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Bear, Butterfly, S'more?
by Natalia Ilyin
Now, I may not be a great type-use genius, but if there’s one thing I
know my way around, it’s the Rorschach test. Years of personal
experience make me an expert. I’ve taken it so many times that I
remember my answers from one test to the next. First is a butterfly,
next is a bear, the next looks like two humans—same old one, two, three.
So, with that expertise in mind, let me just outline a few details
concerning the Rorschach test.
Although you may associate the
name with a comic-book character, the original “Rorschach” is a “test
of personality” and was invented by Hermann Rorschach specifically to
diagnose schizophrenia. When other psychiatrists liked his idea and
started using his ten inkblots as a sort of general test of personality
and emotional functioning, Rorschach got annoyed and wished they’d stop,
but they didn’t. One cannot control the proliferation of one’s own
ideas: Just ask Robert Oppenheimer.
So, in the middle of all
this Plaka-ing and tracing, I began to notice, as I said, that students
who had had little or no type history were projecting meaning onto the
type at hand. This resulted in some interesting interpretations and
turned into quite the psychological exercise. I found it best not to
To me, Bodoni is one of the first “modern” typefaces
and it also reminds me of the 1960s and Alexey Brodovitch. But the
student, who, before he researched it, knew little about the ways it
had been used in the past, began to love it for its anomalies. He began
to love it for the oddball negative space in the descender of its
lowercase “g” and for the huge difference between its thicks and thins,
the dazzle of which made it impossible to read on a screen in small
Something about Bodoni not being easily translatable to
screen use made this student happy. And, as the semester progressed, it
became clear that he was projecting some of his personal vicissitudes
and triumphs into the face. As it turned out, this student was not
comfortable fitting into conventional modes himself and during his last
years in school made a lasting peace with his own personal “dazzle.”
the students projected meaning onto their typestyles. The meaning was
personal, but it was also cultural. Goudy Oldstyle became not the late
Arts and Crafts movement artifact I had always seen, but “a nice, cozy
type with melty edges that reminds me of s’mores.” And Helvetica became
about “that movie where Tobias Frere-Jones lets Jonathan Hoefler do all
This made me think about type choice as a Rorschach
test for the culture-at-large. Perhaps there’s a reason for all those
Papyrus and Comic Sans signs at the water cooler. Perhaps that reason
has more to do with the average person’s projection of humanity onto a
“hand-drawn” font than with that person’s lack of knowledge about type.
Is Comic Sans a cry for an authentic experience of being human from a
person incarcerated in the straight-line surroundings of cubicle,
plastic carpeting and fluorescent light?
Rorschach tests are
scored with a system of “determinants,” factors that represent
experiential-perceptual attitudes, which help the psychologist or
psychiatrist figure out the way a subject perceives the world.
Rorschach himself used only form, color and movement to figure this stuff out. Later, oddly, shading
was introduced as a determinant because someone did a bad job of
printing the inkblots. And they say function doesn’t follow form.
Inge Druckery chooses type for Tufte’s books, what stories of calm and
order does she see in the type she chooses? Are these a cultural or
ideological affinity, or are they a personal projection? When Ian Lynam
designed Cooper Screamers, what did those screamers say about the way he
viewed the world at that moment? Can we figure it out from form, color,
movement and shading? Can we read the test?
The stories we
choose to repeat about type, its makers, its uses, all give designers a
cohesive platform on which to build a history. But the meanings people
see in type—the ways they make their choices—may have less to do with
history and appropriateness, and more to do with the viewer’s own