When people refer to my craft, they often use the words lettering and calligraphy interchangeably. Of course, this doesn’t offend me — I actually do both. But, to someone who isn’t familiar hand-crafted typography, the difference between lettering and calligraphy can be difficult to distinguish. When you dig in, you’ll see that these are 2 completely different types of artforms.

Let’s dive deep and explore what separates lettering and calligraphy.

Lettering vs. Calligraphy

The main factor that separates lettering from calligraphy is that in lettering, letterforms are constructed of many bits and pieces. These letterforms are drawn, not written, whereas in calligraphy, the letterform is written with a single stroke.

Calligraphy is essentially a visually expressive form of writing. Conventionally, it is done with a quill and ink. The quill enables the penman to apply a variety of pressures to achieve different line widths. Calligraphy can be written in any language, and within each language, there are countless styles that have persisted and evolved over centuries.

Nowadays, we don’t write much because we have a keyboard. Most elementary cirriculums are dedicating more time to teaching students to touch type rather than to write with their hands.

But prior to computers and typewriters, learning good penmanship was a requirement for students. If you’ve ever had the chance to see vintage letters or postcards from the past century, you probably remember just how beautiful the penmanship was. Even though calligraphy is an artform, it traditionally served a utilitarian purpose.

Good calligraphy follows a system of rules that help create a consistent visual rhythm. Precise measurement of letter heights, line spacing, and angles are major parts of this system. Lettering tends to tastefully bend these rules to create a more organic composition.

The practice of lettering focuses more on the overall composition as a whole. In a lettering composition, the relationships between letters and words are much less rigid and systematic than calligraphy and are often comprised of multiple styles. The addition of illustrations, ornaments, perspective, and other decorative aspects can also be added to add uniqueness to the lettering piece.

Calligraphy Will Help Your Lettering

Practicing lettering or calligraphy isn’t mutually exclusive. I started out doing calligraphy before I started drawing letters and I still practice calligraphy even though my main focus is lettering. Before breaking out of the bounds of the systems that calligraphy impose, it is extremely beneficial to learn the importance of those systems.

The practice of calligraphy involves carefully studying each letterform and writing it countless times in the contexts of different words and sentences. A seasoned calligrapher can recreate these complex letterforms and flourishes from muscle memory. Understanding and respecting the intricate qualities of each letter will undoubtedly improve your lettering.