A digital hand-lettering tutorial for beginners

Kaitlyn Ellison

There’s nothing like a hand-written note or message to add a special touch that special touch to your communication—in this case, to your logo. It’s been on trend quite a bit lately, the polished versions of old-school crests.

But instead of taking an existing font or even creating your own on your computer, we encourage you to test out using your hands, like they did back in the old day. Break out that notebook and sketch out a logo, take advantage of the imperfections to make something that’s got a lot of character.

For those of you just getting started with this style, we’ve put together a little guide on how to take hand lettering from notebook to computer screen (and beyond).

1. Research + sketch

hand drawn hand-lettering sketches
It’s always important to sketch out your ideas before jumping in.

Digital hand-lettering tends to often be rooted in a historical aesthetic—so make sure that you’re doing your research before you get started!

Get inspired not only by contemporary logos utilizing that vintage style (it’s great to know what else is out there so you can set yourself apart) but also by actual historic images. There are a million historical photographs out there, so take a look and discover how people really designed letters in the 1800s to get a sense of the aesthetic you want to cultivate.

After all of that is done, the best way to decide the effect that you want is to just sketch sketch sketch! Never do just a single edition of a piece, draw things out to see what works and what doesn’t.

A couple of things to make sure you’re keeping in mind during the process: pay attention to the style of typeface you’re using and what it communicates, as well as how many fonts you want to use in a single design, and how you’re pairing them. Don’t forget the placement as well! There are many tried-and-true layouts for the kind of writing harking back to an existing style, but that doesn’t meant that it’s something you have to stick to. Try getting a little crazy with where each word begins and ends in space.

2. Transform with Photoshop

Digital hand-lettering in Photoshop
Photoshop offers lots of options. Find the way that works for you.

Your first step is to import your image into Photoshop, to do a quick initial transformation from color photograph to high-contrast black and white image.

There are a lot of different ways to do this in Photoshop, so the key is to experiment with them all until you find what works for you. In this example, we will use a combination of multiple techniques.

The first step is to turn your image greyscale by using Layer > Adjustment Layer > Black and White. Next, within the same Adjustment Layer menu, select from:

  • Levels: The magic trick with this tool is to use the eyedrops you can see highlighted on the left of that menu. Use the white drop to define pure white in your image, and the black to define pure black, the program will do the rest for you (more or less.)
  • Brightness and Contrast can help you achieve this in a more manual way. Adjust the two up and down until you achieve the right level of light versus dark.
  • Selective Color is a great way to help define how much detail you want in the texture of your image. Play with the amount of black you’re allowing into the image’s blacks, whites, and grays, to achieve the exact effect you want.

3. Polish and professionalize with Illustrator

As you all know by this point, a raster image does not a logo make. At this point in the process, you’ve got to transform that raster image into a vector, via Illustrator.

Digital hand-lettering in Illustrator
Now that your scan has been prepped, bring it to Illustrator to convert it into a vector.

To do this, we’ll be working with Objects. Import your high-contrast image into Illustrator and make sure it’s selected, then find the objects menu and select Image Trace. This will create a highly-manipulable vector sketch of your design, and as you did with the texture in Photoshop earlier, you can tweak as polished or messy a version as you want.

Once you’ve created the vector, you can also make some final manipulations to the style. Expand the object and Ungroup it to allow yourself access to individual anchor points. Then head over to the toolbar where you can find the ability to add, delete, and move those anchor points.

Our pro tip here is that we felt that this text was looking a bit too sloppy and hand-written to be a logo, so we tightened it up by deleting anchor points to create smoother lines.

Final product

Digital hand-lettering

What are your favorite examples of digital hand-lettering? Let us know in the comments!

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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