Let's Make Letters! with Kelscey Gray

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 23, 2021


Doing hand lettering is like being a flaneur—both involve suspending judgement about place, space and time and just letting things happen. So when a new book from Princeton Architectural Press, Let’s Make Letters! Lettering for Beginners and Beyond thumped against my threshold, my curiosity peaked. 

Created by Kelcey Gray, a graphic designer who also teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, the book starts out with the basics. Once the reader/letterer is into the first few exercises, they are likely hooked on a new way of procrastinating, or a sure path to improving a skill they already have.

On the most granular level, they will quickly understand the difference between handwriting, calligraphy, lettering and typography—three practices that seem alike until you realize how different they can be. According to lettering artist Ian Barnard, “Lettering is the art of drawing letters; calligraphy is the art of writing letters; typography is the art of using letters.”

Wherever you land on the scale of fun stuff to take your mind off nagging deadlines or a fun way to get really good at something you’ve always admired in others, the book covers all aspects of drawn thoughts, starting with the foundational methods of script handwriting, such as the Palmer Method [classic business handwriting of yore] and Spencerian script [think: Coca Cola]. Gray points out that aside from speech, lettering, like drawing, is one of the most immediate ways we communicate. And like drawing, which is natural for children, lettering can be something to come back to after a long withdrawal to the keyboard. 

And the book is designed to be whatever you want it to be: a guide to making perfect letters or a workbook to get your juices flowing in wildly different directions. It’s a teaching tool and a thought starter [author’s phrase]. And it’s peppered with quotes from notables, such as type designer Matthew Carter, who reminds us that “Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters.”


Gray offers unexpected approaches to making letters leap off the page. Say you’ve created some nice chunky block lettering of the word MAP. In a section on Dimensional Lettering, you are shown how to use your phone camera to spatially distort it into a one-point perspective version of your original. A few pages later, you’ll be shown how to draw your monograph, a doable project now that you’ve become more familiar with materials [including tracing paper] and methods [such as pencils of different kinds, brushes, scissors, and food from the fridge]. You quickly get the idea that there’s no limit to what can be done. And how much fun you’ll have. 


The exercises start out as playful warm-ups and soon evolve into projects. The section titled One Letter Ad Nauseum is a guide to making a poster that is covered with a single letter, an H, in dozens of forms, from the highly legible to the hardly there. Most sections are designed as spreads, and pack in a huge amount of information on a single subject. Temporary Typography, above, is a good example of some of the unexpected places to find materials for your hand lettering projects, including sugar cubes (top left) to create a pixilated letter e.

Let’s Make Letters! Experiment, Practice and Explore by Kelcey Gray will be available in October from Princeton Architectural Press and can be pre-ordered.