Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mailbox. Open mailbox.

Design humor doesn’t often enter the mainstream. Serif jokes are generally left to the province of wrists and pixel-pushers. I think that’s a shame, since comedy could open up the field of design to those who normally have a very passive relationship with it—It takes away that elitist separation sometimes associated with the profession. So, naturally, I was delighted to see a video posted by based entirely on typographic wit that not only gets people to take a closer look at type and how we use it, but is actually pretty funny.

The video personifies the classic font library, imagining how individual fonts would look and behave if they were humans. Characters are realized largely based on punning of their names: Wide Latin is an overweight Latino, Comic Sans is a comic book hero, and Futura a time traveler. A designer might criticize that these simple puns do not represent the true nature or origin of the typeface they parody. However, this very basic representation offers non-designers a window into the larger font world (Most casual viewers would likely be turned off by a pure history lesson). But looking past the caricature, there exists a fairly interesting and nuanced peek into the interplay of different typefaces and how they communicate. The video manages to walk the fine line of being funny and accessible to laymen and type-nerds alike.

Some particularly insightful parodies I found were both the overall dominance of the businesslike Times New Roman and the interchange between Old English (a highbrow gentleman) & Joker Man (a clown). Old English declares, “Our charge is to illustrate ideas, reason and logic,” harkening to the oldest and most noble directive of the scribe. Joker Man, agrees less articulately with the sounding of an air horn. This is a great juxtaposition of the ideologies between the two typefaces. One is classic, ordered and serious while the other is inanely loud and flippant. Even when trying to be formal, Joker Man cannot be taken on the same level as his colleague—though he’s probably fun to have around.

For me though, nothing is more hilariously pointed in the skit than the nonsensical Wingdings. Dressed as though he were a mental patient, he desperately tries to communicate vital information to the group, but only manages ridiculous exclamations: “Pencil telephone hourglass! Diamonds candle candle flag!” If Joker Man represents the degradation of “ideas, reason and logic” Wingdings is even worse: He can’t communicate at all, not even with the other fonts. His message is entirely subverted by his gimmick.

On the surface, the video is laughable and light, and can be enjoyed by most everyone as entertainment. At a closer look though, it opens up a discussion of how our ideas find a voice through our typefaces. More affable than a literal history of typography, it allows the everyman to appreciate that these fonts have become adapted in our panoply of common type. Maybe if more people were aware of the larger world of fonts, they would be less caviler when using them.

And as for designers who watch the video, they might not learn to appreciate fonts any more than they already do. They might just be upset that Comic Sans saves the day and that Curlz MT survives.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wall-E & Our Humorous Future

Discussing our human condition in the middle of downtown Los Angeles must be similar to pondering Catholicism in Vatican City. I found myself ensconced in that very topic with a stranger during a recent trip to L.A. As she sat comfortably, her hand over her seven-month pregnant belly, the stranger mused over the psychological impact on those who live in what many consider to be an unlivable city. I myself could almost concur, as Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear had been my choice in light, airplane reading. The stranger, who turned out to be an artist dabbling in the medium of puppetry, expressed her concern with our general outlook on life, fearing that society can only evaluate itself is through a veil of sarcasm and irony. She referenced Team America and Idiocracy, films whose statements are valid and simple while also brutally steeped in cynicism.

It is with this in mind that I took my $10.50 and saw
Wall-E, the story of a robot left to clean up an Earth whose condition was declared to be uninhabitable after being trashed by human’s addiction to Buy N’ Large, a Costco-like corporation that revels in excess. While the first half of the film is a silent homage to Buster Keaton, only focusing upon the solitary life of Wall-E the robot, the second portion focuses on the humans and their massive spaceship that wanders aimlessly through the galaxy, awaiting the day that one of several robots will return from Earth with proof that life can once again be sustained. Yet unlike the biblical Noah’s Ark that only had a waiting period of forty days, the humans in Wall-E remain on their ship for several centuries, causing their bodies to devolve into helpless blobs that rely solely upon hover chairs. Ultimately, the eradication of all physical activity causes the humans to be morbidly obese and lose half of their bone density.

Pixar, a company who made its name by producing classic, animated Modernist cartoons about heroes who work their way to the top despite adversity, finally broke from their mold by crafting a storyline that is relevant to current societal problems. Yet once the humans are introduced in the latter half of the film, Pixar resorts to over-the-top sarcasm, seemingly one of the few ways we are able to deal with the possibility of a self-made, bleak future. While it seems unfair to criticize anything that attempts to discuss our political and environmental dilemmas, it raises the question of whether satire and irony are successful modes to translate an ultimate message. We all know that we have an oil dependency issue, and sure, we got a good laugh from the “I’m Not A Plastic Bag” bag. Yet, did that bag actually deliver it’s environmental directive, or are we simply satisfied with just a laugh?

Now when I think about my artist friend, surely battling her way through L.A. at this very moment, I can’t help but feel that her fears are just. Is it possible to make something, anything, that evaluates our condition without resorting to the sarcasm that quite often comes along with being creatively clever? And if it is possible, will everyone still think you’re cool? Until then, my Tivo is still set to record
The Daily Show, and there’s not much you can do about that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Derrières on the Frontline

In an age where design meets needs we didn't even know we had, how is it possible that we are still living with fashion that does not function?  When the iPod revolution has made our listening and viewing experiences elegant, ubiquitous, and affordable in the same stroke, why must we still suffer from poor devices for sitting?

