Inspiration is everywhere

For several years, lettering has become more and more popular and we can only rejoice in the growing appeal for typography and custom lettering. The downside is that many students and graphic designers draw their inspiration from the projects of their contemporaries unearthed from the Internet. This results in a tendancy towards a homogenization of the designs. This article intends to show the multiplicity of sources of inspirations often forgotten.

caroline lettrine drop cap scroll calligraphy

Evangelia, 901–1000 (Caroline calligraphy). Source : BnF

Beyond the classic keyword searches, there are more specialized websites: the collections of archives and public libraries contain real treasures. The Gallica site of the National Library of France (Bnf) enables the online consultation or downloading in pdf of documents dating back to the Middle Ages. The same is true for the website of the New York Public Library. Some museums, such as the Lyon printing and graphic arts museum, have also decided to digitize their archives. Since these sources are mainly historical, it is necessary to understand the context in which these forms of letters appears (historical period, tools) ...

new-york cooperplate engraving calligraphy script source

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. (1775 - 1870). [Engraved lettrage examples in cursive script.] Retrieved from

Libraries and Booksellers
Although there are databases and online archive catalogs, not all documents have been scanned. Then comes the time to turn off your computer and invest the libraries. In France, for example, the "Archives départementales" are accessible to all and contain numerous resources that can be consulted on the spot: books, newspapers, magazines, letters, etc. These places are not reserved exclusively to researchers and genealogists! In the same way, the second-hand booksellers propose very inspiring works of various historical periods. When old books can be quite expensive and limited in the diversity of their typographic forms, inexpensive magazines reveal a variety, especially through advertisements.

paris match magazine fashion lettering glamour lingerie

Paris Match, 1958. Photo: Thierry Fétiveau

Whether it is the museum of printing in Nantes or Lyon, the Champollion museum of Figeac (South-West of France) or the museum of letters and manuscripts in Paris, many places are full of inspiration from various eras and styles.

cordon bleur lettering magazine art deco

Le Cordon Bleu - 1921, Museum of the binding of the castle of Beaumesnil, Normandy. Photo: Thierry Fétiveau

Inscriptions & signs

Sometimes, you just need to look around to find inspiration! Whether for political, religious or commercial reasons, men always felt the need to engrave in the stone, to draw letters with the brush on the signs... The cathedrals, commemorative plaques, commercial signs, blind walls, are all inspiration for the lettering enthusiast.

marseille france stone carving letters type

Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (la Bonne Mère) à Marseille. Source : Letters everywhere

annecy france street sign lettering

Rue de la République, Annecy, France. Source: Letters everywhere

lval mayenne safari typo france street sign lettering

Gare SCNF, Laval, France. Source: Letters everywhere

nantes france safari typo france street sign lettering

Rue Regnard, Nantes, France. Source: Letters everywhere

Whether in Europe or in the world, the encounter with other cultures is always a source of inspiration. The Anglo-Saxon countries, for example, have a typographic culture that is very present in the urban environment; The Germanic countries show a preference for the style of the Gothic letters. In South Africa, India or the Arab countries, there are many hand-made paintings on the walls or shop signs.

maghribi calligraphy alhambra spain Arabic khatt

Alhambra palace, Granada, Spain. Photo: Thierry Fétiveau

Sources are therefore very diverse and it is necessary to be inspired by a maximum of them: by following only a few letterers, the risk is to copy even unconsciously the style of these designers, when multiplying the references allows the inspirations to mix with each other, for a more original result. The current designers make very beautiful letterings but we must never set aside the history that inspired our contemporaries. Good references are needed but you have to constantly look for new ones, whether on the Internet, in books, or just a few steps away from home.


By Thierry Fétiveau – December, 2016. All rights reserved.

Further reading
Corpus typographique français
Letters everywhere
Daily Type Specimen
Fonts in Use
The New York Public Library
Movie Title Stills Collection

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