Sensitivity

Hello friends;

I’d like to begin this update with some dry, “status update” info before delving into an interesting design problem Sarah and I have been working on recently.

As has probably been evident over the last year, we’ve done a fair bit of wandering around and experimenting with what we collectively want this book to be. During the past month, however, we’ve shifted our efforts away from this experimentation and towards finalizing the book’s content. This means taking (or retaking) any remaining photography, completing all recipes and essays, and in general trying to get to a spot where we can confidently step back and say “Ok, this is our book”.

Being able to stabilize the bulk of our content allows us to work on some ancillary things that need to be addressed. A table of contents or an index, for example, can’t really be created until we know what page numbers need to be referred to. We have a few places where we refer to other pages or sections of the book, which up until this point have just contained placeholder text. There are lots of these kinds of little details, and we are working carefully to ensure the accuracy of each.

We’ve mentioned this before, but just to be clear: because we ended up adding quite a bit more content than we originally budgeted for, our delivery date has been affected. We’re currently aiming to deliver sometime around September of this year. This is obviously later than we’d originally estimated, but the scope of our book is richer than we’d originally planned.

This delivery date remains just an estimate, however, and there are still a good many unforeseeable factors that stand to influence it. When Sarah and I printed our own book, The Alinea Project, we happened to deliver its contents to our printer around July, which put us right at the height of “busy season” for book printing.

“Busy season?!” I asked iocolor, flabbergasted that such a thing even exists.

“Yeah. All the big book publishers want their books available before the holiday season, which means they all want to print stuff around July or August, to get books around October or November,” explained iocolor.

Because our print run for that book was so small (750 copies total), we were placed into the printer’s queue later, as a lower-priority project (and, incidentally, received our books after the Christmas rush had ended). Our book was further delayed by a dockworker strike in Los Angeles at the port to which our books were meant to be delivered. This strike lasted for several weeks, leaving our books languishing in a storage container on a cargo ship while Sarah and I helplessly stressed out about late deliveries to our Kickstarter backers for that project.

So, lots of unexpected things can go wrong; part of the next phase of this project involves factors that are out of our control, which will require us to shift energy from creative matters to managing these as best we can. Our updates will shift sharply to focus on the process of physically producing this book in the coming months. 

To highlight one of the more interesting design challenges we’ve been working on over the past few weeks, I’d like to share a snazzy little video:

Anyone familiar with the English language (and, perhaps more specifically, with American language) could be forgiven for finding the lyrics of this song to be frustratingly familiar but not quite comprehensible. They are, in fact, complete gibberish. The singer, Adriano Celentano, is an Italian musician/comedian/actor who designed the song to sound uniquely like American music, despite the actual words having no meaning at all.

I find this completely fascinating. The act of decoupling words from their meanings frees a person to evaluate the lower-level qualities of language itself, which in turn can reveal interesting biases and assumptions.

Sarah and I are currently exploring a design challenge that swims in these same waters. The Aviary’s recipe for A Year In Kyoto is actually several recipes in one, comprising a tasting flight of four small cocktails that The Aviary created during Next’s Kaiseki menu several years ago. Each cocktail in the flight is meant to evoke one of the seasons of the year. When discussing the design of the flight, Chef Micah pointed with interest at our small flavor signifiers we’ve mentioned in previous updates:

“What if we include some text in Japanese that evokes something unique about each cocktail?” he asked. We thought this was an interesting idea, and after a bit of discussion we decided on a single Japanese word for each of the cocktails that we intended to place as a decorative element within the recipe.

Now, I should point out that Sarah and I are not Japanese. We neither speak it nor read it, and have zero Japanese ancestry in either of our families. So the issue of placing these words we’d chosen into the design of this book poses two major problems.

