A Celebration of Hand Lettering

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The last time I wrote about signage in the developing world (Go on a Type Safari, 4/1/10), I was roasted by some readers for failing to distinguish between setting type and hand lettering. I think that was a case of splitting hairs, because I was talking about layout more than how the letters got there, but I return from a winter trip to west Africa more convinced than ever that if you want to experience the freshest approaches to representing text you have to get away from computers and look at what’s being done with hand and brush. It’s harder and harder to escape the influence of computer-generated type and type effects, so those who love the creative appearance of text have to travel.

Our trip took us through both Anglophone and Francophone countries—Cameroon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo—but it wasn’t clear if any linguistic or colonial influences were at play. The lettering and layouts we saw everywhere were remarkable for their innovation and variety.

It started in Cameroon, where in Bamenda I saw my first example of what I would call dribble lettering, seen in Figure 1. This popped up in several other countries and apart from its graphical whimsy, it seemed to reinforce the message that this lettering was done by hand. One example that escaped my camera was the company logo for the Lord’s Voyages bus company, where the dribble effect evoked images of the crucifixion and was quite creepy.

Figure 1: A drop shadow with wind-blown dribble effect animates what would otherwise be just another take on Helvetica.

Figure 2 shows another take on the dribble effect, this time from a billboard in Natitingou, Benin. Here the effect is straight-ahead ghoulish, and its relationship to shopping isn’t at all clear. But without doubt the dribbling combined with what looks like a riff on R. H. Middleton’s Formal Script is eye-catching.

Figure 2: A strange sight in a French-speaking country, this loopy sign’s bloody English display type isn’t the least of its nightmarish aspects.

Also in Natitingou, you can dine at Le Gourmet, whose sign (Figure 3) starts with a 1930’s-style “oriental” look, lapsing into a line of fine and classic commercial brush caps, and finishing off with some horsey, workaday block letters for the mundane details. On the forbidding edge of the Sahel, this sign came on like a cool breeze.

Figure 3: The top two lines of this sign look like they’ve been modeled after colonial-era samples and are beautifully rendered. The food wasn’t bad either.

The ability of letterforms to communicate graphically—not just literally—is part of their power, a power that can be used or misused. The trip’s prize for mixed messages goes to the perky sign in Figure 4, mounted in front of the central prison in Kribi, Cameroon. We didn’t go in, so I can’t testify that a disco atmosphere doesn’t actually infuse the place despite the apparent promise made by this jaunty presentation.

Figure 4: Hey, kids, let’s all go to prison! This is one of the most memorable mismatches of form and message I’ve seen.

Figure 5 shows a lettering style that’s ubiquitous in west Africa, which for want of a better term I came to call squiggly. In this case the over-caffeinated effect was achieved with brush and paint, but more commonly it was used for slogans plastered on the back windshields of taxis, such as “Only With God,” or “Here Today Gone Tomorrow.” These were composed of letters cut by hand, using scissors, from self-adhesive plastic sheets and were usually created by itinerant detailers who worked their way through bus stations and taxi stands. They worked at great speed and freehand, without templates or guides. My favorite read “No Shaking.”

Figure 5: A typical example of some fancy, dancing squiggle lettering from Kaya, in Burkina Faso.

Computer-generated signage cranked out of wide-format printers is taking over the world (especially outsized, blurry Photoshop images and type), but the digital influence on vernacular signage isn’t always negative. Figure 6 shows a remarkable panel in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, displaying a typeface probably seen nowhere else: Palatino Somewhat Condensed Stencil. That it’s not seen anywhere else is probably a good thing, but I’m glad it’s visible somewhere.

Figure 6: All over the world, a common motif in decorating letters is making them appear that they’ve been generated from stencils. Here this has been taken to a new plane by adding the effect to lettering clearly generated from a computer. A page from the chapter entitled “Think Different.”

“Text on a path” was an unknown phrase in 1934 when the stucco lettering in Figure 7 was created. I don’t think it takes a romantic nature to find the irregularity of this embossing charming. This kind of thing can only be done by hand, but I’m afraid that raised stucco lettering is sliding into the mists of time, even in Elmina, Ghana, where this photo was snapped. Just say no to slick.

Figure 7: For lettering carved in stone (well, stucco), these characters really move. Their informality makes them very inviting to the eye, creating a warmth not usually associated with architectural lettering.

Bravura brushwork for everyday signage is still commonplace in west Africa—lettering is taken very seriously there—and Figure 8 is a fine example. Rendered in sort of neo-rotunda style, it looks like it was written with a giant nibbed pen. It can be admired in person in Kokrobite, just west of Accra, in Ghana.

Figure 8: On top, a banal sign, but what lettering! Below it is a sample of so-called rotunda (or “half-Gothic”) pen lettering popular in southern Europe from the 13th to 15th centuries.

Another example of pen-style lettering appears in Figure 9, this time from Kpalime, Togo. Certain letters are strikingly elegant, particularly the As, which take on an almost 3-D look. The C and S spin out of control, but the general effect is fresh and slightly exotic. I also like the faux-stencil work on the post to the left, where stencil breaks have been made in letters that don’t even need them.

Figure 9: Lettering from a different time and place, the constructivist basis of these characters and the irregularities gives them a fresh feel.

I find a lot of the lettering shown here to be inspirational, as it pushes me away from the stodginess that can come from the near-absolute typographic control that computers give. This work makes me suspect that there may be nothing more boring than perfection. It’s such a treat to feel the hand of the creator so directly.

So while many of the preceding images are offered up as food for thought, the last one (Figure 10) is different. Spotted on a country lane near Mount Kloto in Togo, it stopped me in my tracks.

Figure 10: Apart from its “Just say no to white space” aesthetic and general coarseness, I was particularly touched by this sign’s use of hanging punctuation. In lettering, as in type in general, it’s attention to detail that makes all the difference.

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