quarta-feira, 5 de setembro de 2012

3 Dots to Hold a Shape: Popularity and Honesty in the Consumption of Typography

1. "Would You Pass That Bowl of Frutiger?": Popularity and type design

Type design is in it's hey-day. I say this because typography, though musical in its essence (see Bringhurst), still enjoys a semi-underground popularity — a kind of cult following — which is more than institutionalized in the realms of, for example, the music industry. (Warning: more music analogies ahead*)
This stems from the growth of designers in the trade, which by necessity have to come in contact — at the very least — with the rudiments of typography and how to use it to enhance the cohesiveness of their projects. This growth is rampant and obvious. by the quantity of feeds about contemporary design and featured works in various magazines and websites dedicated to the subject. Although this ever-evolving torrent of information augments from day to day, typography is still a practice restricted to this circle. From designers to designers.

This phenomenon has been somewhat beneficial. It hasn't properly stunted professional designers from doing their job well. As a matter of fact it has enhanced that, by giving them creative freedom over the shapes, kerning, basic concepts and all the properties pertaining to their glyphs, while the goal is ever clear: make an alphabet, a collection of inter-related symbols that are able to communicate efficiently. Same logic goes to signage: it's not just pretty bathroom boy/girl shapes. And often this work'll come with a deadline attached.
This train of thought also leads us to conclude that in type design there's no such thing as design for the sheer purpose of designing, no gratuitous image. In fact, developing a single typeface and prepare it for common use — if you want to do it well — requires a daunting body of work to the newcomer, and if you're not prepared for that you should stick to lettering duties. The only driving force is that greater sense that a typeface will, hopefully, serve to effectively, legibly and beautifully (if you're lucky) transmit a useful message. To be read as text.

But at the end of the day, you'll have the common user say: "Fonts? Oh yeah, I have some in my computer..." Typefaces are just not the kind of thing people will even spend time thinking about. It's for devotees and hardcore lovers.

2. "All Helvetica Lovers to the Left": Is that your genre in my type?

The type industry doesn't rule itself by genres, not in the same conception as music. You don't get to like slab fonts more than mono-spaced. You adapt to the project in hand and apply a typeface that is congruent, that really matters in that project. In typography — and as a designer — you also don't get sectarized for liking the wrong typeface itself. That only comes about as a playful joke between designers. You do, however, get "blacklisted" if you ruin a good project with the inadequate typeface.

For the genre analogy to work, we'd have to consider that certain groupings of fonts are only or widely used in specific contexts, and that's not true. A concept of style — as in a set of common morphological features — in typography relates more to a song structure than its genre.
Surely, type designers bet more on a given typology (serif, sans-serif, slab, humanist, etc.) for a specific design but most foundries wind up having a large scope on typographical styles, showing that the genre theory can't be applied effectively.
It just helps to know what style of font you're looking for. Even then, it's guaranteed you'll spend a considerable amount of time sifting through specimens. So when a user buys a typeface, s/he will probably be very certain of what s/he's looking for and what purpose is it meant for.

Part of the fact that typography isn't as popular as other arts resides here: it resists on being categorized on other terms than those of glyph shapes and is very difficult (if not impossible) to be consumed by itself. For typography to be categorized by genre it would have to have inherent meaning contained in the alphabet, which it doesn't.
So the main difference is that music is itself the message it wants to transmit, whereas type serves as carrier, not getting much attention unless one is attuned to that — which is rare. Typography fades into the background of what it transmits. It is simultaneously ironic and noble that one of the most seen elements of communication lends its place to the message it conveys, going majorly unnoticed. Be it when it is composing a body of text or when aiding in a relevant design that will be inevitably noticed, typography seems to be an artistic midi-chlorian.

That is also what allows independent foundries to maintain a healthy, honest and direct relationship to their consumers. The product is the product and only the product, and doesn't even speak for itself. It doesn't have material for an emotional relationship that can be projected to the consumer. You'll have to put in words to make that typeface work.
This "meaningless" self-sustaining nature of typography is what makes it impermeable to social grouping and therefore to commercialization through genres.

