17 01 23

Modularity and process. Aldo Tanchis writes in his monograph on Bruno Munari that Munari had in common with ‘Oriental’ culture the ‘belief that culture does not lie in finished products, but in the act of making them. Not in the result, but in the process.’

What characterizes modular type among other things, sets it apart from other kinds of type, is to the extent that it is modular, paying attention to it encourages us to consider process. We see it and want to know how many forms went into making it, according to what rules. We want to know how the game was played. That the type is so to speak transparent, that we can see the parts and the traces of the procedures with and by which it came to be, makes playing along with the game both possible and meaningful. In this sense modular type is inherently participatory.


17 01 04

Levels of representation. My project asks whether it is possible for there to be at least one further level of representation in type, or in 3d space/architecture. We know that type always represents (1) speech, indirectly via alphabets; (2) model or exemplar alphabets, including the tools and materials that made those exemplars; (3) the tools and materials that made the type or the print itself; and (4) a system of formal features and differences, informed by ideas and ideologies independent of 1–3 (beginning with the structuralist moment). These work such that each letter glyph in a typeface depends on a character in its reference alphabet and the formal/material qualities and traces of the tools and methods behind the exemplar alphabets and behind the typeface itself, but also its location in its system, for its identity.

I know this collection of marks represents a certain sound because it’s an A (and by orthographical convention and context, we have to add), I know it’s an A because it looks like the A in the carved letters on Trajan’s column in Rome, I know it’s type because all the As on the page look identical, I know it was printed letterpress because I see the bite in the paper or the irregularity of the ‘identical’ outlines of letterforms (knowing this feeds back onto the recognition of type as type by giving me a set of formal parameters which I would use to define ‘identical’ in practice), and so on. But also, I know this is an A because among all these formally similar shapes being used as letters, it makes some subset of the design moves I associate with an A using the formal vocabulary of that set of shapes.

Is there a level of representation at which we barely recognize something as letterforms? Can I shape space, miniature or human-scale, to capture the ambiguity, the point between recognizing something as meaningful space and as meaning-carrying marks/letterforms; the point between knowing its information potential as space, and as surface …


16 12 19

Fragment, excerpt, extrapolation, modularity. The fragment of a text, writes Drucker, has ‘torn edges and ragged signs that announce the violent separation of the piece from its source’, whereas the excerpt ‘sits with sound-bite perfection on the page … suggesting a reductive modularity’. Fragments ‘announce their dependence on their source’, so much so in fact that there is an art to constructing them consciously to evoke those connections, as with the self-conscious creation of ruins in English gardens and grounds to evoke the whole of the British empire that exists timelessly.

This is to say the fragment invites extrapolation, itself a form of modularity, if one assisted by its context—or, perhaps, not as much as we might think, if mystery and a sense of irredeemable loss accompanies one’s emotional attachment to the whole of which we experience only a fragment.

So there is the modularity of arbitrariness: order and ‘completion’ are not our concerns, and the parts can stand alone. Or the modularity of something closer to what Drucker calls the rhizome: one can start anywhere and grow the whole from the part, or infer that such a whole existed and never mistake the part for completion in itself.

In what way do the modules of a modular script work? We already know how to reconstruct some texts when words or parts of words are missing. Some parts of letters are more important to their identities than others; strokes and joins and curves and stems in well-formed writing and type include small adjustments, gestures, hints towards their connections to the whole of the letters and to their connections with letters around them, and the size and nature of gaps and the con-text help us still more to reconstruct what is there. But could we imagine a modular typeface so flexible as to grow multiple intelligible texts from the same set of pieces?

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 12 16

An invitation. Writing invites us to play a game. Mostly the invitation is to a game to which we already know the rules: we recognize letters and words, we know how to read, we know the point is the content and that the letters and words are means to the end of getting content across.

Modularity in type and lettering changes the rules at the level of the forms on the substrate. Whether doing so engages readers depends first on whether readers can learn the new rules easily enough; second, on whether they see any point to their having been changed in the first place; and third, on how the new goals relate to the existing one of getting content across.

Depending on the context in which this all is happening these do not have to be very strict conditions. We recognize play; we associate forms with meaning beyond their participation in the writing game; we like a challenge if there is some reward to having met it; we appreciate ingenuity and surprise. But that there is a game should not escape the concern of the designer.


16 12 13

The mosaic. Here the artisan makes letters as a matter of course the same way that he or she makes anything on the surface s/he works, using the same or similar materials. Naturally at large scales or with small materials the urge is faithfulness to the construction of common letterforms. But at smaller scales, or with more regular and unyielding materials, the artisan must improvise and compromise; push the boundaries of the materials to the limit, or acquiesce to those materials only to overcome them.


16 12 12

The stencil. Stencils become precursors to modular lettering when the designer’s goal is no longer the faithful rendition of handwriting—demanding at the extreme the maximum number of stencils, one for each letter in all of its forms and any variations—but instead becomes efficiency. With efficiency comes the need to press similar shapes into closer formal proximity; thus Fred Smeijers, for example, shows that one can approximate Western scripts that descend from Carolingian hands with stencils of a dozen and a half shapes. It is only a small step from there to start questioning just how closely one is obliged to approximate those scripts in order to allow the user to write clearly with the stencil forms.


16 12 11

An exception to the curve of modularity. I have noted that using one form to trace the outlines of letterforms tends to take the design of a typeface away from modularity, even if it fits a narrow definition of the category (the combination and recombination of a limited set of shapes). But a designer can mitigate this trend by using the shapes instead to gesture at parts of letterforms: curves, terminals, stems, tails and ears, even counters and bowls. This is especially apparent in recent limited-pixel font designs intended for screens; whether the designers in question knew it or not they were demonstrating the potential in moving away from literal interpretations of outlines. Indeed, one such design even places a pixel in the counter itself to suggest the bowl.


16 12 08

Standards. Thus I refute the idea that standards lead to the death of individuality: with Legos.


16 12 07

On experimentation. Some designers dislike the language of ‘experimentation’ (and prefer words like ‘speculation’) in design and the visual arts. But not all. Lindauer and Müller embrace the term, for what I think are at least in part good reasons.

As they understand it, experimentation in both science and the arts means methodical investigation. … of a specific question, they don’t add, but it’s implied. The investigator gathers information systematically via a test setup that requires thorough documentation to make it possible to assess and reproduce the results. Here I think we have to add that the fact that two designers or artists who conduct the same experiment will never reproduce each other’s results, but they can reproduce the process of generating them, and perhaps that is enough.

The test setup requires constant framing conditions, and changing only one variable at a time, in their telling. Actually, more precise would be to say that you ‘sample’ independently of the variables you want to investigate and you change the variables such that you can always compare a test sample with a control (unchanged) sample on any variable, and see any interaction between variables. (We’ll leave to the side the difference between scientific experiment and social-scientific ‘quasi-experiments’, which distinction itself makes for fraught conversations.)

