Saturday, November 21, 2009

Type 1 Error

Today we went to see an exhibit of Herb Lubalin’s typography work at The Cooper Union. He had an inclination for swashes and the biggest fattest statement fonts that devoured the page, followed by the thinnest serpentine line whirling to its most gradual halt. One important thing that I learned in typography class, and in design school in general, was that extreme unexpected contrast can make a lovely and engaging piece. I adore it when there is really really large type on the page, accompanied by the tiniest whispering text beside it. We are all constantly moved by fonts and what they insinuate. Some are just more aware of this than others. Fonts can change the meaning of a word. Fonts can be facial expressions, or songs for typed messages.

I find it difficult to reconcile my appreciation for typography between my design self and my science self.

When fonts are used in scientific presentations, figures or posters, it is paramount that they communicate clearly, of course. But something can communicate clearly and look good doing it, I think. If you increase the leading, or the tracking, it changes the feel of something. If you are the only person who is giving a scientific presentation and who has considered the typography, even if you are using the system Helvetica Neue, people may notice. And if bad typography is the order of the day, when you stray from that, people may notice. They dont even know what they are noticing, they just know it looks different. A soft breeze blows their hair as they look at it and a mint materializes in their mouth.

But when people tell you that they like the font in your scientific presentation, or on your poster, and thats all they say, that is just not good. It should be clear, but if any hint of flair eclipses the message, then you have not communicated, you have just decorated. You have opened your mouth and instead of p-values coming out, chocolate icing has. This is a painful reality for me. To shift from obsessing over the tiniest typographic detail, because you know it matters, to throwing it all away to Times New Roman, is hard. Its like cooking with your nose plugged up, speaking with no adjectives or staring your friend in the face and not admitting to knowing them. It can be done, its just a removal of an already established awareness.

For the purpose of science, I water down my design more with each passing day, so no one tastes the chocolate. Because I want to be taken seriously and I need to do so quietly. I now always use system fonts in my scientific presentations and stick to Times New Roman for all written papers. But each time I do, I die a little, to make everything look just like everything else, to deflavorize it, to make it expressionless. Science depends on objectivity. You cant construct a hypothesis and talk about how, you dont know why, but you just prefer one thing over another. You cant openly or irrationally love anything. And you cant send subliminal messages in your conclusion. I know this. But I am still holding out hope that there is a way to make peace with this duality.

In a way, its the most challenging typographic experiment, to massage the type into something that has no discernible smell but was cast entirely out of gardenias. Type is form, functioning. And in my mind, design at its best is efficient and logical and good science is staggeringly beautiful.

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