Are all typographers pretentious?

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Spotted over in the comments on Design Observer:

“If you use a typeface without knowing who designed it, it is like sleeping with someone and not knowing their name.” (Robert Bringhurst)

Blimey – that could well be the most pretentious piece of crap I’ve ever heard. Who gives a flying fuck who designed a typeface? Get over yourself…

Someone’s got to say it: typography is not the be all and end all. It is not the secret to the mystery of life. It will not save the starving and poor.

No one ever died from a bit of bad kerning or over-zealous leading.

It’s. Just. Type.

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10 comments on “Are all typographers pretentious?

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    Typography is undoubtedly important – it can make or break a good design – but saying we should know their names is ridiculous.

    Just because we like something it doesn’t mean we should be on first-name terms with the creator.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Like I said to someone today, walking on a carpet without knowing who designed it is like… well, you get the idea.

  3. jharr says:

    I think you’re missing the point a bit here. You’re coming at this from the perspective that you have a computer, you have some fonts on it, maybe you have purchased a few special ones and off you go. In reality it’s like anything else, there is average, Wal-Mart art and there is fine art, same goes for type, cars, etc. Well designed, high-quality type is an amazing thing, and you’re simply being asked to respect the craftsman and the craft as you would a painting or other well-made “thing”…obviously you chose not to respect that, no biggie, just understand that other folks do.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I’m not missing the point at all. I’m quite happy for different people to appreciate things in different ways and I, myself, do appreciate good typography.What I object to is the politicisation of the whole area of typography, this idea that if you don’t understand the ‘craft’ of typography that you are in some way deficient. It’s not true.I don’t know the names of any of the people who designed the typefaces I use (except maybe Gill and the usual crowd of course!) Does that mean I am a bad designer? No.Is it possible to know all that stuff and still be a bad designer? Absolutely.So what’s the point in telling people they should know such things? None. Except that it somehow increases the cultural capital of typographers.The comment about ‘not knowing who designed a typeface is like sleeping with someone and not knowing their name’ is simply pretentious bullshit. And it is far removed from the realities of how type is used day in day out.Watching a TV programme without knowing the details of every single member of the production team? same thing.Using a central heating system without knowing the name of the plumber who designed it? Same thing.Do you know the name of the person who designed your wallpaper/sofa/carpet/trousers whatever? No? Oh dear oh dear…It’s bollocks. I defend the right of anyone to look into the craft of type and the people that make typefaces, but I don’t believe we should impose that knowledge on others in order to join a particular clique.Most professions do this, of course. Bourdieu calls it ‘illusio’, the rules of the game. They are invented by people who want to create an aura around what they do so they can determine who is a member and who is not, and increasingly designers employ it to create a distance between themselves and clients, to attempt to add value to what they do.The end result is negative – a designer who talks to a client in a way which goes on about the ‘craft’ of the particular typeface is going to lose the client, metaphorically and physically.Keep the love to yourself, is what I’m saying, and don’t judge others as being deficient because they don’t share your particular interests. That’s what I’m criticising.

  5. Richard says:

    While I agree that Robert’s remark is innapropriate, I think the background knowledge he’s refering to can be of great value to you as a designer. Understanding where a type designer is coming from can help in both the selection of a typeface and the mixing of typefaces. A pretty basic example perhaps, but knowing that Frutiger is based on Adrian’s design for the signage system at Charles de Gaulle might help you choose it for that next wayfinding project and knowing he also designed Meridien might help you choose it as a suitable typeface to mix with it. Knowledge really is power, like in most walks of life the more you know the better job you’ll do and a good grasp of the craft of typography is an unavoidable necessity for any practising graphic designer. The more detailed and expert that “grasp” the better equiped you’ll be.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I don’t disagree, Richard, but I think type has a life of its own beyond what the original designer intended.If you’re designing a wayfinding system you need to look at the whole picture and choose a typeface appropriately, not necessarily because it was designed for a specific project.The story behind Frutiger is interesting, but I have to admit I used that typeface a lot in the 90s to sell kitchens. Its history extends far beyond its origins, and I sometimes feel that design historians tend to limit the discussion of design to one period, forgetting everything that happened subsequently, and often forgetting the most important part of the equation, the audience.Designers spot typefaces, but I don’t think the public do (except maybe Comic Sans!), and I think typography needs a sense of realism in its self-awareness.You’re right about knowledge being power (it still frustrates me that many of my students literally do not read anything – and when they do it’s only books on design, despite the fact the best books on design are rarely in the design section, but the politics and society areas). But all too frequently it isn’t the power to make good design decisions that matters (i.e. something that works) but good as in acceptable to our peers. It’s that knowledge, of the canon, of the stories behind things, of the anecdotes, that equal power. It’s the cultural capital that is exchanged for social capital and that ultimately equates to economic capital.Go to any gathering of designers and listen to the conversations. It’s like a mating ritual in which everyone sizes each other up by dropping ever-obscure names in to the conversation to see who ‘knows’ more than the other 😉

