Day 22: Penmanship: Are My Serifs Showing?

originally published January 22, 2012

If, like me, you’re looking to spend an unreasonable time on Wikipedia in your lifetime, eventually you’ll probably stumble across a topic so chock-full (or, to use a foreshadowing pun, chalk-full – you’ll thank me for that laugh later) of information you never thought you’d want to read. More often than not, you’d be right (or write – I am on a roll. Please stop me).

Today’s lucky spoke on the Wonderful Wheel of Wiki-phemera is penmanship. I’ll pause while those previous two puns sink in, filling you with warm gurglings of appreciation.

For those of you who haven’t already clicked away in disgust, I’m going to try to find something interesting here.

We’ll gloss right over the history of writing – we all know it started with pictures on cave walls, evolved into funky Egyptian hieroglyphics, reached a high point with the invention of calligraphy, and finally fell to its greatest devolution with the proliferation of the Comic Sans font.

At the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne, Roman Emperor and Steely Dan song inspiration, declared that all writings in his empire were to be laid down in a standardized handwriting. He called it Times Old Roman (probably).

But penmanship is facing a crisis in our world today. Kids only really write when their teachers tell them they have to – even the standard “Do you like me? [] Yes [] No” notes that used to get passed in class are sent nowadays in a text message. I remember questioning why we had to learn cursive writing when I was a kid. Never got a good answer. With today’s technology, I can’t even come up with a bad answer for my kids.

Because the capital Q looks like a ‘2’? Is that a good enough reason?

I was given a manual typewriter to learn typing skills when I was young. That makes me sound far older than I really am – the truth is, my parents were just too cheap to buy me a computer. Sorry, my dad was too cheap to buy me a computer (hi Mom!). Kids today are learning typing skills on computers at the expense of the cursive writing we had to slog through. Seriously, all those hours trying to make my cursive capital ‘G’ not look like a Pacman ghost, and now kids just have to learn how to install free downloaded fonts.

They say (and by ‘they’, I mean ‘it’s here on the Internet so it’s probably true’) that by 2019 even 4th graders in America will be taking their standardized writing tests on computers; many middle and high school kids are doing that already. Another fact that makes me sound older than I am: when I took typing in high school, the class was taught entirely on electric typewriters. At home we could blast intricately-woven novels about Mario meeting Theo Huxtable and starting a super-hero league with M.C. Hammer on PCs, printing them on our almost-a-page-per-minute dot-matrix printers, but at school we were punching keys like the secretaries on Mad Men.

And of course there was no correction ribbon, so I have inadvertently sniffed way too much Liquid Paper in my lifetime.

In the east, penmanship has always been a more prized form of expression than in these parts. In Japan, it was taught as part of the reading-writing classes, but also as calligraphy in art classes. Even today, while typing the Japanese language is obviously something they have figured out, they have had to adapt. Fitting all gazillion Japanese characters onto a single keyboard is something even Sony couldn’t figure out.

I hope there’s a better way.

The study of penmanship – and yes, there are people who will devote their lives to this – can take on a number of forms, and can produce an interesting variety of professions. You can become a typography expert: memorize all the fonts, their history and variants, and even design your own! I watched a film entirely about the development of a single font, and from what I’ve seen, this profession is so full of adrenalin-gargling thrills and… okay, well it’s still better than working in a print shop.

Diplomatics is the study of “forensic palaeography”, which sounds like you’d be researching how dinosaurs committed crimes with their handwriting. Actually, this is the study of document creation, authenticating old records (like Atilla the Hun’s G.E.D. certificate or something), that sort of thing.

Graphologists are the ‘handwriting experts’ that show up on CSI and other cop shows, revealing just enough about the killer to move the plot forward.

They can tie the fact that you dot your ‘i’ with a circle instead of a speck to the fact that your mother never bought you chocolate milk when you were a kid. They can tell you in detail how the length of the swoosh in the tail of your lower-case ‘g’ can indicate just how self-conscious you are about your penis size. These people get paid good money for a science that really only they understand.

Well, the person who writes the letter ‘a’ like the one on the right, that’s your serial killer right there.

Graphonomics is the scientific study of the handwriting process. These guys use terms like “acceleration signal” and “the absolute of the integral of the jerk time function” to build robot hands that can simulate realistic human handwriting. Because if all of us had to learn fucking cursive writing, we may as well make the robots learn it.

If all this sounds a little too science-y or I-need-to-pay-a-school-to-get-paid-for-this-ish, you could become a comic book letterer. That font that says ‘BATMAN’ on the cover of the comic book? Someone had to design that, and it wasn’t the same guy who wrote the content inside.

Actually, this is a really big thing in the comic world. DC Comics (that’s the Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern people, for anyone in my audience who might not know – hi Mom!) was known for their most iconic logo ‘looks’, and for years, sometimes decades at a stretch, it was one guy who created them all. Names like Ira Schnapp and Gaspar Saladino are to comic book lovers what great cinematographers and composers are to movie geeks, what great producers and engineers are to music geeks, what Chiharu Kubokawa and Charles A. Yost are to pillow historians. No really, look them up.

So what seemed at first to be destined to be a heinously dull topic actually proves to have some money and future in it.

If it weren’t for those damn robots.

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