By Hand / Review: Outside the Box

I’ve learned over the years that being a freelance designer definitely has its ups and downs. The work—when it comes—is rewarding. I love collaborating with supportive clients and brilliant creatives, researching fresh points of view, exploring valuable ideas, and being appreciated for my contributions. Then there’s the dreaded stress (or relief?) of downtime when the frenzy of quick turnarounds, obsessing over details, and intense problem solving become a fond memory. Suffice it to say, this reality forces me to be agile, adaptable and patient wherever possible during these periods, even if I don’t always like it. What I DO like however, is continually learning new things and developing skills. This downtime ends up becoming a benefit and a blessed opportunity to get back to basics. Computer maintenance, archiving files, clearing out materials no longer needed, brushing up digital skills, meeting friends for coffee, and getting busy doing things by hand.

Developing ideas with pen & paper isn't entirely new, as I often start brand identity concepts by sketching quickly and in quantity—this part of my job I love, but don’t nearly do enough of. Yet the act of drawing, sketching and lettering by hand is enormously popular, as Pinterest and Instagram feeds have evidenced. It’s a refreshing, cheap break from solid computer work that can be integrated back into digital design via Photoshop and other e-tools. The feeling of brisk experimentation, exploring new challenges, creative discoveries, and just doing things for the love of it versus following specific directives, is both cathartic and fulfilling from a personal growth perspective. It also brings forth a unique human identity, voice or personality to the creative product. Leaving one’s own imprint is what many strive to do, moreso in this DIY age where anonymous workers of big corporations diligently build with almost no acknowledgement or notice.

Some books I’ve read recently identify gifted designers & illustrators, explore the importance of working by hand, and demonstrate how vital hand skills are to the creative process, not just ideas alone. Jessica Hische’s debut, “In Progress”, "David Downton: Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women” (see my past reviews in October 2015), and the latest by Gail Anderson, visually demonstrate that truth brilliantly:

GAIL ANDERSON / Outside the Box: Hand-drawing packaging from around the World

Developing page layouts and conceptual thinking already starts by hand, so why stop there? This enjoyable, image-heavy collection of international packaging case studies (with a foreword by the always memorable and reflective Debbie Millman), covers a delightfully diverse range of handdrawn styles and techniques from graphic designers, illustrators and lettering artists alike. Four categories are covered, ranging from the spontaneity of DIY and the looseness of ART, to heightened details found in CRAFT and the obsessively intricate complexities of ARTISANAL works.

The best part are the numerous close-up process sketches, explorations and developmental moodboards shared at length, along with backstories of how these diverse projects came together in their own way. In some cases, photos documenting drawing, painting and lettering processes are shown with support illustration or sketches where applicable. I appreciate how the personality of each letterer’s hand was retained right to the final product, as well as some exhaustive variations that were vital to informing what the final outcome would or should become. Some might see it as a waste of time and energy to work so broadly from a design development standpoint, but every sketch is beautiful in its own way and deserves its time in the sun, especially in this manner.

And if that wasn’t enough, the book concludes with a not so little section titled, “Inside Outside the Box” with 7 pages of author Gail Anderson and Joe Newton’s super-tight lettering for the book’s four title spreads. I’d be hard-pressed to choose my favourite single version of each word, as they’ve skillfully and artfully demonstrated that although one may be a front-runner for each concept, there's always more than one way to solve a design problem. So rather than hunt around for the perfect typeface or font for your design problem, the solution might be right at hand. Or left. Or both, if you’re ambidextrous.


Whether one is a graphic designer, typographer, art director, artist, illustrator or simply anyone who thinks conceptually, drawing skills can really help translate ideas while giving an authentic, human quality to the work itself. Doing things by hand provides a physical documentation of the creative process, which can be revisited time and again with new eyes or new discoveries. I love it because it’s faster than any computer or OS on the market, it’s not led by any specific single tool or external power source, and it’s considerably affordable (a hotel pen + any office notepad will do!). It’s so easy as long as you have the most essential piece in the puzzle….time. A long stretch of it or chunks of time on a regular basis both work, but making or having the time is what makes BY HAND one of the best ways to be creative.

So what kind of work will I take up with my time? has some great online classes (Spencer Charles and my current classes with Tom Froese or Martina Flor are noteworthy), I’ve joined an local lettering club and I will commit regular time to daily practice. I’ve also had a cover redesign of Helm Wotzkow’s 1952 book “The Art of Hand Lettering” on my TO DO list for months. Then there are sketches of fun ideas to be fleshed out more… Whatever time affords me, I hope you, too, will turn your downtime into uptime, simply by using your hands.