The Letterform in a World Without Handwriting

As handwriting gets replaced by typing, and as students move from the pen to the computer, the essence of the letterform undergoes a change. It is not hard to imagine that in the future there will be a time when type designers no longer write by hand—perhaps it is already here?—and when this time comes, the form of the letters they design will naturally shed all the nuances of pen and ink, replacing them with ever more abstract forms.

The influence of handwriting is evident in early typefaces, and especially clear in the italics. Take the italics on Garamond style faces—the curves of the “z”, the loop on the “k”, the inward curl on the “h”—all details that imitate the flow of the hand. Once handwriting is no longer practiced, these details will be gone since the designer will have neither the knowledge of them nor the instinct to produce them. They will be replaced by straighter lines and simpler curves, born in the abstract realm of ideas.

Already today the serif typefaces have given way to the sans-serif in body text. Where serif typefaces are used, they are used not for their visual characteristics, but for their historicity—that is, for their ability to summon a sort of prestige that comes from an association with an earlier time. The serif is used intentionally to project age. Typefaces like Baskerville that were, at the time of their creation, regarded by some as being too modern, are now so antiquated that they are used to give an impression of authority that comes with age.

Although the letterform today is wholly abstract, e.g. the form of the letter ‘A’ is merely a triangular shape to the reader that represents nothing but itself, the flow of the strokes in the humanist typefaces, and especially in italics, mirrors our experience of writing. As we see the letterform, our mind recalls the motions of the hand. We derive pleasure from these forms because in them we see a perfectly executed motion. We feel the motion in our hand.

Without this connection, without the experience of writing, there will be no such pleasure. The letterform that imitates handwriting will provide no recall for the reader who does not possess the subconscious knowledge of the motions needed to produce it. Thus, like the letter ‘A’, which in the Phoenician alphabet was a picture of an ox head but is today a wholly abstract form disconnected from any meaning beyond being the form of a letter, those letterforms that derive their shapes from handwritten motions will offer no visceral experience to a reader who has no experience writing by hand. They will not feel the motion in their hand and thus will not feel that special pleasure of its perfect execution. The italics will go the way of the serif, and the letterforms will assume an ever simpler form, with style being derived by an experimental manipulation of form rather than being informed by our experience with the physical media.

Published November 2015