The Typography, Lettering and Calligraphy Cousins

Sep 1, 2014 · 4 min read

What’s the difference between a type designer and a typographer?

To most of us, they mean the same thing. But mix up type design with typography when you’re talking to an expert and you stand the risk of being corrected. Matthew Carter (the creator of the popular Verdana, Tahoma and Georgia typefaces) did just that when interviewer Mia Cinelli called him a typographer.

‘You referred to me as a typographer, which is generous of you, because that normally implies more than type design. Typographers I think are also users of type design, which I’m not. I don’t design books. I don’t design posters. I have to rely on other people to take my type-faces and put them to use.’

Type terminologies are never quite as straightforward as they seem.

Unlike other sciences like biology where each species fits into a larger genus and chemistry where elements are slotted into a periodic table, the inter-dependencies between different types of letterforms mean that their classification is fluid at best.

Every blanket term (like typography) that is used to denote letterforms is subject to debate and almost everyone has a different view about what a particular term should include and what it shouldn't. It’s a bit of a knotty issue.

But in a broad sense, we can safely split letterforms into three sub categories based on how they’re created, their physical characteristics and what they’re used for:

  1. Typography – the creation and usage of physical characters that are reusable
  2. Lettering – drawing letters
  3. Calligraphy – writing letters


Typography is typically used for the creation of books and other material that can be produced on a large scale.

In the early days of the printing press, each character was physically molded and set in a movable typesetting machine that imprinted letters on paper. But now digital typefaces have made typography much more accessible to the masses and type foundries have moved on from typesetting machines to Photoshop, Illustrator and font editing software like Fontlab.

‘Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters.’ ― Matthew Carter

The difference between a typographer and a type designer is comparable to the difference between making and playing a musical instrument. A person who creates a guitar is not a guitarist. The person who plays it is. Naturally, it is possible to both design and use type (like Hermann Zapf, Cooper and Bodoni).

Professional print, graphic and web designers are all typographers since they choose typefaces and attributes based on their suitability for a particular medium or project. But typography itself includes both type design and type usage.


Lettering is not so much writing as drawing. For instance, a person who can’t speak, write or understand Japanese can create beautiful Japanese script. It has fewer constraints and more artistic licence than type design.

A letterer usually draws characters on paper, Wacom tablets or directly in image editing software like Illustrator and will then add artistic elements to the character. But in its final form, lettering has the advantage of transcending mediums.

‘It is a rarer gift to lay words out properly than to write them’ — Nicholas Barker

Lettering is imperfect and quirky compared to the militant precision of typography, but as they say, therein lies its charm.

Another reason why lettering is so popular is that while good custom lettering takes years to perfect, enthusiasts can still pick up the basics with relative ease before trying their hand at more disciplined fields like typography and calligraphy.


Calligraphy literally means ‘beautiful writing’. (In Greek, kallos means beauty and graphẽ means writing.) And true to its name, attractiveness and content are given equal importance in this technique.

‘Calligraphy — the dance in a tiny stage of the living, breathing hand.’ — Robert Bringhurst

It differs from lettering in that characters are not built up from a base character. In calligraphy, words are drawn directly on paper with a few skilled strokes. In other words, it relies on penmanship rather than draftsmanship.

Before typography came into the picture, scribes used calligraphy to painstakingly hand-write entire books. But this beautiful and functional art form is still widely popular for its aesthetic value.

It has three prominent branches: Arabic, Chinese and Latin. In both Chinese and Islamic cultures, calligraphy is considered to be one of the highest art forms.

Artists use special paper, ink, pens and brushes to achieve the perfect blend of strokes and flourishes. Increasingly, tools like Kalliculator and Inkscape are bridging the divide between technology and traditional calligraphy. But old school fans still prefer the human touch.

A Quick Type Comparison Guide

Connections & Similarities

Despite all the differences that separate typography, lettering and calligraphy, they are still intrinsically linked to each other.

Typography has its roots in both lettering and calligraphy. Calligraphy is often complemented with hand-lettered decorations. And lettering borrows inspiration from calligraphic styles.

Time, language, emotion, functionality and human perception are the common threads that weave through the letterform cousins and keep them connected.

Fontli is an app for typography, lettering and calligraphy fans to share what they love best. We also talk about type here.

Type Talk

For everyone who’s obsessed with typography. Tweet to us @fontli to write for this collection.


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    Celebrators of typographic awesomeness.

    Type Talk

    Type Talk

    For everyone who’s obsessed with typography. Tweet to us @fontli to write for this collection.

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