28 creative lettering and type tips for artists

Leading illustrators including Inkymole, Supermundane, Melita Berg, Daisy Emerson and Alex Fowkes reveal their techniques for creating lettering in your illustrations and designs.

I always just start off with a hard pencil and some tracing paper, I find it easier to draw onto tracing paper when I’m sketching as there isn’t such a contrast between the pencil and the white paper.

I’ll refine the sketch and then I’ll outline it with a black lettering pen. Typically I’ll then scan it and tidy it up in Illustrator. I like my lettering to retain a hand-drawn style so I don’t refine it too much. If I’m going to make it into a sign then I will increase the size and then transfer the lettering onto the wood ready to paint.

I’m always looking for new ways to execute my work, whether it be painting onto different surfaces such as marble, brass, wood or a leather jacket.

It’s also healthy I think to try new ways of approaching your work, I find I can get quite bored easily so it’s nice to be able to try out different things. I’ve been hand making a lot of the signs I paint and experimenting with different paint finishes which is interesting at the moment.

More recently I was customising a load of denim pieces for a Topshop campaign, which was a nice change from painting signs

Daisy Emerson (UK)

I was asked by Adidas to make a piece of content for them as part of the EQT sneaker launch last year, so I made a stop-frame animation piece at home in my studio.

I really enjoyed the creative process of this project as it was something totally different to what I usually do – It involved sign painting but it showed the process and in a totally new context.

I really love producing content and I wish I had more time to create more video pieces and process content for my own Instagram. I feel like it gets a really good reception as people love to see the progression of your work from start to finish.

Daisy Emerson (UK)

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Practice lots and try and define your own style! If there is anything in particular you think you would like to get into then research it and try and find a workshop, learning the skills to refine your talent or your passion is a huge help.

Also have fun with your work and be experimental. Find something original to establish you as a brand and roll with it.

Learn how to take a decent picture of your work and start uploading it on Instagram, you’ll soon start building a following and a network of likeminded people.

Daisy Emerson (UK)

Letterforms are unique in the fact that they have a predetermined meaning, a universally understood definition. I love the idea that you can play with that or emphasise certain feelings or emotions visually, while the word still retains that meaning forever.

I also love playing with the way we believe letterforms should look, recently 3D and perspective type styles have filled my work but I feel a new direction coming. 

Alex Fowkes (UK - repped by We Are Goodness)

Working with scale and the environment are the main challenges or considerations for me. I like to try and interact with the space as much as possible.

After all, if you are going to spend time creating a mural it needs to draw attention and feel bespoke as possible to the space. That way it feels more genuine and not just decoration, if the viewer feels this way they may subconsciously take slightly longer to take the work in. 

Alex Fowkes (UK - repped by We Are Goodness)

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Terranova is easily one of my most favourite projects at the moment. The site was a three-story retail store just off La Ramblas in central Barcelona.

It's one of the biggest jobs I’ve ever completed. I made 16 bespoke paintings and all the signage in three weeks.

I had to respond on site to the brief, as things changed constantly and I had to be on my game to adapt quickly, but I loved the creative process all the same. It was very stressful at the time but extremely rewarding at the same time.

Alex Fowkes (UK - repped by We Are Goodness)

Make work, but do what you love.

Don’t think of every piece you make as a solo project. It's all part of a process – a development process that continues throughout your career. 

It’s about finding your voice or how you like to communicate. If you enjoy what you are doing you will do more of what you enjoy. 

Alex Fowkes (UK - repped by We Are Goodness)

Start your practice with one letter then move to words and phrases. It’s also a good idea to look at what others are doing, but only for extra inspiration, don’t get discouraged! Loose the fear. You can always change it. If it's on paper, you can grab a new page, if it's on a wall you can paint over it. 

Get inspired by your fellow artists and support them, they often give you the best tips!

If you're stuck, change a pen. Different tool means thinking of a different approach.

Melita Berg (Spain)

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Sketch out some guides with a pencil on the original to make sure I leave appropriate spacing from the sides of the artboard. This way I know exactly how much space I have to work with. I like to do at least a few clean letters on a scrap piece of paper practicing the typeface I am about to use. Practice strokes let me warm up my hand and get a cleaner finish.

Melita Berg (Spain)

In my daily life I’m a massive paper & pen geek, that’s how I practice. I also never leave the house without paper, 2 black fine liners and a brush or a calligraphy pen.

Melita Berg (Spain)

The whole process of experimenting with a new tool, material or a medium until I know how to make the best use of it is exhilarating. There is something unexplainably magical about hitting as many different surfaces, areas, countries with my work as possible.

Recently I collaborated with Paco Rabanne making around 500 custom calligraphic pieces in a day, which really lifts you to another level as well as sending you slightly crazy.

Melita Berg (Spain)

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Play with movement - my work must have energy, and I can really see when it's not there. This comes from taking risks with the sweep of a pen - you might get it totally wrong, but unless you take a break and go 'whoosh', the natural energy and movement isn't there. Line weight and fatness of letters can make or break a piece.

