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.

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