Talk giv­en by Matthew But­t­er­ick at TYPO Lon­don, 20 Oc­to­ber 2012 mb@mb­

Rebuilding the
Typographic Society

Pho­to © 2012 Ger­hard Kass­ner

What’s hu­man­i­ty’s most con­se­quen­tial in­ven­tion? I con­tend it’s the writ­ten word. And ty­pog­ra­phy is an in­sep­a­ra­ble part of the writ­ten word. But what does ty­pog­ra­phy real­ly do? The lazy an­swer is that ty­pog­ra­phy is about “mak­ing things pret­ty.” But that’s in­com­plete. Un­der­stand­ing how ty­pog­ra­phy works means step­ping back and con­sid­er­ing the role of the writ­ten word in our cul­ture. As we do that, we no­tice that ty­pog­ra­phy doesn’t mere­ly frame mean­ing. It binds with the writ­ten word to add mean­ing. But our newest read­ing tech­nolo­gies—the Kin­dle, the iPad—are leav­ing ty­pog­ra­phy be­hind. This is a mis­take. Those who care about the writ­ten word should be in­vest­ed in pre­serv­ing ty­pog­ra­phy, be­cause as we lose ty­pog­ra­phy, we’ll also start to lose some of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the writ­ten word.

Good morn­ing. It’s nice to be here, rep­re­sent­ing Team Cal­i­for­nia.

Ty­pog­ra­phy is every­where, need­less to say. And be­cause I keep think­ing about how mag­nif­i­cent and amaz­ing and wide­spread ty­pog­ra­phy is, my first ques­tion to you to­day is this—

What is the most con­se­quen­tial hu­man tech­nol­o­gy ever? By con­se­quen­tial, I mean: which tech­nol­o­gy has had the great­est in­flu­ence on hu­man progress and cul­ture?

When you think about the great­est tech­nol­o­gy ever, maybe you think about some­thing like space trav­el. Space trav­el is def­i­nite­ly im­pres­sive. But is it con­se­quen­tial? Those are dif­fer­ent things.

What have we real­ly got­ten out of space trav­el? I mean, we’ve got­ten some nice pho­tos. We’ve got­ten some nice rocks. We’ve got­ten Darth Vad­er. Some cool stuff. But if we’d nev­er gone to space, what would ac­tu­al­ly be dif­fer­ent here on Earth? Not that much.

So I think there’s only two se­ri­ous con­tenders for the most con­se­quen­tial tech­nol­o­gy in the world.

The run­ner-up is san­i­ta­tion. Does any­body know what these are? The la­trines at Hadri­an’s Wall. They’re like 2000 years old. Still there.

San­i­ta­tion is a real­ly con­se­quen­tial tech­nol­o­gy, be­cause bad san­i­ta­tion leads to bad ef­fects every­where. Ob­vi­ous­ly it af­fects pub­lic health. But it also af­fects the wa­ter sup­ply, the en­vi­ron­ment, even the econ­o­my, en­er­gy. You can’t have cities, or any dense pop­u­la­tions of hu­man be­ings, with­out san­i­ta­tion. Be­cause what hap­pens? Every­body just dies. It’s bad. So in a way, you could say that we live in the san­i­ta­tion so­ci­ety.

But there’s one oth­er tech­nol­o­gy that’s been more con­se­quen­tial. And of course, that’s the writ­ten word.

Why is the writ­ten word so spe­cial? Well, it was the first tech­nol­o­gy that real­ly sep­a­rat­ed in­for­ma­tion from the lim­i­ta­tions of our phys­i­cal bod­ies and minds, which are pret­ty frail when you think about it. With the writ­ten word, we could trans­mit ideas far­ther in space and time—po­ten­tial­ly thou­sands of years past the end of our own lives. We could store ideas that were longer and more com­plex. And the writ­ten word made knowl­edge a lot eas­i­er to reuse. Peo­ple could go back and see what the ear­li­er peo­ple fig­ured out. And this set the stage for re­cur­sive im­prove­ments in every part of our cul­ture.

That cy­cle real­ly picked up, of course, when print­ing came along. Print­ing marked the be­gin­ning of what I’ll call the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety. And the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety has been de­fined by two char­ac­ter­is­tics.

The first one is that we’ve been able to ma­nip­u­late in­for­ma­tion with es­ca­lat­ing me­chan­i­cal and eco­nom­ic ef­fi­cien­cy. We’ve had ex­po­nen­tial im­prove­ment in both the quan­ti­ty of in­for­ma­tion that we have avail­able, and also the ease of ac­cess. The web, of course, is a ty­po­graph­ic medi­um. It’s real­ly just the next stage in this evo­lu­tion.

The sec­ond defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of our ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety is the huge em­pha­sis on lit­er­a­cy. To­day, when we send kids to school, what’s the first thing we teach them? I mean, aside from not bit­ing each oth­er. What we teach them is how to read and write. Be­cause in a so­ci­ety de­pen­dent on the writ­ten word, lit­er­a­cy is the skill that’s the gate­way to every­thing else.

Even though we, in our lives as adults, will al­ways be learn­ing from ob­ser­va­tion, lis­ten­ing, and dis­cov­ery, a lot of what we’re ever go­ing to know comes from the writ­ten word. And if we want to store any­thing that we’ve learned, what are we go­ing to do? Are we go­ing to make a YouTube video? No, we’re not. In all like­li­hood, we’re go­ing to write it down. Be­cause we’ve been trained to write it down. Be­cause our cul­ture wants us to write it down.