A few months ago I went to a job interview, as I had been beating the streets trying to find my place here in NYC.  I had landed an interview with a graphic design firm whose work was extremely profound, and whose website had all kinds of personality.  Naturally, I expected the same from the environment of their office, but I was in for a surprise.  Their building was on Broadway in SoHo and the hallways were honey-colored warm, wood-floored, and reminiscent of historical school buildings, but what lay behind the boardroom door was a monster disguised as high design.  Just as future employers judge their prospective employees by their attire or shoes, this experience launched my need to analyze my prospective supervisors and officemates by their choice of workplace furniture.

I entered the office: a nearly-empty, not-even-a-receptionist, pseudo-foyer with an extraordinarily-low black foam couch.  I was asked to wait for a few minutes and then was led into the boardroom with its ever-so graceful Saarinen dining/conference table, peachy walls, swiveling yellow-fin dividing wall, and what are these?  Philippe Starck Ghost "La Marie" chairs.  Hmmm.  How could one balance on this crystal polycarbonate?  Luckily no one was there to witness my game of musical chairs, as I was still waiting for the interviewers to arrive.  I wondered, "Is this a test?"  I chose the lone Ghost "Louis" chair with a seat more than 19 inches wide, but I was already done with this interview.  I think it lasted 10 minutes.  Perhaps my interviewers didn't want to sit there either.

Is there a moral message being promoted by such seating?  Has the role of the humble worshipper on an unpadded bench become the model for chair design and technology?  If this is the case, it is time for Vatican III.  I am finished with the hand-carving, flying buttresses, and cantilevers that cannot deliver good circulation or support.  And no one should feel guilty for this.

On the other cheek, I know that I can spend a cool G per Aeron chair for my office or conference room, but will that meet my needs at the dinner table or in my boudoir?  I'm afraid I do not want to see the super-sporty-tennis-racket chair in such places, much like I don't want to wear my trainers and white socks with my suit skirt, even if they are more comfortable.

Somewhere in a mass of breathable webbing, dovetailed wood, powder-coated steel, titanium hardware, and invisible casters lies the perfect chair.  Since our tools build us as much as we build them, is it possible to develop such a seat without sitting on one to first ponder the idea?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The New Yorker thinks you're stupid

I'm not on board with the explanations of illustrator Barry Blitt and The New Yorker regarding this week's cover caricaturing the Obamas as militant flag-burning terrorists. My complaint is not with the image alone, but rather with the bungled delivery of its supposed message, and The New Yorker's defense that the cartoon was simply misunderstood. Both Blitt and the magazine claim that the image was a satire aimed at those who create false impressions of the Democratic candidate. If this was in fact the case, the lampoon proves to be poorly executed and ineffective: it missed its mark completely (the media), ricocheting toward the very people it purportedly defends (the Obamas).

The cartoon’s visual humor is ambiguous, and its front-cover placement—sans headline, in keeping with The New Yorker tradition—only adds to the confusion. Had it been paired with an explanatory article or even some type of caption clarifying the image’s intent, a great deal of misinterpretation could have been averted. At a first glance, the cover works to play up rather than send up the media attacks.

Since, in the public consciousness, the idea of Obama-as-Manchurian-candidate has not been dispelled, it’s understandable that a reader might take the cartoon’s meaning the wrong way. Its comedy is too subtle: For some, the scene might not be read as preposterous, but rather somewhat plausible. The target of the criticism is also too vague. In order to know that the media is being parodied, the scene needs to change in some way. Something aside from Barack and his wife need to be so instantly jarring, so obviously a crack at the media, that the reader couldn’t possibly take the scene as an attack on the prominent couple. Ultimately, the problem with the illustrations is that this joke about sensationalism, as presented by the creators, is an inside one—and much of the nation is not in on it.

No good ad-man would ever think this situation was merely accidental. As a visual communicator, I find the circumstances highly suspect. It's unconvincing that both an experienced political cartoonist and a major US publication could have so grossly misjudged the public reception of this cover. Perhaps the illustration was never actually intended to be an attack on the media: Could The New Yorker just be cynically exploiting rumors about Obama to generate press and sell magazines? When confronted for being incendiary—rather than owning up to their sensationalizing—the magazine insinuates that the public isn’t sophisticated enough to get the joke. I call shenanigans.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Sperry Topsider, A Shoe for all Reasons

The Sperry Topsider, suddenly, is everywhere—in the pages of fashion magazines, at Barney's, on the feet of young, trendy dudes and dudettes here in New York City...

Not bad for a boat shoe that, until recently, was associated mostly with sailors, yuppies and grandpas.

Like many of the old-is-new fashion trends of recent years, the Topsider’s resurgence is fueled by a number of factors: a timeless shape, which in the Topsider’s case has changed little since the shoe was invented in 1935; perceived versatility and durability, which are less commonly attributed to unproven fashions; and, on at least some level, nostalgia and irony.

The Topsider's somewhat idiosyncratic look—loafer-ish body, with floppy leather laces and a low-profile rubber sole—is dictated by its function as a shoe for wet, slippery conditions. That makes the Topsider great for boating. But for the average, non-seafaring citizen, form and function add up to a shoe that's distinct, looks good with jeans or shorts, and lets you walk in the rain without falling on your head.

That people would choose the Topsider for nostalgic or ironic reasons, though, has more to do with preconceived notions about who would wear it. There's a certain comfort in wearing something familiar, something you remember from when you were younger. At the same time, there's ironic pleasure in reappropriating the preppy, fuddy-duddy Topsider.

Urban Outfitters, the popular clothing chain that sells thrift store styles at department store prices, began selling the shoe in 2007. Many of the store's products feed off of the same qualities that make the Topsider relevant now: a classic, sometimes quirky design, good functionality, nostalgia and irony. The national mood, it seems, is calling for products like the Topsider.

Maybe it's because technology is rapidly changing the world and we want to surround ourselves with the familiar. Or maybe it's because people just want a good, comfortable shoe.