Lettering? Calligraphy? Typography? Talking about Semantics.


Check out ‘letterer’ on Wikipedia and it says ‘a member of a team of comic book creators responsible for drawing the comic book’s text’. But search ‘lettering’ on Google Image and you’ll see pretty much what we mean by ‘lettering’ today. For want of a better term, in attempting calligraphy we sometimes say ‘lettering’ as well. When you look at the image above, do you think “That’s some cool typography” or “That’s one good looking font”? So what’s the difference, and does it matter?

To start, I would like to share what I learned in college.

  • The word type means from the actual, physical cast metal type – the ones you see on a typewriter. With that in mind, it would seem that type refers to a somewhat mechanically produced letter.
  • Typeface is the design of an alphabet complete with its accessories (numbers, punctuations, symbols). Again, the end result is achieved by mechanical means. Examples are ‘Times New Roman’ and ‘Helvetica’.

Note: “Wait… aren’t those what you would call fonts?” Font is a typeface of a size along with its variation, say a 12 pt Garamond Bold. The terms become confusingly melded when the choosing of a typeface is labeled ‘font’ on computer interfaces.

  • Therefore, typography is the art of designing or arranging type, especially to prepare them for mechanical production, like printing. For this reason, in my mind typography mostly relates to bunches of neat text (as in a book) or a digitally generated layout.

Meanwhile, calligraphy is often described as the art of beautiful writing, which indicates manual labour.* I read somewhere once that it takes years for one to be called a ‘calligrapher’, prior to that, she’s a ‘letterer’. But how does lettering – not in the simple sense of ‘a form of written letter’ or ‘still learning calligraphy’, but in the image we see above – differ from calligraphy? Aside from visiting this enlightening site, let’s recognise that lettering today is almost always presumed as hand-lettering, which also implies a handmade design. Secondly, lettering seems to be closer to ‘drawing’ than ‘writing’, while the opposite applies to calligraphy. Overall, on form, calligraphy is presumed to follow certain rules, while lettering displays more freedom.



There are, of course, grey areas – especially when it comes to modern calligraphy. In the above images, the main part of the ‘lettering’ on the left certainly displays calligraphic qualities, what with uniformity and thick and thins performance. But how would you call the right image – brush lettering? Modern calligraphy? Or brush calligraphy?

Despite the differences, in the world of letters, to know some things – x-heights, ascenders, descenders – is to know the other. To learn something from one is to reap benefit for the other, too.


*While it seems that the difference between typography and calligraphy simply exists in the production means, the fact remains that a lot of typefaces are created to emulate hand-lettered calligraphic hands, traditional or modern. On the other hand (pun intended), the Neuland calligraphic alphabet was developed to imitate typefaces. Furthermore, a lot of (hand-)lettering and calligraphy are reproduced digitally.


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