Feb 4, 2013

The Snobbery of Typography

I hope my readers don't get offended by the title of this post. It's not meant to offend those who like typography (whose band of enthusiasts include myself) but to question its importance in design, next to image. This has been on my mind far before I heard a prominent design thinker get up in a conference on design in healthcare and ask why NID's graphic designers aren't as focused on image-making and semiotics but are grilled on typography instead. Most interesting was the reply: "Because Image-making overlaps with Art." There are many excuses and this is just one of them, but why is this notion so hard for me to accept being a citizen of India?

The power of visual communication and images could be said to be the quickness by which it is absorbed by the viewer as compared to communication through any other sense. More than any other sense, the brain picks up on visual cues and information is received almost instantaneously, provided the visuals are well-designed. Reading however, consists of this activity plus the making sense of words: two actions, where one follows the other. So when you enter design school why an inordinate emphasis on typography over image when image is faster, more efficient? I agree, for the most part, that literate audiences used to consuming copious amounts of information in this day and age, love the written word, and it is extremely important to pay attention to how it is set. The other day though, I saw a tweet by an Indian designer saying "Design is 95% typography" to which I tweeted back: "Not for rural populaces" and the author tells me that "Twitter doesn't allow for nuances, sorry". So then, for an Indian designer too, is communication with images for rural populaces simply just a nuance of design?

It is the inherent universality of image that makes it so much more worth designing but it is also that much more difficult. Those who think type is the be all and end all of design are typesetters mostly, using a set of rules prescribed by Jan Tschichold or Robert Bringhurst (if they really know their stuff) but using another's typeface, carefully designed by someone else. Creating image is far more complicated, full of variety and possibility, and as more often than not, style and content merge to become one voice, sometimes having the ability to be visualised only by one person/one team. Most image makers are proficient in one visual style and consequently in one voice while a type setter using typefaces and in the know of the rules can accomplish speaking in many voices. That's why we fall back on stock photography/illustration so often for image work but it still falls under a kind of predictable visual language: stock is easy to recognise, commercial and a bit bland, lacking the robustness and customisation of non-stock images. This is because image is less formulaic when being crafted, not limited to a character set. Well designed typefaces can shed some of their own uniqueness and 'take on' the properties of their surroundings or the meanings of the words in which they are typed. But image is too distinct, too quickly cognised to do the same.

Images are probably the best way I can think of to communicate in a country like ours. For one, literacy is an issue and illiterate populaces need design the most. Which is why I used the word 'snobbery' in the title, design is considered an activity of the privileged (mainly first world countries) if based on the premise that it is 95% typography. The other issue is language barriers. In a diverse country of ours, almost each state has its own language and script. However we are taught western design principles in our design schools, with a lot of focus on Latin Scripts and typography in general, and so, many students take up the cause for Indian scripts. This is when I start to get frustrated. And images start being construed as merely Art or Ornamentation. So since typography does not really come under the domain of Art (unless your writing poetry) and comes under design, and if image is under Art, Image is relegated or promoted to 'what artists do' or the fluff that 'visual artists' or 'graphic artists' or 'communication artists' manufacture. And then you could probably blame the fact that people think design is about aesthetic value alone on the preoccupation with aesthetic images. After all, isn't THAT why we well-meaning designers aren't taken seriously? So is it not just about snobbery per se, but an attempt to focus on the functionality part of our jobs that make us so much more than mere hobbyists, the issue?

If we were to drift off into another topic: why design isn't taken seriously- as much as engineering or medicine or politics- it may be because we do the denial bit, and don't use image in the ways we should. If we started using images more for the greater good, like in social communication projects that Vikalp Design does (and the way Mrs. Murthy uses images will astound you) design could very well be taken seriously. Incredibly seriously. Are we afraid to wield this extremely powerful tool as designers and leave it to 'artists' to deal with its controversy and subjectivity? We can't afford not to because those that use image for aesthetic value are already exploiting it, communicating extremely harmful messages with their propaganda, images to promote war, an unachievable lifestyle, anorexia, bulimia, even stupidity, which exist all too pervasively in our environment. Not only do we sacrifice the gift of image, but we fail to harness it for ourselves, losing on two counts. I hope that designers move beyond their comfort zone of Typography and move towards exploring Image more.


KR said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KR said...

I’m sure you have come across Experimental Jetset”s work. They have this wonderful take on why/not they use images in their work, of "turning language into objects." Link


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