I love hand lettering. The industry is experiencing a tremendous amount of growth, which is super exciting. With that growth has come a ton of questions!
I’ve received many hundreds of emails from hand lettering artists sharing their biggest struggles. I’m addressing the most common challenges and producing a ton of videos for Learn Lettering 2.0 (check it out!)
In the mean time, I want to share the top 25 things I’ve learned about hand lettering.
1. Hand Lettering Gives You a Platform to Share a Message
When you create beautiful lettering, it will attract attention regardless of the words just for the sake of being beautiful art. But you also have a second opportunity: to impart a message worth reading.
You’ve done the work and you have people’s attention—now what will you say? I like to use this opportunity to speak messages of positivity and encouragement.
2. You’ll Only Improve by Doing
You’re going to have to put in the time. You’re going to have to practice. You won’t get better by consuming alone. You have to create and you have to get through The Sea of Imperfect Work.
3. There’s More Than Enough Room for You
A lot of people wonder: are there too many people already doing hand lettering? Fortunately, no! It may seem like everyone and their brother is getting into hand lettering (which is awesome), but it’s still extremely niche.
You’re in a Bubble of Awesomeness. You follow numerous people who do hand lettering, so naturally it feels like many people do it. But the fact that your parents don’t know what it is or most random people on the street don’t know shows you that there’s room for growth—and that’s a good thing!
4. Trying New Tools Keeps Things Fresh
Stuck in a rut? Have you lost your hand lettering spark? Switch things up by trying a new tool.
I have certain pens I like a lot and I tend to stick to a style that feels comfortable to me, but whenever I’ve branched out and tried some new hand lettering tools I always get reinvigorated.
Experimentation with new brush pens, or adding color to my work always gets me excited and inspired again. It helps me evolve my style and makes things feel new again.
5. The Hand Lettering Community is Awesome
For the most part, the people in this industry are wonderful people. Even though what we do is fairly unique, I’ve had the privilege of meeting other hand lettering artists at meetups or conferences and it has always been a blast.
I encourage you, if you haven’t yet, to reach out to other people you know who are doing hand lettering. I know I often used to feel like other hand letterers were the enemy. But then I realized other hand letterers aren’t competition—they’re community! If you view everyone who does similar things as competition, you will never have community.
6. Big Companies Actually Want Hand Lettering
Hand lettering seems so casual and informal, you’d think that no significant company would take it seriously. It must just be good for a hobbyist, right?
But as the world trends in an increasingly-digital direction, we are collectively missing the feeling of the hand-made. As more and more things become automated, we want to be reminded that there is a soul behind the work that we see.
I believe that is the reason for the resurgent interest in hand lettering. The corporate world is noticing too. If people resonate with hand lettering, they’re all over it because that means it will work for their advertisements! That’s why they paid me $16,250 for a series of hand lettering designs for a business-to-business campaign.
7. Not Everything Has to Be Perfect
Part of the charm of hand lettering is that it’s not perfect. If you want perfect, use a font!
We forget that people can still enjoy the imperfections. We forget that they’re not looking for the flaws like we are.
Put more imperfect things out into the world. It’s a shame for those aspirations to die in your mind because you couldn’t execute it perfectly enough. Ship more. Get your work out there and iterate in public.
8. Less Is More – Lettering With 1 or 2 Styles Can Be Awesome
A lot of new hand letterers start out by using a ton of styles in a single piece. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but what you risk is making more of a mess than a masterpiece if you don’t know what you’re doing.
You can get a remarkable amount of variation with the use of just a single style. Start with a simple concept and make it interesting through your execution. Something as simple as using a bold weight for the most important words is going to make a huge difference.
9. Pull Curves, Push Straights
Can’t draw a straight line? It’s a common expression, but there also might be a legitimate reason you’re having trouble!
I find that locking my arm and pushing straight lines helps keep things smooth. Conversely, I will pull curves toward me, allowing my wrist to bend naturally.
10. Start With a Light Lead
Layer up! You put a lot of pressure on yourself by trying to nail something the first time with a pen! Start with a light HB lead to rough out your general composition (I use a couple of lead holders for this).
