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June 19, 2005

Bad words, no biscuit
Posted by Teresa at 06:54 PM *

It’s not like I’d normally be reading the Citizen Journal, but Steve Timberlake dropped me a note pointing me to James G. Poulos’ Bad Words: The Case Against Decadent Fonts, which I think may be the single most staggeringly wrongheaded essay about typography I’ve ever seen:

Today the rout of English is finished. In print the professional classes make it thick as cold porridge and just as flavorful, and in common usage it is spoken with deliberate disregard for grammar as well as style. �It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,� as Orwell explained, �but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.�

The same is true, over half a century later, about fonts. Except today, the people picking our public fonts have a vested interest in general foolishness.

Much in the way that architecture is a reflection and embodiment of the psychology of a culture, the various fonts that appear most often in public print offer portraits of the aesthetic lurking inside them. A philosophy of fonts, reflective of how the printed word is deployed as deliberately as language in the shaping of culture, should be staked out at once. Beginning with a historical prologue that traces the development of script up to and beyond the invention of the printing press, it would be made clear that the triumph of computers and the internet represents a technological leap in the appearance of communicative text even more revolutionary than that of the printing press itself. Fonts�in their full range of possibility�have been thrown to the mob.

The digitization of information has already created dilemmas of truth and content in the publication of photographs. An editorial decision to alter the appearance of captured real-world images in order to communicate a desired meaning, not originally present, is troubling to us but inviting to those for whom the stakes are high enough to lie. It is not just inevitable: it has already happened. The imbroglios of yesteryear over manipulated pics of American troops in Iraq are already forgotten, but a primal notion that the physical shape of images shouldn’t change to fit the agenda of their publishers lives on.

And yet the altering of fonts strikes everyone as much more benign. The digital age has made a font for every mood no longer the province of the monastery or the tenth-grade art class. We all know which styles of lettering look �scary,� �technological,� �elegant,� �childish,� or �authoritative.� Half of the ugliness in a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, or a Federal agency in Washington, is the spare, squat, sans-serif font of the letters used to identify it. Contrast such a font with the fine, chiseled lines of, say, the Supreme Court or the Treasury. There one reads culture—skill wrought by the practiced human hand—with all the sophistication of shape and style that communicates an ennobled social message about aesthetic virtue.

What few recognize is that such value-signaling has gone beyond the realm of aesthetic appearances and into the arena of behavioral valuation itself. Just as the script of hand-copied Bibles in the Middle Ages clearly represented the �divine perfection� of its contents and values, so today have fonts become tools of cultural conditioning.

He goes on to tie this to “the imposition of ideological, and otherwise needless, diversity directives from triumphant Human Resources departments to their own parent corporations;” also parents allowing noisy uncontrolled kids to run around loose in public places, the promiscuous dissemination of microbes, and that old favorite, the coming triumph of illiteracy:

…it may only be a matter of time before children raised on chat rooms, billboards, and music videos will lose the ability to write properly altogether, completing the eradication of ennobling, culturally demanding, fonts from public print.

Yeeeee-haw! James G. Poulos is a nutbar for sure. I have to wonder whether The Citizen Journal noticed that before they ran the piece. Check out the long chewy comment posted there by “pro typesetter” for a saner and far more knowledgeable take on the subject.

I think what has Poulos freaking out is the proliferation of digitized fonts. As you know, Bob, fonts were once made out of metal. Designing and physically producing a font represented a major investment of time and resources, so new ones came along in a slow manageable trickle. Even fonts that were supposed to look frivolous were professionally designed, and anything but spontaneous.

Then computers came along.

There was an interim period where professional-grade typesetting was done by specialists on chippy dedicated machines. It was a lot easier all round than the old days of metal type, though it would seem cumbersome now. The pace of new font introductions started picking up.

Then we all got desktop computers. Some of them were Macintoshes. Some of those Macs were running early type-manipulation software.* Suddenly, anyone who wanted to could design and distribute a font for Klingon, or Elvish, or whatever the designer thought looked cool. Many of these fonts were Just Dreadful. In the long run, that didn’t matter. The software got better, the computers grew more powerful, the type designers learned better, and we gradually returned to a world where the good stuff drives out the bad—only this world has a lot more fonts in it.

But as I say, I can kind of see where Poulos is coming from. When I was young, you could almost get the idea that there was some kind of centralized cultural imprimatur guiding the design and selection of typefaces, just like you could get the idea that there was a rule that said major public buildings had to have Roman columns.

You could, but you’d be wrong. There’s no such thing. Did I mention that Poulos is a nutbar? Never mistake manufacturing methods for moral policy.

Comments on Bad words, no biscuit:
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 07:47 PM:

Are we sure this piece isn't a put-on?

#2 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 07:52 PM:

Regrettably, I can't remember how I found it, Patrick; I just thought the professionals might enjoy seeing it.

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 07:57 PM:

Are we sure The Citizen Journal doesn't have a sense of humor that subtle?

#4 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:05 PM:

So Tolkien sucks if you don't like Tengwar or Angerthas, and the Nazis were attractive because they had cool posters, ditto the Red Russians and Red Chinese? And if Elves had Macintoshes and Orcs had PCs, did Gandalf have Linux with command lines in runes of fire, and did Winston Churchill triumph because of the fonts of the Times? And China or Japan will conquer the world because they valorize calligraphy? And Star Wars succeeded because of John Whitney, Sr.'s perspective crawl at the start of the first film? I'm utterly lost here.

#5 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:07 PM:

I dunno; I don't see how anyone who knows anything could've written this bit:

What few recognize is that such value-signaling has gone beyond the realm of aesthetic appearances and into the arena of behavioral valuation itself. Just as the script of hand-copied Bibles in the Middle Ages clearly represented the divine perfection of its contents and values, so today have fonts become tools of cultural conditioning.

Has this guy ever seen a "hand-copied Bible" from the Middle Ages? Does he have any idea of a) how many cows or sheep or goats it would take? b) ever really looked at the text of even, say, the Gospels in ms.?

Sure Kells is pretty to look at, but the text is less than accurate, from any point of view. Lines dropped, verses skipped, verses repeated. And let's not talk about the basic grammar and copy errors, the ones any scribe could make. Half the glosses in the earliest Irish and Latin gospel texts are corrections because the main text difficult to read, semantically and visually.

#6 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:08 PM:

"Zo, you shtill haff chiseled serifs liffing in der old country, ja?"

and

"What do you kids think you're doing?"
"Mom says it's okay to smash windows with Arnold Bocklin on them."
"Yeah, but what she really hates is Stop. I don't think she'd mind if we burned down a whole building that had Stop on the facade."
"She's right. Stop sucks."
"Well, what Mom says is that it paralyzes our aspirations toward a less complex and more manageable future into a retrograde image of a reactionary pseudo-progress. Also that it keeps the escha-whatsit from being immanemtifazized."

#7 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:10 PM:

You know, what I miss from "the good old days" [sic] are colophons.

I wish more publishers would include them--and include the book designer's name, too. I really want to know who the designer was, and sometimes I see a new face that I really can't identify.

Oh, and we should bring back the anathmea and the generic copyright curse too.

Good times . . .

#8 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:12 PM:

The opening tag of the non-footnote marker * is missing its element name, so the non-footnote is not accessible in my browser.

(Please let me know if you'd rather not have meta-comments such as this in the comment thread.)

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:18 PM:

Hi, Kevin. Thanks for the tip.

#10 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:28 PM:

One could argue that that's a flaw in the design of SGML/HTML/XML and should be fixed; but arguing that the letter l should be given a shape readily distinguishable from I in sans-serif fonts would be much easier and far more likely to succeed.

(The above is, of course, a poor attempt to contribute something on-topic.)

#11 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:32 PM:

finally, the world awakes to the danger of Comic Sans.

#12 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 08:38 PM:

Aha. Tracing my way backwards, I'm pretty sure I got this from Billmon at the Whiskey Bar. He's got a nice take on it too.

#13 ::: Alex Merz ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 09:09 PM:

Cooper Black, I presume?

http://www.cheshiredave.com/mastication/2002/07/0037a-btt.html

#14 ::: punkrockhockeymom ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 09:12 PM:

John M. Ford:

"Well, what Mom says is that it paralyzes our aspirations toward a less complex and more manageable future into a retrograde image of a reactionary pseudo-progress. Also that it keeps the escha-whatsit from being immanemtifazized."

My brain just exploded, and I think I love you. And you owe me a keyboard.

#15 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 09:34 PM:

Just FWIW: it was possible to be a culturally-depraved syntho-font tinkerer on PCs, too, back in the days of Mac Fontographer. I spent lots of hours on this pastime in the 1985 to 1989 time corridor, before there was an MS Windows with TrueType.

#16 ::: CEP ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 09:47 PM:

I wonder what Orwell would think of the wrenching from context and inaccurate quotation? Actually, I know bloody well what he'd think—a large chunk of a major essay ("Politics and the English Language") is devoted to that problem.

#17 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:30 PM:

The digitization of information has already created dilemmas of truth and content in the publication of photographs. An editorial decision to alter the appearance of captured real-world images in order to communicate a desired meaning, not originally present, is troubling to us but inviting to those for whom the stakes are high enough to lie.

Wow. I don't think he knows anything about photography either.

#18 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:52 PM:

Lenny, I made fonts too. One had macrons, one had a yogh. I needed them for copyediting documentation.

#19 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 11:50 PM:

When the Stanford Aritifical Intelligence lab got its first plotter for the mainframe in the 1970s, the first two fonts they designed were Tengwar and Cirith

They then proceeded to put signs on all the doors, according to University Policy.

Each door bore a carefully printed label naming a place in Middle-earth.

In Tengwar.

#20 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 12:27 AM:

After seeing Billmon compare this piece to William F. Buckley, I went back and read it again in Buckley's voice. Very entertaining. Except...

I began to realize that it has been too long since I heard Buckley's voice, and I can't really pull it up -- except for the breathy quality of it.

So I had to keep reading it with the fake Buckley-voice with one part of my brain, while another part listened to the voice and tried to figure out whose it was.

Ah, James Mason.

This voice thing: is it a mental auditory font?

#21 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:08 AM:

On the other hand, let me recommend this article on naming consultants, which contains the terrifying sentence, "Most clients would be hesitant to offer informed opinions about typefaces."

#22 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:20 AM:

Randolph - That statement is actually pretty accurate. Usually what happens is that a number of typeface families are presented for an identity system, and the client picks one. It's really a case of being able to tell what works but being unable to describe it, and most people don't know a serif from a seraph. ID projects are a usually lot of fun for everyone involved.

Thanks for the link to a good article.

#23 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:24 AM:

"The digitization of information has already created dilemmas of truth and content in the publication of photographs. An editorial decision to alter the appearance of captured real-world images in order to communicate a desired meaning, not originally present, is troubling to us but inviting to those for whom the stakes are high enough to lie."

Avram: "Wow. I don't think he knows anything about photography either."

You don't need computer equipment to lie with a camera. For example, a newspaper or magazine photographer can take a photo of 60ish politician and, using light and shadow alone, make him appear to be either a robust and manly figure, or a frail, elderly wisp nearing death. And the photographer can do it with a conventional chemical camera.

Goldie Hawn looks just fabulous when we see her on TV escorting her daughter, Kate Hudson, to the Academy Awards, they look like they could be sisters. I recently saw a candid photograph of her in some newspaper or on some Web site, and she looked in that photo more like the person she actually is: a 60-year-old woman who did a lot of hard partying in the 60s and 70s. (Still looked great, though.)

#24 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:27 AM:

"Most clients would be hesitant to offer informed opinions about typefaces."

Nope. To quote Betsy Ross by way of Stan Freberg, everybody wants to be an art director.

#25 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:39 AM:

Top Client Opinions on Display Type

10. Klingon.

9. That Dr. Bronner -- you just gotta read that, it's amazing.

8. Like the iPod name, only, you know, our product.

7. That cool barbarian thing that has little crosses in all the "O"s.

6. Will it look good on my Blackberry?

5. I never have any trouble finding the D train uptown. Can we talk to Bloomberg about that?

4. Anything, as long as it crawls up into space with loud music.

3. I've got this CD-ROM my kid bought -- jeez, it's got a million of the things.

2. This guy I know talks about something called "katakana." I hear it's big.

1. Why do you want to put words on it?

#26 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 03:59 AM:

Wearing my Copyright clause t-shirt, I was stopped in the Apple canteen one day by a chap who said "that's a great use for Zapfino".
It turned out he was responsible for creating the glyphs by digitising Hermann Zapf's handwriting, and after they showed Zapf the first face, he sent them another few hundred variants to include.
If you have a Mac, and haven't explored Zapfino's variety, I greatly recommend it. Many subtle typographical features originally required by arabic scripts and other variations you can only get at through the advanced features of the type dialogue are lurking there.

#27 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 04:02 AM:

Lisa Spangenberg's comment makes me unreasonably happy about our civilization. It just does.

#28 ::: Edo ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 11:03 AM:

Last year one of the discount clothing chains here in Japan, had a series of t-shirts that made me smile every time I saw one. Solid-colour shirts with a few (or less) words printed across the chest:

Helvetical Narrow Condensed
Frutiger 66
Poplar
Ironwood

There were many more, each set in the named face. Browsing the rack was almost like flipping through an Adobe type catalogue. I should've bought a bunch, got my students to model them, and made a series of type specimen postcards. Oh, the joys of hindsight.

Though a quick search of their site turned up Eurostile for 500 yen, so maybe I still have a chance.

#29 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 11:07 AM:

How long before nostalgia creates a demand for retro-retro-fonts that suggest the fonts of the end of the 20th century, when software gave a retro-typewriter look? Timing is everything, here. "That 70s Show" was a hit, "That 80s Show" came before its time. What signs of 90s nostalgia are now clear? Surely, fonts are part of the zeitgeist.

#30 ::: Edo ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 11:23 AM:

Proving yet again that I should google before I post, this page (mostly Japanese, which I read poorly, if at all) lists the typefaces Uniqlo licensed from Linotype for last year's t-shirt line. At least I think that's what it says.

DIN 1451, Frutiger 66 Bold Italic, Metroblack, Eurostile, Harlow, FUTURA, IRONWOOD, Crillee

I stand self-corrected. But I still have vague memories of a Trade Gothic shirt, as well a Wilhelm Klingspor Gotisch. Unfortunately, the link on the above page to the photos on the Uniqlo site no longer works, instead showing this year's lineup.

#31 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 01:11 PM:

most people don't know a serif from a seraph.

Aren't they those angel things on the corners of the Ark of the Covenant, to make its edges easier for the eye to discern? Important because if you touch the thing you, you know, die.

#32 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 01:59 PM:

I'd love to see the dingbat who wrote this article fumble his way through a Guttenburg Bible. Sure, it's pretty as an artifact but, having seen one up close, is almost impossible to read. It makes this font look almost elegant.

#33 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:04 PM:

It does remind me of certain ideas expressed in Ian McDonald's "Scissors Wrap Paper Cut Stone," though.

#34 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 04:19 PM:

Kevin Marks: Ah, Zapfino. The built-in ligatures are loads of fun, especially the seven-character "Zapfino" ligature. Sadly, Safari doesn't render the ligatures.

Xopher: or you just get shocked and swear a lot (Mythbusters, when they hooked the electric fence transformer up to their "Ark" instead of the Babylon batteries).

#36 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 05:14 PM:

I *like* Comic Sans. I like Sans in general, none of those tricksy little fiddly bits. (So why do we have a serif font in this box and not in the displayed comments?)

#38 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 09:36 PM:

I could do without Peignot, most of the time. But I do notice fonts. I've seen Stop used, effectively, on an auto electronics place, and Vivaldi used on a matress-and-frame store (pretty if a bit hard to read). And there are far too many 'grunge' True Type fonts out there that are purely ugly. (I do font acquisition and database stuff for Fontage.com - we have thousands, literally, of font files. And I have to look at all of them.)

#39 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 11:39 PM:

Xopher: or you just get shocked and swear a lot (Mythbusters, when they hooked the electric fence transformer up to their "Ark" instead of the Babylon batteries).

And if you're wearing metal it gets, hrm, ark-welded together...I ask no forgiveness for that. I know there can be none.

#40 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2005, 12:20 AM:

Good gravy, is it all the fault of Heedless Amateurs with Bootleg copies of Fontagrapher? I think not. My father was, among other things, a type designer. I grew up surrounded by dozens, maybe hundreds of type sample books, and little trays of lead type culled from heaven knows where. And there were ugly type faces (which is what fonts used to be called back in the Golden Age--a font was, iirc, a particular size and style of a given face, as in Helvetica bold 14 pt) and people who used them badly.

(I remember a running battle with a High End Designer, in the days before computer typesetting; I was running an evening program, and he insisted on using some handsome sans serif face which was swell for display or headline use, but utterly illegible when set, in orange on white, no less, tightly leaded in 9 point type. Designer was much loved by the head of the department, and I was a mere underling whose opinions on type design were not heeded.)

The mob--those who cared enough to potch around with fonts--have either become disenchanted and gone on to other things, or have wised up. Poulous sounds like a kid sulking because someone else has the same toys he has.

#41 ::: Nancy Hanger ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2005, 12:51 AM:

Check out the long chewy comment posted there by pro typesetter for a saner and far more knowledgeable take on the subject.

Ah, shucks, ma'am. I'd've thought you'd have outed me by now, knowing how you know me and my writing style.

I couldn't resist when I saw the article (found it via Billmon's link last night). I was ... restrained. Conservative. Factual. I'm rather proud of myself for not writing what was going through my mind, which ran something along these lines:

"What the...? WHAT THE...? Decadent WHAT??!! Christ on a crutch, just kill me now. Idiots. They're all idiots..." (then mutterings about machine guns ensued)

#42 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2005, 03:36 AM:

Xopher, there is still much disagreement as to whether seraphim originated when the Ark was carved (finial notches to prevent spreading cracks) or during the gilding job (featherlike flicks of the gesso brush to avoid an unsightly glob). If the original diagrams (thought to be in an Ethiopian library, stored in an old Astounding next to a Hieronymus circuit) are ever rediscovered, they may also answer the question of whether the ground-fault interrupter was dropped from the plan, or simply never installed.

#43 ::: triticale ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2005, 06:56 PM:

Madeleine, after downloading Fontographer off the Greek ftp site and finding that it was fun to play with, I actually paid for it. I don't remember if the discount I scammed thru a distributor friend was "student" or "upgrade" but either way it isn't fair to call my copy a bootleg. Anyway, the only thing that ever got set in Lout is the card I pass out to people who I meet who are interested in my blog.

Keith, are you being cute, or are by some odd chance unaware of the typographical significance of "dingbat"?

#44 ::: Dave Harmon sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 07:23 AM:

A phishing lure indeed!

Choose:
Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

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