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Typographical Acts

 Image from Phantom Thread, Focus Features

Image from Phantom Thread, Focus Features

The past few movies I’ve seen have been filled with typographical acts.

In Alone in Berlin, putting pen to page was a subversive act – a powerful political attack against the Nazi regime.

In Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock stitches phrases into the seams of the garment he makes to guard against misfortune. It’s a superstitious act where he acknowledges his powerlessness and begs the universe for mercy.

The typographical acts in Lady Bird are more humble and intimate. When she likes a boy, Lady Bird writes his name in tiny letters on her bedroom wall. When the infatuation is over, the name is emphatically crossed out.

When words are brought into physical being – rather than clanked out on a keyboard – their impact is felt more deeply. Putting pen to page sanctifies an ordinary act, making it more special, more meaningful and more calculated. When we write something out, we go through drafts, we think carefully about the words we put on the page. The letterforms become “real,” something to touch and feel, not just pixels that can so easily disappear.

Today, handwritten things are rare and we rely on keyboards and a touch screens to get our messages out. But there was a time when people feared the loss of handwriting as a skill. When the ball point pen was first invented, many were outraged. With a fountain pen, you can create lines of varied thickness and this gives your handwriting character and flare. But a ball point pen produces a line of uniform thickness, and many feared this would be destroy handwriting and expression.

It seems that writing with a fountain pen gave people a greater appreciation for the elements that go into to creating beautiful letterforms. For designers in the digital age, I worry that this lack of typographical attention and care is making us less skilled. Understanding the intricacies of type can only be done by hand. In Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Joseph Muller-Brockmann explains that “every designer who is concerned with typography should take trouble when creating graphic designs to sketch words and sentences by hand...a feeling for good letter forms and an attractive typeface can be acquired only by constant and careful practice in sketching letters.” In other words, understanding the intricacies of type can only be done by hand.

I rarely write things out by hand and it’s something I should engage in more. Typing is magnificent and I will always love the speed and ease of writing on a computer. But there are times when only a pen will do.