‘Gutsy lettering’ and all that jazz – Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey typefacesSome of the names of the fonts available on our computers can be quite intriguing, and the stories behind them even more so. When Michael Harvey designed his first he called it Zephyr after the car he was driving, and his later fonts were named after his passion for jazz – Ellington, Mezz and Strayhorn. They are strong, clear and simple designs which have stood the test of time.

Michael Harvey book jacketDesigning book jackets was another of the strings to Michael’s bow. Initially influenced very much by the letter-forms he had been taught by Joseph Cribb, who was Eric Gill’s first apprentice, Michael then went on to work with the wood engraver Reynolds Stone, who encouraged him to free himself from what could have become a straight jacket. Despite the constraint of being able to use only one or two colours at the time, Michael made sure that his book jacket designs fairly leapt off the shelves, as with his own book here.



Sainsbury wing letteringPerhaps the best place to see his work easily is outside the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. The architect, Robert Venturi, said that he wanted ‘really gutsy English lettering’ and Michael was able to oblige with letters having strong serifs and a good contrast in the widths of the strokes. He approved of being involved in the whole design process rather than what is sometimes the case – architects simply picking a design out of a font catalogue almost as an afterthought. The commission really was huge, though, and Michael required the assistance of letter cutters and designers themselves, Brenda Berman and Annet Sterling of Incisive Letterwork, to help him carry it out.

Page from Michael Harvey's bookMichael also taught for many years at the University of Reading, running the course Letter-forms, and many are those who have benefited from his skills and knowledge. I remember talking with him about teaching and him saying that it was as much about learning as it was teaching, with which I wholeheartedly agreed. His books on lettering are worth every penny, with strong layouts, copiously illustrated with his own designs and artworks, and often with his drawings as well. Michael believed very strongly in the importance of drawing.

He and I also felt that copying was useful, but his words are far better than any I could give: ‘A model is not an end but a beginning. Copying a good model is a good start … No matter how much one tries to reproduce another person’s style we add something of ourselves.’

Michael sadly died last month after a long illness.

  • Harvey, Michael. Letters into words. London: Clowes, 1973.
  • Harvey, Michael. Lettering design: form and skill in the design and use of letters. London: Bodley Head, 1975.
  • Harvey, Michael. Creative lettering, drawing and design. London: Bodley Head, 1985.
  • Harvey, Michael. Carving letters in stone and wood. London: Bodley Head, 1987.
  • Harvey, Michael. Calligraphy in the graphic arts. London: Bodley Head, 1988.
  • Harvey, Michael. Reynolds Stone: engraved lettering in wood. Netheron: Fleece Press, 1992.
  • Harvey, Michael. Creative lettering today. London: A. & C. Black, 1996.
  • Harvey, Michael. Adventures With Letters. Bridport: 47 Editions, 2012