Sunday, June 19, 2005

The New Conservative Bogyman: Fonts

Here's what really bothers me deeply about Conservatives: they think they are morally superior in every way. What's more, because they think they are morally superior in every way, they think that they can apply this moral superiority to every single topic whether they know anything about or not. It's like some bad episode from some 1950's TV show where the theme of the story is "silly children, adults know what's best. Now eat your asparagus."

This lack of understanding of what they are talking about is what makes their application of moral perfection to everything so maddening. Abortion, stem cell research, birth control, patriotism. Even font selection. Via Billmon, The Citizen Journal, a conservative political forum, has an example of applying Conservative moral perfection to the modern evils of "decadent fonts":
AND YET THE ALTERING OF FONTS strikes everyone as much more benign. The digital age has made a font for every mood no longer the province of the monastery or the tenth-grade art class. We all know which styles of lettering look “scary,” “technological,” “elegant,” “childish,” or “authoritative.” Half of the ugliness in a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, or a Federal agency in Washington, is the spare, squat, sans-serif font of the letters used to identify it. Contrast such a font with the fine, chiseled lines of, say, the Supreme Court or the Treasury. There one reads culture—skill wrought by the practiced human hand—with all the sophistication of shape and style that communicates an ennobled social message about aesthetic virtue.

I'm a designer. I love type. This paragraph illustrates that this author is more interested in pushing his version of moral perfection than understanding both the aesthetic and utilitarian nature of typography. There's a reason the typeface used for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building is different from that of the Supreme Court. Any idiot can figure out that these two buildings have radically different purposes and aspire to radically different potentialities. The Water and Power building is a place of basic functional needs; a utilitarian building made to economically provide and maintain a basic human services. Hence it uses a utilitarian san-serif font with no frills, easy readability, and efficient features. The Supreme Court obviously is national in focus, has impact on the very core of government, and aspires to transcend the rule of law in the service of humanity. Somehow, I just don't think Helvetica would do in this instance.

But of course, since Conservatives are morally perfect, the author continues to explain that not only are "decadent fonts" a canary foretelling the downfall of our society, but they are the reason for our poorly behaved children:
The still-accelerating decision by, say, restaurants—fast-food restaurants particularly, but now, increasingly, sit-down joints as well—to print their children’s menus or their titles (“Kidz Only,” etc.) in “kid-like,” zany fonts reflects a conscious and ultimately business-based determination that the presentation of products for children will be more profitable if that presentation is anchored by visual cues that communicate certain characteristics or psychologies. In the case of kids’ meals, the broad consensus is that children ought to be marketed to by visual cues that depart as much as possible from “adult” (i.e. “boring”) typographical styles. Uniform, consistent fonts executed with professional and aesthetically refined style are particularly unfashionable.

But wait. “Kid-like” fonts? “Boring” typefaces? What moral and cultural judgments about the nature of juvenility are impacted in those phrases? Inescapably tied up in the business judgment that children will be more likely to buy (or will be more successful in pestering their parents to buy) products marketed with zany or deliberately outrageous fonts (or misspellings) is a broader, psychologically informed norm that says children ought to be or are inherently zany and deliberately outrageous...

AS FAR AS “KID FONTS” GO, one can see that the new norm, conveyed by the font-choice version of “coloring outside the lines,” has been permitted—and encouraged—to extend itself into the actual physical behavior of the children themselves. Regularly, predictably, we are treated to the invasive spectacle of unmanaged children running rampant throughout indoor public places, ducking in and out of clothing racks, rolling about on the floor, and generally causing the low-grade sort of mayhem that makes most shopping centers crass and intolerable places to stroll through. This is not a phenomenon coded to class, either. For every grubby toddler pawing around on the carpets of a K-Mart, there’s a petulant little hellion knocking down neat rows of espresso bean chocolates at Starbucks, with an abdicated parent in arm’s reach, maxed out by the demands of a cell phone conversation.

Did this guy grow up in Victorian England or something? Has he ever had children? If he has, I feel sorry for them because as any parent knows children are not uniform or consistent. They rarely execute anything with professionalism and are hardly aesthetically refined. That's because they are children. They are all unique, inconsistent perpetually in the moment, messy, loud, emotionally driven wonderful little gifts from God. Using "kid like" fonts of course has to do with marketing to children and their parents. But rather than encouraging children to be "inherently zany and deliberately outrageous" it recognized the fact that often they are. And wonderfully so. But in the Conservative's moral perfectionist view, children should not be this way. They should be perfect little copies of adults who are always "managed" and subdued. How sad.

Fonts do not encourage children to run "rampant throughout indoor public places." Poor parenting does. Zany fonts to not encourage a "petulant little hellion knocking down neat rows of espresso bean chocolates at Starbucks." The lack of the surrounding adults to confront the little bastard does. But in the moral perfection of the Conservative "ownership society" there must be always a bogyman to blame other than the actual person responsible. Michael Moore. Janet Jackson's boob. Television. Muslims. The French. And now, fonts.