Graphic artist scripts her own success story

Photo: archive of Petra Dočekalová

Petra Dočekalová is a graduate of the Typography Studio at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. Her calligraphy thesis, in which she developed her own handwritten scripts, has recently won two prestigious international awards, including the certificate of Typographic Excellence 2017 from the Type Directors Club. I met with Petra Dočekalová in her studio, hidden in a backyard just a few steps from Prague’s Old Town Square, and I first asked her why she chose calligraphy as the topic of her thesis:

Petra Dočekalová, photo: Ivana Veselková
“This discipline has nearly disappeared from the Czech Republic. During the 1990s, there were almost no designers doing handwritten sign painting. Abroad, the discipline is thriving - posters are made, restaurants have their own branding made by sign-painters, but the Czech Republic is not that lucky.

“So I have tried to fill in this gap with new styles, using new technologies and markers, trending styles in graffiti and graphic design. I have designed four hand-written scripts that could be used by different businesses, such as restaurants or bars, but they can also be used in a digital way.”

As you said this discipline has nearly vanished here in the Czech Republic. Why not abroad?

“Abroad, for example in the United States, in the Netherlands or in the UK, there was a strong tradition, and the artist simply continued in this tradition. In the Czech Republic, there were only around ten artists in this field and they disappeared with the onset of cheap digital technologies.

“They didn't get paid enough to get things properly done and the public stopped noticing the visual quality of handmade signs. Also, art schools removed the subject of hand-painting signs from their curriculum. But thanks to sign-painting becoming fashionable these days, the art is getting back to the streets.”

Was there a strong tradition of calligraphy and sign-painting in the past? Can you tell me more about the history of this discipline?

“The Czech Republic had a rich history of calligraphy, same as Germany, Slovakia and Austria and the fonts were quite similar. But with the onset of the Communist regime, the borders were closed and the fonts from abroad couldn't be used here. So the designers, particularly type designers, were forced to design their own original work. Thanks to this we have really strong history in original typefaces which are quite unique and complex.

“I use the cheapest brushes and markers that are available. You don’t have to pay thousands for good markers. If you can draw, you can do it even with a wooden stick.”

So the fonts developed in isolation from the rest of the world?

"Yes, exactly. And isolation is good for good design."

As you said you actually developed your own handwritten font as part of your thesis. Have you taken these Czechoslovak scripts as an inspiration?

“Yes. I have not just read the texts, but I have also tried to try out all their calligraphy approaches. Every typographer had a different calligraphy style and I have tried to understand how they drew the letters, why they used a particular shape and what technology they use it for. Some typographers drew letters for scissors - scissoring them when they were finished, while some of them did shapes for window dressing.

“So my first step was to map all the available publications - I tracked about 40 or 50 publications with script faces from 19th century till nowadays. I tried to learn all these styles and draw them in my own hand and I tried to improve them by using new technologies, markers, brushes and pencils and finally I put them in a digital form.”

“If you put a hand-painted sign into a computer, it behaves differently and you need to find balance between what looks good paper and what looks good in the digital form. When you are designing a digital script, the typeface needs to look great in both ways.”

Photo: archive of Petra Dočekalová
You thesis has won two prestigious international awards. How important is it for you, winning these prizes?

“I am really glad I won them because the TDC award, which is handed out by the Type Directors’ Club in New York is really prestigious all over the world. The jury consists of experts and professionals in the field - typographers or professors of typography.

“So if they give a prize they really know what you are doing and they really studied your work. It is not just some media prize. It is an award for excellence in your brand. I am not someone who would shout in the world that I have won a prize but I am really glad that I have received it.”

What will actually happen with your fonts? Can you sell them?

“Not to mix apples and pears, I have become a sign painter and I also do fonts from these scripts. So I am a real painter and if any business calls me, I use these fonts for specific purpose of some restaurant or some bar. So I am always designing a specific script for a specific use.

“I am also working on digitising and vectorising those platforms and you can buy them on-line. You can set the design by yourself and use it in your own way.”

Can you actually make a living by painting signs?

“Yes, it is really well paid and especially in Prague, people are starving for good design and shop-keepers really need good designers. They need to design their menus or logos and there are is a lack of sign-painters. So become a sign-painter and you can make a living by it here in the Czech Republic. We need it."

“Sign painting is really well-paid and especially in Prague, people are starving for good design.”

I read on your website that you want to revive the craftsmanship of hand-writing. How exactly do you want to achieve that?

“I would like the public to notice that there is something going on in shop-design. It may happen through my own design that you just happen to pass by a shop, thinking about who designed the window.

“I also organise workshops for people who want to learn how to write nicely and because they could then become my colleagues and co-workers and I would have more time for my research. So I would like to speak about it, show the people how to do it, and learn more.”

As far as I know, you have already organised workshops for the public. Would you say people are perhaps less skilled today with all the digital technologies we are using?

“Everyone who came to my workshop told me: ‘I have a horrible handwriting, I cannot even write my name properly.’ But when I look at it I think: ‘No, we can definitely work on it. We can definitely make it look super-cool. Because you have for instance nice ligatures or you have a connected script.’

Photo: archive of Petra Dočekalová
“During the four-hour workshop I force people to write in different ways, using different tools and put their handwriting out of their comfort zone. And I have to say that everyone who came to my workshop made a huge step forward.”

What are you actually working on right now?

"I am working on about ten projects right now. It is a mix of school projects, monography books, exhibition projects, new script forms, letterings for film-makers and movie brands and I am also writing some texts.”

Finally, do you have any specific techniques or materials that you prefer over the others?

"I use the cheapest brushes and markers that are available. You don’t have to pay thousands of crowns for good markers and good styles. If you can draw, you can do it even with a wooden stick. That’s all."