Advice to graphic designers for sketching type?

caboume's picture

There are times when I need to sketch out
a name, acroynm, or phrase in a particular
typeface during the conceptual stage.

Usually, I just write out the name with
a thick marker. However, this technique best
conveys form, direction, etc..but NOT the
subtleties of weight, contrast -- especially
with serif faces.

My attempts to "draw" out the typefaces more
clearly seem rather dissappointing.

For those who may know, are there any helpful
methodologies or advice to be given as to how to
sketch out letters more clearly?

Note, I am a graphic designer not an illustrator,
nor have I designed type before, thus my drawing
skills lack savvy.

p.s. the technique known as "building-up" the letter,
is one that has merit, but takes too much time with the
filling in...I need something more efficient yet
visually clear.

hello_caleb's picture

yes i am curious as well.

caboume - can you explain "building up"?

Norbert Florendo's picture

Graphic designers who trained before Macs and PostScript had to "comp" headlines so clients could review the concept before going further with production.

How? Either you were good freehand, or would trace from type specimen books or even trace designs from Letraset sheets.
Later, when scaling became available on Xerox machines, you could cut and paste a "comped" headline.
Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

Norbert Florendo's picture

What do I do today?

I find a pdf specimen of the typeface, do screen shots, then cut & paste in Photoshop.

oldnick's picture

Use a reasonably soft pencil -- 2B to 4B -- well sharpened, and be prepared to do a lot of erasing.


Yes, I'm old, but so's your old man...unless he's dead, like my old man.

hrant's picture

I do a lot less sketching that many people here, but I've found that the "ghost" left by an erased not-TOO-soft lead serves as a great guide. Of course the paper plays a huge role there too.


oldnick's picture

Using pencil and eraser allows the eraser to become a drawing tool as well...

caboume's picture


"Building up" refers to a technique letterers would
use in which they first drew a stick outline of the shape,
then proceeded to color or "build up" the letter until
the form matured.

I found this link in the Wiki section, "how to.."

It seems pretty informative, though I wonder if there
are more "secrets" designers use.

thanks for sharing your suggestion.

I could just take the easy way out and work straight on
the computer, but I would like to utilize some of the
great skills graphic designers used to have before everything
became digital.

If one could sketch and design well, what a combo huh?

caboume's picture

oops, thanks to Hrant and Oldnick for your suggestions as well!

hrant's picture

The Letterror stuff (used by John Hudson as well) is very good for display work, but I wouldn't be myself if I didn't caution against its use in the making of text fonts...


Norbert Florendo's picture

If you are still bent on drawing the concept... is it for presentation to a client or for your own eyes to refine the idea?

If for some reason you really need to draw this, then starts with a big pad of tracing paper and keep refining shapes and spacing through successive tracings.

Once you are ready to do a clean and precise "comp" get to a better grade paper and find a lightbox (they are still used for reviewing transparencies).

But I still don't understand why you need to actually draw a refined "comp."

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

Norbert Florendo's picture

I must admit that the last logo I designed was first sketched, then refined, then blown way up and re-sketched on clear acetate using indelible black marker... and finally scanned to final.

For some reason, that logo needed to be stroked with tender love and care.

caboume's picture


My motivations:

1.) As designers, we spend so much time on the
computer, I've sort of rebelled against it. Instead of
relying on it for sketch work too, I'd like to be able
to sketch well so it can be refined and further tweaked
before jumping to the computer so quickly.

2.) Additionally, I would like to show the client my
sketches, in my attempts to teach that design isn't what
the computer does, it's all me!

Norbert Florendo's picture


you're right. I need to get away from the screen once in a while as well.

The other truth of the matter is that one (depending on the individual) thinks, creates and processes diffently based on the tools they use.

When I sketch, I use visual "shorthand" for myself... just enough imagery for me to make decisions or experiment more. I can also process several concepts simultaneously on the same sheet of paper.

On the computer screen, I tend to want to see ideas more "finished" which means I generally go with the first few series of designs. On paper I throw a lot more in the trash (which also means I process many more ideas in the long run).

crossgrove's picture

Hand skills are essential to any kind of design work. Graphic designers working without them are impoverished.