So this cy­cle of read­ing and writ­ing, of learn­ing and stor­ing new knowl­edge—that’s the es­sen­tial trans­ac­tion of the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety.

I’m not telling you I’ve dis­cov­ered fire. I think this is pret­ty ob­vi­ous. But like san­i­ta­tion, it’s al­most so ob­vi­ous, and so much a part of our cul­ture, that we some­times over­look how con­se­quen­tial it’s been.

It’s also easy to over­look that those of us who get to work with the writ­ten word are par­tic­i­pat­ing in this no­ble and real­ly very sig­nif­i­cant tra­di­tion.

Social vs. “social”

And that leads us, oblique­ly, to the theme for the con­fer­ence: so­cial.

The word so­cial can mean dif­fer­ent things, of course. Up at the top, we’ve got so­cial in the ex­pan­sive sense: hu­mans as so­cial be­ings, so­ci­ety—the words so­cial and so­ci­ety come from the same Latin root. Far­ther down, we have so­cial as in so­cial ser­vices. Then so­cial plans. And then down here, near the bot­tom, we’ve got so­cial me­dia, like Face­book, Twit­ter, and Google+.

And I put them down near the bot­tom be­cause I want us to take a mo­ment to no­tice that the term “so­cial me­dia” is a mis­nomer. A mean­ing­ful so­cial net­work en­cour­ages us to see our­selves as one point in a lat­tice of in­ter­de­pen­dence. It in­vites us to shape our be­hav­ior to ben­e­fit oth­ers, and vice ver­sa.

Where­as in so­cial me­dia, there’s no in­ter­de­pen­dence. It’s most­ly just a set of mono­logues that oc­ca­sion­al­ly in­ter­sect. We can’t have true so­cial in­ter­ac­tions be­cause there aren’t any stakes, and there aren’t any con­se­quences.

And that’s why so­cial me­dia can be fun. It’s like we’ve con­vert­ed peo­ple into a video game. In­stead of shoot­ing a laser beam, we shoot sta­tus up­dates at them. And there’s noth­ing wrong with video games, as long as you rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence. If you play Call of Duty, you un­der­stand that you’re not ac­tu­al­ly fight­ing in Afghanistan. (At least I hope you do.) Like­wise, if you’re us­ing Twit­ter, it pays to re­mem­ber that you’re not real­ly hav­ing a so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.

That much of so­cial me­dia is be­nign. But two things make so­cial me­dia in­sid­i­ous.

First, the so­cial-me­dia com­pa­nies real­ly push the idea that they’re more than just en­ter­tain­ment. They want you to in­vest your true self. Think about Face­book’s ridicu­lous in­sis­tence that you put in your real name, your real bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails, and all that. This is usu­al­ly cloaked in some rhetoric like “we want to make the world more open and con­nect­ed.” You know this is bull­shit, right?

No, real­ly. You have to re­mem­ber—these are ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness­es. All of them. And what they need to do—and I’m not say­ing this be­cause they’re bad, it’s just what they do—they need to har­vest your per­son­al data so that they can turn around and re­sell it to ad­ver­tis­ers. That is the essence of their busi­ness. So all this stuff about “open and con­nect­ed”—what­ev­er. That’s just mar­ket­ing.

The sec­ond in­sid­i­ous qual­i­ty of so­cial me­dia is that it’s ex­pres­sive­ly flat. It’s great for sim­ple ideas like “Dude! That’s awe­some!” or “Dude! That sucks!” But it’s real­ly ter­ri­ble for every­thing in be­tween. And to me, that’s the most in­ter­est­ing and worth­while part of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Be­cause of this, so­cial me­dia tends to pro­mote what we might call a lazy con­sen­sus. It re­wards us for gath­er­ing pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment: Who liked me? Who retweet­ed me? But in most cas­es, we’d usu­al­ly be bet­ter off seek­ing out thought­ful crit­i­cism of our ideas, not just com­pli­ments.

So all that said, I don’t mean that so­cial-me­dia com­pa­nies are evil. They’re just lim­it­ed. And we should be mind­ful of their lim­i­ta­tions. Mind­ful of the fact that they’re built on in­cen­tives that don’t pro­duce mean­ing­ful so­cial val­ue. They’re like Diet Coke. It doesn’t have any nu­tri­tion­al val­ue. Not be­cause Diet Coke is evil. There’s just noth­ing in it that would make it nu­tri­tious.

What makes typography valuable?

But don’t wor­ry too much about Face­book and Twit­ter and so on—in the long term, they’re just go­ing to be fruit flies on the ba­nana tree of civ­i­liza­tion. But they start us think­ing about this no­tion of sub­stance vs. empti­ness in the so­cial sphere. And this flows back to what makes ty­pog­ra­phy valu­able.

Peo­ple of­ten ask me what I like about ty­pog­ra­phy—be­cause I have a book about ty­pog­ra­phy, I still de­sign type­faces, and I go lots of places talk­ing about ty­pog­ra­phy. So when peo­ple say “What do you like about it, But­t­er­ick?” I say, “Ty­pog­ra­phy has been re­spon­si­ble for al­most all the good things that have ever hap­pened to me.” Which is true. But it’s also not a sat­is­fy­ing an­swer to the ques­tion, be­cause it seems vague and sub­jec­tive.

