Visual Technique #10: Sculpted Type

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Before the invention of moveable type, illustrated manuscripts featured hand-rendered lettering and embellished capitals. Hand typography was as free and as beautiful as its creators could make it. Although Gutenberg’s invention allowed more books to be printed, type was limited to flat baselines with letters all the same height. Early on, drop caps and embellished capitals were developed for printing, but the baselines remained flat. Over the years, the appetite returned for customized, or, as I like to call it, “Sculpted Type,” with non-linear baselines and flourishes.

The beauty of what I call Sculpted Type (non-linear baselines), along with flourishes and swashes, is even more impressive when we consider that this typography
was rendered by hand.

With the advent of the desktop computer, every designer has become a de facto typesetter, although with many of Gutenberg’s original limitations. However, we now have digital tools for creating wordmarks with non-linear baselines that Gutenberg didn’t have. With hand skills, even if digitally executed, one can produce excellent Sculpted Type for a wide variety of applications, including identities.

Both Photoshop and Illustrator (and other similar software counterparts) have “Type Warp” tools for doing this. Unfortunately, these “Type Warp” tools do not respect individual letters, being only mathematical algorithms applied on whole words. The best practitioners of Sculpted Type tend to not use these tools, and I strongly recommend against them also. Instead, designers can achieve much better results by changing individual letters with the “shear” tool and fine-tuning letters by moving vector anchor points individually.

Note that with the exception of the Splayed Arc, the verticals in each letter remain vertical. Text Warp tools don’t do that well in some of these configurations.

Flourishes and swashes (Visual Processing Technique #6) are frequent, welcome additions to Sculpted Type. This approach can be particularly effective in wordmark design to evoke associations with either old-fashioned nostalgia or futuristic mystique.

Great examples of Sculpted Type: 2, 3 Martin Schmetzer, 4 Mateusz Witczak, 5 Alan Ariail, 7, 8, 9 Tom Nikosey, 10 Dave Stevenson, 12 Audrey Ray, 14 Tobias Saul. 1, 11, 13 unknown.

Sculpted Type is popular with several sectors of identity design. For instance, music bands—especially in the heavy-metal genre—often use sculpted type for their identities. Unfortunately, it is surprising how often legibility will be sacrificed for the perceived “cool factor” effect. Illustrated here are mostly legible samples. Many more are nearly impossible to read. It almost seems as though the designs are manifesting the nihilist sentiments these groups seem to both espouse and engender, and are almost daring the reader to understand the wordmark. If so, they are defeating a wordmark’s very purpose.

Band identities do not have to sacrifice illegibility to be cool. Here are some decent examples. Credits: 5 Tom Nickosey, all others unknown.

Sculpted type is a favorite of the beverage industry, for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic products.

Ginger Monkey, 4. Andreas Grey, 7. Jason Thornton. 1, 2, 5, 6, 8-11 unknown.

Sculpted type is also popular in restaurant identities. Here, the association is with old-fashioned values, although sculpted type can also look contemporary. Either formality or informality can be communicated with this treatment. Sculpted type can be typographic fun.

Restaurants are places of relaxation and good times. Sculpted type can add to that feeling and can look either old-fashioned or contemporary. Credits: 4 Scott Greci, 10 Alan Ariail,
all others unknown

The food industry is a heavy user of this technique. Many artists don’t even start with existing fonts and most do not use Type Warp tools. Instead, product wordmarks are often hand-drawn, and highly customized, even though ultimately rendered in vector.

Credits: 1 – 3 Alan Ariail, all others unknown.

Sculpted type has probably entered the subconscious of all of us. Many of us begin our days looking at sculpted type on the breakfast table without even thinking about it.

Credits: 1 – 3 Alan Ariail, all others unknown.

Sculpted Type is here to stay. It’s not what’s needed for all wordmarks, but when it works, it is a remarkable technique.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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