Why do we still imbue greater value on handwriting as a human expression rather than on letterforms with a machine aesthetic? Many designers have heard this before, at one point or another, from editors, curators, or marketing managers: “Our magazine circulation (or museum attendance or social media engagement) is struggling. We need to captivate our public on a more human, authentic level.” “I know … handwriting on the cover!” “Love it.”
Approve. Publish. Like.
What does this handmade differentia tell us in an age of post-digital printing and typeface interpolation? What does it tell us in an age of Open Type Font formats and stretchy type coded in openFrameworks? How does handwriting fit in an era defined by Jenny Holzer sculptures, Glenn Ligon neons, Ken Lum signs, Metahaven credits, and LUSTlab installations?
The answer has two parts: technology questions the tradition of typography and the romantic “aura” of the human hand in art and design. And yet, there is nothing new about using technology to give shape to texts, whether they appear scripted, scratched, or otherwise.
As novelist Ursula Le Guin reminds us, technology is more than what we can do with “a showy computer.” Rather, “technology is the active human interface with the material world.”
Whether it be an alphabet, a Sumerian stylus, Heidelberg press, Leica lens, Apple computer, or augmented-reality application, technology is how humans shape and interact with the world. Even a cheap push-button telephone offers myriad ways of interacting with alphabetic glyphs, number sequencing, beige plastics, and telepresent voices beamed through satellites.
In 2012 Alessandro Ludovico penned Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing Since 1894, a unique book which explores a plethora of art and design phenomena mixing analogue and electronic forms and ideas. From Fluxus boxes that anticipate network publishing to Amazon ebooks that mimic the look and feel of print, Post-Digital Print weaves countless specimens together to illustrate how print and electronic cultures blend.
In the year 2000, composer Kim Cascone may have coined the term “post-digital” when describing the prominence of “errors” (the glitch) in electronic music, but as Florian Cramer notes in an afterword for Ludovico, digital technology is no longer revolutionary: it is ubiquitous and touches all facets of art, design, and life. “In a ‘post-digital’ age, the question of whether or not something is digital is no longer really important,” writes Cramer, “just as the ubiquity of print, soon after Gutenberg, rendered obsolete all debates about the ‘print revolution.’”
Today, we talk about art, design, and technology in museums, festivals, and magazines—platforms that invite “net artists,” “digital designers” or “creative coders” to speak their minds. “Telephone artists” and “electrical engineers” are not featured on the main stage, however. And we certainly don’t hear from “printers,” “typesetters,” or “calligraphers.”
In a former life, Jenny Holzer was a typesetter. Reflecting on the coding of her LED sculptures, she says, “Typesetting is not unlike programming—you have to make it correct, complete, and pretty. The presentation needs to make sense with the content. And then needs to engage people.”
Today, no handwriting or calligraphy escapes technology, whether through paint and canvas, ink and paper, or pixel and HTML. So why do we still bestow greater value and emotional resonance on brushed or chalked hand lettering as a human signal?
While it is tempting to dive into cyborg theories, McLuhan mantras, or any number of “Man vs. Machine” musings, to do so would deflect from what a handwriting fetish says about us in an age of glitter text generators. As the art of shaping and arranging texts, typography is a tool that visually translates language, as an extension of the human faculty to communicate. What does typography say about human culture, identity, and knowledge?
The first thing a handwriting fetish says is that there is a false opposition between print and digital cultures—between “the hand and the human” on one side, and “the computer and the code” on the other. As Ludovico and Cramer chronicle, the futile debates between the “death of print” and the “disruption of digital” are symptomatic of the divide between print kids and digital kids. “In one camp, we have the usual web, network-culture, and new media evangelists,” writes Cramer, “on the other side, people (usually from the fine art or graphic-design background) who feel passionately about the tangible, material qualities of print.”
With media art foundations and electronic music festivals, digital kids think they are coding into a hacker-inspired meritocracy and a new participatory democracy. Print kids on the other hand—with Risograph zines, art book fairs, and magCulture events—think they are printing beyond the surveillance of Google and Facebook. As Cramer points out, it would be a mistake to assume print kids are in a retro craze. Rather, it is more likely they—who are also organizing on blogs and discussion forums, using digital software and servers to process print files—who are leading the post-digital parade. But not all of them.
As with some print kids, an overly romantic admiration of handwriting says we are nostalgic creatures, preferring the comfort of cultural conservatism: of forms that are already sanctioned by custom and taste. We revive calligraphy with an obsessive nostalgia for the malt shop from 1940s America, the dépanneur from 1950s Montréal, or the brown bars from Amsterdam in the 17th century. Familiar scribbles, strokes, and scripts carry the legitimacy of a lost world filled with authorial texts, wholesome foods, and responsible family businesses. Whether that idealized world ever really existed is beside the point.
