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Capturing The Beauty of Handwriting

Handwritten words are real and connect us to each other, our memories, and our secrets so just how are designers choosing to preserve this dying form of communication?

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 06-01-2010

The design industry’s relationship with handwriting is purely emotional and unapologetically nostalgic.  We saw it in 2008 with Kiki van Eijk’s “Domestic Jewels”, a bench or throne upholstered in fabric emblazoned with a handwritten recipe by the designer’s own great grandmother.

Last year in Talent 2009, a show celebrating the best of European design academy graduates, Donna Rumble-Smith from the Nottingham Trent University School of Art and Design presented her “Signatures Made From Passwords” project.  

Designers who incorporate the vanishing art of handwriting into their work all profess a love of letters, paper, and items that evoke memories.  They dislike the impact of computers not just on handwriting and handwriting skills, but on how we communicate.

Rumble-Smith’s project started after a friend showed her a very intimate letter.  “It was private and beautiful,” she says.  “There were crossings-out and none of it was staged.  It was a real letter.  But most startling was the language  … via email you just can’t get in touch with or express your feelings like that.”

A lot of designers talk about that same clash – between the immediacy and accuracy of digital texts versus the personality and intimacy of a hand-written letter.  

“I started by sampling and selecting materials with different qualities then photographing it all,” Rumble-Smith says of how her installation developed.  She then talks about the paradox of having to resort to digital technology to ultimately realize her concept.

Dorien Haagsma graduated last year from the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten in the Hague also with a handwriting project that was selected by Li Edelkoort for the Talent 2009 show.  

Haagsma, who is more interested in the structure of handwriting, chose to investigate its physical appearance.  She selected 200 post card samples and chose to focus on eight characteristics of handwriting.  After extracting that characteristic from each sample, she compiled eight books. In the end, her project is more about shapes, rhythms, size and repetition than writing, but the point is to convey the uniqueness of each sample.

Like Rumble-Smith interpreting passwords as the new signature, Haagsma is keen to push the very personal yet recognizable nature of handwriting.  “Even though my final texts are not legible,” she says, “people still recognize them as handwriting.”

These are all nice ways to capture the beauty of handwriting, which if not pushed will eventually fade from significance.  “And it is not just in children that we need to encourage it," says Rumble-Smith, "handwriting’s beauty evolves.  A teenager's writing is not the same as a young adult’s which in turn is very different to an elderly person’s style … yet I’m afraid that this will all soon be lost.” 

Images: main and top two Donna Rumble-Smith's "Signatures Made From Passwords” project. Rest - pages from Dorien Haagsma's books that investigate the shapes of handwriting characteristics.

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