Oh, For the Love of Type

My first workbook for printing and spelling surfaced in January, not from an ancient cave but from a family storage box under a bed. As a 5-year-old, I had meticulously written my first name on the cover but the inside exercises showed less successful copies of perfect examples given by an adult graphic designer working for Scott, Foresman and Company, the textbook publisher of that era. I remember my thick green pencil with soft graphite and the pulpy paper with light green horizontal lines to guide my careful circles and lines, and I was so invested in being neat. Letterforms marched across the page, left to right, but I couldn’t see my work because I am left handed, and the graphite smudged as I repeated r’s, h’s, and m’s. I was taught where the capital letters and small letters should begin and end, top to bottom, and how wide each letter should be.

Printing instruction was the lead-in to what I thought of as beautiful, grown-up and mysterious cursive writing. My early cursive was deliberate and slow, but over many years speed took priority over following textbook guidelines. Decades later, as my handwriting devolved to a hurried scrawl, email overtook physical writing and the cursive skills learned in childhood became a flat, personal shorthand.

All is not forgotten, though. The thick and thin green lines on pulpy paper set the foundation for my understanding of beautiful typography. As I studied letterform relationships and type history, I learned that the green lines have names: x-height, cap-height, descender and ascender depth and height, m-dashes and n-dashes in width. I gained appreciation for type designers who create cohesive and flowing fonts using mathematical and visual relationships based on angles, space and weight. My type choices for a design, especially for body text, consider these values, for a font to stand up over time.

The era of cursive writing may be closing but I hope children will continue to learn letterforms to communicate on paper without an electronic device. Some children may still be fascinated with copying between the lines and learning cursive—our future designers, preserving the legacy of fine typography.