Why holding a pen teaches digital skills


I was recently helping my five-year-old son go through the motions of learning to write the shape of letters as part of his homework. Specifically, he was getting to grips with curvature and the scale of the hump of a lowercase “D”.

Watching him attempt to perfect his stroke, I realised how all of this pencil-pushing may well be obsolete a few years from now, as smartphones and tablets replace desktop keyboards and paper pads and the touchscreen takes over as the default form of interaction with computers.

What a loss that would be, I thought at first. But, alternatively, it’s hard not to get excited at the kinds of technology future generations will literally have at their fingertips.

Gesture-controlled technology that measures micro-interactions is already a reality. Touchscreens offer a more intuitive means of expression in this new world we call “digital”.  But what tools and mediums will we be expressing ourselves through 10 years from now? And in this uncertain future, what place will there be for the likes of such archaic tools as pencils and paintbrushes?

Then, a pang of loss struck me at the thought of a world without pencil or paintbrush. For as long as we have been considered an evolved species, we have tooled-up with stick and bristle, or taken to paper with ink and feather. For thousands of years, these have been our weapons of choice, as well as our instruments of love.

Byron Phillipson

Byron Phillipson

As much as we tend to hold on to the familiar, evolution happens when we are brave enough to let go of old ways. The creative magic happens when we are able to turn things upside-down every and dare to imagine what could be if our perceptions aren’t directed on a linear track, or our imaginations aren’t stifled by attachment.

What would our world look like if our expressions of design and communication were not limited to the single-point contact of a pen? What would our planes of expression be like if we were able to sculpt our visual design with all 10 digits upon a canvas of infinite depth?

This is not to say that I do not see the rich value in tools and instruments of old. But we are on an evolving path towards something that creative people are struggling with more than most as we try to use these new technologies.

When I was growing up, my father gave me a bass guitar. I remember fumbling through “Wild Thing” as the only bass line in my repertoire for at least six months. Three years and many hard-earned blisters later, I was able to express myself artfully on four strings. Seven years in, and I was able to play the guitar as a clear extension of my imagination, without even thinking about how to navigate the notes on the fretboard, or which string to hit when.

The point is, I had learned to access true freedom of expression through my instrument. If we were to start getting serious about lifting the limitations on the means of creative expression on our kids — and seeing where we could leverage the current tools of tech, from as young an age as possible — we’d be looking at a whole new kind of future.

This may have been considered farfetched a few years ago, but the new interfaces and tools of this new mobile, touchscreen, digital era are available to us right now.

iPad Pro-Pencil-Lifestyle1Watching my son learn to form a letter with a pen made me think: Why then, in this day and age, am I still running the pencilled-letter routine with my five-year-old?

Obviously learning to write develops fine motor skills and cognitive processes that will be used later on in life. The full picture, however, lies somewhere in understanding our need to connect with a feeling of pure simplicity. Our innate, creative nature is drawn to the simplicity of the visceral connection between brush and blank canvas, or between pencil and blank paper.

As a creative director, I find that the first step I take in committing an idea to “paper,” is exactly that: I take out my pencil and begin to draw or write on a piece of blank paper. It seems that, even with all of the technical know-how under my belt, I am still most comfortable expressing myself first through this medium. From there, the idea is communicated, shared and evolved through its various iterations via multiple platforms and channels, until it becomes the crafted vision it was intended to be.

Ultimately, it seems as though the key to mastering our creative expression, lies in the balance of things. If we can learn to embrace the tools of our future whilst staying rooted to the tools of our past, perhaps then we will truly know what it means to experience freedom of creative expression.

Byron Phillipson is the soon-to-be Group Creative Director for HUGE inc. and a South African-born designer who won a Grand Prix Loerie for Digital in 2014 for co-developing the world’s first African Emoticon application. Phillipson was instrumental in leading FLNT+TNDR to the number one Digital Agency in South Africa as ranked by the Loeries Board in 2014.


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