‘A’ is for Audience

Preface: I love my mom. We chat a few times a week, and, my profession being what it is, our conversations occasionally and naturally touch on design. In true maternal fashion, she’ll excitedly ask what I’m working on, and I, relieved to talk shop with someone other than an art director or colleague, often give her the layman’s version. “A cover for a philosophy book,” I might say, offering a glimpse of the project in language devoid of the mechanical industry terminology that often dominates my day-to-day communication. She’s thrilled, and I’m so happy to hear myself condense the project into six words that don’t include “color space,” “pagination,” or “spine width” that I‘m pretty thrilled, too.

My mother, in addition to being my apparent number one fan, is also an educator of children. This means several things, but notably: 1) she has an endurance typically found in Olympic triathletes; and 2) she uses Comic Sans exclusively and unapologetically. Whether loudly paraded around her classroom or making an affable cameo in her e-mails (to my recollection, every message she has ever sent), it’s there, uncomfortably present, like a birthday clown who took up residence in the backyard and now attends every holiday party of the year. And while it’s true that our phone conversations don’t often focus on the typographical minutiae of my day-to-day process, the use of this typeface is a decisive point of contention. “Why, mom, why?” I used to plead. Is it buried deep in the teacher DNA? Part of some iron-clad contract? A perverse joke lauded in the faculty lounge, legendarily discussed while teachers sip coffee from mugs reading “I Love Helvetica” emblazoned in a fluorescent swath of Comic Sans mockery?

Finally, I just asked.

“It’s the lower-case a,” she explained, ironically justifying her case by way of the same typographic constructs I’d always avoided discussing. I didn’t entirely understand, so she went on to clarify: Comic Sans is one of the few (if not only) pre-installed typefaces readily available to the general PC user base whose lower-case “a” is drawn in the same manner that a child would learn to write (Comic Sans employs a single-story “a”, i.e. one without the hook on top). In terms of educational instruction, it’s the best available tool for the job; it literally helps to synthesize learning. Within the context of its audience, it is perfectly designed. Considering the intrinsic value of education, it’s not unreasonable to argue that Comic Sans may actually be one of the most important typefaces currently in existence.

Those weren’t her precise words, but nevertheless, I was stunned, both in awe of my mom’s K-O defense of the Designer’s Bane and of what was an almost instantaneous re-wiring of how I viewed design and the audience it intends to engage. We so often wrap ourselves in aesthetic considerations that we’re blinded to the necessity of the things we’re actually designing around: purpose, function, and people.

I recently read via Arts Observer that visitors to the Graphic Design: Now In Production exhibit in New York overwhelmingly expressed their love for famous logos prior to their “designed” makeover: for example, when presented with a opportunity to vote on the appeal of the old Nickelodeon “splat” logo versus the slick new iteration, people (with children who probably consume Nickelodeon programming like oxygen) congregated en masse to bestow praise on the former. They exercised this motion again and again, casting ballots in favor of the original, planetary Sci-Fi Channel logo and the Starbucks mermaid before she was stripped of her circular typographic ensemble.

So, the question begs, who got it wrong? The “uninformed designers” charged with molding the visage of the things we consume, or the consumers of these very same things, too “aesthetically impaired” to appreciate this new, refined vision?

The question — which is tempting to consider as a stylistic debate — has little to do with aesthetics. Parents and their kids preferred the original Nickelodeon logo not because of how it looked, but because it embodied everything we know kids to be: messy, loud, unpredictable. I confidently guarantee that no one watching The Ren & Stimpy Show circa 1995 gave two shits about the compositional structure of that splat, the tentacles of its gooey curves or the (endearingly imperfect) typography within. The formal construction of the shape was irrelevant, because it wasn’t a shape at all. It was a symbol. And symbols do what shapes alone can’t: they communicate an ethos that transcends our stylistic biases, speaking not to our eyes but to our souls. They are, in a sense, metaphoric extensions of our very essence.

Good design doesn’t merely appeal to an audience’s tastes, it reaffirms their identities. It enforces their values. It satisfies their convictions. It empathizes. And it knows that when the who got it wrong debate inevitably comes back around, the answer doesn’t matter nearly as much as the need to ensure we don’t have to keep asking the question.