Is a sparrow who kills a hummingbird in cold blood and proceeds to eat him a cannibal? Is he something else?
I am getting ahead of myself.
Peace Garden. Interior Courtyard. Brooklyn.
The sun is shining and there is a woman with a clipboard. I do not know who she is, and I do not know why she is holding a clipboard; I assume she works at the hotel, because why else does a person have a clipboard? She comes outside in something of a rush. She seems alarmed, but calm. She tells me that the sparrow has just murdered another bird and spirited the body into the bushes where it now pecks the carcass.
I know this story already, because it happened, is still happening, mere feet from me. I watched the whole thing. I stood up aghast, removing my glasses to get a better look. “I thought it was a bumblebee” I’d said. There had been the living thing, buzzing about among the petals of the forsythia bushes, and then the Sparrow, a gliding swoop that plucked it from the sky and pinned it helpless to the ground. There was a struggle. There was a great deal of buzzing. There was a retreat to the bushes, and a metallic whacking sound as the sparrow grasped the poor thing in its beak and bashed it against the metal wall of the planter. And then there was…well whatever came after. I’d had enough of watching. After that, it was the woman with the clipboard.
I learned two major lessons in my years in architecture school: first, that design is my passion in life, in all its forms. Design is not a collection of geometry and color on paper; great design lives and breathes. It touches people.Secondly, I learned that I have no interest in being an architect.
In telling this story I’m often met with a response that implies that three years was some kind of a waste, a path to nowhere. I don’t see it that way.
The staunch traditionalism of this Beaux-Arts-styled program meant that computers, in the first two years, were nothing more than a research tool. Our designs began as rough sketches and words on trace paper and developed with markers, thick-lined sketch pencils, and quickly constructed models of cardboard. Our final products were hand-drafted, exquisitely-inked and meticulously-colored on expensive presentation boards, or bound in hand-made books of vellum and chipboard with marker and watercolor renderings. We learned to design — learned to think — with pencils in our hands.
When we start on paper, we start with an entirely different mindset. Lead on paper possesses a fluidity, a subtle impermanence. Mistakes will be made, just scribble harder. I can think of nothing that clears the mind like wadding up a bad idea and throwing it into a wastebasket, then looking down at a fresh, blank page. Touching a pencil to paper feels like channeling ideas from the intangible to the tangible. The pencil becomes a direct conduit between the brain and the page.
Computers, by contrast, exist quite literally in an ecosystem of details. Pinpoint precision and perfect geometry can be the death of ideas. I have tried, in vain, to begin designs on the computer. These endeavors inevitably end with me frustrated, retreating to the corner with my notebook and away from the computer where I’ve drawn a neat set of perfectly-spaced, dead lines.
When I show my clients sketches, they understand that I’m showing them ideas, concepts, possibilities. When I present them with computer “comps” they see a finished product. It’s important at the beginning phases for things to remain flexible. Presenting a client with a pixel-perfect Fireworks export may wow them, but it may also make them feel like we’ve taken some control from them. I’d rather the people I design for feel like they’re part of a creative process, not witnesses to it.
What that time in architecture school really taught me was not how to design. Sure, I learned a lot about color theory and composition, the importance of empty space and harmony. My handwriting became more legible and I learned that sometimes my best ideas come at 3am. But more than anything else, architecture school taught me to think like a designer. And I’ve learned, over the years, that I just think better with a pencil in my hand.
A couple of months ago I visited a dear friend in Oklahoma City. On the way back I stopped by a little spot ten miles west of nowhere near Edmond, Oklahoma…to see a tree. Supposedly this was no ordinary tree; I’d seen pictures of it, heard stories about people driving out of their way to see it — needless to say, I had to experience it for myself.
Except it turns out it was 1) after ten p.m. by the time I made it out there and 2) so, so cold. I tried to take a long exposure photo but the whole thing turned out to be completely out of focus and looked pretty awful.
A loss, right? Not really. As I stood there sipping my hot cocoa, chilled to the bone, looking at this little tree (a dogwood, maybe?) I felt this weird feeling of…well…of standing out in the middle of nowhere by myself but feeling anything but. There’s something to be said about sharing a spot with a whole bunch of people across space and time (some of whom you’ve never met, some of whom you have). Sharing space. It’s something we do every day, but I suspect we rarely think about. It got me thinking so much I’m devoting episode two of my podcast to it — but more on that later.
I started thinking about this concept over a year ago, writing disjointed thoughts on typography in my notebook instead of taking notes in my “Services Marketing” summer class. My realization was that since high school I’d been using Courier New for every academic paper I’d written (and after spending two years as an English major this was quite a lot indeed). The advice came from an insightful high school English teacher, and I’ll explain his reasoning a little later. What’s important to know is that despite constant skepticism from classmates when I tried to give them the same advice, I never received any negative feedback from a professor. Sure, there are those who state outright, often in the syllabus, that students are to use a certain font, usually Times New Roman, at a certain size. But these were generally the exception, not the rule. In probably 90% of my college classes, across several majors, professors had no objection to size 12 Courier (on a Mac I’d be Talking about American Typewriter Std). But why is this important? Well if you’re an upstanding, rule-abiding student who enjoys writing as many pages as possible in response to your required reading of Babbit in Business school, it might not be. If, like me, you’re always looking to do the most good with the least effort, then read on.
The fonts I’m talking about here were designed, essentially, to emulate typewriters. In this respect they are perfectly acceptable for the purposes of academic, or for that matter any serious, writing. The term monospaced refers to the uniform spacing of letters, numbers and punctuation. This is unique among monospaced fonts. Your standard serif such as Times New Roman has varying amounts of spacing dependent on the letter in question; for instance, the letter “i” gets less space in the horizontal direction than, say, a “w”. In this respect there is a sense of unpredictability with these fonts, as a word with more slender letters will take up less than a word with a lot of wider letters. But why does this matter? Because monospaced fonts are both consistent…and take up more space. Consider the following example:
Courier New on the left, Times New Roman on the right. Both examples use the same 50-word sample set in 12pt type leaded at 15pt. Note the difference in length. And this is simply over the course of one (very short) paragraph. So we can see right away that using a monospaced font has serious advantages in situations where a certain page-length is required. Is it cheating? Maybe, but I don’t think so. But just in case, after using this method for more years than I care to divulge here, I formulated a succinct justification should the need arise (it never did). Essentially, and this is the bit I gleaned from that insightful high school teacher, this format (double-spaced, of course) is considered standard “Manuscript Format” when submitting any piece of writing for publication. This has a lot to do with cleanliness: If a publisher sees identical manuscripts, the emphasis is on the words rather than the fonts. You can say a lot with a font, but one could argue that with a typewriter font you’re simply saying “I’m writing something”. Additionally, the wide spacing allows for easy markup and proofreading.
This whole length-manipulation technique played well into a style of writing which served me quite well for the entirety of my college experience: say a lot with a little. “Trim the fat” as it were. So you need a ten page paper? Write a ten page paper with Times New Roman. Then set it to a monospaced font…suddenly you’re going to have fifteen. What now? Start trimming. What you’re left with afterward, in theory, is nicely distilled. Whoever reads it isn’t going to get the feeling you were drawing things out to take up space, they’re going to get the feeling you’re getting right to the point.