Typographic illustration is full of potential for graphic designers, then – but it’s a “double-edged sword”, according to designer Craig Ward.

“For one, you’re restricted by the fact you have to use type – but then, conversely, that’s no more restricting than a brief coming in saying ‘we need a picture of a guy sat at a desk’,” Ward explains. “It’s just something else as a subject matter and it can be embellished in any way you like. That for me is the most appealing thing: that [with typographic illustration] I’m not tied to any one particular style.”

In fact, that restriction is its charm. Illustrating with type enables you to push the envelope, to distort and twist letterforms beyond what you can do in terms of traditional typography. Yet an A still has to look like an A, and a B, a B. That’s a fascinating conundrum for many creatives. But just how much like an A does an A have to look?

“The vast majority of clients are far too interested in exact legibility,” says Canadian designer Marian Bantjes (bantjes.com). “I think people find it interesting to see something that’s intriguing. It’s debatable whether there’s an advantage to being able to read, ‘Sale On Washing Machines $999!’ in Helvetica or having to figure that out.”

“I’m a commercial artist,” counters London-based Radim Malinic, who designs as Brand Nu (brandnu.co.uk). “Legibility in a commercial project is the main point.

If the client doesn’t read it, the customer doesn’t read it and there’s no point in doing it.”

London designer Radim Malinic of Brand Nu created the branding for the Creativity in Conflict student competition.

“I think it depends on the application,” argues Barcelona-based designer Alex Trochut, currently the poster boy for lettering-based illustration. “If you’re designing a billboard, people will only have a second to read it. If you have a record cover that people could spend time with, you can be less readable.”

Your clients will probably influence where you stand on the debate. But be clear on one thing: without a clear voice, a creative vision, and something interesting to say creatively, you’ll be little more than an also-ran. Beware of what Marian Bantjes calls “ornament barf”.