Lisa Congdon

I’ve long been a fan of San Francisco illustrator, fine artist and queen of hand lettering, Lisa Congdon – a fan of her work, of her work ethic, of her style… she’s one super cool lady. Her latest project, 365 Days of Hand Lettering, took the social media world by storm. Until recently I have admired her from afar across the world wide web, so when I had the opportunity to interview her, I leapt at it. Here’s what we talked about. I promise, by the end of the interview, you’ll love her too!

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How, where, when and why did you first fall in love with hand lettering as an artistic expression?

I’ve always loved making pretty hand writing and printing – ever since I was a little girl. I have dabbled in hand lettering since I began making art 14 years ago and incorporated words and phrases into my paintings and drawings.

About three or four years ago, I started lettering poems as gifts for people and selling screen prints of hand lettered phrases.

Last year I decided that hand lettering was something I wanted to do more of, so I started my 365 Days of Hand Lettering project.

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How did the idea for 365 Days of Hand Lettering come about?

In 2010, I did a daily project called A Collection a Day, where I photographed one of my collections every day for the year. [Lisa collects everything from plastic punctuation to vintage luggage tags.] I posted the images on a blog, and it became wildly popular. It was a really satisfying personal creative challenge – not just because I was taking interesting images of my collections, but because I was able to share the images with so many people. The project was subsequently published as a book.

I decided I wanted to do another challenge in 2012, and of all the ideas I came up with, 365 Days of Hand Lettering resonated the most. Like A Collection a Day, it’s been a lot of work, but very gratifying. The Internet is a wonderful place for sharing daily personal creative challenges.

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Have there been days when it’s been a real struggle? Do you still love hand lettering?!

I do love lettering (still!) and I love looking for meaningful text to letter. There are days when I have very little time. On those days it can feel like a pain and my lettering is less careful, messier, less clean, less perfect. But when you do something every single day, there are going to be some days that are not as good. But I do still love lettering. In fact, I can say I love it even more than I did when I started the project.

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Are you going to do it all again next year, or are you done for now?

I will always hand letter, and I think I’ll probably still post a quote or poem once a week or so, but not every day. I have another project launching in 2013 with Maria Popova of brainpickings.org, so stay tuned!

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What’s been the best part of the project? 

The response from people has been huge and extraordinary. People share my work on social media. Every day I get at least one email telling me that people love what I do. I have also started to get more illustration work that includes hand lettering.

Two of my hand lettering styles have been released as fonts. I worked with a type designer and that was super fun.

A book of 100 of my hand lettered quotes is being published by Chronicle Books next year.

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Where do you find the inspiration for each piece?

I think letter forms are beautiful in and of themselves. Combining beautiful lettering with beautiful words is doubly alluring. So my first inspiration is often a quote or poem that has significant meaning to me on a particular day.

Right now [the interview took place in December] in the US we are dealing with the mass shooting in Connecticut, so much of my hand lettering over the last few days has been driven by my sense of grief and sadness. At other times, what I hand letter is driven by inspiration or happiness.

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Why is hand lettering better than using existing typefaces? What’s special about it?

When something is hand lettered, it looks unique, of course. Typefaces are predictable. All the ‘I’s look the same, all the ‘m’s look identical. When you hand letter something, every single letter in the sequence is unique. They might be in the same style, but they are unique. That makes it special.

What advice would you give to a young artist wanting to find out more about hand lettering and get started themselves?

One word: practice. Play around with different styles and work on them until they become natural and easy. Do it every day. Take classes. I took a calligraphy class and it was great. Even though I don’t use the nib and ink anymore, I learned about holding a writing implement, about strokes, about creating a balanced composition.

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What advice would you give to an art director reaching for the type book to select a typeface rather than commissioning something hand lettered?

I think there are places where hand lettering doesn’t work and typefaces are more appropriate. So it’s not that hand lettering is always the best solution. But in pieces where art directors want a more organic look, hand lettering is a great option. There are so many illustrators out there who do hand lettering, and so there are many, many styles to choose from.

Who are your lettering heroes?

So many! I love Marion Deuchars, Susy Pilgrim Waters, Leigh Wells, Jessica Hische, Shanna Murray, Mary Kate McDevitt…

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Further reading for the especially geeky: