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Response to Design Observer post "Why is this font different from other fonts?"

This is the response I posted to Jessica Helfand's June 26th post to the Design Observer, entitled "Why is this font different from other fonts?" Her essay was about type "ethnicity," cultural stereotyping, and ethics in design. The gist of her argument was there is an ethical dilemma in the use of Faux Hebrew, Faux Mexican, or Faux Hindu typefaces. She asks the question, "What’s the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype?"


My response:

How do design artifacts (ex. typefaces) enable self-definition and self-determination in relationships of unequal power?

I really appreciate this article and the discussion generated around it. When design is increasingly concerning itself with issues of diversity, the questions posed by Jessica are important to addressing the openness of the field.

How do the design decisions that designers make (our intentions) as they become manifest in specific environments (restaurant menu vs. job application) affect the receptions by diverse groups of people (positive, neutral, negative) to ideas of self and other, within a context where everyone is not given the same access to the agency to define themselves.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Helvetica story is that it was designed with the intention to get away from the national ethnic markers of many European typefaces. It is the Euro of typefaces. In the context of centuries of infighting among European nations, this was important in helping to define a new identity for Europe as international, not national.

Yet, that same Helvetica in the context of an African government form could be seen as colonialism. Through this so-called international typeface, Europeans are trying to transform the "disorderliness" of specific African identities into an imagined rational, ordered, European identity.

Ethics is about the mitigation or elimination of possible negative consequences of one's decisions. This requires the imagining of how design can hurt as well as help. Beyond PC-ism, the goal is to try and do no harm, especially to the weakest among you.


amber simmons

Hi Dori,

I really appreciated your comment on DO. I do think these are the kinds of things thoughtful designers need to consider, and I don't consider myself especially PC. I think most designers probably don't take the time to consider how their work affects culture in any real way, and it certainly does. Hell, in lots of ways, we're the ones creating culture! I think encouraging a kind of cognizance about cultural appropriation amongst designers is important; what they do with the information after they've thought about it is up to them.

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