The Evolution of Type

From pictograms to pixel fonts, written language has evolved over time, changing in response to communication methods and printing technology. This overview is presented as an introduction to the origins, evolution, and applications of modern letterforms. —The Evolution of Type (Medium Bold)

The ubiquity of the word processor has changed what it means to write. I still hear professors talk about “note cards,” which were part of the writing process taught to me when I was in high school. The idea, of course, was that you could rearrange your note cards during the early drafting process, so that you would have some idea of the organization of your ideas before you actually started writing. For those of you born in the last 25 or so years, yes indeed, we actually wrote our papers out by hand, and then when we revised them we had to write them over again. We had a motivation to cut deadwood, since we could get the draft finished faster if we didn’t copy that whole wordy opening paragraph and instead just copied the one sentence that actually introduced the subject we were really going to write about.

I’m not advocating that students should go back to the process of hand-writing their papers; instead, I’m simply noting that today’s most experienced teachers learned to write in a very different way. I started word-processing some of my school assignments in middle school, around 1980 (although some of my teachers were refusing dot-matrix printouts). I have a great, satisfying sensory memory of picking up a stack of fan-folded paper, tearing off the rows of holes on the outer edges, and then separating the pages. I never bothered to tear apart all those perforations unless the printout was intended for someone else to read, and to this day I associate tearing perforated paper with that “job well done” feeling. When I was an undergrad at U.Va., for major assignments I would walk my disk to the laser printers in the computer lab (my favorite was a few steps from Cabell Hall at the other end of the Central Grounds from the Rotunda).

Since it is now push-button easy to get high-quality copies of drafts that are in progress, I wonder how much that affects the ability of today’s students to recognize when they have put sufficient work into a paper. In medieval times, if you wanted about 20 pages to write on, you had to kill a sheep, skin it, and tan the hide (I recall the process has something to do with urine). So all writing that was produced was precious. That’s taking it a bit too far, of course — to make a mistake was costly, in terms of both time and resources, which undoubtedly affected the activities of a scribe (whose main job was to copy faithfully and accurately the words that somebody else had composed).