We had just finished building the largest house of cards we’d ever made. It was huge: the base covered the entire table and the summit reached into the sky. We were only 11, but our engineering skills were showing early. Or so we thought…
Suddenly we heard a T-Rex-like stomping rolling down the stairs. It got louder by the second, the footsteps ever faster. He could smell our satisfaction, our hubris wafting into his nostrils. We were to be snuffed out for our arrogance.
He flew down the stairs, swinging with his hand upon the railing, around the sharp corner, landing like a panther, crouched, ready to strike.
“No!” yelled my young compatriot. There was nothing to be done.
The panther pounced. His body sprawled in a rage and covered the entirety of the table. Our house of cards had become for us the lesson its name was meant to elicit.
My friend’s older brother, while certainly not intending to, drilled home a lesson that was to be repeated ad nauseam: things change. Se la vie.
Tamara and I have each been reading a different biography of Ben Franklin than one another. Our goal is to switch when we finish, and see what differences there are. I’m a bit of a Franklin nut. I’ve read plenty of his biographies, and most of his own writing that I have been able to get my hands on.
I read his autobiography when I was in my early twenties and it had a profound impact on me. More than most of people I’ve looked up to in my life, his influence hasn’t waned, it’s grown. The more I learn, the further I move down the road of life, the less I see him as the caricature that he’s so often portrayed as (by his own hand, often enough!), but as one of the most complex, intriguing, well educated, and enduring figures in our history.
If you are a regular reader (and you are reading this post while it’s fresh) then you’ll notice the look of the blog has changed a bit. I like to change it fairly often. I use the experience of remaking a site like the Mandala Sand Paintings of Tibet. The Mandala are meant to be painstakingly created… then destroyed. Just like the house of cards my friend and I created. Only in the case of a Mandala, you do the destroying yourself, deliberately.
I takes a lot of work, and a lot of hours, to redesign a website. But in the process, you learn things, new things that didn’t pop up the last time. I enjoy the process, as it feeds the geek-side of my brain a bit while satisfying the aesthetic-center of my nature.
While in the process of redoing the design here, my primary idea was that I wanted it to seem simpler than before, focused on readability, the text — like an old book — and yet remain modern and forward looking. I like contradictions.
The typography needed to address those dual needs: old-school, yet forward looking. Enter Baskerville and its decendants: Libre Baskerville and Playfair Display.
John Baskerville was an 18th century artist, entrepreneur, printer, and the inventor of the font that bears his name. He was also born on the same day as Benjamin Franklin. No matter what subject you are involved in learning, Franklin pops up!
Their connection isn’t purely coincidental. Given that Franklin was also an artist, entrepreneur, and printer, he had a keen interest in fonts. He was a proponent of the font Caslon — created by William Caslon (1692 – 1766) — and so it was only natural that he’d give Baskerville’s font a try.
Baskerville was, after-all, an attempt to “modernize” Caslon and was a bit of a reaction to the old Garamond fonts that were (and still are) so popular (with their fantastic ampersands!). Baskerville wanted to get away from the 3D quality that was the hallmark of old printing techniques and create a font that would display beautifully in a new world of purely 2D design: modern printing.
For his sins, his font suffered: Baskerville’s font was reviled by anyone who was at all considered civilized. Some theorized that if you read text in Baskerville for too long, you would go blind. After all, it was new, and new is bad. Right?
Franklin’s Baskerville Trick
Franklin — thank God! — was neither civilized nor a conformist prone to sheep-like behaviors. He loved Baskerville. And as the astute scientist that he was, he determined to go about proving that it was an objectively great font that was simply suffering from a bad rap.
He would show people some writing in Caslon — to people who said they liked Caslon — but, tell them they were looking at Baskerville. These people then, predictably, said they hated how it looked. Franklin would then reveal to them the truth: it wasn’t Baskerville, but a font they supposedly liked.
Franklin thus falsified the hypothesis that they were dispassionate about the subject.
Baskerville suffered as a font from the bias toward the status quo. How odd that it has gone from seeming like a radically new (and thus hated) font, to seeming like an old font (and thus boring).
Franklin was a part of the most important intellectual movement in the history of humankind: the Enlightenment. He was part of the first political group in history to found a nation upon the ideals of the enlightenment. Those ideals were seems as revolutionary (they were) and were loathed by nearly everyone in existence who wielded any power whatsoever.
And yet, the ideals of the Enlightenment — liberalism, individual freedom, free markets, and universal humanity — have become like Baskerville’s font: not hated, but boring; not discounted, but tired.
The truth is the opposite: for both.
The enlightenment was an arrow pointing the way, and we have been stumbling ever since, failing to reach the heights to which our ideals have flown.
And the poor old font Baskerville turns out to be among the most readable fonts ever invented, and has spawned many of the webs greatest take-offs and remakes. This blog has two of them: Libre Baskerville and Playfair Display.
So while you read the this, in a font that is both old and forward looking, maybe it will act as a subliminal message, a reminder that sometimes old ideas that look forward are more modern that much of the bullshit that passes in fashionable circles for truth and beauty. Then again, sometimes that’s just as fallacious!
“Things change, Kundun.”
— from Kundun, the life of the Dalai Lama
Now go lift something heavy,