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Language Log

Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2009 - 8:59 a.m.

I don't know if I've mentioned it lately, but it really annoys me when people look at a piece of my jewelry and say, "what does that say? I like it, but I can't read it." As if that were a criticism of some sort? I never know what to say. Well, I often tell them; sometimes they say this AFTER I have already told them, and then I really don't know what to say.

Here's my manifesto regarding the role of legibility in my artwork. This is cast against a background of a general disagreement in the calligraphic community, a schism of sorts between those who think legibility is paramount and those who practice some degree of expressive lettering, where legibility is about the last thing one considers when creating a piece.

First of all, I like both styles. I appreciate that the artwork is often enhanced by actually being able to read the text, and that focus on legibility forces the scribe to make sure every letter is perfect. There's no hiding sloppiness here. I also appreciate that lettering is gesture, that some texts require bolder gestures to convey their meaning and timbre. Plus, expressive works can look pretty cool, but you sort of have to reconceptualize them as abstract design, the idea of language rather than a particular text meant to be read. So I use a bit of both in my own work, depending in large part on how I feel and the background design on the paper. If the dye pattern is diffuse, I can impose a big, legible thing in the middle and it will work. If it has some structure of its own, the lettering needs to be more subservient to that. The patterns in the paper are, after all, a big part of what draws people to my work. You don't want to detract from the beauty of the paper for the sake of readability, slapping down a big, black, block-lettered thing right smack in the middle. I don't, anyway.

Now, keep in mind that even my more expressive lettering is still very legible in comparison to some. It just may be a bit flowy, or sideways, or might blend in a bit and the reader will have to pay attention a bit to see what it says. I think that's ok. It's not a freaking street sign; you don't need to be able to read it from 50 yards away.

Also note that many letterforms that calligraphers use, even calligraphers wholeheartedly commited to legibility, are not entirely familiar to most folks. They may be historical forms that don't get used in print much and don't resemble anything in your standard Word font palette. There's a certain vocabulary of variations that calligraphers implement that also may not be familiar. Some people may view these as reducing legibility. Me, I think the problem in this case lies not with the calligrapher, but with the viewer. To put it bluntly, Helvetica has spoiled the public's tolerance for whimsical flourishes. You get all crazy and put an uncial e at an italic angle, and suddenly people are all like, "what language is this?". Or if you connect the letters cursive-style with ligatures throughout rather than having an open space between each letter, confusion! Chaos! OMG!

If some of my lettering requires a little more attention to read, I'm okay with that. Expend the effort; it's really not that taxing, I promise.

An aside: Also, bad calligraphy! I was in one of my shops (i.e., shops carrying my work) the other day and saw the most ghastly stuff, this "Aunt Bertha bought a felt calligraphy pen and now look at what she can do!" crap, insipid quotes about mothers or sisters or cats, in shadowboxes with maybe a dead flower for accent. Gag me. I really need to get going on 2d stuff, this crap needs to be displaced. I'm not the best (to the contrary, I'm constantly frustrated by my limitations), but am sometimes reminded that my worst is still several times better than a lot of stuff on the market out there. The real problem is that I just can't bring myself to do insipid. Not on a regular basis, anyway.

Should I do a version of this post (before my arrogant aside) for my public art blog? Or is it insufficiently deferential to my customers' tastes?

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