From metaphor to maturity

This arti­cle was pub­lished in Blue­print mag­a­zine in 2011 (too lazy to check which issue exactly). It was then re-published by John Board­ley in his Codex mag­a­zine, albeit slightly edited. I re-re-publish it here because the dis­cus­sion about dig­i­tal kitsch and appro­pri­ate metaphors has just come up again, mainly because Apple’s OS Lion now also fea­tures faux leather and adds pseudo-physical fea­tures like ani­mated turn­ing of pages to the inter­face which first appeared on the iPad, a pop­ulist device, not a com­puter that the likes of us depend upon for work.

The list of avail­able fonts on iOS men­tioned at the end may be out of date, but you’ll get the mes­sage. Since I wrote this, the new iPad has appeared, fea­tur­ing the amaz­ing Retina high-resolution screen. Its sharp­ness sud­denly shows up the flaws in type­faces. To me – an old per­son – this reminds me of the dis­cus­sion we had when pho­to­set­ting took over hot metal type in the 70s. And every­body makes the same assump­tions again. Mostly the wrong ones, look­ing for a solu­tion in tech­nol­ogy instead of design.


“A typog­ra­pher who hasn’t found the appro­pri­ate type­face may not have decreased the infor­ma­tional value of a text, but gave up the oppor­tu­nity to con­sid­er­ably increase its effectiveness.”

Thus wrote G.W. Ovink, Dutch typog­ra­pher and his­to­rian, way back before he knew any other media besides paper.

Every medium has always had con­straints for the type that goes with it. Whether you design a news­pa­per, a poster, a stamp or a web­site: you have to con­sider the tech­ni­cal envi­ron­ment, the reader, the client, the con­tent. As the sur­faces of sub­strates used for print­ing got smoother, the res­o­lu­tion of type went up along with it. If you look at a Guten­berg Bible through a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, you’d never believe the craters, bumps and blotches that look like gor­geous let­ters from a safe read­ing dis­tance. Bright and shiny, smoothly coated paper for high-quality off­set print­ing requires the let­ters to be sharp and well-defined, even though the human eye doesn’t like too much con­trast. Tech­nol­ogy, being what it is – a means to pro­mote itself if not mankind – kept pro­vid­ing more res­o­lu­tion and thus invis­i­ble detail than we ever needed. Once print­ing could hardly be more refined, along came the Cath­ode Ray Tube, and all the high def­i­n­i­tion that the sup­pli­ers of type­set­ting and print­ing equip­ment had declared not only inevitable but vital, was bro­ken down into crude bits of colour, red, green and blue only. Type sud­denly looked like Lego bricks when com­pared to the refine­ment a printer like Bodoni had been capa­ble of at the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, long before pho­to­set­ting and off­set print­ing, let alone coated stock.

The web has always just been bad paper. Now it’s start­ing to look like good paper and design­ers will have to treat it as such. But as always at the begin­ning of a new par­a­digm, we have to imi­tate the old one while we get used to the new pos­si­bil­i­ties that peo­ple over a cer­tain age always con­sider a chal­lenge. Apart from what tech­nol­ogy will allow us to do, there are phys­i­cal laws — our eyes, our brain, light, con­trast; we can­not ignore those if we want to com­mu­ni­cate. Cul­tural para­me­ters like read­ing habits, lit­er­ary cul­ture (or lack of) – our deeply embed­ded fear of change, all these give an excuse to imi­tate the old, even though there are no tech­ni­cal rea­sons to do so. But we read best what we read most.

Every new medium raises the same ques­tions. Things which were thought mature in one media will take a while to mature in a new one. Look at the new elec­tronic books, par­tic­u­larly those on Apple’s amaz­ing iPad: a book is pre­sented as a repro­duc­tion of the tra­di­tional stack of bound pieces of paper. Going from one page to the next is accom­pa­nied by an ani­ma­tion of it being turned, even with the sound of paper being rus­tled. While you keep thumb­ing pages, how­ever, the stack stays equally thick on either side, turn­ing the metaphor into a lie, into dig­i­tal kitsch. It feels wrong and it is wrong. Metaphors are use­ful because we do not really want to know what goes on in the dig­i­tal maze under the bon­net that the oper­at­ing sys­tem hides. Super­flu­ous visual noise doesn’t make the read­ing any eas­ier, it just pre­sumes that we’re too stu­pid to notice the dif­fer­ence between a stack of glued paper and a battery-driven piece of plas­tic. If peo­ple really wanted to emu­late the whole phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence, why not give us the musty smell of old books, the scent of print­ing ink?

