Sunday, September 13, 2009

Crikey! The Truth About Type Obsession

Recently I was asked by a journalist for some advice: she was writing an article on "the excesses of type nerdery," and wanted to hear my take in light of the (completely over-dramatic) fray over Ikea's abandonment of Futura in its catalogues in favor of Matthew Carter's ubiquitous Verdana.

First of all, I don't really care about Ikea; I mean, I think it was a poor choice to choose Verdana—a font designed for the screen, not print and signage—and I understand that some designers think it was a bit of a "fuck you" to type designers when Ikea is supposed to be about presenting good design to the masses. I'll concede that there were some people whose reactions were bizarre (evidently someone started a petition against it.) But I'll parrot Steven Heller on the matter when he said that "some people just have no lives," referring to the uproar on the web. Another good point he made is that while Verdana was not a good design move, Futura is a pretty poor face for setting text, especially in a thing like a catalogue. So it's not like Ikea's design choices were ever the pinnacle of graphic design.

The thing that seems to be playing out here though, is not so much that designers threw some huge temper tantrum over Ikea's decision—it's journalists who noticed online type forums light up in discussion, who then exploited designers' technical reactions to twist the whole thing into a story about how fascist typographers are.

It may seem to people who aren't involved in design and typography that our online discussions about bad kerning or whatever—which, by the way, usually aren't directed at people outside our own community of nerds—are trivial and frought with "irrational hatreds." I'll concur that designers' love for the study of type can be extensive. Some are even excessive. But "irrational"? Not at all.

For those of us who revel in the discovery of found lettering, or who can spend hours and weeks adjusting the curves and strokes of a single letter during the tedious process of designing of a font, naturally our observations will be keener than the layman. But there are analogies aplenty to prove that most passionate people have a critical eye: a chef would surely balk at a chain restaurant's decision to swap out aged cheddar for Velveeta. A record collector wouldn't appreciate you comparing your downloaded mp3s to his lifetime's accumulation of vinyl. A textile designer would advise wool over linen for a winter coat. What's wrong with that?

When the aforementioned journalist approached me for comment, I pointed her in the direction of some interesting, beautiful and painstakingly gathered collections of type ephemera by some of the world's most respected and talented type designers. I remarked that while the common way to rib a designer is to mention Comic Sans (I jokingly started a facebook group last year about how organic food companies should embrace a new font), it's not really about a What's Hot/What's Not list of the season's top fonts—although that one-dimensional kind of 'reporting' does seem to be all these bloggers can come up with.

The articles that cry 'crazy' upon reading forums on Typophile support some notion that designers' passion, specificity and wealth of knowledge is something to be ridiculed. They're just the jocks picking on the nerds. Considering most of them are poorly written and haphazardly researched, they might do well to take a page from the nerds and study before claiming they're ready for the test.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. This brings to mind the sort of fear of knowledge that has morons calling the President elitist just because he's smart.