Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Doyald Young: The Self-Made Typography Icon in His Own Words

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From high school dropout to design legend, or what the Oxford English Dictionary has to do with iconic logos.

Last fall, mere months before iconic typeface and logotype designer Doyald Young passed away, Lynda.com produced a wonderful short documentary about him, in which Young tells his incredible rags-to-proverbial-riches story and reveals the principles behind his timeless, unique letterforms and logos. Besides being a design legend, he was also an epitome of the intellectual ideal of curiosity as powerful tool of creative growth.

I did not finish high school, I didn’t even complete the tenth grade, and throughout my whole life, I’ve read extensively — it’s how I’ve educated myself.”

I think the reason that I have been attracted to lettering and typography is because, in one sense, so little of it has changed — the letters that we look at today are the same letters that we looked at 500 years ago. And I sort of like the stability of it and I think it all goes back to the fact that my dad moved us around all the time, my whole childhood was in a state of flux. So I look for stability, and typography gives me that stability.”

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Young’s Logotypes & Letterforms: Handlettered Logotypes and Typographic Considerations remains a timeless classic and a fine addition to the 10 essential books on typography — a big thanks to reader Donald Lais for the great call.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Lewis Mumford on the City: Rare Footage from 1963

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What Dutch highways have to do with Canadian documentaries and the psychology of protests.

Last week, we explored 7 essential books about cities, perhaps the most influential of which was the 1961 volume The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by prolific author, philosopher and urbanism icon Lewis Mumford. In 1963, the National Film Board of Canada produced six 27-minute documentaries for a series entitled Mumford On The City. In this rare surviving footage of the series’ closing titles, Mumford articulates the ideology of urbanism long before it reached its contemporary tipping point and presages essential issues we grapple with today as we try to understand and optimize our cities, from transportation to communication to violent protest.

The city multiplies man’s power to think, to remember, to educate, to communicate, and so to make possible associations which bridge and bypass nations, cultures. This mixture, this cosmopolitanism, is the chief source of the city’s vitality. And we must enlarge and enrich it as we move towards a new urban form.”

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Monoculture: How Our Era’s Dominant Story Shapes Our Lives

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What Galileo has to do with the economy, or how Wall Street is moulding your taste in art.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously proclaimed. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness — they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. And breaking through them becomes exponentially difficult because part of our shared human downfall is our ego’s blind conviction that we’re autonomous agents acting solely on our own volition, rolling our eyes at any insinuation we might be influenced by something external to our selves. Yet we are — we’re infinitely influenced by these stories we’ve come to internalize, stories we’ve heard and repeated so many times they’ve become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience.

That’s exactly what F. S. Michaels explores in Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything — a provocative investigation of the dominant story of our time and how it’s shaping six key areas of our lives: our work, our relationships with others and the natural world, our education, our physical and mental health, our communities, and our creativity.

The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story– one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.” ~ F. S. Michaels

During the Middle Ages, the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition. When Galileo challenged the Catholic Church’s geocentricity with his heliocentric model of the universe, he was accused of heresy and punished accordingly, but he did spark the drawn of the next monoculture, which reached a tipping point in the seventeenth century as humanity came to believe the world was fully knowable and discoverable through science, machines and mathematics — the scientific monoculture was born.

Ours, Micheals demonstrates, is a monoculture shaped by economic values and assumptions, and it shapes everything from the obvious things (our consumer habits, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear) to the less obvious and more uncomfortable to relinquish the belief of autonomy over (our relationships, our religion, our appreciation of art).

A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the master story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.” ~ F. S. Michaels

Neither a dreary observation of all the ways in which our economic monoculture has thwarted our ability to live life fully and authentically nor a blindly optimistic sticking-it-to-the-man kumbaya, Michaels offers a smart and realistic guide to first recognizing the monoculture and the challenges of transcending its limitations, then considering ways in which we, as sentient and autonomous individuals, can move past its confines to live a more authentic life within a broader spectrum of human values.

The independent life begins with discovering what it means to live alongside the monoculture, given your particular circumstances, in your particular life and time, which will not be duplicated for anyone else. Out of your own struggle to live an independent life, a parallel structure may eventually be birthed. But the development and visibility of that parallel structure is not the goal — the goal is to live many stories, within a wider spectrum of human values.” ~ F. S. Michaels

We’ve previously examined various aspects of this dominant story — why we choose what we choose, how the media’s filter bubble shapes our worldview, why we love whom and how we love, how money came to rule the world — but Monoculture, which comes from the lovely Red Clover, weaves these threads and many more into a single lucid narrative that’s bound to first make you somewhat uncomfortable and insecure, then give you the kind of pause from which you can step back and move forward with more autonomy, authenticity and mindfulness than ever.

The book’s epilogue captures Michaels’ central premise in the most poetic and beautiful way possible:

Once we’ve thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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