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.