The difference between typography, lettering and calligraphy?

The difference between typography, lettering and calligraphy?

A significant part of visual design is dependent upon good typography.

Typography, the term we use whenever we refer to almost anything and everything which has stylized letters. In most of the cases, people misuse the term and it is acceptable sometimes but as a designer, client, or even if you are a type enthusiast you should know these basic differences – it is way easier than you might imagine it. The real culprit behind all this confusion is the amount of content we consume every day in our social media feeds that refer to these terms interchangeably and makes it more complex to understand. Before we proceed further I would like to clarify that this article uses some general terms to make it understandable even for non-designers.


Merriam-Webster definition of “typography” is: “the work of producing printed pages from written material” or “the style, arrangement, or appearance of printed letters on a page.” Most of the definitions refer to the old scenarios of the manual setting of type during printing but these don’t fit in well in the era of digital publishing.

The easiest description that is cited in almost all the articles which talk about Typography and lettering was given by Gerrit Noordzji, he defines typography as “writing with prefabricated characters.” In general, it means using existing typefaces (fonts and typefaces are different) which enables the reproduction of similar or identical looking characters through a single action. Some of you might be wondering if this is the case then Typography is a piece of cake, just one click and it is done. It is! If you are printing out a Project report of your younger brother. But for Designers, the real struggle starts even before a piece of text is ready, choosing the right typefaces then working on readability, legibility, and several other functional aspects, making sure that the information is consumed by you in the easiest and effortless manner. Now you know why we finish a full novel in a few hours and those project reports take days to read.

Still, feel it’s easy then open a local newspaper ads section and a compare it with the ads in a National Daily, you will get the difference of just using different Typefaces and smartly designing using few typefaces.

Typography is made possible Type Designers who create a system of letters that can be endlessly rearranged and still work together seamlessly. They make typefaces that even the non-designers can work with and set it beautifully.

Just take three letters and make combinations like ame, ema, mea etc. and try to draw in a way that they look visually appealing in all combinations. Yes, it is quite a task, sometimes your ‘e’ will be a loner or  ‘m’ will shout I’m the king of this place; getting a consistent look and experience you are having while reading this article set in Josefin Sans typeface is hard. Now, imagine working with a minimum of 200 characters which can extend to thousands. So, keep this in mind next time you hit download for a pirated font.

Clearing out one more confusion, Type designers create type (usually the end product are the font files we use in our systems) while graphic designers arrange type in their work.


Even though lettering and typography share many of the same visual concepts and learning one enables you to understand the other, they are completely different disciplines.

Lettering can be simply defined as “art of drawing/ illustrating letter, words, and phrases.” The letters are drawn keeping in mind a specific composition of letterforms crafted for a single use unlike using pre-designed letters in the composition as in the case of Typography.

If you rearrange the letters it would look bad- it is meant to be seen and used in that configuration only.

We use lettering for its uniqueness as display text or short compositions, for larger passages using type or calligraphy is a good option. You wouldn’t want to sit for months to draw each and every letter of a Book, would you? There is another common misconception that lettering has to be hand drawn with pen, pencil, brushes etc. that holds true only in the case if you are using the term “hand-lettering.” Lettering, on the other hand, can be hand drawn or directly created letters on a software.

Lettering is a time consuming affair and a single piece might take several days to complete based on the complexity of the project so it advised that you quote the price accordingly which is usually higher than the projects in which you use Type.


Calligraphy is decorative handwriting and handwritten lettering. It is pure art where you practice to consistently to create “muscle memory” of certain strokes and develop a skill. Calligraphy involves certain styles which you use repeatedly to make new compositions.

What are those letters made out of different materials called?

Now you know how to pick the right terminology so let’s get back to the source of your confusion, Social media! We get see a lot of beautiful and amazing pieces in our feeds which are made from different materials, from daily objects to all kinds of food. What are those? Lettering treatment, that is what we call them or you can simply call it Lettering.

What’s deceiving you out there is the use of Hashtags, sometimes they are used because of the lack of knowledge or just following the trend. There is a justifiable aspect of it too, Hashtags help the content to be explored by more and more people thereby increasing the chances of building up a wider audience and those same #hashtags help people to get found by curated galleries to pick up your work and feature it which again results in the inflow of more followers. This is the reason why even the people who have good knowledge about it still use terms like #typography etc. in their lettering work. They use hashtags for its functionality rather than as a communication medium so it is up to you to judge the correct term out of your knowledge.

Getting into Lettering

Start with the basics like “Elements/ Principles of Design” this helps you to build a base and know more about what you are going to make in future. What it does is, it trains you to observe and critique your designs. If you skip the basics then you will always struggle with one thing in your mind “it looks good but something is missing” and you will never have clarity on what that thing is.  Next step is study principles, classifications, terminologies etc. which is going to help you in further reading an understanding of type. You will come across some really complex terms but once you read about them it will be way too easier to remember them because almost every term has reason and story behind it (Example:  Leading: |?l?d??| the amount of blank space between lines of text. The term leading is derived from the practice of placing lead strips between lines type on older hand set printing presses such as a letterpress.)

Once you are ready with it move on to practicing, don’t try to directly make something new. I always suggest this even in my workshops because of the fact that when you are learning especially on your own then there is no way to judge that you are doing things right or wrong so you need to start with imitating stuff which gives you a defined goal (Beware: This work is never supposed to be shared online, since you might violate copyrights of the owner of the work you are imitating.) Whenever you feel that you have started getting close to your goals then it’s time to experiment and mixing and matching things to create new things. This is a very concise approach I have mentioned above to give you an overview of how to start, I will share with you a comprehensive version of the process in a dedicated article.


Just to make it easy for you to remember: Typography is writing with prefabricated, designed letters; whereas lettering is drawing letters; and calligraphy is writing.