Spring 2009

Drawn to be wild

Expressive, explosive and sometimes beautiful, this hand-drawn magazine lettering defies categorisation [EXTRACT]

Much has been written on the history of type design and type designers. Historians of such arcane lore have an elegant family tree of style and influence, heritage and descent, that is carefully categorised and catalogued. There is, however, an exotic lost continent of lettering design that has so far escaped close attention. This could be because of its ephemeral, one-off nature; it could be because in all but a handful of cases the designer is unknown; it could simply be because there is no one central repository to consult.

This is the field of custom lettering. In the pre-digital dark ages, before the Macintosh, even before Letraset and the Photo Typositor, the only way to produce an eye-catching expressive headline was to draw it – by hand.

The technical and functional aspects of commercial typeface production impose rigorous design strictures – or at least, pre-digital, they used to. Creating a new hot-metal font presented an enormous investment in terms of hardware, manufacturing and time, so the fonts brought to market needed to sell. This meant they had to be practical and functional, and thus, inevitably, not too wild. These strictures did not apply to hand-drawn custom lettering. Here the designers could give full reign to their imaginations. Design directions that would simply be impractical as full fonts could be freely explored. As these were one-offs, produced for a specific purpose, no attention needed to be given to how these characters might work in a different arrangement.


These examples show type in a free and (sometimes literally) explosive variety of expressive styles, shapes and effects. They come from my collection of hand-drawn type . . .

Custom Lettering Of The 60s And 70s, edited and designed by Rian Hughes (www.devicefonts.co.uk) will be published by Fiell Publishing (www.fiell.com ) later in 2009.

Read full version in Eye no. 71 vol. 18 2009

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.