Jessica Helfand | Essays

Freedom of Speech or Filching of Style? The New Law of Eminent Lo-Mein

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Politics, Typography

Comments [31]

Was her decision to wear the shirt ill-conceived? She got a lot more attention by being arrested than she would have by wearing slogan-less garb and sitting quietly. The appeal of DIY culture is that it frees one from the constraints imposed by high-minded notions of "good taste."
Patrick Broderick

This is probably the single most confusing post I've ever read in Design Observer. Jessica, you seem to be eliding too many issues into a single argument. Are you saying that appropriation by designers is in bad taste? Or just if it's done by non-designers? Do you believe that freedom of speech should be limited by "good taste"? How was Cindy Sheehan's protest ill-conceived? Because she got arrested? Because she used the wrong typeface? How does a political protest relate to the use of racially insentitive lettering? And how does this all relate to font piracy?

I know that this was tangential to your point, but you should know that the Supreme Court has authorized the use of eminent domain for private gain (as long as it's justified in public terms), not just for public use -- one of the scarier decisions of the last few years.
Jose Nieto

A congressman's wife was also asked to leave for wearing a t-shirt that said "support our troops". I think the State of the Union Address would be more interesting if all attendees were required to wear a shirt with their favorite slogan.

i have to agree with jose's comment on the scattered nature of the post. i would like, though, to comment on a few details i think need clarifying.

in reference to using wonton on your grandfather's pharmacy, you say, 'This style poaching feeds directly into today's cultural maelstrom of mixed-up, culture-jamming.' while i agree with this as an example of thoughtless style-poaching and its contribution to general cultural confusion, i hardly consider it culture jamming, in the proper use of the phrase. culture jamming is hardly thoughtless. it's often a strategy designed and employed to achieve a goal, and in the spirit of diy it's often deployed to counter corporate or dominant messaging. i suppose i'm interested in the clear and correct use of terms, that one specifically because i understand and sympathize with it.

which brings me to the diy mention. you say that in the diy world, 'marketing their wares with reckless abandon all over the world.' is a good thing. in the world of punk rock and hardcore, where diy has been ingrained for over 20 years, most people would beg to differ. i can only speak for myself as a member of that community of course, but my concept of diy is closely attached to personal and ethical standards -- support of local efforts and the diversity of locale that naturally flows from decentralized culture-making of music, zines, art, film, etc. the emphasis is on the human being and their community, not on the reckless marketing of random products. i won't say that doesn't happen, but it's not welcome by diy punks in it for the long haul. diy is also very interested in good (or appropriate) craft as much as Graphic Design is, and there are plenty of people like myself who inhabit both worlds.

i agree wholeheartedly that diy should prosper, but the diy i know is not apprached with the reckless capitalistic abandon that you pinned on it here.
tyler galloway

Jessica, as you note DIY should prosper, and will prosper. But even Ellen Lupton would prefer that DIYers use real quotation marks and not inch marks. There is training and there is taste. The world could use a little bit more of both -- even in the most pluralistic sense. Fonts are a great example of something that has been opened up to the masses, not always with good results. (It's a little like all the faux ephemera that scrapbookers use and love.) No one is going to deny anyone's right to have this stuff, and great new things will always emerge from the freedom that is now possible by putting the tools in more people's hands. It would, in fact, be great if everyone in the audience at the State of the Union address has a message on their tshirt. Let's just hope the Jewish pharmacist from Philadelphia doesn't choose Wonton.
William Drenttel

jessica, please clarify this train of thought. it reads like mad libs for designers.

I think Jessica raises a really pressing question about protest graphics and DIY. Is a well designed poster any more effective than a poorly designed one with the same message? One response is that the message is what is important. It's the old cure for cancer allegory -- if you are designing an advertisement for a cure for cancer it doesn't matter what it looks like.

On the other hand I feel like the left in particular suffers greatly from the DIY spirit. It is that spirit that creates these seas of home-made graphics (mainly bearing scatalogical wordplay involving Dick and Bush) that pass for protests these days. This idea that everyone should be able to "express themselves" is really self destructive. That's fine if you want to keep losing, but the mesage of the left would be much better served by some visual discipline and a cohesive design strategy. I mean, the orange revolution -- there was a well-branded political movement.

I really don't see any similiarites between your grandfather's misuse of typography, and political protest especially in today's climate. The relevance of DIY is that it democratizes type, something which is being lost in this country at the moment (politically). I am more than happy that type is no longer the strict domain of those of us that spend tens of thousands of dollars learning how to put down those that haven't. Good day!

Free personal expression by its very nature is DIY. I think as designers we have a misconceived certainty that we know what is best for the visual landscape. But in reality the people choosing to adorn their shirts with Times New Roman or Comic Sans are the ones leading the way. They pushed aesthetic aside in favor of emotion and concept. Something we could never do. DIY is not for us to put parameters on, it would role right over us.

