By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries
“It’s never been a better time to be a writer –or aspire to become one,” Glenn Leibowitz wrote in a 2017 Inc Magazine article. “Platforms like LinkedIn, Medium, and WordPress have placed millions of dollars of technology, and the power that once only belonged to major publishing and media firms, into the hands of millions of writers – entirely for free.” However, the written word has been under attack and its teaching under revision over the past twenty years, and many are beginning to question the evolving role of written language in world culture.
In his book Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (Yale University Press, 2001), Jonathan Bloom traces the earliest history of paper, from its invention in China over 2,000 years ago, to its move into the Islamic lands of West Asia and North Africa, then spreading north into Europe. His carefully illustrated and well-documented history looks not only at the global adoption of paper but the impact of paper on the “development of writing, books, mathematics, music, architecture, and the arts. Just as the electronic revolution has impacted the world, the invention of paper itself also had a varied development due to cultural interests of various societies across the globe,” transforming the recording and sharing of knowledge, which continues to serve as a key connecting bridge between global cultures.
With the development of paper and pen, everyone had a convenient way to record and save information, and stores of knowledge and intellectual developments were able to develop and spread across the globe. In the past hundred years, with the rise of computers and global communication technologies, we have seen a dramatic shift in knowledge creation, use and the ability to store information for the ages and the masses.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF PRINTED TYPEFACE AND FONTS
Early cave art and other early ways to indicate information began to be replaced in about 3200 BCE when various global cultures began to use shapes, pictograms, signs and symbols to represent information. By about 600 BCE the Latin or Roman alphabet was developed in Europe, and since then, lettering pictograms and fonts have been developed over the centuries and continue to evolve and change today. In the West, this eventually led to the Phoenician language, Coptic, Greek and Roman alphabets, as well as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and other systems of writing across the globe.
The introduction of paper is estimated to have begun in the 7th century BCE. With the invention of paper, not only were people able to more easily develop or express knowledge, create documents, art, maps, and other content, but changed forever the ways in which people were able to convey or store information. Once alphabets developed, scribes gave way to Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press – which was preceded by movable brass type in Islamic Spain by the 14th century, woodblock printing – and, eventually, movable type.
“Their lovely curves and lines were displayed in monuments and books throughout the Roman Empire,” a recent Bookriot article explained, forming the basis of the Romance languages of Europe. “Reading this neater script, as well as using a simpler alphabet system, brought reading texts to a whole new level…the Latin alphabet brought cursive into the reading landscape. Cursive handwriting recorded documents and notes in day to day living. Because cursive is written at a quicker speed, reading these forms were at times challenging. Despite these obstacles, cursive introduced an accessible form of reading and writing taught in the western world.”
Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, and other written languages and alphabets developed as well in order to record important information, share wisdom, stories and legal regulations. Movable type and printing presses made writing and reading a reality for the masses. Although English and other Western languages have became the lingua franca in many areas of research, the production and distribution of information and works in all the world’s distinctive languages continue to be essential to the human experience.
FROM MOVABLE TYPE TO ARTISTIC FONTS
Writing is not only an accepted, practical way to convey information, but the very lettering itself continues to be a growing business. In his 2008 article, On the design of text editors, Nicolas P. Rougier noted that: “modern text editors come with a large set of default and implicit choices that hardly change from one editor to the other. To take only one example, most editors (that I know) consider that there exists only two font weights (regular and bold): you can choose the regular font but rarely can you choose the boldness of the bold one. Consequently, if you choose a light or thin weight for the regular font, the difference with the bold font is dramatically accentuated. It is not clear to me if these implicit choices derive from the ignorance of alternatives or if they derive from developers’ habits, reproducing what they are used to.”
Today, fonts are intellectual property – and the marketplace is large and growing. What Font Is, a free font finder, offers a catalog of over 700,000 fonts. Fonts.com offers more than 150,000 desktop and Web font products – free or for a fee. Online portfolio platform Behance provides a beautifully laid-out online portfolio of freely available fonts.
Professional type designer Charles Bigelow, has also taught and written about type design and its related history and theory. His authoritative two part synopsis on Font Wars, provides a detailed history of the key importance of font in history. “Two major typographic inventions and milestones. The first, by Gutenberg, from around 1448 to 1455, transformed writing into typography. The second, by XeroxPARC, from around 1970 to 1981, developed personal computing with interactive raster graphics screen displays, laser printing, and fonts.”
“The goal of XeroxPARC’s development of the ‘office of the future’ differed from that of Gutenberg,” Bigelow continues. “Gutenberg’s goal was to invent a cheaper, faster, and more reliable method of producing books that were in most other respects nearly identical to the familiar form of codex manuscripts (books of bound pages, not scrolls). Readers of Gutenberg’s printed books, and books printed after him, did not need to learn how to handle a codex, to turn pages, to recognize the letters, and to follow the layouts of columns. Those were already well known. Gutenberg did not need to train or convince anyone to use the results of his invention.”
“Desktop publishing in general, and digital typography in particular, transformed the technology of literacy and integrated it into the electronic information origination, computation, and transmission systems in the late 20th century,” Bigelow contends. “These technologies generated their own profusion of artifacts. In hardware, there were laser printers, image setters, personal computers, bitmap display screens, networking with file servers (with ever larger disk drives). In software, there were text editors, bitmap editors, drawing programs, page-imagers, document describers, digital fonts. The history of this era is still being written.”
