The layout of a lettering piece is fairly important because it sets the foundation for your message. The advantage of hand lettering is that you are able to create unique compositions to make your message stand out. However, if the composition isn’t clear the message will likely be lost.
When it comes to lettering the last thing you want is for someone to not receive your message because it’s not clear enough. Our job as letterers is to communicate, and even the simplest of lettering pieces communicate something. However, if a lettering piece is too complex your composition will begin to detract or even obscure your message.
Even though we have the ability to make our lettering stand out with complex compositions doesn’t mean we have to. The balance is struck between providing a basic structure to make your message clear, and adding some complexity to them to make the composition interesting enough.
It’s often better to err on the side of simplicity first. Often times, a basic and clear composition is just what a lettering piece needs for it to stand out. You can look to geometric shapes first—I usually start off with a square or rectangle to begin my piece—and create basic guidelines for borders, margins, cap height, x-height, and the baseline.
This allows for you to focus on clarity through hierarchy, which is arguably more important than a unique composition. Hierarchy is making sure that the right words are emphasized. When you’re sketching out your concepts, discover the words that are most important in order to covey your main message. Make those words more prominent than other words and use them to grab people’s initial attention.
Hierarchy is MAKING sure that the right words are emphasized. No, wait… Hierarchy is making sure that the RIGHT WORDS are emphasized.
— Dane Gonzalez (@HeyImDane) June 25, 2015
Starting with a basic layout will place emphasis on the hierarchy and help you focus on making the lettering itself clear and interesting. Sometimes it doesn’t take an off-the-wall composition to make the piece interesting, but rather just making the piece interesting through styles, hierarchy, the Rule of Thirds, syncopation, and letter interactions.
Enhancing Basic Layouts
Once you have the basics down, you can extrapolate on them to make things a little more interesting. You can try more interesting forms like circles, polygons, and free-form shapes. Adding curvilinear guidelines to a basic rectangle can make a composition seem more dynamic than it actually is without adding too much difficulty.
The compositions above and below both started as simple rectangles, and then I decided to take some liberties in how I could make it more interesting. On the one above, I used the rectangle as a bounding box to define the edges of my composition, but I added a curvilinear composition inside of it. On the one below, I broke through the boundary of the rectangle to have the composition feel more cohesive by interacting with the other letters.
As you could see in the last lettering piece, I broke through the letter H’s cap height and baseline in order to fill out the piece. However, you can also place a word or object in the composition and adapt the form of the letters, baseline, and cap height to other objects. This can be seen with the ampersand encroaching into the two rows of lettering in the piece below.
When I was figuring out the composition for this piece, the word “and” was an odd word and I was considering giving itself a single row to itself. Instead, I shortened it to just an ampersand in a circle and placed it between two rows of lettering. This made things a bit more interesting and forced the letters around it to conform to its shape.
At this point, you can incorporate any number or combination of these techniques. Many of the most interesting compositions have some elements of basic shapes. Use basic shapes as a foundation and layer in enhancements to making your piece interesting enough to attract attention, yet clear enough to get your message across. You can do so by syncopating your layout, involving letter interactions in your composition, and playing with the layout’s boundaries.
It hard to say what an interesting composition looks like from lettering piece to lettering piece. Each piece has a unique number of words and character lengths that demand tailored compositions; this is one thing that makes a lettering artist’s skills valuable. The most interesting compositions will come from beginning with these basic ideas, getting creative with the piece you’re working with, and adding your unique touch.
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