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You’ve Got Letter

Every December we go back to Mexico for the Holidays and spend time with our families. And every December, invariably, my 91-year-old grandmother asks me to write her a letter “every now and then”. I always say yes but, eight years later, I have only sent her one. As another family gathering nears, and another year passes where I don’t write a letter, I wonder if I’m the worst grandson ever. I find some superficial comfort knowing that it’s nothing against my grandma, as I don’t write letters. Period.

I can’t remember the last letter I wrote. I remember writing Bryony love letters in our early years of dutiful courtship, and I recall sending my parents two postcards, one from summer camp and one from a summer trip to Israel, but little else. I have horrible handwriting, my hand usually aches after writing more than a paragraph, and I always think of a better way to say something after I have already written it down, leaving my handwritten notes full of crossed out ink blots and unreadable scratches that look like words. So, I don’t write letters. But, man, I can write e-mails! All day long until my fingers go numb. I’m a great e-mailer, actually. I can pitch my work explain myself much better through e-mail than in person. Not that my grandma cares. She just wants a letter, in my handwriting, in some nice paper and in a nice envelope to arrive in her mailbox unexpectedly. And, to be honest, I think I would want that too from time to time. So does British designer Craig Oldham who has been conducting an ongoing task called the hand.written.letter.project.

He has been inviting designers around the world to “tackle the issue of personality in a world of depersonalisation, and to reflect on the state of transition from physical to digital, by recording their visual reaction[…]” in a handwritten letter addressed back to Craig. More than forty designers have graciously played along, and have penned letters, in their stationery to varying results. Some admit not knowing what to write, while others have taken it as an exercise in wit, and some have taken the opportunity to, indeed, reconsider the romance of writing a letter. That this exercise is done with designers adds a separate layer of memorability as the letterheads themselves are laden with personality and are reflective of their senders — take Daniel Eatock’s for example. While some folks confused this exercise as a showcase for their letterhead, the results are optimistic in highlighting the camaraderie that designers have amongst themselves, but that optimism fades on the potential of handwritten letters making a comeback in our profession. Craig has taken some time to answer a few questions about this project and the repercussions that the disappearance of handwritten correspondence might have. And, while you read, I’m going to write that letter I promised a few years ago.


Click on images for larger view in pop-up window.


From Brahm.



From Milton Glaser.


Chermayeff and Geismar

Chermayeff and Geismar

From Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff.


johnson banks

From Michael Johnson.


Armin Vit: What prompted you to start this project? Was it a specific instance, or a larger set of worries coming together?

Craig Oldham: Well, both really. The build up has been probably since I furthered my interest in design. There have been long, raging debates on the future of this, the death of that: the “What will happen to the old now we have the new?’ questions on varying mediums and messages. The fact is that fresh and new technologies bring reassessment of what people love about how they communicated before—in the instance of letters—the aesthetics, paper, tactility, personality, permanence and collectibility. But, if I were to pick from the bunch I would say the feeling that no one wants to be personal anymore. I’ve always loved personalities. From personality you get humor, imagination, creativity, emotion and interest—all of which are absent from the digital experience— at least for me. An accumulation of all that and one bill and a takeaway menu too many finally pushed me over the edge.

AV: Apart from e-mail, what do you think are the biggest reasons people don’t write letters anymore? Is it simply an antiquated notion?

CO: Time is the biggest reason for me. I think that our pace of life and expectations of our society have created a 24-hour living culture. We want everything and we want it now. The fast paced introduction of all things digital has overwhelmed the letter so now we can say what we want with a click, click and double-click. But, does that means it’s better or worse? I don’t pretend to have an answer to that one.

AV: You are a graphic designer, so naturally you asked graphic designers to contribute. Would this be any different had you decided to ask lawyers, doctors or plumbers?

CO: Obvious things out of the way first; the execution and visual presence of the collection as a whole would not be as impactful and I’d have a guess that the stationery would be a little different, to put it nicely. However, regardless of the aesthetics, I believe the content would be just as engaging and as thoughtful as the current project. The thing about a letter is everyone has experienced them and so, I believe that everyone will have something to say: just read the one my mum sent me, a nurse in a small town Hospital, her words may answer that question better than mine.


This is Real Art

From This is Real Art.


AV: Who’s letter was the most surprising?

CO: The ones that really surprised me were those from people who had found the project and felt compelled to write to me (Sam Mallett, Penny Range, Tom Crashaw), they were a great surprise. But all of them, really, the fact that I got responses amazed me. I found those that expressed their content and thoughts visually—Paul Belford’s from This Is Real Art is a great example [shown directly above]— extremely interesting as they brought a whole new dimension to the meaning of the letter: the medium is the message perhaps. I was also surprised by the responses that got really under the skin of the issue such as Tim Beard (Bibliothéque), Geoff Nicol (Navyblue) and Wally Olins.