Frank, any kind of drawing practice or training will improve your sketches: Life drawing classes, while they don't focus on type or grids, help anyone to SEE in several different ways, and also to develop abilities in your hand to convey ideas. "Hand-eye coordination" they used to call it. You can discover much about shape, line quality, balance, composition, contrast, materials and techniques from life drawing. All of this is acutely relevant to graphic design. I recommend it to anyone who spends too much time on the computer. You can do it at home if you have a lazy partner, roommate, dog or child, though instruction helps a lot.

Hand skills work well in combination with digital tools. The tools alone won't get you as far.

hello_caleb's picture

What do I do today?
I find a pdf specimen of the typeface, do screen shots, then cut & paste in Photoshop.

you do this because you may not have the typeface on hand while comping?

Norbert Florendo's picture

Unless you work for a larger studio or agency that has a large budget for purchasing fonts, most designers need to justify their purchases.

If you are presenting two, three or more concepts to a client, each using a different typeface, either you draw (by hand or Illustrator) the design or purchase the fonts. It can get very expensive buying fonts for no reason other than just having them.

Again, concepts need not be finished work to be approved. Most clients will give you feedback without seeing a finished printed piece.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm not that rich!

dave bailey's picture

As a student I've been doing a lot of sketching myself. I find that just sitting down and blocking out time to open up Font Book and choose a few letters then draw those letters to the best of my ability for a few different faces. Repeat this exercise as often as possible and soon enough you'll be able to draw many faces without even looking at them. These drawings have also been a huge help in my knowledge of the 'flow' of letter forms and the different weights too! Good luck!

TBiddy's picture

I agree with many points here, but specifically Carl's advice. I actually came from a fine arts background before I was a designer so I had the benefit of art school training. The illustrator side of me always draws everything I do FIRST on paper, before I ever touch the computer. Doing this first really helps me see the big picture before I start doing the fine details. I think many designers use the computer "only" which I think can really limit creativity. This is not to say that everyone is the same, there are many desginers who can go straight to the computer...but as a recent student myself, I've seen quite a bit of the former.

David's onto something too, while I don't think its completely necessary to follow the drawing exercises-studying the typefaces is certainly a good idea. Designing with Type by James Craig or Elements of Typographic Style by Bringhurst might be good places to start learning. I also can't stress life/figure drawing classes enough. This will also teach you a lot about form.

skirklan's picture

We are not old--we are BOOMERS. Our first day in art school lettering involved "sidling" a lower case "f" in Franklin Gothic from our type books through parchment paper with a soft pencil. Of course, few passed the test because we were all lunkheads incapable of seeing the delicate ambiance of the font. This seems like necessary work to learn type, but it seems unnecessary to prepare a comp with the availability of computers. Clients understand finished comps much better than sketching. This reminds me of an illustrator I once met who refused to give up marker comps; destined to be left behind because he only used his computer for billing.

Susan Kirkland
SDKirkland Master Designer
Author of
Start & Run a Creative Services Business ISBN 155180607X
View my work and excerpts from the book (click the book icon) at

cerulean's picture

I'm surprised anyone has learned design without having to draw. Frankly, I would have loved to go to one of these schools where they teach current methods at all, let alone to the exclusion of ancient methods. My teachers made us do a pile of thumbnails, a rough half-size marker comp, a tight half-size marker comp, a tight full-size marker comp that looks exactly the same as the tight half-size marker comp because all the demanded changes have been made already, and then for the final comp we had to spec type on film negative to make rub-on transfers with an accursed Omnicrom toaster thing. I once chose Kabel Extra Bold for a headline solely because I knew I was expected to cut 24pt letters out of colored paper with a blade. This was in the 1990s, when all design jobs were already advertised entirely in terms of what software you knew. You can see why I never became a fixture of the industry.

strata's picture

ah the heady daze of magic markers and layout pads are coming back to me! these days I find the a font which is something close to what I'm thinking of, then type the word/phrase I require, then do a hardcopy, then get my old layout pad or tracing paper out, trace over the top then scan it back in to Photoshop. If you have a light table you can use courser grained paper to trace with to get a better effect.

mb's picture

in one of our first classes on my degree we were told to "stop drawing our way out of things" and instead to work out what needed to be done and then simply lay it out on the computer. now i have real trouble doing this - what i see in my head looks nothing like what ends up on the screen. i have to sketch things in order to visualise them properly and to see any problems that might come up.

in my end of year tutorial, when i mentioned my problems translating designs a different tutor suggested scanning my sketches onto the computer and doing the layouts directly over the top. this works much better for me.

the most useful things so far have been the workshops we have had - one was comping up posters for an exhibition, with emphasis on 'who'. others had 'where', 'when' etc. this was done purely from copy spec sheets blown up/reversed out/etc on the photocopiers and sellotaped onto a2 paper. this was much more useful, for me at least, than sitting down on a computer and moving boxes around with the mouse.
and then in the last week of term we had a letterpress workshop. again, i learnt more about kerning and leading from physically working with type in that one week than i had over the course of the last three terms.

to me, drawing is an essential part of design.

dberlow's picture

Hmmm. I think there are several kinds of drawing going on here.

“Building up” refers to a technique letterers would
use in which they first drew a stick outline of the shape,
then proceeded to color or “build up” the letter until
the form matured."

This is from the old days and no one does it much anymore because the accuracy of the result is so distant from the type that really happens, that it's useless. I tell young designers and old ones too, that type sketche, even the really nice ones on napkins, are about the same worth: draw it for real if you're gonna take that much time, or buy the damn typeface for a fraction of the cost of drawing even one headline...

Another letterdrawing is all and only about the contour, so there is no "build up." The letterdrawer concentrates all of her efforts on the contour by shifting back and forth on the two sides of the paper, using a light table to compare the results, erasing and shaving until the form is PerFect, all on one side or the other, and then transferring the contour to its final place and filling in a separate operation.

Also, watch your wrist! I learned as a child, to draw tiny little segments of lines in a nervous motion, rotating the paper for the optimal angle and generally using the hand as a stationary compass attached to the wrist. Then, I went to Aaahhrt School, and they unlearned me from this, teaching me that the wrist should be free! and the paper should be bound. This is fine for nak'd body drawing, but since very few people are shaped like letters...Well, then I went Linotype, and learned that my child'ood method was what was required, except, with a light table you can use both sides of the paper.

Even later, Ed B. Nuts taught me that due to the need to prove to skeptical people that you do in fact have a job, you'd better also learn to make credible letters with a fork, on a napkin or table cloth. This too has served me well, and works especially nicely with a smaller, 3-tined salad fork, a padded table with a nice white cloth.

caboume's picture

Thanks for the great suggestions from all!

At this point I would be very interested in
seeing the actual sketches done using the prescribed

If anybody has a scanned version of their sketches
and would like to post them here in this forum,

that would be great!

hrant's picture

Here's some Patria napkin action, done over three days, in three different cities, immediately after ATypI-Leipzig in 2000:

The first was done in a bar called Letterman. The second, my favorite, was done in a sushi bar over some spider roll and sake. The third was done at a cool tea/coffee joint (yeah, they had joints too) called Goa (not Schiphol as I previously remembered), and it was when things clicked. On the other hand, Patria is based on Nour (its Armenian counterpart), and that was done as finished drawings (requiring structural change upon "compilation" in only one character) with almost no sketching, in Yerevan:


Norbert Florendo's picture

Hrant, I am very impressed by your napkins as you didn't even spill wasabe or sake on them.

Mr. Lin,
I am more graphic designer and typographer than type designer (I have never designed a face, only edited them). For me, "sketching" and "drawing" are two completely different experiences, or areas of engaged processing.

Sketching is more like brainstorming by eye & hand.
In some instances I have a concept in my mind's eye that I need to materialize on paper or screen in order to expand, refine or reject.
In other instances, my hand is governed by no preconception and is allowed to freely explore, wander, and conjur hoping that it triggers visual clues to explore, teasing ideas out of the subconcious.

