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The Power of Observation

A couple people recently asked me about how to get started with lettering. This week I want to talk about the first step: observation.

Careful observation is the first step that we take before we can create anything of value.

It may seem obvious, but creativity does not come out of thin air. We need experiences to draw from our memory.

The good news: You are already doing this step without thinking about it. We're constantly taking in the world around us and filtering it through our creative brains. 

The bad news: We see so many new things every day that we rarely stop to notice the details.  This type of observation is merely passive watching, and it is not nearly as helpful as purposeful seeing. Gaining insights from observation takes real effort.

Last week I wrote a blog post about how noticing a tree took me across the world. This just goes to show the power of observation.

And it's true! I am writing these very words right while visiting Berlin, Germany for the TYPO conference, thanks to that one observation that I made. Since the conference hasn't started yet, I have been spending my time taking in the visual diversity around the city. I also paid a visit to the Buchstabenmuseum (The Museum of Letters) and here are some of the photos I took.

How can we use observation as a tool to create new and interesting lettering? Here are three action steps.

1. Study the work of masters

It's nice to follow along with talented lettering artists of today, but you would be surprised that most of it is inspired by work done by old school masters of illustrative lettering like Tom Carnase, Tony DiSpignia and Louise Fili. Take some time to learn about these people and analyze their work.

2. Surround yourself with things you love

Just as we are heavily influenced by the people we surround ourselves with, the same is true with the inanimate objects around us. Learning through observation takes more than having a Pinterest board. If you want to study great lettering, buy your favorite designs as prints and put them on your wall, so you can look at them up close every day and engrain them in your mind. Dare I say it– you can even trace them to understand how the letters were formed, and embed some of that goodness in your muscle memory. (Of course, if you trace, do not share it as your own.)

3. Vary your intake

As much as I love looking at letters, you can't just look at them all the time. Study other things that interest you, whether it be architecture, sports, music, or nature. These things all have elements of composition. When you vary your sources of inspiration, they all get jumbled together to create your unique perspective. It takes time to develop, but that special sauce is what's going to set you apart as an artist.

You don't have to travel across the world to discover new things.

Thanks to the internet, we can study images and videos of just about anything. That being said, there is nothing quite like seeing something in person, and being able to interact with it. As much as you can, I recommend getting out and seeing new things in the real world, whether it's visiting another culture or just walking down the street.

Expose yourself to something new this week, and take time to notice the details. You never know where it will lead you next.