Monday 31 December 2018


What is the impact of our visual world on our being, our thinking and feeling? With the digital transformation of our era, more and more of our daily life is becoming essentially visual. Our participation with information and communication has changed. Handwriting is a fading art, as is speaking - discussing, developing, debating, and sharing ideas verbally. We not only look at the traditional world of print and everything that this entails, but are also increasingly engaged by the blossoming digital world revealed on our gadgets that get smaller, better, faster and more capable every month, with even more superior, exceptional improvements promised for tomorrow. One can see a general worsening in spelling and grammar in a broad range of expression. There is the phonetic spelling error like 'should of'; the illogical 'try and'; the people/thing mishmash with the 'man that' and the 'company who'; and a maze of madness with singulars and plurals, all of which has become so common that it is almost the new norm. One can already hear the argument to try to justify these awkward errors that says that language is a fluid, changing, cultural matter, not a static book of rules.

Our digital appliances are now voice-activated, programmed to give either a visual or an audio response, perhaps both, to a snappy, maybe cryptic, sometimes inarticulate request. Ours is a hands-free, 'smart,' AI world full of texts to be read and illustrations and likenesses to be looked at, recognised. These forms and appearances are not just photographs, even though everyone carries a camera as a mobile phone. The visuals include graphics; more subtly, typographics - letter design. Everything we look at involving words uses a latent graphic/typographic styling that has been chosen for the particular shape and disposition of the letters used in the presentation. Graphic art, logo designs and the set-out of lettering, is an integral part of our visual world, just as photography is, but it is typography that is the subject here; the finer scale of shaping: letter design.

What is this art doing to us?

Everyone must have seen a teenager flicking through a social media account, perusing photographic images - see:  One hesitates to use the word 'peruse' as there seems to be little time given to each flick that reveals the next image. Apparently even the direction of the flick is critical, as Instagram recently found out when it changed from a vertical to a horizontal move. The upgrade met with such protests that the variation lasted only hours. It seems that the vertical move is preferred. The young fingers appear to move almost faster than the eye as they push and pull images over the screen, and instantaneously discern and register a 'like' or otherwise within a millisecond. Ironically, even this manual response requires a graphic hand image with a raised thumb pointing up or down - a true digital reaction.

What is being looked at? Everyone knows how immediate an impact a photographic image can have, but the initial reaction to the eye-catching identity is usually followed by a pause, and a re-reading that both confirms and further develops the first reading and the reaction, or otherwise: but this process is not, apparently, for the 'insta' images and the 'insta' responses that are given and forgotten as the next pictures are anticipated or posted.

One wonders: with so little determined reverie and review, what is perceived? What criteria are used for such instant assessments, made time and time again, one after the other? If such a skill with a critical eye, the critical gaze, operating so self-assuredly with what is before it exists, what does this eye read/see in typography? What might it miss? Is this subtle manipulation by style the elephant in the room - in the mind? The whole subject appears to lie below any level of awareness or apparent relevance. It is just there, everywhere, operating in the clever way that it can, shaping messages with a latent authority that is hardly ever seen, with a meaning that is rarely noticed, and an intent barely recognised, let alone understood. (Has the reader noticed that this text is Arial aligned to the left?) The clarity of the experience seems to be displaced by larger, bolder, more blatant, more obvious issues that smudge the canny detail with a calculated haze.

Consider something basic like an Arial 'T' and one in Times, ‘T’, and the various feelings that these two letter forms engender: then add in a script like, say, Segoe Script, and wonder. Consider the use of the emotions in, say, a funeral notice and a party invitation; or, to get a closer match with formal events, the latter and a marriage invitation. One can ponder more, and consider the feelings stimulated by a label on a bottle of wine, and, say, a label on a jar of Vegemite; perhaps, just to cause a flutter, consider the label on a roll of toilet paper; maybe even the image on a bag of garden mulch or bird seed.

# See note below.

The uses and feelings of typefaces are diverse and various, in the extreme. This is perhaps the reason why we have so many; there is something similar here to the differences in handwriting - identity: but this powerfully potent latency in letter design, in this visual world, operates at a 'sub' level, subliminally, grasping our emotions as we consider everything else that we choose to 'see' or glance at, that might have a preferential tug on our attention through interest, size, shape or colour.

There is a layering of attractions here: the primal image first catches the eye; there is the interpretation of this diagrammatically schematic vision; then there is the further referencing of this data, followed by the understanding of it as we might choose to limit, analyse or interpret things, and their implications; finally we have the considered response to all of these more subtle resonances of feeling and sensing if one gives any time to reflection, or reverie. It is a process more considered in the study of art, perhaps aesthetics and perception. These ‘arty’ fields show an intellectual interest in such matters that evade everyday, casual concerns: but topography is significant, unique with its ordinary, undeclared, unrecognised impact on lives and living. It is just there, always there, as a critical part of the various shapes, colours and messages that dominate our visual world.

With our increasing reliance on the image, be this printed, projected, or on the gadget's screen, we are exposing ourselves to an ever more subtle world of communication and control which we appear to accept uncritically: indeed, we seem somewhat over-enthusiastic about this change. In the 1960s, Vance Packard looked into these matters of manipulation in relation to marketing and promotion, studying how folk could be led and misled in order to control their thinking and direct their choices. Here the world of commerce and its advertisements were the core concerns of the research. Now today, this approach could be, and should be, continued into graphics, typographics, to gain an understanding of the potential for the engineering of the everyday, both in the commercial adverts and the ordinary humdrum of life and its living, because more and more of our basic lives is now increasingly visual. It is an ocular world that involves many of the same cunning tricks that political spin uses.

In regards to the growing use of the audible world with digital voices and AI, one can point out the similarity of the aural experience with that of graphic perception, its subtle intrusion into our being. Sounds and music have their encompassing impact on us likewise, both culturally and emotionally in the everyday: consider Muzak and noise.


Our world is becoming increasingly manipulative in a snidely subtle way. This is a circumstance that we need to be aware of if we are not to become zombies with the spirit of things. We need to 'know thyself' beyond any cliche, and reveal the manner in which we are being tested, distracted, and challenged, so that we can properly manage the matters that do matter.

The east is far more aware of typographical expression than the west is. Calligraphy is an art form that uses the subtle richness of its shapings and markings to express complex depths of emotion. Is this possible in the west? It would be one way of revealing the multiple meanings in simple letter design that always proves itself to be far from simple; yet we treat it in such an off-handed manner, carelessly, as we not only enthusiastically embrace the immediacy of instant distractions, but also beg for more . . . and


social media posts, E-mails, photographs, text messages, Internet searches, 'flicks,' games, and 'look-at-me' telephone chats while checking news and shopping on-line, engaging in everything that these activities demand, all the time flashing fast and furious to achieve something that we know nothing about other than it being sensed as some vague hope for betterment growing out of an incoherent promise, perhaps seen in a promotion for a free app, a surprisingly special, slick gadget, or a new programme. With so many distractions abounding, there is little wonder that the difference between Arial and Times might appear to mean nothing at all: to seem totally irrelevant.

Where are we? What are we? What are we becoming? 
Do we care about the spirit of things, that quiet centre?

For an excellent book on graphic design, see: Alan Fletcher The Art of Looking Sideways, published by Phaidon.



6 January 2019

15 JUNE 2022
The eye assesses with such a glancing perception that the colour of the letters in the Vegemite logo has become a popular Trivial Pursuit question. Without going back to the image, have a guess.