Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What Type Are You?

Casey Wolf drew my attention to the website that asks the question, "What type are you?". It is an amusing bit of pop-psychology and well worth 10 minutes of your time. I was particularly pleased that this is a free-standing webpage, not one of those annoying Facebook apps that tells you what character in Avatar you are, or whatever, and then raids your Facebook info to sell to marketers, because you had to allow the app access to everything in order to play. This site, by contrast, seems to have a deeper and more noble purpose.

There's a bit of a punchline involved, so to get the full benefit, you might want to go do it before reading the rest of this post, which includes spoilers.

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I have to say, I thought the sight a brilliant bit of understated comedy — and the commentary on typefaces very informative. The site is obviously intended to be sent to people who think the test is about a different meaning of "type", so the purpose of punchline appears to be to get people to think seriously (albeit in a satirical context) about fonts and their meanings. Whoever developed this page is trying to provoke the audience into asking the question: 'What do different typefaces express?' The typology developed is simplistic, but I nevertheless applaud the serious undercurrent here. Somebody was trying to get a general audience to think about the meaning of fonts when most people are barely conscious that there is a choice to be made.

So, in case you're wondering, I come up Bifur. I am very pleased.

But to expand on the comment I made in passing about book design in yesterday's post, one problem with self-publishing is that authors seldom think of issues such as font choice. Even excellent authors, who take the precaution of having their work edited for their work, and know to get a good cover artist, are still likely to miss details like designing professional looking text. Consequently potential buyers can sense these works are self-published or 'amateur' even though the reader often cannot put their finger on what it is that is giving off that impression.

I concede that I would never have given typeface selection a second thought if I had not happened to be friends with two fellow SF fans in college who grew up to be two of the top Canadian type designers and text experts — one, Thomas Phinney, was until recently a font manager at Adobe; the other, David Vereschagin, is now a professional book designer in Toronto — so I had it kind of beaten into me that this stuff matters. Thanks to them, I tried to pay attention to issues of font selection and layout in my zines, and when I grew up to be a prof, in my course materials. The latter in particular had a significant impact on students and colleagues, who have repeatedly told me that my course outlines, course manuals, powerpoints, and so on "just look more professional" than anybody else's, even though I have -- knowing my limitations -- stuck with the very simplest of designs. But apparently, basic is better than no design at all.

This effect has worn off somewhat in recent years as undergraduates these days are much more visually sophisticated than a generation ago. Having grown up as part of the digital generation, they have always been immersed in a world of fonts (in contrast to my growing up with typewriters -- what a revolution it was when I got an IBM Selectric which allowed one to switch fonts by switching 'golfballs'!) My colleagues constantly complain how less literate today's students are, but they seldom recognize how much more sophisticated they are visually. When Macs first appeared at school, every term paper would come in with a minimum of 27 different fonts on the title page, but today's students never make that particular faux pas. Similarly, most undergrads come in having at least a rudimentary understanding of how to handle text in power point or on a Smartboard. Less so, my aging colleagues.

But the problem remains that universities are very slow to adapt and update their curricula, so although my students get a pretty decent training in a variety of the skills they will require on the job, we still have nothing on design, layout, fonts, and so on -- but these have become vital to anyone (which means everyone!) interested in contributing to the on-going conversation that is the Internet, POD publishing, or etc. We used design daily, but so many of us are limited to the templates provided by others that it limits our ability to participate fully. Most high school grads have the reading and writing skills to present themselves in a reasonably good light, but almost no training in design. It's a bit as if a business executive made a fabulous presentation to the Board or a group of buyers, then ate the salmon entree with his hands at the luncheon. You know? Understanding fonts has become part of social capital -- if you have it, one simply exudes professionalism and is automatically taken more seriously; if you don't, it becomes something others have to get past....

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