Type Talk: Gerard Huerta, Master of Hand Lettering

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Gerard Huerta is one of the most highly-respected and accomplished lettering designers working today. (For the record, he is also one helluva nice guy!) The work of this self-described designer of letterforms cut his teeth designing album covers and logos for the likes of ACDC, Ted Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult, Rick Derringer, Bob Dylan, The Isley Brothers, George Benson, Stephen Stills, The Charlie Daniels Band, and more. Since then, the scope of his hand lettering and typographic illustration has expanded beyond the recording industry to include mastheads, magazine covers, posters, movie titles, branding and graphic identities for advertising and other promotions – even watch dial design!

He is one of the lucky ones who loves what he does, and it shows in everything he puts his talented eye and hand to. We sat down with Gerard and “picked his brain” about his work, his process, and how the digital world has changed both. 

Q. How did you get into hand-lettering? Were you professional trained, or are you self-taught?

A. I spent my summer before attending Art Center College of Design hand-lettering signs with a chisel point marker for a store. Although an illustrator major, I found that the drawing of letters came much easier to me than drawing heads or hands, a result, I think, of that summer job. My formal lettering training at ACCD was by lettering master Mortimer Leach, with additional instruction by Chuck Schmidt and John Casado.

Q. What jobs have been the most challenging, the ones you are the most proud of, the most fun to do, hardest, the most publicly well-known and/or recognizable?

A. The most challenging job is that in which there is a lot of freedom. It allows me to extend myself and push the artwork much more like an illustrator. I, unlike most traditional lettering designers, love to work in color. This adds a whole other dimension to the solution. I usually have the design about 90% worked out by the time the sketch is scanned in, but the color part of it is treated much like a painter would react to his process of rendering on canvas. 

I find scripts the most fun to do, and sometimes they can be the most difficult. There is a much larger investment in time to make a script appear natural, to weed out flat spots and pointed areas, but the result is much more satisfying than Roman letters.

I am finding that the ACDC lightning bolt logo is one piece of lettering I am always associated with as being iconic, but I tend to downplay it as it is the only piece I have done that is made entirely of straight lines.

The iconic ACDC lightning bolt logo. Art Director: Bob Defrin, Atlantic Records.

Q. What is your process: do you work entirely on the computer, or sketch first?

A. I approach a solution at the drawing board first. I work in pencil or Pentel on tracing paper. I start with a series of sketches, then edit them down to the ones I feel are working. If the client can read roughs I will submit them. If not, and a more formal presentation is required, I will scan the drawing in as a template to trace over, create guidelines where necessary, and plot points, paying close attention to their placement, then refining the curves.

This campaign has it all: a complicated lockup of letterforms, dimension, lettering on a curve ­ ­– all artfully integrated with the rest of the content. Huerta’s detailed pencil sketches are a work of art in their own right. Art Director: AJ Cohen, BetterMed.

Q. Do you ever begin with a typeface, or are all of your ideas original?

A. I never start out with a typeface as I view lettering and typesetting as two very different disciplines. In the process of drawing, relationships between letters are created as opposed to already existing by someone else's hand. I think my approach is the illustrator in me. Also, the act of drawing is unique to everyone. As for originality, I would say most of what I do is derivative and I do use reference as I might find one interesting letter to create others from.

The intricate decoration around the edges of this album cover draw the eye to the important lettering down the center. Art Director: John Berg, Columbia/Odyssey Records.

A clean, elegant editorial treatment that is beautifully executed gets the message across visually, even without reading the words. Director: Pat Nordin, Krista Volenski, Men's Wear Magazine.

Q. How has the digital world affected your work (since you have been lettering in the pre-digital days)?

A. The digital world has created two opposing issues for me. The first is the efficiency and cleanliness of working. No longer are we dealing with ink and paint, airbrushes and mechanical tools. I love working on the Mac. Also, the ability to email final files eliminates packing and shipping (all of this being obvious to one who never worked in the analog world). On the other side is dealing with the results of indecisiveness. We used to sketch, comp and finish…done. Now, because changes are easily made they will continue to be made until the deadline is upon us. This removes some of the efficiency of working digitally.

The style of this skillfully designed and executed piece from 1981 is still relevant today. Art Director: Ron Meyerson, Newsweek Magazine.

Many layers of information come together perfectly in this cover. Appropriately applied color helps to establish the hierarchy of the various elements. Art Director: Rob Johnson, Sail Magazine.

Q. When should a client or art director consider a lettering artist rather than designing with “just” fonts?

A. A client should consider a lettering artist when something unique is required. Although there are many great typefaces out there, they are available to everyone. Drawing as I have said provides a unique solution. One might need a letterer to “copyfit” lettering in a space. Too many times one sees the width to length adjusted to fit a space and the result is an unsatisfactory distortion of letters. One might want type on a convex curve. This requires the letters to “fan-out” or to be wider at the top than at the bottom to look visually correct. The idea is to have the “type” look natural, and if it doesn’t, lettering is the solution.

Another aspect of this is not just the drawing of letters, but the importance of making type look good. I remember an advertising instructor who worked in NY that said, “Don't be afraid to call Tom Carnase to space your headline.” I will never forget that detail.

Uncomplicated (comparatively speaking) yet powerful logo. Art Director: Bruce Martin, American Custom.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

A. When I worked at CBS Records we once had to paint a model based on an idea by creative director John Berg. Arming ourselves with pre-cut friskets, acetates, and canned compressed air, Roger Huyssen and I each got on a knee of Lou Ferrigno to paint an Alvin Lee logo I had designed and a trompe l'oeil shirt. After a successful job and lunch we returned to see Lou finishing off his sixth large can of tuna and our artwork sweating off of him. Lou, without one complaint, took a shower and we proceeded to repaint him. The photographer got off a couple of shots in the hot lights before our artwork became active again.

An appropriately sophisticated logo whose script lettering glows like actual chrome. Art Director: Peter Ortali, Fairfield County Concours. 

Huerta’s personal work – classy yet restrained.

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Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e‑newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

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