Painted faces

Bold, beautiful and deliberately excessive: the current interest in illustrated type is throwing up amazing new work, as Ed Ricketts discovers.

Illustrated type has come of age. Although it's hardly a new concept - monks took to 'illuminating' manuscripts in the medieval era, after all - the contemporary equivalent is enjoying a renaissance. It's developing beyond a mere use-it-once gimmick into a way of fusing illustration and typography, creating something that's far greater than the sum of its parts.

World-renowned masters of the art form such as Alex Trochut have done much to re-popularise the idea, but now an army of illustrated type pioneers are pushing the concept even further, often with the use of 3D software.

The swirling, curvaceous and playful illustrated type of Luke Lucas has featured in work for Nike, Coca Cola, MTV, Doritos and a swathe of advertising agencies. Co-founder of creative agency Lifelounge, Lucas admits to being obsessed with typography, and has experimented widely with illustrated type treatments throughout his 15-year career.

"I knew my Skilled piece for Nike was going to be for apparel. So I wanted to come up with something that would be dynamic and original, but appropriate for applying onto a garment through screenprinting or embroidery," he says. "It obviously needed to include some subtle sporting cues too."

The idea was to create a dynamic type treatment from the repetition of a single line weight, within Illustrator. "I usually start by working out the general proportions of the letterforms and the overall shape of the lockup," explains Lucas, "and then I start to break up the space with a series of guides. So when I create the letterforms there are some boundaries for me to work within."

Another commission, intended to highlight the importance of not buying fakes (to Nike, at least), involved a totally different process. "The brief for 'Why Buy a Copy' was to create the letterforms in an organic intertwining 3D script, similar to some of my other work," Lucas recalls. "Usually for this work I start on paper and sketch some letters and ligatures I'd like to use. From there I take it into Illustrator and refine the letterforms as a solid 2D shape, and submit to the client for draft approval. Then it goes into Photoshop to airbrush the colour, highlights, shadows and reflections. Both of those jobs were created from completely custom typefaces."

Having worked with illustrated type for so long, Lucas is not surprised by its recent surge in popularity. "Design goes in cycles, and generally feeds off itself," he says. "If there's good work out there that's a little different to what has been around for the previous few years, then people want more of that style - until the point it becomes saturated and the polar opposite becomes appealing. In addition, I think the ability to introduce an emotional depth to a type treatment, and adding tonal edge through the style of execution, can make a particular piece of communication so much more engaging and effective."

Ironically, his skill with illustrated type treatments has sometimes led to him becoming stereotyped as 'the guy who does letters', which is not something Lucas is particularly happy with. "Occasionally I can try other stuff, but for the most part I'm usually briefed on jobs to create something in a similar style to something else that I've already created. To be honest, this can be a little frustrating," he admits. "It's my job as a designer to try and take the elements, look and feel that each client likes, and then reinvent them in a new execution."

Alex Beltechi is perhaps best known for his extensive and detailed tutorials, which are featured in blogs and magazines. Much of his personal work, though, is experimental and often involves explorations with what might be called extreme typography, with characters as an integral part of a bigger illustration.

"My style tends to be realistic, 3D type - I particularly like Illustrator's Pen tool, Cinema 4D's NURBS tools and materials, Photoshop's Brush tool and Adjustment layers," he says. "The start of a project for me is deciding on a style or technique. In the case of Steampunk Type, I set out to bring my own contribution to a style in which I was increasingly interested. It felt like a perfect exercise, since much of my work is intensely graphic and detailed - much like the pompous, intricate workings of Steampunk machinery."

The next stage of his process is to decide whether to sketch the letters or use an existing font as a starting point; in this case, he began with two Blackletter typefaces to use as a reference.

"I customise or create my own fonts, so I'm not only pleased with how they look in the end, but also because I need to avoid any technical difficulties I may encounter later in the creative process. With this Blackletter font, for example, when I extrude the Illustrator paths in Cinema 4D and add Fillet Caps to round off the edges, I constrain these modifications within the original size of the paths.

