At the start of the fourth chapter of his book Writing Space, Bolter (2011) points out the obvious when he writes that “we are living in a visual culture” (p.47). “Photoshop”, the name given to an image manipulation software tool by the Adobe Company, is more often used as a verb in our contemporary culture than as a noun. Images are incessantly doctored to meet one need or another to the point where the populous is reluctant to believe very little of what they are being spoon-fed by mass-media conglomerates as authentic. From the covers of glossy magazines to the larger-than-life images of the silver screen, few, if any, images are what they seem to be.
In our insatiably capitalist society, the success of a film is not necessarily regarded as the quality of the storytelling, but rather the amount of commercial tie-ins that can be marketed to propel the fiscal gains. Every year, the “summer blockbuster” films demand to have their characters’ images adorned on soda-pop cans, spark entire lines of action figures, generate several versions of franchise-themes video games and, to be taken seriously, should spawn countless sequels. Films, and action films in particular, are a visual feast, appealing to many viewers, but are absolutely bulimic in terms of storytelling. As Bolter (2011) puts it, “the desire to capture the world in the word has been gradually supplemented by the more easily gratified desire to see the world through visual technologies” (p.58). Why read the book when you could watch the movie? Heaven forbid our brains are stimulated and our imaginations are actively engaged in filling in the subtleties of a story. As Bolter states, “to read a novel is to run a film in one’s head” and that “in even the most minutely descriptive novel there must be infinitely many visual details that are never provided” (p.57) and I doubt very much that product placements exist as extravagantly. The systematic serialization of any successful story across a spectrum of blatant, and often shameful, exploitative marketing ventures is largely responsible for the uninspired and unimaginative tripe that passes for film today.
Turning our attention from the obnoxious fare of contemporary cinema and focusing on the pages of popular newspapers and magazines, the same oversimplifications and “dumbing-down” seems quite rampant. As evinced by the example in his book, Bolter makes the accurate assertion that “the need to make a visually interesting picture has overridden the needs of the graph” (p.53). Concerned with aesthetics over intelligence, much of the data offered in publications strives to be more entertaining than informative. Even titles and headlines seem to be contrived attempts at cheery wordplay rather than accurate descriptors for the ensuing articles. Again, Bolter (2011) points to the fact that “popular prose today seems constantly to be trying to become more visual and sensuous” (p.55). Images supersede the importance of the written word, eventually replacing it all together. As Bolter (2011) continues, “In all cases verbal text seems to be losing its power to contain and constrain the sensory” (p.55).
At the heart of this latest remediation of print lies, in my estimation, an unlikely culprit: typefaces. In an age wherein digital manipulation and composition are so commonplace as to be included in everyday vernacular, it is typefaces that are driving the force behind preoccupation with that which is visually attractive over that which is informative. As described in his biography of the late Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson purports that it was Jobs’ interest in calligraphy while attending Reed College that helped to define the Desktop Publishing movement as we know it today. Bolter (2011) states that “in Chinese writing the word signs are shapes whose function is to decorate as well as signify” (p.64). He cites the fact that “medieval illumination threatened to turn letters back into images or abstract designs and sometimes made the letters all but impossible to read” (p.65). The same can be said about the contemporary use of varied typefaces on the home computer. Far too often students are preoccupied in making their work attractive rather than focusing on producing quality, and legible work.
Being no stranger to desktop publishing or the world of cinema, I am far from innocent in perpetuating many of the atrocities committed against the written word as described above. I’ve seen far too many mindless movies and boast a collection of hundreds of illegible typefaces. The key would seem to be in knowing how, when and why to use them. In his original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas said the special effects existed in the background of the film, that they helped to drive the plot forward. In the majority of today’s films, the special effects are plot, leaving very little room for actual storytelling. In the case of print media, typefaces are selected more for their aesthetic and emotional qualities at the cost and consideration of their legibility and appropriateness. As Bolter (2011) articulates, “Genres are either experiencing a breakout of the visual or reacting against it” (p.55).
Bolter, J. D. (2011). Writing as technology. Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.