The first problem is obviously one of translation. This seems relatively easy to solve by using any number of online language translators. We hopped over to Google Translate and popped in one of our chosen words: “barbecue”. Here’s what that looks like:

Sweet, totally done, right? All we need to do now is copy-paste this into our design document, and move onto problem two, which is picking a typeface. We’re working on Macs, which come with a few pre-installed Japanese typefaces. Surely we can just pick one of these, dust our hands of the matter, and call it a day, right?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider an example of what this recipe looks like without our Japanese text added to it yet. What I’d like to look at, however, is not the recipe, but rather the text itself. To help force myself into a space where I can focus on this, I’m going to write a little bit of code to randomize the letters and words in this recipe. I want it to feel like an English-written recipe, but I ultimately want to render it meaningless gibberish:

 

With meaning removed from the words, we can focus more clearly on what Sarah is trying to communicate with the design decisions she’s making. What is the overall feel that this type conveys? To help offer a counterpoint, what if I re-set this text using a different typeface:

While the meaning (or lack thereof) of this text hasn’t changed, the page itself now feels very different. The above text is set in perhaps one of the most ubiquitous typefaces of all, the venerable Times New Roman. Times has been a default system font since the early days of desktop publishing, which makes it one of the most commonly-seen typefaces today. Before its appearance on computers, Times enjoyed an extensive career as newspaper type, having been created in the 1930’s for use in the eponymous British newspaper.

Times New Roman’s wide deployment renders it simultaneously everything and nothing, eminently readable yet totally unremarkable. Because it is so strongly associated with being a “default” typeface (undesigned web pages, e.g., with no other type opinion expressed, fall back to Times), the use of it subtly implies our page is undesigned, as if we simply offered zero consideration to the typeface choice at all.

What if we try a different typeface, this time Courier:

Courier is another widely-recognizable typeface, designed to mimic the output of a strike-on typewriter. This inherently puts our text in a particular time and place in history, and – because the typeface choice is likely to be widely-recognizable – also begins to draw on some associations a reader may have with other uses of this typeface. For example, are we reading a screenplay here? Is this some sort of top-secret dossier from a spy film? The Courier typeface has such a strong personality that it becomes dangerous to use because of the associations it inherently provokes.

We can continue this exercise with any number of other type choices:

In each case, there is no change in the text itself. But we can see how each typeface can provoke associations that may or may not be entirely intended, and can raise assumptions or biases about what the intended meaning of our unintelligible text might mean. It’s possible you might look at the above three examples and wonder if these recipes are meant to be part of a kid’s book, or maybe some sort of kitschy boutique.

This, of course, assumes that you have some exposure to the English language (and, again perhaps even more so, American culture and use of type). But what if you don’t? If you’ve never seen the typefaces in the above examples, you have no preconceptions about them. And if you don’t even know what the words mean, the matter is reduced to a purely aesthetic one of lines and shapes.

The fact that we can deliberately do this exercise with our English(-ish)-language text means we can also accidentally accomplish the same provocation of (potentially undesirable) bias by not approaching our Japanese translation and typesetting choices with a high degree of consideration. Worded more simply: simply slamming some words into Google Translate and applying a system-installed Japanese font, dusting our hands and calling this design task done stands to be grossly insensitive to anyone with any familiarity with Japanese language and design. It could possibly be the equivalent of using a typeface like this:

(The typeface above is an example of what some designers refer to as a “chop suey” font – sometimes also referred to as a “wonton font” or a “chopstick font” – a genre styled to mimic the brush strokes found in some Asian calligraphic writing. These typefaces are meant to convey some sense of “Orientalism”, but are in fact a completely Westernized fabrication that bear no history in or connection to actual Asian typography.)

So the decision to set four seemingly-simple words in Japanese has involved Sarah and I spending the last few weeks learning about the Japanese language and consulting with a few experts on our typeface choices. Type that looks interesting and appropriate to us has, in many cases, turned out to provoke strong associations in directions we did not intend. “This looks like an ad for cheap kimono,” was one bit of feedback we managed to provoke. “This is a typeface used by a large Japanese pharmaceutical company,” was another. It’s probably obvious that such a drastic juxtaposition in style might feel jarring and confusing to readers who have fluency with both Japanese and English language and design, and we want to be sensitive to that. Ultimately, we would like the two languages to sit together on the page harmoniously, both visually and in meaning. We recognize that the effort involved in honing this is likely to go unnoticed by many, but we still feel it is work worth doing.

This sensitivity is not incongruous with what we see practiced by those with whom we work. In fact, the staff of the Aviary (along with those at Next, Roister, and Alinea) all go to quite great lengths to educate themselves on matters such as these so as be prepared for moments in which they may be able to offer an extra modicum of care to a guest. There’s always the chance that the time may come where a small gesture of sensitivity can contribute immeasurably to someone else’s experience…the cocktails are just a small part of the equation.

Until next time;

–a