Oh, and it's the reason why you'll probably never listen to the words "I don't want to go out on a date with you, you like Disturbance." Even if your future date is that much of a picky designer, taste just doesn't apply like that here; you're no cooler for liking FF Meta than the guy who enjoys the soberness of Helvetica.

3. "Sell or Sell Not, There Is No Try": Honesty in typography

There are two types of type designers: those who sell, and those who don't.
If you want to make it in this business, you've got to have quality because — even though a big chunk of the clientelle might not be the slightest bit informed — it is just that kind of technical and ergonomically affected art. People may not know why, but the fact that they spend more time reading a book, an article or a big piece in a newspaper because of an ill-designed typeface will come back to haunt you, even if indirectly. Or that title header is just plain ugly.
And, of course, an entire generation of competent type designers (as it is the case with a lot of them) will be able to see transparently through that. They'll know, trust me. So, that's basically the difference between being featured in DaFont or MyFonts, and the whole fundament for honesty between foundry and user.

As much as one doesn't like to admit it, there are two hard facts about beign a designer: One is that design is the evolutionary time-child of architecture (hold your horses, that's a compliment). Two, designers themselves haven't been able to come out of the cave to mainstream acceptance. This latter has acted as a self-containing mechanism to typography's popularity and enculturation.

[If you, dear reader, are still reluctant on that son-of-architect argument, let me explain. People are progressively but not yet entirely informed on what a designer actually does—you'd rely on an architect to draw you a functional building but, to some, a designer draws cute mascots, logotypes (at best) and brands, and his/her activity still fails to convince most clients of its commercial usefulness, especially graphic design. And since design is a multidisciplinary activity, it naturally inherited (post-Behrens & Munari) much of architecture's project methodology, which should be sufficient to hold its credibility. That's the reason behind that first outrageous statement.]

It may sound limiting, but it can be positive to the typographic community that this craft doesn't expand much more in visibility than what it already did. It is a trade that has centuries of history that could be buried in mediatic affluence and overgrowth. But for the time being, it will most probably keep on being protected by the lack of inherent meaning in typefaces.

For example, if in music consumption there exists an unspoken hierarchy of taste and its respective mediation, such thing doesn't happen in type design: either your typeface rocks, is acceptable or it ultimately sucks.
That evokes a more honest relationship between public acceptance and artisanship and explains why the fact that publicity and media have neglected the practice of type design has been helpful — it means you can't control it with product placement or money. It would be stupid to have an ad in a soap opera or a TV show stating "Buy Helvetica / Omnipresent since 1957" or "Want to make your brand look young and cool? Use Neo Tech"; it just does not work that way.
There's no middle ground: either it's good and sells good, or it's mediocre and hardly sells.

Type is now a part of popular culture, but not so much as it gets to create social factions, or specific groups — you don't have pop or indie typefaces. Certainly fonts are organized by their style or design similarities, but oftentimes you'll admit the potential for editorial release in a font family and not even see use for a very similar one on the catalog.

There's also the added bonus that sales figures actually represent the taste of consumers. Since the consumption of type is associated with functionality and it's ultimate use in design and text, there's more reason to believe that a bestselling typeface MUST be better than the less sold one. Visibilty has less to do with a typeface's popularity than its quality.

It works as a sort of natural selection: the good font sells, the bad dies. It can be cruel, but it's truthful, and helps type designers to keep their feet on the ground and keep improving on the quality of their work.

* I think it's only appropriate that I clarify the use of such comparisons to music and the music business. Being a musician myself I can't help but correlate both type design and music — be it for the rhythmic, harmonic qualities or what have you. Worry not: we won't get into specifics; just a brief reminder that music is a fuel for many artists of this trade. Erik Spiekermann has a band, Hans Reichel builds guitars and Robert Bringhurst had his book's chapters organized under musical concepts. There must have been a reason for that.

terça-feira, 1 de dezembro de 2009

On Active Silence

Silence is not – as commonly thought at a glance – the representation of void, but that of home, a kind of shelter. Thus, John Cage knew that in order for us to truly appreciate music, we have to know silence.

Art is meant to cleanse and stands as a sensorial stairway for the silence that succeeds it, granting access to the divine in human nature.
There is a certain sense of homecoming in this access of the unconscious, and we prove this by hypnotizing ourselves various times during the day and even talking inwards. Many times one finds oneself staring vacuously into a blank – there's a reason for calling it white noise – and indefinite point in space.
The upside of this (in)definition is focusing through unfocus.
Paradoxically but co-dependently, by unfocusing, you rest your eyes comfortably and recognise the value of this home allowing for the dust to settle down, hence focusing.

So, "there, where none of those objectives are sought, silence becomes something different – in no way silence – but sounds, ambient sounds".

Take type design for instance: the counter, negative (white) space is seen unanimously as what truly defines the soul of the alphabet, and ultimately the typeface. And the generally deceiving perception that the body of a letter is its true recognition – when obviously one can't live without the other, being complementary – is dropped as soon as you see past through plain syntax.

This of course is an essay on a resting space, a pause for breathing; after all, the rest is what defines rhythm.
And it also doesn't have to – I personally think it shouldn't – be as haiku or irritatingly zen as that. It is merely a suggestion of balance.

Drop your but does it float or fffound feeds and just gaze for a while.
I know that most designers already have their kind of haven or their walks in the park, even sheep in the big city moments; whatever floats your boat.

But stop looking and start seeing.
The act of seeing is a sensible interaction. It isn't just watching or sheerly observing.
In turn, this creates an isthmus where artist and life or reality perceived meet and merge; practically speaking, creating renewed semantics instead of redundant, uninterpreted – barely or not even changed at all – cut-and-pastes.
Pretty much like trying to fit two different pieces from two different puzzles together. These mind-numbing juxtapositions of concepts usually result in lifeless depictions – more noise, that is.
Good designers are by and large good observers whereas the great artist – or human – is an active seer.

That's why an eraser is a great transparent pencil that may come in handy.
Silence is a still water; a perfect basis for being able to be surprised, by not putting reality in a box of routine/predictability, i.e. expectations – in the most literal sense of the word – as if you're looking for something greater. Allowing yourself to see what's around you with a simple moment of quietness can shed some clarity.
And bring you home.

Our home is our world, our life – Yes/Jon Anderson

quarta-feira, 24 de junho de 2009

History of a Quote

The graphic aspect of the quotation mark tells clearly what it's about – and I now solemnly swear this won't be an incursion through any of the very dear typographical mark's significance or history, rather a thought about influences and what we do with them –, by a simple recipe too.

Join two commas together, put them hovering on both sides of something someone said – that you'd like to denote –, and there you have it: you quote someone.
And then, – making use of my own poetic freedom and personal interpretation – it joins you and that person.

Now, warping back a few concepts.
Monkey see, monkey do, right?
We learn how to walk, talk, behave, etc., by watching, sharing, and doing the same. Mimesis is an essential move when trying to construct a self, and it is no shame either to openly show the structure, or to conceal it.
And so, communication relies on learnt or acquired abilities to process meaning, to tell you something effectively. The simple fact of recognising something establishes a psychological common ground: an ideal base of comparison, somewhere in the back of the mind. It's a natural response, and also why one would take someone who quotes Albert Einstein as (somewhat) truthful, because of those same shared values. We amount to something that always has something in common with another being.
Going with the cliché: all different, all the same. Cheap and vague as it may sound, it is true.

Keeping the concept of mimesis in mind, greek philosophers coined it as the (mere) representation of nature; a persona of the truth. Simultaneously, the quote mark becomes a symbol of paradoxally both proximity and distance – getting you closer while keeping you at the bay of non-novelty.

Everything's a copy of a copy of a copy – Chuck Palahniuk

It's our nature.