Be­cause what do peo­ple usu­al­ly think ty­pog­ra­phy is about? Well, how about this?

Have you ever heard this be­fore? “Make it pret­ty”? I think that if you’ve ever told any­one what you do in school, or what you do for a liv­ing, or if you’ve ever had friends, if you’ve ever had par­ents, if you’ve ever had clients—then you’ve heard “make it pret­ty.” Or some vari­a­tion of it—like “make it look good.”

When peo­ple say to me “Isn’t that what ty­pog­ra­phy is about? Mak­ing it pret­ty?”—I cringe a lit­tle bit. It sounds wrong. But on the oth­er hand, that’s not real­ly fair, be­cause as de­sign­ers, we do want things to look good, usu­al­ly. We don’t want them to look bad.

So what’s the prob­lem with “make it pret­ty”? The prob­lem is that mak­ing it pret­ty is the low­est form of ty­pog­ra­phy. It’s just the tip of the prover­bial ice­berg. There’s more be­low the wa­ter­line, is what I want to say to these peo­ple.

But what is that? How do we de­fine that?

I was think­ing re­cent­ly, as I of­ten do, about the world’s best-look­ing ac­tor: Michael Fass­ben­der. I mean, that is a good-look­ing man. I’m from Hol­ly­wood, so I know that a lot of ac­tors are good-look­ing. It’s help­ful in that line of work. These guys are go­ing to be on screen for a cou­ple hours. We want them to be easy on the eyes. But I also know—again, be­ing from Hol­ly­wood—that not all good-look­ing peo­ple are good ac­tors. So think about Michael Fass­ben­der. He at­tracts our at­ten­tion by be­ing good-look­ing. But that’s not what makes his per­for­mances per­sua­sive. So it’s a lit­tle like ty­pog­ra­phy, this prob­lem. He’s do­ing more than just be­ing good-look­ing.

In think­ing about this, I had two mo­ments of in­sight.

The first one came when I dis­cov­ered an au­thor named William Zinss­er. I’m not go­ing to be talk­ing about ty­pog­ra­phy for the next 45 sec­onds; I’m go­ing to be talk­ing about writ­ing. This guy William Zinss­er—a won­der­ful writer, and he’s writ­ten many books, all of them about writ­ing. But this is his most fa­mous one, called On Writ­ing Well.

Zinss­er’s the­sis is that writ­ing should be an ex­pres­sion of our hu­man­i­ty. And he doesn’t mean that in a goofy, age-of-aquar­ius way. He means some­thing very con­crete and sim­ple, which is that the best writ­ing em­bod­ies the best hu­man val­ues. And he names four: clar­i­ty, sim­plic­i­ty, per­son­al­i­ty, and warmth. It’s a nice idea.

Zinss­er also has some­thing to say about how we be­come good writ­ers. He’s al­most say­ing that we’re not real­ly learn­ing good habits so much as we’re un­learn­ing bad habits. Be­cause ex­press­ing our­selves with clar­i­ty and sim­plic­i­ty ought to be easy. Kids can do it. So at some point, we know how to do it. It’s just that as adults, we in­ter­nal­ize all these cul­tur­al in­cen­tives to stop ex­press­ing our­selves clear­ly.

To give you an ex­am­ple: are you fa­mil­iar with this com­pa­ny that makes a de­vice called the Black­Ber­ry? It’s called Re­search in Mo­tion. Well, a few months ago, Re­search in Mo­tion didn’t have such a great quar­ter fi­nan­cial­ly, and they put out this long press re­lease, in­clud­ing this sen­tence, which I’m go­ing to try to read with­out dy­ing:

“We en­gaged J.P. Mor­gan (that’s a bank) to as­sist the com­pa­ny in re­view­ing the rel­a­tive mer­its and fea­si­bil­i­ty of var­i­ous fi­nan­cial strate­gies, in­clud­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to lever­age the Black­Ber­ry plat­form through part­ner­ships, li­cens­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, and strate­gic busi­ness mod­el al­ter­na­tives.”

Do you know what this means?

“Oh no! Shit! We screwed up. We’re so sor­ry. We just didn’t see that iPhone com­ing. Oh man. How could we know it was go­ing to be such a big deal. We had the lit­tle key­board. We thought peo­ple liked that. We had Brick­break­er. And then An­gry Birds hap­pened…”

They’re say­ing they’re screwed! And the fun­ny thing is, when com­pa­nies put out press re­leas­es that talk about “strate­gic busi­ness mod­el al­ter­na­tives,” that’s how every­one in the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try in­ter­prets it—“Hey, you just ad­mit­ted you’re screwed.” But they can’t come out and say it. So it’s fun­ny that even though no one’s be­ing fooled, we still need this lay­er of code and in­di­rec­tion in the writ­ing.

And why is that? Why do we want this? That’s such an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion.

