Friday, January 18, 2013

On Hating Design Choices

But can I once taste Northern waters, then forsake them for the South...
To feel California's ashes in my mouth?

—"California," Stan Rogers

Last week, when I wrote about getting a new Bible to read the whole way through, I mentioned that my only objection to my choice, the Access Bible, was that it had a font I didn't care for. I noted that I was relieved that it was at least not Papyrus, the typeface I (and many others) love to hate.

But rereading that line this week as I tried to jump-start the creative process (reading old blog entries is one of the two main methods I have for coming up with an idea for a new blog post—the other is asking my girlfriend for ideas), brought to mind something I'd heard recently. It is an argument against my holding such an opinion, given in an excellent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, a compelling and fun weekly radio show about "design, architecture, and the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world." The episode is about a controversy surrounding the introduction of a new visual brand identity in the University of California system. The University designed a new logo to supplement the more formal seal that had long been the University's main branding. They wanted something more workaday than the thing that gives gravitas to official letters and diplomas, something that could go on baseball caps and more general-use items. The seal is on the left, and on the right is what they came up with for the new logo (source):

To quote my friend at Berkeley: "It looks like a flushing toilet." I can't say that it strikes me as particularly great, but I don't necessarily share the profoundly negative reaction of so many. At all events, two people interviewed in the podcast feel that these reactions are unwarranted, not only because they were misguided (many thought the logo was replacing the seal, which it was not going to do), but also because they were not the opinions of experts:
"I think the role of an to see the world through a different lens. So, for example, when we had our kitchen renovated here: I don't know anything about architecture, I don't know anything about engineering, I don't know anything, really, about interior design. I have my opinions, but that's all they are. And so, when a[n interior] designer tells me 'Well, I think this would work best,' I defer to that opinion; when a mechanic tells me that a thing needs to be fixed on my car, I trust that he or she is accurate with that; when I go to my doctor, they're telling me how to understand my own body, and I don't know how to interpret what's happening to my body, so I allow them to do that for me. When it comes to design, we don't seem culturally to have that same trust." 
Christopher Simmons, Principle of MINE, a San Fransisco design office

"We live in a time when everyone thinks their opinion matters, but the reality is that not all opinions matter...When it comes to, for example, physics, my voice is not the same as Stephen Hawking's...Aesthetics is a very easy target, because no one understands how aesthetics works, and they feel that subjective opinion is the rule of the day: I don't like it, therefore it must not be good."
Vanessa Correa, Creative Director of the UC Office of the President
These feel like sound arguments to me. There are people trained in design, people with great expertise and knowledge in this field, who make daily decisions about it, and yet, unlike experts in other fields, their work is profoundly open to criticism from non-experts. I feel entitled to say that an artist's work is poor, unworthy of being displayed in public, even though I have a single art history class years ago forming the whole of my artistic training.

The counterpoint is that, while we, the public, are not invited to sit in Stephen Hawking's chair, designing logos and public art is about communicating with people. When a piece of public art, like Chicago's "Go Do Good" installation, fails utterly to reach people's hearts and minds, those people are right to speak up and say so. Indeed, without the audience speaking its mind, the designers cannot easily measure the success of their work, can end up blundering further into creating designs that are inappropriate, displeasing, or useless.

I feel that both are valid points; there are probably many cases where it is simply foolish to criticize an expert designer's work without knowing the thought and purpose behind it, and many others where the expert has simply failed to properly communicate with her audience. To end with the issue I began with, then: is the choice of this typeface something I, a non-expert, can legitimately criticize:

(It's the second, lower font choice I object to.) It's a font that is designed to look spontaneous and handwritten, like each letter is the unique product of a person working on the fly. The trouble is, as soon as  you repeat any of the letters, you can tell that it's just a typeface and not a spontaneous production at all; no one's "d" looks exactly the same every single time they write it, but there it is, the same exact shape all six times it occurs. It is also the only informal-looking font in the whole book; all others give the book a straightforward, somewhat academic and scholarly air, with this font occasionally sprinkled in looking like it was pulled from a Zondervan teen study Bible, filled with notes on dating and praying for celebrities.

In short, whatever my intellectual reaction, my emotional one is that this falls on the side of poor design that is open to criticism from non-experts like me.

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