Behind the Design: How Louise Fili Creates Elegant Handlettered Typefaces

“Your clients don’t know the half of what you put into a project. Your colleagues do.” —Stephen Rollick, senior graphic designer at Gogo and former In-House Design Award-winner

For over two decades, Louise Fili has created lush, memorable handlettered logos and type treatments for packaging, book covers, posters and the restaurant industry. Her first digital typeface, Mardell, an Italian Futurist geometric, hit the world in 2016, followed by Montecatini, an Italian Art Deco treat named after a favorite spa town, a little more than a year later.



Drawing letterforms and words by hand for one specific usage is nothing like creating an entire character set to be used by others for multiple purposes. After all, handlettering is a composed illustration that doesn’t follow the same rules as a complete alphabetic system, and in fact only contains the characters needed for the specific words. If two letters are repeated, they aren’t even necessarily drawn the same way. A complete commercially-distributed typeface, on the other hand, requires both beauty and predictability—the same aesthetic decisions made by Fili as she works on handlettering needed to be planned and built into her fonts from the outset.

When you start a handlettering project, is your design process any different than it is for something you’re going to build all the way out into a font?

Louise Fili: Yes, for sure. When I’m sketching just four or five letters for a logotype, I don’t have to consider things like: if the E looks like this, then what’s the S going to look like? There are no what-ifs—all you’re thinking about is how they work together amongst themselves, not amongst a set of 26 letters. You’re building a composition, not a linear sequence of symbols.

When you drew Mardell, did you plan on creating a complete character set?

At first, I intended it to be a wood type only, but I designed it for the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, who requested a digital version too. I said, we’re just going to do capitals and numerals and that’s it. They said no, please give us a little punctuation! OK then, you get a question mark and an exclamation point. With Montecatini, we really had to do it right. It gave me a whole new admiration for what type designers do every day—you need so much patience.

[Related: Eat, Travel, Design: The World of Louise Fili | Print magazine’s special Typography Issue, featuring Montecatini]

What was different, process-wise, when you were working on Montecatini?

In the early 80s I did a cover for Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, and I wanted the typography to have the feeling of a handlettered poster from the early 1900s that I bought in Montecatini, a beautiful spa town in Tuscany. I started with a Phototype font called Pastel and added some ligatures and swashes; that was about the only way I could replicate that style back then.

When it was time to make another digital font, I knew it had to be Montecatini. I didn’t even count, but apparently it has over 200 ligatures! We had to place and review them in sample words, which is different from just drawing letters as a composition. When I worked for Herb Lubalin, he would give me a ride to the studio every morning, and while we were driving through the Village, he loved to point out all the misuses of Avant Garde ligatures that he’d see on signs. I kept thinking of Herb while I was working…Ligatures are great, but they have to be used judiciously.

Do you like drawing digital fonts?

Well, I was ready for something new, and so far it’s been very enjoyable. I’m careful about what sort of fonts I want to create. They have to be able to hold my interest for a couple of months, and that’s a tall order.

More type & lettering work by Louise Fili:


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