From there, say Lindauer and Müller, the next step is selection and development. But that is actually not relevant to experimentation as such, which is only interested in understanding, finding evidence for or against different accounts of experience. Selection is a part of development and improvement. In design, for example, that would mean moving from sketching and iteration through multiple approaches and changes to choosing the most promising lines of further elaboration and refinement based on the brief to which one is working. In science, that would mean stepping out of the experiment itself to consider the significance of your findings for the larger questions you’re interested in answering (your research program).

Still, thus far, the authors are making a good case for at least revisiting the reluctance to talk about experiment in design.


16 12 05

Still more definitions. Speculative lettering and speculative type: Generally I explain to students these kinds of distinctions largely the way Noordzij would: Lettering is writing with bespoke letterforms created in the moment; typography is writing with preformed letters.

There are problems with these definitions, but they don’t have to concern us for a discussion of modularity and speculation. Here I want them to signal the difference between letters generated for one-off projects, and letters generated to be used over and over again in a font.

Thus Jurriaan Schrofer would represent a speculative letterer. He never meant any of his designs to be realized typographically; all of them were lettering projects. Wim Crouwel, too, would be a speculative letterer. On the other hand, both Albers’s Schablonenschrift and Tschichold’s Neue Alfabet, for examples, would be speculative type, in that they intended them as fonts (even if, as I recall, neither were ever actually realized as such).


16 12 04

More definitions. To write a book about modular type from the standpoint of a defense of speculation in lettering and type, we need more than just a definition of modularity.

We need to begin with a clear definition of speculation, as distinct from other categories of type and lettering design. I don’t know as yet how to distinguish them, except to say that speculation needs to incorporate uncertainty, a willingness to investigate by means of projection into the unknown but sensed or intuited. (‘I think that I can make an alphabet with only these forms.’) It is not as rigorous as experimentation, which needs clearly-defined variables and questions, and a limited range of possible answers with clear conditions attached that tell us when we do or don’t have evidence enough to warrant arriving at them. Speculation takes an approach closer to that described by Aldo Tanchis for Munari: ‘let me play, then we will see’. The playfulness is tempered but amplified by seriousness in the form of commitment and persistence. A lettered alphabet is a system, thus a commitment to create inside boundaries with rules, however loose and tentative.

We could say as well that there is no aspect of obligation in speculation, in the sense that success, or even learning, can come even from ‘failed’ efforts. We might not even feel comfortable using language like success and failure, as expansive as they can be. Lettering and type can bring us pleasure, or a sense of wonder or bewilderment, even without being completely legible, for example. And changing the rules midwork to accommodate a new insight or idea does not scotch speculation as it would experimentation.


16 12 02

Speculation and modernity. Speculative lettering and type are not only underwritten by modernism; as a mode of asking questions in design, they are nearly obligatory, as are attempts to innovate in typography. That does not mean that modernism obliges designers to start using their products, or to affirm their goals. But it does oblige designers to take them seriously and attend to what we can learn from them. Even attempts that proceed from assumptions we think or know to be wrong can be useful. And even if designers continue to use more traditional type in more traditional settings, modernism is premised in part on the assumption that informed and deliberate choices are always superior to uninformed or reflexive ones. Speculation in type and typography serve to make typographic practice more intelligent.


16 12 01

Speculation in fiction and in type. Speculative fiction, as in the science fiction of Stanisław Lem, is at its best when it is grounded in what we actually know and, through making changes based on a consistent and coherent set of assumptions, asks questions to find out what we don’t. It projects, it juxtaposes, it reflects. In the process of reading we learn something about ourselves, if only that there we have more to learn. The process itself is as important as the outcome.

Speculative lettering and type as I understand them work in the same way. They may seem completely ungrounded to begin. Perhaps they explore all the possible combinations, positions, directions of a set of shapes or strokes without regard for whether they form recognizable letters. Perhaps they ask what would be true if we had learned to make letters with different substrates, instruments, appendages, eyes. Perhaps the results are peculiar, bewildering, beautiful, dizzying, ugly; perhaps they only just resemble writing, or not at all. But they start from what we know, make changes based on a consistent and coherent set of assumptions, and ask questions (if only formally) to find out what we don’t.


16 11 30

Thought experiments (2). Can we imagine a modular font of forms used to write a word that we can disassemble and recombine to make another word? Its opposite? Its apotheosis?

Can we imagine Borges’s infinite library of books, filled instead of words with strings of letter-like forms of infinite variety, including every possible script which can be realized in two dimensions on a substrate? (As well, of course, as infinite examples of meaningless text-like marks.) Which would be used to write every text imaginable in all of those scripts, an infinity of infinities?

How do we know for certain that a surface filled with writing-like marks does not encode a text in a script we do not understand? How do we know Xu Bing’s Book from the sky is really nonsense? We can easily imagine surfaces filled with writing-like marks that do not look like nonsense, but that actually are. Our bookstores and libraries are filled with examples.

Can we imagine a script that would not allow us to write nonsense?


16 11 29

The Bechdel-Wallace test for academics. We can get a sense of the intellectual atmosphere in a department by asking how often conversations among its members feature:

two (or more) faculty members;

in that department;

talking to each other;

about something other than (a) students, (b) departmental curricula, or (c) administration, policy, and logistics.


16 11 27

Analogies (1). I was initially tempted to say that modular lettering asks the designer and the viewer to do with its component forms what my card game Ambicons asks players to do with symbols. But actually, it does not.

Ambicons requires that players imagine different meanings for the symbols on the cards. A baby, for example, can mean or represent the ideas of youth, newness, hope, dependence, weakness, potential, incompetence, and so on.

But forms in their multiple applications in modular lettering and type do not carry different meanings. They serve different purposes: A shape can be the bowl of the <b>, the <d>, the <p>, and the <q>; it can be the crossbar of an <f> and the tittles of the <i> and the <j>; the beak of the <a> and the terminals of the horizontal strokes of the <z>. These forms do not ‘represent’ their roles; they perform them. Representation would apply, if at all, only if the modular letters were symbols of ‘real’ letters, which they are not.


16 11 26

A thought experiment. Would it be possible to encode meaning in forms that combined to make symbols encoding meaning at a different level? Superficially, this would be possible by simply using a string of text to form a line used to describe the strokes of script forming a text at a larger scale (see, just for one example, the holism/dualism diagrams Douglas Hofstadter drew for Gödel, Escher, Bach). But the relationship between the meanings in this case would be essentially arbitrary.

So, following Bruce Mau: Can we imagine a script that when used would not only encode meaning at one level, but the resulting forms of which would also encode non-arbitrary meaning at another? The shapes of a word at one level could form one or more letters at a higher level of scale, or an entire sentence at a lower one

What if the relationship were one of rules; a word at one level would necessarily create a well-formed letter, or a well-formed sentence, at a different level, even if the meanings (in whole or particulate) were arbitrary?

