Type@Cooper - Vernacular Lettering

Vernacular Lettering


with John Downer




Sat., Nov. 19 – Sun., Nov. 20, 2016
10:00AM – 5:00PM
location: On campus

Vernacular lettering can provide spirited inspiration for type, but learning how to distinguish the usable from the unusable elements is an important prerequisite. We will look carefully at key differences between lettering and typography, considering both formal and informal traits.

Students will be shown examples of painted lettering, drawn lettering, and cutout lettering from the realm of signage. Students are also urged to bring images of vernacular lettering they have photographed or found.

John will show workshop students how to interpret the "charming" naïveté they perceive in home made letters or nonprofessional painted signage, and then demonstrate how to draw from their impressions any stuff that's worth saving. That stuff, which we call "raw material," can be readily applied either in type design & graphic design if it is utilized with discretion.


    Required Materials

  • Pencil, kneadable eraser, black ballpoint pen
  • ITOYA Doubleheader calligraphy felt pen (black)
  • Prismacolor Premiere Brush Marker (black)
  • Small plastic triangle, or a plastic ruler
  • Photocopies/prints of "found lettering"
  • Smart phone or digital camera


Registration will open September 7th


Register online…


Instructor: John Downer

Vernacular Lettering
Mr. Downer is a sign painter, a typeface designer, and an educator. He has written about type and type history for various publications and is widely known as a perceptive type critic. His typefaces have been published by Bitstream, Font Bureau, Emigre, House Industries, and Design Lab. Among his most popular type designs are Iowan Old Style (on iBooks reader and iOS 7+), Roxy, Ironmonger, and the ubiquitous food and beverage branding favorite, Brothers.

A native of the Pacific Northwest, a region of the US with a rich history of sign painting and hand-lettering, Mr. Downer was first introduced to commercial pen & brush lettering in the 1960s in junior high school. He began an apprenticeship in a sign painting shop at age 18. He holds BA, MA, and MFA degrees in art.

Mr. Downer has been a journeyman sign painter since 1973, a freelance typeface designer since 1983, and a crusader for designers’ rights his entire adult life. He began teaching lettering at the university level in 1972, making him one of the most experienced American educators in the fields of lettering and typeface design. He’s been teaching in the Type@Cooper program at The Cooper Union since its founding in 2010. He established the Sign Painting Support Group on Facebook as a platform to educate and guide serious enthusiasts and professionals in the principles of letter construction and the tricks of the trade. Follow him on Instagram.





Venue