What the “universal typeface” says about us (hint: not much)

So, a week or two back, BIC (the company behind the ubiquitous yellow ballpoint pens) announced it was compiling a “universal typeface” from the average of thousands of people’s handwriting, from all over the world.1 They launched a website that lets you explore the data gathered so far, and an app that lets you submit your own scrawl to the project.2

Eventually (once they’ve milked it for as much publicity as it’ll give) they are going to release the average alphabet as a font file you can use on your computer.

When I read the headline, I thought, hey, that’s pretty cool. And I’m sure, to some marketing guy at BIC, it sounded like a great idea. But think about it a little more, and you realise it’s utter fluff.

As any data scientist will tell you, the average (alone) is probably the least useful statistic you can pick to describe a population. It says basically nothing about how different the original data points were, whether there’s a skew in the data, what its minimum and maximum bounds were, and whether the fit is strong enough that it can be used to infer future values.

The BIC data, in fact, is a perfect visualisation of the concept of “regression to the mean” – the idea that, as you add more and more samples to an average calculation, the average gets closer and closer to some ideal spot in the middle of that population. Which is cool for stats, but makes for a really, really boring typeface.

All of the amazing variation in human expression, and the effects of age or industry, are levelled out. You end up with a largely identical set of letters for every comparison. Men and women. Young and old. Bankers and artists. All exactly the same. The outliers are erased by the average. All variation ironed away. How utterly boring.

It’s ironic that BIC, while trying to showcase the creativity and uniqueness of each of their customers, has actually—accidentally, as far as I can tell—shown us the opposite: corporate America’s uncanny ability to shoehorn us all into the same little boxes. Like hundreds of thousands of their cheap yellow plastic pens.

  1. And when they say “all over the world”, what they really mean is the English-speaking world. Because, despite having contributions from places as exotic as Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka, if you don’t write in roman characters (A-Z) you’re out. Oh, and if you don’t have a smartphone or a tablet, or you don’t have time to donate to some poxy corporate marketing campaign for basically no return, then you’re also out. 

  2. Don’t get me started on the fact that they’re actually even half-seriously trying to assess people’s handwriting using a pudgy finger on a touchscreen, when pretty much nobody writes like that. Ever tried to sign your name in an Apple Store? Did it look anything like your name? Yeah, that.