Learn From The Past To Do Better Now

An Interview with Typeface designer and letterer Ken Barber

Studying historical models is a one method used to learn letterforms. TypeThursday sat down with typeface designer and letterer Ken Barber to discuss how learning from the past can make you a better designer today.


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The Origins of Modern Script Styles

TypeThursday: Thanks for being here for TypeThursday! Ken, I invited you here because you’re offering a special 4 day Advanced Techniques in Script Lettering course at Cooper Union this month. For those who may not know, what is the main difference between this advanced workshop compared to your previous workshops?

Ken Barber: My introductory script lettering class is centered on drawing the formal roundhand style, and using it as a platform for exploring more informal hands. This four-day workshop, intended for intermediate and advanced students, expands on that theme, illustrating how historical models form the basis for much of today’s script lettering. In addition to uncovering the origins of modern script styles, we’ll delve into the nitty-gritty of flourishing, letter construction and layout.

Ken demonstrates the influence of Italian hand on modern Spencerian lettering.

TT: What historical models will be covered in the workshop?

KB: After a refresher on drawn roundhand, we’ll survey various 19th century models related to Spencerian writing, including Copperplate, Engraver’s Script and so-called Display Writing. Students will also glean ideas from 20th century examples, most notably modern Spencerian lettering which emerged sometime around the late 1960s to early 1970s. A super-charged version of Italian Hand will also be tackled.

TT: How would a student identify these various 19th and mid 20th century styles? Is there a heuristics students may use to tell the difference from one of these styles from another?

We’ll look at examples not as an effort to imitate them, but primarily as takeoff points for pieces of contemporary hand-lettering.

KB: Distinctions between the styles originating from 19th-century American handwriting are fairly well chronicled; Michael Sull illustrates the differences in Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship. That being said, we’ll look at examples not as an effort to imitate them, but primarily as takeoff points for pieces of contemporary hand-lettering.

Modern Spencerian lettering, and the variations related to it, is a bit trickier. While there are telltale characteristics of the style, students will take a hands-on approach in their exploration of the genre. Of course, they’ll be guided by slide presentations, drawing demonstrations, handy exercises, and loads of handouts.

The Roman alphabet has a centuries-old legacy, a fact that’s difficult to ignore.

TT: So, from your experience teaching, you’ve found using historical sources is an effective method to developing contemporary styles with students. Is that correct?

The top portion illustrates a stylized version of late-19th century Spencerian display, an adaptation of American copperplate for publicity purposes. The bottom sketch is an example of 20th century Spencerian lettering influenced by “Italian hand” calligraphy.

KB: Yes. The Roman alphabet has a centuries-old legacy, a fact that’s difficult to ignore. Considering that the letters’ forms have long been established, it makes sense to examine traditional models. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for interpretation. Spencerian lettering from the 20th century is a good example of the evolution of lettering: the style is based on classic English roundhand, but its incarnation during the late 1960s and early 70s bears little more than a slight resemblance to its origins. When you consider the history of letterforms, how one idea is built on another, it’s only natural to look back in order to move forward. Even Tschichold eventually came around to the idea.

TT: From the way you just said “look back in order to move forward”, it sounds like studying historical models was what you used to learn lettering yourself. Would that be fair to say?

KB: Absolutely. Being largely self-taught, I picked up much of what I’ve learned from instructional ad lettering books published between the 1930s and 60s. Most of them advocated this very same approach: riffing on historical reference, whether it’s a more traditional face such as Caslon or an avant-garde one like Futura. Scripts were handled in the same manner. In fact, Tommy Thompson makes the case in The Script Letter that even the most seemingly novel contemporary styles can be traced to models established centuries ago.

Of course, there are always exceptions, pointed brush script being one of them. But even the idiosyncrasies of pointed brush script as developed in the 1930s have more to do with formal differences; the structure of the letterforms largely follows roundhand, in spirit at least. That being said, pointed brush script has enough unique characteristics to make the style better suited to cover in a separate course. Shameless plug: I’m also conducting a brush script lettering workshop this month at Cooper Union.

I generally recommend that students get a solid grounding in history and standard practices.

TT: From what you’re saying, being self-taught meant you had to refer to books and be self motivated to apply what you would read. Looking back, was that a blessing or a curse for your development as a designer?

KB: Had I suspected that making letters would be my calling, I probably would have sought more formal instruction when I was in school. Yet, despite the disadvantages of self-learning, there have been a few surprising benefits. I’m glad for the period during my early career when I didn’t feel restricted by limitations for the sake of following tradition or conventional thinking. Of course, I paid the price with plenty of embarrassing work. With that in mind, I generally recommend that students get a solid grounding in history and standard practices. The adage about knowing rules before breaking them might be overused, but it’s usually underrated.

TT: That’s interesting you weren’t always interested in letter making as your profession. What sparked your interest to move in the lettering direction?

KB: To be fair, I was interested in making letters even before attending art school. Hardcore 7-inch record sleeves and Santa Cruz Skateboards ads taught me that design, illustration and lettering didn’t have to be treated separately. And though I dug drawing letters and tried to shoehorn them in assignments whenever possible, I always thought I’d be the kind of graphic designer who tackled a number of disciplines.

The turning point for me came during my first fulltime design gig when I comped the title for a book jacket. The excitement from my proposal being selected soon faded, however, when names of letterers who might potentially finish the job started being thrown around. I guess I was naive, because I assumed that I would produce the final artwork. While the end product was superior to anything I could have done at that point in my career, the experience set me on a path to pursue lettering with more focus. My next job allowed me to flex my drawing skills a little more, until the fellas at House scraped together enough cash to finally bring me on full-time. After Allen Mercer left the company, for a short period I was responsible for nearly all of the illustration, lettering and typeface design coming out of the studio. Thankfully, Chris Gardner was recruited to take care of drawing duties, which gave me the opportunity to concentrate on making letters almost exclusively.

TT: From what you just shared, the motivation to focus on lettering was when you realized there was a gap between those professional letterers and yourself as a junior designer. Do I have that correct?

KB: I don’t recall experiencing such a direct realization at the time. I would say that the transition to a concentration on letter-making was more organic, gradually produced by a series of circumstances which ultimately led me in that direction.

TT: I agree. You shared before your interest in the lettering on record sleeves and skateboards prior to art school. You also shared at House Industries the opportunity to focus on lettering opened up thanks to personnel responsibilities being shifted. Both in a gradual and organic manner.

That story of the book jacket was also an event to move you toward lettering. Can you help me understand what you meant when you said that event was a turning point for you?

KB: I suppose the event showed me that a focus on letter-making was an option, even if I didn’t pursue it exclusively until years later. At that point I was content doing illustration and graphic design, too. The experience wasn’t an epiphany, exactly, yet it was an important signpost along the way.

TT: Ken, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.

KB: My pleasure. Thank you!