VFS Digital Design. (2011). Typography: 'Caslon Pro Tells Story' by Karen Poon. [Image file]. Retrieved from Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9gZnLg

Aesthetics & Phenomenology of Print

(Hand to mechanized print)

The aesthetic shift in handcrafted text to that of printed text is of particular interest to me as a student of design. Bolter (2001) states that “each writing space is a material and visual field, whose properties are determined by a writing technology” and in this sense hand-crafted writing’s visual field is somewhat less rigid and contained. Penmanship and neatness are an important consideration for aesthetics in this particular format, however the “handwritten page offere[s] more freedom of design than the printed page” (2001). In reflection, this is entirely true for me as I have no reservations about writing in the margins, above and below lines, adding strikethroughs, notes and additions; it somehow feels less invasive. I feel as though I may ‘flit’ about this space freely and not feel constrained by any adherence to format regarding aesthetics. As a result I also feel that handwritten text for me, is more iterative in nature.

Print on the other hand “develops a far more sophisticated use of space for visual organization and effective retrieval” (Ong, 1982, p.121) and thus it’s aesthetics are more exacting, cleaner, and technical (Bolter, 2001). While this offers an increased sense of visual consistency and continuity (Ong, 1982, p.129), for me this continuity coupled with notions of authority and permanence some how makes free or messy iteration in this space less acceptable. That is to say, that as an artist I feel a visual and emotional compulsion-to-order when composing printed text. I am less inclined to disturb the now tight aesthetics by writing notes in margins, highlighting or making strikethroughs. It feels odd to do this in a digital format and I feel compelled to get the messy stuff quickly amended for the sake of aesthetics.

I suspect that the mechanization of writing (in its appeal to sophistication) takes this compulsion to order further for me in the digital writing space. Consider for a moment word processing programs and the different types of aesthetics they offer. There is no longer a need for visible ruled lines in order to keep text organized, rather unexpected lines and visuals can ruin the continuity. Alignment and spacing is easily adjusted to increase readability and aesthetic appeal. Most interesting to me is a new phenomenon in my digital writing caused by the aesthetics of the spell-check feature. While writing in this space, if I make a spelling mistake this particular aspect of mechanization helpfully underlines the offending word automatically with a red dotted line. In terms of color theory, symbolism, and every day visual culture, red is a color that is often used to connote: stop, cancel, fire, anger, danger, blood, love, and war (among other things). The eye is naturally drawn to it. In terms of cognitive mental models, from a design perspective this is a colour frequently used to give pause and this particular mechanized aesthetic indeed causes me to stop writing–often mid stream–in order to correct whatever needs to be fixed. This new practice can be fairly detrimental to my writing so I often have to disable it to carry on meaningfully. Inherent in all technologies are losses and gains (O’Donnell, 1999) however, it didn’t occur to me until examining the mechanization of writing more closely that the aesthetics of new technologies also present new losses and gains.

Did you notice the same? Did you find your eyes drawn more than once to the red on this page, even if just a peripheral reflex?

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.) Taylor and Francis e-Library.

O’Donnell, J. (1999). From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge Forum. Cambridge, UK; University of Cambridge.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Image source: James LeVeque. (2008). Yelling at Dilbert. [Image file]. Retrieved from Flickr under CC by 2.0.


5 replies
  1. T
    T says:

    Hi Bobbi,
    Loved your perspective on the mechanization of writing. I never thought about it until reading your post. For me there is a difference between the printed form and the digital writing space. When taking handwritten notes, I find that I scribble and have no pattern with regard to spacing and format but in digital I am obsessive with the formatting and visual layout of my work – regardless of the formality of the piece.

    The spellcheck feature is almost a hinderance to my own writing. I fixate on the underlining of the word and cannot complete my thought process until I correct the error. I am not sure if the colour makes a difference – although I will be more cognizant of that feature now that you mentioned it. The spellcheck is one feature that has impeded my writing style. In my two undergrad degrees I hand wrote my work before typing the finished product. I was able to write in a fluid motion, unaware of grammatical and spelling errors and complete my thoughts uninterrupted. I now reflect on this process as archaic and wasteful of paper. Not only have I changed this practice for efficiency but my writing style has changed. I don’t have the flow of writing like I did with paper and pen and although I have adapted to make this system work for me, it isn’t the same.