Or, would that relationship, if it were possible, necessarily not be arbitrary? Could it be ironic? Critical? More profound? A parody, the higher of the lower (or vice versa)?


16 11 25

Modernism, the modular, and modular type. Modularity is associated with modernism, and correctly so, but not for the reason many critics of modernism would think.

The temptation is to think of modularity strictly in terms of its similarity to the idea of standards (industrial, production) in modernism, and to apply to it the same in part misguided criticism of standardization that it manifests the modernist urge to simplify, to reduce, to homogenize, to control. In fact some moderns, and some thinkers and writers associated with modernism, did think this way about standards.

But in fact one of the main appeals of standardization to modernist thought was that it permitted a sort of material coming-to-terms for people. Standards allow for interchange, interoperability, a fungibility of form, and thus greater flexibility and creativity for the designer, artist, tradesworker. From a modernist perspective, modularity would be seen in the same light as grids, It allows creators to work more quickly and easily, to make, observe, adjust, and remake. It has its limits, as Norman Potter wrote; always-adjustable can mean never-settled, temporary, disengaged. But for the modernist it is only a tool, a method, not a solution or a philosophy.

For all of this, though, modularity in lettering and type is not like standards in modernism. It can have some of the same working-method advantages, but it is more than just a way to create new letterforms. It is also a means of investigation, of questioning and discovery. Its goals can include not only formal, but also conceptual, engagement.


16 11 24

Modules and rules. So far I have thought and written of the modules in modular type as if they are realized shapes. But can ‘modules’ also be, or include, the rules I use to manipulate the shapes? Or rules I use to make or manipulate arbitrary shapes?

Think for inspiration of the rules for cellular automata, like John Conway’s Game of Life. Could we imagine a parsimonious set of rules that would generate—not just happen to describe the constituent forms of—the letters of the Latin alphabet? Perhaps not, but the exercise is worth considering, as well as its prescriptive version: should there be such a set of rules? Do scripts tend towards consistent and coherent systems? Are there letters that should exist but do not, ones suggested by something more than the fact that they are well-formed according to the rules of the system in question? (Imagine the typographic, the modular-type-project equivalent of the science fiction short story in which the author describes software that analyzes a writer’s oeuvre and generates the ‘missing’ manuscripts implied by the extant ones—the novels or stories the writer ‘should’ or ‘would’ have written had they lived long enough.)

If we could accept rules as modules then we could further imagine two genres of modular lettering: one where the formal modules are given, one where they are arbitrary. Both would presumably include rules, but in the latter case the system would comprise only the rules.


16 11 23

Story and plot. E. M. Forster once wrote that ‘the king died and then the queen died’ is story, but ‘the king died and then the queen died of grief’ is plot. Michael Wood, writing much more recently in the London Review of Books on Robert Belknap, argued that ‘the king died and the queen married his brother’ was even better: it permits lots of different stories, stories within stories, stories told from different perspectives. The plot will end, as all plots do, but it could take a long time to get there.

Throwing elements on a substrate is not design. Design requires a plot, meaningful and functional relationships between the elements that give a reader, a viewer, points of engagement and investment. If great design, like the classics in Italo Calvino’s formulation, is never finished saying what it has to say, it has less to do with content only and as such, and more to do with what it says about meaning and function. It’s not that we want to keep hearing about medicine or aperitifs or cars or concerts. Those are the story. What keeps our attention is the plot.

And yet the plot can also mislead us, by distracting us from elements of the story we should attend to more closely. Here is the insertion point for a good deal of design criticism, and the departure point for more critical design practices: the insight that plot is a form of enchantment, to be at once welcomed and mistrusted.


16 11 22

The point of modularity. One goal of speculative type design is to better understand how typography works by breaking it. It is in this way a form of design criticism. Our assumptions about how type and lettering work—or better, are supposed to work—are never clearer to us than when we see them systematically violated. We’re forced to defend them, or to admit that we can’t. It is hard to remain neutral when the violations are earnest and systematic.

Modularity in particular is a way of reducing typographic writing to simple formal elements. It is tempting to say about it that it’s a way of finding out what letters are. But Douglas Hofstadter among others has pretty effectively shown that you can’t reduce letters to some set of essences, because those essences aren’t to be found. Rather, modular type helps us understand better what letters do, and what they need in order to do it.


16 11 21

Transcendent modularity. There is at least one possible exception to my first hypothesis: that if the constituent shapes suggest metamodules—shapes that are not actually present but appear to be—then the limit to the relationship between the number of constituent shapes and the constrainedness of the typeface disappears.

A possible, and if valid then extreme, case in point: my own Kast, in virtue of the triangles/rhombi suggesting the sides of cubes. A different case: a geometric stencil typeface like Albers’s Schablonenschrift, which suggests the movements of a pen and the resulting bowls, stems, bars, etc.

A possible counterargument: metamodules only push the original relationship limit onto their own plane. What if you use many multiples of the literal shapes to trace the outlines of metamodules?


16 11 20

On modularity in typeface design. A modular typeface is a typeface generated by combining and recombining a finite set of discrete shapes into letterforms according to some finite set of rules.

There are (at least) two ideal types of modular typefaces, constrained and unconstrained. Think of these as ends of a continuum. Where there is some necessary formal relationship between the outlines of the constituent shapes and the letterforms, a modular typeface is constrained. Where that relationship is arbitrary or nonexistent, it is unconstrained.

The number and qualities of the shapes, and how they interact, influence where on this continuum any given modular typeface rests. Five hypotheses:

1. The smaller the set of shapes you use, the more constrained the resulting typeface will be—to a point. Beyond it, the only way to generate recognizable letterforms is to use multiple shapes to trace or fill outlines of letters to make letterforms. This makes the letterforms more independent of the shapes, and hence the typeface less constrained.

2. The fewer shapes you use to generate each letterform, the more dependent the letterforms will be on those shapes, and hence the more constrained the typeface will be.

3. The more complex the ways you allow the shapes interact to make letterforms, the more independent the letterforms will be of those shapes, and hence the less constrained the typeface will be.

4. The simpler the shapes you use—at their simplest, regular convex polygons, and finally the sphere—the less complex will be the ways the shapes may interact to make letterforms, and hence the more constrained the typeface will be.

5. The more variable the shapes you use—for example, strokes of various weight and length, or variations on a single base form, like a rectangle or a triangle—the more complex will be the ways the shapes interact to make letterforms, and hence the less constrained the typeface will be.


16 11 11

Not the sea but the forest. Eco makes a wonderful distinction in asking about the epistemological aspects of semiotic study: does the semiologist study the abstract and pure activities of an ideal sign-producer or the complex and constantly-negotiated activities of embedded and in part socially-constructed actors? His answer: that the semiotic field is not like the sea, where the wakes of passing ships disappear; it is like the forest, where exploration leaves a trail, a residue of passing. How we describe what we study must include how our descriptions participate in and change what we study.

