The Hidden, Most Important Steps of Hand Lettering

11th Apr, 2016

How to Make a Hand Lettering Piece: Part 1

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I was nine years old, and it was the school holidays. I must have been pretty bored, because I decided to write an essay to show my teacher when I got back to school. It was entitled, "How Origami is Like Life". It described a principle which has come back again and again in my life, reaffirming its truth at the most inopportune moments. In this essay, I likened the importance of the first few origami folds to the first, formative years of life.

How they set everything up for future success or failure. How, if the first steps are a bit wonky, the resulting paper crane or human is likely to turn out worse than their well-creased counterparts.

The same is true with hand lettering - the hidden steps, the ones which you erase so they're not seen in the final product, are by far the most important. By far! They determine now only how well the piece will turn out, but how easy or difficult it is to complete it.

So I want to show you how to make it as full of ease and beauty as possible.

What are these hidden steps?

1. Write out the words

Write out the words, and decide which are important

Hand lettering is first about communication - the message is everything! The aesthetics of a piece should always serve the message, not the other way round. So the first step in making a hand lettering piece is writing the words out! In your normal handwriting, write the message you're going to hand letter.

And once you've written the words out, think about the person who will be viewing this message. How do you want them to read it? Which words do you want them to focus on? Which are unimportant? Use different coloured pens, or circling and underlining, to identify different categories. These distinctions will help you in the next step!

2. Make thumbnail sketches

Now you know which words you are going to make stand out, it's time to make some practice sketches.

Take your time here, experimenting with different layouts.

Make thumbnail sketches

Make thumbnail sketches

How to make thumbnail sketches:

  • Draw a box / shape for yourself so you have constraints to work in (for this example, I made the mistake of not doing this, and I changed my mind about the layout way too many times!)
  • Write the words out inside that shape
  • Refine, refine, refine!

Until you find a layout you love, use your normal handwriting or plain uppercase letters for the thumbnail sketches. After that you can refine the styles. If you do it beforehand, you'll use unnecessary time and energy thinking about the styles, which could be better spent thinking about the layout.

Once you're ready to refine a thumbnail sketch, decide on the styles based on which words you decided were important and unimportant. Maybe you letter all the 'unimportant' words (and, the) in the same style, etc.

3. Rule guidelines

A very important, and easily overlooked step in the hand lettering process, is ruling guidelines. It can be easy to get overexcited and want to jump straight into drawing letters - resist the urge! I've found that the more time I spend on this stage, the more focused and relaxed I can be when drawing in the letters - because I don't have to guess or estimate anything. It eliminates all the niggling doubts, like:

  • "Is this letter going to fit in the frame?"
  • "Should I move this word over a little?"
  • "Is this line off centre?"

Rule guidelines

Where to rule lines:

  • Border - I usually use the width of a ruler for this
  • Vertical centre - straight down the middle of the page
  • Text lines - I don't very often measure these precisely. Instead, I estimate the height of each line by the words which will reside there
  • Gaps between text lines - words don't often sit right on top of each other, the bottom of one line touching the top of the one beneath. Rule in the space between lines

4. Give each letter a place

This step will save you so much time and heartache. Honestly, I sometimes skip this step because I doubt its importance. And every time I skip it, I regret it. Give it a go, and experience the freedom that comes with knowing where each letter is going to go.

Mark spaces for each letter

Here's how you do it:

  • Count how many letters are in a word
  • Draw in spaces for each of those letters
  • Be careful of the letter 'i' - it's a lot thinner than any other letter, compensate accordingly!

Now you're ready to put the letters in! Your initial folds are complete, and you're ready to make the rest of your origami crane! In next week's article, I'm going to show you the second stage of making a hand lettering piece, and share with you the secret of making your hand lettering stand out.

If you enjoy seeing more behind-the-scenes posts, you can add me on Snapchat - lettersbyc. Talk with you soon!