"That way I preserve the exact form of the font. If I made the splines and stems of the font too thin, however, these would create artefacts [unwanted blurring, noise or other anomalies] in the rendering. I also have to worry about any ellipses within the construction of the font. If the angle is too sharp, it too will create artefacts."

Once the basic form is styled in Illustrator, Beltechi creates inner offset paths to use in Cinema 4D for different levels of extrusion. For Steampunk Type, wood and metal-like materials were used to match the theme, and also applied in Cinema 4D. Finally, he added the clockwork images in Photoshop and integrated them with the letters, applied colour balance, and finished off with hand-drawn steam effects: "You can't have Steampunk without steam," he reasons.

For Type Treat, he used Metaball objects in Cinema 4D - producing a curvy, organic look - and varied the materials depending on the subject. "In Work + Play, I used Metaballs again to create a liquid paint appearance," he adds. "Repeating the technique while changing the execution to something completely different enables me to perfect the process, while creating something fresh all the time.

"If you write down the word 'chocolate', but give it a convincing candy cane appearance, people will still initially recognise it as candy cane," he says. "I think this sort of visual representation is what adds impact to an otherwise simple message. I also want to explore other media, such as creating typography and lettering from real life objects, and photographing them. Whatever I do, I'm sure that studies on different effects and appearances will still be the norm."

Dutch graphic designer Theo Aartsma is also fascinated by illustrated type, particularly of the 3D variety. Under his freelance guise of Sumeco Design, he has produced commissions for Toyota, Grand & Toy, Carlsberg, Unicef and others, as well as editorial illustrations for a number of magazines.

Two of his images, Wireless (produced for OFFF 2008) and Heist, a personal piece, demonstrate his diverse approach to illustrated typography - both pieces feature heavily stylised lettering, but realised in totally different ways. "Heist was first sketched with a pencil and then modelled in 3D in one whole block," he explains. "On the other hand, Wireless was built on an existing typeface (Myriad), which I set up as a foundation. I modelled the wires as separate pieces in 3D, and these pieces were then put together in Photoshop to create the final composition - or solid outline shape of the letters, in this case."

For Aartsma, varying this creative process is crucial, and it almost becomes a challenge to see how many ways illustrated type can be created. "I try to do it all: completely cartoon-like letters in vector, with post-work in Photoshop for some airbrush effects; 3D objects that get transformed into letters and rendered in such a way that you can't see if it's vector, Photoshop or a 3D render; or just plain calligraphy that I draw first and then recreate digitally," he goes on.

Aartsma isn't too preoccupied with creating a particular personal style, however; he prefers to let the work dictate the end result. "I think this kind of thing comes automatically in time," he reflects. "I'm already finding myself doing things twice sometimes - which is something I didn't really do before. I think this is a sign that I'm starting to develop techniques that I really like to use, and that set me apart from other illustrators. This development is all about keeping it fun and freestyle. I try not to give myself any boundaries."

No matter what the creative process, Aartsma believes that it's vital to retain legibility in commercial projects - as opposed to personal pieces, which have no such constraints. "This is hard within every project I take on," he admits. "Most of the time I discuss it with the art director before the project begins. It always becomes a balance between illustrative creativity and typographical constraints, and there aren't really any hard and fast rules for this.

"One practical thing that I always do is check if the typography is readable at thumbnail size. Viewing a thumbnail makes you concentrate more on the silhouette, because you can't see all the details at that size. It's all about the silhouette - the positive shape - and how clearly you can make that visible."

These caveats aside, Aartsma is keen to explore further within the field of illustrated type, particularly the idea of 'photoreal' lettering incorporating both 3D modelling and photography. "I'd also like to do more with traditional materials together with ultra macro lenses," he adds. "And using clay and spraypaint - I could go on like this for hours. I have so many ideas, but too little time."

Whether or not the current interest in illustrated type treatments is indeed cyclical, it's also largely irrelevant. The most important thing is that a huge range of exciting, experimental and truly beautiful typographical art is now being produced, often merging text with illustration in a way that enriches both disciplines - in ways a medieval monk could never envisage.