Illustration Credits: Archie Parekh

By My Own Hand

You see it everywhere, absolutely everywhere: rough-and-ready brush lettering or something like it. It’s proudly imperfect and knowingly naive. It’s bold and inkily raw; its voice can be raucous and assertive or tremulous and quivering. It’s on posters, packaging, banners and trademarks of food brands and political movements; on literary book covers, at conferences, and perhaps most of all as messages on social media.

(L-R) Shoe Poster / Adidas Originals, Neon Sign / Artist / Wasted Rita
(L-R) Shoe Poster / Adidas Originals, Neon Sign / Artist / Wasted Rita

You see it everywhere, absolutely everywhere: rough-and-ready brush lettering or something like it. It’s proudly imperfect and knowingly naive.

Brush lettering has long existed as a contrast to the mechanical perfection of type, of manufactured letters. But these new roughly wrought creations are distinct from the skilfully writtten, neo-calligraphic styles that commercial sign makers introduced us to.

The durability of this phenomenon is somewhere between that of a major historical shift like Modernism and a trending hashtag, A movement? Not in the sense that future histories of design will recognise. Major arts movements were new ideas, championed by charismatic leaders, underpinned by a philosophy that responded to political, technological or economic shifts that were the air.

Modern movements are media-fed, and so faster to peak, ebb, die and be reborn after a time. They start life as styles, arising from anonymous mavens in urban sub-cultures, who may achieve glamour and fame once in a while, like Banksy who now justifies that name in a rather different way. For a phenomenon to survive, is not enough being visually new. Nor will its intellectual underpinnings suffice—such as protest, or the acknowledgement of new technologies. It must have universality, and claim that it can be applied to any situation, medium and art. Modernism is one such style, movement and phenomenon.

To explain why the shaggy lettering phenomenon thrives, we need to understand the emotional realm it occupies. Like great stories, ideas that satisfy emotions can be infinitely repeated without losing appeal.

(L-R) Comic Strip / Poorly Drawn Lines, A City Transformed by Words / Poster / Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2017
(L-R) Comic Strip / Poorly Drawn Lines, A City Transformed by Words / Poster / Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2017

To explain why the shaggy lettering phenomenon thrives, we need to understand the emotional realm it occupies.

Shaggy lettering’s thriving, as a look into its deep design might lead us to speculate, is because It encodes an ethos. It is associated with the expression of certain categories of ideas that are in the air; you might call it a global mood. It cannot be called a pure style, for it cannot be blindly applied like paint without an eye to the message it is helping to propel.

Expressing certain sentiments slakes a particular thirst. It satisfies an emotional requirement for a global community linked by shared notions, call it a mood. Here’s a speculation of what that mood is, and thus, what its deep design is built on.

Consider its deliberate imperfection; its texture and materiality (inky, splashy and brushy), which can be seen as a fact of life for the sender of the message, or carefully preserved to manipulate the emotions of the receiver. At an elementary level these attributes signal speed of execution and extreme economy of means—improvising to quickly make do with what is around.

Consider its deliberate imperfection; its texture and materiality (inky, splashy and brushy), which can be seen as a fact of life for the sender of the message, or carefully preserved to manipulate the emotions of the receiver.

This economy also signals vulnerability, and instantly destroys distance; it appeals to our instinct to defend the weak. In the new democracy, be an old school authority at your own peril. Status has lost its status, these brushed glyphs seem to say. Better to ask, what do you think?

Economy, vulnerability and immediacy are properties are most true of, and thus most valuable to groups such as makers of organic or local foods, who use this economy of means to signal authenticity (why else deliberately signal roughness?) and difference from the establishment. When there’s a good vulnerability going, can brands be far behind?

Protest is another; we only need to see these awkward letters to know that what they say is urgent and deeply felt.

By My Own Hand3-3
(L-R) Peace is Cheaper / Unknown / American protestor during the Vietnam War in 1964, Solidarnosc / The 1980 Polish Solidarity

I believe local tradesmen and protest banners were the progenitors of this lettering, refreshed by graffiti, and the thick marker. It is an irony that in many countries protestors now carry mass made, laser-printed banners. What a betrayal.

Such authenticity and immediacy are transferable outside these domains. Protest comes with a certain strength and a strong sense of personal agency: we can make a difference, but I can too. I need few resources to do so. Join a challenge, do something, try a hack: the fix is in, and it’s cheap and simple, in Steven Levitt’s words. Sincerity trumps nuance and careful consideration. Nuance is the sophistry of elites anyway; like complexity, a smokescreen erected by the Very Impotent Persons. Victory to the Visceral!

This personal agency is best supported on social media, where I can tap out easy outrage or make common cause with a band almost costlessly, where accusation is simple and refutation complex. Political correctness is now pop-correctness. I stand opposite experts or authorities, ready to tear them down if I have the social clout.

Handmade Chart / Ted Naiman
(L-R) Handmade Chart / Ted Naiman, Doodle Art / Artist / Rubyetc

Not that social clout and expertise are necessarily mutually exclusive, but I’ll take the expert with the higher twitter engagement. I’ll go with this doctor’s views over another because his twitter feed is eagerly cheered and his skin looks great; ok, he has an MD too. Peer-viewed beats peer-reviewed. Whose peers? Mine!

Don’t think I’m right? Well, I’ll just pick up a really fat brush, dip it in a bucket of paint, and…then let’s see.

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First published in a slightly modified form ‘By My Own Hand’ in Business Standard, 4 August, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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