It’s the creative doodler’s weapon of choice, has a fascinating and possibly imagined connection to The Simpsons, and despite its name, seems to always go blunt long before the ink runs out. So uncap a fresh one, marker fans, and sniff deeply as we examine the history of The Sharpie.
Appropriately, for a tool so central to the advertising industry (at least on the creative side; God only knows what suits write with), the Sharpie was born at the height of the creative revolution, in 1964. Until then, no-one had made a pen-style permanent marker, and the Sharpie was initially promoted as being able to write on “glass, wood, stone, metal and plastic.” For some reason, writing permanent notes on stone never really took off, and despite its limitations (bleeds through most paper, goes blunt annoyingly quickly) the Sharpie and pad combo became, and remains, the go-to way for advertising peeps to quickly turn a whacky idea into a whacky layout.
The classic black Sharpie was soon followed by red, blue and (why?!) brown, and in the past 50 years the company has experimented with skinny Sharpies (fiddly, dry out quickly, no-one can see what you’ve drawn), short, coloured Sharpies that clip to your keyring (nice to have in a jar on your desk, like lollies; all the popular colours disappear first, like lollies) and even a stainless steel bodied Sharpie (to remind everyone once and for all that you’re an Executive Creative Director, dang-nabbit, not just a Creative Director).
But 200 million sales later, it’s the classic, plastic-bodied, full-length black Sharpie that fills the layout pads and desk drawers of ad creatives, designers and illustrators everywhere. And why not? There’s something about the thick black line a Sharpie leaves that shows you mean business. At the same time, though, Sharpie layouts have a looseness to them that shows everything is still up for grabs (real Sharpie users never use rulers). And that’s a pretty cool combination.
And how about that Simpsons connection? Well, a quick look at the end of a Sharpies box will reveal that the markers are made in the real world equivalent of Springfield’s fictional nemesis, Shelbyville. Was the town’s name really inspired by the end of a marker box sitting on the edge of a cartoonist’s desk, late one night? Maybe, maybe not. While the signature black character outlines on The Simpsons look like they were made by a Sharpie, creator Matt Groening says his preferred drawing tool is actually a set of Rotring Rapidograph pens (which older readers may remember from Tech Drawing). So it looks like the Shelbyville connection will have to be filed not under True, but under True Enough to Believe. In a folder marked, of course, with a Sharpie.
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