A Joke about Typography and the Law (sort of).

An essay by Christopher Swift

I have a joke that I tell that mostly is to bug other graphic designers, it is, in fact, a stretch to call it a joke really, more like a mean-spirited prodding with a smile, it goes “how are typographers and lawyers work similar?”. The punchline is “They are both needlessly complex in order to justify their existence.”

In July 2012, scientists who would soon win the Nobel Prize in physics presented their incredible findings regarding data about the theoretical existence of the Higgs boson found in Higgs fields. This is very high-level physics, this is the sort of theoretical lab work that most of us can vaguely grasp when it is explained well, that has almost no impact on our day to day that we can see, but that might lead scientists to advancements in technologies in ways that I cannot fathom. In a comic and tragic fall, these future Noble winners made the unforgivable error of using the font Comic Sans in their presentation of the information. This, of course, had no impact at all on the material or its importance to the scientific community. The Noble Committee did not award the physics prize to someone else because they used GT Walsheim or Graphik Compact Regular in their presentations. It only allowed the new typographic pedants to take to social media and be terrible people about something that means nothing.

“Typography is the art and craft of handling these doubly meaningful bits of information. A Good typographer handles them in intelligent, coherent, sensitive ways When the type is poorly chosen, when the words say linguistically and what the letters imply visually and disharmonious, dishonest, and of town.[1]” Is our cultish belief in clarity based on anything beyond belief? Research projects by both Yale professor Shane Frederick and Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel Oppenheimer both looked at the effects of disfluency on reader recall and problem-solving by introducing poor typographic choices as a way to make the text harder to read and understand[2]. They found that people’s ability to solve difficult problems and to recall complex information was increased[3]. The clarity that we so celebrate in our design systems, in this case, worked against the intended outcomes.

There are probably more ugly pages than beautiful ones in the world. There are more pages set in Myriad and bad cuts of Times New Roman (Times New Roman Italic is a bizarre thing to think about in terms of how type is named and defined when you think about it) than in beautifully designed and executed rich type families with well-developed matrices and useful stylistic sets. All of this poorly designed and typeset material in the world, and yet we seem to be okay. The ugliness of the printed pages around us, of the even worse typesetting of the internet, these change nothing. The vast majority of the objects near me could be typeset differently, they could more closely follow a set of rules that we claim to be very important, and they would look subtly different, but not better, just different. The claims that our standards about what is a beautiful page stem from our own declarations that we can measure, or possibly “sense,” what is good and bad on a page. Graphic designs very conservative ideas about what is proper, its glacial paced acceptance of change, especially in typography, do not make them correct, they are not empirically “right.” They are just a set of rules that can be applied, and to use them or not only makes the results different, not better or worse, just different.

Possibly due to the professionalization of graphic design, the rules governing our work, especially in typography, have grown more and more ossified over time. The imaginative, creative, daring, expressive works we see in our history have become replaced by rigid rules that allow us to measure what is good and bad, but that limits our outputs. The Chi-Rho page of the Book of Kells would not be acceptable today, the titles page spreads of Williams Morris’s Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, the Josef Müller-Brockmann Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Marion Bantjes I Wonder, Tschichold’s Typographische Gestaltung, Wim Crowel’s New Alphabet, these would all be under the red pens of typographic pedants.

According to typography textbooks, something around 66 characters per line is considered an “ideal” line length[4], unless the type is set in columns. How this idealness affects the text is unclear and untested. Still, it has been repeated often and repeated in colleges and universities, and in publications numerous times, making it, if not true, then at least agreed upon, and that consensus seems to be enough for the design community. The en-dash, when read by an audience understands that it replaces the word “to,” so Vancouver–Seattle is read as Vancouver to Washington and that a hyphen would mean that the words are joined in some manner, and the longer em-dash would mean the start of a parenthetical, or possibly the dialog in a German play. While the rules of typography might state that that is all correct, very few readers in the world can tell the difference between a hyphen, an em-dash, and an em-dash, the idea that this is general knowledge by most readers is absurd.