So, did Cindy Sheehan do the Star Trek font pack? I'm confused.
Douglas Dearden

Regarding the comment about proper quotation marks v. inch marks- is not typography like language in that it is ever evolving? Perhaps if quotation marks were easier to type, we would not feel inclined to go with the faster, easier option. Does it really matter which we use, if the reader understands the message?

After all: do we really need intergalactic fonts?

Yes, for astronaut clients.

But, on a more serious note, I think that this article could lead to a discussion of information control in this country, which is a serious business.
occasional reader

Stephanie, I think that yes, it does matter if people use inch marks instead of quotation marks. They have reasons to be different. When used for the same purpose, detail and subtlety are lost. If new meanings appear, yes, we have to evolve the language, add to it. We shouldn't believe, however, that if something is hard to type it should be scrapped simply because it is considered difficult.

The CNN link to Sheehan's shirt is missing. Anybody have another reliable source? I've yet to see this myself.

Jason, MSNBC has a video replay of Sheehan in her shirt here.

jessica helfand

More commentary on this post here, including hopes for some clarification. You're raised issues of potential interest to rhetoricians who work in the arena of intellectual property, but I don't know enough about design to be able to fill in the blanks on this entry.

i thought this design for the parti socialiste was very good. it expresses a pretty cohesive brand strategy for politically oriented groups that dmitri refers to in his post. it gives a memorable identity while remaining neutral, for the most part. difficult to do i imagine for political parties. maybe actup is another good example, though not quite so neutral.

i like protest graphics when its graffiti. i feel that now, the only way to really rebel is to be criminal (and im not proposing that anyone reading this go out and break the law). a gestural scrawl in a depersonalized urban environment seems authentic. any more pretention than that seems a bit fake and hopeless, an inauthentic play at emotions.

i'd be interested in an expansion of the discussion that dmitri brings up regarding 'self-expression' and self-destructiveness, as it relates to authorship and the individual designer. 90s american graphic design was characterized by movements of 'self-expression', and to what avail i wonder? the work of that era is beautiful (at least some of it is), and somewhat embedded in visual culture, but what is the next step? in the professional realm, perhaps its all about strategy and context now, and maybe compromise -- doesnt matter what the thing looks like, as long as it works, functions, is feasible, and maybe carries a message. professional practice is infinitely networked to so many other things and people, how can one expect to be the least bit expressive? perhaps even the desire to be self-expressive in a professional environment is at best naive, at worst, irresponsible.

for the general public, a lot more tools are available as jessica points out. perhaps for designers, its not so much the resources people use (tacky typefaces), but the way that they are used that can be a source of inspiration. what are professionals anyways? just more highly trained amateurs. but amateurish work always has a certain spirit that is lost amongs professionals and experts. unfortunately that spirit gets lost in clumsiness. perhaps if more seasoned designers can recapture (or continue to let live) that rawness and clumsiness, there can be more interesting and vital work.

Why is it only in the arts that amateurs are allowed to have a "professional" opinion?

I think what Jessica is saying, in part, is that DIY dilutes what professional designers do and how their work is perceived. There are thousands of people who seriously believe they are web designers because they used "Create a web page" in MS Word, or is a great artist because they altered a photo in Photoshop using the stock filters, or is a composer because they "wrote" a soundtrack to their home video using GarageBand.

In the meantime, their efforts are applauded as "fresh" and "innovative" by many with not a wit to the actual disciplines and history that accompany each art, the history that allows true professionals to ground their creations in an elegant and artful way.

If this were any other discipline, say, an engineering discipline, they would be given the bum's rush, and rightly so.

On a related note, architect Rafael Vinoly, himself a classical pianist, once said in an interview with Charlie Rose (and I paraphrase it here), 'Music is the only discipline in which there can be no fakery. When you sit down at the piano, you're either a player or you're not."

Why is it only in the arts that amateurs are allowed to have a "professional" opinion?

I think what Jessica is saying, in part, is that DIY dilutes what professional designers do and how their work is perceived. There are thousands of people who seriously believe they are web designers because they used "Create a web page" in MS Word, or is a great artist because they altered a photo in Photoshop using the stock filters, or is a composer because they "wrote" a soundtrack to their home video using GarageBand.

Of course these people are designers. Not only are they adhearant to every critera of what forums like this and SpeakUp use to define "design," but they enter the public forum to amplify what's important to them in a very sincere and honest way.

Is it clumsy? Yes. Is it created from scratch? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

So what. The more important thing here is to consider how "amateur" communication makes the world so much richer. For one thing, we get new languages, accents, and vernaculars to play with. Rob Roy Kelly's woodcut type collection is a perfect example of this. The "O"s have to overshoot below the baseline, which might bother you if you weren't gawking at how the wonderful it is that the ampersand looks like a seahorse and how unrestrained and gorgeous these typefaces are.