I think it has some­thing to do with this oth­er great hu­man mo­ti­va­tor: fear. We’re not chimps any­more, liv­ing in the rain for­est, fear­ful about get­ting eat­en by a leop­ard or a python. But we still have so­cial fears. We have the fear that we’re go­ing to be ex­posed as an id­iot. That peo­ple won’t like us any­more. That we’ll be cast out of our so­cial en­vi­ron­ment. So some­times, we pre­fer the safe­ty of in­di­rect non­sense like this to the risks of hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

As I was think­ing about this, I felt like, wow—this analo­gizes to de­sign real­ly well. Be­cause think about a fear­ful, in­se­cure de­sign­er. How do they go about their work? Usu­al­ly they’re try­ing to fill space, put more things on the page, fol­low tem­plates, put in the clip art. For that de­sign­er, de­sign is a tool for adorn­ment, dec­o­ra­tion, and com­plex­i­ty. Where­as a con­fi­dent de­sign­er doesn’t care about all that. For the con­fi­dent de­sign­er, de­sign is a way of tak­ing mun­dane ob­jects and in­still­ing them with these great hu­man val­ues that Zinss­er was talk­ing about: the sim­plic­i­ty, the per­son­al­i­ty, the warmth.

It’s right about here that I had my first mo­ment of in­sight, which is this: ty­pog­ra­phy and writ­ing are ob­vi­ous­ly dif­fer­ent for­mal­ly, and in how they work. But they’re not that dif­fer­ent in what they do. They ac­tu­al­ly grow out of a com­mon root of hu­man ex­pres­sion, be­cause they’re both tar­get­ing these same great core hu­man val­ues.

Zinss­er’s book even has a great line that sums this up: “Writ­ing is vi­su­al—it catch­es the eye be­fore it has the chance to catch the brain.” Yeah, of course. We all know this. But it’s such a great, sim­ple sum­ma­ry. Writ­ing is vi­su­al. There it is. Both the text and the ty­pog­ra­phy are work­ing to­ward this one goal.

To go back to that prover­bial ty­pog­ra­phy ice­berg. Okay, maybe above the wa­ter­line, we are “mak­ing it pret­ty.” I can live with that. But be­low the wa­ter­line, what are we do­ing? We’re mak­ing it more mean­ing­ful. Ty­pog­ra­phy adds mean­ing. And it merges with the text to bring out the full po­ten­tial of the text—to bring out that sim­plic­i­ty, warmth, and hu­man­i­ty. That’s what ty­pog­ra­phy can do.

So I reach this point and I can’t help men­tion­ing the fa­mous Crys­tal Gob­let es­say, by our friend Beat­rice Warde. Do stu­dents still read this? You’ve heard of this.

Here’s my prob­lem: the more I know about ty­pog­ra­phy, the less sense this es­say makes. Be­cause Warde starts with this du­bi­ous cen­tral metaphor: the wine is the text, and the glass is the ty­pog­ra­phy. I get it.

But then she says “print­ing should be in­vis­i­ble.” I un­der­stand she doesn’t mean that lit­er­al­ly. But even on a metaphor­i­cal lev­el, I’m still not clear what she’s get­ting at.

I tried think­ing of her metaphor as a per­cep­tu­al ar­gu­ment: that some­how, ty­pog­ra­phy shouldn’t neg­a­tive­ly af­fect the ap­pear­ance of the text, or its leg­i­bil­i­ty. But in that case, this metaphor real­ly makes no sense, be­cause wine with­out a gob­let is still vis­i­ble. Right? It’s got a vi­su­al re­al­i­ty. It’s just a pud­dle on the floor, be­cause it’s not in a gob­let. But you can see it. And that’s dif­fer­ent from words with­out ty­pog­ra­phy. Words don’t ex­ist in the vi­su­al realm un­til ty­pog­ra­phy shows them to us. And the metaphor breaks down.

So I thought, okay, that can’t be what she means. So I tried think­ing of this crys­tal-gob­let metaphor as a se­man­tic ar­gu­ment: what Warde is say­ing is that ty­pog­ra­phy should be suit­able for the text. It should be ap­pro­pri­ate. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

But that, to me, is not in­vis­i­bil­i­ty. That’s ask­ing ty­pog­ra­phy to do real ex­pres­sive work. To do its job. Writ­ing is vi­su­al. Ty­pog­ra­phy re­in­forces the mean­ing of the text by hav­ing its own mean­ing. By adding mean­ing. So the writ­ten word ends up be­ing a merg­er of the vi­su­al and the se­man­tic. And for me, that’s why this metaphor of wine in a crys­tal gob­let ends up be­ing real­ly mis­lead­ing.

I won’t spend my whole day tram­pling the mem­o­ry of good old Beat­rice Warde. Let’s move on to the sec­ond mo­ment of in­sight.

In Los An­ge­les, we have a print­ing mu­se­um with a big let­ter­press shop in the back. I was work­ing there a cou­ple months ago. I took a break in their li­brary of type spec­i­mens.

I pulled down one I’d nev­er seen—the one on the bot­tom of this pho­to—it’s a Stem­pel foundry cat­a­log from the 1920s. I just want to show you some pages from this. If you ever have a chance to spend some time with this cat­a­log, you should, be­cause it’s pret­ty amaz­ing.

This is a pho­to of the Stem­pel cat­a­log on the bot­tom. That’s the fa­mous Lino­type red book—a lot of peo­ple have seen that—on the top. Ob­vi­ous­ly, the Stem­pel book is enor­mous. It’s well over a thou­sand pages.

