Art versus science

I was recently forwarded a link to an interesting review article:

Song, H. and Schwarz, N. (2010). If it’s easy to read, it’s easy to do, pretty, good, and true. The Psychologist, 23(2). 108–111.

It speaks of how typographic design can influence people’s expectations and behaviours for non-type related tasks such as cooking or exercising. After reading the article, I created a thread on Typophile titled “If it’s easy to read…” to share this new research with the community. As usual (and significantly faster than normal I might add) the usual nay-sayers pipe up and voice their opinion. I was redirected to a thread titled Song and Schwarz love affair with Arial rolls on… which started in 2008 discussing an older article by the same research scientists. After reading through it, I quickly deduce that it is yet another circular “art versus science” debate where for the most part, the people participating in in the debate usually have no formal background in the sciences.

That’s not to say that perspective and criticism from non-scientists is worthless. In fact, quite the opposite. Any pair of fresh eyes that might spot a mistake such as a confound variable, a  flaw in the experimental design, poorly designed materials (a very important aspect of any study to do with reading as most research scientists in the field of reading research often overlooks details such as differing x-heights because they don’t have a background in typography) or an uncontrolled sample of subjects could help improve the work.

For those of you who don’t follow Typophile,  there are a handful of people who have a strong stance on one side or the other in any debate around the role of applied experimental psychology in the field of typography be it type design, or highway signage. The thread I mentioned previously (Song and Schwarz love affair with Arial rolls on…) is probably one of the best examples of this I have ever seen. Especially towards the end.

Listening people trash talk the role of science in the practice of typography really upsets me. Even if I know the people are ignorant, or just being a troll. How on earth can a typographer of sound mind actually trash talk — right down to  sand-box name-calling — research scientists who are making an honest effort to contribute knowledge to the practice of typography?  Especially when it is on shaky ground. It’s like watching a farmer sew salt on their own land during a drought.

For the most part, practicing typographers base their decisions on tradition, convention, aesthetics and intuition. I have an entire library full of thousands of “rules” without a single reference to some research or empirical data to support the claim. Enter science. And it’s really quite simple. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Science can do one of two things to the field of typography.

1. Support
2. Refute

It’s important to note that we are not saying “prove” or “disprove.” If it supports some of our claims, then we have more ground to stand on. If it refutes some of them, then we can re-direct our resources into areas that yield a greater return on investment, be it our clients profit margin, our own wallets, or even the environment. It’s easy to see how someone who makes a living of designing fonts would feel threatened by reading a dozen reports all supporting the claim that “font doesn’t matter” as it might put them out of a job (don’t worry, people are always going to want something new and cool).

This being said, I can’t help but feel that people are putting fashion and profits before their client’s and our planet’s resources when they blindly dismiss the potential contributions of scientists to their own field. Lets wrap it up. Is typography an art, or a science? Both. To dismiss the value of either side is one-eyed and ultimately self-defeating. Scientists can help validate the work of typographers, and typographers can help scientists produce better science. I don’t even want to say “two heads are better than one” as it’s so simple and cliché it comes off as condescending but sometimes I just don’t know how else to get this message across. If all we did was adopt the traditional mindset of “because that’s just the way it’s been done” then you would still be barefoot and pregnant and you would still be riding at the back of the bus.

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