Learn how to design lettering layouts with a step-by-step process that takes your idea from a rough sketch to the final piece.
Designing lettering layouts can be frustrating, especially if you feel like you don’t know the steps you should be taking to create one.
Sometimes it might feel like there must be something you just don’t “get” about designing them, or else you would be able to effortlessly create stunning compositions in minutes, right?
I used to feel that way sometimes!
But artists don’t “magically” produce lettering layouts; instead, there’s a fairly simple process that is used every time to design one. It all starts with good old pencil sketches.
Over time, as you create more layouts, it becomes easier and quicker to go through the design process and come up with compositions that you love.
But this doesn’t mean that the necessary steps can be skipped over!
In this post, I’ll go over the steps of the layout design process and explain each one so that you’ll have a clearer direction to follow when designing your own.
And if you read all the way to the end, there’s something extra that I hope will be helpful for you!
Step 1. Write your quote
Start by writing out your quote in regular handwriting.
Getting those words written down on paper helps you start visualizing how they could be arranged.
Now you can also decide how to break it up into lines.
Just read through the quote and add a line break wherever it sounds most natural. I use a slash to mark where the line breaks will be – nothing fancy!
For an example, I’ll work with the quote “Any day spent with you is my favorite day” by A.A. Milne.
I broke the sentence up like this: “Any day/spent with you/is my/favorite day.”
You may decide to change where the line breaks are later on, but this is a good starting point.
Step 2. Choose which words to highlight
Read through the words again and select which ones you want to highlight.
These will be the words that you emphasize in the composition, and they can be made to stand out with larger sizes, different styles, or embellishments like banners.
Circle or draw a box around the words you want to appear most important.
Step 3. Make thumbnail sketches
A great way to test out layout ideas is by creating thumbnail sketches, which are just small, quick drawings.
These make it easy to decide on a layout without having to sketch it on a larger scale.
Write out your phrase using your chosen line breaks and start experimenting with different lettering styles.
Try different ways of emphasizing the important words. Arrange the elements in different ways and try to puzzle them together.
Make as many thumbnail sketches as you need to, and don’t worry about making them neat or precise. This is all about trying different things and getting the ideas flowing!
By the end of your sketching session, you’ll likely have a number of layout ideas that didn’t work, as well as some (or at least one!) that you like and want to develop further.
Step 4. Sketch your favorite layout
Now you can pick your favorite thumbnail sketch and sketch it out on a larger scale.
Take a little more time to draw the letterforms neatly and figure out how things will fit together.
If it helps you, you can use a ruler to draw guidelines for yourself first.
As you draw the layout concept on a larger scale, you’ll probably start seeing things that need to be changed.
Step 5. Tweak and adjust
Take a step back to look at your layout as a whole.
You could also take a picture of your work and look at the picture; this really helps you see things that you didn’t notice before!
You may see inconsistent spacing, letters that are too big or small, empty spaces, or lines that aren’t centered.
Whatever it is, take note of it and plan to fix it when you retrace your work.
If it helps you, use a colored pen to mark up your sketch to remind yourself of what needs to be changed.
Then use tracing paper to sketch it out again, making adjustments as needed.
And repeat! This step could really go on forever.
It usually takes at least a few traces to complete a lettering composition, and often many more than that.
If you end up doing too many traces though, you should probably just put it away for a while!
When I started learning composition, I would trace the same design over and over, not actually changing much with each trace, and still not be satisfied.
Sometimes it’s best to take a break or work on something else so you can revisit your work with fresh eyes.
Step 6. Try different layout variations
If you’re happy with your layout, great!
If not, or if you want more than one layout option, look back at your thumbnail sketches (or make more) and find another idea to try.
You may choose to go in an entirely different direction than you had planned!
Experiment with a different lettering style or try switching styles around. Break the lines up a little differently or change which words are emphasized.
If you have empty white spaces that stand out too much, try using flourishes or small illustrations to fill it in.
For my layout, I sketched out a second version that worked out better than the first, even though I didn’t end up emphasizing the words the same way.
I would still like to work on these layouts more, but I went ahead and traced them in ink to see how they were looking.
Sometimes it’s helpful to do this so you can see how the composition looks in ink compared to pencil.
Especially since some layouts can look great in pencil but don’t look as good in ink!
And there you have it: the step-by-step process for designing lettering layouts.
If you’ve been wanting to create compositions but haven’t been sure of what steps to take, I hope learning this process gave you a clearer direction to follow!
To recap, here’s how to design lettering layouts.
- Write out your quote.
Write it in your regular handwriting to start visualizing how it could be arranged.
- Choose words to highlight.
Circle important words to highlight in the composition.
- Make thumbnail sketches
Fill a page with little sketches to get the layout ideas flowing.
- Sketch your favorite layout.
Pick your favorite layout idea and sketch it out on a larger scale.
- Tweak and adjust.
Step back, look at the layout as a whole, and decide what needs to be changed or added. Make multiple drafts if you need to as you make adjustments.
- Try different layout variations.
Go back to your thumbnail sketches and try a different layout if you want/need another version or concept.
To help you further, I made a composition checklist for you to print out and keep handy when you’re working on your layouts.
You can get it below!