Authoritative typography and the soft underbelly of reason

An excerpt from a study (and conversation) by and with writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, published in the New York Times:

Until about 150 years ago most people wrote out documents by hand. Since the advent of typewriters (from John J. Pratt’s pterotype in the 1860s to word processors in the 1980s), few people write by hand anymore, and we now have a vast array of typefaces available to us. It is an easy matter to change an entire document from Bembo to Garamond to Caslon to Palatino. We forget that written manuscripts, letters and journals were once unique objects often containing clues about the writer and the context of when and how they were written. [...]

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth — truthiness. DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

ERROL MORRIS: How surprised are you by this?

DAVID DUNNING: I’m surprised that the damn thing worked at all — because you are conducting an experiment in an uncontrolled environment. Who knows what’s going on at the other end of a computer screen? Their kids could be screaming in the background for all we know. It could be two a.m. It could be two p.m. They’ve had their coffee. They haven’t had their coffee… The font is on their desktops. There is just a ton of stuff out there that could obscure any results whatsoever. That’s why I made sure to have those six levels of confidence —


DAVID DUNNING: Because, basically, there are two different types of questions you can ask in a survey. You can ask yes/no. Do you agree with X? And that is a rather crude question, because if a person says yes, you don’t know if they are saying, “Yes, God damn it,” or if they are saying, “Ye-es.” [in a meek voice]. They both qualify as yes. However, if you ask about gradations of the “yes” (or gradations of agreeing), then if there is a more subtle phenomenon going on you have a better chance of catching it. You catch people going from “Ye-es” to “Yeah.”

ERROL MORRIS: And what did you learn from this data?

DAVID DUNNING: That people either agree or they disagree. They are not hovering around the middle at all. They choose a decisive yes or no. But I thought that some fonts would be rejected rather than that one font was going to be the winner.

ERROL MORRIS: For example, Comic Sans would be a loser.


ERROL MORRIS: The loser font.

DAVID DUNNING: The inappropriate font. What is this font doing here? [laughter] But no. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. And that’s why you do the studies. Sometimes you get exactly what you expect. O.K., great. You publish them. The fun happens when you do a study that comes out in a way that no one would ever have expected. Now you’ve got to sit back and say, how do I explain that? Can I explain that?

Alice Neel's Brothers Karamazov

From the Paris Review -- Alice Neel, who died in 1984, is remembered best as a portraitist -- her paintings present friends, lovers, and other intimates with an astonishing, often forbidding guilelessness. Your average Neel portrait is penetrating, flip, scary, and more than a little funny, depending on how long you’re willing to hold its subject’s gaze. Neel’s people all look to be plodding through the Stations of the Cross with a kind of decadent resignation -- this is the world we live in, and oh well. “Alice loved a wretch,” her daughter-in-law told the Guardian in 2004. “She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think.”

Green: the history of a color

"For this queasily lush and labile tint was once hard to make, as difficult to manufacture as it is omnipresent in the world around us. The early colorants were derived from earth or vegetable matter, but they did not dye fast or true, and with time they grew faded and mottled. Painters liked malachite, though it was expensive and tended to blacken; Veronese relied on green and yet also complained about it, wishing its pigments were “as good in quality as the reds.” And some greens, as Pastoureau writes, were literally poisonous. Many seventeenth-century dyeworks relied on a vivid copper derivate called verdet whose fumes, even on finished garments, could prove deadly; while a nineteenth-century tint called “Schweinfurt green” that was used in wallpaper and upholstery came laden with arsenic."

Kitsch and the holy: the origins of poor taste

"What I am calling “kitsch” is just that clutching at the viewer’s heartstrings, the sense of what Keats called a “palpable design” on the beholder. A fundamental uncertainty as to whether the artist and the viewer still form part of a community of faith creates a need to extort conviction when none might be forthcoming. But whatever is cringe-inducing in Rosso’s pictures is more or less inextricable from what sometimes makes them so breathtaking. Unfortunately, his great 1521 Deposition has not come to Florence from Volterra; as with any exhibition of Renaissance art, this one inevitably suffers from the fact that so many of what might have been the most important exhibits are immovable. In that work, the geometry of a massive cross becomes the armature for clusters of weirdly distorted bodies—geometricized yet weightless, as if they had been sculpted in Styrofoam—that arouse about as much credibility as Dalí’s soft watches, yet convey an anguish adequate to the painting’s subject precisely through this sense of dreamlike unreality."