AV: Do you think you will ever receive a handwritten letter from any of the participants again?

CO: Maybe if I ask nicely. In an ideal world I would love to receive a letter from anyone involved in the project again, and this will hopefully be sooner rather than later as I’m having a think about moving the project into another stage. But, I’d love another letter from Stefan Sagmeister: it’s funny, he commented about handwriting being a pain in the ass to read, and to this day I still don’t know what his last paragraph says.


Stefan Sagmeister

From Stefan Sagmeister.


AV: It’s easy to argue that handwriting is an extension of one’s personality, so a handwritten letter is, in principle, more personal than an e-mail, but isn’t the voice as important? Does handwriting just become decoration to what one wants to say? I know, it starts to get philosophical, doesn’t it?

CO: Admittedly, the voice is as important. When it comes to the voice, content is king: the execution is there to support the communication, not hinder it. However, before setting out to say anything it’s most important to know exactly what you want to say, and how to say it to the best effect, so why not choose a medium based on your content? When you boil it down to its essence the question is about communicating. Years passed that we wrote on walls until paper came around, then we found other ways of communicating, Mr. Digital popped up his head and suddenly we should forget how to pen a letter? Banksy surely hasn’t changed his method of communication now he has a book or two and a website.

Letters are not a dying or dead medium they are simply different: an alternative. In terms of communication, there is no right or wrong way, there is only popular. Digital is not the right way and Analogue the wrong, Digital is simply more popular at this time. We don’t all have to communicate digitally just because we can and I just wanted people to think about writing in the physical. If we forget or ignore a discipline then a skill set is lost, for me this is not what advances and improves a culture. Speaking in basic terms, culture to me means a variety of different ways of doing the same thing. Better stop now, as you say it does indeed start to get a little philosophical.

AV: Who was the last person you wrote to? Did he or she write back?

CO: One Mr. David Carson. He hasn’t written back yet, but ironically he did e-mail. That’s what I’m up against.

AV: Thanks for your time Craig. Write soon, will ya?


Craig's Mum

Craig's Mum

Craig's Mum

From Craig’s Mum.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.12.2007 BY Armin
diane zerr’s comment is:

When my husband I began first dating, I wrote him a letter on a napkin telling him how I felt about him and that being married might not be that bad. That was six years ago and we were married three months ago.

I think a handwritten note has a deeper impact than an email. This is the same reason they tell those who had just had an interview to send a handwritten thank you to the interviewer. It meant you took the time to think about the message you were sending and in addition took the time to write it down, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, run down to the post office or to your mailbox and send it off.

I love handwriting and receiving messages that way, always will.

On Dec.12.2007 at 10:39 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

My wife is a "Jane Austin" kind of lady and before we were married we wrote fabulous letters, diaries, etc. To get a letter delivered felt special.

Now that we have computers and I can actually email to the next room: "Do you want a cup of tea, darling?" Better to do little notes. It has "charm". A word utterly missing in the contemporary world. Some may disagree but email is robotic. Like actors doing a one-take scene for better or worse...It skims the surface for the sake of speed.

Deeper communication? It depends...Typing is not writing. When penmanship is involved , I think, people consider their words more carefully.

On Dec.12.2007 at 02:30 PM
Rob’s comment is:

It's so nice to know I'm not the only designer with crappy handwriting. Happy Holidays.

On Dec.12.2007 at 05:33 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

My crappy handwriting is probably why I'm a graphic designer. It's my way of taking control of the page. Thanks for the article, this is honestly something I've been thinking about lately (gee-wonder why). Nice not to be alone on this.


Posthumous letters have historically been a valuable tool for biographers, and often by themselves make a good read in anthology.

Who among you saves your email archives?
Who wants to?


and lastly, I love the collection of stationery from designer's studios. I must ask the question: why is the fax number still a convention of stationery layout?

On Dec.12.2007 at 08:52 PM
Pedro Vit’s comment is:

I think Sagmeister's last paragraph says:
Nevertheless many greetings from 14 street

On Dec.12.2007 at 08:54 PM
Inaudible Nonsense’s comment is:

My handwriting is something that I've worked very diligently on from the time I was at least in fifth grade. I can remember exactly when, at least to the year, when I took on certain affections -- the way I make a's for instance. Or when I discovered that my initials, CTE, work really well in all lower case cursive as one "word". In fact, I think my love of my own hand writing. And letter writing is why I love words and design of words so much.