Every page is just ex­tra­or­di­nary, be­cause each one is filled with these amaz­ing ex­am­ples of type de­sign and print­ing. And what real­ly im­press­es me about this is just the ut­ter com­mand of the medi­um that’s dis­played on every page. It’s like Ed­die Van Halen on the Fair Warn­ing al­bum. You can’t be­lieve how much these peo­ple knew.

And these type de­signs—they’re a won­der­ful com­bi­na­tion of ex­u­ber­ance and pre­ci­sion. These guys real­ly knew what they were do­ing. Just ex­tra­or­di­nary. You don’t see things like this any­more.

This is just show­ing off. I mean, this would be painful to make in dig­i­tal. And some­body was sit­ting there, cut­ting this out of met­al. Un­be­liev­able.

Hand­writ­ing fonts. Again, these are met­al. Pieces of met­al. You can’t even see any gaps be­tween them. It’s beau­ti­ful.

As you flip through, you’re also struck by how some of these just seem so mad­ly con­tem­po­rary. This could be next month’s Font­Font re­lease, for all I know.

Then you’ve got these great pages where they bring it all to­geth­er, and they show you what you can real­ly do with the type. Again, if you know even a lit­tle bit about let­ter­press print­ing, these pages are just gor­geous. Every­thing about them—the de­sign, the col­or. It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary.

Just this page. You could set up a whole de­sign prac­tice to­day rip­ping off this one page. You’d be fine for 20 years.

So I’m go­ing through this book, and as I said—there’s a thou­sand pages just like this. I’ve only shown you six or sev­en. And I have this Stone­henge mo­ment: whoa, dude. I am in the pres­ence of some kind of freaky alien in­tel­li­gence from the 1920s. What mes­sage do they have for me? I want to lis­ten up.

And the mes­sage is not that things were bet­ter in the 1920s. We know that’s not true. That’s the nos­tal­gia fal­la­cy. We al­ways have to be mind­ful of this when we’re look­ing back at the his­to­ry of ty­pog­ra­phy. Be­cause we’re only study­ing the good stuff. But in any era, 99.9% of every­thing was crap. Even in Ger­many. So you have to bear that in mind.

But the thing is, even Stem­pel wasn’t just sell­ing type to the top 0.1%. So there’s this ques­tion—what were they sell­ing?

And this is where my sec­ond mo­ment of in­sight came. It’s that Stem­pel wasn’t real­ly sell­ing type. They were sell­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. I’m go­ing to keep re­peat­ing that word so I won’t say it more than once right now. They were sell­ing a stan­dard of craft and imag­i­na­tion for cus­tomers to as­pire to. This whole cat­a­log is shout­ing out “Hey, look what we did with this type. And if you buy this type, maybe you can do some­thing cool like this too.”

In prac­tice, that wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen. Most of their cus­tomers weren’t go­ing to be able to achieve what they achieved. It’s like those frozen din­ners with the pho­to on the front that says “serv­ing sug­ges­tion”—good luck get­ting it to look that de­li­cious.

But it doesn’t mat­ter. Be­cause what this cat­a­log is about is plant­i­ng that seed in cus­tomers’ brains about what’s pos­si­ble. And what a great spir­it that is.

To go back to my ear­li­er point—the point about Zinss­er and the writ­ing—I think this is also what we use writ­ing for. Writ­ing is the pri­ma­ry way that we store ideas in our ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety. It’s the pri­ma­ry way we com­mu­ni­cate pos­si­bil­i­ties to oth­ers, and plant new ideas in the heads of read­ers.

And here, I feel like we can start to see the gold­en thread that goes through the thou­sands of years of the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety—name­ly, this on­go­ing hu­man project of dis­cov­er­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and shar­ing them with the next peo­ple in line. And this project pro­duces a vir­tu­ous cy­cle of cre­ativ­i­ty and progress. And ty­pog­ra­phy and writ­ing are both wo­ven into this gold­en thread. Though ty­pog­ra­phy is of­ten char­ac­ter­ized as be­ing in the ser­vice of the text, I pre­fer to see both ty­pog­ra­phy and the text as serv­ing this broad­er so­cial project.

Rebuilding the typographic society

And that brings us to the idea of re­build­ing the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety.

When I talk about “re­build­ing,” am I say­ing that every­thing was great, and then it got bro­ken, and now every­thing’s bro­ken? No. I’m say­ing some­thing milder, which is this: as de­sign­ers, we’re al­ways in a strug­gle be­tween pos­si­bil­i­ties, on the one hand, and the op­po­site of pos­si­bil­i­ty. I’ll con­tend that the op­po­site of pos­si­bil­i­ty is not im­pos­si­bil­i­ty. Rather, pos­si­bil­i­ty car­ries with it the no­tion of progress and evo­lu­tion. So the op­po­site of pos­si­bil­i­ty is in­er­tia. Those are the op­po­sites that we strug­gle with. We’re deal­ing with the ten­sion be­tween the world as we hope it could be, and the world as it is right now.

Every­one who’s cre­at­ing or re­search­ing or dis­cov­er­ing is out there help­ing ex­plore pos­si­bil­i­ties. And that’s true whether you’re a writer, or a sci­en­tist—or a de­sign­er. I real­ly dis­like this idea that de­sign should be a ser­vice in­dus­try that solves prob­lems. That real­ly un­der­sells what de­sign­ers are ca­pa­ble of, and what de­sign­ers can con­tribute. Solv­ing prob­lems is the low­est form of de­sign. In­vest­ing your hu­man­i­ty is the high­est.

