Love Your Letters: Communicate Visually with Words

Neil Tasker, Calligraphy and Lettering

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4 Lessons (1h 13m)
    • 1. Letterform Composition

    • 2. Vectoring

    • 3. Lettering Case Study

    • 4. Texturing Effects in Illustrator


Project Description

Letter your favorite phrase (digital or analog)

Research and Sketching

  1. Get your project tools

    These are all optional but really helpful tools to get started on lettering. 

    1. Paper: Dot Grid Book or use the free download here.
    2. Pen: To start off, I'd recommend this Parallel Pen (at 6mm, the size of the nibs is based on how big you want your letters to be...)
    3. Pencil, if you prefer: try the Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder. If you go the pencil route, don't forget to get a lead sharpener as well. For lead size, 2mm is standard and what I use. 
    4. Brush: If you're going to work in brush script here are some good tools... lettering quills or brush pens

    For more details on Tools and where to buy check out this Q&A thread here

  2. Research your phrase

    Choose a phrase you would like to illustrate for your project. Research the phrase's meaning to gain insite to it's applications. Aim to understand the history of the phrase and it's origin.

  3. Create a narrative

    Draft the story behind the phrase you chose. Write it out in 2-3 sentences so you've articulated what you're trying to communicate. 

    Identify the concepts and personality you want your sketches to convey - write a list of adjectives, make a mood board - whatever will help you gather your ideas

    Remember how we talked about letterforms and personality in the lesson. This can go a long way in making your piece really shine and grabbing the viewers attention!

  4. Sketch thumbnails

    Sketch out your phrase a few times. Keep the sketches super rough. Use pencil and paper and only create thumbnails. 

    A great place to start getting the hang of lettering is copperplate script - using it as a reference and building a basis off of it. Check out some here

    Lauren Moyer shares several sketches for sailbot lettering:


  5. Sketch your phrase on grid paper

    Choose which sketch you would like to illustrate. Use grid paper to keep your lettering aligned well-ordered and well-spaced, specifically to be sure your letters are on the same baseline and on the same slant - both important for legibility! This PDF is a really helpful guide for this step. 

    For example, take a look at Marlena Prophet's sketch on grid paper:


Vectorizing Your Sketches

  1. Install Illustrator

    If you don't have Adobe Illustrator and you want to vectorize your sketches, you can find a free 30-day trial at

  2. Scan your sketch

    Make sure to get the sketch on as flat an angle as possible, especially if you're taking a photo of your sketch.


    Jennifer D'Eugenio, Textile Designer

  3. Build a grid system

    Construct a grid system around the lettering you have (use your Ruler tool) - create your baseline and your ruler.


  4. Trace your sketched shapes
    • Be patient with yourself! - it's a lot of playing around to get your shapes right. You'll need to use different tracing methods for shapes that are higher contrast, or higher pressure/thickness.
    • Punch out any surfaces that need to be and don't be afraid to adjust your curves and shapes at this point. 
    • Arrange your shapes: use the grid tool to layer them onto the sketch.


    Camilla Moreira carefully traces their project.

  5. Finalize your vectorized work

    Review the progress you have made on your vectorized sketch. Step away for a bit and come back to this - does it look right? Go back to the sentence you wrote in the last unit on what you want this phrase to articulate - do you feel it communicate well?

    In the next unit we'll cover how to add effects (rough edges, 3D etc.)

Adding Final Effects

  1. Add effects to your phrase

    The following are suggestions based on effects we covered in the video:

    • Roughen the edges of your work to make it look printed, using the Distort and Transform effect. Don't forget to scale the image up pretty big to see the impact.
    • Make your phrase 3D using the 3D effect. You can also add lines to the bevel, creating a line pattern with your pen tool. 
    • Apply texture using brushes or downloadable textures in Photoshop. Here's the link to Liam McKay's Photoshop brushes I mention in the lesson.

    Jessie Macaw demonstrates the 3D and line effect we cover in the video lesson:


Additional Resources

  • Slides for Lecture 1 here.

  • Here are some additional resources that will be helpful to learn the concepts for this unit. 

  • OPTIONALOffice Hours Q&A originally recorded live 3/8/2013 (2 hours).

  • Curious why we're using Illustrator specifically? Check out the Bezier curve to understand more! 

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