“Right or wrong, we tend to believe that expressions of bodily movement somehow reflect the person doing the moving,” writes Navneet Alang for Hazlitt magazine. “That the artisan or the writer puts something of themselves into the work, so that to own or hold the handmade or crafted thing is like carrying a piece of its making with you.”
Indeed. As Aldine Press collector G. Scott Clemons argued at Type@Cooper in 2015, a Renaissance Venetian printer called Aldus Manutius successfully revived ancient Greek texts because “he co-opted the [Greek] manuscript tradition in his early Greek fonts.” For Manutius’s Greek readers living in Venice, the legitimacy of a text came from the quality of ideas and arguments, but especially from the typographic form wrought from the hand of a trusted scribe—in terms of familiar letterforms, subscripts, breathing marks, and page layouts.
Today, we may not know whose hand drew the scribble on a Herschel label, or in an ad on Net-a-porter.com, but we trust the familiarity of handwritten typography, the drawn letterforms we assume represent crafty employees, down-to-earth individuals, or friendly fashion stylists.
As with digital kids, a dismissal of handwriting says we can also be myopic creatures, preferring the comfortable machine forms already sanctioned by metal type and electronic art. We are susceptible to the Silicon Valley hype that technological prowess equals algorithms, big data, and machine aesthetics. “Put a LED on it.” “Don’t mind if I do.”
Many digital creatures promote “technology” but are blind to the sophisticated capabilities of analogue traditions, choosing instead to hide behind generic fonts, indecipherable alphabets, and polygonal universes that omit all traces of the past.
While it is tempting to decipher the ideological divide as universal and permanent, Ludovico’s book presents a bridge between print and electronic culture. As does P-DPA.net, Silvio Lorusso’s Post-Digital Publishing Archive with a large variety of projects and experiments—from Twitter collections turned printed Penguin Books, to events turned social media PDFs for Space Caviar’s FOMObile. Post-Digital Print is an early expression of a dynamic which will only gain currency as the 21st century develops.
Keeping the traditions of handwriting, calligraphy, and scripts alive is one thing. Assuming it is a more human gesture roots it in the divisive, ideological nature of print-vs-digital. The very idea makes false assumptions about human nature and authenticity, which are undermined by how humans (so capably) express themselves across media. Besides, as Kate Lunau reports, so much of the handwriting and illustration as a marker of authenticity is rooted in fleeting marketing trends.
So, there is a divide, but it is one that is not insurmountable. This is the attitude of A-B-Z-TXT, a relatively new school for typography in Toronto. From August 17 to 20, 2017, designers, artists, and coders will explore typography on- and off-line. Key to this mix are a variety of media attitudes and practices: artist Zach Lieberman from New York City, designer Mindy Seu from Cambridge and New York City, and designer Ali S. Qadeer from Toronto will each host talks and workshops.
Offering lectures are designer Chris Lee, from Toronto and Buffalo, who will relate typography and legibility to currency and state power—from Mesopotamian clay tablets to digital currencies like Bitcoin. Complimenting Lee, I will look at the radical typographic vocabulary from the era of Rob Ford, Toronto’s late (and infamous) mayor. Artist Lois Andison will comment on language as an artistic medium, and algorithm designer and artist Xavier Snelgrove will dive into predictive text and the syntax of emoji.
Together, with a group of 20 professional participants, they will play with typography, computation, poetry, and politics across media. To operate in any other way ignores reality. Print kids and digital kids may still find comfort in the corners of their respective camps, but at a school like A-B-Z-TXT, they meet half-way.
Highlight. Heart. Follow.
Michèle Champagne is a Montréal-based designer and writer. Her independent studio works with foundations, publishers, and broadcasters on projects for cultural research and publication design. Working with open content and open source dynamics is essential in the studio—from crowdsourcing comments for print magazines to designing social networks built with open source code. Champagne has worked with Droog, Mediamatic, Metahaven, Penguin Random House Canada, and Strelka Institute.
Along with coder Garry Ing and editor Greg J. Smith, Champagne is the co-founder of A-B-Z-TXT, a school for 21st century typography. From August 17–20, 2017, the school will accept twenty to 25 professional designers, artists, and creative coders. The deadline for application is July 21.
Norman Wong is a Toronto-based photographer. His intimate portraiture and ongoing documentary work is fast becoming a benchmark for those who engage with the raw, open, and spontaneous nature of photography today. Wong’s portraits for independent music-label Arts & Crafts were exhibited during the Contact Photography Festival, and his most recent foray into Toronto suburban street racing was featured by VICE. This series of images represents a variety of Wong’s more personal works and the selection was made in collaboration with Champagne.