What field of study is this not true for? It could only be: any field the object of which lies below or above (if there is an above) Eco’s semiological threshold. But even there the fields themselves, if not the phenomena they study, are semiologically significant.

It calls to my mind the role of convention in design education. Our methods openly celebrate the innovator and the maverick, but in practice we too often encourage the follower and the copyist. We might tell ourselves that this at least does no harm, but entrenchment and reinforcement are forms of change. Every contribution to noise tells, even if we can’t distinguish each sound from the others.

It is never a question of whether we participate, but how, and how conscious we are of doing so and of the results.

(Eco, A theory of semiotics)


16 11 10

The lower threshold of semiotics. Robert Epstein has recently reminded us that the human brain is not a computer; they do not operate on symbolic representations of the world. The idea that they do is a metaphor suggested to us by ourselves, by our own ingenuity at inventing computers and making their way of working so central to our lives. But our neurons do not store records of experience and the results of processing, or manipulate information, the way that magnetic bits and logical switches do. Stimulus and response are what governs human brains.

But Eco in considering the lower limits of semiotic theory suggests there is more to the story. ‘To assert that stimuli are not signs’, he writes, ‘does not necessarily mean that a semiotic approach ought not to be concerned with them.’ Sign functions by definition comprise two elements that outside their relation are not intrinsically semiotic, but they become semiotic in that relation. ‘There are some phenomena,’ he goes on, ‘that could be imprudently listed among supposedly non-signifying stimuli without realizing that “in some respect or capacity” they can act as signs “to somebody”.’

Here Eco explicitly calls out the ‘signals’ of information theory, and genetic and neurophysical phenomena, as cases in point. At least the theories that concern them, he suggests, should be considered part of the purview of semiotics, if not the phenomena themselves. But his point is that it is not always as easy to draw the line between these two realms as Epstein perhaps suggests: ’The decision whether or not to respect this threshold seems to me a very difficult one to make.’

(Eco, A theory of semiotics)


16 11 05

Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. The effect of Eco’s surprising and succinct definition is to place a good deal of epistemology inside the bounds of semiotics, insofar as the study of knowledge includes the relationship between knowledge and truth and the semiotic general program is ‘the theory of the lie’.

There are many reasons to be interested in such a theory, but for some the subject would be important for pressing practical reasons: the concern, for example, that there is too much lying going on. Often this presents itself as the felt need to expose lies definitively, even to the liar; and, ultimately, to prevent lying in the first place. This might happen either through a process of social shaming (actual or anticipated), or a more radical procedure such as reforming language to prevent lying in the first place; think of the Houyhnhnms’ language in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or a sort of anti-Newspeak, as a model for such a program. Semiotics would be enlisted in the later project to explain the operations of lying and truth-telling, to help the recreate language as a kind of truth machine.

We can sympathize with this idea; it is enormously frustrating that so much lying in public life occurs, apparently without penalty or even notice. But Arendt would caution us against trying to eliminate lying in response. Language and thus public life reformed as a machine for truth is not only impossible in principle, but would be a profoundly unfree outcome. It is among other things our ability to imagine and project to others the untrue (for now), the hypothetical (but not proven), and the possible (but not yet) that makes politics possible in the first place. Lying for Arendt was intrinsically political; freedom requires us to take the bad with the good. Not Truth, which is coercive by its nature, but truthfulness is the obligation of the citizen and the counterbalance to lying in public life and politics.

Coming back to semiotics, this suggests what we might already expect from Eco: that for him a semiotic theory will have at its core the essential freedom of language to encode and to mean. Another word for this would be ‘play’, and so I find it a matter of course that Eco was involved with the work of his fellow Milanese, the artist and designer Bruno Munari, to whom the play of form and how we think about it were central. Munari’s playfulness helped him at times to expose our false ideas about visual and material culture, and even by simply calling semiotics ‘the theory of the lie’ Eco tells us that we might expect him to adopt the same approach. To take a subject seriously does not have to mean that we take it solemnly.

(Umberto Eco, A theory of semiotics)


16 11 04

Can art make an argument about the philosophy of language that philosophy cannot? Drucker’s ‘yes’ centers on the importance of the embodiment and performance of writing.

But looking at the examples of the art by which she demonstrates her point, it’s hard to escape the importance in many of them of playfulness, verbal and visual puns, hyperbole, surprise, and laughter. Which brings to mind Paulos’s pairing of philosophy and humor; his argument that both are ways of juxtaposing phenomena in order to ask questions about them, to highlight inconsistencies or paradoxes or unsettling, uncomfortable, problematic implications. In short, they are both ways of creating critical distance by means of directed and framed forms of attention. The advantage that humor can have over philosophy is its immediacy, physical as well as intellectual—laughing is, or can be, critical performance and is deeply material.

Is it possible that another way to make Drucker’s point is to expand Paulos’s argument about humor to include playfulness, and to think about art as a family of specialized forms of humor? I know this would disturb the inhabitants of the art world who have staked their careers on the idea of Art as a Very Serious Thing Indeed, but their viewpoints no longer have quite the influence over the public conversation about art that they never deserved in the first place anyway.

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 11 03

Logic never knew, nor had the capacity to know, what matters most in the human world. And so, logical schemata for writing as notation only succeed if they fail, so to speak, says Drucker—if they retain some trace of their performance, all the purity and aspirations to observer-independence (even content-independence) notwithstanding.

Drucker is not the first, simply one of the more eloquent, to point this out. And I agree with her. The problem is that this insight, which we can trace back to writers like Derrida, can too easily distract us from the obligation (if we are honest students) to discover why people proposed to reform and reconstruct writing (or language more generally) in the first place. Some, most, of those projects were misguided; some are hard to read as anything but exercises of power to police communication. But some were genuine attempts to think about how to make language less opaque, to remove its historical and traditional encrustations and make it a more useful tool for people to share ideas and experience and information.

What modernism asks is not that we plunge ahead rationalizing language or writing at the cost of its inherent ambiguity and idiosyncrasies, and the creativity and playfulness they enable. Rather, it is to balance flexibility, individuality, and spontaneity with the need to seek connection and relationships, and to choose these things intelligently and openly. Some degree of logic and formalism, some amount of regularity and transparency—like modularity in materials and organization—can actually help people express themselves to others more fluently.

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 11 02

Every notational operation is also an act of inscription. And yet taken too far this idea can obstruct communication. The epistemological analogy—and Drucker’s essays are in her own words ‘epistemological’—would concern the idea of objectivity. Objectivity, the ‘view from nowhere’, is impossible, and thus so too is the aspiration to certainty of belief. But that doesn’t rule out fairness: that we recognize the limits of human knowledge and adopt practices that fight the conditions under which we know we are likely to get things wrong, among those conditions being the kind of subjectivity that allows us to forget that the world is the way it is regardless of how we hope, or fear, that it is.

That code, or any form of digital ‘notation’, always bears a forensic trace of its enactment or performance is true. Yet the pretense that it isn’t—a pretense that we build into our software and hardware—is a kind of useful hypocrisy that allows us to create tools humans can use in common to inquire, to solve, to create, to share, to grow. That there’s more than a passing resemblance between code and the language projects imagined by Leibniz or the Vienna School should not escape us, but it doesn’t have to paralyze us.

To be fair to Drucker on this point: it’s as much, maybe more, the pretense to autonomy she finds in the idea of digital writing as notation—of writing as a independent entity, rather than an action humans perform—that disturbs her more than the pretense to objectivity. But a healthy sense of code as a tool (as all writing is) suited to some projects and not to others, and one that we shape ourselves, can help prevent this mistake.

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 11 01

The modern, rational faith in formal notation. —notation here understood as the abstract encoding of information that affects to be neutral with regard to its content. Drucker rightly associates this faith with what Dewey called the ‘quest for certainty’, the belief in a form of writing that could fix reality in self-evident and apodictic ways, but this is only part of the modern story, the part associated with what I would call architectonic understandings or realizations of modernism, the ones that end in some form of a myth of control.

The core of modernism, though, is critical—the urge to question, to rethink, to hold apart and to remake as needed. The faith in humans’ ability to engage and change their environment intelligently. This includes a healthy sense of self-critical awareness, which in turn is associated (for example, by Norman Potter) with the urge to connect, to seek and form relationships. This requires people who encounter the same world but in different ways and from different points of view to come to terms with one another, to speak and write in ways that allow the encounter to be fruitful. Here for example are where we locate the virtues of truth as Williams understood them: sincerity and accuracy; people share experiences for other reasons too, but truthfulness as an ethic is intrinsic to at least a good part of the meaningfulness of communication.

Thus we should be careful when noting the folly of a quest for certainty that those who undertake it are not always bent upon control. Sometimes, often even, the point is connection and exchange.

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 10 31

Letters are poetical instruments that show the manual imagination in dialogue with a materialized conceptualism. To grasp this, though, one needs a certain self-consciously critical distance from the practice of making and using letters, a sense that one is choosing not just what letters will look like but also understanding, defining, and accepting the parameters in which that choice is made. This requires further a sense of human agency, that we are capable of affecting the conditions in which we live and have a say in the ideas we hold in our heads.

Thus it isn’t really until the advent of modernism in the critical sense I’ve described elsewhere that Drucker’s argument finds traction in the way we think about writing. My evidence at least initially is that truly speculative type design, which relies on the same sense of agency, does not appear until then. Playfulness, reform, inventiveness, the use of typeforms to signal identity or power, the ideologies and elaborate stories about letters, all have been with us since we began to write, but deliberate experimentalism and systematic exploration as a means of material and conceptual inquiry are wholly modern phenomena—at the earliest, modern in the sense of ‘modernity’, but I think even later than that.

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 10 30

Finding a vocabulary for a new technology takes time. Sometimes it even takes time to understand what aspects or affordances of the new technology the new vocabulary will reference. When screens and printers were low-resolution, designing digital type meant creating typefaces with features that responded to the affordances of heavily-pixelated displays and dot-matrix print heads. Software and hardware companies commissioned fonts whose outlines were intended to mitigate, even take advantage of, the limited capacity of reproductive techniques. The affordances of resolution (and to a certain related degree, color) were foremost on the minds of designers for a very long time.

Now displays with much better resolution are becoming cheaper and more common. To that extent, this change frees up designers to direct more attention to the other important affordance of digital type, the inherent mutability of the screen—where, despite the lasting importance of print, most digital type still lives.

(Johanna Drucker, What is? Nine epistemological essays)


16 10 29

The spirit of the modern movement won’t come to meet you; you must go out and make it your own. If modernism were only its stylistic realizations, then it would present itself to new designers as a program in progress: here is where it has been thus far; your task is to find it new applications. But modernism as a critical attitude and a family of questions demands each designer, like Stephen Dedalus, encounter for themselves the reality of experience, and ‘forge in the smithy of their soul the uncreated conscience’ of their field. The truth of modernism is not a noun but a verb.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 28

There is no role waiting for us. To be a responsible designer means more than questioning the means, goals, and consequences of our work. Every designer is responsible for defining what design is, for fixing in their own way, however small, ‘the place of value in a world of facts’. And every designer does in fact define that role, whether they know or like it or not. Conforming to expectations is as much a choice as challenging them; it is simply (for many) an easier one.

The larger point Potter is making concerns the need for design, and this brings us back to where he started his book. Every human being is a designer. That some societies recognize ‘designing’ as a defined and continuing role—say, in the same way that they do ‘childrearing’ or ‘leadership’—is not necessary or inevitable. It is inescapable from the principles of modernism properly understood that the role of design itself should be subject to constant challenge and redefinition (within the bounds of the practical). But this happens always already anyway, with every choice of the designer and his or her clients, real or potential. That most choices are infinitesimally incremental is of no more consequence than the observation that rocks are worn away by wind and rain only a tiny fraction of an inch every year. There is no certainty in defining design or assigning its duties, only ‘ordered evidence’, and that only up to a point. Past that only ‘the sheer courage of our perceptions’ matters.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 27

The foundations of judgment in design are rooted in ordinary life. One of the many strengths of Potter’s book is that he ends by suggesting to readers concerned to ‘help find constructive ways forward to a better society’ not the means direct to that end (which would be futile) but two mistakes likely to obstruct it. Those would be trying to ensure a better future by living in it now, and the assumption that method and technique (as contrasted with spirit and attitude) will take you there. Compounding those mistakes, making them more attractive, are the common feelings among students that their successes mean nothing—this observation, I think, is reserved for the most serious students, the ones most driven and prone to self-criticism—and the competitiveness that pervades schools and professional life.

A teacher once told me that the greatest gift a person can give to anyone is their attention. I think Potter would agree that this is just as true regarding the world in general, and go on to note that that gift repays itself directly to designers who learns to observe and know fully what is around them. ‘Ordinary life and human concerns’ are the well from which judgment and decision flow. To be deeply committed to the present and to learn from the past where it will teach us, and to know one’s friends, is what will keep the designer open and responsive—not dwelling on the future or obsessing over one’s enemies (human or otherwise), as tempting as both can be.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 26

The one thing about the future of which a student can be sure, is that its demands are strictly unpredictable. This is at once so manifestly true that it should be considered foolish to feel compelled to point it out, and so unclear to so many people who have a say in design education that it’s hard sometimes to imagine everyone in question is describing the same world of experience. Testimony perhaps to the ability of bad ideas—in this case, the conviction that learning is predictable measurable—to drive out good ones.

