A choice of six chocolates

After the holidays, this might be a time of year where your living spaces is filled with a few more worldly possessions than you previously had. I know there are a few more wooden vehicles being driven around my floor than there were before the holiday season!

I’m inevitably reminded of this section from Philippa Perry’s book—and how it applies to designers, too:

Children don’t need a lot of toys. As you probably know, the cliché of them preferring the box to the toys is so often true. … More is not better.

Children, just like adults, become overwhelmed and frozen when given too much choice. We might believe we’d prefer to have lots of options, but experiments by the psychologist Barry Schwartz show that we don’t. In one, he found people felt happier with a box containing a choice of six chocolates rather than a choice of thirty—and were more satisfied with the chocolate they chose. What happens when we have too much choice is we worry we’ll make the wrong one.

—Philippa Perry, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read

So, if we should be choosing between six chocolates, should end typographers be choosing between six typefaces?

Casually and in public talks, I’ve still heard type designers refute the Vignellis’ famous idea—excellently summarized on Fonts in Use—of using a handful of classic typefaces exclusively. Sometimes compellingly! But type designers are too invested in this subject matter to deliver this argument convincingly, even a type designer who works exclusively on open source, open license fonts.

And perhaps we shouldn’t get sucked into this argument anyway: it had been a long time since I read “Typefaces: The Basic Ones,” from The Vignelli Canon, but it does read more like a studio stance than, as I had remembered it, a suggestion that everyone should do the same thing. It contains a lot of “I” statements: here’s how, “I see typography,” and “I am aware there is room for [typography intended as an expression of the self], but it is not my language and I am not interested in it.”

Beyond that, the idea of using six typefaces is at least partly controversial because anything in contemporary society that opts for less is controversial. The Vignelli’s point there is as valid as ever, it’s just that it doesn’t apply exclusively to typefaces.

Instead of choosing between six typefaces, the underlying idea that always stuck with me was to find areas of your practice to reduce choice in general. Perhaps I was first introduced to the entire discussion in former Vignelli Associates employee Michael Bierut’s 2007 essay, “For Massimo [Vignelli], this was an ideological choice, an ethical imperative. … For me, it became a time-saving device.” It’s an extremely focused application of the same idea Perry mentions: choosing between less options is more satisfying—easier to evaluate, move on from, and not regret—than between more options.

True, one way to do that is to make that decision regarding typefaces once for your entire studio and rarely, if ever, evaluate it again.

The rest of us can apply this idea elsewhere: deciding there are areas of your practice where the decision has already been made, and helping people using your 6+ typefaces do the same.

Until next time,