The lost art of letter writing

As a baby boomer, I was taught as a child that it was polite to send hand-written thank you notes to those who had shown you kindness and generosity.

I remember vividly, primary school exercise books with page after page of duplicated, individual characters of the alphabet produced with a dip ink nib pen which had an uncanny knack, for me at least, of spraying the vibrant turquoise ink everywhere!

Fast forward a few years to writing passages spoken out loud by our teacher and then on to writing comprehension pieces which expanded in length and complexity once at secondary school.

There was no delete key in these exercises, no cut and paste, no potential to write first and think later (unless you wanted to present an unintelligible piece of work with frequent deletions) so thought and sentence construction in advance was required. And we were coached to ‘plan’ what we intended to write.

I still recall the sense of calm that I experienced at this young age as one emptied the brain to focus on the task in hand – and the sense of anticipation that accompanied it. Brain ready, now to the pen.

Fast forward to the early-80’s and the ad agency that employed me at the time had invested in the first, commercial Apple Macs for every employee within the business.

I went on to set up one of the first, if not the first Apple-enabled design studio in the UK within that business and goodness me, that was a challenge.

At that time, none of us really knew what this technology could do and for many, they were seen as no more than an electronic typewriter with the added benefit of a screen and being able to easily delete, cut and paste.

But in my view, these 3 keyboard sequences have a lot to answer for.

Who would have thought that you could have email wars! But we did – between individuals sitting a few feet away from each other. And each response often met with an increasingly aggressive return as ill-constructed communications were fired off just as fast as the individual could type to be mis-interpreted by the recipient.  No thought, no planning, no calm.  Just speed.

But the introduction of this technology went on to create widespread disruption – firstly through the massive redundancies suffered by the two long-established print unions when Rupert Murdoch closed down the Fleet Street operation of The Times and moved it to Wapping where skilled typositors lost their jobs to electricians. And then the swathes of illustrators, calligraphers, font designers, photographers and retouchers within the advertising and design sector whose skilled careers were brought to an abrubt end with the advent of widespread digital technology.

Then we entered the mobile phone generation with the launch of early handsets in1985 followed by the first text-enabled phones in the early 90’s before the genius that was Steve Job and Apple went on to give us the iPhone in 2007.

Here was a device that enabled the user to compose and send messages super-fast using a QWERTY keyboard and with no need to use text talk – and in the age of instant gratification, we couldn’t get enough of it.

Computer and mobile technology grew at an exponential rate, as did the sophistication of design software and the movement that Rupert Murdoch had started was now to be wholeheartedly embraced within the creative sector as it moved from ink and paper to mouse and keyboard.

And there is the rub.

Great creative ideas are not instantaneous.  They are not the first thing to enter ones mind – they require a rigour comprising of challenging the fundamentals, lateral thinking and the linking of human emotions to the concept.

This process requires the skills of letter writing or painting or drawing – not a fast and furious combination of key-strokes.

As a consequence, creative originality has massively declined. Time to consider and expand ideas are seen as wasteful and taking ‘too long’ or as unnecessary.

So increasingly, the first ideas get through – just in the same way as they did in those original email wars – and as they do now in the millions of text communications created every day.

The world of instant gratification demands an instant response. We click send first, then think later.

So we need to introduce a forth and very important keystroke – pause.

To communicate effectively in the written or graphic form, we need to plan, to structure, to consider, utilising the emotive right side of our brain before we let the practical left side take over.

If we don’t, creativity will continue to decline, as will relationships and friendships and the World will be a worse place for it.

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