I was forced to write letters as a kid. Thank you notes for everything are expected in my family. There is no quicker way to have your name disparaged in the family rumor tree than by not sending a thank you letter. I write my grandma at least four or five letters a year. And used to write my maternal grandmother every month -- she sent a check, though, so if I wanted to see those keep coming I had to write.

I was always taught to write the letter first on scratch paper and then to copy the letter on my best stationary (as a kid that would be Snoopy) in my best cursive. Today, I wing it a little more as I find that the cross outs give a letter character.

I save every letter that has been written to me. And my boyfriend has every letter that I wrote to him before we moved in with each other (in fact, for really special friends, I save all their emails too).

I'm the kind of person that sends a thank you note immediately after a dinner party, an interview, what have you.

I'm totally undisciplined in every aspect of my life, but definitely not letter writing. Perhaps, though, at 33. I'm the end of the line here for this. That's disheartening. The images of these letters are beautiful. The hand written note on nice paper is such a wonderful thing. In my opinion, there is no bad handwriting.

On Dec.12.2007 at 10:53 PM
Unnikrishna Menon Damodaran’s comment is:

Indeed nothing to replace the feeling of getting letters.

Paper. Ink.Postage stamp.
My wife is crazy letter writer even now.

Email, as Pesky said some what robotic.
It is not giving that feeling of personal touch.

Paper, pen and ink are personal!

Happy holiday in advance to all SpeakUp people and readers!

Armin, a nice post and i think the timing is very appropriate as it is nearing a festive mood all over-and may be all can start writing letters!

On Dec.13.2007 at 12:34 AM
pesky’s comment is:

Anyone who wants better penmanship can learn it. It's like drawing, you practice until you can make decent elegant shapes. Sloppy handwriting is tragic. What I see in the above examples are people in a rush.

On Dec.13.2007 at 09:45 AM
felix’s comment is:

as the grandson of a professional handwriting analyzer, I can tell you two things for certain: Tom Geismar from C&G has the most positive outlook on life (words are positioned in an upward motion) while Stefan has the most active sex drive (large, audacious loops).

Glaser still wished he were daVinci.

On Dec.13.2007 at 10:24 AM
diane zerr’s comment is:

Pedro> I think you're right. At first glance, I had no clue. But now I see that you have deciphered it!

I used to hate my handwriting, now I've come to love every piece of it. It's a unique piece of me and I think handwriting is impossible to duplicate, at least in making someone else's your own.

On Dec.13.2007 at 10:47 AM
Hollis’s comment is:

My grandmother turned 90 yesterday.

Armin, I share your sentiments; I know them all too well...

On Dec.13.2007 at 11:11 AM
Alex Pearson’s comment is:

Thank you for this post, for 2 reasons:

1. It reminded me of some people I need to write.

2. I think this is a very timely issue. To me it's more about the pace of life, and losing things in the blur. I just wrote about a similar issue here.

On Dec.13.2007 at 03:03 PM
247designheaven’s comment is:

With a record number of mail going the through the hands of the United States Postal Service today (Monday, December 17, 2007) it’s the busiest mail day of the year. Billions of letters and packages will be sent out. Now, if only a fraction of these pieces of mail are handwritten letters then I surmise that the art of letter writing lives on.

On Dec.17.2007 at 02:17 PM
Stacy Rausch’s comment is:

I enjoyed this post, and the examples of folks letters.

I have tried writing friends "real letters" hoping to get one back myself. Usually I dont get any response, or an email.

My husband and I do leave each other notes - on a large post-it note - on the bathroom mirror when we need to communicate things (and wont see each other). I always look forward to these, because sometimes they are just a "hi, enjoyed our night together, have a great day" kind of notes and not "pick up TP".

On Dec.18.2007 at 03:46 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I was just out in Chicago last week visiting Rick Valicenti. He organized a little get together at his studio and hauled out his collection of stuff I have sent him over the years, including a few handwritten letters. It was nice to see them again, and I was pleased he had kept them.

But letterwriting is reasonably common for me, and I recently bought a fancy pen so I can do a little extra work on my handwriting.

Still, the volume of email I send, compared to letters is probably 1000:1.

Who among you saves your email archives?
Who wants to?

I do. I keep it all. I've even been known to format it and print it out and put it in a box.

On Dec.18.2007 at 07:11 PM
Kevin M. Scarbrough’s comment is:

What an interesting project. I'm really intrigued by it and want to participate (which, according to the site, is acceptable! splendid!)

I love quirky handwriting. For a while a while, growing up, I purposefully made capital letters quirky on purpose. These days its second nature. I keep big, red notebooks (from Borders Bookstores, $8, great buy) that I keep all my notes in. It is fabulous fun to browse through old ones.

On Dec.19.2007 at 11:10 PM