Thus Potter writes that students, especially ones concerned to contribute to society through their work, need first to know and accept themselves—on their own terms as well as on society’s, we could add, the former of which society does not always easily allow. Secondly, they must be willing to educate themselves; this may for many mean accepting the ‘constraints and opportunities’ of a formal education. (Recall that for Potter any diligent designer starts and remains a student.) Potter reminds us of Graves’s dictum that it is easier and more common to hate hypocrisy than to love the truth, and the truth is that formal education, like any social institution, always requires a certain amount of hypocrisy on the parts both of students and instructors. Students who refuse the bargain, the benefits of community for developing one’s skills and acumen before going out all the way into the world, must not imagine the world outside to be any different in that regard, and do not thereby evade the obligation to learn to, as Arendt put it, think what they are doing.

They are thirdly obligated, especially while they are in school, to seek out and learn to feel thoroughly and appreciate what it means to succeed (the ‘sense of accomplishment’ Potter describes). This means among other things demanding and making for themselves opportunities to fail. We can say a lot about the importance of looking for experiences and activities and projects that resonate with us, to be honest about what we love and what we don’t. But we must someday address the most serious flaw in the systems of formal education we have now, which is the fundamental assumption built into curricula and standards of evaluation that learning comes always and only from success. Simply put, there is no institutional recognition that students can learn a great deal from failure—indeed have to fail to learn, one way or another. So long as schools only punish failure, students will have to fight that much harder to meet the obligations Potter describes.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 25

Joined hands. Potter describes an adjunct to the modern movement through a chain of thinkers whose writings connected to and informed modernism (as he understood it): Kropotkin, through Geddes, Ashbee, and Lethaby, through Mumford and Read, to Schumacher, Ward, and Goodman in his own day. Besides grounding modernism in humanist values, establishing a pedigree of those values is a means—says Potter—of depriving contemporary trendiness and greed of their ability to warp our judgment.

This would be a useful exercise for design students today. Though we can’t expect them to be readers like Potter, we can ask them who the designers are they most admire or want to emulate; ask them to research their biographies and find out who their teachers were; then do the same with that second list, and continue with each successive list. I expect most students would run out of sources for most if not all the lines of this genealogy of designers before they reached the turn of the twentieth century. It could also be done with books and thinkers; even if the first and most contemporary list contains books we find superficial, almost any author will at least name-check their inspirations, allowing us to dig deeper.

Two points to this exercise: First, to get students to see that their work—even if they don’t know what that is yet—has a history, necessarily humanizing it—as John Dewey understood historicizing always did—in the process. Second, with that history established, to look at it critically: is that line of teaching or thinking one that that the student wants to be associated with? How successfully (and from whose point of view) were ideas and practices handed down from one generation to the next? Could we fruitfully go back and reinterpret them for ourselves? This point adds to the first the ingredients of judgment and choice, and might even make the inevitable process of rethinking our relationships to those who came before us (inevitable, that is, to those concerned to think critically about such things) easier to accept and to embrace.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 24

Well-doing is the play of love upon inert material; the finding of its forms. ‘—to which the clarifying tasks of our epoch, the finding of each other and the conversion of mass into energy and relationship, are contributory’, writes Potter. He notes himself that we do not need to accept his perhaps-only-half-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the proper task of the designer in a world of ‘physical entanglement’, obliged to define and question frames of action and ensure that the energy of our attention and work reaches all within those frames, corresponds to the mission of the Christian, in but not of this world and ‘making straight the path of the Lord’, to understand our obligation to study what we do in such a way that ‘quickens response’ and allows ‘life and love to become more abundant’.

The tone of these passages suggests the spirit of care and openness Potter is driving at that he places at the center of modernism. There is no mention of ‘play’ as such, but I wonder if in his reading Potter ever came across the work of Bruno Munari, the Italian artist and designer. Perhaps not: he does not appear in Potter’s otherwise very extensive bibliography, and, as more than a few of Munari’s biographers have noted, Munari was not as well-known as he deserved to be even inside Italy. Playfulness and experiment were the animating spirits of all of Munari’s work, his way of questioning and leaving himself open to the affordances of the materials he worked with.

Potter for his part is rather more ‘puckish’ than ‘playful’. We might imagine a continuum of modernism that stretches from the solemn, like Tschichold and Gropius, to the playful, like Munari, with people like Potter in the middle. One’s position on the continuum would be a question of emphasis: John Allen Paulos wrote once that philosophy and humor were both ways of responding to the juxtaposition of experiences or phenomena that do not cohere. Maybe the same somehow can be said of disinterested criticism and playful experiment: both belonging to modernism; both being forms of questioning and openness appropriate in different times and contexts; both in their own way aspects of the love of the world that Potter describes—seeking connection (coming-to-terms, shared engagement) and creativity (investigation, serendipity).

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 23

The only reliable form of words is a poem. ‘… or possibly a novel’, Potter goes on to say, ‘—all other forms being insufficiently transparent. We read criticism to increase our enjoyment of these things’—what we humans make—‘to understand them, and perhaps to make them better. They are, after all, leavings.’

What ‘they’ refers to at the end is a little unclear, since both the things and the criticism are ‘leavings’. In any case and although what Potter says about why we read criticism is true, what William Carlos Williams said about poetry, and the news, and dying miserably could as well apply to criticism, transparency, and erring. The things we make do and should speak for themselves in some ways, but it is our curse and blessing as humans that they are also not entirely transparent; we need to talk about them to ourselves and to others even just to use them. The human condition is limited—it is why we seek connection and relationships—and the things humans make are as bounded by natality and mortality, and marked by uncertainty, as the humans who make them. (Think of all the human artifacts archaeologists have found that are mysteries to us today, the chain of stories people told about them having been broken long ago.) Reflection and criticism cannot force us to make intelligent choices, but they can at least help us avoid the conditions that lead to stupid ones, and suggest alternatives we might have missed.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 22

Anti-modern movement. Most contemporary criticism of modernism, I’m sorry to say, is not worth reading on its stated terms. Articles and books might advance claims worth considering on their own merits; one could learn a great deal about the author or the author’s field, but not much about modernism. This is because, again, ‘modernism’ has become for critics a catchall for any trends or ideas they don’t like that can’t be assigned to some other category, like traditionalism or conservatism. Identified by appearance and style, or attitude—this last thanks in part to the arrogance, ambition, optimism, or extravagance of some of the major figures of the modern movement—the object of this criticism bears only a contingent or superficial resemblance to modernism properly, or meaningfully, understood. Keedy’s uninformed anti-modernist screeds—there really is nothing better to call them—are good cases-in-point.