THE KEY IMPORTANCE OF FONTS IN COMPREHENSION & CHOICE
Font is now a key factor in the design of online and other products and services, as can be seen in just a quick look at recent research. A 2020 article studied the importance of menu font in “signaling authenticity of ethnic cuisines via handwriting,” finding that “ethnic restaurants using a handwritten (vs. printed) menu may enhance perceived authenticity and subsequently elevate purchase intention.”
A 2020 student thesis at Wichita State University researched “the understanding of consumers’ interaction with typeface on wine labels and how that interaction impacts: (1) purchase intent in wine consumption scenarios of varying perceived risk and (2) perceptions of brand credibility.” Another set of researchers recently studied the impact of text clarity on car dashboard designs to “improve legibility, increase usability and help meet new governmental distraction guidelines.”
A 2018 research article on tourism studied how font choice impacted “willingness to pay and tourism motivation.” A study of button position and touchscreen font size on healthcare device operation by older adults,” finding that “use of a font size of 22 pt and top-positioned buttons optimized the performance of the older participants while use of a font size of 10 pt and bottom-positioned buttons maximally degraded their performance.”
WHO CAN FORGET THE BEAUTY OF A GREAT DOCUMENT?
Imagine the Declaration of Independence in a single, basic font. Or the Gutenberg Bible without the incredible layout, color and typeface. As Purdue’s Online Writing Lab explains it:
“It is easy to think that type font doesn’t matter. We read text all the time and have become very accustomed to focusing on the content or message of the words themselves and not what the words look like visually. In reality, the visual appearance of words themselves can (and should) have just as much effect on how a document is received as the content itself. Fonts can create mood and atmosphere. Fonts can give visual clues about the order a document should be read in and which parts are more important than others. Fonts can even be used to control how long it takes someone to read a document.”
TEACHING WRITING: THE THREE R’S IN WESTERN EDUCATION
As early as 1818, The Lady’s Magazine published an article on “The Three R’s;” being reading, writing and arithmetic. These were considered “the traditional foundation stones of a good, old-fashioned education.”
“The truth is that education is about more than simply learning tables of verbs by rote or perfecting the loops and curves of beautiful handwriting,” Daniel Smith explains in his 2013 book, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. “But it’s equally true that this has always been the case. Historically creativity, confidence and character have been nurtured in equal measure to reading, writing and arithmetic by a broad and liberal syllabus.” Still this has historically been one of the foundations of primary educational programs in most societies over the years; although the actual content and nature of this dictum has continued to change and evolve.
“The continued demand of teachers for up-to-date information concerning the newer trends in teaching reading, arithmetic, spelling, language, and, writing has necessitated revision of the earlier edition of Learning the Three R’s,” educator Gertrude Hildreth wrote in 1947. “The keynote of this new edition is learning with understanding, the development of the principle that teaching the “three R’s” is effective only when the child learns the skills meaningfully through purposeful experiences, instead of mechanically and without understanding.”
A NEW COMMON CORE
Beginning in 2010, the Common Core State Standards Initiative launched to “provide clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life. The standards clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning.” Based on “best available evidence,” within two years 45 U.S. states had adopted the resulting Common Core curriculum in public elementary schools. As a part of this, the new Standards relegated cursive writing to the dustbin, in favor of skills that are more “robust and relevant” to the modern world.
Criticism came quickly. “By the way, before the implementation of Common Core, the Massachusetts English Language Arts Standards were considered one of the best in the nation, and the state’s test scores and rankings reflected that; alas, this is no longer the case,” noted one teacher in a 2016 Washington Post op-ed.
Such massive changes to the American educational system is bound to encounter fits and starts as it is implemented. In a 2019 New York Times feature considered the question: “It was one of the most ambitious education efforts in United States history. Did it fail? Or does it just need more time to succeed?” The Times article finding that “a decade later, after years full of foment in American schools, the performance of American students remains stagnant on the global and national exams that advocates often cited when making the case for the Common Core.” The Core has suffered over the years and, “by the mid-2010s, the Common Core had a public relations problem. More than 20 states eventually repealed, revised or rolled back parts of the program.”
The Times article went on to note that “Jack Schneider, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said the idea of shared, national standards made sense, but that it was ‘naïve’ to expect them to make a big impact on student achievement without broader investments in early childhood education, teacher training and school integration.”
THE ARGUMENT CONTINUES
Cursive is arcane in today’s world, Alexandra Petri wrote in a 2012 opinion piece in The Washington Post. “As an exercise, writing things by hand is up there with cobbling shoes and shoeing horses….in actual life, penmanship is an active waste of time.” Although future history may bear this out, today, cursive is getting strong support not only from some dissent parents and teachers, but from science.
Bobby George, writer and co-founder of Baan Dek Montessori school in South Dakota, wrote a beautiful ode to writing in 2013 for Quartz, beginning with: “Cursive is an art. It’s woven into the very fabric of the US constitution. Yet, everywhere we look, it’s literally being written out of existence. Like a sandcastle built at the edge of the sea, with each crashing wave, the strokes of cursive are slowly fading away.”
“Some believe that cursive is essentially archaic, the importance of which is relegated only to checks, signatures, and the occasional love letter,” George continued. “They believe instructional time is better devoted to other classroom subjects that are included on standardized tests, and cursive is not necessary for academic achievement.”
“Saving cursive isn’t about rejecting technology or trying to preserve our history—let alone any perceived societal advancement,” George explains. “(Yes, the arguments get that entrenched, that fast.) Instead, they believe that the importance of cursive is a matter of science, and what’s best for teaching our children.”
In Part two of this series we look at some of the latest research on the cursive debate with many arguing that value it provides for students during the early stages of their education is essential.
Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries.