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« Vacation Destinations | Main | Elsewhere »

April 12, 2006

Bracket-Mania [Update]

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Nonsense-brackets continue to captivate graphic designers. Texas Monthly sees fit to use brackets on its cover, putting the title of one the articles it's featuring between gray parenthesis marks. Cute, the way the designer has made the gray of the parentheses match the gray type used in the word "at"!

texas_monthly01.jpg

Meanwhile, book titles are beginning to appear framed by brackets.

The title seems muffled, like the two characters in the cover image. Cute!

To the 20th century, logocentric guy that I usually am, a gesture like this one raises a question: Do brackets used this way become part of the book's title? After all, brackets are generally taken to be typographic symbols. (The period at the end of this sentence is understood to be part of the sentence. And the parentheses around these two sentences are understood to contribute to their meaning.) Do we take the title of the book above to be "The Way We Are," or "{The Way We Are}"? (I wonder how the author would answer this question.) Or do we understand brackets flanking a book title as "groovy decorative visuals" and nothing but?

What the two examples above suggest to me is that the brackets-thang has become such a standard move that it's threatening to transcend its original coolness and attain complete and utter squaresvillehood. As far as I can tell, brackets could attain squareness any day now.

Initially, brackets-as-visuals were used to give a layout an off-center, deadpan/ironic quality. We were being signaled: "This isn't some flat-out, dumb statement. No, it's indirect -- an offhand, muttered aside. It's a comment on something, and not the statement itself." It also evoked chic post-modern philosophizing. Remember when wannabe-swinging academics were giving their indecipherable papers titles like "Coming of Age: [Mis]Representing Womyn's Writing"? Brackets used as visuals meant: deconstructed, unstable, zigzaggy, subversive.

These days, the brackets-move has become almost as much of a staple instrument in the graphics toolkit as the basic headline-subhead-text hierarchy. And now it has begun to lose its progressive flavor. It has begun to look as square as what it replaced (boxes, mainly). Looking at the images above, for example: I take the book jacket to be aiming for a modern, distanced, hip/sad note. (Doug Sundseth will no doubt come up with a more evocative and precise way of describing the tone.) But I take the Texas Monthly brackets to be mere highlighting -- to be new-style dumbass neon. Your own impression may vary, of course.

Small question for the day: How long will it take brackets to evolve one more step in this direction, and to take on overtones of "giving dignity to the content they enclose" -- creating a set-in-marble feeling, the exact opposite of what the move initially conveyed? It seems to me that, as they're being used now, brackets are starting to suggest this kind of squarest-of-the-square gestalt:

Things move fast these days, don't they? What graphics-gesture is likely to replace the brackets-thang as a subversive and cool one? But perhaps we're moving into an era where any overt concern with making subversive/cool gestures is becoming uncool. As usual, I observe and marvel.

I posted about brackets here and here; visitors pitched in with many perceptive observations and musings. Don't miss a comment on the first of those postings by Design Observer's Michael Bierut. Where brackets are concerned, Michael Bierut is unquestionably Da Man.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at April 12, 2006




Comments

Techniques like this are about revealing the process. As you say, brackets are traditionally typographic symbols not intended for public consumption. It's like Letterman talking to Biff Henderson. And yeah, it's about 20 years old, now, time for something new.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 12, 2006 12:23 PM



Back in 2003 when I was head of the high school literary club, our annual literary magazine bore the title:

[untitled]

Brackets included. Just how long has this trend been going on? Because it'd be cool if we were one of the earliest adopters of bracketing titles.

Posted by: Andrew Yen on April 12, 2006 12:23 PM



Sorry, had some more to say on this. It's the trend of all of us being insiders. We know the weekend grosses of movies. Unless we are in the movie business, why the fuck should we know this?

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 12, 2006 12:25 PM



Patriarch -- Letterman's a good comparison. "It isn't a dumb talk show. It's a cool talk show by virtue of making fun of dumb talk-show conventions." It's a [talk show], not a mere talk show.

