How to Write Like an Architect: Short Primers on Writing with the Neat, Clean Lines of a Designer

We have anoth­er nation­al cri­sis on our hands.

Our chil­dren are not only ill-equipped to read maps and tell time with ana­log clocks, their hand­writ­ing is in seri­ous decline.

For­get cur­sive, which went the way of the dodo ear­li­er in the mil­len­ni­um. Young­sters who are dab hands on the key­board may have lit­tle impulse—or opportunity—to prac­tice their print­ing.

Does it mat­ter?

It sure as shootin’ might be dur­ing a zom­bie inva­sion, giv­en the atten­dant break­down of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the elec­tric­i­ty that pow­ered it.

But even in less dire times, leg­i­ble pen­man­ship is a good skill to mas­ter.

As Vir­ginia Berninger, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus and prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington’s Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Learn­ing Dis­abil­i­ties Cen­ter, told The New York Times, “Hand­writ­ing — form­ing let­ters — engages the mind, and that can help chil­dren pay atten­tion to writ­ten lan­guage.”

Hand let­ter­ing is also a com­plex neu­ro­log­i­cal process, a work­out involv­ing var­i­ous cog­ni­tive, motor, and neu­ro­mus­cu­lar func­tions.

There’s also a school of thought that teach­ers who still accept hand­writ­ten assign­ments uncon­scious­ly award the high­est grades to pupils with the neat­est pen­man­ship, which is eas­i­er on tired eyes. Some­thing to keep in mind for those gear­ing up to take the hand­writ­ten essay por­tions of the SAT and ACT.

Let’s remem­ber that let­ters are real­ly just shapes.

The Finns and French have long-estab­lished uni­for­mi­ty with regard to hand­writ­ing. In the absence of class­room instruc­tion, Amer­i­cans have the free­dom to peruse var­i­ous pen­man­ship styles, iden­ti­fy their favorite, and work hard to attain it.

(This writer is proof that pen­man­ship can become part of the DNA through prac­tice, hav­ing set out to dupli­cate my mother’s delight­ful, eccen­tric-to-the-point-of-illeg­i­bile hand at around the age of 8. I added a few per­son­al quirks along the way. The result is I’m fre­quent­ly bam­boo­zled into serv­ing as scribe for what­ev­er group I hap­pen to find myself in, and my chil­dren can claim they could­n’t read the impor­tant hand­writ­ten instruc­tions hur­ried­ly left for them on Post-Its.)

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the most leg­i­ble Amer­i­can pen­man­ship belongs to archi­tects.

Their pre­cise­ly ren­dered all caps sug­gest metic­u­lous­ness, account­abil­i­ty, steadi­ness of char­ac­ter…

And almost any­one can achieve it, regard­less of whether those are qual­i­ties they per­son­al­ly pos­sess.

All it takes is deter­mi­na­tion, time, and—as taught by Doug Patt in his How to Archi­tect series, above—more tools than can be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly oper­at­ed with two hands:

an Ames let­ter­ing guide

a par­al­lel rule or t‑square

a small plas­tic tri­an­gle cus­tomized with bits of tape

a .5mm Pen­tel draft­ing pen­cil

If this sounds need­less­ly labo­ri­ous, keep in mind that such spe­cial­ty equip­ment may appeal to reluc­tant hand writ­ers with an inter­est in engi­neer­ing, robot­ics, or sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion.

(Be pre­pared for some frus­tra­tion if this is the student’s first time at the rodeo with these instru­ments. As any vet­er­an com­ic book artist can attest, few are born know­ing how to use an Ames let­ter­ing guide.)

It should be not­ed that Patt’s alpha­bet devi­ates a bit from tra­di­tion­al stan­dards in the field.

His pref­er­ence for breath­ing some life into his let­ters by not clos­ing their loops, squash­ing tra­di­tion­al­ly cir­cu­lar forms into ellipses, and using “dynam­ic angles” to ren­der cross­pieces on a slant would like­ly not have passed muster with archi­tec­ture pro­fes­sors of an ear­li­er age, my sec­ond grade teacher, or the font design­ers respon­si­ble for the com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed “hand let­ter­ing” grac­ing the bulk of recent archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ings.

He’s like­ly the only expert sug­gest­ing you make your Ks and Rs rem­i­nis­cent of actor Ralph Mac­chio in the 1984 film, The Karate Kid.

There’s lit­tle chance you’ll find your­self groov­ing to Patt’s videos for any­thing oth­er than their intend­ed pur­pose. Where­as the late Bob Ross’ Joy of Paint­ing series has legions of fans who tune in sole­ly for the med­i­ta­tive ben­e­fits they derive from his mel­low demeanor, Patt’s rapid fire instruc­tion­al style is that of the busy mas­ter, deft­ly exe­cut­ing moves the fledg­ling stu­dent can only but fum­ble through.

But if the Karate Kid taught us any­thing, it’s that prac­tice and grit lead to excel­lence. If the above demon­stra­tion whips by too quick­ly, Patt expands on the shap­ing of each let­ter in 30-sec­ond video tuto­ri­als avail­able as part of a $19 online course.

Those look­ing for archi­tec­tur­al low­er case, or tech­niques for con­trol­ling the thick­ness of their lines can find them in the episode devot­ed to let­ter­ing with a .7mm Pen­tel mechan­i­cal draft­ing pen­cil.

Explore fur­ther secrets of the archi­tects on Patt’s How to Archi­tect chan­nel or 2012 book, also called How to Archi­tect.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Hand­writ­ing as Prac­ticed by Famous Artists: Geor­gia O’Keeffe, Jack­son Pol­lock, Mar­cel Duchamp, Willem de Koon­ing & More

Dis­cov­er What Shakespeare’s Hand­writ­ing Looked Like, and How It Solved a Mys­tery of Author­ship

Helen Keller Had Impec­ca­ble Hand­writ­ing: See a Col­lec­tion of Her Child­hood Let­ters

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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