Nevertheless, the really strange phenomenon here – generally born in the spectre of social behaviour – is the one that makes imitation natural to the human being while simultaneously conditioning him to believe it is not right to do so.
Why condemn imitation, when it comes to art? We're past that. We're even past Duchamp's total appropriation of the work, and gladly.
This latter, however, poses the question of flagrant theft. Because everything is nice while it is honest – and quite the few times that's also not enough.
And, while we're at it, why should we despise self-reference as well? If someone has already said something good on a given subject, and coincidentally that someone is you, it is only right. It is never a matter of weighing ego versus true importance.

Sometimes references are insidious – rather than neon-signed blatant – and even cryptic. Like a challenge; or just shameful secrecy.
There's a plenitude of examples scattered all around, but essentially, it's our way of drafting a future while holding the legacy of our pasts and presents into account.

...and constantly reinventing ourselves.

I do think it's only healthy to transpire – obviously or not – something that makes sense but picked off of another person or referential to another thing, in whatever language you prefer to use: it will most probably help define your identity instead of meaning the loss of it.

Gladly we have been assisting to a constantly-evolving, exponentially noticeable outbreak of pure expression. This historically chained and overlapping imitation of an imitation, is – like the ouroboros biting its own tail – what's enabling us to express and evolve even further.
We imitate, and pay (never silent) homage to what or who has touched us – mainly positively – made us grow into what we are.

Thus, we are too being what we admire the most.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – Charles Caleb Colton

terça-feira, 5 de maio de 2009

Why Should Designers Forget About "Form Follows Function" - Or, At Least, Try

1. First of all, because it never worked like that. Surprised? Hope not. Assuming this motto is the same that affirming that the egg came first. Or the chicken. Or the reptile. Why doesn't function follows form? It happens so many times: look at Starck's work - he starts with a form, an after decides what is it for (or at least he says so). Thus, the motto is unilateral. Bummer.

2. Most of the design work appears to be a product of problems and limitations, not pure intent or purpose. Form follows trouble? Form follows the need to escape from trouble?

3. Design is a really young métier. Well, in fact, the motto form follows function appeared as an attempt to assassinate the aesthetic options of 19th century's revivalism and eclecticism, in order to validate the Modernist Epoch, to dazzle people with the idea that it was necessary to evolution. Worst, designers and architects embraced this in order to validate what they were doing. This is rather ugly: bad product, lovely package.

4. It's an idea with 4000 years, based on a thought framework that might frighten you. It's relative to Plato's Theory of Forms: that there is a higher concept of things, thus things as we see it are illusory. According to this, whenever I think of chair, I think on the higher concept of chair, not actual chairs. Well, we now believe (and probably prove) that we think on an abstract concept of chair because we saw millions of chairs. Watch kids asking what's that?, it's enlightening.

5. It makes you dull. Do you want to find how to do a thing and repeat the same process every day, believing that there is no way to improve it? Why do we insist that we have to find the way, without letting us build that path with the richness of error?

6. It's irresponsible. True. If things go wrong, it's the clients problem, not yours. You are doing always the right thing and always the right way, right? You have the magic key, the magic process! You possess the higher concept of chair! You do, don't you? Hey, there?

7. It's totalitarian. Now your being rude. Well, am I? Ever heard of International Style? Futurists? Did you ever noticed that biggest period of totalitarianism was a product of the Modern Epoch and during this same one? The there is only one way thought killed millions of jews, other millions in Russia an China with the Communist Revolution. Shame on form follows function!

8. Finally, it's unpersonal. You have more to give, kid. Try it yourself.

sábado, 6 de setembro de 2008

Global Boring

Personally, I've been experiencing a kind of impasse and so, undergoing a certain exploration of time, past, and its influence.
Having in mind the concept of cyclic fashions, one obviously tends to think about the necessity of looking towards the positive and upcoming region of the time graph – as in present and future.

Old clothes desperately call out to be nowadays' pajamas. Take a serious peek at what we've accomplished and move on.
I don't want by saying this, to mean past should be promptly thrown away as it stops serving the present, neither do I want to overrate future.

