Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Snobbery, Typography, and Trees

Butterick’s Practical Typography is a free web book from Matthew Butterick offering a concise, clear, interesting explanation of the subject. There's lots to learn. I highly recommend it.

On the other hand, it's also a typical example of arbitrary preference presented as unassailable righteousness. There's a long history of that sort of thing - where an expert pompously lists the stupid things stupid people do to embarrass themselves in the eyes of those in the know. Readers, flattered into feeling "in the know", bask in the contagious sense of superiority. And Butterick lays the flattery on thickly:
If you learn and follow these five typography rules, you will be a better typographer than 95% of professional writers and 70% of professional designers. (The rest of this book will raise you to the 99th percentile in both categories.) All it takes is ten minutes — five minutes to read these rules once, then five minutes to read them again.
If you've ever read HW Fowler's "Dictionary of Modern English Usage", you've run into this sort of thing. In 1926, Fowler gathered his preferences and prejudices and codified them into what he declared to be proper English usage. His followers duly carried the flame, never questioning what entitles a given human being (or group of human beings) to arbitrate correctness in a realm of free expression like language usage (or, similarly, typography).

There are still plenty of language cops out there, latter-day Fowlers demonstrating their superiority by decrying those who unaccountably choose to express themselves as they see fit. But professional lexicographers, once momentarily captivated by the arrogance of Fowler and his following, have come around to the recognition that no one "owns" language. And, given that language eternally evolves, any conventions and standards one might propose are intrinsically observational (descriptive rather than prescriptive) and hopelessly fleeting.

Snobbery, by itself, is repulsive. But it's worse when it's wielded to SELL you things. After pages of arbitrary preferences codified as immutable rules, Butterick makes his case for why most of the fonts people use are "bad". Did you know that the following font, Papyrus, is awful, and that you'd be revealing yourself as a boob for ever, ever using it?
"Papyrus is just such a poseur. Papyrus is meant to look his­toric and hand-drawn, but it is nei­ther. It’s an al­pha­bet from the ear­ly ’80s wear­ing a week’s stub­ble. Skip it."
Sheesh, doesn't look so awful to me. But, naturally, Butterick follows with a strong pitch to buy his own pricey fonts. And we readers - having, over the course of our ten minute edification, been transformed into self-satisfied experts, ourselves - have no choice but to do the right thing. Who wants to look like a Philistine?

One lesson to be learned from this free book is that nothing's ever really free. More importantly, fending off marketing manipulation requires awareness of the various PSYOPs. And this gambit is one to which educated, thoughtful people readily succumb.

A few years ago, I moved into a place with lots of trees around. Some branches needed cutting, so I had a tree guy stop by to give me an estimate. He had a look around, and his face distorted in disgust as he pointed to tree after tree, proclaiming them "garbage".

To me, these were perfectly fine trees. They were mostly vertical, with lots of green stuff toward the top, and they dependably offered both shade and oxygen. To him, they were weeds, and they needed to be cut down, immediately. Aesthetics demanded it. Due to their invasiveness, the environment demanded it.

I asked how much it would cost to remove all this sinful, evil flora, and he gave me a price in the high four figures. Thousands to remove most of the trees from my property, leaving behind a broiling, scrubby, post-apocalyptic landscape of stumps. So I told him that if my trees were truly offending him so badly, I would give him permission to cut them down, and plant new ones. I wouldn't object; I'd do my duty as a good citizen, and not charge him a dime. He, of course, looked at me like I was crazy.

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