The best criticism of modernism focuses on cases where its proponents lost sight of the critical leverage of their ideas and fix the essence of movement in the answers they were offering rather than in the questions they were asking. Designers have to offer answers—the goal of design work, after all—but there are many intelligent ways to solve a problem, and what ‘intelligence’ will look like has to change with problems and contexts. But this failing is no more endemic to modernism than it is to anything else made by human beings.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 21

Bran tubs and oddities. Bailey’s and Biľak’s Dot dot dot, which ran to twenty issues and has been succeeded (in a manner of speaking) by Dexter Sinister’s Bulletins of the serving library, now in its eleventh print issue (the magazine’s website is a rolling publication), are two remarkable examples of what can happen when designers decide to look closely at their surroundings without preconceptions about relevance. Dot dot dot’s contents started closer to design and then moved out to encompass studio and experiential art, mathematics, history, engineering, speculative fiction, politics, music, food, linguistics … Bulletins has stayed there. In the design world (just) but not of it. Wood’s The national grid (from New Zealand) occupies this space also. Focused on subjects of ‘unexpected creativity’ in the international context is Biľak’s Works that work, now pending its eighth issue and going strong.

All magazines; the age of catalogs like Potter’s first example, the Whole Earth Catalog, is probably gone for good—print catalogs being one of the first casualties of online publishing. Design blogs and online journals have taken their place. Most are flashy and faddish, but some—the late Lebbeus Woods’s site, Manaugh’s BLDG BLOG, his partner Twilley’s Edible geography, Atlas Obscura—are fresh and thoughtful.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 20

Books on design education. Wingler’s Bauhaus, yes; and all the Bauhaus-Bücher are now available online in high-resolution scans as well. Even if you disagree with the philosophies and methods they contain, they repay confrontation and argument. I’d add to the list on this subject Lupton and Miller’s The ABCs of the Bauhaus. On the other most-well-known German school of design would be Lindinger’s and Spitz’s excellent histories of the Ulm School, both of which are available in English translation. Jumping the ocean, Molesworth’s, Katz’s, and Diaz’s books on Black Mountain College are well worth exploring. More specialized would be the series of excellent books published by and about the Werkplaats Typografie: Wonder years, In alphabetical order, and Dutch resource.

Good books on the general topic of design education are not very common; more so are books of exercises, which vary wildly in quality. Judith and Richard Wilde’s Visual literacy and The process are very strong examples of the genre in visual design, and should be on the prep list of anyone teaching introductory courses.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 19

Books on education. To a list that includes writers like Goodman and Illich I would add Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity and Teaching as a Conserving Activity not only respect and enlarge upon the difference between training (or schooling) and education, but develop a ‘thermostatic’ view of the social role of the educator—at its center, the obligations to a disinterested pursuit of truth and the preservation of knowledge, both change and continuity, as a means of society’s intellectual self-governance. His shorter essays are also worth re-reading, in particular ‘The Educationist as Painkiller’: an argument that intelligence is too diverse and unpredictable to define in advance and impose upon students. The better approach is to teach so as to mitigate the conditions—vastly fewer and more predictable—that promote stupidity.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 18

Technical books, catalogs, and references. For better and worse, manufacturers’ websites, online help files and forums, and social media have largely displaced printed volumes in their practical, day-to-day how-to roles for graphic designers. Paper and other printing substrate catalogs, and the associated printer’s references (color pre-press, folds and formats, etc.) and manuals of typographic reference (which form a narrow and slightly nostalgic but still active field of publishing) might be the only notable exceptions.

Industrial designers and architects, working as they do with materials whose makers rely on the tactile qualities of their products, still live somewhat in this world, even if it manifests itself also as a collection of scraps around the office or shop used as references. The thick red-and-white Grainger catalogs are likely fairly common around ID studios and workrooms still.

Already in Potter’s time, especially older catalogs were seen as historical documents and sources of inspiration. This is even more true today, especially for example in the type world, where designers frequently refer to printer’s and foundry catalogs and specimens, both to identify older type in use and as the springboards for new designs (and not necessarily just revivals).

Lost with printed technical manuals and catalogs is something similar to what we lose when physical bookstores and libraries disappear: browsing and discovery. The physical act of leafing through a catalog, like being surrounded in stacks of books, inevitably leads the curious to find sources or connections they would have never found otherwise. Thoughtful internet searching and being willing to invest time investigating virtual rabbit holes can recreate some of this experience, but not as immediately. The eye is faster than the fingers, for one thing; for another, there is a difference between seeking diverse connections, however earnestly, and having them thrust upon you. In some cases, quite literally; at least three books on my shelf were handed to me personally by a bookstore owner who saw what I was looking at and made connections for me.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 17

Design theory and practice books. Potter’s own book, obviously, and Alexander’s first few books at least, are good examples, to which Potter adds Bachelard’s Poetics of space and we might add Bollnow’s Human space. Aicher’s collected essays and Hara’s books also present more or less coherent views of design as theory; Tschichold’s essays on book design and typography and Munari’s collected essays on his works and travels are good accounts of or reflections on practice. Some of Walter Nikkels’s essays on book and building design—the parallels between them included—could be included also.

But really, monographs that fall squarely into this category are rare, and after the first examples above the rest trend toward more personalized approaches and specialized topics. ‘Design thinking’ has become a buzzword, and perhaps too contested, sensationalized, and middle-managerial to anchor a general discussion once IDEO and Six Sigma emerged in the 90s. Nevertheless Nigel Cross’s essays and books (Designerly ways of knowing, Design thinking) are useful to frame a productive conversation about the topic.

It is good to look skeptically on this category; I have always learned more from books that start small or indirectly and work outwards or around to larger questions.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 16

Design philosophy and predicament books. Put another way, the books that concern the emerging and forthcoming tasks of designers. The four most pressing concerns of at least those people living in the Western industrialized world are: Global warming and the closely-related ongoing and impending crises of energy and food production, resource extraction, and waste; rapidly-increasing inequality and the concentration of power and resources in the hands of a shrinking number of people; an accelerating decline in the perceived legitimacy of politics and liberal-democratic state forms of government; and continued and pervasive forms of racism, xenophobia and nationalism, religious prejudice, and discrimination based on sex- and gender-related identities and behaviors, all pernicious both in their own right and as mobilized for and against parties, policies, and institutions as people try to cope with the consequences of the first three sets of concerns.

The more designers think and read about these issues, and (one can hope) feel compelled as citizens to do something about them, however small, the more ‘relevant’ and ‘engaged’ (to pick two common contemporary buzzwords) their work will be. And, moreover, the more responsible their choices will be, even narrowly and professionally defined. As more than a few designers and educators have pointed out, holding the giants of the postwar design world out as role models for students and young designers is not only questionable on its own merits, but also pointless when the jobs and fields in which they worked are disappearing or becoming highly exclusive.