Worse than those mis­guided and patron­iz­ing metaphors is the fact that pub­lish­ers can no longer decide which type­face their text is set in. Apple pro­vides just five (Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times, Ver­dana), and only one of them (Palatino) can be con­sid­ered a book face suit­able for read­ing on a screen. Some­how, the dichotomy seems weird between cool alu­minium shapes, high-tech dis­plays and amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy on the one hand, and wooden book­shelves on the other, as a metaphor for an online book­shop which pro­vides books that look older on screen than they do in the real world. Per­haps the indi­vid­ual design depart­ments respon­si­ble should talk to each other? The indus­trial design­ers cer­tainly seem to be ahead of the User Inter­face peo­ple at Apple.

Still, while elec­tronic books have a way to go (the Kin­dle is actu­ally a lit­tle fur­ther ahead in typo­graphic mat­ters), there are signs that the web will soon allow the same degree of typo­graphic refine­ments that we’re used to on tra­di­tional paper. Not only can we use every exist­ing type­face to be dis­played in a browser, but new mark-up lan­guages will give us typo­graphic treats like lig­a­tures, small caps and old style fig­ures that print­ers in the 15th cen­tury devel­oped for their books which we still con­sider bench­marks today. If only some­body could invent a bat­tery that lasted as long as paper does.

8 comments

  1. Duncan

    Wow! This dis­cus­sion is some­thing that has been grat­ing & irri­tat­ing the back of my mind for quite awhile in an almost uncon­scious way. I think I had to read this blog entry from some­one who is a pro­fes­sional to real­ize that I was not out of my mind!
    I am not a pro­fes­sional designer, although I see the world intensely, & look for beauty, logic, and sense in every­thing I see & do. Aes­thet­ics is every­thing to me.

    Last sum­mer, I met a woman & went to a cafe, where she showed me her new iPad, hav­ing never used the device, I thought it was nifty, & cool that I could slide my fin­ger over a glass screen to move icons around etc. The rela­tion­ship of hold­ing this device was con­vinc­ing since I am a hard­ware nerd. Loe & behold I came across the “book­shelf”, which did some­thing to me that was not pos­i­tive! It seemed to me to be a ridicu­lous ges­ture, and gra­tu­itously phony like Dis­ney­land, the inside of a log cabin, or child­like or some­thing. I thought “this is what Apple is all about? This must be a joke.” It seems ver­botin to say such a thing today because Apple = God, etc. but like in the movie The Matrix, there was a splin­ter in the back of my mind. To be fair, when I use my schools com­puter lab, I am always drawn to the iMacs which use some ver­sion of OS X, but that sexy hunk of metal is what does it for me.

    Now I know I am not crazy. Thank you for artic­u­lat­ing this in great detail Erik.

  2. Thanks for re-re-publishing this great arti­cle here again. I totally agree with you, that we actu­ally need no more kitsch. This arti­fi­cialy aes­thet­ics reminds me of some kind of kinder­garten­party. GUI-Designers and Web­de­sign­ers often seem to be Photoshop-Filter-Masters with­out hav­ing a real con­cept. Too often sur­face is more impor­tant than con­tent. But who knows: maybe peo­ple just like kitsch and like liv­ing in this “Disneyland”?

  3. Hi there would you mind shar­ing which blog plat­form you’re using? I’m going to start my own blog soon but I’m hav­ing a tough time mak­ing a deci­sion between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Dru­pal. The rea­son I ask is because your design seems dif­fer­ent then most blogs and I’m look­ing for some­thing unique. P.S My apolo­gies for get­ting off-topic but I had to ask!

  4. Thank­ful for the great blog on this area that I’m extremely inter­ested in. Won­der if there will be updates in the near future? I will now set a book mark here on your won­der­ful site for refresh. Wood­lands EC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *