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.

23 September: Desirable Difficulty

If you can’t read this (easily), that’s exactly what should happen.

This typeface has been named Sans Forgetica by some Jacques aficionado genius, because it’s supposed to help you not forget what you’ve read. It’s got gaps and is back-slanted so that it becomes difficult (though not impossible) to read. It’s been developed by researchers of psychology, cognitive science, and behavioural business people at RMIT University, Australia in 2018, and is freely available here.

The whole idea is based on a sizable number of experiments that explore how retention rate of information is higher if we have some kind of difficulty when acquiring it in the first place. So rather than just reading a text in a smooth highly legible font, it’s better for learning if our eyes and brain stumble a little, and are being teased just that tiny bit.

Quizzes do something similar, or difficult questions, paraphrasing a text, group work, problem-solving: all this helps students remember better and increase comprehension and interpretation of the material. That’s called ‘desirable difficulties’.

There are so many ways to use this for the class room, and I love that it goes against our modern grain of hyper smoothness, and hyper simplicity. Promises everywhere to learn a language in 30 days, and all that. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. But we just have to accept that some stuff is hard to get. That’s just the way it is, and it’s supposed to be like that.

It makes me think that, perhaps, we should not offer modern spelling editions of old texts, and perhaps we should not be afraid to use texts in the original blackletter, and even (shriek) secretary hand. I did change the spelling of the Tottel preface I am going to discuss with my students, but only grudgingly so. Will they really be thrown off balance because ‘words’ is spelt ‘wordes’? Or is it a (for now) unnecessary wall between them and comprehension of sense? Should we not say that, yes, universities are place that are supposed to challenge us? Maybe I should go back, and put the preface into Sans Forgetica at least.

Who knows, perhaps Wyatt would have been more successful, amorous-wise, if he had written his poems in the anti-oblivion font. But then again, we wouldn’t have much to remember and think deeply about today. This. Forgotten not yet. In any typeface.

11 April 2019: Of Faces and Fonts

I gave a paper yesterday at Geneva University where I did a postdoc on Shakespeare in seventeenth-century Germany. I spoke about the history of punctuation, how people invented signs such as the semi-colon and of course my brackets in the fifteenth century, what the prescriptions and descriptions of use were, followed by some literary explorations. That’s all stuff I had worked on before. But in the course of preparing this paper, I became interested in typography. The more I read, the more I started to doubt that I know what it is (the arrangement of words on paper? Space? Decorations, signatures, typeface, size of text, extra-linguistic signs like punctuation? All of it, I guess, and more.). But what I did realize was that it’s devicive and able to ruffle quite a few feathers. There are some people out there who get very very upset about how far up  or down a descender or ascender is allowed to go. And although I don’t count myself amongst these, I do see their point: there’s no such thing as innocent typography.

Take Comic Sans. Unfortunately, my interface won’t allow me to change the typeface, but we all know them. Those cute curly Donald Duck shapes. There’s something about Comic which makes us not really buy into what the sentence says. Maybe it’s the literal connection to comics, and the name. But maybe there’s also something about the shape of the letters themselves that our brain stumbles over and distrusts. Too curvy? Too goofy somehow? But anyway, if you still think Comic Sans is perfectly fine to carry the most world-changing news, you’re in good company. The physics nerds at CERN regularly use it for ground-breaking discoveries like the announcement of the Higgs bosun. More here.

If you want to evoke seriousness and credibility, though, you’d fare better with Baskerville, as described in this NY Times public experiment.

There’s an infinite number of stuff out there on typefaces. The famous typographer (and self-confessed obsessed madman) Erik Spiekermann, for example, has a go at poor old Helvetica, attacking its uniformity which may be good for Swiss bankers (it’s inextricably linked to the rise of corporateness), but is not, apparently, very beautiful.

Or take Futura and its clean airy capitals, how it’s been used by NASA in the 1960s when it was setting trends for, exactly, the future.

Typefaces, I guess, comes with the double bind of cultural associations and natural visual implications: does it have serifs as in Courier New, making it that bit harder to read? What’s the spacing between the letters, condensed as in Calibri, or uniform like Arial? The (unanswerable?) question is, of course, do we invent a certain typeface to fit a cultural programme, or does a new typeface arrive and gets hijacked, as it were, by uses and ideologies. Or both at the same time? Are typefaces born out of a certain zeitgeist, while feeding back into the same?

I have to say, I do like my Garamond, and I am always delighted to read a text using it, too. It’s so easy on the eye, but perhaps that’s just because it looks Renaissance-y to me, so is cosy and familiar.

In any case, the early centuries after the invention of the printing press witness a similar struggle of typeface, notably between the native blackletter and the ancient roman. As in the debates today, it was all about legibility, but also about associations to supposed medieval vernaculars printed in the former, and the new fancy urban humanist thought in the latter. Eventually, but only after a very long while of blackletter resistance, roman won. We’ve been living in new roman times, more or less, for two hundred years now. Ad fontes.

Which nicely circles back to my title: fonts and faces, faces and fonts. No, they’re not the same. A typeface is the general genera, as it were. Like Lucinda, Georgia, and Co. And fonts, they are the different kinds of the same typeface. Like children who all look different yet share the essential gene pool of parents. Such as ‘Gentium Book Basic’ of ‘Gentium’ in general. Or ‘Bahnschrift Semi Bold Semi Conden.’ Or this: ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh Allan Glen’. The longest font name to date. Apparently.

Here is a great video for the difference between typeface and font. What a cool guy. There are also lots of TED talks on typography, some of them given by bright young women. Typography is for everyone, it seems!