On blowing shit up

My house faces one of the world’s most famous signs. I salute the hooligan who pulled off this typo­graphic prank on New Year’s Eve using four pieces of fabric and a ladder.

The occa­sion, I presume, was Cali­fornia’s first day under Propo­si­tion 64, a recently approved ballot measure that legal­izes recre­ational mari­juana statewide. This is not, however, the first time for this partic­ular prank—a man named Daniel Fine­good made the same conver­sion in 1976. Also part of his vandal’s oeuvre: HOLY­WOOD, OLLY­WOOD, and OIL WAR.

When I give talks about typog­raphy, I some­times hear comments after­ward like Now I get it! Typog­raphy is about making things pretty! I wouldn’t say that’s wrong, exactly. The goal isn’t to make things to look bad. (Though some­times ugly is better than pretty.)

But it still seems to omit some­thing crucial: namely, why we’re making things pretty (or ugly, etc.)

My friend and college class­mate Richard Nash, who like me thinks a lot about the role of books in the digital age, once wrote a terrific essay for the VQR titled What is the Busi­ness of Liter­a­ture? It’s a great read, and ends perfectly: The busi­ness of liter­a­ture is blowing shit up.

I agree. More­over, I’d say the same is true about typog­raphy. Not neces­sarily in a chaotic or anar­chic sense. (In fact, some­times we typog­ra­phers like to blow shit up real pretty.) But rather in the sense that Richard means: that human art and craft can be the radical agent of change … the barbarian.

As Richard argues, to regard the book strictly as a tech­no­log­ical arti­fact—as it often seems Big Tech would have us do—omits its most vital role. Books aim to bend the thinking of others. To derail trains of thought. With Typog­raphy for Lawyers, I’ve espe­cially enjoyed hearing from attor­neys who say things like I can’t believe I went 20 years without knowing this stuff. That’s typog­raphy, amigo. Kaboom.

More broadly, when I started working with typog­raphy, what I enjoyed most was learning that I could make things that were arresting—that made people stop and pay atten­tion. Of course, you can do this with ugli­ness. But also with beauty. In that sense, they can be equally subver­sive.