I was originally given an assignment to create an original typeface. It needed a concept and only a single upper or lowercase alphabet was required. My finished typeface is both upper and lowercase and contains an alternate for each letterform. It felt necessary to do this to maximize my source information while creating something that worked. I started this project with the idea that I would recreate my Nan’s handwriting to digitize her recipes. To give her back her words as she slips deeper in to her Parkinson’s disease and dementia. As an Italian woman who no longer remembers how to cook, an action incredibly important to her, it felt like a noble task.

It became too overwhelming to focus only on her. I spent a year caring for her as she began to deteriorate prior to this project and it became increasingly obvious to me that I didn’t have it in me to continue with that idea.

So as I brainstormed ideas, I realized that typefaces are often grouped in to families. Each member of the family has their own characteristics while retaining the general shape. It made me realize that I have a whole family with their own handwriting to explore.
The rest of my family’s handwriting felt equally important but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I settled on collecting samples from my parents, sister, and maternal and paternal grandparents. I wanted to see if there were similarities between the collection. Is there some sort of genetic component to handwriting? I knew it wouldn’t be a true scientific study; there were too many variables and I didn’t have the time or knowledge of how to really investigate.

So I wondered, “If I combined the marks from each individual, could I craft a cohesive typeface?” Would it be reminiscent of my own handwriting or totally illegible? These were the people I came from. They shaped me physically and mentally, so would their influence also become evident in my own handwriting? I wasn’t sure but I was willing to investigate, because for me art is intensely personal and I wanted my design work to reflect the same emotional intensity.

My first task was to collect samples. I asked for handwritten documents from my mom, dad, and sister. I asked them to write the entire alphabet in upper and lower cases as well as numbers 1-10. As the only three folks from the group I intended to collect handwriting from who were still capable of writing, I knew I needed their entire alphabets to supplement the rest. If I didn’t have the ability to find each letterform from my grandparents, I could rely on theirs to make up the forms.

My Nan is my maternal grandmother and I knew I could look through her house for handwriting samples from her. Her loss in dexterity made it difficult to ask for the same sheet of letters and numbers I had requested from my parents and sister. Cognitively I wasn’t sure she would even understand why I was asking for it, so I intended to find samples from when she was well. My Poppy passed away a little over three years ago, but I knew he had handwritten documents stored in his old office. He kept records of almost everything. I had packed them up earlier in the year so we could have the floors redone in their home. I could use the writing from Nan’s recipe cards, labeled video cassettes, and storage boxes. It felt like an archaeological dig, searching through documents, drawers and photo albums. Looking through handwritten cards to one another, internet passwords, and address books. My 3 year old nephew tagged along, mashing buttons on a calculator, pretending it was a cellphone, and constantly asking me where Poppy was. He was born a few weeks after our Poppy passed away, but he could recognize him in the photographs. He had no concept of what we were doing, and I appreciated his questions and enthusiasm for helping me find writing. He consistently brought me back to reality so I couldn’t get lost in my grief. We finished up and went back to playing with his cars while Nan watched.

The next step was my Grammy and Pappy. My paternal grandparents were more of a challenge. My Pappy passed away when I was in elementary school. My Grammy passed away last year. We had just cleaned out her house before putting it up for sale. I wish I had known I would set out to do this project over the summer as I went through her belongings. I searched through labels on the photo albums I had. I checked the back of photos looking for descriptions. I asked my dad and his siblings for any documents or letters they may have saved. My cousins, sister and I all had our own photo albums that Grammy had made of us. I sent out text messages asking for photographs of any of her handwriting from the labels on their respective albums. It was pretty limited. Any letters my aunt had were done in script and I had no plans for doing a cursive typeface. My uncle found an old hunting license from my Pappy.

He sent me the photos of it and I responded, “Is this his handwriting? Are we sure it’s not the license provider?” I sent the photos to my dad, frantically asking if he recognized it as Pappy’s handwriting. He admitted he didn’t know what his dad’s handwriting looked like. He told me that he knew he was left handed and that any writing of his could be slanted. My uncle insisted it was in fact his handwriting, he said he had driven him to get the license himself. My cousin doubted it. She said it didn’t feel like it belonged to him. But how would we actually know? She’s a year or so younger than I am and we were just kids when he died. Our time was limited with him. I examined the license over and over. I strained to find similarities in these marks and my own dad’s and I became increasingly frustrated and sad. I was mad at myself, for not knowing more about him. I was shocked that my dad didn’t have his own father’s handwriting ingrained in his memories.

This was the instance where my grief and frustration took over. This is where the project became more emotionally difficult than I intended.
I know my dad’s handwriting. I can remember it on index cards he would leave in my school desk during parent-teacher night. I could forge my mom’s signature for notes to get out of gym so I could sit with my friends on the sidelines. I remember tracing hers to learn to write the alphabet on sheets with lines that mimicked traffic lights. When I was young, she was a teacher. Her handwriting samples still look like a teacher’s handwriting. Big, friendly letters in simple shapes. Just like when I was small. I can remember her cursive script from having to decipher it to type up her grad school papers since I typed faster than she did.

