When someone suggests that design doesn’t matter, I like to mention Jan Tschichold, whose ideas help to create modern typography and were considered so subversive that Nazi Germany gave him the choice of exile or imprisonment. I can’t say that typography was quite so important in my own life, but there was a period when it helped to keep me sane.
At the time, I was working as a technical writer, having realized that the reduction in tenured positions made academia a dead end. Technical writing was far more lucrative than teaching, and it taught me the importance of organization and brevity, but it was far from challenging. In six months, I had gone from a beginner to hiring my own sub-contractors, and I was looking for the next step.
I branched out into marketing, which quickly lead me to graphic design. I soon realized that typography was a craft in itself that most designers knew little about, and, the more I studied, the more fascinated I became.
Part of the appeal was the esoterica. To appreciate typography, you have to learn about ascenders and descenders, bowls and leading and all the details that most people see without observing. Moreover, the roots of typography were in the early Renaissance, although the modern concepts of design were less than a century old. If you had any hope of understanding what typography was about, you had to train your eye by absorbing obscure concepts that most people never even guessed existed.
Yet paradoxically – and contrary to what many believe – the point of typography is not to call attention to itself. In fact, design that called attention to itself can be called a failure by definition. The point of typography is to enhance the content, to make it more legible and, present it appropriately. Such goals are so contrary to those of our post-modern age that they seemed to me an example of art for art’s sake. After all, why else would someone labor over a design that, if successful, would affect people’s experience with only a handful ever appreciating what it accomplished? Such attitudes immediately commanded my respect. I wanted to understand what successful design was about.
Also, I soon realized that my growing obsession had a practical side. If I could design as well as write, I would become highly employable. I could market myself as an all-in-one service, combining writing, design, and project manager in a way that no one else was doing. Even more importantly, I would have enough variety in my work that I would rarely be bored.
It became common place for clients to tell me that they wanted accurate manuals, not pretty designs. Often, I was cleaning up after writers who thought the ability to put words on paper was all they needed, so the last thing clients wanted was someone else giving themselves airs. I did my best to deliver the hands-on accuracy that other writers avoided – but, for my own sake, I also gave clients well-designed manuals and help files without saying anything.
To my satisfaction, almost every client as they signed off would say some variation of, “I know I said I didn’t care about design – but damn, that design is something else.” I enjoyed giving them a little extra, and proving that accurate content and quality design were not polar opposites. To this day, I can look at my work from that period with artesianal pride at a job well-done.
Soon, however, my restlessness led me to management and finally to journalism. Both were satisfying in themselves, but neither gave much scope for design.
However, in the last few months, I’ve returned to typography, designing the book I’m writing and even designing templates for a client. I’ve probably forgotten more than I ever knew, and I never was more than an apprentice in the craft, but I find the work as satisfying as ever. As far as I’m concerned, combining writing with design is the closest I’m likely to come to what Bill Reid used to describe as “the well-made object”– a tiny piece of art in which I can demonstrate all my knowledge in every aspect of it.