The Writing Is On The Wall For Handwriting. Right?

Not so fast, says Elizabeth Ubell, vice president of marketing at Newell Rubbermaid, which bought venerable pen-makers Parker and Waterman in 1999. Now she's innovating to survive.

The writing is on the wall for handwriting. Or is it? Let's consider the fountain of information.

Handwriting Hand-wringing

A few weeks ago the Guardian newspaper published an extract from Philip Hensher's book The Lost Art Of Handwriting (and Why It Still Matters). It's a fascinating read, and the irony of the piece's presentation was rather delicious: An article lamenting the slow disappearance of penmanship at the hand of the computer, published in a printed newspaper that represents an industry sitting beneath the same technological Damoclean sword.

It ignited a debate in our virtual offices, and among our Twitter followers--so many of whom, when questioned, couldn't remember the last time they'd put pen to paper to write anything more sizable than a quick Post-it note or a signature. A recent survey by Docmail in the U.K. found the average person hadn't handwritten anything for 41 days and a third hadn't written in six months.

Quick, Take This Down

But Parker, one of the world's best-known brands in pen making, sees it differently. Elizabeth Ubell, the vice president of marketing at Newell Rubbermaid, which bought Parker and Waterman in 1999, told Fast Company that she doesn't see handwriting as a declining art. Instead Parker's "latest market reports are still showing it as a growing category in almost all regions of the world. People still use fine writing instruments around the world." You can argue that Parker has to believe that, since its core business is making pens of all sorts, even while it's a brand whose heritage is most intertwined with fountain pens (according to Ubell, Parker is globally the "number one premium/luxury writing brand").

And Parker is in fact innovating its way through the current change in writing styles. Earlier this year it introduced a whole new innovative paradigm in pen design, that's based on what Parker sees as the four classics: Fountain pen, ball point, roller ball, and the mechanical pencil. Parker's even called it the fifth generation of pen. It combines the metallic, flexible tip of a fountain pen (responsible for giving writers a very definite sensation of contact with paper) and the refills of a roller ball pen--a move that's very much aimed at improving convenience for a generation of people who are used to instant-on iDevices. And also who've probably never been ink-spattered by a leaky cartridge in a fountain pen.

Ubell explained that this is the product of Parker's business planning process, which focuses on "excellence in performance, design, and innovation at the point of decision and we are continuously innovating against all these dimensions while remaining true to our brand promise and heritage." Translation: Remember the past, but do whatever it takes to move forward and develop new technologies. She continues to say that innovation is "not viewed exclusively around product but around all category relevant elements of the marketing mix." That means Parker is also adopting technological solutions that influence, as Ubell notes, "how we partner with our customers to how we engage consumers from digital marketing to product innovation."

Re-writing History

And it turns out that the death of handwriting is an oft-made lament, as this 2006 article points out. But there's good anecdotal evidence that students' handwriting is much less legible now than before, and data that suggests British children (at least) are failing more in their handwriting assignments than in other subjects like reading and math.

But as smartphone sales achieve incredible growth rates, with the iPhone 5 tipped to be the fastest selling consumer gadget ever--to say nothing of the oncoming storm of tablets--it's almost inevitable that technology penetrates even more into areas of communication where you'd have used a pen even a handful of years ago. The recent partnership of premium notebook brand Moleskine with digital note-taking app Evernote is a great example of this.

There is one mode of handwriting that's potentially doing well right now: Samsung's top-end Galaxy Note products are differentiated against other tablets like Apple's iPad by their on-screen writing features via its high-tech S-Pen. The note-taking powers of the Note tablets, Samsung contends, make it ideal for business people and students. There's even a rise in advanced styluses for the iPad, with products like Adonit's JotTouch adding pressure-sensitive stylus powers to the iPad's finger-centric design.

The Future Is Unwritten

So where does that leave a pen maker like Parker? Ubell admits that "developing markets are fueling our growth," where the brand sells cheap pens (and the mobile computing revolution has yet to really sweep the board). But she was also careful to note that growth is "focused against bringing innovation to the premium/luxury category" and this has had positive results around the world. The Ingenuity line, based on that new "fifth generation" tech, sells at Amazon for close to $200, for example.

What Parker is doing is doubling down on its core business, but adapting its pen technology to suit a public that no longer wants to fiddle with ink--in those rare moments when they do choose to write with a pen. And it's also aiming squarely at the premium market where it can sell fewer products at higher margins to keep its revenues flowing.

It remains to be seen if that's a business strategy that can survive for many more years. Handwriting is slipping so very quickly out of the average person's habits--and in Japan there's even an effort to capture the beautiful gestures of a calligraphy master with, you've guessed it, innovative robot tech.

[Image: Flickr user jurvetson]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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4 Comments

  • Ingrid Hansen

    I'm a fountain pen and ink enthusiast. I handwrite note and cards. I practice my handwriting everyday, and folks, that's how you improve. There are thousands of us, check out the Fountain Pen Network and the ever increasing numbers of pen clubs and fountain pen shows. Search for Ohio Pen Show

  • GabrielleNYC

    I write almost daily. With a fountain pen, purple ink and fine italic nib. Remarks are often made about my handwriting in cards, notes and letters. ( and yes, I use a laptop and tablet daily also )

  • Bad Sales Manager

    Ubell is right. I still handwrite all of my dirty notes to my secretary.