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Necessary then, distinctive now: Historic hand lettering can inspire today's contemporary designers.


by Sheree Clark


Vintage Vornado
Tracy Holdeman, founder and Priciple of Insight Design, reports that his design firm uses retro references in many projects, but until this assignment he'd never had a client not only ask for retro, but also be able to provide the historic reference material. His client, Vornado Air Circulation Systems, decided to bring one of its former products–the VornadoFan–back to life. Holdeman's firm developed packaging and a sales brochure based on an old owner's guide cover–even recreating a worn, faded look for the background color– along with elements of Vornado advertisements from the 1950s. Insight Design reinvented the Vornado logotype, invoking the era of the original hand lettering.


Type hunters agree
Enthusiasts of hand lettering find that the quest for references is almost as satisfying as transforming their inspirations into design. Good historic type is often found in everyday objects that are ephemeral or one of a kind. The perfect type treatment is liable to arise from a vintage hand-lettered article thatÕs gathered dust for decades.
In the first half of the 20th century a significant workforce was engaged in the production of one-off posters, signs, and show cards. Distinctly different from commercially set type, the work created by "lettering artists" was included in all sorts of advertisements as well as what we would now call environmental graphics. The supply of display fonts available for use was limited, and frequently there was no alternative to hand-rendered type–even for things that would be mechanically reproduced.


So what killed the demand for professional hand lettering? Among the more notable factors was the 1959 introduction of Letraset, transferable lettering that made custom work possible without advanced drawing skills. Another likely cause was the Photo Typositor, which revolutionized typesetting in the 1970s and '80s. With this machine, the operator could visually do kerning so that the type could be set tight, normal, wide, or even with letters touching. Yet another factor may have been the design education curriculum, which had evolved from emphasizing manual techniques to stressing conceptual skills.
Today's designer–not constrained by the stash of rub-down letters available at art supply stores, nor confined to the hours the typesetter's studio is open–has an infinite array of options for employing display type. But the truth is that the allure of handdrawn type persists. There is certain charm to that which is custom made for a particular project or use. Such work is inarguably more human in its feel, perhaps because of its inherent flaws and imprecision. Luckily, the lettering artists of days gone by have left us a legacy–an impressive lot of reference material–and today's designers are smart to gain inspiration from those typographic pioneers. For many designers, the quest to find handrendered reference material is almost as much fun as winning a typography award. While much of the research done for design projects today is conducted from an ergonomical chair in front of a nonglare computer screen, good historic typography examples are often found in things that were ephemeral, many one of a kind. Let's look at where to find some wonderful reference materials for this vanished era.


Antique stores and malls
Even if you're not an antique buff, you'll benefit from a shopping trip to one of these venues. Pick one that specializes in paper goods–including books–for the best selection of historic typeface examples. You may find your inspiration in some unexpected places, such as an old high school yearbook, a manual for a household item, or even the metal plate on a small appliance. Don't forget to check out antiques venues when you travel, as different regions will yield various sorts of items.
Tag, garage, and estate sales because people who have lived in their homes for a number of years typically accumulate stashes of old books, magazines, packaging, and all sorts of interesting things. Items at a garage or estate sale are often in excellent condition and attractively priced. To find sales in your area, consult the newspaper or keep your eyes open for signs posted on telephone poles.


Used bookstores and book fairs
any designers report picking up a coveted copy of an old Graphis annual or an ancient Art Direction show book at a dusty bookstore or during a book fair. Also available in these settings are things like old comic books, posters, and occasionally even used record albums. Best of all, the items are typically priced to move. Another source for rare and out-of-print books is, of course, the internet. Check out sites such as or


Going-out-of-business sales
ery often old retail stores will sell everything when they close–from fixtures to scrapbooks of their old advertisements to in-store signage. And you can strike a bonanza when a printer or service bureau decides to change locations and subsequently parts with old samples or reference materials. You may not even need to wait for a business to have a sale; sometimes a well-timed inquiry will be rewarded.
Through the viewfinder in your camera there are many reference materials you might never truly own, but can "collect" just the same via a photographic image. Signage, marquees, exhibits, or other unobtainable artifacts are easily captured. Take your camera everywhere or invest in a disposable one for when something engages your eye.


Online auctions
K, now we're back in front of a computer screen, but the fact is there is a ton of good reference stuff on eBay and other auction sites. Check out auctions for magazines such as Flair (produced for just one year and highly stylized), vintage clothes that still have their hangtags attached, or old board games. It's no secret that many designers use the work of their contemporaries as a jumping off point for their own projects. By looking back further–to a time when "lettering artist" was a career path–new creative dimensions are open to exploration.



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