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Platonic Ideals in Typography

Hello,

In the realm of philosophy, Plato postulated that our plane of existence is merely a representation of the realm of the Platonic ideals, which are the perfect forms of everything. For example, every chair is just a representation of the ideal chair, something which we can't know. The better a chair is, the closer it is to the ideal. Most crafts don't focus on making the "perfect" form of anything; watchmakers don't want to make the "perfect" watch. However, in type design, I think that generally, perfection is the goal, or at least close to it. Especially that fonts are made, at least now, using mathematically perfect tools, Bézier curves.

What are you thoughts about that? Do you think it correct, or completely wrong, or somewhere in the middle?
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    edited October 2023
    It is certainly tempting to think that we aspire to draw the ideal form of every character, specially when it comes to typefaces for running text. So if I am doing a Renaissance typeface, my (never reached) goal is to design that somehow resembles the Olympus of that style, such as Bembo, Garamond Premier, Centaur, Minion… However, those are human creations too, so I guess they can be called Platonic ideals only in a very relaxed way. As soon as they acquire a form, they cease to be abstract and ideal, and begin to be concrete and earthly.
    In the end, on this matter I tend to go with Bringhurst: “Type is idealized writing – yet there is no end of typefaces, as there is no end to visions of the ideal.” (The Elements of Typographic Style version 4.0, p. 209.) For me, this implies that if one day someone actually designs the ideal typeface in Platonic terms, that would be the end of our profession: we would all use that typeface and that’s it. Fortunately, there are many problems to solve and not just one, so I suppose that the ideal typeface, the one that solves everything once and for all, does not exist and very probably can not exist.

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    I find the idea of a perfect chair absurd in the extreme. How can something outside of the abstract realm of math even be objectively perfect?
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    For something to be platonic, there must be specific criteria or function.
    Or, if it is a natural phenomenon, some sort of regular nature or predictive formation forces.
    In what sense a chair is platonic by the way? This example does not make much sense. There are different types of chairs to start with.

    In general, if we define a font as "reading tool", and leave out aesthetics, then yes,
    I think it is platonic in general and there are specific shapes that are more effective, and eventually most effective in context of legibility. So in this context yes, a font is a good example of platonic phenomenon.

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    I would like to give a paraphrased parable (also made by Plato):

    In a cave, there is a group of people chained up so that they can only see a blank wall. They see nothing other than the wall. They also see puppet shows that are put on. These people have lived their entire lives in the cave. One day, one of the prisoners is released, and is let out of the cave. Initially, he is blinded; a purely physiological response. After he can see, he sees the world as we know it, and immeadiately rejects it as not possible, after all, all he had ever known was shadows on the wall. He had only experienced representationof the real world, one with much more vibrance and detail than he could ever had known. When he goes back to cave, he tries to explain it to others, but they don't believe him, "How could that be?" "That doesn't make sense, there is only the wall and the things on the wall." Plato's meaning here is to say that our world is similar to the cave of the prisoners, and the world outside the cave is the Platonic Ideal Realm, of which everything we see is just a "shadow".

    This is just some more background on the topic, not a defense.
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    The concept of an "ideal" typeface implies that there is only one thing we use typefaces for. The reason there are so many typefaces is because there are so many possible ways that typefaces are used. An ideal typeface for a book won't be the same as an ideal typeface for road signs, which won't be the same as an ideal typeface for a book cover, which won't be the same as an ideal typeface for airport signage. And even these ideals depend on the cultural context in which they are used.
    I think that if you wanted to, you could say that there is an ideal serif typeface, and an ideal sans-serif typeface, and also an ideal monospaced typeface. However, this does lead to some weird results: if you follow this logic, you will find that you have an ideal oldstyle typeface, and then an ideal Garamond, and so on until there is an ideal typeface for every typeface, which is of course ludicrous. I think that in order to maintain a reasonable amount of pragmatism, as Craig said, we should stop at some point, wether it be at serif typefaces, oldstyle typefaces, or an ideal Garamond, but the necessity is to stop at some point, restricting the perfection, but increasing the plausibility.
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    I find the idea of a perfect chair absurd in the extreme. How can something outside of the abstract realm of math even be objectively perfect?
    I think that is what makes the idea so interesting: it requires you to imagine perfect things that are generally imperfect. For example, No. 2 Pencils are the most used traditional pencils (by that I mean non-mechanical), meaning that they are at least close to the Platonic ideal of a pencil.
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    For example, No. 2 Pencils are the most used traditional pencils (by that I mean non-mechanical), meaning that they are at least close to the Platonic ideal of a pencil.
    I disagree that ubiquity implies conceptual perfection
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    Close to the ideal?
    1. How do you know?
    2. Close is too far !
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    I’ve no useful opinion to add to this discussion, except that @Typofactory, you might enjoy Kris Sowersby’s article about his Signifier typeface, if you’ve not seen it already. It neither contains the word “Platonic,” nor would that notion necessarily apply, but it feels like it intersects with what you’re driving at.
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    Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 1,941
    edited October 2023
    Sounds like you're mistaking «perfect» for «archetypical».
    In general, if we define a font as "reading tool", and leave out aesthetics, then yes,
    I think it is platonic in general and there are specific shapes that are more effective, and eventually most effective in context of legibility. So in this context yes, a font is a good example of platonic phenomenon.

