I get asked this question a lot, and even though the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a fairly clear distinction between all three.
Before I give you a long winded explanation about each one, I will try and distil the primary difference into the simplest definition possible.
- Hand lettering = drawn using multiple strokes
- Calligraphy = written using single strokes
- Typography = arranged using preformed letters.
Now that we have a clear definition for each, let’s examine each one in more details.
Hand lettering is drawn using multiple strokes
Hand lettering is perhaps the broadest category and really encompasses anything that isn’t calligraphy or typography. There are many ways to draw or sketch letter forms but the ‘hand’ part implies the letters have been constructed without use of a computer, though the iPad and stylus may challenge that definition very soon. Of course, many people then go on to “vectorise” their hand lettering, but the initial design was constructed by hand.
Hand lettered artwork by Reiko Hirata • letterordie
Traditionally, chalk, pencil, pen, nibs, brushes, ink, and a variety of traditional media can be used to create letter forms, but the same can be said for calligraphy.
Many beginners make the mistake of thinking that the tool determines the style, but in the hands of a calligrapher, a brush makes a very different shape than in the hands of a signwriter.
Instead of thinking about the tools, think more in terms of letter form construction. Hand lettering can be carefully sketched, traced, developed and refined, or else they can be spontaneous and expressive.
The primary difference between hand lettering and calligraphy is that the calligraphic letters are constructed from single strokes, which can be uniform in width or vary, depending on the tool and how it is used, and hand lettering takes a more illustrative approach. Oftentimes, the end result may look very similar, but it is the way the letterforms were constructed which ultimately defines them.
Calligraphy is written using single strokes
In calligraphy, there are a variety of forms including brush lettering, modern calligraphy, black letter, uncial, Fraktur, roundhand, copperplate, rustic capitals and many others. Depending on the form, either a flexible nib, a fixed nib or a brush is used to write the letters.
Fixed nib calligraphy by Maria Montes • iamariamontes
Round brushes and flexible nibs can make strokes which vary in thickness when pushed, pulled or lifted. Fixed nibs and flat brushes can be used to make mono thickness letters or variable strokes when they change direction.
Again, it’s the way the tool is used to construct the letter which matters rather than the tool itself. Where the structure of hand lettering is often at the whim of the artist, calligraphic letters have an underlying structure and set of construction rules which help guide to the calligrapher.
Typography is arranged using preformed letters
The third term which is often used as a catch-all is typography. It is often used to describe all forms of calligraphy and hand lettering, but in its purist sense, typography should only refer to the arrangement of preformed letters.
Typography by Nicole Arnett Phillips • typographher
Originally, the term described arranging metal or wooden letters for print, but now that we have digitised typefaces, it refers to on-screen typography as well.
While there may be calligraphic and hand lettered fonts, the arranging of preformed letters is still referred to as typography. It is only calligraphy if you write the letters individually.
Now just to confuse everyone, there is a subset of typography which is of course the people who design the preformed letters in the first place. These people are referred to as type designers who might also be calligraphers or hand letterers, or they may work entirely digitally.
Digital Typeface OneABC by Wayne Thompson • wayneatf
No matter how the letters are constructed in the first place, once the letters are pre-formed and made available for someone to arrange them and make multiple copies, the calligrapher, hand letterer or graphic designer becomes a type designer.
While most people who arrange fonts or premade letter forms on the computer could now refer to themselves as typographers, there is a small group of designers who like to customise the fonts they use. Custom typography refers to the process of taking premade letter forms and customising a few words for a specific purpose, such as a logo or masthead.
Custom typography by Matt Vergotis • mattvergotis
Designers do this so that other people with access to the same typefaces cannot accidentally copy their design, but it also allows the designer to put their stamp on something. Refining certain letterform characteristics can add to the distinctiveness or clarity of the logo without having to construct the shapes from scratch.
Custom Type treatment
In recent years, the term custom typography has broadened out to cover all forms of modern calligraphy and hand lettering. People often describe a completely unique piece of lettering as a “custom type treatment”, meaning it has been completely customised for a specific purpose, even if it has been constructed from scratch.
Custom type treatment by Matt Vergotis • mattvergotis
We hope this brief run down has been useful. Let us know in the comments below if there are any other terms you would like explaining.