I’ve been fascinated by the way we set type since I did my first packaging forty years ago. It’s a combination of tech, art, systems, culture and most of all, deciding to put in the effort to get it right.
[This is a long post, it would have been a podcast, but it doesn’t really lend itself to audio.]
When airplanes first started flying passengers, there was a need for labels. Labels for passengers and pilots. WEAR SEATBELT WHEN SEATED. Why is it in all caps? My guess is that at the dawn of aviation, the machine that made the little metal signs only had the capacity to easily handle 26 letters, and they choose all caps. Certainly, over time the labeling tech got better, but we stuck with all caps because that’s what airplane signs are supposed to be like, even though they’re more difficult to read that way.
Typography is a signal not just a way to put letters on a page.
Before mechanical type was set by pressmen in the basements of newspapers, type was handwritten by monks. As a result, we see the beautiful kerning of letters, nestling the ‘a’ under the ‘W’. That takes effort and as a result, it simply looks right. It’s not right because your brain demands kerning, it’s right because the signal is something we associate with confidence and care.
Once we see the magic of kerning, it becomes impossible to avoid how careless people who don’t use it appear to be…
There have been many golden ages of typography, but the 60s and 70s saw a combination of high-stakes mass production (in ads and media) combined with innovations in typesetting that meant that instead of using handmade metal type, marketers could simply spec whatever they imagined. It also meant that instead of one person working on a document, a committee would spend days or weeks agonizing over how an ad looked, or whether the new layout of Time magazine would send the right message to millions of people each week.
Pundits were sure that the launch of the Mac would destroy all of this progress. Now that anyone could set type, anyone would. So resumes ended up looking like ransom notes, Comic Sans became a joke that was taken seriously by some, and folks like David Carson set type on fire.
Instead, the Mac and the laser printer pushed the best examples of type quality forward. Once again, culture combined with tech to create a new cycle. Now, small teams of people working on small projects could also agonize about type. Now, as beautiful typefaces increased in availability and diversity, it was possible to set more type, more beautifully. If you worked in an industry or segment where the standard demanded careful expression through type, it was possible and it was expected.
More good type, a lot more lazy type.
And then smart phones arrived.
And the type culture changed in response. If you don’t have a mouse or a keyboard, if your screen is the size of a deck of playing cards, you’re probably not being very careful with typography. Whatever is built in is what you use. People create so much content that there’s no time for meetings, for care, for awareness. Speech to text, type with your thumbs, take a picture, hit send.
The culture shifts. Now, the appearance of authenticity matters more than ever. And one way to do that is to not put on airs with fonts that remind us of craft, or kerning that reminds us that you took the time to do something more than the automatic minimum.
And this won’t last, because the cycles continue.
They say you can tell a lot about someone from their handwriting. For my professional life, my handwriting has always involved a keyboard. I know that even if people don’t consciously know that they’re judging the way our words look or sound, they are.
For many, the goal is to be the deciding vote, the donation that gets a cause over the goal, the person who counts.
And often, we enjoy piling on. Once the cause or fashion or tech is clearly working, it’s easy and fun to say “me too.”
More rare, more vulnerable and more important is to decide to show up in the lonely zone. When it might not work. When the originator really needs your support. When speaking up, donating or simply showing up feels like a risk or a waste.
Human beings are often more effective when we’re a bit self-effacing. “I think,” “Perhaps,” or “I might be missing something, but…” are fine ways to give our assertions a chance to be considered.
The solar-powered LED calculator we used in school did no such thing. 6 x 7 is 42, no ifs, ands or buts.
Part of the magic of Google search was that it was not only cocky, it was often correct. The combination of its confidence and its utility made it feel like a miracle.
Of course, Google was never completely correct. It rarely found exactly the right page every time. That was left to us. But the aura of omnipotence persisted–in fact, when Google failed, we were supposed to blame evil black-hat SEO hackers, not an imperfect algorithm and a greedy monopolist.
And now, ChatGPT shows up with fully articulated assertions about anything we ask it.
I’m not surprised that one of the biggest criticisms we’re hearing, even from insightful pundits, is that it is too confident. That it announces without qualification that biryani is part of a traditional South Indian tiffin, but it’s not.
Would it make a difference if every single response began, “I’m just a beta of a program that doesn’t actually understand anything, but human brains jump to the conclusion that I do, so take this with a grain of salt…”
In fact, that’s our job.
When a simple, convenient bit of data shows up on your computer screen, take it with a grain of salt.
Not all email is spam.
Not all offers are scams.
And not all GPT3 responses are incorrect.
But it can’t hurt to insert your own preface before you accept it as true.
Overconfidence isn’t the AI’s problem. There are lots of cultural and economic shifts that it will cause. Our gullibility is one of the things we ought to keep in mind.
I’m pretty sure how the first meetings went almost a decade ago:
“Well, we’re paying our affiliates 5% for referrals. If we pay charities a tenth of that and call it a donation, it’ll be great PR and we’ll also make a profit on every sale because we won’t need to pay a full commission…”
Amazon didn’t invent the online affiliate concept, but the company certainly turned it into a significant engine for growth. If a consumer bought a $100 item that someone in their program linked to, they would pay the referrer about $5. That meant they had little chance of actually turning a profit on that sale, but it led to millions of new customers, people who came back again and again. It also usually turned one sale into a few…
The end result is that Amazon has paid many billions of dollars in affiliate fees, and their affiliates (like Wirecutter, CoolTools, and formerly, Squidoo) sometimes built entire businesses around the simple idea that recommending a product and sending someone to the biggest online retailer to buy it could lead to income.
Smile turned more than a million non-profit charities into affiliates at a bargain rate. Now, that $100 purchase turned into forty cents sent to the cause of your choice.
I used to send you, my esteemed readers, to Smile links, but when I realized how little each donation was, I switched to geni.us, and so our donations went up 10x.
To date, Amazon Smile has sent charities more than $500,000,000. That’s not a ‘donation’ of course, it’s simply an allocation of marketing spend. And yet, half a billion dollars makes them a very significant donor in aggregate, one of the biggest corporate donors in the world.
So why cancel the program?
I have a few guesses:
The new management at Amazon is aggressively streamlining programs and expenses to enable focus and increased profitability. Programs that involved a lot of people and time got harder to justify.
They’ve always done a bad job of explaining the program, as evidenced by the fact that many people (including me) were surprised that the aggregate donation number was so big.
Most charities aren’t very good affiliates. My guess is that few of the million recipients did much at all to persuade their donors to buy from the smile link that donated back to them.
And perhaps most of all, as Amazon continues to dominate online retail, the affiliate program is probably less important strategically, and cutting costs on that front may seem like a simple way to increase short-term profit.
Western industrial culture has had a hard time thinking about charity all the way back to Community Chest and the United Way. If the ‘game’ is to maximize profit, then sending money to good causes seems to undermine that. Some people argue that companies have a corporate social responsibility, that the compact they sign with the community is to not simply take as much profit as possible but to invest for the long-term well-being of the places they work and the people they work with. Or, as may be the case here, it’s simply a marketing tool.
We’re often reminded that the best way to get what we want is to help other people get what they want.
That opening the door for others makes it more likely that others will open the door for us.
What makes it odd is the implication that if we don’t get, it’s hardly worth giving.
But what if we separated the two and simply chose generosity because we could?
It turns out that happy people are more likely to be generous. (Which implies that generous people are more likely to be happy). Not because they get something measurable in return, but simply because abundance is a choice. And making choices celebrates our agency and potential.
What an opportunity to bring justice and care and dignity to the people around us.