The True Meaning of the Art of Letters

Farewell from Lucy's by Jann Alexander © 2013

Farewell from Lucy’s by Jann Alexander © 2013


Letters have been my passion for nearly my entire life, thanks to a few requirements.

I was in college when I discovered calligraphy—a required course for commercial art majors (yes, it was called commercial art before it became art direction and now graphic design). What a thrill! Calligraphy, with all of its tiny silver nibs, India inks, richly textured papers and gorgeous hands to learn—this discovery that I found, and loved, was required! (Easy A, too.)

Vanishing Austin / Custard v Condo by Jann Alexander © 2013

Neat letters. 

In my first job at an advertising agency, it turned out that my skill at hand-lettering was actually required, too, not as a class to complete (and it had not been taught in college, go figure)—but in order to render the typefaces accurately for the headlines in my hand-drawn ad layouts. (Yes, commercial artists, and later art directors, of the 70s, 80s and even the 90s got to hand-draw all of their layouts, and could spend hours looking for the exact typeface that set the tone for a headline. And they actually paid decent money to those of us who could do this well.)

Talk about a score—I wasn’t aware of what an actual job in my major would be like, and somehow, that wasn’t part of the college curriculum. When I’d dropped my journalism major (wrongly or not, my parents convinced me reporting was a career that was just a big grind, with little pay) to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a fashion designer (a major I reluctantly dropped when I had to enroll in Sewing 101; I’d always loathed sewing), and finally settled in as a commercial illustrator and artist, I didn’t really know what was required.

“Great design jobs require devotion to the art of letters, which actually means being crazy about type.”

  Tweet: Great #design requires devotion to the art of letters, which means being crazy about type. #typography http://ctt.ec/q4ZuL+

Happily it turned out that commercial art was a job that required you to be an artist as well as an art director. Among the actual job requirements: you needed drawing skills; you’d better be good at cutting, pasting and waxing; accuracy with a T-square and triangle, Rapidographs and magic markers was essential; your days would be spent dreaming up ideas, designing layouts, conceiving photographs and choosing perfect color palettes; and best of all, you’d be lingering over lovely typefaces (we called them typefaces before we called them, rather impersonally, fonts)—so lettering skills were actually required! 

Just a few of the many Austin signs that have attracted me since 2004.


My eye for letters was pretty finely honed by those early days of typography gone wild—foundries all around the world had discovered that headline fonts, in particular, were in demand, so they were churning out fantastic new designs. Entire publications, trade groups and awards were devoted to the art of letters. And by the art of letters, they meant typeface families. Like many an art director who was passionate about typography, I developed my own aesthetic of proper letterforms and letterspacing, and it has endured to influence my photography.

I’ve been photographing a Vanishing Austin for ten years, drawn to the subject largely because of the fantastic typography and design found in iconic Austin, Texas signage that’s been created and crafted by amazing neon artisans. They share my passion for lettering and letters, and express it in vivid neon colors all around our town, using a century-old technique that doesn’t deserve its slow decline. 

For more on typography, neon and sign design:

Do you have a favorite typeface? Or is that liking asking which child is your favorite?


Endangered Species of Austin, poster by Jann Alexander © 2009

Endangered Species of Austin poster

About my Vanishing Austin series: While many Austin landmarks are lost, many are survivors still. Admire them all in a slideshow, HERE. Prints start at $35.

You can marvel at what’s lost and what’s survived in my Endangered Species of Austin poster, featuring 16 Austin icons, and sized at a handsomely large 24 x 36,” available for $25, HERE.


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