Splendid Isolation

Like most of us, I haven’t been able to work much these past two weeks. The escalation of the current situation makes everything else small. So it’s been a bit of a drag to open a book, or even think of research. Not because I don’t like it, or don’t believe in it anymore, but because it’s what I’ve done before when we were still allowed to hug, see friends, travel, and thousands of people had not been dead. So, I find myself doing things that I usually not do, like stress-tidying or stress-binge-watching of series I watched as a teenager. Extraordinary behaviour for extraordinary times. Or is that an excuse?

After all, I’ve got three lively books on punctuation and typography which I’ve been eager to read for a while: Sarah Hyndman’s Why Fonts Matter.  Bard Borch Michalsen’s Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History, and David Crystal’s You Have a Point.

London, 2016.

I started with the beautiful Hyndman book which focusses on how typeface influences our behaviour and understanding of the world. It’s full of engaging little exercises like musing about what flavour certain typefaces taste like, or how advertisement communicates the “character” of its product through typeface. Hyndman’s blog is a treasure-trove of quirky information and exciting experiments on typography, emotion, cognition, and just generally anything text design.

I whole-heartedly recommend the book for its creativity and gorgeous looks. At times, I wished myself to see more depth in terms of just quite why typeface is so powerful, has affective agency, can cause indignation and discord. A supposedly invisible thing, a transparent vessel holding words which we consider the real deal. Just like punctuation. Typography and punctuation are both under-estimated subtleties of text.

Playful and happy-go-lucky Cocon, developed by Dutch designer Evert Bloemsman in 2001.

Unfortunately, although certainly not intended, the book makes clear just how sexist typography is, that is, our attitudes to it: the book is rich, a little too rich even, in tasks of attaching expectations to a certain typeface and then checking your answer against what others have said in pre-publication surveys. For example, what job would the person do judged on the typeface of their business card. Inevitably, the curvy flourishing typefaces such as Garamond italic evoke ideas of traditionally female jobs, such as fashion stylist, planning country club galas, nail painter, hostess, beautician, looking pretty, being an expert on love. No kidding. These were people’s answers, and honestly, my own were somewhere on that scale, too. Cocon was judged to be a baker, carer, dancer, ditzy receptionist, manicurist, or dog groomer.

Developed by the French Didot family between 1784-1811. Originally signalling reason, enlightenment, and neo-classical virtues, Didot now connotes style and fashion, having been adopted by magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Didot, the typeface most often called “feminine” by the book (or the people taking part in the survey’s on which it is based), had its fair share of hostess and hairdresser, but at least culled some more high-end jobs, too, like academic, magazine editor, and, in a desperate attempt to somehow make it good, ‘female CEO’.

Quintessentially English? London-born Clarendon, 1845, Besley and Fox.

This persistent sexist strain seriously dampened my enjoyment of the book. It’s as if typography was all surface and no depth – nothing wrong with surfaces per se, but…when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes we have acquired throughout life…well. The same mechanism of thinking Clarendon is serious and professional and Cocon suggests looks and well-being (again, nothing wrong with that, but but but) — that is the same mechanism of sexism: there is nothing biological, and nothing natural about any of this. It’s habit, and habit only. Or is it? Are there not studies that we connect round shapes to sounds like /o/ for which our mouth becomes round too? Witness the word “blob”. And zig-zaggy shapes “sound” sharp. The bouba and kiki effect. So, one imagines the line of connection goes “round letter shape means round body shape means woman”. It’s all a bit depressing.

I guess if I’m asking the book these questions, or typography rather, I have to ask myself questions of why I think surfaces are shallow are bad.

Eventually, things are more complicated, and, just like the many layers of human skin which communicate with each other, surface and depth are relational, and gradients on a spectrum, are themselves, and are yet intimately connected. When does surface end and depth start?

Apart from all of that, I was quite struck by the choice to put a full stop at the end of the book’s title, and in red no less. Why Fonts Matter. Same goes for the back of the cover— ‘(and why they are lots of fun.)’ – full stop this time in back, in order to distinguish it from the white letters and red background.

In stark contrast to that choice, there is not a single full stop where it’s grammatically required, that is, at the end of proper sentences, e.g. ‘A CIP catalogue record is available from the British Library’ in the flyleaf. All that publishing information in full sentences lacks a full stop. Weird.

Seeing that Hyndman is a designer, she will surely have wanted and had maximum authority over the entire looks of her book, I thought, so I’ve written to her and asked. She said the publishing house passed it onto designers who took the decisions, so I wrote to Penguin who said they’d ask. To be continued.

And now, onto the next book and the next week in isolation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *