Some powers we never disobey

A few things (and people) have a strange power over us. It never strikes, never, to disobey them, to create discord, to disturb the fabric of the universe. If we disobey (and we cannot imagine it) it is like our world will careen, and we shall never be the same again.

The new rupee symbol seems to be one of these. The humble Rs. has taken its bow, it is riding away into the sunset. It probably has tears in its eyes, a gentle sob, but we’ll never hear it. We’re in the thrall of the new symbol, a symbol of the new us. The world power that strides the world.

I see it everywhere now – on billboards, on internet banners, in newspapers, in vouchers even. A symbol chosen by a minister. There was no parliamentary resolution, no constitutional amendment, no people’s referendum. It was chosen, and we obeyed.

A photographer is another example. King, president, dictator, emperor – nobody ever disobeys the photographer. He says sit, you sit; he says stand, bend, kneel, nudge, shift, smile, well not too much – you do as he says. Disobey the photographer, and the planets might soon fall out of their orbits.

But enough ranting. This blog is really about fonts – and the power they have over us. Wait a minute, you might say. Fonts? Do they really have power over us? Aren’t they meant to serve us?

We think they do. Serif fonts for formal writing, sans serif for informal. Yet the very distinction between the two can also act as a shibboleth between the wise and the ignorant. Which copywriter would ever dare admit he doesn’t know the difference, and be bold enough to say it makes no difference to him?

Big type for those with difficulty reading, small type for legal documents. That’s another form of power over us again, right? If it’s too hard on the eyes to read, we might just ignore it and sign on the dotted line. Moral of the story: fonts have power over us.

And none more than Helvetica. Invented in 1957, this simple yet elegant (or simply elegant?) font – no sharp edges, no gothic flourishes, no inconvenient serifs – it’s mushroomed everywhere. On billboards, on traffic signs, on much of the text on the internet (when its not Arial), on company stationery (of companies that want to look modern), on the glass etchings in the R K SWAMY BBDO offices (I notice things, don’t I?), on instructions in trains and buses…okay, you get it, it’s everywhere. It’s pushed out more ancient fonts like Times and Garamond into oblivion, Trajan is seen only on Raj-era statues and monuments. Isn’t that a power over us, a Big-Brother-Is-Watching kind of power, the sort of power that Chairman Mao’s portraits have in China?

There’s a film documenting this power – and why designers and typographic artists the world over swoon over it. Here’s the free YouTube trailer:

Do try to obtain the movie and watch it. (And do obtain a legal copy, we writers and designers do need that royalty.)

And while on the issue of fonts, don’t you think we have too many? Designer Massimo Vignelli certainly thinks so. He talks of Garamond and Baskerville, which were invented in the era when type was made by hand from beaten copper and printers did typecasting by hand and hod. Contrast that with some of the more bizarre fonts (like the most irritating, infuriating, inflammatory Comic Sans*) whose ultimate physical form consists of binary codes on a magnetic disc, that often lack in elegance, and more often in legibility. Here’s an interview of the designer, as he holds wisely forth on font design and typography.

But it is an industry he says, and industries pay salaries for buying food, clothes and shelter. End of argument!

*Author’s personal opinion. It’s a million-dollar font, favourite of college students for their reports, and they are the one who will make tomorrow. But if you can’t rant on a blog, where can you rant?

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About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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