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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 mention it.

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 sizes.

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.”

All 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 the talking.”

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.

When 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 projections. CA Ilyin
Natalia Ilyin ( is a designer, writer and teacher whose current research explores the history of the design of persuasion and the construction of the social Self. She has served as director of programs for AIGA New York and has taught at Yale, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Washington. A professor at Cornish College of Fine Arts and one of the founding faculty of Vermont College of the Arts, she also co-directs a refugee relief program that supports community-identified initiatives on the Thai-Burmese border.