A Minor Miracle
When I was in primary school I didn’t mind learning how to write. I remember I hated colouring stuff, so much so I used to take back homework to my teacher saying I used to prefer it in black and white (and get a note for that). But writing was OK. I wasn’t great at it, and I later found out that I had learned to make all the loops in my round shapes in clockwise direction, which is the opposite of what you want when writing in the style they teach kids in Italy, which is some sort of simplified English roundhand. I remember at one point playing with my handwriting, I must have been six or seven, trying to condense it horizontally or to expand it, and sticking with these experiments for weeks on end.
I realised all my double clockwise loops where way too time consuming and hurtful for my wrist when I was in secondary school, and then moved onto high school and university. I was quite quick at writing, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I had written, when trying to decode my notes back at home. That eventually became a problem in high school, when I had to re-read all my essays to my professors because they couldn’t quite decipher anything of mine. When I went to university I had already pretty much given up on my handwriting. I think I have a pretty good sense of shapes, alignment and space on the page, but the signs themselves where messy and just impossible to read. My first university exam was a written one; I was in a class with 150 other students (oh yeah!) and the professor walked in to announce the results. He said it took him a long time to go through all the papers, and that in one case he just had to give up because the handwriting was so bad. Guess who’s paper that was?
As a last resort I sort of tried migrating to all caps when I had to write short notes, but as anybody who knows a bit of calligraphy, ALL CAPS is not really meant to be written with a pen, so that somewhat makes matter worse. It’s also way more slow than proper cursive, because all the shapes are separated and you’re always raising the pen and going back to the paper, then again and again.
Enter my love/obsession for typography at about the age of 20, just after entering university. I just loved looking at the shapes and I found I was quite good at keeping them in my head, recognising them back once I saw them, noticing the nuances and details. It just frustrated me that with my poor handwriting – and drawing skills, I must add – I would never be able to do any of that on my own. I felt I could look at type, but I wasn’t allowed to make it, I felt like an outsider.
For some reason, three years ago I started thinking back at designing type, I just couldn’t get it outside my head. I started redrawing with bezier paths on the computer old, dead typeface from Italian foundries. I remember sending over to my friends a screenshot of a lowercase a in FontLab: the point placemenet was all wrong and the proportions didn’t quite match, but guess what? It was there! I then drew more and more, but still strictly on the computer. At the beginning of last year I had had enough of my handwriting inferiority complex and decided to enrol in a calligraphy class with ACI (Associazione Calligrafica Italiana). My teacher, Francesca Biasetton, taught me the basis of the Cancelleresca script, a beautiful Renaissance handwriting style that few people practice today in Italy, and fewer use it as an everyday handwriting.
My first experiments sucked, of course, but I was really surprised: I wasn’t as bad as I planned, I could do it! That was a revealing moment for me. After that, I started drawing and drawing and drawing every day, with all sorts of pens and quills and pencils, trying different styles and methods, then digitising my drawings and restart again. I’m not a great calligrapher by any means, but my handwriting now is reasonably readable, I can fake many writing styles and make things look pretty and neat. And I can also play with the shapes regardless of the tool, which is the key to proper type design.
I can’t quite explain why I felt having a good handwriting was a requisite for being a type designer – it’s not – but probably it was just a self-challenge I had to overcome in order to start pursuing this new interest/passion.
I understand this might sounds like nothing to you, but to me it feels like I experienced a minor miracle. And the best part is that it’s still going on as I get more and more practice!