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Thoughts on LaRossa's Design Observer Essay

Further to my writings on Twitter yesterday about Brian LaRossa’s provocative post titled The Tension Between Graphic and Type Design, I wanted to tie those together with some other thoughts on the mainstreaming of fonts in general.

In my time at Adobe, I had the good fortune to participate in formal research with hundreds of customers, informal research with hundreds more, and casual conversations with thousands of others about their thoughts and attitudes about fonts and the type industry.

Those experiences left me with the conviction that many designers feel a degree of alienation from the type industry that rhymes with some of the perceptions described in the article. I heard the same kinds of comments that Brian reports, for example of customers feeling condescension.

Knowing that condescending personalities are pretty rare in the industry, I wonder if some of these anecdotes might result from confusion caused by helpless feelings brought on by EULAs, and the unfamiliarity of pricing based on rights and uses.

Looking back, I can think of times where I could have done better at reducing tension between Type and Design, at lowering the “tension” that Brian writes about. Enabling designers to take type for granted was certainly something we were concerned about at Adobe.

But even though these criticisms hit close to home, I didn’t feel insulted by the piece. I was nodding my head as I was reading it. I was thinking, as I have often been for the past few years, about how we can do better to connect with the largest possible audience for our type.

I can certainly understand why my colleagues would feel put off by the writing. It’s hard to hear when you’re told you’re falling short. Maybe the presentation was a bit strong, and it might have landed better with some alternative viewpoints and potential remedies.

But it would be a real shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater. His argument is that we have a disconnect between the highly specialized world of Type with a capital “T'“ and the sprawling population of designers with a little “d.”

I think that’s a very healthy and constructive piece of cultural criticism.

Before you say you don’t believe that disconnect is out there, note that the essay presents some research from Jess McCarty and Mary Catherine Pflug. Give that at least a moment of reflection. You could consider doing some of your own research. You already know what your current customers think, so get a cross section of designers who are not your customers, from casual to pro. That should give you a decent picture.

More importantly, don’t feel insulted by any of this. I don’t think LaRossa intended to report a malignancy in our industry. Any community has its strong and weak points. Hasn’t our own faced its own challenges already?

I’m inspired by the challenge, because it pushes buttons on a program that I’ve been running for a while. How can we can look beyond the traditional ways of thinking about Type and our customers — for example, about how families and super-families are constructed and sold; or for how we could be licensing for educational environments. Instead of talking about whether or how we should be hurt, let’s talk about that.

Moments like these are how the old ways give way to the new. That’s always going to be painful, but I think it’s necessary.

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with Brian LaRossa through the Adobe Typography Advisory Board, which I founded, and another industry user group.

Matthew Rechs