Michael Bierut | Essays

Barthes on the Ballpoint

"Ballpoint" is an exhibition at London's Pentagram Gallery organized by my partner Angus Hyland and featuring the work of "artists, illustrators and designers invited to make an artwork using only ballpont pen." The participants include Ron Arad, Nicholas Blechman and Christoph Niemann, Paul Davis, Marion Deuchars, Jeff Fisher, Alan Fletcher, Benoit Jacques, Uwe Loesch, and Ian Wright.

The exhibition, which runs through June 25, prompted an interesting note from Dan Hedley. Hedley, who describes himself as having recently completed a Ph.D on "the strategic use of branding in Renaissance literature," pointed out a passage from a 1973 interview with theorist Roland Barthes. "It would appear from the interview," says Hadley, "that not only is M. Barthes no friend of the ballpoint, but he is rather critical of those who are."

M. Barthes admits, "I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments." As his pronouncement goes on to betray, however, this obsessive relation is itself (in Hedley's words) "obsessively particular, and not a little snooty:"

"When felt-tipped pens first appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. (The fact that they were originally from Japan was not, I admit, displeasing to me.) Since then I've gotten tired of them, because the point flattens out too quickly. I've also used pen nibs -- not the 'Serjeant-Major,' which is too dry, but softer nibs, like the 'J.' In short, I've tried everything except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy, writing that merely transcribes thought."

Writers are notoriously obsessive about the tools of their trade, investing perfectly sharpened pencils, specific brands of writing papers, obsolete manual typewriters and such with nearly magical qualities. Barthes, who readily admitted "as soon as I see a new pen, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them," was certainly in their number, and his distaste for ballpoints is certainly a precursor to the profoundly conflicted feelings that so many writers have towards their computers.

It is interesting to think how much is lost when a work of literature is converted from messy, quirky, all-too-human manuscript into printed document: authoritative, polished, impersonal and remote. Designers are certainly complicit in this transformation, and, indeed, take pleasure in it. Might one say that we are undisputed masters of Barthes's smooth, plastic, dependable, throwaway "Bic style," no matter what medium we work in?

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Theory + Criticism

Comments [14]

I wonder...

Computers certainly have made it easier for designers (including authors themselves) to clean up "messy" manuscripts - when or if such things still exist. Yet among the ironies of the current machine age, one might note a recent turn away from machine aesthetics - here referencing the clean ease of slick computer aided design - toward design styles which betray a trace of the human, the hand of the maker: hand lettering, caricatural illustrational styles, etc. as well as the tendency toward making objects with a distinctly tactile value, like that of a letter press page. More broadly still, does not the very lure of design, even of hyper-designed objects, objects that look and feel designed, consist in this trace of the designer? No matter how clean, how stylized, how modern an object, are we not comforted by the sense that some human being had his or her hand in its making. Ironically, as our daily life becomes more pre-packaged, more homogeneous, the trace of the designer recalls us to the human community. The well designed object being also the unique object and the human object.

(To these points, and by the way, Denis Hollier summarizes and extends Barthes' thoughts on the pen in his contribution to the well illustrated catalogue for the 1998-99 Guggenheim Soho show "Premises: Invested Spaces in Visual Arts, Architecture and Design from France 1958-98".)

Stuart Kendall

Sounds great. Is there a website for the gallery when some of the work can be viewed?

Off topic perhaps but it seems like pentagram is very pro illustration yet a lot of UK agencies seem to be quite anti-illustration, perhaps influenced by the minimal Dutch styles of the last few years, which use even less illustration.

Meanwhile in the US judging by Print magazine and others illustration has never really faded in usage.
I'd be interested in why/if you think for many european graphic design agencies illustration just isn't hip anymore yet in the US it's still a staple diet. Or maybe that trend is reversing a bit now.

On topic - here's a few links on the history of the ballpoint pen:



Ah, Barthes is full of baloney. The ballpoint pen rules.

"...writing that merely transcribes thought..."

Gosh, I wouldn't knock the mere transcription of thought too heavily. The deceptively simple ability to document ideas over the ages -- long before the ballpoint pen -- has led to the development of a few noteworthy things.

Like, you know, the canon of philosophy. Or, say, the code of law. Or architectural planning and mechanical representation. Musical notation. Economic transaction. Recorded history. Maybe even civilization itself. (And, yes, literature too.)

Also, the mass-production of inexpensive writing utensils in the last 250 years has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of literacy and education in Western societies, with the marketplace responding to the needs of a progressively more literate, informed populace. And the ballpoint pen is a recent (and global) part of that history.

So while Barthes' personal preference in pens may veer towards the snooty and luxurious, the cheap, utilitarian, artless little ballpoint certainly has its place in the greater scheme of things.

This all reminds me of something once said by the acknowledged king of "lowbrow" artists, Robert Williams. I'm totally paraphrasing here -- I read it a decade ago -- but it goes something like this...

While Williams prefers to create his work with his fancy expensive paints and canvasses and whatnot, a motivating force behind his high level of artistic ability has been the following scenario:

"If I were stuck someplace that had nothing in town but a drugstore selling notebook paper and ballpoint pens, I'd want to be able to use those tools to make visual creations as good as the ones I make on canvas. The picture's materials and overall feel would be different -- monochromatic pen and paper rather than the varied texture and color of paint -- but the quality of technique, and hopefully the viewer's reaction, would be the same..."

I've always liked that. It's a really honest, down-to-earth ethos, focusing purely on ability. And I think it's a very appropriate (if a bit frightening) question for designers.

Would many of us be able to survive and prosper in graphic design if our computers (and other specialized equipment) were taken away, replaced with little to design with but, say, pen and paper?

