My latest trespass into the world of design has been typography.
Like most everything else in design, and in architecture, and film scoring, and…most of life, I don’t normally notice good typography unless I’m really trying — and then it feels disingenuous. But good design is about subtlety, right? It makes the experience more pleasant without intruding. I notice the bad stuff, just like Don Norman made me notice door handles with Push signs and bathrooms with the fan switch closer to the door than the light switch. Fuck you, Don.
My definitive resource for typography on the web is Richard Rutter’s aptly-named Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web. As I read through that, digesting all the rules of beautifying my copy, I remembered this piece that Rands wrote about nerds and systems of rules and puzzles.1 About why we nerds love RPGs and Lost and programming and World of Warcraft. When there’s some system in front of us, we dive in and start tinkering until we’ve discovered how the system works. If there aren’t any rules to be found, we give up. It’s impenetrable. Just nonsense. Who cares?
Typography appeals to me insofar as I can readily apply to my work. I read through the I Love Typography RSS feed and look at the flowing calligraphic napkin sketches and think, “Man, that’s phenomenal! And useless.” What am I supposed to do with it? When should I use a slab serif instead of a heavily-weighted serif? When can I sacrifice readable for fancy? My right brain screams something at my left brain, and my left brain responds: “Cool.”
But when I see that I can tweak my font size and line height to fit everything on the page to an 18-px baseline grid, it’s seconds before I’m immersed in purple-on-black, diddling with stylesheets that were good enough a few minutes ago but are simply distasteful now. I know when to use em dashes instead of en dashes instead of hyphens, I can tell the difference between Arial and Helvetica (occasionally), I keep my punctuation inside my quotes. These are things I can do without doubt because I know they’re right.
This systematization extends to my photography, music, writing, decorating my room, picking out clothes — anything that would normally require artistic, subjective decision making. I learn or create rules that I can apply to the situation, write the code in my mind, and execute. It’s as precise a parallel to programming as there could be.
My question is whether I’m the exception. I’m an problem solver by training or by nature. Problem solving is typically a matter of discovering how a system should work, seeing where it’s gone wrong, deciding what could be done to make it right, and choosing between alternative implementations of right-making. It’s formalized. But did Picasso or Debussy have some analogous formalization that they were using to create their art? Analysts couldn’t explain Debussy’s harmonies: he knew instinctively what sounded good. Picasso wasn’t afraid to break things down systematically, but I doubt he consciously went through such a process for everything he painted.
Maybe I’ll revisit this later. I just noticed that the code for my footnotes is element-for-element identical to Gruber’s, and that just won’t do.