Elisabeth Fosslien’s quest started with two handwritten letters, one received and the other encountered.
When a close friend handed her a note, she realized she had never seen her friend’s handwriting before. Fosslien, recalling a childhood and youth spent passing notes at school and composing letters, says she found it both weird and sad that she couldn’t identify her friend’s writing.
Another time, on a trip to the San Francisco Exploratorium — a museum of science, art and human perception — Fosslien saw a letter handwritten in the early 1900s by a pier worker. Viewing it was “transportational,” says Fosslien, who graduated from Pomona in 2009 and lives in Berkeley.
“Seeing handwriting makes me imagine a person putting pen to paper at a specific moment in history so vividly— handwriting is directly human-generated and unique to the individual.”
From a young age, handwriting has captivated Fosslien.
“Handwriting is really beautiful and it's unique not only to the person but to the moment in time when you write it. So if I write a sentence and I write it again, it's still different,” she said.
Seeing it disappear around her, Fosslien wanted to archive what she considers to be an art. So she had friends write similar phrases on the same kind of paper with the same kind of pen and placed those samples on the wall.
As Fosslien continued, it became an obsession, she says. She would show the samples to people and ask, “Do you think this was written by a self-identified male or female?” Or she would ask: “Is this an introvert or an extrovert?” “What do you think this person’s color preference is?” “Does this person prefer fiction or nonfiction?” Fosslien found that 70 percent of the time these non-experts were remarkably good at hitting the mark— but they couldn’t articulate why. It was something subconscious, she determined.
Fosslien, who was a mathematical economics major at Pomona, is a designer with a particular interest in data visualization. Her work has appeared in The Economist. Her latest site, “Human Form”, creates a digital experience that documents samples of handwriting of all kinds., On it are three sets of samples filtered by: handwritten phrases like “to convey a meaning beyond words”; a number series; gender; extroversion or introversion; literary preferences; favorite colors; and whether the person is left-handed or right-handed. Fosslien also has polls on the site where visitors can cast their best guesses.
For Fosslien, someone writing something and giving it to you is an intimate gesture, even an act of vulnerability. She notes that common responses to her request for samples are “Oh, I don't want you to see my handwriting" or "My handwriting's really bad” or “It's really ugly.” It fascinates her how our writing changes over time and with emotion, she says. When you’re a teenager versus when you’re in college; whether you’re happy or angry.
Her handwriting collection holds its share of surprises:
“Some of them I find really beautiful, or some I find unexpected. There are people that present or that I think that are very meticulous, and then their handwriting is just a hot mess. And I love it, because that dissonance is really cool.”
Handwriting is also a tie to the past for Fosslien in our tech-heavy world where many schools no longer bother teaching cursive. She believes it is not only a lost art, it is a lost connection to ourselves and others. Seeing the shape of words from bygone eras provides a universal human connection, she says. Fosslien believes if you write something down you have to think about it more. And a handwritten letter received in the mail provides so much more relational meaning than an email in her inbox.
“I have letters that I've received in the past that take me back to that time in my life or that person in a way that an old email or text just can't do because they're presented uniformly,” said Fosslien.
For Fosslien, it is her mother’s handwriting that affects her most deeply. Fosslien’s mother kept letters she wrote to her own mother when she was a child, and the writing “conjures this image of my mom as a 7-year-old writing to my grandma in a way that even photographs don't really do, maybe because so much of it relies on my imagination as opposed to everything being presented to me,” says Fosslien.
For her, those letters are artfully penned treasures.