Bic pens are some of the most common in the world, but they were revolutionary when first invented because of the clear body and the ink that spread itself so evenly. Now the popular pen manufacturer has decided to be revolutionary again by making a common handwriting for the world. Bic’s new Universal Typeface Experiment is joining touchscreen technology with traditional handwriting in order to make a new typography. The font will be created from samples of handwriting that are then averaged together to find the most common form for each letter of the alphabet. This Universal Typeface is part of the company’s celebration of its newest innovation, a variant of the classic pen called the Cristal Stylus. This pen has a traditional ink pen on one end and a stylus for touchscreen use on the other allowing users to write equally on both paper and touch technology.
Bic pens are everywhere, but the rise of computers and keyboards seems to be making them obsolete. The preferred method of taking notes in many schools is now typing on a laptop. Some are spelling out doom for the old way of writing out notes by hand. Using less paper may be good for trees, but for manufacturers like Bic it almost spells doom for their business. Touchscreens might change that, however, as people start using a stylus in order to write notes to themselves or to draw on programs like Adobe Illustrator. The Bic Cristal Stylus is a hybrid, an evolutionary missing link between the pens of yesteryear and the future of writing implements.
The Universal Typeface Experiment is another sign of this type of progress. The goal is to use samples of handwriting from all over the world and create a new typeface, much like Times New Roman or Arial. Bic explains that the project uses an algorithm to average all the samples collected into one universal typeface. In a genius stroke of marketing, the website encourages users to add to the project by using Bic’s new pen. The link between old technology and new technology is clearly made in this kind of marketing. The old ink pen was revolutionary way back when and it has just updated itself while also giving a very clever collaborative project to the world.
But just how useful is Bic’s handwriting for the world? Some might argue that distilling the uniqueness of an individual’s handwriting down to a font created by an algorithm is an artless marketing ploy. Graphology is the pseudo-scientific study of handwriting in order to determine a person’s personality. How a person wrote a letter could provide clues to what kind of person they actually were or what kind of mood they were in when they were writing. If someone wrote in large, flamboyant letters, then they were likewise an outgoing person blessed with a big personality. People who wrote in small letters were shy and introverted. A universal handwriting like what Bic envisions might just take all the personality out of handwriting and make everyone nothing but a collection of an average. How much individuality could be made irrelevant by this kind of project?
Beyond the pseudo-science of personality determination, psychologists have raised concerns about the lack of handwriting in the learning process. Research suggests that “learning by doing” is fading away because of the use of computers and tablets in schools. There is a connection between higher test scores and handwriting one’s notes. While typing notes in a class is quicker and often has verbatim wording from the lecture, handwriting notes leads to better retention of the subject matter and, therefore, better test results. What is the reason for this connection? It has to do with the difference between transcription and processing. Typing is fast enough to allow for transcription, or the accurate rendering of the words that are said at the time. It is the intellectual equivalent of tracing an image. Handwriting may be slower, but it makes the brain actually process the information contained in the words. That leads to better understanding and actual retention of information.
Psychologists are concerned that the gradual extinction of handwriting is effectively making people dumber. Handwriting and cursive are no longer practiced in many schools. Children who do not learn to use these valuable skills may be at a disadvantage later in life when they do not retain information as much as others who did learn cursive. Some have argued that the art of handwriting is already dead and children do not need to learn how to write as much as they need to learn how to type. While this may be the concrete reality of the modern world, that does not necessarily mean it is an improvement.
Others may argue that the world is losing far more than just learning by the death of the handwritten word. There is a certain beauty in a letter that someone took the time to write by hand. It is imbued with a sense of personal connection that communication intermediated by computer technology does not have. Others may argue that it is the message of the words that matters far more than the form they take. There is a largely subjective viewpoint inherent in this argument that cannot be quanitified, but what about something more concrete? What about the visual art of calligraphy?
With the lack of handwriting practice, calligraphy itself will probably die and no amount of Bic’s handwriting for the world will be able to replace that. Unlike painting or sketching, calligraphy is a little known type of artistic expression that marries handwriting with the practice of painting and sketching. There are few exhibits of calligraphic art, but it is not dead yet. The White House currently employs professional calligraphers to design and create the many official invitations and other materials required for formal occasions. Today, much of the work of the White House’s calligraphy office has been outsourced to computer programs that speed up the process of manufacture or allow the artists to perfect a project. But the initial artistic genesis of things like dinner invitations and menus are still done by hand. Relatively few people may ultimately see these works of art, but that does not diminish their value or the grandeur they add to such moments. It is questionable whether the new Cristal Stylus will be able to duplicate that.
In the world of writing implements, Bic is a big name known for innovation and reliability. They are the Apple products of pens and pencils, though it is far less of a tragedy if one loses a pen than an iPad. Its importance cannot be underestimated, however. The original Bic Cristal from 1950 was not just revolutionary, it was art and it earned a place in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. For the first time it seemed like art was not just what you produced with a pen, but the pen itself. The Bic Cristal Stylus is an update of a beloved classic, but it may not ever make it to the side of the original in the museum. The Universal Typeface Experiment is also a very cool update, but it is doubtful whether it will ever fully replace individual handwriting styles. It is not Bic’s algorithm that will ultimately create a new handwriting for the world, but every individual who persists in creating a typeface unique to them personally just by using a pen on actual paper.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury