Left: A typical standardized test. Right: DNA blood sample.
As a graduate student at Yale in the late 1980s, I studied with many of the great, late European masters who preached (among other things) the virtues of geometry. Back in those days, our projects were quite literally framed by formal constraints — square constraints. It was believed that the square was unbiased and pure, that it did not privilege one side over another, and that a student was likely to derive a deeper and more lasting understanding of design principles by being held to this standard.
While I could intellectually appreciate the rigor of such limitations, something inside me refused, categorically, to accept this as a defining rule. So I wrote my thesis on the square — its meaning, its history, its identity as something more than just a formal armature for design education. The pursuit of this project enabled me to widen my understanding of the power of geometry to such a degree that a dozen years later, I wrote a book on the circle. I thought I was done.
But then I started seeing ovals. Everywhere.
We live in a world of beveled edges, slanted and softened and practical and user-friendly. If a bevel is defined as meeting another angle at anything but 90°, it is easy to see the slippage that's likely to occur once you start to deviate from pure geometry. So first you slant, and then you curve, and before you know it, everything's a blob. (Future historians may want to note that in today's world, blobs happily co-exist in a state of mutual admiration with thornament.) But blobs are only blobs because they don't subscribe to the universal standards of hard-and-fast geometric principle. And here, it's perhaps worth remembering that in the natural world, geometry has its own formal constraints, which we tend to see as pure because they replicate so flawlessly. (Consider the bilateral symmetry of flower petals, leaves or butterfly wings.)
Which brings us back to ovals, the most human of geometric forms. Scientific visualizations like the DNA blood sample pictured here embrace an ovalesque vocabulary, because DNA would, after all, look ridiculous rendered as crisp, bubbly circles. But how about those multiple-choice tests? Standardized forms requiring sharp, No. 2 pencils use ovals to correspond to highly automated computerized systems that "read" the data input from each oval: called "bubble-in" tests, they're the same whether you're eight or eighty. There's something oddly arcane about a system that hasn't changed since I was a child. (And it's easy to picture that oval-by-oval alphabetic information being fed into some giant, Eniac-sized mainframe, gobbling up each letter one at a time.) With data-reading software seemingly stuck in the 1960s, it is any surprise that educational testing is such a mess?
So, ovals appear to be the preferred form for hardware, too. Push-button everything — from remote controllers to mobile phones to workout equipment — seems predisposed to ovalize everything we touch. One can imagine buttons being scaled to the oval circumference of an average adult fingertip, but recently it seems that the propensity for ovals has resulted in a morphologically compromised landscape of soft shapes and rounded edges. And nowhere is this more noticeable than in cars, which (with a few exceptions) have enthusiastically embraced everything rounded: fenders, dashboards, you name it. While I'm not advocating a market for squared-off odometers, it is difficult to find a car these days that doesn't look like a cartoon. The glory days of the square sedan are long over, and with SUV's ruling the road, one is hard put to see a straight line anywhere: even Jeep Liberty ("now with flipper glass") and Honda Element ("all about good times") look like someone took a curved vegetable peeler and slivered off the corners. Are such curvatures cosmetically desirable? Aerodynamically sanctioned? Economically prudent? Environmentally preferred?
Such vehicles summon the streamlined aspirations of mid-century modernists — those one-time visionaries whose prognostications always seemed, somehow, to be chanelling Sputnik. In contemporary western culture we thrive on a much more pluralistic sense of identity, which is at once more forgiving (anything goes) and more expansive (really, anything goes). Ovals — emancipated from circular restriction, freed of rectangular rigidity — are a perfect metaphor for the way we live now. They're out of shape and flabby, non-committal and generic — like sensible shoes, practical and monotonous and dull. (I've refrained from mentioning the Oval Office or its oval rug, but we all know there's room for improvement there.) I'm fine with oval-imaged DNA, even with ovals designating alien rain on India. But the oval as a glorious, desirable form — one worth replicating ad infinitum? Far be it for me to preach better living through geometry, but there must be a better way.