For another, Star Trek fonts, Times New Roman, and Cindy Sheehan's leading choices all add to the value of well-set paragraph of Caslon.

"Amateur" is a term that could be applied to all of us bloggers by writers and journalists who feel that their craft has been diluted by DIYers, yet I'm sure we all feel our opinion is valid, however well we are able to express ourselves with the written word.

Yes: I'll admit this began as with one of my more untethered rants: but many good points have been raised (thank you all) and I'd like to identify a few particular strains of discussion, if I may.

What's the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom of typographic expression?

When is style-poaching about mixing it up (and therefore playful and fun) and when is it a rip-off (and therefore an act of plagiarism?) Are one man's inch marks another man's Wonton?

Is design's relationship to DIY just a question of identifying and providing civillian/amateur designers with better tools?

Finally, in the spirit of authorship and the entitlement that it affords (in other words, giving credit where credit is due,) why can't designers protect their work, uphold their standards and spread the gospel of good design without seeming elitist? (The short answer is: "good" is subjective, not universal. The longer answer is, I think, much longer.)

jessica helfand

When is style-poaching about mixing it up (and therefore playful and fun) and when is it a rip-off (and therefore an act of plagiarism?)

Steven Heller published a book on this subject over a decade ago, Borrowed Design: Use and Abuse of Historial Form, in which he attempted to define some boudaries for appropriate "style-poaching." I read it a while back, but I seem to remember that he placed a great deal of importance on context -- of both the original and contemporary use. In any event, I agree that this is still a relevant topic, one that probably deserves its own thread.
Jose Nieto

to jessica's comment: that's about five great ideas. i hope you can flesh them each out in more detail; theat'd be a great series of longer related posts.

I don't see how concepts such as "rip-offs," "plagiarism" or "authorship" can really apply to the relationship between typefaces and their users. Matthew Carter reminds us that type designers are on the raw materials end of the business: what designers choose to do with our work is really out of our hands. This goes for Star Trek fonts, Wonton, and Akzidenz Grotesk alike, and it applies equally whether you're a creative director or a pharmacist.

Granddad's japonisme may be baffling at a distance, but he was hardly alone in his taste for exoticism (cf. Ruskin, Eastlake, Van Gogh, Klimt, Gilbert & Sullivan...) In a half-hearted attempt to look current, my local drug store is now using the OCR-A typeface of "The Matrix" fame. Perhaps eighty years from now, this choice will seem similarly gratuitous and inappropriate — unless of course "The Matrix" is revealed to have been a non-fiction exposé of the future of American healthcare, in which case the choice will have been chillingly apt.

If you're issuing a call to arms for a more thorough consideration in font selection, however, I'm right behind you. But you need not focus on pharmacists and T-shirt propagandists: I've visited MFA design programs at Ivy League universities where professionals-in-training have made some of the most bewildering and ill-considered typeface choices I have ever encountered — the two I remember best were Tekton for a book about Provence, and Broadway for a project about DNA testing. Supplied with storied thesis advisers, networks of Macintoshes, the Internet, and the inter-library loan system, with what "better tools" can these people possibly be supplied?

I don't know how to distinguish "professional designers" from "DIY designers" without sounding smug, but your grandfather's Japanophilia recalls another such font fancier. Two hundred and fifty years ago, an amateur DIY'er smitten with all things Japanese set himself up in the manufacturing business, to produce low quality lacquerware for mass consumption. Through an unlikely turn of events, he found himself in the printing business, and ultimately running a type foundry. You may have heard of this charming bumbler: his name was John Baskerville, and he is generally acknowledged to be the father of the Transitional style.
Jonathan Hoefler

Jonathan, this is a brilliant summation, for which I am very grateful, and spot-on accurate with one exception: the only MFA design program in an Ivy League University that I know of is Yale, where, as a "storied thesis advisor" for the past decade, I must accept at least some responsibility. Then again, a student's typographic proclivities are informed by a great deal more than an advisor's guidance: beyond the wealth of resources you cite here, they are responsible for identifying a method and producing a body of work to support it. As tomorrow's design leaders, the paradoxical type choices you note may seem stunningly misguided: but I suspect there is a contextual reason why these selections were made. This question of method and context recalls Jose Nieto's comment (and Steve Heller's theories on "borroowed" design.) Hard to imagine, in retrospect, what context would place Tekton in Provence, but then again, who am I to play Monday morning quarterback?
jessica helfand

i was one of 'these people' who went to an 'MFA design program at an Ivy League university' and never saw tekton or broadway used for anything. at any rate, these are just two examples of hundreds of projects done each year. perhaps also there is an interest in ironic usage of 'ugly typefaces'. of course, maybe they were just bad choices, and better they were made within the confines of an art school rather than in professional practice. why shouldnt students be allowed to make mistakes, whether they happen in the ivy league or the community college?

