Giles MacDonald Lettering
01295 277554

Seeing comes before words

Portland limestone tablet, from Hopes + Dreams: statements of intent explored, Letter Exchange exhibition 2015

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.

These are the opening lines of John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing. It’s easy to think of inscriptions as just texts – pieces of writing in stone, for example. In truth, successful, attractive inscriptions are much more than this. As well as the words there is the material used – rough or polished, its colour and texture, its weight, size and scale. Inscriptions are objects, and their appeal lies beyond the words or sentiments they carry.  We sense this when we are attracted to inscriptions we can’t read, and whose language is unknown to us. Think of a visit to museum or an archeological site or perhaps a historic town in Italy for example and we’re surrounded by carved inscriptions, the letters coloured, wobbly and interesting. Although we can’t necessarily read them as texts they are no less appealing as objects.

This attractiveness as objects has implications for the plaques, tablets and memorials we make at the workshop.

As we go about our everyday business we are surrounded by signage and lettering. It’s impossible to read them all – or even to want to! The genius of our brain is the ability to selectively focus on the things that currently interest us and to ignore or defocus on everything else, while still holding it in view. We don’t read the opening plaque we walk past everyday on the way to work, but, crucially, if it’s well made and thoughtfully designed, it appeals as an attractive element, a small highlight on the wall of a building. Long after the details and memory of the opening day fade the plaque remains as physical reminder of a special occasion, whether it’s read or not. In the same way, though we might not stop to read it, we instinctively recognize in a well-made memorial in a churchyard an expression of love and thoughtfulness.

A further thought: is there some correspondence between the horizontal lines of an inscription and the physical (horizontal) horizon beyond us?

Perhaps part of the appeal of inscriptions lies in the instinctive link they make between an individual and the wider world, and the acknowledgement of being alive.

I think the primary drive in the making of sculpture is to inscribe on an indifferent universe some indication that we were here (Antony Gormley).

It’s not just about the words.


Giles Macdonald

Giles MacDonald designs and makes lettering for memorials and buildings; for inscriptions to commemorate events; for plaques, tablets, headstones and public art.

If you’d like to discuss a possible lettering project we’d love to hear from you. Email the workshop on or call 01295 277554