The Null Device

POTUS Typographicus

AIGA Design Forum has an article taking the Whitehouse to task for its poor typographical taste:
While his handlers would never allow the leader of the free world to go out in public wearing a rayon leisure suit and white bucks, they nonetheless use clownish shareware typefaces with hokey beveled edges and cheesy drop shadows to represent his ideas.
The most persistent is the use of Roman-like faux intaglio and engraved letterforms to give an air of authority and truth--although the effect is more Las Vegas casino. To celebrate the fourth anniversary of the "No Child Left Behind" act, someone got a little creative and added a drop shadow to a font that fakes the look of chalk or crayon lettering. This is only one evolutionary step away from introducing the Lariat font (novelty letterforms made from rope) whenever W is speaking from Crawford, Texas.
The author suggests that the Whitehouse's design faux pas are the result of indifference, and/or the Whitehouse hiring computer geeks rather than designers (and, incidentally, offers his services as Undersecretary of Design. Momus, however, disagrees, arguing instead that the Whitehouse rejects what is received as good aesthetic taste because it is too closely associated with despised liberal elites, whereas chunky patriotic-action-thriller letters and extruded gold serif fonts are considered populist.

Momus then goes on to find other political signifiers in the Whitehouse's aesthetic choices:

The meaning of Trajan in the contemporary US seems fairly unambiguous to me. Trajan makes an implicit metaphor between the imperial power of ancient Rome and the imperial power of contemporary America. Whether it's made to look as if it were chiselled, or whether the letters are themselves made of metal, it suggests sharp implements, which conjure both the image of monumental permanence and the image of martial hardness -- the two basic meanings of Trajan's column itself. Pure Trajan suggests "right wing"; Trajan with drop shadow, metallic glints or lurid colors suggests "populist". Put them together and you get: "right wing populist". You don't have to spell it out in text; the message is there in the texture.
The Nazis would have hated [Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie's] lightness and clarity the way the Bush administration seem to hate clear, clean Franklin Gothic or Helvetica layouts. They'd already forced Mies to close down the Bauhaus, a den, in their view, of socialists, communists, Jews and progressives. They rejected Mies' Modernist style as "un-German". I'm trying to imagine a parallel world where the Nazis build a Modernist Germania of light articulated glass curtain architecture, but it's almost impossible, just as it's almost impossible to imagine the Bush administration producing a banner or a publication I'd actually admire and want to hang on my wall.
Momus, though, comes to the conclusion that "good design" and "bad design" are entirely culturally relative.
There is no such thing as bad design or good design, the cultural relativist has to conclude, just their design and our design. The downside of that is that we lose the illusion that our taste has universal validity, or is inherently better than anyone else's. The upside is that we stop trying to preach and teach -- meaning, we become a little less imperialistic, perhaps. (Or do we become more imperialistic, and simply say "Our way is better because we have more power than you... and because we say so"?)
I don't entirely agree with this conclusion, as it seems too much like the "blank slate" theories of human nature pushed with Lysenkoist zeal by some leftists. There is "good design" and "bad design", as far as utilitarian considerations are concerned. These considerations have to do with the nature of the human perceptual system, which (at least at its most basic levels) is most certainly not a product of culture, language or politics. I doubt, for example, whether there could be a culture that finds low-contrast combinations of colours (such as, say, green and orange) easier to read than high-contrast ones, or find lack of whitespace more legible.

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