Draw in the skeletons of the letters with the lighter lead, and then follow up with a darker 2B lead and refine. Once you have an arrangement you like, then finally ink your piece.
The goal is to only be thinking about execution when you get to the inks. Do all of your thinking and designing in the pencil stage.
11. Sketch Rough Shapes First
You know how the art tutorial books you read always had you start out drawing basic shapes first? They’d take you along all these steps, refining the concept and finally the last frame would be the thing you want to draw?
You know how you’d always skip the shapes part and just copy the last frame? Oh, that was just me? Well it turns out drawing in the rough shapes first really helps your proportions.
The same goes for lettering. Try to simplify letterforms down into basic shapes and sketch those in with a pencil first to get your placement right.
12. Flip Your Composition Upside Down to Fix Spacing Errors
The trouble with trying to discover spacing errors in your hand lettering pieces (either too much space or not enough), is we’re distracted by the words themselves.
This is also why most people can’t tell the difference between good lettering and poor lettering. As long as the letters are legible, you tend to just read the words. When it comes to recognizing spacing problems, the message itself can be a distraction.
Turning your composition upside down causes you to see it more as shapes than letters since we typically don’t read upside down. When we see the letters more as geometric shapes than actual words, we can more easily focus on the spacing.
13. Thumbnail Sketching Saves You Time
I’m not sure why it took me so many years to learn this, but you don’t actually want to just start trying to immediately draw your final piece.
If you make a mistake or decide you want to change the arrangement, style, or spacing, you have to start all over. At this point, you’ve probably invested a ton of time already.
It’s better to start by sketching small, rough, thumbnail concepts. Don’t worry about details, just get the rough idea out and iterate. Gradually refine and do this several times before rendering the final version.
14. Use a Graphic 1 to Fill Micron Lettering
For larger letters, I typically outline them with something like a Micron 01 or Micron 03. The only thing is it would take forever to fill in large letters with such small tips.
I tried using an 08 Micron and that helped a little bit, but it just didn’t have much coverage area. Then I discovered the Graphic 1.
The Graphic 1 is a very large-tipped felt pen that uses identical ink to that of a Micron. Before, I would use a brush pen or something similar to fill in my letters, but you could always tell it was filled in with a different pen.
The Graphic 1 makes it 100% seamless. You can’t tell at all that you switched pens.
15. Hand-Lettered Words Might Get Likes, but Hand-Lettered Messages Get Shared
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s fun to get really detailed with just a few letters in a short word. But let’s face it: most people don’t nerd out about letters quite like we do. You may get the appreciation of other hand letterers, but it’s not as likely that you’ll get much exposure beyond that.
To give your work general appeal, you want to hand letter full messages. These will go a lot farther to garner appreciation from a wide audience.
16. If Someone Is Hating on Your Work, You’re Winning
So you got a mean comment. Maybe someone sent you a nasty email. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. You’re already winning.
They obviously have nothing better to do with their time than spread negativity and hate. Meanwhile, you’re over here still creating. The people who will be successful in this life don’t waste an ounce of energy tearing others down.
Except for a moment of pity, these people don’t deserve any more of your energy. Keep going. Keep creating.
17. Always Have a List of Concepts Ready to Go
Only a novice sits down to a blank page with no list of concepts to execute. That time you set aside to create is not the time to try to think of new ideas or phrases to letter.
When I sit down to draw, no energy is wasting on thinking of a concept. I go to my list of concepts, pick the first one, and go.
Plan your drawing sessions ahead of time so that when you sit down, it’s just pure execution.
18. Capture Lettering Ideas Throughout Your Day
Throughout your day and throughout your week, be capturing ideas and phrases to letter. If a concept comes to your mind, write it down. I keep a list in my todo app of phrases that I want to letter.
I always capture an idea as immediately as I can. I’m serious, I even have waterproof notepads for my shower. If I’m driving, I’ll dictate an idea into my notes app.
Ideas are fleeting and you will forget if you don’t capture them. Don’t use your brain as storage—we have apps for that.