At a recent lecture by Robert Bringhurst, one of the learned historians of classical typography, and whose book on the subject is probably the most referenced in the world, he discussed the need for a historically and culturally appropriate typeface selection when typesetting books, especially historical texts. He argued that with just a little bit of effort, a designer can make sure their work in aesthetically appropriate and that on its own would make the book better in some manner. But better how and for who is not clear. A book about Germany in the early days under the Nazi government does not need to be typeset in a German blackletter font, that kind of performance would be distracting from the writing and make the text difficult to read. A historical model for typeface selection is also very limited in time and space. How would one pick a typeface for a book about the Lascaux cave paintings in France? Obviously, a historical model would not be of use, a national or geographic model would be equally misguided (what does the culture of France after 1500 AD have to do with the that of these cave artists from 19,000 years ago), what would be the correct typeface to use for this? While this can add an interesting level of information to a work (when appropriate), it is rarely mandatory and can end up creating a confusing document if the font choice, while technically and historically accurate, becomes difficult to read or lacks value in some other way. Helvetica might be a historically compelling font choice for a 1950’s Swiss themed cookbook, but the original cuts of Helvetica did not ship with fractions, which would make three- and one-half cups read like 3 1/2 instead of 3½ which would make for a bad cookbook.

Typography has not always been so set in its rules and techniques. In the book Design with Type Carl Dair declared in the introduction that hyphenation already had a meaning in language (to join words to create a combination of meanings) and that using the same typographic mark to indicate the breaking of a long word at the end of a typeset line of text was a bad idea. He chose to use a vertical pipe | instead[5]. This was a book about typography, this was a celebrated designer, and thought that the systems were flexible enough to adapt to this change. A shared set of rules seems to have become more important to our community than adventure and daring. We become more like accountants, inserting our data and numbers into a set of binding structures to ensure that the rules have been followed, than like artists trying new things that might fail but that are new and bold and interesting.

What is a book for? While we can make a calming space for the words to be found and seen with ease, we risk making the experience so fluid that the reader can’t take hold on to the ideas. We have created an elevator music experience for reading, bland and innocuous, exciting to none, offensive to none. It is as if music or fiction writing decided that one genre was the right one and that all of the others had broken the rules and did not really count any longer. The descriptions of work, the ability to work within a prescribed set of rules, the repetition of accepted historical models, these are considered proper modes of work.

When my mother sits down at her laptop and starts to write a letter in Microsoft Word, she is setting type. When the local church children’s center makes a poster advertising the grand opening of the new playroom, they are setting type. Perhaps they will use some of the “word art” functions built into the software, creating a waving flag ripple effect across the words “OPEN NOW.” Perhaps they will think that the type is very so small and decide to scale it vertically by 200% so it is “more fun” to read. Maybe it should be a rainbow. When they do these things, they are setting type in more advanced ways than the vast majority of graphic design has ever had the ability to doing. They are trying to express an idea using tools and software. They are doing what they think looks good and what they think is a good idea. That these ideas break the rules of “good” typography, or that they are less beautiful, interesting, or effective is an opinion, it is one that is shared by many people, it is one that has survived hundreds of years, but it is not a law of nature. That letterforms should not be vertically stretched is a rule has no reason except that is has history with it. Letter forms have been stretched and extended for hundreds of years in bibles and other religious texts, but no one is made at the monks for ruining the beautiful letterforms. Graphic design pop criticism —the bizarre phenomenon of design criticism published in places like the New York Times, but only in the most basic, cliché, and salacious ways possible with breathless takes about what a good idea it is for some company to rebrand, all the while ignoring the terrible treatment of employees by that same company—tends to punch down, the “hilariously” bad designs of small shops are ridiculed for poor design choices, “vernacular” as a description is employed to describe what is understood to be “bad” design, nothing is celebrated in that description, nothing of value is seen, it’s only value is in its kitsch, in is embarrassing failure at following a set of rules that they don’t know about and probably don’t care about.

Typography is serious. It is no-nonsense, no feelings, no “do what you fee”, it has rules. Graphic designers as a whole often look for legitimacy for what we do. The ability to prove that what we are doing is not just making pretty pictures for money, that it is real, it is measurable, that is serious and important I think is one on the reasons that the design industry is so invested in typography and the rules of it. That we work with systems that are incredibly complex, that we have our own scales of measurements, that our history celebrates the ability to discuss the ogee in Geralds vs French Old Style type, these complexities are how we show everyone looking that what we are doing is very important. Creating systems that are difficult to understand, using language that is dense and full of jargon, measuring variations in minute details that are sometimes literally impossible to see without a magnifying glass, these are how you create a system that is effectively closed to the outside world and thus prove that your ability to speak and write using the right words, to point at a dash being used and say that it is, in fact, the wrong dash for use in that space, is rare, is valuable, in needed and important.

Higher education happily benefits from this intricacy and opacity. Most “respectable” design departments have three levels of type education, teaching specialized rules, jargon that is unnecessary, antique units of measure, and a decidedly singular view of the world that is purely Western and uncompromising. Students will be taught to set type like Robert Bringhurst, then they will be taught to set type like Jan Tschichold (in his early career), then they will be taught to set type like Ed Fella (but without learning why in any real way). They will learn arbitrary classification systems, and they will learn to “honor” the text and respect the type designer. If they paid attention in class they will never stretch type, they will never letter-space lowercase, they will repeat and repeat and through that repetition they will reinforce the rules.

Some people are inherently good at using color, some understand space without being taught, but no one has ever been good at typography without study. It is impossible to know the rules and history of type without being told what they are. And that is because they are made-up, arbitrary, and complex.

Selwyn Image made a funny joke in his 1877 essay, “On the Unity of Art[6],” about how boring and conservative The Royal Academy of Art was by suggesting they change their name to The Royal Academy of Oil Painting. In that say essay he wrote “For when you begin to realize, that all kinds of invented Form, and Tone, and Colour, are alike true and honorable aspects of Art, you see something very much like a revolution looming ahead of you.” While the graphic design community, generally, has moved away from the Century Guilde’s “Credo in unam Artem, multipartitam, indivisibilem” (“I believe in one art, manifold, indivisible”), the idea of a more welcoming and inclusive view of design and what is acceptable and what is not would be very beneficial to our communities. Lawyers have built of their systems so completely that it is almost impossible to navigate without their hired services, if you make a mistake in the legal world the consequences can be very serious, but graphic design is not mandatory, if you make a mistake with your typesetting you will be okay. If you have widows and orphans on your pages, you will be fine.

[1] Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style : Verson 3.2. 3rd, expanded and rev ed., Hartley & Marks, 2008.

[2] ‌ “Typesetting: Better Is Not Always Better | Before & After | Design Talk.” Mcwade.Com, 2013, www.mcwade.com/DesignTalk/2013/10/typesetting-better-is-not-always-better/. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

[3] “Hard-to-Read Fonts Promote Better Recall.” Harvard Business Review, Mar. 2012, hbr.org/2012/03/hard-to-read-fonts-promote-better-recall. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

‌ “Typesetting: Better Is Not Always Better | Before & After | Design Talk.” Mcwade.Com, 2013, www.mcwade.com/DesignTalk/2013/10/typesetting-better-is-not-always-better/. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

[4] Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style : Verson 3.2. 3rd, expanded and rev ed., Hartley & Marks, 2008.

[5] Dair, Carl. Design with Type. University of Toronto Press, 1967. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt2ttgbr. Accessed 5 Feb. 2020.

[6] The Century Guild hobby horse.

by A H Mackmurdo, Herbert Percy Horne, Selwyn Image, London. Century guild of artists., Chiswick Press, Folkard and Son, Elkin Mathews and John LaneJournal, Magazine 1884-1894