Designing Action

I mentioned in my previous post that typefaces which are heavily influenced by handwriting give us the pleasure of feeling a sequence of perfectly executed strokes. In addition to this, there is a very fundamental difference between such typefaces and those based on wholly abstract forms. The typeface based on handwritten forms imitates not just the forms themselves, but the actions taken to produce them. Unlike the abstract typeface, which aims to produce the letters in themselves as independent units, the typeface heavily influenced by handwriting captures the process of writing itself.

On the surface, this distinction may appear pointless, but consider for a moment what it really means. The early typeface represents not just the building blocks of language, used as a carrier of information, but the process of writing, the action taken by the writer to express their thoughts. Where the abstract form is used to communicate the words, the form based on the motions of the hand expresses the saying of those words. The former is utilitarian, it is a means to an end; the latter is more than that, it is part of the performance.

Publilius Syrus, the famous Roman writer of moral maxims, has a line that goes like this: “When the performer is concealed, we are indifferent to the music.” This is a perplexing statement, but it is not at all surprising coming from a Roman. What Syrus means is that music, performed by men, has no value unless we know the names of the performers, and this is so because what is important in our common human world is the deed itself, not the object. In pre-modernity, men became immortalized through action, that is, those who excelled through deed or word were recorded in history. As a consequence of this worldview, words or deeds that have no visible actor cannot fulfill their function: there is nobody to immortalize, no stories to be told, no names to record for posterity.

When the design of an object is not centered solely around its function but incorporates an element of performance, whether explicitly through its decoration or on a more subtle level through the shape of its stokes, the scope of the work expands past its utilitarian purpose, becoming an artifact that honors the act of doing itself. This is important because this “doing”, rather than the result, is what life itself is. Recognizing and honoring the performance of a thing moves us beyond the modern straightjacket of means and ends, in which everyone is measured by the outcome of their deeds rather than the virtue with which they conduct them.

November 2015