The Case for Designing – and Writing – by Hand

Programs like Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator prompt us to be perfect. They bring mathematics to bear on our inexact lines, make perfect circles out of our warbly loops, and create the exact #xxxxxx for our pixelated palettes’ desire. While technology definitely plays a big role in the data visualization world, it also comes at times at a loss of variation: the unique stories that only our own hands can tell. As designers (and journalists), we’ve become afraid of the paper and pen. But there are good reasons to be brave. Last week, Pratt-educated street typographer Pablo A. Medina gave a lecture at New York’s Type Directors Club. Medina has made a career out of designing fonts to reflect those of handmade signs. His fonts — Cuba, Vitrina, North Bergen — are as irregular as the signs from which they hail. Certainly, Medina’s fonts are more illustrative than standard, web-streamlined ones. “They’re not easy fonts to design with,” he said during the Q&A session following his talk. It’s an irregularity Medina acquiesces to in his artwork, in which he paints new messages using old, found fonts. Handmade designs are more personal, more expressive, more fun. He’s not the first to notice. Famous artists like Greg Lamarche and Margaret Killigan, as well as underground grafitti artists around the world have all realized the beauty of creating by hand. It’s not perfect — and that exactly is the point.’s Director of Analytics Romy Misra frequently creates charts or graphics by hand in a series called Chalk Charts. They create a lighter, more personal effect. (Most of her work is categorized under “fun.”) They also look more readily unique than something made by computer. Making images by hand the old-fashioned way is also great for those who have not yet mastered drawing software. Or, if you must make something using that software, try using the painting tools as opposed to shapes and lines. Additionally, a number of drawing tablet apps, like Bamboo, can help you translate your hand-drawn designs online. Whichever drawing technique you choose, you’ll have more freedom of movement and, by extension, expression. And even if you are too afraid to let a little bit of yourself out when designing data visualizations, at least mock up your creations by hand. Drawing by hand is faster and has fewer limits than drawing on computer programs. Creating images by hand saves time, electricity, and unnecessary labor — if not paper. So go ahead, give your hand a chance. Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

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