Sunday, July 3

The Subtleties of Font

How many of you have ever practiced calligraphy? Many people think this means one specific style of writing, usually some form of italic or maybe even a German fraktur. In actuality, calligraphy is much more general than that: it's the discipline of very neat handwriting.

That handwriting can come in a variety of forms, which people call fonts, typefaces, or "hands" in casual conversation with other calligraphers. The accouterments that come with rigorous calligraphic execution are numerous and intimidating, and the thousands of hours of practice it requires may be off-putting. Yet at one time, penmanship was considered so essential for a civilized society, especially for anyone intending to do any kind of business, that the Palmer method of handwriting was mandatory in a young student's courseload.

Calligraphy really isn't as intimidating as all that. Once you reconcile yourself with the meditative discipline it requires--an increasing awareness of your own slight muscle movements, a calming focus in your mind--you may begin to understand and appreciate it as a world entirely of its own. And it's not difficult at all to practice, once you realize that handwriting actually comes up often in your life. Any time you're putting pen or pencil to paper, exploit that as a few more seconds for disciplined practice: addresses on bills, shopping lists, postcards, Post-It notes to coworkers, &c.

Image: The Atlantic
When I began teaching myself calligraphy (I had a miserable desk job with lots of downtime, so I started practicing drawing evenly spaced loops across a pad of paper), I tried to plunge into an "advanced" font, a very elaborate one that came much later down the timeline. But as I blundered through it, got control of it and then too familiar with it, my "hand" started slipping backward through time and I saw its predecessor fonts appearing on my page. This was a fascinating and magical process for me! Not only was I personally touched by the history of handwriting, I was able to begin to develop my own personal font--not one I'd use for writing checks, but something that would look nice on parchment and with certain acrylic inks.

Oh yes, you develop your own tastes for writing implements, inks, and papers as well.

Now it seems there's an iPad app, Typography Insight, designed to help people who work with fonts appreciate the subtle differences between fonts. I have no fear of technological culture, and I think an app like this only stands to reinforce this hobby of mine (if tidy handwriting is only a "hobby").

Typography Insight: iPad App Teaches Fonts Like Never Before

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