Surprising as it may be for fields that deal so intrinsically with text, design and typography – in both their educational and professional discourses – tend to present reading as an undesirable activity. This comes out in critically unexamined assumptions such as how people have low attention spans and never really want to read extended text – discussing at any length can of course be called boring. It may very well be that it is only designers who have developed an aversion to reading, which also brings us back to the point about implicit power: how design discourses can misrepresent and manipulate what people want.
Type designers take that stereotype of not reading to a whole new level – what seems nothing less than a process of actively acquiring illiteracy. In looking exclusively at shapes, sometimes we appear to trade our ability for general understanding in exchange for a keen visual faculty, without engaging with or realising its limitations and side-effects. Anyone who has handed a type designer a restaurant-menu to order food will know what this means. But very often even when you give a book or text to read to type design students and professionals and ask what they thought of it, the answer as we all have come to expect is that they didn’t like that fi ligature, or what was happening with that lowercase g, or the funny contrast in places, which made it impossible to read anything really, of course they would have been interested in it if only it was typeset better. Etc etc. These are all indeed valid concerns, but these are also excuses to not engage beyond a certain surface level. Here’s Mr Keedy more than twenty years ago from an essay that would be hilarious if it wasn’t frightfully accurate for even today’s designers.
A quick dismissal of content, based purely on surface qualities seems to allow designers a special right not to engage in discussions at all. And when some discussion does become inevitable what is interesting is the terms on which this discussion is had, based mostly on ideas of likes and dislikes that designers agree to disagree on. In beginners and new enthusiasts, this mono-minded outlook can seem quaintly entertaining, but when you’ve got a large part of the profession unable to articulate the ideas that are at its core, and disinclined to engage in broadening the discussion as it were, it should set some alarm bells ringing. Call this obsession with detail a professional hazard or something else, but it is – and is increasingly going to be – a serious problem not to be able to move beyond the surface, particularly not to be able to situate type design within constructive discussions at large, losing the sense of broader significance by drowning everything in detail.
In type design the questions of literacy and responsibility really don’t stop there. Type designers and professionals progressively dealing with multiple scripts, unfamiliar writing systems, are indeed often unable to read anything at all in the simple technical sense of illiteracy in scripts that they design — prompting another innocent-sounding question: is there any other profession that employs so many illiterate people who have nonetheless made and continue to make hyperbolic claims about bringing literacy to the masses? If we really want others to give type design the respect it deserves as a serious and fruitful creative activity, is it not time we brought a better understanding and a little critical thinking to qualify these overblown objectives and grand narratives? These ideas that casually derive from astonishingly outdated ways of thinking and are manifested in equally astonishing forms of expression? All too often we hear type designers claiming to be prophets of cultural change. Interpreters of the desire of entire nations. How often and how easily do type designers present themselves or are identified as representatives of a whole culture, cultures that in most cases they are not equipped to interpret adequately? And of course the language type designers use to describe the own work and to describe typefaces would make a fun outing for a linguist, or a psychologist, if not also others. What the existing articulation of the discipline amounts to is the appearance of a profession in thrall of irresponsible copywriters, and an area of creative activity without a balanced and mature view of itself. And this is indeed the dominant discourse at present when the discipline as it is has no strong counter articulations to offer. Should we really be surprised then that arguments based on design and typography have little clout in most discussions even when they do have a valid point to make? Should we be wondering why our field remains relatively under-appreciated and inscrutable to a large part of the public? Are we not inviting people to engage with what we do only at the most superficial level?
We can see the workings of the discourse in many other relevant issues in type today: Take the question of native and non native designers for example. The astonishingly simplistic understanding of this issue shows how deeply the discourse has shifted from knowledge and skill in design to other things, such as some vague idea of territorial privilege or simply ethnic justifications or at the opposite end sheer technocratic arrogance and neo-colonial fantasies. In both native and non-native camps, amazing as these terms are, the idea that knowledge and skill have some role to play is of course wilfully ignored in favour of what we can identify only as a terribly conservative idea about who belongs where.
