Craig Oldham is a Designer, Lecturer, Writer, Procrastinator, Film-maker, Philanthropist, Intervenor, Theorist, Website-Up-Putter, Liar and Yorkshireman. All-in-all a general pain in the arse. By day at Music, and by night, who knows.
It was 2007, and barely 12-months into my young-but-colourful teeth-cutting at The Chase, the lovely receptionist Lucie threw an envelope onto my desk from the post. Anything usually landing in my desk's vicinity is instantly engulfed in camouflage resembling a third-world war-stricken country, but this one stood out. My details, not printed, not automated, not subscribed but scrawled onto its front, made sure it was the first task for my attention that day.
I tore in, but sadly, like a movie-intruder issuing a blow to the head, that’s where it all goes a bit blurry for me. I don’t remember the content of that particular letter (other than it was from my mum) specifically because I found myself caught with an overwhelming lamentation of the hand-written word and the emotional effect it had. That, and it was coupled with an equally overwhelming desire to do something—anything—about it.
Conversation ensued. And with my creative director at the time, Lionel Hatch, we discussed why “no one writes anymore” and how the seemingly simplest of decisions—to use one’s own hand to mark paper with ink, opposed to hiding behind the font of choice—makes the biggest emotional difference. I decided to act, and swimming against the automated tide I decided to ask those who communicate for a living what they thought about the death of such a long-established form of communication.
Writing a dozen letters to a dozen Designers that very night, I engaged in what even I thought could be a redundant act, one that the world at it’s sprint-pace would simply pass by. As it turned out I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first letters I received made me realise that I’d hit a universal nerve. People had been wondering how nice it would be to actually get an handwritten letter and not a take-away menu, invoice or bill, but something truly personal in a world where communication is dominated with the text and the tweet, the ping from email or the poke from Facebook. I kept writing, extending the invitation to more designers, more studios and creative thinkers, asking them to pen their thoughts on this transitional change in handwritten form and onto their stationery. Everyone had something to say.
Many went for the fun expressed with graphic wit and play, others thoughtfully documented their opinion or expressed personal insight, some went for the epigram, the quip, or the quote. But it wasn’t until I received Wim Crouwel’s letter, enclosed with his public proposition for a different direction in the education of handwriting for children, that I realised I’d started something with a bigger potential. Crouwel, referring to the “Hand.Written.Letter.Project”, unknowingly but generously titled my collaborative investigation into the loss of this fundamental human skill.
As the project developed, and the letters mailed-in, this point of investigation became clearer and clearer, and stronger and stronger. I’ll be the first to admit that the Hand.Written.Letter.Project feels like a bit of a design-for-designers project, and I don’t deny that; post-rationalisation is a trick that designers use way too much in their trade already. But through the exposure and reactions which the project gained, it became obvious that the real interest isn’t in whom wrote the letter or which agency it’s from, rather what it has to say, and how it is said.
The emotional connection, that expression of personality and opinion put attentively down onto paper, gave the idea of the project a much broader reach. Since then people outside the industry have commented on their experience of letters and of handwriting, and how their children “won’t have anything like that” for themselves. They even took to writing to me, and now arguably the best letter in the project is an unsolicited, heart-felt one from my mum, complete with a supporting red-crayon-scrawled enclosure from a seven year-old yours-truly. And she’s a nurse.
It’s this variety of the content, and the universal question it asked which makes, I believe, the HWLP much more than voyeuristic insight into the minds of those we revere, rather that it represents a visual narrative on the cultural transition in which we all find ourselves.
And why using it as a fundraising tool for the National Literacy Trust—an independent charity that supports those who struggle with literacy—is more than the activist thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.
If you'd like to participate in the project visit The Hand.Written.Letter.Project.