I knew Nan’s handwriting from birthday cards, checks, and her recipe cards. The recipe cards are almost impossible to decipher because of her years writing shorthand as a secretary. I had found her shorthand books in boxes earlier in the year as we went through storage and books to keep or donate. She was so happy to remember them when I asked what they were. To me they were random squiggles, but to her they were a fond memory of a skill she had learned.
Poppy’s was a bit more elusive. He was usually too busy to fill our holiday cards for us kids. I saw it for the first time in its truest form:

“Love, Skippy.”

It was signed in an anniversary card that Nan had saved in photo albums I had never seen, before I spent almost every day there with her. I snapped a photo of it almost a year before starting this project. Even then I knew how important it was to document it — to save it for my brain to hold on to when I felt like maybe my memories were fading. The rest of his lettering was mostly on legal pad paper and stuffed in to files in his office. I had written many school notes right next to his over the year I spent on Zoom for school. It was there for me to collect, next to my notes on pixel sizes and parallax code. If I wrote my notes where he wrote his, it felt like he was still close.  

Grammy’s script was also easily recognizable in its arthritic script. Again, I remembered it from holiday cards. I had been stashing those for the last few years just in case. I could remember it visually from grocery lists I might catch a glimpse of at breakfast on a Tuesday or Friday. She would sometimes mix up lowercase and capital letters. My cousin’s photo album was labeled “AshLey.” It made me happy to see. I also do this in my own handwriting.

My sister’s handwriting is so different from my own. Her letters are round like my mom’s but short like my dad’s. They’re carefully done, almost methodical. Her notes from school always amazed me. Geometric and precise, friendly and legible. They reminded me of all the cool girls from elementary school. Girls armed with gel pens and highlighters as they copied from the blackboard. I can still remember the letters she would write to me when I was incarcerated. Letterforms with intention. They felt innocent and unhurried, so different from my frantic words written quickly to keep up with my thoughts.

All these memories and no recollection of my Pappy’s handwriting. My own knowledge and memories of him are incredibly limited. I can remember his flannel shirts and eyeglass case in the front pocket. I can feel his stubble which he’d rub on our faces when we were small so we would scream and protest at how prickly it was. I can still see him chasing us through my cousin’s yard with his dentures, and watching Unsolved Mysteries in our old house. His big car. The plaid chair in their living room which was scratchy and had wooden arms. I could picture his workshop in their basement, and I know how much he loved trains. But his handwriting is a mystery to my mind.

I know my own handwriting is reminiscent of my mom’s. Maybe a tad more condensed and thin, as well as slightly slanted, like my dad’s. In its truest form, it looks desperate. Half script, half print. Sometimes all block caps. Occasionally lowercase and uppercase interspersed. My dad said he does that as well. I can see the same habit in the aforementioned hunting license. I saw it in my Poppy’s notes on the legal pads.

I was perpetually surprised by this research. I could see my own frantic script in the cursive notes of my Pappy that my aunt sent me. I still frequently see my mom’s cursive come through in my own when I’m writing down food orders at work. I feel like my dad’s handwriting shares some similarities to his own parents when it’s broken down in to individual letterform shapes. My mom’s strokes sometimes mimic her dad’s, especially in the letter “p.”
But mostly I’m struck by how frustrating it is to be missing examples of letterforms. I traced letterforms from each sample. I attempted to get multiple specimens for the entire alphabet. It’s not totally unlike missing key memories or lessons from these people. What did their “z” look like? That thought felt just as powerful as not knowing their favorite color or song. It felt like loss, like grief. I struggled to continue putting the samples together.

I worked with what I had. Sometimes it felt like guessing and hoping for the best. Another thing I can’t learn from this person who is gone. A puzzle piece lost. I used what was available to create the typeface to the best of my ability. Not unlike living life with the knowledge one was able to acquire along the way. I use what is available to make decisions today. I don’t always have all the answers, and I didn’t in this instance either.
The name of the typeface is “Pentimento.” I stumbled upon the word on a Twitter post describing a changing city. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas.” It’s the technical term for the older paintings scientists find under famous works; paintings that may have been previous drafts or designs no longer visible to the naked eye. It’s the Italian word for “repentance” and it feels entirely too appropriate for this typeface and experiment. To the viewer, this is just a hand drawn typeface. It’s cohesive but flawed in its design. Idiosyncrasies in letterforms are on display. I have chosen the most interesting letterforms and combined them to create something new and in doing so, continued to search for my own personal truth.

It is not totally unlike my own handwriting. But it is also its very own entity. There are pieces of each individual’s marks throughout the set. I can see them, even if most folks cannot. Handwritings have personalities of their own. I worked with the pieces that were most compatible. This is my repentance. This experiment brought great remorse and intense feelings of sadness and grief, but it also brought with it a lot of insight. I long to connect with my loved ones, but I do not always do it well. In completing this task I learned that it is something I value. The exercise gave me a chance to connect in a way I never thought to. It showed me what I wish I had done in the past and what I can change in the future.

It is a powerful gift, and it means so much to me that I can share the experience with others through design and the written language.


Copyright © Sam Dillman 2022