Posts Tagged ‘design’

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.

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Like writing, typography is an art everyone imagines that they are competent to judge. From Dorothy Sayers imagining her opinion was better than Jan Tschichold’s to Mark Shuttleworth altering his company’s direction so that he could play with design, otherwise intelligent people are constantly falling into the fallacy that they can judge typography despite having no experience with it. The latest high-profile example of this fallacy is Marissa Mayer’s comments on the new Yahoo! logo, the majority of which reveals her lack of design expertise.

I knew the process is doomed to mediocrity as soon as I read her first criteria: “We didn’t want to have any straight lines in the logo. Straight lines don’t exist in the human form . . . so the human touch in the logo is that all the lines and forms all have at least a slight curve.” Aside from how arbitrary the limitation is, what strikes me is the immediate escape into metaphorical explanation. Such explanations are rarely a sign of someone with any expertise; in my experience, they are the sign of someone who does not know what to observe. A trained designer is more likely to reflect that giving all the otherwise straight lines in the logo a slight curve is mostly wasted space for the simple reason that most people are going to look at the logo carelessly, and see straight lines regardless, simply because that is what they expect to see.

Mayer’s next criteria is: “We preferred letters that had thicker and thinner strokes – conveying the subjective and editorial nature of some of what we do.” Not only is there more meaningless metaphor, but the logo will be largely seen online, and even a beginning designer knows that online legibility generally requires fonts with consistent strokes.

Further down the list of criteria, Mayer adds a “mathematical consistency.” Although this requirement sounds impressive, it becomes meaningless when you consider that all typefaces are designed to have a mathematical consistency. She might as well have said that she wanted the logo to have a breadth and depth.

Mayer goes on to explain that “we felt the logo was most readable when it was all uppercase, especially on small screens.” However, against what Yahoo! employees “felt” are centuries of practice and study that shows that lower case letters are more legible because they have a more irregular shape that a solid block of upper case letters of the same size – especially at smaller sizes.

In the end, only two of Mayer’s seven criteria are reasonable starting points: wanting to keep a hint of the old design (although having something serif-like as that hint is somewhat odd), and wanting to do something “playful” with the final “oo.”

Judging from the final result, it was already clear that the logo’s designers were less than expert. However, Meyer’s blog does have the advantage of confirming the visual evidence. Predictably, her confused and poorly advised priorities are reflected in the result, and Yahoo! has labored to replace an outdated logo with a poorly conceived one.

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I was in high school when I realized that being observant was not just a talent or trait – that to be observant, you had to know what to observe.

I made this discovery because I had decided that, if I were going to write poetry, I needed to educate myself about traditional verse. Armed with a rhyming dictionary with a good prologue, I set out to learn about metric feet: iambs, trochees, anapests, and dactyls, along with outliers like spondees. Through repetition, reading, and practice sonnets, I learned to recognize each foot in a way that I never had naturally (although I had heard of them long ago). I learned that what you could consider an accented syllable varied with the sounds around it, and how some syllables could count as accented or unaccented depending on how you pronounced them. I learned, too, that free verse was not an absence of meter, but an absence of consistent meter (a subtlety that escapes three-quarters of modern poets, and how the whole idea of metric feet did and didn’t fit the way that English was used.

For a while, I became so obsessive that I went around mentally scanning everything that I and people around me were saying. I don’t think anyone noticed the inevitable slowness that crept into my speech, but I was relieved when I finally shook off the obsession. I soon found myself publishing my first poems, and left with a means of perception that most people lacked.

Much the same thing happened in grad school when I realized that, if I were going to teach composition to students, I needed to know more about essay structure. Accordingly, I summarized the sections of essays I admired from people like George Orwell or Gloria Steinhem, making notes of the tactics used. What were the different ways of starting an essay? Of concluding? How should points be arranged? When should opposing views be mentioned, and how should they be handled?

A few years later, I did the same with fiction, both short stories and fiction. Then, as I started exploring graphic design, I did the same with font selection and layout – so thoroughly that I still sometimes walk down a commercial street critiquing the signs. Usually, there’s a lot to criticize, since, to say the least, our culture is not exactly graphically literate.

