Why getting hands-on occasionally matters

We shouldn’t underestimate the act of putting pen to paper; it connects us to language – and letters – in a unique way

I shall begin with A.

I’m designing my own typeface. I don’t know why. It’s one of those big projects that I’ve been meaning to sink my teeth into for a long time (along with live in Copenhagen for some reason and write non-awful book about robots or squids or something). It isn’t for a specific client or project or anything; my reasoning doesn’t go much further than ‘I’m a designer, I design with type, type is designed, I should design some type with which I can design with!’

Of course, I haven’t the first clue how to go about this. Just because I work with type all of the time doesn’t mean I know how to make the damn stuff, any more than I know how to construct a coffee machine or a nice spinny chair. Design knowledge isn’t passively osmotic, apparently.

Thank heavens for the internet then, there to do what it does best: convince ambitious twerps that they can be experts in things with a minimum of training or talent. There’s an abundance of tools and gizmos out there for designing type. Fontstruct is particularly nifty, with an aesthetic that’s right up my street, all modular, geometric and gridsome.

However, after a couple of hours dabbling, I’ve come to realise that doing this on-screen isn’t going to be the best approach for me. There are too many layers of things happening and decisions to make, all fogging
up the space between thinking and doing. I get so distracted by the possibilities, all I’ve done is play with the tool to make funny little almost-font-like things that are of no use to anyone. It’s like I’m sitting in the middle of a building site, making sandcastles.

The breakthrough came when I took a break from all of that playing
… to do some playing. The design started to kick in as I was sitting on the floor, messing about with my son’s Brio trains. The track is all modular and joiny-together like Fontstruct, but the difference is that it’s real. Soon I found myself making. It felt creative, organic. Without fancy interfaces, tools or options, there was just the constraints of the wooden track pieces and the way they jigsaw together. The physical activity enabled me to instinctively define loops and dimensions and strokes (and a couple of bridges). My hands removed the thinking from the equation.

And that was the key: it’s about the hands. From the moment we can lift a pencil, we learn our own primitive, personal form of type: handwriting. Our pliable little minds are able to take ancient, abstracted Semitic symbols and layers of complex syntax, turn them into something unique, and then just leave it up the hands to do their work – a repetition of movements, a habit of making tiny gestures with a tool. Less brain, more pinky.

Unless you fall out of practice, that is. I never write any more. I draw a lot, but I rarely put pen to paper to make words. I type, I tap, I autocorrect – if I choose to use words at all, that is. Language has gone backwards a few hundred years and returned us to hieroglyphs. Why write a sentence when what you’re trying to express has already been captured and codified in the form of a GIF? Who needs handwriting when you’ve got emoji!

I’ve unlearnt one of the most basic skills of communication and now my hand has no idea what to do. It just attempts a feeble uppercase-lowercase-shorthand mess of scrawl and hopes for the best. I looked at a

shopping list the other day and one of the words was basically just the Nike swoosh. Was that deliberate? What the hell had I written? Was this an attempt at a word? Broccoli? Was it broccoli? Or was I sending myself out to buy a fresh pair of Air Jordans? I don’t know. Nobody will ever know.

Perhaps this is the reason I find myself designing type now – as well as scratching a professional itch, I’m trying to rediscover the ability to make my mark in the only way I understand. Whether it’s with this here train set or some other physical means, I don’t know, but I’m going to sit on the floor and make letters with my hands again. They will be my letters.

A is an ox, A is a snow-covered mountain peak waiting to be conquered, A is a pencil tip contemplating its first mark. I shall begin with A.

Tom Redfern, tomredfern.net
Tom Redfern, tomredfern.net

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

More from CR

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Graphic Designer


Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media