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« Are We Headed for Hyperinflation? | Main | Down on Obama? »

November 08, 2008

Crazy Parens

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Why are some design concepts suddenly everywhere? For all their talent and style, are designers the biggest sheep in the world? And why did this particular design idea become such a craze?


My own small-t theory about why nonsense brackets and nonsense parentheses became cool is this: It's because they relate somehow to media irony, or quasi-irony anyway -- very Dave Eggers, very "making snarky comments about the TV while the TV is playing" -- and also because they make text look a little like computer code. And these days nothing's cooler than computer code.

Does anyone have any other hunches about why this particular design trope just won't quit?



UPDATE: Forget politics, forget graphics, forget making sense of the world. Monica Bellucci is here to give life a little meaning. Quote of the Day: "I love the idea that when a man pays to see one of my films, he’s paying me to feel pleasure." Puts it all in perspective, doesn't it? Now, forgive me while I let my soul tremble with poetic, religious, erotic, and refined-yet-earthy feelings.

posted by Michael at November 8, 2008


Dangit, Darlene, them kids is usin' typography in vain! Fetch my spray paint!

Heavy Metal Edition: Thë Mërcër Kïtchën

Tolkien Edition: Thê Mêrcêr Kîtchên

Upside Down Edition: uǝɥɔʇıʞ ( ɹǝɔɹǝɯ ǝɥʇ )

Bronx Edition: ( E A T S )

Posted by: Daniel Newby on November 9, 2008 6:03 AM

No. Nothing to add. You're right about the irony. Just thought of something. I hope their cooks aren't ironic about food prep.

Posted by: ricpic on November 9, 2008 6:23 AM

Yes, designers are sheep.

Every employment ad for a designer pleads for "cutting edge" ideas. Roughly translated, this means... look at the web sites of the currently successful design houses and advertising agencies and do the same thing they do.

Remember, a couple of years ago, reviving the symbols of the old Soviet Union was very stylish. In Woodstock, some jackass opened a gallery with a name that evoked the Stalinist purge of the Ukraine, and festooned the front of the shop with red stars.

Why isn't the word "kitchen" enclosed in the parents? Seems like, from a context standpoint, that would work better. The kitchen is generic, not the name of the establishment.

I pointed out, in a letter to the editor of the local leftist propaganda rag, that evoking the rape of the Ukraine probably wasn't the most appropriate image for a gallery. The owner went ape shit, screaming about censorship, right wing conspiracies, lawsuits... the whole pile of shit.

What was particularly interesting about this is that he had been trying to outrage the rubes. Having succeeded, he began to plead that I was an idiot for failing to note the irony of it all.

I think that this insider joke idea is behind the parens. It's like Stuff White People Like. Cutting edge means liking the same thing those millions of SWPL like. The legions of the hip.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 9, 2008 8:19 AM

All the cool kids have nonsense parentheses?

Seriously, while the ideal of type is theoretically clarity (i.e. communicating as clearly and effortlessly as possible), for many things, the goal is to be noticed. Making it easy for someone to effortlessly assimilate the information contained in the text is *not* what you want. Instead you want something that arrests the eye.

Also, as per the first line, there's something about nonsense parentheses that conveys 'cool'. Something about not being hidebound by the conventions of grammar, literacy or good taste. (Sorry, my biases may be showing.)

On the other hand, if you're trying to project a 'cool' image, it's probably not a bad step.

Posted by: Tom West on November 9, 2008 8:49 AM

If it's a fad, we don't have to rationalize: it's popular now because it wasn't before, and it'll start to die when people view it as normal.

It's like asking, "Why were stirrup pants popular when they were?"

And what's next, btw? Something asymmetrical, like a single right parenthesis?

The Mercer ) Kitchen

If it evolves by evolution, you can't change too many things at once. So, it could become asymmetrical, but it couldn't also change form, like to a question mark or something.

Posted by: agnostic on November 9, 2008 9:04 AM

Is that a half-way lace curtain? It reminds me of those briefs for girls from Victoria Secret. They look like the briefs for boys except that they are cut differently and the opening in the front is fake.

Here, perhaps the contrast between the exterior (the new age machine codes) and the interior (the same good food), and the translucent layer that "separates" the interior from the exterior help make the tease more interesting. As for the font and the parentheses, perhaps they are just a part of the tease.

Posted by: Pupu on November 9, 2008 9:25 AM


Please do not allow my pleasure at seeing you here cause you to flee. I promise I will not harass you by commenting on every post you make.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 9, 2008 9:56 AM

I should say, "not commenting twice on every post you make."

Posted by: PatrickH on November 9, 2008 9:58 AM

Never mind.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 9, 2008 9:59 AM

God, Pupu shows up and already I'm back into paradoxical self-referential hyper-ironic mode! Commenting on my own comments! Like some guy talking to himself somewhere!

Calm down, man. You're acting really weird. Well, at least to me you are.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 9, 2008 10:03 AM

Daniel -- Funny! You really should be blogging more regularly.

Ricpic -- "Ironic" food ... Oh dear. I suspect you're on to something, though.

ST - Funny tale. But is it true that Soviet-style graphics are no longer cool? Lordy, I've fallen behind the curve yet again.

Tom, Agnostic -- Yeah, I think "using type to be visually arresting" is ultimately what it's all about. At this point, though, nonsense brackets and parens have been around for (it seems) three or four years. They're not longer arresting. Maybe they're becoming something more than a fad -- a standard part of the visual sphere. Styles do generally come and go. Baseball caps, for instance ... But then there are those that install themselves for the longterm. Rich-hippie style, for instance, or punk -- who knew that they'd both still be around in 2008? And why has punk installed itself, while baseball caps didn't? I don't know that it's actually possible to explain any of this, but it can be fun trying.

Pupu -- Nice to see you here, and looking forward to more of your comments and observations.

PatrickH -- The Pupu charm and fragrance seem to bring out the Flann O'Brien in you!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 9, 2008 10:20 AM

To Woodstock's credit, the Stalinist chic gallery went broke in a few months.

I hope I had something to do with it, but I doubt it.

Woodstock has always had a fond spot for Stalin, but apparently the Rape of the Ukraine is a bit much even for our commies. You could blame that on Nikita Khrushchev anyway. You've got to break a few eggs. Right?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 9, 2008 11:34 AM

Indeed. On the third hand, there's that vexed question: What if the graphic style is cool? The USSR created a lot of great posters, for instance. