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Stereotypography
October 21, 2007 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Why is Lithos is so pervasive on the covers of books by African American authors? What does Hot Tamale, or Bagel, or Faux Chinese imply? Rob Giampietro and Jessica Helfand share ruminations on stereotypography.[3quarksdaily] [Design Observer] [Giampietro+Smith]
posted by litfit (54 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oops! -1 "is" there.
posted by litfit at 10:58 AM on October 21, 2007


This is really interesting, thanks.
posted by dismas at 10:58 AM on October 21, 2007


Well, Hot Tamale, Bagel, and Faux Chinese are all awful fonts that are designed to "look" like other ethnic styles. They're deliberate stereotypes. Roman alphabets drawn with the strokes from other alphabets (like Bagel and Faux Chinese) are particularly hideous awful fonts that have no purpose as anything other than irony.
posted by Nelson at 11:06 AM on October 21, 2007


Man, some people really do take things way to seriously. A typeface doesn't say anything negative about the culture who's glyphs it's based on. In fact it doesn't say anything at all other then what the characters look like.
posted by delmoi at 11:10 AM on October 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


Disney permenently screwed up my brain, so to me Lithos and Cafeteria immediately represent the Hercules animated movie when I see them. Fontesque is Little Mermaid. Fink is 101 Dalmatians. Rumbly Tumbly and Hunny Pot are Winnie the Pooh. And on and on. Even years later, I have a hard time putting any familiar Disney-branded typeface into another context without a massive synapse breakdown. It's odd.

I can't wait until they take the chip out of my brain. It makes little sparks sometimes, and they scare my dog.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:12 AM on October 21, 2007 [7 favorites]


Delmoi, did you read the first link? That question is actually very interesting and worth considering.
posted by kowalski at 11:13 AM on October 21, 2007


Wow: that was a really good article.
posted by suedehead at 11:46 AM on October 21, 2007


Book publishers often mockingly coupled the font's use with titles like "Illiterate Digest," "Cannibal Cousins," and, in a visual pun, with the pulp fiction mystery "The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde" (Plate 19, emphasis mine).

I think possibly the guy is over-reaching there.
posted by Artw at 11:49 AM on October 21, 2007


My speculation is that Lithos looks very vaguely Egyptian to some people, and might appeal to Afrocentric themes and longings.

(I disagree a bit with the author's idea that Neuland and the bold Lithos look alike--I think they're distinct enough to mean different things to people.)
posted by gimonca at 11:55 AM on October 21, 2007


All I know is that people who get Chinese or Japanese characters for tattoos should stop immediately. You have no idea how stupid it looks.

As a font, Faux Chinese is pretty atrocious.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:58 AM on October 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Hot Tamale, for some reason, reminds me of Las Calaveras.
posted by John of Michigan at 11:58 AM on October 21, 2007


To wit: La Calavera de los Papeleros y de los Boleros y tambien Gran Baile de Calaveras
posted by John of Michigan at 12:04 PM on October 21, 2007


The main association I have with the faux Hebrew fonts is it's use in comics, particularly Will Eisner.
posted by Artw at 12:04 PM on October 21, 2007


I always wanted make t-shirts that say "Stupid American" in Japanese characters and sell them to unsuspecting college students. I'd tell them it actually says "Float Like the Leaf in the Wind" or something.
posted by goatdog at 12:23 PM on October 21, 2007 [5 favorites]


I associate Lithos with Ancient Greece, myself. It looks a bit like a Greek inscription, which was presumably the design intention (lithos = stone).
posted by athenian at 12:27 PM on October 21, 2007


OK, I have now read the Giampetro article and realise I am stating the obvious, sorry.
posted by athenian at 12:29 PM on October 21, 2007


Is it the fried chicken of the font world?
posted by newfers at 12:48 PM on October 21, 2007


In other news, I am now going out for fried chicken.
posted by newfers at 12:50 PM on October 21, 2007


All I know is that people who get Chinese or Japanese characters for tattoos should stop immediately. You have no idea how stupid it looks.

Not to mention how stupid you sound, when you explain that no, you don't read or speak Japanese, but you got the word by asking, "What's the japanese word for 'Strength'?" on an internet forum.
posted by jayder at 12:53 PM on October 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Tee hee; the definition of stereotype has come full circle. Originally a method of copying metal type, it allowed cheap, fiercely-opinionated local newspapers to set up in small towns. So first the process, then the paper, and then the opinion - and now back to the letter-form.
posted by scruss at 1:44 PM on October 21, 2007 [10 favorites]


Not to mention how stupid you sound, when you explain that no, you don't read or speak Japanese

posted by hal9k at 1:46 PM on October 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Top Chinese tattoo!
posted by Abiezer at 1:46 PM on October 21, 2007


and, as an echo of athenian's contrition, it occurs to me now that when I said "first link" in challenging delmoi, i meant the Giampietro link which is technically the fifth link, although the first of substance.
posted by kowalski at 1:46 PM on October 21, 2007


Hot Tamale looks delicious to me. It reminds me of crappy but oh-so-satisfying Tex-Mex.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 1:48 PM on October 21, 2007


I always wanted make t-shirts that say "Stupid American" in Japanese characters and sell them to unsuspecting college students. I'd tell them it actually says "Float Like the Leaf in the Wind" or something.

Chinese is not my native language.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:00 PM on October 21, 2007


Shakespeherian: Stupid Foreigner T-Shirt.
posted by rokusan at 2:05 PM on October 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Why is Lithos is so pervasive on the covers of books by African American authors?

Because designers are flippant lazy-asses who only think about something long enough to move onto the next thing?

Or something like that. Anyway, next question?
posted by rokusan at 2:07 PM on October 21, 2007


Delmoi, did you read the first link? That question is actually very interesting and worth considering.

Well, the first page is just a product info page. I read (Well skimmed) the article about Lithos and it's association with 'Africa'. Still, I don't see why it's offensive. I mean, just because something was semi-associated with racist crap far, far in in the past doesn't mean it's offensive today.

Basically the argument is that a simulacrum should be offensive if it's original (and long forgotten) referent would be offensive today? I don't buy that.
posted by delmoi at 2:08 PM on October 21, 2007


Delmoi,

The suggestion is that it's a design device used in the present day by "white" people to visually identify the stories of "black" people. The history of its association is an informative explanation of how Lithos, a contemporary font based on Greek letterforms, came to be coopted into a pattern of "stereotypography" dating back to the 1920s and earlier. Are you disputing the observation that it and similar fonts make an unusually frequent appearance on otherwise respectable, modern books that communicate the stories of the African diaspora? Even if it didn't have this antiquated provenance, I think we'd be quite justified in being concerned about a visual motif that seems to be used intentionally by the white majority to denote the work and stories of a particular group of non-whites.

Now, it's possible that this typestyle has been adopted by blacks in the same way that use of the term "nigger" has been, and I think Giampietro breezes a bit too quickly through his argument at this point (while on instinct I'd guess that whites dominate creative positions in the publishing business, I'd really want to see some more concrete exploration of who is making these design decisions). But I think that the general assertion, that this is something that is taking place and that we should try to understand it, is a good one.

As regards my incorrect numeration of the link in question, please see my post of contrition a half hour before your follow-up.
posted by kowalski at 2:58 PM on October 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


White people type like this, black people type like this.
posted by borkingchikapa at 3:26 PM on October 21, 2007


Is Bagel really "stereotypical"? I mean if you're writing in Hebrew you pretty much are going to be using Hebrew letters. If you want to imply Hebrew but not actually require your audience to read Hebrew, it makes a certain amount of sense to use Hebrew letter strokes to create the letters used in English. I wouldn't use it if I was sending a letter to a rabbi but I wouldn't use comic sans serif either.

On a related note, does anyone have a link to a mock-English alphabet or to a recording of people speaking mock-English?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:41 PM on October 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


When I was in college, it seemed that a well-endowed classmate's favorite shirt was one of those Abercrombie chinese-character shirts. I always wanted to make one of those where the character said "tits". Sorta truth in advertising. Wouldn't actually say anything of what it was, since it seemed whenever folks would be asked what the character meant, the answer was along the lines of "Hm, I don't know, like, 'peace' or 'strength' or something. I just thought it looked neat."
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:43 PM on October 21, 2007


Holy hell, "Faux Chinese" is awful.
posted by dreamsign at 3:49 PM on October 21, 2007


Giampietro's article was quite interesting, though somewhat hard on the eyes. This is why people who lay out books should not be allowed to lay out webpages. That whole white on grey thing made my eyes bleed. And seriously, what's the deal with the numbered plates. These supposedly professional designers were even shrinking down the .gifs on the webpage, so many of the typographical features couldn't even be seen in some of the pics because of the inability for most browsers to shrink down gifs in any way that doesn't completely drop whole rows and columns of pixels. Sorry, normally I wouldn't bitch about bad design, but, well, the story is about design.
posted by Sir Mildred Pierce at 3:52 PM on October 21, 2007


"...recording of people speaking mock-English"

mock-english can be heard occasionally in anime, it's kind of funny to hear, and it's somewhat consistant.
posted by Sir Mildred Pierce at 3:54 PM on October 21, 2007


Extremely interesting—thanks! Here are the last two paragraphs of the Giampietro article, for easy reference:
But away from the white-controlled industries of book publishing, movie making, car dealing, adventure seeking, font designing, and designer clothing, in small African-American-controlled sectors of business and culture, no sign of Neuland or Lithos appears. The first issue of Ebony magazine takes more from the classic 1950s typography of Life magazine than from African-American books published at the same time, and other African-American magazine published before Ebony like Common Ground and Lamplighter do the same. Jazz album covers from labels like Blue Note and Verve are steeped in the playful modernism of designer Saul Bass and employ modern typefaces revamped, like Futura, Trade Gothic, and Clarendon, in ways that melt their Modernist frigidity and heat them with the hot beat of Jazz. From Motown in the 1970s to the Fugees today, African-American musicians do not simply ignore Lithos and Neuland on their album covers-they have excised them completely from their visual vocabulary.

As Michael Rock points out, an intrinsic difficulty confronts all designers as they set out to design new cultural texts with the tools of old Modernist typography. "Inevitably," he observes, "you end up having to refer to other aesthetic systems, and those systems are subject to stereotype." However, African-Americans from Common Ground to the Fugees seem comfortable reinventing old Modernist typography in new ways rather than developing new, separate systems. Indeed, typography today is still a separate-but-equal world, and prominent African American authors like Terrance McNally still have their work branded as "different" simply as a result of the typeface used on the cover. If, as John Gambell suggests, the typefaces we as a society choose in which to set our messages are meant to stand in for the speaker of the words themselves, than how should we see a speaker with Koch's "new black face"? If we want to know why the words of African-Americans continue to be lost, we must come to recognize that the "new black face" that voices in Neuland adopt is not a new face at all: it is simply a mask for the old black stereotypes that still persist today.
posted by languagehat at 3:56 PM on October 21, 2007


Basically the argument is that a simulacrum should be offensive if it's original (and long forgotten) referent would be offensive today?

No, the argument is that you shouldn't comment on things you can't even be bothered to read.
posted by signal at 5:15 PM on October 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Because designers are flippant lazy-asses who only think about something long enough to move onto the next thing?


How about because the people who employ the designers are basically the people who came up with Poochie the Rockin' Dog? The kind of people who ask you to "Rasta-fy it by 25% or so?"

After awhile? You just stop trying, and start giving them what they want.
posted by emjaybee at 5:38 PM on October 21, 2007 [4 favorites]


This is why people who lay out books should not be allowed to lay out webpages.

That's a broad brush you paint with, and personally insulting. There are plenty of good typographers who work well in multiple media.

Referring to the illustrations as "plates" grated on me as well, since there are no plates involved with their reproduction. I would have changed the references to "figures." But, this article was originally printed on paper in Letterspace, so they may have not changed the text from the original article.

On the other hand, use of the word plates, even on paper, has the air of someone trying to sound scholarly. In the peer-reviewed, academic publications I've worked on we've never referred to numbered illustrations as plates.

Interesting article anyway.
posted by D.C. at 5:51 PM on October 21, 2007


Basically the argument is that a simulacrum should be offensive if it's original (and long forgotten) referent would be offensive today? I don't buy that.
That's essentially the argument people were using when there was discussion about removing the elements of the confederate flag from the Mississippi state flag. I think historical parallels are interesting, but not necessarily actionable.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:02 PM on October 21, 2007


whenever folks would be asked what the character meant, the answer was along the lines of..."

"...death to whitey"
posted by nax at 7:03 PM on October 21, 2007


Finally got a chance to read the article. It was interesting, thanks.

BTW, I neglected to mention what Disney memory Neuland holds for me... some things are more tougher to admit... but here goes. Neuland was Dinosaurs. Yes, that's right, I said it. Dinosaurs. Forgot the show ever existed? Well, you and me both until the second I saw Neuland again.

*Sigh.*
posted by miss lynnster at 7:24 PM on October 21, 2007


(more tougher = tougher or more tough. choose your favorite.)
posted by miss lynnster at 7:30 PM on October 21, 2007


whenever folks would be asked what the character meant, the answer was along the lines of..."

"...death to whitey"


A common stereotype I hope I can rectify: as far as I know, non-native English-speaking Asian folks don't "have it in" for white folks - they are not speaking behind your back and making fun of you (at least this was my experience in Japan). No one says things like "hairy foreigner" or "ignorant barbarian." The words exist, certainly, but are not part of current vernacular. Foreigner are referred to as 'foreigners', generally speaking.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:35 PM on October 21, 2007


Use Hobo.... go to jail.
posted by tkchrist at 7:55 PM on October 21, 2007


Man, I used to hate Hobo. Almost as much as Peignot.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:25 PM on October 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu - Dammit, how do we reclaim our round-eyed foreign devil crown? We fought an opium war to get that you know.
posted by Artw at 8:58 PM on October 21, 2007


Totally OT, I know, but...

Slap an American flag on anything in East Asia, and, holy shit, it's just like this super-secret totemic sign that will ward off evil, get you blowjobs and perhaps a job where you can wear a tie and drive around in a German car. All the *movies* are from America, and movies are basically dreams, so everyone wants to be white...or *just like* white folks like Tom Cruise, Steven Seagal, Jamie Foxx and Meredith Baxter Birney.

That's what keeps the entire TEFL industry afloat. The American flag is the color of cash! And everyone loves cash, right?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:31 PM on October 21, 2007


I thought this was very interesting in parts, but there were some logical leaps that seemed really dodgy to me. A key section had:

* Merriman grouping Neuland under "Informal Sans"
* Merriman juxtaposing the Informal Sans grouping with authentic Greek stone-carved lettering in a non-decorative context
* Seizing on the implications of the words ineptitude and informal as class snobbery
* Concluding "Informal" is Merriman's judgment of American society's perception of African-American art and, indeed, of African American people themselves.

WHOA. Did Merriman even mention African-American art or people? If so, he doesn't say.

I was also very unconvinced that "Art Deco" meant "lower-class" to anyone. To this day I think of, oh, The Thin Man and things like that -- classy people traveling in classy circles who hang out at the hottest clubs and stay at the swankest hotels. I really, really don't get this "lower-class" argument.

Now, obviously the Neuland/African-American connection exists and there's something to be said about it, but I don't accept a lot of the broader argument that there are lower-class or negative associations that are a subtext involved in the selection of the typeface. This is really not very far removed from suggesting that because heavy metal bands use Fraktur a lot, they're all racist Nazi-lovers.
posted by dhartung at 11:29 PM on October 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


That was a very interesting set of articles, particularly as I will be teaching Graphic Design I in a few minutes (am eating lunch at the moment). For me, the crisis has more to do with how designers need to argue that images have meanings. For a designer to be an expert, she/he must be versed in how images communicate meaning and thus images must have meaning. I think philosophically the question of whether visual phenomenon can bear meaning is a tricky one at the outset. It becomes more difficult in an increasingly diverse and fragmented society. This is not to mention the greater amounts and variety of cultural production happening. So, miss lynnster who is a graphic designer herself, associates the typefaces we are discussing not with African American novels, but with Disney movies!

In other words, the tenuous hold meaning has on any particular mode of image-making is weakened by the vast amount of stuff and information that crams our culture.

Actually, I think the writer's point is taken vis-a-vis Neuland and African-American novels... Regardless of the previous history of the typeface there's a kind of weird separation happening when you design all examples of one product one way, particularly a product that seemingly represents a diversity of ideas and viewpoints, such as say, a book. I do agree with the previous commenter who noted it's likely less the fault of designers and more likely publishers and other marketers saying "Ooh, let's call this 'The Color Purple' for the 'Waiting to Exhale' generation! Make it look like 'The Color Purple'!"
posted by Slothrop at 9:36 AM on October 22, 2007


To my eyes, Brush Script says "blue collar Joe". It's very common in newspaper advertising, menus, business signs and the like in the Buffalo and Cleveland area, but I've almost never seen it used for similar purposes in places like Denver and Portland.
posted by elmwood at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2007


People who were wondering about mock English: I found some examples on YouTube.
posted by revfitz at 3:35 PM on October 22, 2007


Haha OK so uh it turns out almost all of the responses I just linked to are not, in fact, fake English. This one is though.
posted by revfitz at 3:41 PM on October 22, 2007


Great post. One of those things that always had me wondering without having the words or knowledge to articulate anything about stereotypical fonts.
posted by nickyskye at 8:07 PM on October 22, 2007


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