For those of us whose last names aren't "Victore," "Chantry," "Ware," "Glaser," etc., would our respective skill levels rise to conquer such an austere circumstance -- or are most of us too dependent on the present reign of technological convenience (i.e., the mouse and monitor) that we couldn't cut it with a Mead notebook and a Bic?

This question is off-topic, I know, and so unrealistic and hypothetical as to veer towards the fantastic. (Also: apologies to Mr. Beirut for inverting his original inquiry.)

Still, it's fundamental enough that it plagues me some nights before I fall asleep -- which is indeed a sign that I should try designing more with a ballpoint.
Jon Resh

First, I think the Barthes comment re the ballpoint has something to do with the flow of a pen. The actual physical act of which writing implement you use. I do occasionally still hand write letters (and I'm trying to do more), and my handwriting changes enormously depending on the instrument. The ballpoint is not the greatest of writing tools--it's a little sticky. When I write with a good fountain pen--especially one with a slightly chiselled nib--my god! my handwriting is just beautiful! And the flow of the writing seems to affect the flow of thoughts. Quite remarkable.

A good ballpoint, however, is an excellent drawing tool. Who'd'a thunk? Regardless of what we do with our hands today, I would bet that most of us have at least doodled (some of us, obsessively at times) with the ballpoint. Because the ink is dependent on shearing force (it's the forceful compression of the ink which causes it to flow--no pressure, no flow: cool, that), it's possible to get a varying line from a ballpoint. So yes, you can do a lot of shading--in some ways more than a pencil, which has that irritating inability to get really dark. The building up of ink is one of the best things about the ballpoint, and who cannot remember the smell of the ink as you build up sticky, rich layer after layer. Mmm mmm good.

Interestingly I just chose to use a ballpoint for a recent personal piece I was doing, and I rediscovered some of these delights. I will be using it again.

And I too would love to see some of the drawings from this exhibition. But perhaps Pentagram will publish a book on it and then I can ... er, buy it.
marian bantjes

Excuse the pun! but what a load of bal-locks!
I can't believe all of this! all this fuss over a ballpoint pen. What's the point? (er..sorry) Pentagram puts together a quaint exhibition of doodles by some 'star names' and the design world gushes like they've re-discovered the good ol' Bic - oops! sorry, the show is actually sponsored by Parker.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the ballpoint pen like most other writing 'instruments' - sure it's sticky - design classic? very certainly, underrated? hardly - but the aforementioned exhibition and discussion of this sorts I find overtly pompous.
I wish the 'distinguished talents' involved applied their energies and wit into more worthy causes that merited more thought and creativity instead of this 'vacant doodling' .

When I worked at The New Yorker, one of my first responsibilities was processing the original artwork for the batch of cartoons bought each week. The tools used spanned the gamut: William Hamilton with his caligraphic ink-well pens; Harry Bliss in soft and hard pencil tones; Gahan Wilson in pencil and brushed shades of ink; Michael Crawford's artist markers in different shades, and others in charcoal, Pentel sharp-points, rapidograph, and on and on.

Some would come mounted on art boards, with a toothy thick gray covering sheet, and the artist's studio stamp on the back. Others would be handed in on a sheet of typewriter paper.

But my favorite, who I had the pleasure of working with on a couple of projects, was George Booth, creator of the grinning dog who is one of the magazine's unofficial mascots. Booth not only used Bics, (I think the clear plastic kind, not the thinner pointed roundstics) but would then chop bits and pieces up and paste it all together. The Bic actually lent itself very well to his style--the occaasional gaps in ink, along with his shaky-looking lines were a marriage made in heaven.

Sometimes cheap and simple is perfection.
Fitz Gitler

I find it interesting that, unless I'm mis-reading the participants' names, the exhibition organizers can't seem to find any women who do creative things with ballpoint pens!

studing graphic design in switzerland, our typography instructor, dario zuffo, told us in the very first class that a ballpoint pen is good for 2 things:

1. to sign a check
2. to throw it in the trash

never forget it...

what followed where 4 years of grid systems etc. never forget that either...

Perhaps Barthes felt that writing with a ballpoint pen would only add to a text's instability, especially when the pen started to run out. And, I wonder, what if the advent of the Rollerball® had occurred before the death of this particular author (1980)?

But seriously, some of Fletcher's sketches are museum-worthy and embody a certain conceptual simplicity that is lacking in a lot of the slick mechanized tripe that floats around.

PhD on the strategic use of branding in renaissance literature Who knew? Sign me up. Sounds like a jolly good time.
Geoff Burkert

Marion's website is very nicely done, Danielle -take a look at it here
And more to the point : ) how about looking at, Russian artist, Andrei Molodkin's work? He states that with a ration of only two ballpoint pens each month he 'made art' with the 'most banal' of instruments. This brings to my mind an interview with an Iranian film director I was watching on IFC in which he stated how the regulations against depicting physical contact between men and women actually forced him to be more creative in telling the story - I've veered but maybe it's because this book I'm reading, Gore Vidal's Creation, has me making connections with all things Greek and Persian. Historical and current.

In reading over last night's post it sounds like Andre's pieces were made over time with only 2 pens each month! Too much dark chocolate. Please excuse the bad wording, excessive single quotes, and murkiness. Just read his statement.

How do they make the balls used in the pens?
e. pierson

To add another dimension to this post, Jessica Helfand and I recently visited Rome where we saw this exhibition of Roland Barthes watercolors. Here, he is an abstract expressionist:
Review #1.
Review #2.
William Drenttel

Interesting how such a basic, banal writing instrument can attract so many comments...some facts for thought > the ballpoint that revolutionised the industry in 1954, remains a force 50 years after its first commercial success. The Jotter, with more than 750million units sold around the world (excluding counterfeits!) appears to be a lasting writing companion...it's a refillable ballpoint you don't throw away.
J Methven

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