Does one need to be able to read a script that one is designing? Absolutely not. As many very good and exceptionally gifted designers have shown over the course of history, designing type and designing it well is a separate skill that has to be learnt whether or not one knows how to read. But I’m afraid designers today, particularly those in the formative stages of their education and professional growth, have started using this idea as an excuse to justify to superficial knowledge and a lack of interest and responsibility in what they do. If one can argue that one doesn’t need to read, or to engage with the culture and textual practices associated with a writing system, why should one be interested in even trying to know more? This logic reduces genuine interest and sustained involvement in a writing system and design to an optional activity at best and an idiosyncratic waste of time at worst, especially against the backdrop of day to day office work where drawing outlines and moving on is probably the only option.
Type designers have immense, and even disproportionate amount of power in shaping the field of cultural production at least on a material level – which is to say how people are able to represent their languages in text form – and this disproportionate power is expressed in not having to explain why decisions are made the way they are, not having to explain modes of thinking and default arrangements. Designers may find themselves in a situation, and may in fact actively seek just such a situation, where they have to design for scripts that have had little support historically or those that are not represented on new platforms or have very few workable options available.
This constitutes both an opportunity and a trap – because in the absence of a body of knowledge or some kind of critical framework to build on and evaluate this knowledge the design process has the potential to make substandard solutions seem inevitable, or simply turn misinformed ideas into standard practice. In such a scenario the absence of options means that any available typeface or makeshift solution does become the only resort and dictates how people end up using their scripts. This is a great deal of power, especially for designers approaching a problem from a position of ignorance, and occasionally cultural and creative arrogance within the larger geopolitical framework that we rarely acknowledge. We have started recognising the problem with designations such as non-latin, but are we not still working squarely within the assumptions that all these scripts are somehow still secondary, minority scripts? Have we even begun recognising how often type design projects for the scripts of the world tend to be framed as extensions of Latin fonts? This unacknowledged power that in a trade-mindset might be treated as a natural privilege, an advantage to be exploited, or in a business environment follow the economical argument for expanding existing designs, needs to be addressed openly and within a setting that is capable of recognising and discussing critically how these subtle imbalances make a difference in the way we approach designing and using type. It is here that an active, productive discipline is called for, not an exploitative mindset that would approve of any mode of advantage and profit, but a mature field that has the possibility of professional and intellectual growth.
The difficulty, so far, in acknowledging and accommodating an enriching multiplicity of professional and academic activity raises significant questions: does type design continue to offer knowledge and insights substantial enough to define itself as a discipline, and to contribute to understanding in wider areas of practice and research? Has detail- and specialism-oriented practice meant that type design has actively adopted falling back on its trade roots, drawing hard boundaries and minimising intellectual engagement with other disciplines? How can type design inform and in turn be informed by developments outside its perceived, and self-defined, restrictions of purview? As type design moves more prominently and successfully into markets across the world, even retracing old trade routes and modes of enterprise – so called typographic imperialism – does it have the intellectual resources at the very least to avoid repeating past mistakes. It may be a crucial moment to actively engage with different contexts in creating a body of knowledge that can be drawn upon for a more meaningful and relevant discussion between design and those that it affects. And to explain to a wider public why type design and design education is important.
As this image from Karel van de Waarde’s presentation yesterday showed, mainstream literature in the field of type and typography is of course unhelpful as a basis for guidance at a specialist level. It is even more unhelpful at the level of public discourse, because in essence it is inward-looking: it adopts the approach of a nostalgia trip: going over and over the same few details, letter-anatomies and type terminology that seems to please only designers – designers who are of course taught to be more inclined to look than to read. The theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of a discipline may be at one remove from day-to-day practicality and problem-solving but they have a significant role to play in determining what is done, how it is done and why it is done. The implicit and unquestioned assumption of type design as a field of creative work that is mainly ‘hands-on’, going where technology takes it, free from introspection or critique, remains to be challenged not only as a deficient and uninformed conception but also as a problematic one if we understand type design as something more than merely selling fonts – that is, type design not merely as a modernised trade but as a discipline, building up a body of knowledge that is accessible to all and that engages in constructive criticism. – A body of knowledge that can be used to build on, in creating better outcomes, better practices, better understanding, and most importantly to spell out the contribution of type and typographic knowledge to culture and society in meaningful terms instead of simply assuming it, or worse, waiting for the rest of the world to figure it out for themselves.
Vaibhav Singh is an independent typographer, type designer, and currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Reading.
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