Drawing, by my own discipline, is setting aside the "mind" and letting the EYE guide what my hand should follow. Looking, looking, drawing, erasing, looking and drawing... in this way my mind develops an awareness of shape, form, and space by witnessing this process. One of my drawing teachers always told us to draw the other side of the figure or apple, the part unseen. This was hard to fathom at first (and even harder to draw once you understood). But eventually you begin to see not what your mind tells you, but subtleties that only your eyes can pick up.

So, for me, I can draw a typeface by observation, and can sketch an idea for review.

caboume's picture

Mr. Florendo, please call me Frank. :)

Yes I agree, sketching and drawing are two different things.

I've observed that in this day in age, when showing comps
or rough sketches to the art director or client, it's mostly
done on the computer and printed out..

Now it seems, people don't have the ability
to look at a pencil sketch; they all want to see the "finished"
idea, even if it is just an idea and not the final excution.

What is a designer to do?

When I was in school, they advocated sketching but didn't go into
the methods and techniques...Most students showed comps that were
generated from the computer.

Perhaps computer sketches will displace pencil sketching.

Norbert Florendo's picture


for our own disciplines we should never give up how we process ideas and discover the world around us.

Part of the current problem of not being able to "see" anything that is not fully rendered, is plaguing our industry as well as culture.

Not long ago, writers and filmmakers could produce works without getting absolutely detailed, leaving areas "unresolved" and leaving it to the imagination of the public. (For some reason, they nicknamed open-ended film endings "European endings.")

Now, audiences go ballistic, demanding their money back if they don't SEE a completely wrapped up neat and tidy ending. Kinda sad, huh?

Thankfully, creatives themselves do not need any more than a few scribbles to develop concepts, even incredibly complex ones. Take I.M. Pei's sketches, for instance.

My experience with shortsighted clients is to get something approved with as little rendering time as possible. Chances are it's only the concept you need to "sell" and not the subtleties or refinements you can make AFTER the initial "go-ahead" from the client.

Yes, I'm old, but please call me Norbert!

Dan Weaver's picture

My method is divided into concept then execution. Concept: marker with headline and key graphic drawn in marker (black). Executation: show examples of type and photos and illustration. They are hiring you to be a professional so I don't go any further until I actually create the layout(s). So its a process, step by step and not a one shot deal.

caboume's picture

All of your comments are very interesting and helpful.

I found some helpful tutorials in the Wiki section which
includes this scribbling technique which is just perfect
for fast, effective sketching.

If I may draw upon some of my observations:

The idea of a "finished" or tight pencil sketch is
something of a relic from a previous era. Designers of the
past usually had great drawing skills, but the designers of
today need only use the sketch as a rough conceptual guide
before refining the idea for presentation on the computer.

Like it or not, this is the most practical way of doing
things in a world where deadlines become shorter, clients
are less imaginative, and where everybody is accustomed
to seeing crisp shapes with gradients and drop shadows.

(Yeah, it sucks. But what can we do?)

With that said, this is why I started this thread --
because I see the need for designers to spend more time
practicing the art of sketching.

rs_donsata's picture

I like to do hand sketching, when I am doing a logo I like to show the client pencil sketches first which gets me more time to develop ideas instead of detailing and printing everything.

Not everyone would accept pencil sketches I have to ask first, I have a client who asked me for the first time we met to show him pencil sketches first, he turned out to be a very good client to work with.


Miguel Hernandez's picture

What about print a "fontlab grid" on a laser print, use it as a copybook, and then scan?
This way, we can go faster, i am testing this homemade method actually..


markatos's picture

I also do a lot of tracing and scanning, digital to analog. I even sometimes print out the digitized rendering, retrace, and scan back in.

One thing I've recently tried is to build rough skeletons of the letter or mark in AI, then print those, trace them until they get their natural letterflow. This method is proving to be quite usefull.

david h's picture

Just sketch/draw letters. And sketch/draw. And sketch/draw. There's no trick or shortcut. Just practice (also freehand)

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