Bear, Butterfly, S'more?

No one who knows me would confuse my understanding of type with that of an expert type handler. I once infuriated a major type designer by mashing up a few sizes of his most recent effort on a postcard I designed for AIGA. I thought it looked jaunty. He got so mad that he called me and just sat, silent, on the other end of the phone until I lost my nerve and hung up.

So designing with type is not my natural métier. Nor is the understanding of what makes a type design “good” obvious to me. I can’t tell you what makes the lovely Idlewild so lovely, nor can I recognize a modern redraw of Caslon at 50 paces, the way all the type teachers at my institution can. And yet, as with so many things in life, a logical understanding of type may not be necessary for a love of it.

And love it I do. When I was four, I carefully outlined all the letters in my favorite book, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, in ink. As it turned out, this book was an original 1916 edition. In her wisdom, my mother merely explained this fact to me in a quiet tone of voice, evidently believing that the lesson in typographic proportion was worth such unwitting destruction. Unfortu­nately, the mangling of Pyle did not enhance my natural affinity for type usage.

So I’ve never styled myself a type teacher. But in the strange world that is an undergraduate design program, vociferous students recently began to clamor for an “old-school” “Zenny” type class, the kind of class where people “did things with their hands.” And, since the real type teachers were busy teaching type, I found myself saying I’d teach it.

I may not handle type well, but that is not the fault of my wonder­ful type teachers, and I remembered enough of their ways to be able to teach what I could not, in fact, do myself. Please, no odious reminders of old proverbs about those who teach. Generally, I know what I’m doing.

So for a semester I subjected these students to the good old ago­niz­ing ways. They all were assigned a typestyle to practice upon. They traced it on trace. They painted it with Plaka. They wept over visual letterspacing. They huddled together in the far corner of the office squinting at fractional differences in the relationship between a three-inch “P” and “E” hung on the opposite wall. Oddly, they maintained a sort of buoyant pleasure throughout these travails, which I began to realize was the same pleasure that you see in people who learn to light a fire using two sticks or finally master the ancient art of Raku firing. For these students, a generation that does not remember a time before laptops, the mastering of type-tracing is akin to surviving in the wilderness without a cup in which to boil water.

All this trace and tempera provoked riotous laughter from a real type teacher who stumbled in one day, who I noticed, came around a few more times, once to proffer a stylus from his school days, and a few times just to see how things were going. All in all, it was a successful experience, and it was during this class that I figured something out, which is the reason for this column. 

First, I assigned each student a typestyle. These were the old war­horses: Bodoni, ITC Garamond, Caslon—this sort of thing. I assigned them because they are not currently hip faces, and students are less familiar with them than they are with, say, Interstate.

When I first assigned them, I noticed that the students tended to see things in the type that I didn’t see and to assume things about a typestyle’s character that I didn’t assume. At first, I just put it down to their not having had a lot of type history. But then it hit me, they were so innocent of history that they were pro­jecting personal meaning onto different typestyles. For them, type was taking the place of the inkblots in a Rorschach test.

Now, I may not be a great type-use genius, but if there’s one thing I know my way around, it’s the Rorschach test. Years of personal experience make me an expert. I’ve taken it so many times that I remember my answers from one test to the next. First is a butter­fly, next is a bear, the next looks like two humans—same old one, two, three. So, with that expertise in mind, let me just outline a few details concerning the Rorschach test.

Although you may associate the name with a comic-book char­acter, the original “Rorschach” is a “test of personality” and was inven­ted by Hermann Rorschach specifically to diagnose schizophrenia. When other psychiatrists liked his idea and started using his ten inkblots as a sort of general test of personality and emotional functioning, Rorschach got annoyed and wished they’d stop, but they didn’t. One cannot control the proliferation of one’s own ideas: Just ask Robert Oppenheimer.

So, in the middle of all this Plaka-ing and tracing, I began to notice, as I said, that students who had had little or no type history were projecting meaning onto the type at hand. This resulted in some interesting interpretations and turned into quite the psychological exercise. I found it best not to mention it.

To me, Bodoni is one of the first “modern” typefaces and it also reminds me of the 1960s and Alexey Brodovitch. But the stu­dent, who, before he researched it, knew little about the ways it had been used in the past, began to love it for its anomalies. He began to love it for the oddball negative space in the descender of its lowercase “g” and for the huge difference between its thicks and thins, the dazzle of which made it impossible to read on a screen in small sizes.

Something about Bodoni not being easily translatable to screen use made this student happy. And, as the semester progressed, it became clear that he was projecting some of his personal vicissi­tudes and triumphs into the face. As it turned out, this student was not comfortable fitting into conventional modes himself and during his last years in school made a lasting peace with his own personal “dazzle.”

All the students projected meaning onto their typestyles. The meaning was personal, but it was also cultural. Goudy Oldstyle became not the late Arts and Crafts movement artifact I had always seen, but “a nice, cozy type with melty edges that reminds me of s’mores.” And Helvetica became about “that movie where Tobias Frere-Jones lets Jonathan Hoefler do all the talking.”

This made me think about type choice as a Rorschach test for the culture-at-large. Perhaps there’s a reason for all those Papyrus and Comic Sans signs at the water cooler. Perhaps that reason has more to do with the average person’s projection of humanity onto a “hand-drawn” font than with that person’s lack of know­ledge about type. Is Comic Sans a cry for an authentic experience of being human from a person incarcerated in the straight-line surroundings of cubicle, plastic carpeting and fluorescent light?

Rorschach tests are scored with a system of “determinants,” factors that represent experiential-perceptual attitudes, which help the psychologist or psychiatrist figure out the way a sub­ject perceives the world. Rorschach himself used only form, color and movement to figure this stuff out. Later, oddly, shading was intro­duced as a determinant because someone did a bad job of printing the inkblots. And they say function doesn’t follow form.

When Inge Druckery chooses type for Tufte’s books, what stories of calm and order does she see in the type she chooses? Are these a cultural or ideological affinity, or are they a personal projection? When Ian Lynam designed Cooper Screamers, what did those screamers say about the way he viewed the world at that moment? Can we figure it out from form, color, movement and shading? Can we read the test?

The stories we choose to repeat about type, its makers, its uses, all give designers a cohesive platform on which to build a history. But the meanings people see in type—the ways they make their choices—may have less to do with history and appropriate­ness, and more to do with the viewer’s own projections.

© 2013 Natalia Ilyin. First published in Communication Arts Magazine.