19. No One Is Going to Ask if You Have an Art Degree (Make Good Work)
Ask me how many times I’ve been asked for any credentials or degree before a client hired me. I can count on one hand how many times that’s happened.
Even if my hand was chopped off, I could still count how many times I’ve been asked. Actually, that’s a really terrible analogy. I need my hand. My point is, no client has ever asked.
Clients don’t care about credentials, they care about track record. What have you done? Who have you worked for? What were the results? How did the project go down?
People are going to look at your portfolio and they are going to make a decision to hire you. Display your knowledgeability in the form of case studies that demonstrate your expertise.
20. You’ll Never Find Time for Hand Lettering – You Must Make Time
This is the number one struggle people have: how to find time for hand lettering. Really, it’s the number one struggle people have with getting better at anything.
The bad news is: you’ll never find the time. We’re too good at filling time automatically. We do it by habit.
When was the last time someone asked you to do something and you looked at your calendar and had nothing scheduled and you still said no? Most of us fill time automatically without even thinking.
You’re going to have to say no to some things and schedule your practice time. Make a commitment to show up. That’s the only way.
21. Digitizing or Using Software Isn’t Cheating
Hand lettering is, well… lettering done by hand, right? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use computers to help you!
If you’re not digitizing your hand lettering, some people feel like it’s cheating to use a computer for anything. I think that’s absurd. If you take a photo of some colored lettering you did and afterward you wish you made it another color, I say throw it in Photoshop and shift the hue!
Made a mistake? Edit it out with the clone tool. Want to make your lettering straight? Print off some guides! Is using a ruler cheating? Is sharpening your pencil cheating? Is buying a pencil at the store instead of harvesting from a graphite deposit and making your own cheating?
Where is the line drawn?
At the end of the day, you have tools at your disposal. Use them however you want.
22. If You Want to Grow an Audience, Curate What You Share
What do I mean by “curate”? I mean selectively project a single, focused thing. You want to grow an audience for hand lettering, so post hand lettering!
Ok, maybe you already got that part, but you probably haven’t got the second part: stop posting everything that is not hand lettering. That’s right. You have to be selective. You want people to come to your feed and immediately know what you’re about.
If you’re just sharing random things all the time and occasionally post hand lettering, no one is going to know that’s what they’re going to get when they follow you. People want to know what they’re going to get before they subscribe to anything. Make it clear right off the bat, and you will grow your audience.
23. Developing a Unique Style Isn’t Something You Do on Purpose
The harder you try to come up with a style, the more frustrated you will be. Ask any seasoned artist and they will tell you their style came with time. It’s not something you want to force or it’s just going to come across unnatural.
A style is something you settle into, not something you make happen. Give it time. Diversify your sources of inspiration. Mix together references and try new tools.
To find your own unique lettering style, you just need to keep combining things. Don’t try so hard to be original. You don’t need to create something new, you need to combine something old.
Create. Diversify. Experiment.
24. Commit to Creating Every Day and Exposure Will Skyrocket
Creating daily is simultaneously the more scary and most impactful thing you can do. You will be afraid that you will run out of ideas. You will be afraid that you’re not going to be motivated. You will worry if you can keep it up.
But it will be the best thing you ever do. The truth is, you won’t run out of ideas. You don’t need to have 365 ideas up front before you start—those ideas will come. Every day is new and you will get fresh inspiration.
I will be honest with you: there will be days where you’re not motivated. But you have to remember that motivation comes after you show up. You don’t start with the motivation, you start with the doing.
Surprisingly, the motivation is always quick to follow.
25. Making a Living as a Hand Lettering Artist Is Possible
The most common mistake people make when it comes to making a living as a hand lettering artist is thinking all of their income needs to come from a single source. Maybe you know someone who makes good money with clients, or has a successful product line. From the outside, it seems like they make most of their money from one thing.
Maybe they do. But it almost never starts this way. The good news is your income doesn’t need to come from just once source! Here’s a 3-part series to give you some ideas for creating diversified revenue: