Part DOS: Four Writing Systems and a Microphone

Part Two: Asahi Shimbun front page from February 4, 2008.


Geotypografika Kommentario: What follows is a continuation of a first posting,
Part UNO: United Nations/Nations Unies?

La Futura? Form can help create function, it does not simply have to follow.
Typographic and graphic problems as metaphor for troubled and complex world organizational issues? Ja, warum denn nicht? Type is a carrier and a facilitator of meaning. What other form, initially, would such a metaphor take?

But human thoughts are formless and limited only to the number of minds in the world. We must be flexible in our representation of human thought.

Ironically, as Edward Tufte has said so clearly (see his review of the iPhone here),
detail is an advantage to creating clarity and understanding.

I offer the example of the Japanese language, which has incorporated four separate symbol systems into one written language. See this example of a recent Asahi Shimbun cover above, from Tokyo, Japan. Does it look overwhelmingly complex? That’s not what the designers there are thinking, competing in that market.

For non-Japanese literate designers? The challenges and complexity of harmonizing and respecting each of these various forms should produce an attraction to and exploration of the problem, not a rejection or a simplification.

Quattro Typografika
The Japanese enjoy many advantages in their communication system, each symbol system carries different inflections, levels of formality, and a wide variety of visual possibilities. It also allows them to add words from foreign languages rather easily, in a variety of ways. Hiragana, as a translation base for Kanji (Chinese characters), and Katakana for other languages. Then, they also use romanji. (I lived in Japan for some time, and a friend of mine there once said that he was glad our ancestors chose a 26 character based alphabet instead of what we saw every day. I am not so sure.)

An open question: Does this understanding and daily living with complexity explain their ho-hum response to the iPhone? Their massively complicated and crowded visual systems? Look to their close living conditions, and you will understand a Japanese, yes even an Asian tolerance for visual density.

Urban density equals typographic density.

The cellular systems available in the Japanese and Asian markets provided the functions of the iPhone long before the arrival of the iPhone. Interestingly, as my colleague Jerrold Maddox shared with Geotypografika recently, the cell phone novel format, begun as a largely female trend – much like Hiragana, in its ancient form! – has transcended the printed book on the national bestseller list there last year (see the New York Times article here).

A second open question: because their eyes (muscles after all) are so well trained through these various complex systems, are they “better,” more capable perhaps, at perceiving and interacting with complex information in contemporary media platforms? These gadgets and surfaces are certainly more popular and cutting edge in Asia (see the Korean giant Samsung’s worldwide success, not to mention companies in China, Taiwan, and Japan).

Consider how crowded and competitive the average news website or even television broadcast has become, then imagine, or better yet, have a look at what these comparable platforms look like in multiple languages. Those designers and producers think we want and can handle all of that information. Are the Japanese and Asian languages better for this type of information projection?

Is English well suited to carry all of the needs of the world?

Looking beyond the International Style
Our great heroes, and I mean that sincerely, of the International Style addressed the issue of multiple-languages long before, offering largely anonymous yet harmonious grids that allowed for multiple language forms. I do not believe that those forms, heavily dependent on western norms and sizes, are enough for new and future typographic and graphic communication problems. The languages of the east are gaining new currency in step with emerging demands of their economies and subsequent political projections, and why shouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t all of us be interested in learning from and using new forms? Mastering multiple languages offers the possibility of multiple minds, multiple hearts. This is our chance to globalize along with our economies, to lay claim to common human language systems with an eye for understanding and preservation, not mere assimilation or appropriation.

Even disregarding these perhaps subjective dreams of my own, the world’s visual communication platforms have already mined the International Style for everything it is worth. It survives because of the ultimate success of its dedication to anonymity and a seemingly ageless contemporary genericism. Surely we can develop new ways of blending and projecting these complex forms for our common human future?

Ja, let us move forward. I am reminded of Wim Crouwel’s strict criticism of the use of Helvetica on NASA spacecraft in the late 60′s, he found it wholly inappropriate that such a new and vitally modern adventure be represented by that typeface. Another thought that seems appropriate here, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.”

It seems so clear that so much more is possible, isn’t the Nations Unies website the right place to start?


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