to segue back into the discussion of amateurs from jonathan hoefler's comment about professionals-in-training, people in grad school might be about to enter the profession, but they are not necessarily professionals-in-training. on one hand many are already esteemed professionals, on the other hand many may never enter the profession when they finish their program but instead will use the methodologies and thinking learned and apply them to other fields. indeed, most of what goes on in grad school most likely wouldnt pass for 'graphic design' by narrow professional standards, and thats a good thing (at least somewhat). going back to the discussion of amateur, student work is in a strange place because its more highly focussed than the average hobbyist's work, but then isnt bound by professional requirements. this can make the work appeal both to designers and the masses. or else make it incomprehensible.

You're absolutely right, Manuel. My post certainly wasn't meant as an indictment of graduate programs, I simply thought it worth pointing out that the accidental uncoupling of typography's visual and cultural dimensions happens everywhere: this is not the exclusive province of amateurs and pharmacists.
Jonathan Hoefler

"do we really need intergalactic fonts"....?

Maybe its just a feeling, but as more I follow design observer as more I feel the odd tone, that can become very self-righteous if not, like, "guardian of 'the legacy'"... Terms like "poaching", and asking "do we really need...", and so on, are obviously already setting the switches for all the "norms" and arguments. After all, who would voluntarily agree to label themselves a "poacher", so your keywords are already actively a warning sign. But more to the point, when you see "poachers", it just resonates.. as if you are still standing on the 'kings property'...

And also - nods and kudos to "culture jamming" and so on - surely you don't think that the Orientized - Chinatown signs are some essential, archetype coming from some Asian-American immigrant culture, that one has to respect? If so, one can build a good argument for Star Trek to be even given more respect.

There has been documentation of cities intentionally establishing (subsidizing a style) a certain arrested-historical idea of a visual Chinatowns like a logorific display, and for economic, not cultural, reasons.. I don't see what "culture" is being "poached" here. It started out from its origin, as but a kind of "jamming"... implemented in the end from top down.

Do we really need intergalactic fonts?... I would take that as "Do we need those Star Trek.. fonts" you pictured. But, these aren't "intergalactic", they are decidely earthly fonts. They come from the 1960s television culture. Hardly any opening title sequences are that rememorable, let alone as just typefaces, as Star Trek.

Just test them - I am positive they still reflexively call up a sense of connected, television-ethos for at least two generations, which I would argue for most of the world is a site equally, if not more recognizable, and identifiable than the visualized, and nostalgic urban, "Chinatowns" today.

So in a sense, in the U.S. the examples "Star Trek" and "Chinatown" are having similarities, in terms of how they end up as a community site, utilze their history, and operated now like fixed tabula rasa of fonts, images, gestures. Each is an economy, invested in intentionally harkening to the look of one particular, "prime", period and community ethos, while eventhough later having their spin offs and growths that often assimilate into the culture and "mix", sometimes successfully, sometimes to the point of "cancellation".

As for Sheehan, I don't really see the point fully clearly in the text.

She is doing what American political figures have had to do since the 50s to get their voice heard. Although unwillingly or unwittingly called into "service", she is inevitably moving from media figure to almost-branding herself. As all public figures must play with otherwise be used by the media. She is going to be able to just show up, and her actions will symbolize. Luckily, she is able to eloquently speak too.
Later as the newspaper reports she received apologies and the suggestion it was wrong to arrest her and take her out.. we see it was her actions, not her tshirt, that threaten... and remind us again, that the "Bush" Government buildings are treated as if not for the taxpayers and citizens, but as if the kings property.

Right on.
Jonathan Hoefler

very confusing - it hovers but it never lands - this just seems to me like a manifesto from 1980s modernist elitist groups - me thinks this subject has been covered and allready been put into history books. dont get me wrong i'm not an advocate for "anything-goes" - but neither for academic procedure - props to those who have discussed this :) the discussion was worth the topic

Anne Burdick wrote an article a few years ago called "Neomania: Feeding The Monster"... in Emigre originally I think? (I've got a photocopy from Looking Closer)... anyway, she starts it out with a reference to a girl who'd been suspended from school for wearing a t-shirt that she'd made in memory of a murdered class-mate. The school had taken offence to the t-shirt because it used blackletter, and school officials regarded that as gang symbolism. She points out that the cover of the Constitution, and even Disneyland use the same style of lettering... she goes on to talk about the consumption (and regurgitation) of style/form... she refers to the process as "descendant mutation". I like that idea and think designers need to be really careful about trying to specify what's appropriate - who can use what where.

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