The point in suggesting designers inform themselves about these problems is not to insist that designers themselves, as designers, will solve them (Tony Fry’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding). But design of all kinds will be necessary to the solutions, if there are any to be found and even just in the sense that good design provides for the conditions under which we are likely to produce them. And in any case there are values central (if not in all cases exclusive) to design that served well make life in the world worth living.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 15

Related books, near and distant. This can only ever be a personalized category to every designer who reads.

For myself, I become interested in design in two ways, one direct and one indirect. The direct way was through a fascination with letters and type, then typography, that developed as I worked on my dissertation. The indirect one was a concern for the conditions under which people could maintain a commitment to truth: the virtues of truth themselves, sincerity and accuracy, and a meaningful distinction between what is and is not the case about the world around us. That concern was tied up with a commitment to politics as the way a free people make decisions, to a politics as free of domination as possible, to an understanding of conversation and deliberation as embodying implicit ethical principles without which they would be meaningless. I was also convinced that philosophy and criticism were at their best questioning and juxtaposing, not answering and judging (that last we do for ourselves).

So for me, important more distantly related books to my design practice and teaching would be Arendt’s The Human Condition and her essays on truth, politics, and citizenship; Habermas’s many books on communication ethics and deliberation; Crick’s In defense of politics; Runciman’s Political hypocrisy; Frankfurt’s On bullshit; Williams’s Ethics and the limits of philosophy and Truth and truthfulness; Lynch’s books on the nature of a commitment to truth and its centrality to democratic politics; and Eco’s many, many books on semiotics and the play of language.

More closely related would be books on language and writing, with an eye toward how the way we communicate shapes the way we see the world: Ong’s Orality and literacy; Goody’s The domestication of the savage mind and The logic of writing and the organization of society; Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death; Fischer’s three-volume opus on human language; Drucker’s books on graphics and epistemology.

But I’d have also to include fiction: Borges, Calvino, Lem, each in their own way just as taken up with the problems of truth and language, ontology and epistemology and semiotics, and each in their own way playing with stories to ask deeper questions. And books on artists: Sandberg, Munari, Werkman. And essayists like McPhee. And before too long I’m thinking about Guthrie’s Nature of paleolithic art and Reps’s anthology Zen flesh, Zen bones … The point is for the designer who wants to think critically about the field to get outside it.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)


16 10 14

On the 32nd anniversary of METAFONT.

1
We call METAFONT typography because its letters resemble the ones made with type. But we would not call Gutenberg’s type handwriting just because it resembles the writing of scribes and monks.

2
‘Knuth’s METAFONT is inferior because it only shapes the black spaces, not the white.’ Yes. That is because he is not a typographer. Typography is writing with durable and reusable preformed instructions for reproducing letterforms. You have to shape the white spaces as well as the black when you design these instructions. But we do not fault the person writing with a pen for not shaping the white spaces between the letters; we do not learn to write that way.

3
‘But skeleton-based type design will never …’ That is the problem; we have developed a way of writing that we do not have a name for yet; we have problems with it because of the names we assign it according to what it reminds us of. Writing is not typography and it is not designing.

4
Yet the writing that METAFONT creates, or makes possible, is governed by typographic rules in TeX. TeX is thus somehow typography without type. When we understand how this can be we will be able to move our thinking about it forward.


16 10 13

Course books. We can divide these books into two broad subcategories: the how-tos and the readers.

How-to books themselves are on a continuum, ranging from the make-it-like-this approach of Rockport’s graphic design books (on layout, grids, color, and so on) to the instructional approach, which books have largely been supplanted at least in graphics by software manufacturer’s tutorials and help databases, and by third-party services like Lynda.com. Books in both approaches may be temporarily useful, but they date quickly: those in the first, partaking as they generally do of the styles and fashions of when they were put together (‘written’ hardly seems correct), date quickly. Those in the second made more sense when the technology of design was more mechanical and moved more slowly. Today updates and new applications are constantly making tutorials and instructional videos obsolete, useful only as long as holdouts continue with older versions. The books of the past era are useful only as historical documents, except as below.

Perhaps the third corner of the how-to continuum are books built around principles of design, sometimes but not always including exercises or projects to reinforce the teaching. These books have a greater shelf-life, but one should take care not to take them too seriously. Design moves, as Bosshard would say, between rules and intuition, and a collection of principles can become rigid, ponderous, and even chiding (see, for example, Bringhurst). The best of these books know this and leave plenty of room for experiment and play: they expect the reader will master the rules in order to break them intelligently. Typography probably provides the most examples of principle-based books, and Middendorp’s Shaping Text strikes just the right balance of Calvinist propriety and Dutch progressiveness.

As for the readers: the best are those on a theme, rather than the synoptic ones, because the editors of the former are typically more conscious of the assumptions and biases they bring to their curation and make them clear in the volume. There are some generalist exceptions, like De Smet and De Bondt’s excellent Graphic design: history in the writing. The other quality of a good reader is that it values depth and context over spread: better a half-dozen selections in full, or very extended excerpts, than two dozen quick-takes. Again, there are exceptions, like Gerritzen, Lovink, and Kampman’s collection I read where I am.

(Norman Potter: What is a designer)


16 10 12

Essays and papers. Blogs (at first individual and now group), online magazines, and podcasts have largely taken over from the print periodicals and circulating manuscript drafts of Potter’s day. The advantages and disadvantages of this shift are well-known and well-argued, and I don’t plan to rehearse the pros and cons here.

The explosion of online publishing in all its forms does offer authors the chance to get ideas from design in all its fields in front of new audiences, allowing tangible connections (links) to other areas of human knowledge and experience and even the generation of new fields. Manaugh’s BLDG BLOG and Mars’s 99% Invisible, for examples, do an excellent job of this. Besides easing the process of adding images to text, which browsers have done from the start, advances in technology now allow seamless and very sophisticated visual demonstrations of the points being made. The interfaces of the applications used to generate them are slowly becoming more user-friendly as well.

Two points: First, for a number of reasons, scholarly publishing has not taken full advantage of this shift in publishing. Indeed most schools and disciplines, unfortunately in design fields as well, still publish as if we live in the mid-twentieth century. Eventually the system of print publication and the frustration of antiquated and overburdened procedures of peer and editorial review will have to change; they are not economically or professionally feasible in the long run. New scholars will find new kinds of editorial and peer filters that make it easier to accept a broader range of publishing platforms in considerations of tenure and promotion.

Second, and off the subject of online publishing in particular: In publishing, scholarly and otherwise, brevity and the concentration of information, experience, insight, and wit deserve a better reputation than they get in practice. Too many books should have been essays and articles; too many essays and articles should have been brief remarks or research notes. The passage in Lukes’s The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat where the protagonist arrives in Utilitaria and is asked to prove the significance of his scholarship by noting the sheer physical volume of his writing reads more like ethnography than parody. The cult of the long-form monograph deserves to fade away, leaving it only for the arguments that require it. That might prompt authors to think harder about they questions they ask rather than the answers they generate.

(Norman Potter, What is a designer)