Friday, February 5, 2010

Not My Type

I recently read Michael Bierut's book 79 Short Essays on Design. Though Bierut, a principal at Pentagram, writes from the perspective of a graphic designer, his essays included enough architectural references and personal anecdotes to keep me turning page after page. In one essay, "Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content" he explains that "not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything."

Though I enjoyed many of the essays in the book, it was not simply the writing that kept me turning the pages. With each essay set in a different font, I have to say that one aspect of the book that I really enjoyed was the typography. Yes, that's right. The typography! With each new essay, I found myself excitedly turning to the appendix to see the name of the font, the designer, and the year.

I cannot say that I have "always" been interested in typography and type design, but it is a fascinating field that has been on my radar ever since reading an article about fonts and font design in Metropolis a number of years ago. The recent documentary Helvetica (yes, it is indeed a documentary about a typeface) and this book have only served to whet my appetite once again. And in the interest of full-disclosure, it has reminded me that someday I would love to design a typeface.

But as with the "aha" moment I had back as an undergraduate in my architectural technology class when I was taught about control joints in masonry walls and then all I could see as I walked around for weeks after was control joints, control joints everywhere, after reading this particular book on a business trip, all I could see as I walked around the Minneapolis airport on my layover was typography, typography everywhere!

There was some great typography, some awful typography . . . a lot of very average typography. I found myself walking through the immense terminal wondering about the graphic designers that designed ads for convenient airport parking (with the smiling car silhouette), or the logo of the store that sells Minnesota souvenirs (with the larger-than-life cartoonish moose poking through the storefront), or the graphic designer who chose the font for all of the standard MSP airport wayfinding signs (it may very well be Helvetica).

One example of typography I found particularly bothersome, though, was the name of what appeared to be a high-end leather store. The store, Wilson's Leather, featured a logo in all caps and no spacing which said "WILSONSLEATHER." There was a minor change in type weight between the two words and the whole logo was rotate 90 degrees clockwise, to be read down with your head cocked to the right. This strange confluence of design decisions, including the blatant omission of an apostrophe, meant that all I could read was, "Wilson Sleather." I looked at the sign over and over again wondering why I could not read it the right way.

One of my pet peeves, especially in advertising, is what I like to call "malapostrophication," which can happen either by inclusion or omission. For instance, I cannot walk past the storage boxes at my office without seeing "Bankers Box" and thinking, "well, I'm sure some bankers must enjoy the sport of boxing." On the flip side, I do have to admit that sometimes there are times when the purposeful lack of an apostrophe (and jamming two words together) can work. Take PETSMART for instance.

I guess my unfortunate run-in with bad typography in an airport in Minnesota illustrates the ever-present curse of the designer. Once your eyes have been opened, it is hard to un-open them.

As for now, I'll just keep wondering. What is a sleather anyway?

Postscript: You can find some of the essays included in the book 79 Short Essays on Design, as well as more of Michael Bierut's writing, on the Design Observer blog.