Draw Letters. Tell Stories.

"How do I make my work stand out?" 

I hear this question pretty often, and there's a lot of confusion around this topic. Should I be committing to one style or constantly experimenting? Is it just a matter of commitment and showing up? Sadly, I don't have a simple answer for you.

But I can tell you one thing many new artists tend to overlook is putting meaning behind their work. Our stories define who we are and what we make. So why not put those stories directly into our work?

I don't consider myself to be a master of writing or storytelling by any means. Regardless, I still want break down why the things beneath the surface are so important, and a few tips for how to make your work more compelling.

Beautiful images are a dime a dozen.

All it takes is opening up an app or a quick google search to find an endless scrolling page of gorgeous images and art.

How convenient, right? Well, I believe it's both a blessing and a curse. Especially as creative people, we see so many images every day that we are desensitized to their beauty.

It makes sense to focus all of your efforts on making great lettering – balancing letterforms, composition, consistent weights and stylistic treatments. These things are important and valuable to learn, but if you only focus on form & legibility, you are overlooking a huge piece of the puzzle: the concept.

Whether it's for client work, a personal project or a collaboration, the concept is the thing that will resonate the deepest with the audience. This is what separates a pretty picture from a powerful story.

What is this piece about and why did you make it? If you put yourself – your honest self – into your work, it helps your audience understand the person behind the work, and your audience will appreciate it more.

People don't resonate with things. People resonate with other people. 

Last week I shared the Optimist project – a story about my apartment burning down last summer and how I was left with a single sketch. Along with the help of my talented friends, we made a video to share this message in a more powerful and digestible medium.

Here are a couple of messages last week:

"I appreciate you sharing your feelings so honestly. I’ve been going through some tough times lately . . . When things get difficult, we could all use some more optimism in our lives."

"I needed to see this today."

At first it was very scary for me to put my story out there. But getting responses like this made it all worth it. I felt like I'd communicated a genuine message and helped people when they needed it. This reward is far greater than any generic compliment I've received.

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.” 

- Neil Gaiman

All of this reminded me of something I learned at the Creative South conference earlier this year.

Vulnerability is more interesting than any skill.

When I was at the conference, I was surrounded by so many talented, hard-working and inspiring people. I couldn't help but want to rub elbows and speak with a few of my favorite designers. After leaving, I realized that the most memorable conversations I had weren't about lettering or design. Rather, they were about the raw struggles and insecurities we face as artists, designers and people.

I didn't write this post to say that everything we share needs to have so much gravity. There's plenty of room for the lightheartedness and fun.

Nor did I mean to say that all accomplishment comes from external validation. However, I do believe that as people we have a need to connect with others, and stories help us do that.

"How do I come up with a story worth telling?"

Here are a few tips for coming up with concepts and stories for your lettering:

  • Think about what you are struggling with. Most likely there are others out there just like you.
  • What makes you feel most alive? That's powerful stuff you can write about.
  • If you can't think of anything, borrow from a story that resonates with you. After all, people have been making art for centuries surrounding historical and mythical events.
  • Make up a fictional story for a specific audience.
  • Create a series that strings together multiple pieces as "chapters".
  • Make art as commentary on a social issue or recent news story

In the end, it all comes down to writing. Long form, short form, lists – whatever works for you. The sooner you get the ideas out of your head, the closer you are to adding meaning behind your work. I'll leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman.

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: 

Make good art.” 

I hope this article got you thinking about how you can tell better stories in your work. If you have any feedback or questions, please reach out and let me know!

Eric Friedensohn