Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Elusive Type

There is a dizzying array of typefaces available to designers. Whether bought, stolen, donated or actually free, there are myriad sources from which to acquire typefaces. But which ones are the right ones? Different designers stand by different versions of different typefaces. All we have is our varying literature, design forums and sources of instruction from which we can gleen a sense of which typefaces are the purest representation of the original cut, the most emphatic reinterpretation or the most iconic modern rendition.
Many rely on Robert Bringhurst's book (cum type-bible), The Elements of Typographic Style for all type-related advice. Some turn to the jedi-esque council on Typophile for a more democratic opinion, though most of its members are inherently purists. Some choose for themselves, and this can have a variety of results ranging from inspired to disastrous.
Ultimately, typography is intended to do justice to the message it is communicating. All of our classical typefaces and some newer ones were created to serve specific purposes. Whether it be for headlines or body text, to deliver a range of weights for multi-dimensional information architecture, or to display legibly in web situations, they have a reason for being. Many typefaces come in a cascade of versions because they have been hosted by different foundries over the years. Nowadays, there are people who are just obsessed with typography and draw horrendous, unstudied typefaces all day long. To purists, this is type-heresy of the highest order. But who's to stop the defamers? All a designer can do is be educated enough to choose and use the right typefaces.
Garamond is a great example of a historic typeface with a hundred and one renditions that have been drawn throughout the ages. There isn't an original, honest-to-goodness, Claude Garamond cut of Garamond that we use on our computers today. But according to Bringhurst, the three adaptations worthy of note are Stempel Garamond, Adobe Garamond, and Granjon.
It should be noted that Berthold Garamond is strong and carefully tooled, but seems stiff and lacks the poetry of the three mentioned above. And though Garamond 3 has its moments, it can be a bit awkward and unruly. Then there are Ludlow Garamond, American Garamond, Italian Garamond and ITC Garamond, all of which are difficult to look at.
The great Jan Tschichold drew Sabon in 1964. It is extremely reverent to the idea of Garamond, and very true to its forms. And it is exquisite in its own right.
But more forms are constantly generated. For example, Karl Moller has taken it upon himself to review past versions of Garamond and create a version that is ideal for setting Swedish text.
Michael Bierut has a lot to say about ITC Garamond and new typefaces. One particularly astute observation is that unlike new architecture (which is usually met with initial disgust and then slowly accepted over time), new typefaces are typically received with zeal but then wear out and lose their hold on our interest. Of course, there are typefaces which have been around for centuries and look as fresh now as they ever have. Several appear here in a great survey of serifed text faces.
What begins to become apparent is that typefaces are more like philosophies than shapes. They have applications which dictate their appearance and give rise to their personality. But down the road, their personalities dictate their uses. They seem to grow up and their uses and experiences become inextricable aspects to their character.
It is of the highest importance that designers know the history of the language they employ. One does not speak without knowing the words, or else the meaning is lost. Likewise, a designer shouldn't communicate without understanding the typographic nuances and visual cues that are manifest in their executions.
By learning as much as we can and staying informed, we elevate the discipline of design to its highest point, where science and art synchronize.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Take a trip without moving your feet

Presented below is a small sampling from one of the most important photo documentaries, A westward study in Asia by Ian Allen. In its course, you journey from bustling Tokyo to rural Tibet in a massive, sweeping odyssey.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Battling Entropy

We sweep dust out of corners. We repair our belongings. We trim our hair. We bathe, mow the lawn, and wash our clothes. We categorize and alphabetize. We create order. We order everything. And yet things rust. Old clothes wear holes. Our fingernails grow to lengths undesirable. And the upkeep of everything is constant. We grow old. Our backs begin to hurt. Our hair falls out. Spots appear -- dark ones on our skin and empty ones in our brain. We try to cope. We try to make it easier. We try, always, to simplify. But isn't chaos prevailing somehow? Aren't we always in pursuit of an order that nature seems to object to?
As you glance around you, there are probably many straight lines. There are groupings of things. Books together, but separated from magazines. Pens in a cup or holder. Glyphs that, strung together, form meaning. There is, perhaps, a filing cabinet with some sort of system, a clock, a calendar, this computer in front of you. There is a sense of order.
But when you leave your dwelling, and go into nature, let's say. The glyphs aren't there. The clock isn't there. The straight lines aren't there. None of the order is there. It is spell-binding. It is "organic". Amorphous and unpredictable lines flow in abundance. There is shade, gradation and texture. Birds and animals are driven by fear and pleasure and pain. There is something indescribable happening everywhere.
This indescribability impels the way we function in the world. And for practicality's sake, the human brain has become a very good machine. Essentially, the human brain works so that it doesn't have to work. It is efficient in storing information so that it doesn't need to relearn things constantly. Neurological pathways are established to make life easier. If you had to learn how to tie your shoes every time you had to tie your shoes, life would be very tedious. Just getting out the door would prove difficult. The same goes for more complex thinking as well. If you had to learn how to type every time you wrote an email, you'd never get through it. And if you had to start from square 1 with friends, coworkers or classrooms every time you met, you'd never get very far. The brain, and its memory, are cumulative. And so are all our modes of thought. For better or worse, we don't forget everything we know -- even though it would be better in some problem-solving situations.
This characteristic of the human brain translates into our sense of truth because our basis for truth has much more to do with common and accepted standards. Just like tying our shoes, if we had to debate what "REALITY" was every time we had a conversation, we'd never get to the conversation. This is true of all understanding. We have to agree on certain basic premises before we move into the more esoteric climes of thought.
This is what Linnaeus did for biology. He set out a structure for us to build on. But nature doesn't seem to think like us. Without Linnaeus' structure, we're left with nature's wild, undisciplined procreation -- it's inexplicable, hit-or-miss style. Linnaeus affected biology, but he didn't change nature.
Take the Fibonacci Sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89...). In this sequence, each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it. This sequence has been proven to exist in the organization of a good deal of plant life, the shapes of shells, the genealogical patterns of rabbits and bees, etc. Without this sequence of numbers, and our theory about its importance, nature would go on the way it is. It is just our way of understanding it. Nature continues with or without our foisting a sense of order onto it.
Consider this:
Imagine you throw a box of spools of ribbon into the air. The box flies open and all the ribbons unravel and fall pell mell to the ground. There is a chance, however small, that with the proper confluence of physics, wind gusts, friction, etc, that the ribbons could roll up and set neatly into the box and the box could be blown back together and land perfectly in your hands again. However, that chance is so small, that physicists consider it negligible. Hence, the idea of entropy. Nature has a tendency towards chaos, and disorder. The human mind, towards order. So, in essence, man's life is a struggle against entropy.
Why is this? Aren't we a product of nature? Didn't we come from the swirling evolution? Why is our sense of organization in opposition to that of the rest of existence?
We seem to want to preserve and order things. We archive and alphabetize. We write and speak and communicate. Clarity and comprehension are manifest in this. So, of all the things to pursue in life, design and communication are the most difficult because they are the biggest rebellions against chaos. But they are also the biggest assets to humanity. The choice to design is not a choice to make things attractive (though that is often an important by-product). The choice to design is a choice to fight hard against degeneration. Our designs are our evolutions to survive -- our constantly refined tools. Believe that design, be it born of experimentation or refinement, is the most truly human act. It is design which molds the future of the human race.

(photo by Martin Klimas)