Each of these circumstances left me with a different way of seeing from most people. Or, rather, I perceived the same things as everyone else, but I understood what details mattered. I could understand, too, how well what I perceived fit together. Instead of a generalized reaction, I could go into detail (usually more than anyone else wanted to know) about exactly what created my reaction.

Some people might argue that I have lost my spontaneous reaction as a result. They might say, for instance, than I can no longer watch a badly written movie, because I can anticipate what is going to happen and, sometimes, when the script writer has become especially lazy, even what the characters are going to say and what will happen to them.

To some extent, that claim might be true. However, my self-taught expertise can tell me to avoid the movie, which I consider an advantage. Or, depending on my mood, I might watch it anyway with a two-track mind, one responding as an uncritical consumer, and one running in parallel observing what doesn’t work and why.

Far from losing anything, I believe that I have gained from acquiring expert vision of selected fields. Because of my efforts, I not only respond, but can articulate why I respond the way I do. In looking for greater knowledge of what I was experience, I have also gained knowledge of both myself and others – and that’s never a fact that I’ll regret.

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Every once in a while, blogging delivers an unlooked-for personal insight. I had an example of this occurence earlier this week, when I mentioned that, despite being left-handed, I had won handwriting awards in the first few grades at school. Suddenly, I realized that this experience helped to explain my interest in typography.

The connection was news to me. I thought I had developed an interest in typography when I was working as a technical-writer, and wanting to branch out into design. Partly, my motivation was to make myself more versatile and therefore more employable, and to add a extra bit of creativity to what was sometimes monotonous work.

However, I soon became fascinated with typography for its own sake. Not many people – including graphic designers – are well-versed in typography, but the selection of typefaces and their arrangement on the page is a minature art-form, full of arcane jargon and fascinating lore.

It’s hard to imagine now, for instance, that the rise of asymmetrical design was as controversial as Impressionism or Modernism in the arts – or that one leader of the so-called New Typography, Jan Tschichold, was considered so subversive in Nazi Germany that he was given the option of exile or imprisonment (he chose exile, first to Switzerland and after the war to England, where he designed the standard templates for Penguin books of the period – little gems of design that you can still find today, sometimes, in second hand book shops).

And, like any art form, once you’re comfortable with the language of ascenders and descenders and kernings and letterspace, typography changes your perception. Just walking down a street of shops became a whole new experience for me as I examined all the signs in a new light. Similarly, opening a book, my pleasure is substantially increased by a fine layout, or lessened by a poor one.

These are all reasons enough for the large collection of fonts I accumulated. However, I suspect now that my font-fetish is also a revival of attitudes formed in the first years of my education.
You see, I was left-handed, and no one expected me to write with any elegance to my letters. The very fact that we read left to right makes writing awkward for lefties, and letters in cursive script especially are easier to form when your pen hand isn’t in the way.

But, having conquered a speech defect in Grade One, by the time I was introduced to handwriting in Grade Two, I was determined to defy expectations again. By an effort of will that, looking back, I now find hard to credit in a seven-year-old, I focused on the forms of the cursive letters, drawing them repeatedly over and over at home in my own time until I could draw them perfectly.

Or so I thought. I wonder now if I won handwriting certificates as much because I did better than lefties were supposed to do, rather than because my handwriting was objectively among the best in my classes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a sample of early handwriting to confirm or deny my suspicions.

No matter. What is important isn’t whether I really deserved the certificates, but that I became interested in the shape of letters for their own sake. I remember doing class presentations on the Greek, Phoenecian, and Norse alphabets. And, well into my teens, copying out the final version of my essay (this was before personal computers) became a ritual all its own. I remember labouring over the letter forms, not much concerned with what I said, but determined to produce a beautiful page. In Grade Ten, I even did a calligraphed creative writing project that I did and redid many times, and only completed because of the deadline – and I laboured at least as much over the page borders as I did the story contents.

Those interests went unexpressed as I went through university and became an instructor then a technical writer. Even when I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I never did much of anything with calligraphy. Yet, like a root buried deep underground, the interest remained, waiting for the right conditions to send up tendrils and be reborn.
Odd, that I never saw the connection from now. The continuity and persistence confounds me – yet, in seeing them, I now know a little bit more about myself.

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