Wednesday, August 7, 2013

All about ABCs–Pictures of Letters

There's something slightly contraire or subversive about the practice of turning letters into pictures. Letters are abstractions—abstract marks used to represent sounds in speech, which when strung together create an abstract representation (a word) of something real or imagined or hypothetical. The whole point of the system of writing seemed to be to move us away from signification–of making pictures of things–yet for centuries those scribes, copyists, penmen and scriveners who most relied on the efficiency of the system of writing, were some of the strongest forces in undermining it–they scribbled fanciful shapes on the margins...bless them.

The use of letters and the practice of typography are aimed at inducing a nice flow– a steady, even rate of consumption. But in the midst of this we find these decorative capitals, drop-caps, ornate initials, arresting our flow, inviting us to pause and linger and decode. This appeals to me deeply. There's something too modern, too efficient about writing; ornate letters reintroduce an element of chaos and freshness into the mix.

With the collection Letters and Alphabets we wanted to present a survey of sorts, which gave examples across the spectrum of approaches to the decoration of letters. In it you'll find three basic types of ornate letters.

First there are letters that simply become stylized and sometimes intricate.

They have a more modern feel, and you can imagine using them in advertising and logos, or as design elements in larger compositions, as in the image below.

The second basic type are letters decorated with ornamentation. These letters are often works of art unto themselves. They encompass a broad range of decorative styles— from semi-abstract floriation (the 'L' below), to full-blown pictorialization (the letter 'V' with fairy).

Potential uses are unlimited: everything from stand-alone decorations to complex compositions. The can very useful in establishing a narrative in an illustration:

And finally, my favorite– letter-shapes constructed from real-world objects. The 'ABC'  at the top of the post is a superb example. Often these letters are parts of whole alphabets—fanciful alphabets. They are incredibly entertaining in their own right–when presented as a group. But, as with the ornately decorated letters, their potential uses are unlimited. 


  1. These are great inspiration for my machine embroidery!

  2. Possibilities for lots of fun creating unusual designs as well as informational in a different manner.