    We can't even tell with any sort of confidence whether sans typefaces are better or worse for reading than serif typefaces, so again, the concept of an objective optimum in the infinite parameter space of fonts is ludicrous to me.

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    John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,977
    edited October 2023
    For example, No. 2 Pencils are the most used traditional pencils (by that I mean non-mechanical), meaning that they are at least close to the Platonic ideal of a pencil.

    No, it just means that for most of the purposes for which the majority of people use a pencil, this is the typical choice (that choice being influenced by previous choices that have resulted in this model of pencil being produced in larger numbers than others, supply following demand and then supplanting demand). My artist friends use many more types of pencils than I do, and generally softer ones than people use for writing. Tools are fit for function—or not fit for function, in which case they are poor tools—: one of the many reasons to discount Plato’s theory of ideal forms is that it imagines forms abstracted from their multiple functions.
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    A perfect pencil never breaks its core when you drop it, never wears down, never smears, and writes only truths. Good luck finding it!
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    Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,146
    I try to avoid neutral. Being in gear takes one much further.
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    Sounds like you're mistaking «perfect» for «archetypical».
    In material world, is an "unbeatable perfect" same as Plato's "Ideal"? Plato's statements were about social ideas, like justice, family, state etc. and statements are too metaphysical, if not just verbiage. So maybe just omit Plato's name here.

    Going back to font design scenery, there ia a question that bothers me. I believe that mainly font is a reading tool, so it is a rather "closed" system that can be developed further with relatively low investments, compared to say space exploration, etc.

    Therefore main goal *in general* is to come closer to perfect font. And try to percieve common features that makes a good and eventually perfect font.

    One of the Platos ideas is that we can come closer to Ideal through observing the reflections of Ideal and make conscious analysis of what is going on.
    Namely, going a bit further than making subtle changes to some existing (and quite imperfect initially) fonts. Might be I am just projecting my curious mind on others, but isn't it logical that a passionate desinger would eventually start doing that? But it just doesn't happen for some reason.

    Christian Thalmann said:

    We can't even tell with any sort of confidence whether sans typefaces are better or worse for reading than serif typefaces, so again, the concept of an objective optimum in the infinite parameter space of fonts is ludicrous to me.


    Very simple - very similar fonts, the difference is very small. If there is difference, a trained expert can give a resume about it. It is just training and some abilities.

    If starting a design I'll think: "how can I sell this font?", than unavoidably I will end up in a vivid cycle. I seriously beleive that if a font designer start to think out this box, then there would more progress in doing better fonts. And eventually start to understand the legibility principles.



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    Oh I really wanted to do my MATD thesis on the Platonic ideals of letterforms. The Reading staff mostly responded like Homer Simpson "smiling politely". Oh well. For me, the story goes like this: The Lego man wakes up in the 4th dimension and sees the perfect font in all its glory. He goes back to the 3D world and cannot recreate it there for lack of a dimension. In this world the perfect font can only exist in one's mind. Socrates then advises that the only way to put that image in other people's minds is through education. One can inspire the image in other people's minds but the image will be different for everybody.
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    If starting a design I'll think: "how can I sell this font?", than unavoidably I will end up in a vivid cycle. I seriously beleive that if a font designer start to think out this box, then there would more progress in doing better fonts. And eventually start to understand the legibility principles.



    Are you saying that looking for a way to sell a font is a very good way to make new, good fonts?
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    If starting a design I'll think: "how can I sell this font?", than unavoidably I will end up in a vivid cycle. I seriously beleive that if a font designer start to think out this box, then there would more progress in doing better fonts. And eventually start to understand the legibility principles.



    Are you saying that looking for a way to sell a font is a very good way to make new, good fonts?

    No I was saying the opposite. One should not think about commercial application in order to overcome design limitations. And this is the way to gain more knowledge about the nature of fonts.  For example, no publishing company will buy or use a font that has even single character significanty different from its standard look.   
    Interestingly, it seems that in the past there were more experiments with shapes, even some new characters introduced. 
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    The “perfect” font can be destroyed in a flash by bad choices of size, line length, leading, tracking, color, and any number of other variables determined by the user. With these considerations, one is reminded—or should be—that a font is not a final, standalone creation, but rather one that depends on its users for its final expression. There can be problems in this equation even when the font’s designer is the user. On many occasions, I’ve seen hastily prepared specimens by some of the type designers I consider supremely skilled and tasteful that undermine the quality of their own work.

    I tend to agree with John Hudson, who tends to agree with his philosopher friend, in thinking that Plato’s theory of forms is a dreadful sort of bollocks. Plato’s perfect chair is not my perfect chair, if only for the reason that Plato’s ass and legs are not my ass and legs. (At least I hope not.)

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    John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,977
    Also, Plato eschewed chairs and had bad posture.  :#


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    . . . if only for the reason that Plato’s ass and legs are not my ass and legs.
    Alas, this might not be true, if Raphael is to be believed!
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    Also, Plato eschewed chairs and had bad posture.  :#


    That's Heraclitus (not Plato, who stands quite upright nearby). He's famous for saying "you cannot step into the same river twice"; maybe he felt the same re: sitting and chairs. 
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    John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,977
    Huh. I recall a teacher identifying this figure as Plato, on the basis of his stockiness—Plato famously had been a wrestler—and the fact that he was writing while the rest were talking.
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    Plato is here in the middle in pink, holding his Timaeus and gesturing with a finger towards the ideal serif typeface. 
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