Lettering Tips: Layout

As a workshop teacher, I've noticed that one of the things students have difficulty applying to their lettering work is proper layout. Unfortunately, no matter how comprehensive I make my worksheets, this topic cannot be fully covered in a three-hour session because it takes months, or even years, to understand what works and what doesn't. Below I share with you some of the guidelines I've learned over time.


Contrary to what beginners may think, lettering is not only about pretty letters but also about communication. Yes, it helps to use a beautiful combination of typefaces and colors, but these things won't work unless the reader is able to decipher the message. When lettering in English (and many other languages), keep in mind the direction in which we read clusters of text: left to right, top to bottom.

See the samples below. The one on the left is a difficult to read, starting with the word "people" because the letters "e" and "o" are on top of each other. Another problem is the placement of the words "to" and "top," which confuses the eye. The flow of one on the right is better; even though some words are placed on top of others, it is easier to decode which ones to read first.


When lettering a longer quote, choose 3-5 words that encapsulate the gist of the entire text. Most commonly these are the nouns and verbs. Make them bigger or use a more ornate style to emphasize them. Choose a simpler typeface for the rest of the text; these are the articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and other words that do not carry heavy meaning. Tip: when looking at the whole composition from afar, you should be able to grasp the meaning of the quote just by looking at the bigger words.

On the left, we see the words "and" and "make them" enlarged; this is a poor choice because these do not capture the essence of the text. The example on the right highlights the words "3-5," "important," and "bigger," which summarize the meaning of the quote.

Styles and Scale

Unlike typography, there is no strict rule on how many different font styles you can use on one lettering piece. I like to stick with not more than five per composition, but on occasions that I go over this limit, I make sure to scale down and simplify some styles in order to deliver a clearer message.

The first example is fairly decent, but it lacks the visual interest the second example has. Why? Because the piece on the right plays with the size of the words; "with" and "and" are smaller compared to the rest, making it look more dynamic.

Punctuation and Other Decorative Elements

Sometimes we cannot help but experiment with layout and end up putting blocks of text next to instead of on top of each other. In these cases, using proper punctuation or adding decorative elements like borders help separate the text and prevent misinterpretation, especially when the words are drawn in a similar style or are the same size.

In the examples below, you will see that the first is a bit incomprehensible because the text blocks are too close to each other. At first glance, you might read it as "use to separate decorative blocks elements of text." In the second a dotted border was used to separate the text blocks, making it easier to interpret them as phrases that must be read from top to bottom before moving on to the next block.

At the end of the day, lettering is about reeling in the readers and get them to understand what you want to say. One way to measure the success of a lettering work is to see how long it takes to deliver your message; if eyes glide through the piece with ease, it gives the readers more time to digest your idea. If they stare at your piece longer, that's not necessarily better. That could mean their eyes are lost in the maze of words and the message is lost. Don't let haphazard layout be the reason for misreading. And like I've said before, learning this is not easy. Study, study, study and practice, practice, practice.