The ball-point pen?

charles ellertson's picture

I've read the thread on Greek typography -- well, a goodly portion of the almost 300 posts. All the talk about scribes and pens lead me to wonder what effect the ball-point pen has had on type. Does anyone *like* the writing from ball-point pens? Can we blame/credit it for the proliferation of sans-serifs? Etc.

AzizMostafa's picture

22 year Experiencing with Arabic fonts, I found no better solution than ball-point pens:

Bert Vanderveen's picture

There are similarities between using a ballpoint on paper and using a stylus on wax, as the Greeks and Romans did — eg the same kind of freestyle possibilities of movement, the low cost of material, etc.

hrant's picture

One big aesthetic and functional advantage of the broad-nib pen is its ability to generate stroke contrast (even though that was essentially dumb luck). Which to me however does not mean it deserves pride of place in type design.

BTW there was actually a historic, long-running discussion between Nicolete Gray and Gerrit Noordzij about the relevance of the ball-point pen versus the broad-nib pen. Gray's position was that the ball-point pen is (or rather, was) the tool of our time. All I have to say is: now that we're back to the index finger I hope our typefaces don't start looking like they were made in pre-school!


Nick Shinn's picture

When asked to sign a document, at the bank or whatever, they invariably provide a horrid germ-laden plastic contraption (tethered for some reason, as if anyone would be remotely inclined to make off with it), at which point I reach into my jacket and produce this gleaming aerodynamic artefact, ostentatiously click it a few times, and proceed to autograph said document with flourish. Of course, I could do that with a fountain pen, but they’re messy and tempremental, I can’t be bothered to fill them all the time, and they don’t click.

Parker 45 Flighter, c.1970

JamesM's picture

Nick I'm the same way; always carry my own pen to avoid germs.

I used to use a fountain pen, and I still like them, but stopped carrying them after ruining a few shirts. For a long time I carried Lamy pens from Germany, which were a favorite of my design professors in college.

charles ellertson's picture

Back in the late '50s when I was a teenager, I liked fountain pens. They had them with little plastic cartridges, so the spill/leakage problem was less. And the ball point pens of the time leaked, too. But the cartridges were a little expensive, and I could write smaller with a ball point....

I was more interested in whether or not anyone felt the rise of the ball point had an effect on type design & the rise of the sans serifs.

J. Tillman's picture

There has also been an increase in low contrast serif text fonts, with low contrast serifs instead of ball terminals.

Charles, who has been influenced by the ball point pens? The readers, graphic designers and typesetters, or font designers?

Edit: Charles, this ball point question makes me think of Capucine:

William Berkson's picture

Charles, I think the chronology is wrong for the ball point pen to have been a force, at least early on. Sans were first used for text in Germany, by the Bauhaus and then others as part of the modernist movement there. My own pet theory is that this was partly a nationalist thing: a way for German designers to reject blackletter for text, while not appearing to be traitors to foreigners, who had used roman style text for centuries. They weren't aping Italians or French, but rather becoming 'International'. The internationalism also matched the socialist ideals, which many modernists had allegiance to.

Ball point pens didn't become widely used until after WWII: . So they could have conceivably helped ease the acceptance of the 'international style' that had started in the German speaking world. But they couldn't have been the thing that started it.

There are now plenty of scripts and lettering influenced by the ball point pen, but they don't seem to be all that popular.

Nick Shinn's picture

Graphics professionals didn’t use ball-point pens.
Speedball and Rotring pens were the instruments of choice for monoline lettering.
Fountain pen writing with a small nib had a monoline effect, long before the ball-point was invented.

eliason's picture

Didn't pencils, too?

russellm's picture

@ Nick, I use one of these .

hrant's picture

Besides the chronology being totally off, sans was historically about being loud (read: dark) while writing done with a pen does not exhibit much weight - it's more like this sort of stuff:


Albert Jan Pool's picture

Sans were first used for text in Germany, by the Bauhaus and then others as part of the modernist movement there.

In Germany, monoline scripts were used in technical drawings (standard as from 1919) and scientific illustrations long before (1850ties) the Bauhaus even noticed typography as something that could be designed. Before the first technical drawing pens such as the Standardgraph were constructed, round-tipped pens such as the Ornament-Feder by Brause or the Redis-Feder by Heintze & Blanckertz were used.

William Berkson's picture

Albert Jan, that's interesting, and could have been an influence. Also in Germany I believe that a lot of scientific writing was published in roman script, even while black letter still dominated elsewhere. So probably those technical and scientific captions would have been done in roman style, rather than fraktur, right?

Given that pencils go back to the 16th century, it is interesting that the thin monoline script never, it seems, became a model for printing. Perhaps they just don't work that well for the eye, at least in extended text.

typerror's picture

The ruling pen was in service somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century... it was the tool of choice for many, like F Poppl, for drawing and finishing typographic drawings.
And Zapf used the ball point oft times to do built up letters.

stagna's picture

blue or green ink.

Nick Shinn's picture

Monoline was used in engravings, this from 1860 showing three styles:

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