Simplicity: Too Simple?

I'd like to share an excerpt from a design book published in 1927. I spend a lot of time in the Gimbel design library at my alma mater, Parsons School of Design. Recently, I unearthed a relic.

The book is called Fred Farrar's Type Book. The following is an excerpt from the introduction, titled 'Why Keep it a Secret? Something of an Introduction by Don Herold.' I am amazed and pleased that the general outlook of typographers does not seem to have changed much in nearly a century. We still seem to believe that less is more, the best tools are the ones that have stood the test of time, and the world's bad designs greatly outnumber it's good ones. The antiquated vernacular is priceless (and I vote we bring back 'geegaws'). Here is the excerpt:

"I have always been at a loss to understand why all newsboys, all traincallers, and many advertisers take such pains to conceal what they have to say. They have a veritable professional technique of pandemonium and confusion.

I often feel that a newsboy's chief aim in life is not to sell papers but to entertain himself with a lot of noise. Sometimes I feel that advertisers are similarly out for pleasure rather than profit, since the typography of their advertising means so little to anybody but themselves. How they must enjoy the intricacies, the mazes, the impenetrabilities, the hidden meanings of their expensive, luxurious advertisements!

Why does it take mankind so long to arrive at the simple? And once simplicity is achieved, why does mankind so often wander afield from it? Almost invariably, new things are done in an elaborately incorrect way. All the new, small minds contrive gorgeously roundabout methods of doing the obvious.

It took years for motor cars to achieve the simple streamlines which should have been theirs from the first and to shake off their artistic status of redesigned buggies. And now, in so-called sport models especially, there is a tendency to return to error, a restlessness which manifests itself in tinwear trimmings and geegaws.

There has been Caslon type for a long time, yet the average printer will take pains not to have it. In fact, I sometimes think that most printers make an uncanny effort, and a successful one, to get all the bad types.

Some of the world's best books are centuries old. Good typography is not in its infancy, in spite of the attempts of so many modern advertisers to put it there. Advertising typography as we know it today is, however, in its adolescence, a profession comparatively new. And its practitioners (the old story) have disregarded all good typographical precepts of all time and most precepts of common sense, and have set about to make advertising typography completely unreadable. Professionals invariably take this course; tricks in a trade always precede true accomplishment in a trade; the earlier physicians contrived the most marvelously complex processes for killing a man. I presume that pioneers in all professions must do things complexly. Simplicity would seem too simple."

-excerpt taken from Fred Farrar's Type Book by Frederick M. Farrar, 1927.


Unknown said...

I often find that in many facets of my life, it takes a while to arrive at the pure heart of the matter-- the essence-- the simple. What starts as perfect and simple is oftentimes embellished to the nth degree, muddying the true and original beauty of whatever it is-- be it typeset, tshirt design, or working on a character in a play. In keeping with the spirit of "beautiful simple", check out this link to Monstruos Diabolicos, a set of monster trading cards that are gorgeous, fun, and utilize the all-too-important power of suggestion in their design. Great new blog, Dan'l!

Dan Redding said...

Thank you my friend! Those trading cards are rad to the Nth degree. I love their names, too, especially Mono Canibal (good band name alert). They remind me of your boy Charles Burns, and especially his character El Borbah. Here's some news that'll make your hat spin: Burns' masterpiece Black Hole is reportedly being made into a film directed by David Fincher('Se7en,' 'Fight Club')!