What’s the Difference Between Typography, Lettering, and Calligraphy?


Typography, Lettering, Calligraphy

Is the difference between calligraphy, lettering and type just different ways of saying the same thing? You know, I say, “tomayto” and you say, “tomahto” sort of thing?

Well, no. Turns out, there is a difference. And if you dabble in any one of them, it’s important to know!


Calligraphy is a type of lettering, and yet, it isn’t. In the simplest of terms from typography and design expert Gerrit Noordzij, calligraphy is writing—a single pass of the pen/tool to write as a form of art; whereas lettering consists of built-up lettersdrawing with multiple strokes; and typography is writing with prefabricated, designed letters. This is, in essence, what really defines the three from each other.

The Oxford Dictionary defines calligraphy as “decorative handwriting or handwritten lettering”, which is how many people perceive it. I like to also think of calligraphy as a discipline—akin to playing an instrument—whereby the practitioner has to develop the skill through constant practice and growth.

Even though calligraphy, lettering and typography all use the same principles for spacing, consistency, weight and contrast to determine what is “good”, they are all distinct disciplines. In my work, I do calligraphy and lettering, but also use type. Although I have formally studied typeface design, I have chosen to focus on being a student of calligraphy and also to create lettering by hand.


I like to think of lettering as having a bit of a split personality. On one hand, it’s a illustration of letters that come together to create a design that is intended for one configuration only. When a designer is lettering, he/she is creating art where the focus is on the whole, unique composition, rather than ensuring the individual pieces could work if thrown together in another way. For most lettering projects, if the individual alphabet characters were to be rearranged, it would most certainly look like amateur hour!

On the other, it happens to be a string of letters that we read as words or phrases. A lot of what is described as being calligraphy these days is often really just lettering. Remember, back to Gerrit Noordzij’s definition, lettering consists of drawn letters, created with multiple strokes.

[Check out Pencil Artist of the Week Darrell Edwards to see an example of lettering]


Type designers have to respond to the lowest common denominator. They have to consider an endless array of different letter combinations and design the type accordingly to ensure that no matter the layout, the individual alphabet characters will meld together beautifully when strung together to create words or phrases. Think about how the words you’re reading right now consist of the exact same letter formations, yet look seamless together. That’s from the hard work of a type designer—remember, fonts weren’t always digital files stored in folders; each letter used to be individual pieces of metal, stored in drawers in print shops and assembled as necessary!

Designing type is a very time-intensive process. Many typefaces were in the works for years before being released commercially. Often confused, but actually separate disciplines, type designers create type (manifested as those font files you can download) while graphic designers are often just using and arrange the type in their work (although some graphic designers have also created their own typefaces). “Typography” as a term refers more to the wielding of letters to form compositions, rather than to the designing of them.


If you liked this post, be sure to follow Chavelli Tsui’s Instagram @idrawletters

Originally posted on Chavelli.com on March 6, 2015.

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