Meet Jonathan Ball, a freelance designer based in Seattle who specializes in custom lettering and typographic design. Lettering is a skill that takes a lot of practice—but Jonathan was kind enough to break down his process in extremely actionable steps so anyone dabbling in the art of lettering can walk away with some helpful tips and refine their process even further. Today Jonathan will be walking us through how he created this new lettering piece, Make it til you make it.
Hey Dribbblers! I’m very pleased to share with you a little insight into my lettering process. Writing about my design process is something that I’ve put off for too long, so I’m excited to finally get to share this with you all. I created this piece for all of the makers out there. I hope this will inspire you to keep on making whatever it is you make.
Step 1: Ideation & sketching
My process for lettering always begins by sketching basic layouts. I prefer to start on paper because it’s quick, cheap, and easy. The iPad is a phenomenal tool, but the best thinking is done on paper.
I start with rudimentary thumbnails in order to focus on hierarchy and overall composition. Keeping thumbnails as small as possible prevents me from getting bogged down in the details too early. This is the time to establish a good read order for the composition rather than focusing on superfluous embellishments. Decorating comes later. Aside from drawing, I might also create a word association list to help formulate a more conceptual approach. I list anything that comes to mind and then group words based on their relationships.
Step 2: Exploring letterforms & styles
I’ll often create studies of a single letterform rather than an entire word to explore potential treatments. In this instance, the letter “M” is used to explore a variety of styles. Since this piece is personal work, it’s a fairly big spread. Here, I’m more concerned with exploring novel styles than achieving any established objective. Exploration for client work is typically more focused due to its adherence to a specific brief.
Aside from paper and pencils, I use a variety of ink-based lettering tools such as the Pentel Art Brush and Pilot Parallel Pen to create letters more rapidly. I’ll draw all over the place, spreading the sketches across my sketchbook, loose tracing paper, and my iPad.
Step 3: Iterative refinement
Once I’m happy with the general direction of a thumbnail, I begin to explore the layout further by drawing successively larger versions. This is the time when a digital tablet—such as an iPad or any digital drawing equivalent, is extremely productive. I use digital tools to rapidly iterate on the layout, refining the original drawing by tweaking hierarchy and stylistic treatments. Both the style and vertical setting should reinforce the read order. I might also try a couple of additional solutions that pop into my head.
I continue to iterate and refine the base letterforms, only introducing a few additional details. I try my best to stay focused on the big picture, reminding myself that the lesser ornamental details can be more easily resolved in the next stage: Vector.
Step 4: Vectorization & ornamentation
I start the vectoring process by setting up guides over my finished sketch in Affinity Designer (though any vector editing software will do the job). Then I set my sketch to a very low opacity (maybe 10-20%) and set my stroke color to black at an opacity of ~70-80% so that I can still see the sketch. Point by point, I roughly shape in the primary letterforms, making small adjustments to the sketch as I go.
Learning how to handle bezier points takes a little time and a lot of practice. For smooth curves, it’s best to use as few points as possible. Place each bezier at the extremes of the shape you’re trying to create. Where are the extremes? Think of the extremes as all of the contact points it would make if it was inside of the smallest rectangle possible (i.e. its bounding box). With bezier handles, it’s usually best to evenly distribute the handle lengths between the two points.
While I’m vectoring, I pay close attention to the spacing of words and letterforms (inside & out), slant, and weight—noodling and fixing as I go. I might also fill in large negative spaces with some ornamentation (stars in this instance) to help balance the composition and reinforce the concept.
Step 5: Color value & frivolous detail
Part of the reason I create color value studies is to simplify color selection down the line. It’s a great way to figure out the balance of composition without drowning myself in a bottomless color picker. I’ll create a number of studies until I find one that I think has the best read, given the message. At this point, I’ll also fuss around with frivolous details and make small adjustments to both spacing and alignment—the goal being that each letterform is relatively consistent with its siblings.
Step 6: Color exploration
Last, but not least is color. Color is always a challenge for me. It’s probably my least favorite part of the process due to its subjectivity and my own indecisiveness. I try to use as few colors as possible—four at the very most, but usually just two to three. I’ll create about five or six variations to explore potential options. I tend to gravitate toward bold colors and highly saturated hues, opting for monochromatic or complementary palettes.
I’ll also take this time to reevaluate my vector drawing against my earlier sketch. Often times a vector drawing can feel a bit stiff, so it’s good to double check that the piece still has the energy of the original sketch.
Step 7: Finishing it up!
Now it’s time to finish it up. I tend to take my time with personal work, which makes it that much harder for me to decide when it’s actually finished. This is why client work is superior for finishing a project—I know when it’s time to stop because project timelines are never infinite.
Once I’m relatively satisfied with where a piece is at, the very last step is to walk away for a while. Ideally, I do this throughout the entire process. If time allows, I’ll take a break and return with fresh eyes. If my fresh eyes aren’t too bothered by what my tired eyes managed to cobble together, then it’s time to call it finished. I then grab myself a cocktail (make one last insignificant tweak that no one will ever notice) and ship it.
That’s it. Thanks for reading and following along. I hope this article helps inform some of your own processes. Please feel free to reach out if you ever have any questions. I’m always happy to help people better their letters. Now it’s your turn. Go make it!