Hot! The Art of Squinting

By Uncle Tim Heitkotter

For the uninitiated, this may seem like a bizarre topic for “Lettering 101.” SQUINTING? WHAT the Hell? Most of you might be thinking, Tim’s finally lost it. Hang in there… trust me! I remember way back in the ’80s, when I had a sign shop in Monterey, California. Business was booming and I had a big contract with the U.S. Army painting banners for their safety program. They had the usual cliché slogans like “Click it or Ticket” and “Gas and Alcohol Don’t Mix!” Some of them had “McGruff,” the trench coat-wearing cartoon dog, whose slogan was “Take a Bite out of Crime.” There were two dozen twenty-five-foot by forty-eight-inch banners, all with different copy. My shop was a 1,200 square feet; twenty feet wide and sixty feet long, which gave me about forty-five feet of wall space to pin up these banners and lay them out. Of course, being the “Old School” guy that I am, they were all laid out by hand with a three-foot wooden yardstick and a dark-blue Stabillo pencil. No computers needed.

There was a neighboring sign shop about twenty miles away, owned by a friend of mine named Carl. He had a young apprentice named Deano. Deano was a kind of hippie kid who smoked a lot of weed. He would drop by now and then to say howdy and hang out. One particular day he came by, when I was laying out these banners. He leaned back on the workbench (beer in hand) and watched, open-jawed, while I took my yardstick and Stabillo and started laying out these things out with my usual speed. That is, quick!

His employer, Carl, had a sign computer and did everything on it. Carl never laid anything out by hand, because nothing in his shop was hand painted. All they did there was vinyl signs… and it took all day on the computer to lay things out for the plotter to cut, and then Deano would have to “weed” all the excess vinyl and apply transfer tape so they could stick it to the surfaces. So, when Deano saw me layout this twenty-four-foot banner in fifteen minutes, he was aghast with fascination. This, of course was nothing to me, as I watched men layout sign after sign by hand in my father’s old sign shop, and letter them up even faster. By hand! With paint! I remember Deano saying, “Dude! How can you do that so fast and it’s so…..perfect?” What else could I say other than, “Practice, practice, practice?”

Later, Deano came to work for me and he got the chance to really watch how it was done. Despite the fact that he was a pothead, he learned quickly. After a couple of months, I remember being in the office answering a phone call, when I peeked out the door into the shop, while being on hold. As I looked out, I saw Deano talking to my other employee, Frank, and making fun of me. (They didn’t think I was watching.) He said, “Look, here’s Tim!” and would make a “bucktooth” grin and squint his eyes while rocking his head from side to side.” Frank responded, “Yeah! Ha ha ha, that’s him!” They whooped it up till I walked in and caught them in the act. It got real quiet at first, then we all laughed at each other, while pointing out each other’s idiosyncrasies. We were a fun crew. Then, when it quieted down, I asked them if they knew why I always squinted when I was laying out signs. I told them that I was blocking out all peripheral distraction so I could get a good look at the sign and not just the letters. Did it have balance? Did one area overpower the other? Was the copy all straight and properly spaced? Were all my angles and thicknesses correct? Were the positive and negative spatial relationships balanced? Did the variation in the letter values lend itself to proper prioritization of the copy? In other words, was the important copy prominent and the less important copy minimalized?)

Then I demonstrated on one of their own efforts, to show that improvements were needed and why. I had them both squint to the point where they could not read the copy, blotting out all, but what was basic. With this technique, defects will show up like a lump of coal in the snow. A long time before that, an excellent sign painter/pin-striper friend named Alan Smith and I were doing a sign project together. I asked him which “alphabet” (sign painter lingo for “font”) he thought would look better on the task at hand. Alan replied, “Stop looking at the letters and look at the f-ing sign!” He was right. I was paying too much attention to being all fancy and not looking at the overall design and its effectiveness.

I passed that on to my guys and now it’s your turn. I have provided a sample of a project I am doing for a client’s chest. This is not the final draft. I found a couple of flaws in it. Let’s see if, by using my technique, if you can spot them. When laying out tricky arched scripts like this, you can’t always spot flaws, because there is a lot going on here! Step back about three feet away from your computer screen and squint. Squint hard enough to block out all but the letters, without actually being able to read it. Imagine it ALL as filigree. Try to imagine the image as a whole and see what items are off in the design. I know what they are… do you?

Hold your pencil light and have fun.

—Uncle Tim



  1. joe with diamond tattoo

    The S is a little tall in son?

  2. Agree. The S seems a bit tall or sitting too high compared to the others, and seems too tight a circle on the left or too loose on the right…. but I could be wrong and probably am.

  3. Actually the “S” is a good guess. I’m glad you guys are paying attention. The S looks a little tall (actually measures out), the arch is correct, but the F in Father is leaning too far to the right and the T and H in Father need to be re-spaced a bit to the left. I’m glad you guys get this. I hope this tip helps you. More Lettering 101 soon. Aloha, Uncle Tim

  4. Wow. I’m a graphic designer as well as tattooer and this is probably the best tip that I’ve ever heard. Thank you ;)

  5. I learned a lot from Tim’s lettering 101 articles. And this just might be the best tip ever. Since reading this article, whenever I’m done sketching I’ll squint my eyes to look at the sketch with an all new perspective and I’ll always find some errors.

    Thanks, Tim!

  6. Well, it’s higher at one end and not symmetrical.

  7. tom…you’re funny! It’s not laying there on the table like I’m putting it on the guy. Ha ha ha. I haven’t made a center mark on it yet. (I do this by folding it in half and marking the crease) Making symmetry out of scripts is impossible unless it’s just words like AlaskA and AlohA and BoB, etc….you just get as much VISUAL symmetry as you can by using the squinting technuque I am talking about and adjusting the letters accordingly.

    All you folks get it, I think, so good job!

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