Fonts found at The Dollar Store, December, 2005.
There has been a considerable amount of debate recently about the impact of DIY on the design disciplines, and nowhere has this issue seemed more unresolved than in discussions of typography. To the degree that freedom of speech is frequently evidenced in the written (read visible) word, the role of typography looms large: type is, after all, the most direct, physical manifestation of an idea — however ill-conceived or controversial or, for that matter, badly letterspaced it may be. And while you don't have to be professionally certified to be a typographer, many designers, it seems, care deeply about type's proper, responsible and indeed, legal dissemination in the world.
Cindy Sheehan was probably not thinking about any of this when she chose to attend President Bush's State of The Union address in Washington wearing a shirt, emblazoned with the message "2,245 Dead. How Many More?" Her sartorial expression was, as protests go, rather peaceful — yet she was arrested for "unlawful conduct" nonetheless. Clearly, it's highly unlikely that a different typeface would have yielded a different result, yet I do wonder how — and where — we draw the line between private opinion and public display of that opinion? Governments use the power of eminent domain when the acquisition of real property is necessary for the completion of a public project. When they arrest someone for wearing a t-shirt in protest of the war?
I call that the law of Eminent Lo-Mein.
Allow me to explain.
Many years ago, in my grandfather's pharmacy in Philadelphia, someone got the deranged idea to redesign the store's identity using a font that looked like it had been directly lifted from a Chinese restaurant. It was considered stylish, back in the 1920s, to evoke a vaguely exotic feel in one's presentation, and a direct appeal to Orientalism was just the ticket. Today, that borrowed aesthetic panache is easily done by downloading a typeface called Wonton. (I am guessing there's a font out there somewhere that immediately evokes the Kosher deli of yesteryear, and just pray it's not called Kugel.)
This style poaching feeds directly into today's cultural maelstrom of mixed-up, culture-jamming. To the unenlightened, it probably seems witty, even daring. But it's not. There's a kind of stealing-Peter-to-pay Paul ring to all this, and yes, to the extent that design frequently engages techniques of open appropriation, I know I'm reading too much into this. But then there's that DIY thing, and the no-holds-barred font developers who are marketing their wares with reckless abandon all over the world. In the spirit of DIY, this is a good thing. In the spirit of good design? I suspect not. After all: do we really need intergalactic fonts?
Market economies encourage the growth and development of business and industry, and that includes fonts. And just as you can't legislate good typography, you can't legislate good taste. This question — of authority and elitism versus authorship and empowerment — lies at the core of the DIY debate, and might be said to color the Cindy Sheehan incident as well. Her choice to wear that shirt was hers, even if it was ill-conceived and, to some, in poor taste. (The same might be said of my well-intentioned, if slightly oblivious grandfather — the Wonton enabler.) As of this writing, the police who arrested Sheehan have admitted that they were wrong to remove her because of her tshirt. But what will it be next time — a button? A bumper sticker? A blog? DIY (and for that matter, civil protest) will continue to prosper, and prosper it should. But this should not prevent professional designers from making good work, promoting fair practices, and paying for — rather than pirating — the fonts that allow us all to visually express exactly what we think.
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