    One last note about the red font. I think most people will immediately be drawn to the red colour and read that part first. I have made some district presentations with colleagues who wanted to highlight pertinent info in red font. I try to avoid this unless absolutely necessary as I think it sometimes insults the reader.


    • Bobbi
      Bobbi says:

      Thanks for the great thoughts T, your use of the words fluidity and flow to describe writing is actually quite significant in terms of bodily experience, particularly in the case cursive writing. Continuing on with this bodily aspect, with handcrafted text, the hand literally flows over the page while composing it. It’s no wonder that the loss of this somewhat fluid and relaxing motion might cause changes in writing. When I think about this shift from fluidity to the clickity-clackity punching motion of fingers on keys, I can actually imagine this having a cognitive effect. I’d hate to think that this contributes to mechanistic clickity-clackity writing styles (though we’ve seen how two-thumb texting has affected English and writing on mobile devices). It is entirely possible that the body mechanics of this space equally suggest or assert a certain type of behaviour in addition to the aesthetics. Anyway, I’m glad that I’m not alone in noticing an increase of obsessive formatting. I can see how perfection in the formatting of digital writing spaces might in some ways encourage (or perhaps compel?) a bit of perfectionism in order to stay true to form(at).

  2. S
    S says:

    I’m sure that the helpful folks at Microsoft (you may debate the level of helpfulness, I’m sure) had a great deal of lengthy debates about the colour to use in underlining for spellcheck. Spellcheck is red (even now, when I type in my browser – spellcheck is underlined in red). In earlier version of MS Office (97-2003), grammatical errors were underlined in green. In my version (2013), they are blue. I wonder if the change from green to blue was brought to committee (perhaps they determined that green was too “permissive” a colour to assign to a grammatical error?), and why red remains the one consistent usage among devices, apps, and software. I think print brings to mind much of the visual aesthetic, at least from a very technical (perhaps psychological) standpoint. The handwritten text can be made extremely elaborate and can even be illustrated, but I feel that the process of considering its effects are more “in the moment” than print. Print can be reviewed, edited, and redistributed – small parts can change while leaving the rest undisturbed. Handwritten documents, especially in ink, need to be finalized when the pen is put to paper. I remember the stress in grade school of finally being “allowed” to compose in pen rather than pencil – you had to be very sure not to make a mistake, because even Wite Out didn’t do much to help. :)

    • Bobbi
      Bobbi says:

      That’s a very interesting thought S, I actually wasn’t aware that the colour change for indicating grammatical issues had taken place in MS word. From a cognitive ergonomics (usability design) standpoint your mention of this color being perceived as too permissive is insightful, and likely right on the mark. What I associate most with red in regard to writing (and the reason it’s likely still used to indicate mistakes in spelling) is teachers’ red pen all over my papers in K-12 when I didn’t pay close enough attention to spelling. This is familiar to us, therefore perhaps easier to relate to in the digital space. The memory of this in the analog likely helps fuel my compulsion for immediacy in correcting the digital.

      I wonder, as a K-12 teacher have you noticed that the polished format of digital writing makes students less inclined to free-write and re-write? Do they begin to make assumptions about their writing’s polish based on the cleanness and seeming perfection of digital text? As a designer who’s studied object and medium theory quite intensively, I wonder if knowledge such as some of the many points listed in various comments above might help students to understand how digital writing creates a false sense of polish?

  3. K
    K says:

    I thought I would leave some thoughts on the handwriting process as opposed to mechanical (type) writing, as I have been aware of the differences for a while. The experience of each is influenced by the other, some of which you have noted above in the way word processing programs incorporate features we might do by hand when editing (highlight, bookmark, strikethrough, enter comments). I prefer to handwrite notes as it helps me absorb or retain material better. Since I am distracted when I type by hyperlinks that take me elsewhere, incoming email, and typos, I notice that when I handwrite notes I now still need the process supplemented by technology so I keep my smartphone or tablet close by to quickly look up definitions and any number of details as I write,. Typing is generally faster so I demand my hand move that fast and since it doesn’t the legibility of my writing suffers.

    Writing and reading are connected processes. I am sure many of us share that growing inability to sit for 4 hours and read a book anymore., without being drawn to the internet to look things up. So now my handwriting is no longer legible in order for me to benefit from it, and I am pulled in to the rabbit hole of the internet whether I type or handwrite.


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