different styles. Whilst less widely used after the introduction of moveable type in Europe in the 15th century, calligraphic hands were still taught and used for regular writing and as an art form. Asian and Islamic cultures also have a long history of beautiful calligraphy, and it is still considered an important artistic skill. Recently modern calligraphy has seen a revival in special occasion stationery, typography and logo design.

Brush calligraphy
Modern pointed pen calligraphy
Modern pointed pen calligraphy

Calligraphy is usually done with a dip pen or a brush with ink, although modern calligraphers find ways to work with fun materials such as cola pens, paint rollers or even Crayola markers! It usually takes less time to write a word or phrase than to hand letter it, but repetition and experimentation might be needed to get the correct balance and composition.

So where’s the confusion?

That might all seem pretty straightforward, but as the three disciplines are related there is some overlap. For example, a logo design might start out as calligraphy but then be traced and refined using lettering techniques into a final logo design (this is what I did for my own logo). All typefaces are originally drawn, which uses lettering techniques, or might be based on a calligraphic hand. Lettering can be done in a way that imitates calligraphy. Some people refer to lettering as ‘hand-drawn typography’, which is confusing. And most people seem to refer to calligraphy using a brush as ‘brush lettering’, including myself.

These definitions aren’t perfectly definitive, but at least now you’ll know better than to call a person doing calligraphy a ‘typographer’!

Further reading

The Difference Between Calligraphy, Lettering and Type (and Why it Matters) –  Chavelli Tsui

The Typography, Lettering and Calligraphy Cousins – Fontli

Understanding the Difference Between Type and Lettering – Smashing Magazine

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