So we’re en­gaged in this strug­gle. As part of that, we’re al­ways de­stroy­ing parts of the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety, and re­build­ing. That’s nor­mal. That’s healthy. That’s the usu­al re­new­al.

But now and then there’s a big­ger event—let’s call it a Godzil­la mo­ment—that caus­es a lot of de­struc­tion. And what is the Godzil­la? Usu­al­ly the Godzil­la is tech­nol­o­gy. Tech­nol­o­gy ar­rives, and it wants to dis­place us—take over some­thing that we were do­ing. That’s okay when tech­nol­o­gy re­moves a bur­den or an an­noy­ance.

But some­times, when tech­nol­o­gy does that, it can con­strict the space we have for ex­press­ing our hu­man­i­ty. Then, we have to look for new out­lets for our­selves, or what hap­pens? What hap­pens is that this zone of hu­man­i­ty keeps get­ting small­er. Tech­nol­o­gy in­vites us to ac­cept those small­er bound­aries, be­cause it’s con­ve­nient. It’s re­lax­ing. But if we do that long enough, what’s go­ing to hap­pen is we’re go­ing to stag­nate. We’re go­ing to for­get what we’re ca­pa­ble of, be­cause we’re just play­ing in this real­ly tiny ter­ri­to­ry.

The good news is that when Godzil­la burns down the city with his fiery breath, we have space to re­build. There’s an op­por­tu­ni­ty for us. But we can’t be lazy about it.

The Godzil­la of the ’80s—maybe some of you re­mem­ber—was the Mac­in­tosh. In desk­top pub­lish­ing, the Mac­in­tosh de­stroyed a lot of ty­pog­ra­phy and lay­out busi­ness­es. But it also in­tro­duced a new op­por­tu­ni­ty for ex­plo­ration.

That was ac­tu­al­ly part of the mar­ket­ing of the Mac from the very be­gin­ning. You can’t see the cap­tion in the up­per right, but it’s a pic­ture of the var­i­ous fonts on the Mac­in­tosh, and it says “If you don’t see a type­face you like here, Mac­in­tosh lets you de­sign your own.” (You rec­og­nize that good-look­ing guy in the low­er left? That’s Bill Gates.)

This is a great ad. And it’s a lit­tle bit like the Stem­pel cat­a­log in that it’s sell­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. That’s what it’s putting out there. And it’s dou­bly fun­ny be­cause if you had an old Mac, you re­mem­ber that it real­ly didn’t do that much, even though it was real­ly cool. But it was invit­ing you to fig­ure that out. It was invit­ing you to par­tic­i­pate in this ex­plo­ration.

Then we had the Godzil­la of the ’90s—the web. You re­mem­ber that. Like the Mac­in­tosh, the web is a large­ly ty­po­graph­ic tech­nol­o­gy. But it’s fol­lowed a dif­fer­ent path. We had an ini­tial burst of ex­cite­ment, but now, it feels like we’re in a rut. We’ve had the web for less than 20 years. So we should be in the in­cunab­u­la age, where we’re ex­plod­ing with cre­ativ­i­ty and crafts­man­ship. In­stead, even those that you’d ex­pect to be in the top 1% of de­sign lead­er­ship are aim­ing for the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.

As an ex­am­ple, I’d like to show you some news­pa­per web­sites. I pick on news­pa­per web­sites jus­ti­fi­ably, I think, be­cause these news­pa­pers are some of the best-de­signed pub­li­ca­tions in the world. You’ve seen them. So we know they have de­sign stan­dards. They have a de­sign staff. They have a de­sign bud­get. All that’s good.

But what do we see when we go onto the web? Aw­ful, aw­ful, aw­ful­ness.

Here’s the Los An­ge­les Times. Pret­ty bad, right.

Here’s the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle. These are not dinky pa­pers. These are ma­jor Amer­i­can cities.

Here’s the Wash­ing­ton Post. What I also want you to no­tice is that not only are all these web­sites aw­ful, they’re all aw­ful in ex­act­ly the same way. You’ve got the lit­tle clut­tered tool­bar at the top. You’ve got the big logo in the up­per left. You’ve got the ar­ti­cle in the left col­umn. You’ve got all the lit­tle links and ads in the right col­umn. They’re all the same.

The New York Times. Aw­ful, in ex­act­ly the same way.

And this is not only an Amer­i­can dis­ease. There’s the Guardian. Same lay­out.

Le Monde. The same. Also aw­ful.

And Die Zeit—I’m sor­ry to say, ex­act­ly the same. And also aw­ful.

What’s go­ing on here? Isn’t this weird? You could trace it to a few caus­es. One cause is sure­ly just gen­er­al lack of am­bi­tion and fol­low­ing the herd. That’s true.

But I think what we’re also see­ing is that there’s cre­ative en­er­gy that’s leak­ing out of the web due to some faulty tech­nol­o­gy at the core of the web. And that tech­nol­o­gy is web stan­dards. I know that might sound strange, but hold on a sec­ond. Be­cause if you’ve done any­thing on the web, it’s ax­iomat­ic that web stan­dards are good, that web stan­dards are your friend. But be­fore too long, you no­tice that there’s this gap be­tween the­o­ry and re­al­i­ty.