Sarah Coleman aka Inkymole (UK)

It’s crucial to learn how to use a variety of materials. Don't be tied to one, and don't be afraid to make marks with a new thing – wobbly as it might look at first.

Being able to lean hard into a paper without it distorting the line or spreading your ink (called 'feathering') is essential.

Sarah Coleman aka Inkymole (UK)

Personal work provides a chance to take a risk on something and work in a style that's not in your portfolio. Working off-the-clock can be difficult to squeeze in but finding opportunities in things like the posters for our gallery shows, stuff for mates, promotional pieces and even things like birthday cards for family have been used as a vehicle for a bit of experimentation.

Sarah Coleman aka Inkymole (UK)

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Make sure you experiment a lot, even if the work you make is silly or weird. I find that’s the best way to come up with new ideas and styles. Even if that means creating something that isn’t even legible - if you’re not creating client work then just go with the flow and have some fun!

Tim Easely (UK)

I love the challenge of a weird shape or surface - it’s usually just an excuse to make something that you wouldn’t have any rationalisation for at any other time, so you can get a lot more creative with the letterforms.

I like to work with paint markers because they work on most surfaces and they’re nice and bright, but I’d like to work a bit more with acrylic in the future.

Tim Easely (UK)

I recently created a collection of five t-shirts for Foot Locker’s flagship stores in Europe. The designs are based around the lettering for each city, along with illustrations of landmarks and characters. It was challenging to illustrate a full set of designs and keep them well balanced, but it was also really fun to work on.

Tim Easely (UK)

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Don’t try to make everything really legible, and do a lot of work. Make sure you play around with the letters as much as possible and see what you can do with them. By experimenting and having fun, you’ll find that you start to figure out what you like, and you’ll gain a much better understanding of how far you can push things, and when to pull them back so they’re easier to read.

There’s a fine balance, and sometimes figuring out what works takes a lot of sketching.

Tim Easely (UK)

Capturing the tone and feeling of the story has as much to do with the lettering style as the illustrations.

For me, it is important that the style of typography reflects the subject matter of the picture book to keep an element of authenticity.

For example, Laika – an illustrated book about the Soviet space dog – takes inspiration from the typographical elements of 1950s propaganda posters and Constructivism.

I looked at Russian letters and tried to add elements of them into my English words, so that they felt authentic with the setting. Anybody speaking both English and Russian would be confused with the misappropriation of the Russian letters, but I'm using my artistic licence here.

To create the text, I studied the shapes, kerning and flourishes used [in those posters] to get a good idea of the approach – and then started playing loosely on the computer, until I got something I felt happy with. Then it was just a case of polishing those letters and choosing appropriate usages and placement within the image.

Owen Davey (UK)

I like being able to play with letterforms.  I'm a hand-lettering artist rather than a typographer so for me, each letter is an individual illustrated image to be explored and re-designed.

Working with hand-lettering gives me a framework in which to experiment with colour, tone, pattern, scale and decoration without having to worry about high concepts or figurative story-telling. I find it very freeing.

Linzie Hunter (UK)

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All of my work starts with drawing – directly working with pen on paper. I focus upon capturing the shapes and letterforms rather than their overall placement and composition.

Learning technical skills of using materials or software offers a means to explore imagery, but there are no shortcuts to developing a personal direction of work.

It is only over time that I’ve been able to recognise the recurring themes that form the foundation of my work. This is a process of developing skills, craft, a personal language and style.

Matt Lyon (UK)

Experimentation is very important in order to develop.

The beauty of true experimentation is that accidents can happen and produce unexpected outcomes. It's very easy to get stuck in a certain way of working.

While you should perfect your craft it shouldn't become dogmatic and stilted. Find inspiration in subjects that interest you other than looking at existing illustration and type. 

Supermundane (UK)

As a designer you have the ability to see the world in new ways and experiment with ideas, form, and technique: but developing a unique visual language takes time. It is something that cannot be rushed.

Be honest with yourself and discover the parts of your illustrations that work the best and develop these ideas. The more time you invest, the more chance you have of creating work with integrity.

Supermundane (UK)

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Just dive in and start creating. Ignore the rules for now and just get something done.

As important as all the little nuances and rules of typography are, they aren't going away and whenever you have down time, you can read up on it and apply your newfound knowledge practically.

Jonny Wan (UK)

Determine which words need to be emphasized and create very loose pencil sketches and try to capture any happy accidents. First think of what the text needs to convey, the context it will be viewed in and how you want the viewer to feel.

Nate Williams (USA)

Figure out your own path. Play first, think later; be expressive and spontaneous.

Nate Williams (USA)

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Seek inspiration outside your industry. Try new things and refine your approach. Taking a mix of influences will be a recipe for something unique.

Nate Williams (USA)