Andrew -- [untitled] is about as cool as it can get! Next step: leaving a blank space where a title is expected.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 12, 2006 12:26 PM



Yeah, it's a comment on titles, but also, it's exposed duct work. It's the process laid bare. To some, it's the lack of any ideas.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 12, 2006 12:47 PM



What's the difference between ( ), [ ], and { }?
Not a trick question. I'd seriously like to know.

Posted by: ricpic on April 12, 2006 12:47 PM



The story behind [untitled] was that every year the literary clubs puts out a magazine for the past year's efforts and every year we had a different title for it such as "Burning the Midnight Oil" and "Through the Mind's Eye". Poetic, lofty titles often with a graphic that complements it.

That year, when I was a senior, and had worked my way to the top of the hierarchy, we were once against brainstorming another title for the magazine. None of the members could agree on a good one and at the last minute I proposed that there would be no title for the magazine since we couldn't agree on one, as if to show the project as being unfinished, so it was [untitled].

Could have been [insert title here], but that would have been overdoing it.

I don't know the different between () [] and {} either . . . hmm, off to Wikipedia!

Posted by: Andrew Yen on April 12, 2006 02:23 PM



ricpic - () is yer standard parenthetical note; [] is usually used for words or changes that have to be inserted in a quote to make it make sense in context, but that weren't there to begin with; {} is math geek stuff, maybe useful for nested quotes (which occur...never) or as typographical frippery a la Blowhard.

Michael - I've been living in Sweden for 17 years. Reading your plaints about the typographization of lexicographical markers, I keep thinking of the way Swedes adopt English words and phrases.

English is the French of Sweden, only more so, since the American Empire is now. So English stuff is always getting incorporated. Take the case of "shit".

Maybe 10 years ago, Swedes suddenly started exclaiming, "Shit!" I don't know why. For sure there's some Gladwellian explanation about how hipsters thought it was cool for a while, then it tipped.

Now "shit" already exists in Swedish. The word is "skit" (it's the etymological source of the English word skit, a shitty little play) and it's pronounced "wheet", more or less.

Anyway, cool cats and young people said "Shit!" for a while. After a few months, one of my fifty year old, not cool but not clueless coworkers started greeting minor setbacks with "Shit!"

That was the beginning of the end. Within a few more months, people were pushing back towards "sheet", and couple years later we were back to good old "wheet". Nowadays an English-flavored (so to speak) "Shit!" identifies a hick, or more likely somebody who's ironically trying to sound like one.

My point is that these little word fashions are constantly cycling through. They catch on for a while, then they get recontextualized, then they usually get translated.

I reckon it's the same thing with this bracket stuff. Visuals (ADs and the like) don't think like us. To them, the brackets are just a cool expression from a foreign language - words. After a while, they'll find new ways of saying "I am parenthetical" or "I am a graphical stage whisper", and brackets will go back to being lexicography.

I'm not sure, but I have a feeling you're wondering whether this graphical use of punctuation signifies a nail in the coffin of language as a meaningful signifier. I don't think so. I think it's just a dip in the road of layout fashion - "wheet" appropriating "shit" on its way back to good old "wheet".

Posted by: robert on April 12, 2006 03:15 PM



I noticed this phenomenon on something or other, the other day, and never would have if you hadn't pointed it out. Anyway, scrolling through your post (and reading it too, I promise!) I couldn't help but think that the covers of the middle-brow Borders serious novel, are, well, as lively as the enclosed prose. Make of that what you will......

Posted by: MD on April 12, 2006 04:30 PM



Patriarch -- I often think that people fall in love with their tools, don't you? Magazines start to look like a Quark screen ... Movies start to move like Final Cut Pro ... Music starts to sound like the software it's made on ... Do creative people have a tendency to think that the environment that they work in is far cooler than the finished-product world?

Ricpic, As far as I know, the first ones are curved, the second ones are squared off , and the third ones are completely mystifying. But I'm open to better information.

