Swype Calligraphy

Posted by on May 26, 2012 in Blog, Design, Stuff I Made | No Comments

And because I’m so overcome with love for Swype right now, let me write a little bit about it.

It reminds me of calligraphy.

Not many people are aware of this, but I used to do a lot of Chinese calligraphy and painting (link points to a gallery of like, 0.5% of my total output). So when I Swyped, I recognized the same feeling of fluidity; I felt myself pausing before each word, planning the trajectory of my fingertip.

Some self-apparent facts:

1. You can Swype the same word many different ways.

I picked a fairly elegant word: poetry. Let’s see how I can write that.

(FYI: The blue traces indicate the paths that my finger took.)

Here are 4 different ways to Swype “poetry”; I’m sure there are many more. Each trace is the physical embodiment of my movement; the word “poetry” spelled above is the meaning of that trace. Much like calligraphy, except here trace is divorced from meaning. Which means that meaning is only marginally dependent on the form of the trace, and vice versa!

Swype also does some spell checking, so you can choose to omit letters or misspell words strategically for a better looking trace.

2. Trace can reflect emotive aspects of meaning.

Ahh, if only I took Intro to Linguistics. Unfortunately, that class required a final project in the form of a video, and goodness knows I have had enough video editing in my life.

Anyway, what I mean by this is that the form of the trace can evoke the emotional texture of a word, or present new dimensions of meaning. The trace for “elegance” looks like an ornate signature, that of “love” looks like a platonic sine* curve and that of “hate” like it’s been slashed onto the screen. Notice that, as per (1), I could have made these traces differently, with different results.

*okay, a cosine curve.

3. Order matters, but Swype doesn’t tell you about it.

“Scum” and  ”muse” (and “love”!) have similar traces, but one’s a compliment and the other is not. The question is, which is the beginning of the trace and which is the end? For “scum”, the trace goes from left to right; for “muse”, it’s the opposite way.

In traditional calligraphy, brushes produce strokes that communicate movement more completely; you can tell which way the brush went based on the stroke’s thickness and its wetness or dryness. (Usually the brush would run out of ink near the end of the stroke, producing the so-called dry-brush effect.)

Swype traces don’t contain directional information – at least not explicitly. I can imagine visual poetry that takes advantage of that fact… but having pressure sensitive traces would be really cool.

4. Trace can dictate meaning. Or, meaning can follow form.

I tried drawing on the Swype keyboard, just to see what would happen. Here are a few examples.

I’m sure if I adjusted the heart a little bit I could have gotten “Bruins” (for you those of you in Boston).  I got these results entirely by accident on my first few tries, so it would be really cool to see what other accidental associations Swype can make between symbols and words.

Finally, I tried doing actual Chinese calligraphy but for once, Swype couldn’t come up with a good response.

Does not compute? (That’s “love” in Chinese. Man I’m so out of practice.)

Haha I don’t know why I felt the need to spend hours on this (mainly gone into installing Android SDK just so I can take screenshots of my phone) but OH WELL.


  1. Cliff Kushler
    May 29, 2012

    Hi Vivien,

    Your posting truly warmed my heart. I am the inventor of Swype, and I put in a great deal of effort over a long period of development so that Swype would perform in the the way that it does – naturally, and in a way that allows the user great flexibility and fluidity in tracing out any given word. But your particular take on it – treating Swype as a form of calligraphy – is new to me. I have spent time – more than I should, no doubt – playing with Swype to create what I have referred to as “Swype art” (certainly a bit grandiose, but it more or less fits). This is where the trace path actually forms a visual representation (a symbol or line drawing) of the word that is produced.

    To do this (and, I think, for your calligraphy), you would want to open the Swype preferences (press-and-hold the “Swype” key, select “Preferences”, where you already went to enable “Show Complete Trace”), and then select “Speed vs. Accuracy” and move the slider all the way to the right for maximum “accuracy” – this actually means maximum “error tolerance”, and will enable you to be as creative as possible is trying to trace a path for any given word.

    Then you can use your imagination, and perhaps some creative tricks to be able to trace an interesting pattern and still have it generate the word you are going for. My favorite is still one of the first I tried – the word “infinity”, entered so that the trace path appears as the horizontal figure-8 infinity symbol (which you drew in one of your entries above). You do have to get a little tricky, starting at the ‘i’, looping down through the ‘n’ then up through the ‘h’ to the ‘y’ and ‘t’ before looping down again through the ‘f’ and crossing back up through the ‘h’ (the center of the horizontal ’8′) then up to re-join the start of the path at the ‘i’. Continue to the ‘n’, then reverse direction and trace back along the path until you stop at the ‘y’.

    Actually, there is a video that shows this and a couple of other examples at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aklwxxY_EUI .

    Anyway, thank you again. I very much appreciate the effort you made to share your creative approach to Swype…

    All the best,

    Cliff Kushler

    • ironladyisfe
      May 31, 2012

      Hello Cliff,

      I had trouble finding examples of artistic uses of Swype, so your tips are much appreciated. I spent like 10 minutes trying to figure out how to write “infinity” using your trick before the video set me right. :) Are there any more such tutorials in the making?

      It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who finds this interesting! Thank you for inventing Swype; it’s really fun and useful.