Be­cause how should a good tech­nol­o­gy stan­dard ide­al­ly be­have? What a tech­nol­o­gy stan­dard should do is take an ugly prob­lem and say “Look, here’s one great way to do this, and we’ll all ben­e­fit if we rely on the stan­dard to han­dle this.” So the deal is that you give up some con­trol in ex­change for con­sis­ten­cy and re­li­a­bil­i­ty.

But in the last 18 years, web stan­dards haven’t real­ly per­formed that way. A few of them have. But as a whole, they haven’t. And why is that?

For one thing, most of what we call web stan­dards are real­ly just rec­om­men­da­tions. There’s no re­quire­ment that any­one im­ple­ment them.

Num­ber two is that there’s no ref­er­ence im­ple­men­ta­tion for these so-called web stan­dards. So they’re not real­ly “stan­dard” at all. Brows­er mak­ers can im­ple­ment them with a fair de­gree of vari­a­tion.

The third prob­lem is that these stan­dards aren’t run by an in­di­vid­ual or a small group of in­di­vid­u­als. They’re run by the W3C, which is this large, bu­reau­crat­ic or­ga­ni­za­tion. And that would be a nice de­scrip­tion of it.

So on the web, the prob­lem is that we’ve end­ed up with the costs and over­head of tech­nol­o­gy stan­dards, but with­out most of the ben­e­fits.

This leaves us with a real­ly un­ap­peal­ing choice. Ei­ther we stay an­chored to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor, which is where the stan­dards work well. And I feel like this is what you’re see­ing with these news­pa­per lay­outs. That’s a lay­out that ac­tu­al­ly works well un­der the web-stan­dards view of the world. So we can do this. Or we can waste our time and en­er­gy plug­ging all the holes that the faulty stan­dards were sup­posed to fill.

Ei­ther way, we lose, be­cause we’re not get­ting to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the web the way we should. Ul­ti­mate­ly, web stan­dards pun­ish every­one who as­pires to ex­cel­lence.

Mov­ing on to the Godzil­la of the last 10 years: dig­i­tal books. Dig­i­tal books in­volve some of the most con­se­quen­tial de­sign is­sues of our era. But so far, we’ve left al­most all these de­ci­sions to two bil­lion­aires.

Bil­lion­aire #1 is Jeff Be­zos of Ama­zon. This is an Ama­zon Kin­dle. Some are both­ered that Jeff Be­zos has pre­dict­ed the end of the print­ed book. I’m not real­ly both­ered by that. In the long term, I think he’s right. It is in­evitable. What both­ers me is that he wants to re­place print­ed books with some­thing real­ly shit­ty, which is this—the Kin­dle.

But with Jeff Be­zos, what did we ex­pect? He’s been show­ing us the Ama­zon web­site for 15 years. This is his idea of good de­sign. Didn’t we see this com­ing? The Kin­dle is just the next step in Ama­zon taste­less­ness.

Bil­lion­aire #2 is the late Steve Jobs, of Ap­ple. This is the iBooks app, on the iPad. I don’t know ex­act­ly how Steve Jobs was in­volved with this. But we know two things. We know that Steve Jobs was in­volved in every de­sign de­tail of the iPad. We also know that in gen­er­al, he fore­saw that the dig­i­tal-books mar­ket was go­ing to be big for Ap­ple. So we’d ex­pect iBooks to be real­ly great. Right?

But it’s not. In fact, it’s eas­i­ly the worst Ap­ple-made soft­ware on the iPad. What’s the prob­lem? Well, the iPad is a great piece of hard­ware. You’ve got the touch­screen, the high res­o­lu­tion, you’ve got the net­work, col­or, all this stuff. But iBooks only uses a tiny sliv­er of that ca­pac­i­ty. And it of­fers very lim­it­ed op­tions for writ­ers and book de­sign­ers. There’s this whole at­ti­tude be­neath iBooks, which seems to say “Hey bud­dy, take it or leave it.” It’s com­plete­ly the op­po­site of that orig­i­nal Mac­in­tosh ad we saw just a sec­ond ago.

As I say all this, let me coun­ter­bal­ance it by say­ing that I don’t think Ap­ple and Ama­zon are evil, any more than Face­book and Twit­ter are evil. They’re eco­nom­ic en­ti­ties. They go where the mon­ey is. They’re not hu­man be­ings.

But read­ers and writ­ers and de­sign­ers are hu­man be­ings. And that’s why it’s trou­bling that we’re putting up with this. We shouldn’t. We know bet­ter. We know that books are the core ar­ti­facts of the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety. We know we’re go­ing to have dig­i­tal books. So this isn’t a bat­tle for pa­per. It’s a bat­tle for qual­i­ty. It’s a bat­tle for high­er stan­dards. It’s a bat­tle to pre­serve those hu­man val­ues that are an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in both great writ­ing and great de­sign—the clar­i­ty, the per­son­al­i­ty, the warmth I was talk­ing about. If you like those val­ues, you can’t just sign on to this Ap­ple and Ama­zon agen­da. Be­cause if we do that, we’re go­ing to lose all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of pa­per, while gain­ing noth­ing.

Four suggestions

All right. Let’s close with a few con­crete sug­ges­tions for what you can do to help re­build the ty­po­graph­ic so­ci­ety. In re­verse or­der from four to one.

Num­ber four: sell pos­si­bil­i­ties. I’ve al­ready talked about this a lot. Both words are im­por­tant. Pos­si­bil­i­ties—if you take the pos­si­bil­i­ties out of your work, you’re tak­ing out the hu­man­i­ty. Then you’re just left with the ser­vice of mak­ing things pret­ty. I think that’s bor­ing. And I think if that’s our job, we might as well just set every­thing in Frutiger, make it blue, send the client an in­voice, and that’s it. That’s easy. But that’s bor­ing. We can do more. We can ex­pect more.

And the sell­ing part is im­por­tant too. I think this is real­ly at the core of what clients can be en­ticed to pay for. You should see it as a core val­ue of the de­sign work, not some­thing that hap­pens on the edges.

Num­ber three: re­cruit ty­pog­ra­phers. I love FontShop, I love the TYPO con­fer­ences, and I know you’re all big ty­pog­ra­phers. But I have some real­ly bad news. Did you know that no­body real­ly knows that fonts ex­ist? I’m not talk­ing about your par­ents. I’m not talk­ing about your broth­ers and sis­ters. I’m talk­ing about most pro­fes­sion­al de­sign­ers. They don’t know that fonts ex­ist. I mean, fonts that are not al­ready in­stalled on their ma­chines. If you don’t be­lieve me, walk down the street of any ma­jor city, walk to the news­stand, turn on the TV—you’ll see all sorts of ma­te­ri­als that could only have been made by a pro­fes­sion­al de­sign­er, but they’re com­plete­ly aw­ful.

So you have to spread the word. You’re here, and it’s fun to be here. But don’t al­ways se­quester your­self among like-mind­ed en­thu­si­asts. Get out there and spread the good word about ty­pog­ra­phy. Teach oth­er peo­ple about it. Write about it. Bring in more re­cruits. Be­cause they need to know about this great stuff.

Num­ber two: prac­tice what you preach. We’ve all heard this. It also ap­plies to be­ing a de­sign­er, be­cause mak­ing things is just one part of be­ing a de­sign­er. You still need to be care­ful, in the oth­er parts of your ca­reer, not to un­der­mine your work with mixed sig­nals.

I hope that some peo­ple in the au­di­ence will see this as the gen­tle but de­served pick­ing-on that it is. Do you know that there are com­pa­nies out there that sell web­fonts, but that don’t ac­tu­al­ly use them on their web­sites? That’s fun­ny, right? That they’re telling cus­tomers they ought to use web­fonts, but not ac­tu­al­ly do­ing so them­selves. I don’t want to name any names, be­cause that would be rude.

But I made a list be­fore I came to Lon­don. I found about 12 com­pa­nies like this. It’s one thing to talk the talk. It’s an­oth­er thing to walk the walk. If we don’t lead by ex­am­ple, and cus­tomers don’t end up us­ing web­fonts, then we real­ly shouldn’t be sur­prised.

Fi­nal­ly—some­times, I hear con­fer­ence speak­ers wrap up with a mes­sage like “… and the most im­por­tant thing is to fol­low your bliss. The end.” It al­ways both­ers me. And I was think­ing, why?

Be­cause it’s ter­ri­ble ad­vice for de­sign­ers! It’s ter­ri­ble be­cause “fol­low your bliss”—who­ev­er in­vent­ed that has got to go—it’s an in­vi­ta­tion to in­dulge what­ev­er’s in your brain now. Which means that bliss is real­ly just an in­vi­ta­tion to in­er­tia. And we al­ready saw that in­er­tia is the en­e­my of pos­si­bil­i­ty. So why would you want to fol­low your bliss?

Let me make a dif­fer­ent sug­ges­tion, which is this: cre­ate dif­fi­cult projects and do them well. I pass this along be­cause this idea has been at the core of every worth­while thing I’ve ever learned.

By “dif­fi­cult projects” I mean just what you think. Don’t re­peat your­self with easy stuff. Raise ex­pec­ta­tions for your­self.

By “cre­ate,” I think that’s a bet­ter word than “find dif­fi­cult projects.” A lot of times, there’s a dif­fi­cult project lurk­ing in­side a project that oth­er­wise looks easy. We have to chal­lenge our­selves to see the po­ten­tial and the sub­tle­ty in a project and go for the depth.

And then “do­ing it well”—ob­vi­ous­ly, keep your stan­dards high. Use every project as a chance to learn at least one new thing.

This pre­scrip­tion means en­dur­ing a cer­tain amount of strug­gle and dis­com­fort. It’s not bliss. But it cer­tain­ly makes for bet­ter work.

And we need it. Be­cause these Godzil­la mo­ments I’ve been talk­ing about—like the web, and the dig­i­tal books—these are a call to ac­tion for de­sign thinkers. We all have to an­swer the call. Be­cause tech­nol­o­gy is a one-way ratch­et. What we lose to tech­nol­o­gy, we’re go­ing to lose for­ev­er.

Think about the Stem­pel cat­a­log again. Not for nos­tal­gia. Not even for the ty­pog­ra­phy per se. But for the prin­ci­ple it stands for. Ty­pog­ra­phy has al­ways of­fered the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a bet­ter fu­ture. If we don’t ex­plore that pos­si­bil­i­ty, and the fu­ture ends up more lim­it­ed than the past, we’re go­ing to have no one to blame but our­selves.

Thank you.