Andrew -- I always thought it would be fun to have a blog and call it [dummy text here]. But where could you go from there?

Robert -- That's a hilarious history of "shit," tks. I wonder when and if it's going to become semi-cool, in some hitherto-unseen, neo-retro/deadpan way, to start using it again. Or has using "shit" been forever, er, shitcanned? The whole thing about the line between passing-fads and what-surprises-everyone-by-becoming-a-classic is interesting, isn't it? Not that I have anything perceptive to say about it, of course. I wonder what the ratio is though of passing-fads to makes-it-to-classic-status? I've got a hunch that brackets used more for visuals than for verbal meaning may be with us for a while, though. The whole language of graphic design has changed bigtime in the last 10 or so years. After a long stretch of visual-people-asserting-themselves agonies, it seems to be settling into some kind of newish stability, and brackets seem to be part of the results. It's been quite an amazing upheaval, at least here in the States. (When I look at foreign magazines, they seem to have incorporated a lot of the innovations without disturbing the readability and word-centricness too much. Over here, though, readability is under serious siege, and words are running scared.) But maybe I'm wrong! It could be that everything's in play these days. Maybe it isn't some new stable state we've achieved. Maybe it's some new endlessly-fluid and morphing new state of being. Eek. I'm too old to adapt to such a thing.

MD -- If the book industry ever shakes off its stodginess, maybe it'll start offering bookjackets for sale, without all that boring gray printed matter attached ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 12, 2006 05:08 PM



Michael: "Do brackets used this way become part of the book's title?."

Using films as precedent, I'd have to say yes. Film has given us the exclamation point title:

Oliver!
Oklahoma!
Airplane!
Top Secret!
Hot Shots!
McLintock!
Hatari!
Avanti!
Them!
Viva Zapata!
That's Entertainment!
Sh! The Octopus
Zotz!
Phffft!

Including its multicultural version:

íThree Amigos!

And a few with commas:

Oh, God!
Hello, Dolly!
Objective, Burma!

Plus the rare double exclamation point title:

Hey Boy! Hey Girl!
Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!

And even that most hyperbolic of breeds, the triple exclamation point title:

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Tora! Tora! Tora!

(The first of these two is from Russ Meyer, king of the exclamation point title, and creator of Up!, Vixen!, Heavenly Bodies!, Good Morning...And Goodbye!, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, and Cherry, Harry, & Raquel!)

Then there's the ever popular question mark title:

Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe?
What Did You Do In The War Daddy?
What Planet Are You From?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who Says I Can't Ride A Rainbow?
Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
Can Heironmous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness?
Who?

The understated pomo period title:

Adaptation.
Good Night, And Good Luck.

The ellipsis title:

When Harry Met Sally...
When Time Ran Out...

The bizzaro triple ellipsis title:

If... Dog... Rabbit...

The slash title:

Crazy/Beautiful
Face/Off
Victor/Victoria
Fantasia/2000
Smoking/No Smoking

The hyphen title:

Paris - When It Sizzles

And the no-punctuation-even-where-it's-required title:

Dont Look Back

Look any of these up on IMDB and they'll be spelled just like that.

(I think I watch too many movies.)

Posted by: Brian on April 12, 2006 10:39 PM



A quick search of IMDB reveals parentheses, brackets, double brackets, meta, anti-meta, silly meta, and the winner in my opinion, bracketed meta.

Posted by: Brian on April 12, 2006 11:10 PM



Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow?

Sheesh, I think we've found a winner for the dumbest movie title ever.

I agree with you---the brackets on that Texas Monthly thing seem to have reached a new high in unimaginative magazine covers--your phrase "dumbass neon" seems perfect. I find them irritating. Just say what you want to say. The brackets make me feel all closed in as I look at it, and therefore makes me not want to look at it. Like I have to duck my head to get through a doorway or something.

Posted by: annette on April 13, 2006 09:30 AM



Anything to say about emphasis added by putting a period after each word, thus:

This. Is. Really. Important.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 13, 2006 12:07 PM






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