  7. Richard says:

    That’s a very good point about needing a good grasp of “the bigger picture” if I understand you correctly. We’re very concious that the really good designers, the ones we want to employ, have a broad understanding and experience of culture and society, beyond the design community. One of my colleagues often makes reference to the stereotypical designer’s liking for green T-shirts with yellow logos on (if that makes any sense to you).At the same time I’m quite anal about type. Though not as anal as Bruno Maag (we love Bruno!).

  8. Jonathan says:

    I get you completely 😉There’s a certain ‘look’ among designers and design students. I point it out to my own, that you can tell a graphic design student apart from a fashion or jewellery student a mile off, and the few weeks at the start of each year are interesting to watch how people start to change their appearance to simultaneously ‘stand out’ while ‘fitting in’…The designer type I avoid is goatee beard, close cropped hair, black polo neck and thick-rimmed spectacles. I can take any combination of two, but three is a sanger sign and all four frighten me.I reserve the right of anyone to be anal about something (I’m anal about ‘me’ and ‘I’ and apostrophes, and about classical music) but as I said in an earlier comment, it’s the judgemental aspect contained in the quotation that worries me. It’s quite prevalent in design and in design education especially. I don’t think it should be.Incidentally, have you heard of the ‘t-shaped designer’ concept originated at IDEO? It’s worth looking up. Essentially it refers to the idea that the ideal designer is one with a breadth of interests on top of their deep specialism.I’ve always said the ideal designer is a polymath.At a talk I gave at LCC last year I posed the following question (it was the week of the US mid-terms):The Guardian picture editor rings you up needing an informational graphic for the US mid-terms. Do youa) Say ‘the whats?’b) Look it up on Wikipedia?c) Say ‘no problem’ because you know what they are and what their impact is?Roughly half and half went for a and b. Only one student said ‘C’ but when I asked he actually didn’t know.That sort of knowledge, to me, is more important to a graphic designer than knowing who Eric Gill was 🙂(This is coming from someone who teaches design history, incidentally!)

  9. Gunnar Swanson says:

    I might describe Bob’s comment as slightly hyperbolic but it should be pointed out that he probably meant using a typeface in a deeper sense than, say, typing a letter. I am, however, concerned by the following:<>I don’t know the names of any of the people who designed the typefaces I use (except maybe Gill and the usual crowd of course!) Does that mean I am a bad designer? No.<>
A bad designer? Maybe not. It does, however, seem unlikely that someone with the sort of interest it takes to become a good graphic designer and who has spent the time it takes to become a good graphic designer would not know the name of more than one typeface designer. So does “that mean [you are] a bad
designer?” No. Does it mean I would take a bet on whether you are a bad graphic designer? Sure. And I might be persuaded to give odds.I do hope, however, that this was a bit of hyperbole itself or that you figure that “the usual crowd” is more than a few eponymous typeface designers. You do teach <>graphic design<>, don’t you (as opposed to teaching something else within a graphic design program)? If you changed the question to “Does that mean I am not qualified to be a graphic design teacher?” I’d have to give you a yes on that one.


  10. Jonathan says:

    I once knew a graphics teacher who knew the names of all the key typographers for the last 100 years but couldn’t remember the name of the students he was teaching. Seems pretty obvious to me which is more vital there.One cannot know everything and I think there are far more important things to know that then name of typographers. I don’t know the names of everyone who worked on Photoshop, for example, or the name of all Warhol’s assistants, or (more shamefully) the name of the woman who cleans my office.I am quite happy not to know such things. (Though not the cleaner thing – that bugs me).They have never been required to either practice graphic design or indeed to teach it. I may occasionally doubt my own abilities but I think the evidence speaks for itself: I am qualified to teach graphic design.Given the choice between someone who clearly can teach, and someone who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, but no demonstrable teaching skills, who would you pick? Who would you think your students would hope you picked?Sadly, in my experience, genuine teaching skill is often overlooked in favour of the ability to name-drop.

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