Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

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Just My Type and Fontly Yours

The title of this post is made of two puns, so I’d say it’s off to a good start.

Today I want to talk about fonts. I know, I sound like Brick Heck from The Middle, but I strongly believe that fonts and type style are crucial to the success of a piece of writing.

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The other day, a friend of mine and I found ourselves in a heated debate over which font is better: Georgia or Helvetica. I argued that Georgia is whimsical yet still professional. He countered that Helvetica is simple and easy on the eye.

We did, however, find common ground in our preference for 12 point font and 1.5 line spacing, as well as our hatred of boring, old Times New Roman.

But why do we as writers feel so strongly toward one font and type setting over another?

To answer that, I am afraid I will have to get a bit philosophical. Writing is both an abstract and concrete art form; it is abstract in the ideas it presents to the reader’s imagination, but concrete in that it does so using visual cues- that is, written words. A book, then, is a concrete collection of the abstract thoughts. Good books are works of visual art that seek to give the reader an impression of something invisible; visible words communicate invisible ideas.

Most importantly, a book (or any piece of writing) must be well-written. The concrete words absorbed by the reader’s eyes must flow naturally, make sense, and be beautiful in their individual phrases in order to construct an abstract thought in his or her mind. Just as no poorly-made sculpture leaves a lasting mental impression, no poorly-written book will inspire great thoughts.

However, there is an element to this process of concrete-abstract in writing that goes beyond the skill of the author; if words are beads, no matter how eloquently the author strings them together, the chain upon which they are strung must also be a thing of artistic merit. This “chain” must complement the beads without overshadowing them.

Just so, fonts and type settings must complement and support the writing itself. You’ve doubtless been told to “never judge a book by its cover” and I’d agree. But perhaps there is some truth to judging a book by its font.

Consider the Harry Potter books. Being a giant nerd, I own both the American and British editions. And, while I prefer the British colloquial to the American “translations,” I always opt for reading the American prints because of- you guessed it- the font. Take a look for yourself!

IMG_4921First of all, notice the adorable illustration! I hold to the belief that one never outgrows books with pictures. Second, I challenge anyone to glance at the font of the chapter title and not immediately associate it with the whimsy and adventure of Harry Potter. The font of the text itself is legible, yet not as stiff as, say, the font you might choose for a thesis.

Now consider the spacing; the margins are wide enough for a child to hold the book by its edges and the space between lines is enough to prevent the reader from feeling overwhelmed.

However, the spacing is not as wide as in some children’s books, making it feel less condescending and as if it is also intended for older audiences. Similarly, had the font been Comic Sans or some other outlandish style, the book would have been less desirable to anyone aside from early readers.

Overall, I’d say the American editions of Harry Potter are an ideal example of font and spacing being used to not only attract the reader, but make the story more accessible. It is easy to “fall behind” the printed words into the story itself because the spaces leave enough of a hole to fall through and the font is easy on the eyes without being distracting. Beautiful.

IMG_4922Now, consider the British editions.  They’re more compact, first of all, so naturally “superfluous” illustrations must be forgotten to save space. The title is lovely and, of course, consists of the same words as its American counterpart, but it lacks the quirkiness the so perfectly parallels the story. No fancy letter “M” for the first word in this edition. No wide margins or extra space between lines, thank you very much. If the American edition wonderfully represents and facilitates the magic of Harry, the British edition is more characteristic of businesslike muggles.

The words (aside from a few candy names and the Philosopher-Sorcerer switch) are the same and the story is thus the same. However, with more crowded words and a more mechanical font/spacing, this edition is not as open to being read by all. I can hardly imagine a child being drawn to this edition, despite the story not being changed, because the words are so packed together and the margins are not friendly to a child’s clumsy grasp. Sure, maybe an adult would read these, but said grownup might not be drawn into the childlike wonder of the HP books as he might be by the visible whimsy of the American editions.

Font matters.

Spacing matters.

Writing is a visual art.

The best writing transcends visuals because it inspires imagining and ideas beyond the printed word; however, this transcendence can be bolstered by a wise choice of type style. Choose a font that reflects your writing’s ideas and, from the first page, the reader will fall more easily into the abstract world you create.

In painting, the better the work, the more it says. Another painter might be inspired to create something with the same message, but if he does not do it with excellent presentation, the viewer will not understand the idea behind the work as well as he might when looking at the first, better painting. The idea is the same, but the presentation makes all the difference.

It is the same with writing.

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Which one, to you, communicates the idea of a “beautiful day”? To me, the first is too stoic to truly represent the beauty of a sunshiny day. The second is more welcoming and expressive.

I’ll say it again: Font matters and spacing matters. Abstract themes are reflected in and enhanced by the visible art of words.

So what do you think? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hypothesis. Do you  have a favorite font? Why Wing Dings? Why not Papyrus?

I look forward to hearing from you, readers!

Perhaps you’ll be more open to commenting, thought, if I write it this way:

I look forward to hearing from you, readers!