Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Contrast Theory, Typography, and the Human Mind

The human brain searches for definition. In everything. And it's no wonder. We seek to understand the world around us, because this allows us to understand ourselves. John Fowles, the fiction writer, wrote a book of philosophy called The Aristos, in which he discusses the matter of what he calls 'counterpoles'. Counterpoles allow us to define ourselves. "I am not the earth or moon. I am not that tree. I am not this computer or this desk." That is a simple way of setting things apart. Furthermore, "I am not you. I am not my mother or father. I am not Martin Luther. I am not my wife." And this allows us to know which specific human we are. Then, to go one step further, we look at ideas and notions and ways of being. And we further distinguish who we are.
It is also important to note that many people DON'T distinguish themselves. They stand very close to certain philosophies, to other people, to art movements, to certain clubs, to their church (or temple or whatever) in order to blend in. They escape notice. Entertain, for a moment, the form of a school of fish. In order to escape attack, all the little fish move and zag together to give the impression of being a bigger, scarier fish. They are all safer in the collective. This school-of-fish mentality is not too dissimilar from how groups of people act and move. I digress, sort of.
Back to understanding the world. So we look at all the things that are 'not us' in order to gain clarity on who and what we are. Once we have gained this clarity of 'what I am' v. 'what I am not', we delve into the world of 'what I am not'. Enter Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature. He constructed a system to classify all the living things -- to give each one its unique identity. This kind of a system makes the world more manageable. We can mentally disseminate everything more easily in this way. If all of nature, in its strange swirling progeny, were not broken down, we couldn't wrap our brains around it. We need to draw lines, create thresholds and hold absolutes in order to deal with all of it.
Look at how we build our dwellings. We draw straight lines everywhere. We create edges. Look at maps and how we decide who governs what area of our earth. We have property lines, roads, lines on the road, and laws that correspond to those lines. They are everywhere. It's how we think and make sense of an overwhelming existence.
The reason lines work is because of contrast. We need contrast to notice things. Contrasts occur to a point where a threshold is met. Then a line is drawn, visually or theoretically. The mind is more comfortable with this constant process of incision, followed by decision. As we take note of contrasts, we judge the differences. We decide how we feel about them. Our world is created by how we honor these absolutes, when and how we draw lines.
In visual art, we love the way Matisse, or Picasso, or any number of others drew lines to create contrast and heighten drama. The human mind desires this drama. We see this in our favorite stories. The most engaging ones involve the most drama. Imagine the line of the edge of the boat in Moby Dick. Beyond that line is danger, the vast and endless unknown. This line is a physical one. But in stories by the Marquis De Sade, he describes people caught in situations of moral imbalance, where they must make drastic decisions, sometimes between compromising their integrity or death. Think of the absolutes in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Two families, forbidden to one another. Two lovers cross that line -- the high drama that ensues. Then as one takes a false death potion, the other cannot live, and commits suicide. They both die (sorry for the spoiler). Always, we need the contrast. The mind is engaged by judgement and choice.
Take a look at the growing, believe me, GROWING obsession with celebrities, their lifestyles, and how we judge them. Who is together? Who breaks up? Has an eating disorder? Goes insane? Fights for charity? Crashed their car? Dies from a drug overdose? Tries to die from a drug overdose? Etc? All high drama. And why do we pay more attention to Britney Spears than we do to Courtney Cox? When was the last time Courtney Cox had an insane, deceitful love affair, involving children, a dramatic change in weight, drug problems, then shows up at a tattoo parlor at three in the morning with a shaved head?! I can't remember. Because she isn't as interesting.
All this stark contrast draws interest from people because it causes the brain to make a choice. Do you support or oppose? Agree or disagree? Allow or deny? The threshold engages. We've seen how this is true in our art, our growing dramatic reality, in our stories, in our decisions on laws, in how we understand nature and define our place in it. Communication is no different. In order to communicate things most clearly, stark contrast is imperative. Strong positions, strong language, and strong imagery take hold of the brain because they ask (no, force) the viewer to judge and make a decision. As this is true in all things in life, it is true in the lowly letterform -- our secondary (to language) form of communication, because it becomes the written word. Strength in the letter is something the casual viewer may not care much about, for they are more concerned with the word strung into a sentence with meaning. But to a designer, or typographer, the letter (which becomes the word in the sentence with meaning) is HOW the sentence with meaning is said. Letterforms, and the lines that govern their shape, are a constant source of visual drama. I have included some examples of high-drama typography. Though the executions are stark and minimal, the contrast is high and fuels the intensity.
These tiny 2 and 3-d sculptures using line define our world, and an enormous aspect of how we take it in. Across this line from white to black, meaning is established. Across millions of sections of line, this little piece has been written, creating another, larger definition, and has changed something about how you perceive the world.

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