Jon Contino: Class Is In Session

ADC Young Guns 9 winner announces intense course in the art of hand lettering

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the ADC community, it’s that hand lettering is where it’s at. The majority of our Members at least dabble in the art, and a number of them have made an impact on the design world with their talent. Few, however, have had the success of New York-based “alphastructaesthetitologist”, ADC Member and Young Guns 9 winner Jon Contino. Jon has lent his considerable skills and punk rock sensibilities to everything from Nike to Campbell’s Soup to Boardwalk Empire, and now he’s announcing a unique crash course beginning this May, designed to help other letterers step their own game up.

“The Complete Guide to Custom Lettering” is an intense series of lecture and workshop videos, workbooks and resources brought together by Jon to transform you into master lettering artists, or at the very least raise your own bar a few levels. We caught up with Jon to chat about his course.


To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ You obviously can do, so why are you teaching?

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of designers gain more and more interest in lettering, but a lot of them don’t really have the foundations in typography to make their work shine. As someone who comes from a strict typography background, I spent a lot of time learning the rules and the intricacies of letterforms and why they look the way they look, so by the time I was comfortable rendering those letters by hand, I eventually started breaking out of the box and pushing the limits of what I thought was possible. Once I understood the boundaries of what I could pull off, I started to experiment more and more and I really noticed a significant improvement in my work.

Now that lettering has become so ubiquitous in branding and advertising, it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me when I see someone clearly mimicking a style and not truly understanding the foundational importance that typographic history has on lettering. I’m hoping that with this class, I can carve out a niche for people who want to learn the way I did and really build a strong understanding of type. There aren’t many options out there, especially online, for something this detailed, so this way people don’t need to travel or spend a ton of money to learn something that I consider to be truly vital to the work they’re hoping to achieve.

” I’m hoping that with this class, I can carve out a niche for people who want to learn the way I did and really build a strong understanding of type.”

Hand lettering seems to be growing by leaps and bounds within the design community. What do you think is the impetus behind this interest?

With technology developing at such an insane pace, I think it’s clear that we as humans are craving something more real. Something that doesn’t feel like a machine just spit it out. I think that’s why the whole “hand-crafted” movement became such a thing in the past few years. People want to know that we’re still capable of being artists—that we’re still capable of creating. Fonts are so amazing these days that it almost feels like there’s no room for this type of work, but once you see a beautiful piece of lettering, you know that it requires contextual thinking and aesthetic choices that no machine can replicate. At least not yet!

What are the challenges behind putting what comes naturally to you into a structured course for others?

Well, one of the major things that people don’t realize, and other lettering artists will say this as well, is that the amount of research and studying that goes into truly mastering type is just crazy. The endless hours of playing with kerning, experimenting with ligatures, and obsessing over what makes classic font styles so beautiful plays such a huge role in your brain when it comes to lettering. Without that vault of knowledge, you’ll never think of the unique ways to craft a word or sentence. You can only get so much by looking at someone else’s work. You really need to go back to the beginning and see where it comes from, how it evolved, and how you can learn from the people that broke down the walls so many years ago. I wanted to be able to teach that without turning the whole course into a history class, so being able to jam years of typography history into a few videos was definitely tough. I wanted to leave enough room to get into lettering as an art form, but all of that means nothing without the foundational stuff.

“I wanted to be able to teach that without turning the whole course into a history class, so being able to jam years of typography history into a few videos was definitely tough.”

Who do you think will benefit most from this course? If they could walk away retaining one gem of knowledge from the treasure trove you’re providing, what would it be?

Honestly, I think rookies and pros alike will benefit from this course. I know I’ve taken plenty of workshops and courses from other working professionals, and just watching how they think was enough to open up a ton of doors for me. And for the people who don’t know where to begin or feel like they’re stuck in their progression, they’re getting everything from the ground up so they can really kickstart their brains. Things I spent years and years on condensed into a few hours, ya know? I want this to be the total set of tools for anyone who wants to spend their time as a lettering artist or designer.

What’s on the horizon for you and your studio?

This year is a big transition for me. I’ve been grooming it for the past three years or so, but I’m finally taking the studio from a small shop and officially relaunching as a full scale branding agency. We haven’t made the official announcement yet, but that’s what everything is leading up to in the next few months. I’ve already added a few really talented people to the crew and our services will go beyond just what people normally expect from me. We’ll be doing everything from identity to package design to product design, to interiors and environments, photography and video production, and even web development. I’ve been doing these things pretty quietly for the past few years for my clients, but 2017 is the year we make it official and actually start promoting it as an option to all clients.


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