Hand lettering has long been used as a simple way for anyone to communicate a protest, to celebrate or simply to inform. All you need is an old bed sheet or card and some black paint and you can plant your ‘Kate is 21 today’ on the local roundabout for all to see. The same goes for demonstrations, sports days, carnivals, etc.
CND march in 1961 with their hand made efforts.
Bob Dylan holds a hand drawn cue card in the music video for Subterranean Homesick Blues 1967
John and Yoko in their Bed Peace protest in 1969
But with the increasing availability of low-price digital banners and posters, crude hand-lettered creations are slowly disappearing.
Printed card posters for the recent Stop the massacre march in London was designed by David Gentleman.
As with all things, as the armature becomes more sophisticated, the professional, – steeped in sophisticated computer land – will look for a more hands-on, tactile path.
Over the past decade or so, the design industry has seen a major resurgence in hand-drawn lettering. When I started my design career way back in the early sixties, this craft was the norm.
But it faded out quickly with the advent of letter setting and photo setting.
In the pre-Mac days, typography layouts would be produced by tracing off the letters from preprinted type specifications supplied by the likes of Monotype. This ‘traced off’ hand-rendered approach became a style in its own right within the design industry as a kind of antidote to the precision of the Mac.
This wobbly hand-drawn style popped up everywhere: editorial work, book jackets and especially packaging, where it conveys a more wholesome and organic quality, especially on foodstuffs.
A hand drawn annual report by Purpose Design
And Derk Birdsall's classic 70's hand drawn cover. (yes it's always been done before)
Earlier in the year, I listened to a remarkable interview on BBC 4’s PM programme between presenter Eddie Mair and guest David Nott about Nott’s time as a surgeon in a secret hospital in Syria tending to the horrific daily carnage during the continuing hostilities. It was a harrowing and sickening account of the horror that Nott had to deal with, which he described in unflinchingly graphic and bloody detail. At one point, Mair was so moved that he became dumbstruck for almost a minute on air.
This entire interview became a catalyst for artist Bob and Roberta Smith: he set about hand lettering the entire transcript of the interview on a 5m X 4m panel. It was part of this year’s RA Summer Exhibition.
I heard Bob and Roberta Smith (what an irritatingly stupid name) on the radio talking about this work. I was keen to see the result, so I went along to the RA show.
Smith's 5m X 4m panel of tightly spaced caps recording the Mair Nott interview.
Somehow, I was expecting to be moved by the experience, but standing there in front of this monolith (above) of black, all-caps hand lettering on a white painted board did nothing apart from slowly enrage me. It reduced Nott’s powerfully moving words to a barely functional mess. There was no attempt at typographical sensitivity, consistency, quality or balance. It was produced without finesse and looked dreadful and, importantly, was hard to read. A long block of text all in caps is always a bad idea.
Having spent the best part of my life involved with letterforms, I just can’t accept the banality and amateurism of this artist’s work: work where there seems to be no attempt at real craft. But, of course, the art establishment adores him, and even D&AD commissioned him to produce the album cover in 2010.
Bob and Roberta Smith's 2010 D&AD cover.
Was it ironic? Perhaps I am missing something.
More of Smith's efforts.
If you have ever been to one of the many First World War graves in France or Belgium, you will always find a wall of the names of the soldiers buried in the cemetery. This roll call of hundreds of names is terribly moving, no matter what your view on war is. The British war graves were designed with great dignity by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens who commissioned MacDonald Gill (brother of Eric) to design the typography.
MacDonald Gill's original typographical design for the War Grave Commision
A young British artist who uses lettering in his work but, in my view, to great effect is Rory Pilgrim. Based in Holland, he has been supported by various Dutch art grants. Much of his work relates to religious themes, and he has adopted the hand-lettered poster style that often appears on church notice boards throughout the UK. He creates a wonderful serenity with his simple, meditative installations.
Understanding Rory Pilgrim
The Rainbow Rory Pilgrim
De Stille Revolutie Rory Pilgrim
Designers like Alan Kitching and Anthony Burrill have revived the craft and technical skill of letterpress printing.
Anthony Burrill's saleable slogans
David Shrigley has graduated from the commercial world to the rarefied environment of the art gallery with his hand-drawn wit.
Some on Tracey Emin's 'profound' words.
The banality of the words and ideas behind these amaze me – I would rather have a beautiful Alan Kitching typographical map any day.
One of Alan Kitching's many beautifully letterpressed map creations.
I'll end with the work of Robert Indiana who has been at it with hand-drawn lettering and random words since the late 1950s and still going strong.
Lastly 3 words for John and Yoko:
Three of a kind: Related post