Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age

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Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic, book reviewTechnology never stops advancing and offering new possibilities that make processes more straightforward, including those needed by artists and designers. Sometimes, however, we react against highly professional, faultless work and yearn for a return to arts and crafts that have a more natural feel to them, that look as though a human hand actually made the artwork. “Handwritten” is a book that shows us one aspect of the world of art where designers are in fact shunning the perfection of technology. It presents handwritten typographics from advertising campaigns, mainstream culture, record covers and other types of artwork from all over the world.

Steven Heller, in his introduction entitled “Sleight of Hand”, comments that “we have both gained and lost something with new technology.” Heller does mention earlier experts in hand-lettering such as Paul Rand and William Addison Dwiggins, but he explains that the book concentrates on lettering produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which he refers to as ‘the new scrawl’. Interspersed with his text are six colourful drawings for the 1975 version of “Frosty The Snowman and His Friends”, created by R. Crumb.

The examples of hand-lettering have been organised under eight headings that suggest their “means and methods of production”. Each of the headings begins with the letter s: scrawl, scratch, script, stitch, simulate, shadow, suggestive and sarcastic. At the start of each section the heading is set in a huge font that is suggestive of its meaning and also has a handwritten appearance. Thus for the heading ‘stitch’ the letters have been created by actually stitching wool through felt; they are several centimetres high and spread over onto the right-hand side of the page. For ‘simulate’ each letter is creatively formed by a series of small letters: the letter t is made up of many tiny letter ts, and so on. The headings are in fact just as creative as the work illustrated in the book. Each heading also has what might be called tags to further describe the work within them, for instance “ornate, curlicue, sinuous” for script. Each section of the book begins with a few pages of text which are then followed by illustrations showing examples of that particular type of hand-lettering.

““Handwritten” is a book that shows us one aspect of the world of art where designers are in fact shunning the perfection of technology.”

The first section, “scrawl”, whose tags are “raw, splotchy, untidy” is by far the longest with over forty pages of illustrations. The examples using scrawl range from posters through album covers to a T-shirt design for the Red Cross. As Heller and Ilic comment, scrawl is a powerful tool in advertising because it attracts attention in a way that standard typography does not. The cover for a book entitled simply “Millennium” consists of the uppercase letters of this word painted with broad, irregular brushstrokes on a white background. The various colours used are vibrant and have a gorgeous fresh quality that would make this cover stand out on any shelf in a bookshop. At the other end of the scale, the monochrome artwork for the cover of System of a Down’s “Steal This Album!” looks like the work of an amateur, but it was in fact an attempt to belittle the artificiality of much mainstream CD artwork. Again, it would surely have stood out in any music store because it is so different.

Four of the most original examples of hand-lettering are seen in a series of Japanese posters in the section entitled “suggestive”. Two of them use waterdrops to form both Roman lettering and Japanese characters on an all-over background, creating a beautifully subtle effect. The other two posters have the pattern of a fishing net covering them, and the shapes of Japanese characters are skilfully picked out on the lines of the net. There is indeed a huge variety of work within the covers of “Handwritten”; whilst some of the examples under the heading “scratch” are necessarily violent, many of the illustrations in other sections are playful, humorous and brilliantly colourful. In the section “simulate”, a poster for the magazine “Rough” features a gigantic red letter R which has been given a face with a round black nose and pointed teeth. One of its feet, wearing a blue boot, is about to squash the letters “ough”, which actually form the segments of a dismayed purple caterpillar’s body: it’s creative brilliance. The background is a colourful patchwork that contains many more mundane examples of typography.

Several of the examples of artwork do contain nudity, but I would not consider any of it to be particularly offensive.

Handwritten” contains over five hundred illustrations, almost all in full colour, although in some cases the original work was in black and white. Even if you were not interested in reading the text, it would be a superb book to browse through and admire the creativity of the artists and designers. Although not a designer myself, I was once an art student and used handwritten typography in my work; years later it is fascinating for me to see professionals still making such wonderful use of hand-lettering. For design students or graphic artists, I would say this book is a must-have. For anyone with an interest in the art and design of recent times, “Handwritten” would make a wonderful present. It is printed on high quality paper and is also available in a hardback edition that would definitely provide hours of delightful browsing.

Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic
Thames and Hudson, 2006


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Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age
by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic

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Written by frangliz

I have a degree in Fine Art but never actually worked in that field. After almost two years in Paris, I moved to Cairo and spent many years there teaching English language and literature in schools. I came back to the UK in 1999 and now work with young children. I also tutor students of all ages in French, English or Maths. I enjoy writing reviews in my spare time; another hobby of mine is photography. I have two sons who are now grown up, both working in IT.

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