I do mean we should instead close a chapter of what we can sum up learning with experience, and direct it towards a greater discovery of current values – finding within ourselves as designers a visual, empirical and an even more communicative language – and syntony with the now & tomorrow.

We are increasingly living in the versatile, ayurvedic – and that's something to take advantage of – "you are what you eat" era. And if that's how it goes, I surely prefer to ingest something I can identify with today rather than something reflecting myself but twenty years ago.

Shall we preserve this dynamic spirit that does (or should even more) characterize our actuality, so that there isn't a risk of being victim of a Global Boring.

After all, it isn't the first time that in human history consciousness is forced to shift from one plane to another. Any change is painful. If there's a future, it deserves to be examined. Louis Pauwels

sexta-feira, 22 de agosto de 2008

Films make bad books

It's almost a cliché that, when a film made based on a book comes out, people often afirm that the book is better. In fact, it is very, very rare to find the opposite opinion. Oh, the film is much better than the book!, doesn't this sound awkward?

And why does this happen? Well, books are fabulous on encouraging us to develop our own images or constructions of visual narrative. We are deeply visual.

Words were built to explain things that weren't available at the time we spoke, at first. Second, they were invented to compile large groups of words. Done. No further discussion.

Now that we have passed the introduction, here's my proposal: Let's put it upside down!

What?!, you may ask. It's the book-film thing above. Using words to create images. Or ideas (clusters of words or clusterwords) to this purpose.

While still in college, a teacher or two insisted that visual culture was the most important thing that we could do. In my opinion, this causes trouble. No doubt that this is important, but this can be highly restrictive and/or overwhelming. If you think about it, if someone says to you, to be a good artist, you must have to have visual culture!, or that you have to find your visual languange or visual poetry, this sentences are a huge press to creativity.

Why shouldn't I change language whenever I want to? Do I have to see all bags to design one? - Yes and No. You have to study most of the cars and the one you want to design it properly.

Hoping that imitating others will solve our case is silly. Instead, try to figure out why does it works to others - and see the differences.

Here's my point: theory is always more inspiring than visual culture. Or that visual culture works for abstract/deductive knowledge (study), not for formal reference.

quinta-feira, 10 de julho de 2008

My métier is a medium

That everyone agrees that Design is an artistic métier is widely unquestionable. But when we discuss about what distinguishes the Design praxis from other artistic expressions or from Art itself, it becomes rather controverse.

First of all, artists and humans are, generaly speaking, narcissists. In spite of this being a really interesting subject, we prefer to be right than being truthful. With this pointed out and assimilated, we can now see the random shooting of arguments and connect them to the human ego.

Well, I believe that Design is purely another artistic medium. For those who are used to this latin word, it still may sound confusing. "When you refer medium, do you mean a pencil or a canvas?", yes, I do - but not in a physical way.

Like a piece of paper, clay, a canvas or a screen - and the list goes on - any artistic medium has inherit characteristics, and these are the ones that makes the medium identifiable. So, as the canvas is to the painter, Painture, Sculpture, Design, Arquitecture and other artistic métiers are for Art. That's why Design is easily inside the Arts' paradigm.

The boundaries question is a lot more complicated. As for any Art's medium media (canvas, paper, and so on) it's not that easy. Just because there is paint on a canvas, it doesn't means that it is painture. In fact, it can be sculpture. And I'm not talking about modulating ink into a 3D form, that could be painture. I am talking about intension.

If the artist is concerned, on a 2D surface, about the way that piece is interacting with space, that is sculpture. And if a designer is concerned how typographic elements can form an image, he is doing illustration, not typography. But in other hand, when he is concerned on how a particular glyph is shaped inside that illustration, he is on a typographic ride.

So, and this is nothing new - Nelson Goodman already exemplified it with genius -, the question "what is Design" or any other métier in the Arts, is wrong. There are no wrong answers, only bad questions and much, much worse interpretative minds. The question "when?", "in which universe?", "in which culture?" or "in what sense or scope?", seem a lot better.