Friday, May 22, 2015

Thoughts on Hand Lettering, an Interview with Whitney Anderson

Over the course of the winter and into the spring, I was employed at Broadway Paper in the Third Ward. I enjoyed my time there and learned a lot about the contemporary stationery, invitation, greeting card, and gift wrap industries.

I also learned, by observation and by requests from customers, that the art of hand lettering seems to be back in vogue. I was lucky to work in a store where the merchandising and displays always possessed a human touch, and many of the signs around the store were also hand lettered by our in-house graphic designer Whitney Anderson.

The thing about hand lettering is that, when it's done really well, it almost takes awhile to realize what a profound skill it actually is. I stared at Whitney's signs for a few months during the course of my employment before realizing: Holy crap. I couldn't even write like that if I tried!

I thought it might be fun to interview Whitney about this special niche hobby so I could get an idea of what exactly it takes to be a handletterer. Whitney was nice enough to meet with me over coffee the other morning to hash it out.

Interview with Whitney Anderson, graphic designer and master hand letterer!

Me: So, let's start with the basics. Where are you from, where did you go to school, what did you study? 
WA: I was actually born in Washington state and lived there until I was eight. Then we moved to a small town in Illinois that my grandparents lived in so we could take care of them as they were getting older. It was in Newark, Illinois, about an hour south of Chicago. After that I moved to Wisconsin to got to UWM. I chose UWM because of my high school graphic design teacher who was from Wisconsin. My original plan was to go to an art school, but since art school is very expensive, this teacher recommended UWM, which has a good program. I'm glad I went there, I had a good experience. 

Me: Why did you choose graphic design?
WA: I was huge into art when I was growing up, but sophomore year the art teacher I had all through school left, and I didn't really like the other art teacher so I took a graphic design class. Then I realized "Ooh, this is like art!" and I fell in love with it. If we hadn't done that in high school, I have no idea what I'd be doing right now. A lot of the classes we had to take for graphic design were ceramics and other art classes, which I also like. I really like making things with my hands. I feel like the other people in my classes don't make things with their hands and I don't think that's good. I just love making things, I think I get that from my mom, she is huge into sewing and is a creative person.

Me: How long have you been making art?
WA: Since forever. I remember being in kindergarten and drawing this picture of two people with these extravagant outfits. I used to draw girls with these giant bell bottoms. The bigger the bell bottoms the happier I was. I once made my mom take one of my drawings to a photo copier and make copies and then I gave them out to my class because I liked it so much. I feel like I was always making things out of pipe cleaners and buttons and all this stuff. All through elementary school and middle school my art classes were always my favorite.

Me: When did you discover a love for hand lettering?
WA: Probably two years ago. I've always really liked hand-writing things. I guess in the past couple of years seeing things start to pop up on Pinterest, and then following some people on Instagram and thinking, "Wow, this is really cool, I wonder if I could do this." And I just started to mimic what other people were doing and then I just started branching out into my own thing. A lot of it started in my notes in my lectures in class. I would just be bored in lectures so I would write the date or some random thing and just try and make it look cool.

Me: So it wasn't part of the design curriculum at all?
WA: No, it wasn't. I mean, some schools might offer it. I had a typography class, but it had nothing to do with hand-anything. It was like, these are the rules of typography, and this is what you should do. The class that I was in we didn't make any typeface, it was like, lay out a poster that's just letters. Play with the size, transparency, overlapping, etc.

Me: So what are some of the projects you've worked on that involve hand lettering?
WA: When I was working at Starbucks for two years, I was the one solely doing the menu boards when we would rotate the schedules. They send you a picture of what they want it to look like, and it's always really boring, and my boss is always like, "Whitney, can you make this look better?" I've done just a couple other random projects, a couple logos that people have wanted, a couple tattoos for people, phrases and words and such. I've done a couple of things for my parents as well, they own a pumpkin farm, so I've made them some signs and posters.

Me: Who/what are some of your hand lettering inspirations? 
WA: Most of my inspirations are people that I follow on Instagram. Daniel Patrick is one of the biggest ones, he was one of the first people that I started following. Sometimes actually going to antique stores and seeing old stuff painted on brick buildings is an inspiration. 

Me: Does your background (like, where you came from) inspire your work at all? 
WA: I don't know. I think so. I would attribute me growing up in the middle of nowhere and having nothing to do, yes, because I practiced drawing a lot. Back when I was living on the farm I wasn't hand lettering yet, but I drew a lot when I was little.

Me: Do you think hand lettering is going through a phase of popularity?
WA: Definitely. It might be here to stay, I don't know. Over the past couple years it's become a lot more saturated, and everyone is doing it. I think the hand in general is coming back into style. Things that look hand drawn. It kinda sucks because it does seem like it's just a phase because people will say things like, "Oh you're doing that handlettering thing, that's really popular right now," and I'm like, "I've been doing this for two years!"

Me: Do you have a "dream job" you're hoping to get that has anything to do with hand lettering? 
WA: There are so many. There's just so many different directions. I feel like eventually one day I would love to just freelance handletter. Just doing whatever. Anything and everything. Or something that's more like the whole Trader Joe's or Whole Foods thing like, I'm employed by a company but I'm still hand lettering.* On the other hand, I love graphic design, and I feel like handlettering is just my obsession right now. I still want to be in graphic design, but maybe something that's more creative and less structured, something more laid back and folky. I would also like to have my own freelance design projects - think Rifle Paper Company - but the market is so saturated right now. All of that stuff looks the same and there's like a thousand people doing that so if I started doing that it wouldn't go anywhere. 

Me: Yeah, I hear ya. Those Rifle Paper dudes have it good.


In the defense of continuing to hand letter, even if it is just "trendy" right now, and "everyone's doing it," when I decided I wanted to write a post specifically about hand lettering, I couldn't actually find that many people who do it. I could think of Whitney, and then a few other well-known people I follow on Instagram, but I couldn't think of anyone else who regularly boasts a handlettering hobby. Also, as I mentioned, just because everyone technically possesses a "handwriting" doesn't mean that everyone can "hand letter." It's hard! I often sit down with a pen and pencil after work and attempt to make beautiful letters out of my head, and I usually come up with crap. I once spent a couple of months trying to perfect my signature a long, long time ago. But that's it. Since then I have not sat down and tried to improve my handwriting, or change it, or make it into something profound. 

I am interested to see if hand lettering is in its early stages of popularity and will keep growing into the mainstream again, or if it is really just a current trend. Keep an eye out, and keep practicing, because you just never know. History repeats itself, right?

*The Whole Foods or Trader Joe's thing Whitney was referring to is a specific hand lettering job that requires the employee to travel to several different branches in the area and hand letter the chalkboards.

Thanks, Whitney!

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