Originally posted at Medium on February 13th, 2015. Recommend it here.
Some of the most paramount resources we have for gaining insight into the lives and culture of the human race at various periods of time throughout history are the different styles and movements of art from those times. To study what the artists of a particular era and geographical region were producing is to better understand the thoughts, attitudes and values of the people around them.
The Renaissance period, for instance, documented a time where people were transitioning from the Middle Ages into what is widely considered to be modern times. The art of the time became far more sophisticated, introducing concepts like perspective, and valuing realism like never before.Portrait of Sir Thomas More, 1527
Artists were studying light and shadows, and the human anatomy, producing works that were so incredible, we still consider them masterpieces centuries later. And to think of the rudimentary tools they had at their disposal in most cases, just amplifies their utter magnificence.
Painters began depicting scenes from everyday life; a concept largely inspired by the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, but that hadn’t really been a focus prior to the time.
I wonder what people centuries from now will deduce about us from what we hold as popular and great from our creative leaders. My guess? An era of diminished standards.
You may have read my thoughts on the backwards and antiquated concepts of design awards, contests, and the like, and how all the acclaim you could ever hope to receive can be just as easily obtained on your own in the age of the internet and social media. At the risk of being totally contrarian to my own words, I think it’s important to take a look at a downside that this presents as well.
I’m primarily a lettering artist and designer, so while my point here very much applies to a wide scope of disciplines, my personal attachment to these ideas is based largely in my own experiences.
In recent years, we’ve seen a massive resurgence of custom lettering and a focus on typography in the best designs of our time. Depending on who you ask, some would tell you that the best have always focused on good typography. The industry en masse, however, has made a clear shift toward custom letter-based designs as a staple as of late.
Make no mistake that I disagree with the idea that sound letterforms should be embraced as a core element of strong design. They absolutely should. It’s just that our collective taste leaves a lot to be desired.
The allure of custom lettering is a strong one, and who can blame creative individuals for wanting to pursue the craft? The well-wrangled curve of a beautifully drawn script can produce some of the most stunning works of art imaginable, and unlike some other forms of artistic expression, the universality of words (language barriers aside), can be rivaled only by, I don’t know, math, perhaps. I certainly succombed to the pull a few years ago, and learning the art of the letter has been, by far, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, let alone my work.
“Our collective taste leaves a lot to be desired.”
As with anything, though, to say that this practice is for everyone is to not be perfectly honest. Breathing is for everyone. Water is for everyone. Beyond our basic needs, everything else should bear a little subjectivity.
If it’s not immediately apparent, I’m trying to be very selective with my words here. In my heart, I think that everyone should try their hand at drawing and writing custom letters. It’s just the best. Maybe it’s not for you, maybe you get no enjoyment from it yourself at all — or maybe it changes your life and lights a fire of passion under your ass. This is just one of countless experiences worth trying, if for no other reason than to decide that for yourself.
Where the problem lies is in our collective valuation of everybody and his cousin’s sudden “obsession with type”. The mere inclusion of shapes that your brain recognizes as letters does not a skilled lettering artist make. Don’t let someone who’s using a couple different fonts, in different sizes, and in some arrangement other than a fucking paragraph block to spell out an (often tired) inspirational quote, play you into thinking it’s somehow artful or creative in any way. Just because you can read how it’s supposed to make you feel, that doesn’t make it profound. Yes, even if they’ve craftily roughened things up to mask their subpar skills.
Doodling at the boy’s soccer practice. Think that about covers it…
Too many of these sudden letterers see these trendy things that are garnering others so much attention and so many followers, and then hurry to teach themselves to imitate them, rather than starting at the roots of the craft, and building up from a strong foundation.
We as an age of people in the future history of this world shouldn’t allow trends, and the blind following thereof, to set the bar so low. When we look at the great works of art that we’re deciding to let represent our culture, do you want to be in jaw-dropping awe of them, or do you want to think, “I could probably do that,” — and be right?
Artists and designers aren’t getting off easy, either. It’s up to us to educate our clients and commissioners, and help cultivate a better sense of taste in the world. When someone comes to you looking for “that naive style”, you tell them no. “That naive style” is bullshit (use whatever words you like). They’ve likely seen something from a designer who genuinely is giving it his or her best, falling short of good, and calling it their “style”. The trouble is, through aggrandizing these people with massive Instagram followings and propogating their less than exemplary work through the ridiculous number of “type-sharing” social media account clones, we build a wildly inflated value around this uninspired bush-league style.
“Breathing is for everyone. Water is for everyone. Beyond our basic needs, everything else should bear a little subjectivity.”
One of my goals with this publication is to assist in cultivating that improved taste, by sharing the work and the artists that are making strides to really push themselves, and the craft as a whole forward. I read an article the other day here on Medium about that old 10,000 Hour Rule from Malcolm Gladwell, and how so many people are putting in all this time, but not progressing at all. Practicing something for 10,000 hours — or for any amount of time — is only worth a damn if you’re spending the entirety of that practice time completely focused on improvement.
Chances are pretty good, if you’re over the age of, say, 20 years old, you learned how to write in cursive in school. You know how to do it, and you could write in cursive for 10,000 hours, but unless you’re consciously zoned in on improving the way you’re doing it, and studying the fine details of what makes great lettering as good as it is, you’re just going to get reallygood at writing the same way you do now. Which, sadly, is essentially the state of the industry at large right now — a whole lot of stagnant practice that creates an illusional facade of experience and talent.
Again, an indifferent, intentionally underdeveloped skillset is not a style or a “voice”. You don’t see web designers purposely disregarding half the agreed-upon industry standards, producing intentionally naive websites, and saying, “Oh yeah, that’s my thing. That’s my front-end style.” They’d get laughed out of the building.
Being easily impressed isn’t exactly the most honorable of traits. Take some pride in the things you value and what you find beautiful in the world. Be choosy. If you’re an aspiring letterer, or see a lot of yourself in the comments above, it’s never too late to buckle down and get serious about learning this amazing practice for real. I know a lot of incredibly talented people who are always more than happy to share and provide feedback. I am, too.
“Take some pride in the things you value and what you find beautiful in the world.”
Regardless which side of this crossroads you’re on, I urge you to follow along with Handling the Curve, and I’ll do my very best to be a great local guide as we navigate the characters of this beautiful letter-based landscape together.
Oh, and if you ever get the notion to create the next big @goodtype or @thedailytype account with whatever stupid combination of loosely type-related words you came up with in the shower, please consider this: don’t. Those two have it covered, and you’re just going to repost what they do anyway, so save it.
Let’s take this thing seriously, and help transform our place in history from the Mediocre Movement, to something more aligned with the Renaissance. Something people will look back on and see as a mass awakening of smart, inspiring work and a dawn of impeccable taste.