Reading notes

A good metaphor

Despite the seemingly fortuitous, purely English-language nature of the connection between type “faces” and human ones it is hard to resist some attempt to follow the implied analogy. It might be that a typeface is made up of elements (its letters or characters) which are like the parts of a human visage: ears, eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps finer sub-divisions. The parts have their own expected formal properties: we know what a mouth is, and—taking an enormous leap into the particular—we know what her mouth is like. And, so the analogy would go, we know what a “g” is like and—again jumping to the particular—we know what a Baskerville “g” is like. This analogy could be pushed a little further. The parts, though formally different, should fit together: the “g” should look as though it belongs with every other character; her mouth sorts with every element of her face, becoming part of a whole that is unique (thus the photograph on her passport, or in her lover’s wallet). At this point, one introduces ideas of value and perhaps beauty. Do some mouths fit their faces better than others?…At this level of direct comparison the analogy soon becomes absurd.…Anthropomorphism has its uses and its pleasures, but has severe limits too: letters are made by human beings, but are not human outgrowths.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 116

No analogy holds when followed to the ends of the earth; it’s a tool whose power lies in suggestion—a fleeting kiss instead of a lifelong partnership.

On the democracy of letters

Even in a largely secular community, we still hesitate to set “god” (a concept that can be disbelieved) and not “God” (an undisputed primary being).

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 133

I have always written “god” and not “God” (which reveals something about my beliefs), and yet I still feel that hesitation that Kinross speaks of, knowing it runs contrary to the prevailing typographic/ideological currents and that even a small decision in typesetting can cause offense:

An editorial statement in the special issue [of Typographische Mitteilungen] concluded: “write small! no letters with powdered wigs and class-coronets / democracy in orthography too!” So lowercase was adopted by people who felt that egalitarian principles should extend to letters.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 139

It’s a lovely image to consider: the lowercase letterforms demanding a democratically arranged constitution (read: alphabet), fighting off the tyranny of the capitals.

On not judging a book by its cover

For a typographer, reading books can be difficult. If the page numbers are clumsily positioned, then the story has to be very good—to soak up the constant irritation of this mishandled detail. There is a special pleasure that comes with a book that is good in both content and typography. And I think you can often judge a book by the space between its lines.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 184

Kinross on Tschichold’s turn towards the traditional

This astonishing change came to dog Tschichold’s career. When, in 1946, he first explained it publicly (in a highly-charged exchange with Max Bill), his reasons were of two kinds: that his modern typography had been authoritarian and militaristic and so imbued with the spirit that also drove German National-Socialism; and that modernism in typography was limited to publicity work (as opposed to book design), could not properly articulate content, could be practised only by an uninitiated élite. These arguments—a tangle of true perceptions and ingenuous special pleading—inform what may be the only decent attempt at postmodernism in typography, done for the most serious moral-political reasons.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 175

Yet today much book design has gone the way of “publicity” work, has relinquished the love affair it had with texts. Which is not to say there aren’t any beautifully designed books being published, but they are increasingly difficult to find. Serious readers are forced to contend with incompetently designed and poorly composed texts if they are to read at all.

A reminder about the collaboration required to produce a beautiful book

Within the best book competition, we need an award for good editing. And it would be interesting to test the thesis that good design is only possible with books of substance, their material intelligently sorted out.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 213

The only fetishistic books would then be books that are actually about fetishism.

I don’t need a test to prove this; a book design can be attractive regardless of the substance of the text, but it can’t be beautiful. A beautiful design occurs at the intersection of great design and great writing.

Typographic disorder inevitably follows from disorder in construction; and, equally, typography by itself (if it could be “by itself”) cannot be effective with bad copy.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 228

On the origins of the designer

On the origins of the designer:

The familiar account, which I think has much truth in it, is that out of the Arts & Crafts rebellion emerged the figure that we call the designer—the typographic designer, the book designer. This person attempted to order the processes of production in printing, and attempted to reinfuse the aesthetic element, the dimension of material and visual surplus—pleasure—which printers could no longer provide as an inbuilt part of what they were printing.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 187

Refreshing to hear someone admit that design is first and foremost about pleasure, a point that is easy to lose sight of in the corporate environment.

Regarding the “new” typography

First, and so obvious that one sometimes neglects to mention it: the materials of printing played a part. Red has been the traditional second colour of printing since Gutenberg.…In the context of socialist revolution, it could take on new meanings. Similarly, “bars” had been familiar to printers since at least the early nineteenth century. Now they were seen freshly, through constructivist spectacles, as elemental forms. Much of the energy of Bauhaus and modernist typography comes from this process of old or already available materials being seen in a new light.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 250

Which is, of course, what creativity is all about: an adjustment to one’s perception, a new context for an existing observation. If creativity demanded that we bring into existence that which is completely foreign, the end result would be so unfathomable it would spill over the limits of our perception. An original design (or text) must have enough of the old and familiar within it for us to recognize its originality.

For designing is not creation out of nothing (as in the idea of the genius-artist, conjuring unexplainable beauties from a void). Rather it is a matter of working, usually with given materials, constrained by many interconnected and often pressing factors.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 314

Coming back around again to criticism and ideology

…cultural studies has been developed in application to popular culture and is in opposition not only to an exclusive, high culture but also to all distinctions of value within culture. It thus conflicts with the highminded, reforming and occasionally revolutionary way of designing (of William Morris—and company), which would certainly maintain distinctions of good and bad in the ways in which the material world is ordered: on such presuppositions must any confident design education be based.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 322

There are two ideologies at play here: that of the cultural critic and that of the typographer. The practice of cultural studies is informed by concerns of oppression and driven by an interest in culture at the margins; as such, it treats with suspicion any attempt to discern the value of a particular cultural element, believing that such distinctions are usually an attempt by one culture to oppress another. This relativistic stance emerges from a deeply held interest in reducing inequality.

However, the typographer is an aesthetician, someone who is rooted in the material world (and not just the intangible world of ideas); he believes in craftsmanship and skill. The iterative process of design—start with something rough and slowly work to refine it, improving its physical qualities with each step—gives birth to a belief system that registers the difference between good and bad without apology. As such, the typographer requires a critical perspective that embraces the work of assigning value and formulates a process for doing so; he cannot make sense of an approach that denies all distinctions of value in the name of equality.

Kinross’ larger point here is that we cannot simply borrow literary theories and apply them to design without first considering their effectiveness—and, I would argue, their underlying beliefs—with respect to this different medium.

On following paths

One of the best ways to discover new books is to follow the paths that other books leave for you:

Despite—or especially because of—this loss of faith in modernity and rationality, Adorno’s work seems just as necessary now as when I encountered it twenty years ago. His long paragraphs anticipate and consider the doubts, act out the contradictions and inconsequences—and yet, just through this endeavor of critical thought, leave the reader with the sense of something won, and with the need to go on thinking.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 185

It’s hard to pass by an endorsement like that. And Adorno doesn’t disappoint, even in the first paragraph of the dedication:

The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy, but which, since the latter’s conversion into method, has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life. What philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.…Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 15

If this is a bread crumb trail through the woods, I believe I’ve just found a dark but inviting cave to explore.