Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Digital Handwriting

In the office, where I work, we have had several international graduate students. One of them had a story about when she first arrived; she had met with a group of other international students, a community meant to support each other in transitioning to a new culture. She wrote each of them a handwritten note after the meeting, thanking them and inviting them to keep touch and do more, but didn't get a reply.

At a later meeting, filled with the sort of positive camaraderie that made her curious at the lack of response to her note, she asked one of her more friendly acquaintances why he had never replied. The response? He couldn't read cursive handwriting. It turned out that almost no one in the group, international or local, could reliably read cursive.

To my knowledge, we haven't stopped teaching cursive - yet. But there's a certain atrophy that has developed from being accustomed to type-written words.

So I was intrigued by a question posed on The Fox Is Black design blog: "Would it be different to get an email from someone if it was in their own handwriting?"

One of the chief recurring complaints about the "digital world" is how cold and impersonal it can seem. Would it be any different if you used a font of your own handwriting? While there are numerous font creation services out there, one design group has taken this a step further. The group, Underware, developed a custom font for a client that has extensive glyph options depending on where a letter appears - just as someone actually writing would use a different "y" in the middle of a word than would be used at the end of a word.

This whole area is ripe for discussion, but let's focus first on questions suggested by The Fox Is Black website: Would email be different if written in the sender's own handwriting? Extending this question: How would it be different? Would it feel more personal? Would the age-range of the recipient make a difference?

Another angle: Are there any educational benefits to using cursive if it's accomplished by the computer? I can see an argument for a kinesthetic connection if one were actually writing (and we could assume that one must still learn to do this in order to construct one's individual font...), but when we're constructing a font to fit our writing it loses the rigor of an exercise where one writes material down to recall it better. Do the loops and whorls of someone else's (say, a professor's) handwriting serve as any sort of memory aid for you?

Technology will only become more sophisticated, and we already have at least one "intelligent" cursive type-face. This was done primarily as a design artifact, but it certainly could be more. Is this the sort of humanizing touch our digital lives need, or are we needlessly holding on to an obsolete artifact of the past?

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