The Difference Between Lettering and Type

In the world of design, there can be a lot of jargon, making it intimidating for newcomers on the scene. In this post, I’ll start breaking down some of the basics, venturing into the realm of typography. And more specifically, the art of lettering versus type and fonts.

To understand how they’re different, we have to first understand the fundamentals of Lettering and Type.

Let’s begin this short expedition with Lettering. Lettering can be defined simply as the art of drawing letters. Pretty broad, huh? So let’s elaborate. 

Lettering is illustrative. Each letter is a hand-made (or digitally hand-made) and unique drawing, and no two A’s or C’s are the same. The thing that really sets Lettering apart from Type and Font is the individual attention given to each letter and its role in the overall composition. Each character acts as its own little illustration. 

Lettering by sweetroaster

Beautiful mix of lettering and typography by Maggie Chen (@sweetroaster and
Now, you may be asking yourself “How is that any different from Calligraphy?” and that’s a perfectly reasonable question. Remember earlier when I said that Letting is the art of drawing letters? Well, Calligraphy is the art of writing letters. 

Markedly different in the fact that it almost exclusively uses single strokes and colors, you can essentially think of Calligraphy like “speed-lettering.” It’s more likely to be used for writing longer pieces where the designer just doesn't have the years at hand to use proper Lettering for the entire piece.

So now, we’ve broken down what Lettering is, and to some extent Calligraphy as well. To complete our triforce of design terminology, we’ve got to get into Typography. We’ve established that Lettering is the art of drawing letters, and Calligraphy is the art of writing letters. Gerrit Noordzij, professor of typeface design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, Netherlands, defined Typography as “writing with prefabricated characters.”

Typography is the art of using letters. Again, pretty general huh? Let me expand: Typography is essentially the style and appearance of printed matter. I know that sounds boring, but I promise it isn't. 

There’s so much creativity and play that comes into the arrangement of typeface and fonts that allows for beautiful work—made possible by letters that have already been created (AKA: Fonts). There’s artistry in the arrangement of those letters in print, in seeing how the text is going to come out on the page, and making the proper adjustments.

It’s the little positional details, spacing, and placement that accelerate a “nice font” to a pedal-down, peel-out powerful typeface that grabs the viewer’s attention and doesn’t let go. (Or at the very least looks well put together and not awkward and gangly). 

I hope this article brings some clarity to the main differences between Lettering and Type. When in doubt, just remember these three definitions from @ianbarnard and @inch_x_inch: “Lettering is the art of drawing letters; Calligraphy is the art of writing letters; Typography is the art of using letters.” 

lettering calligraphy and typography quote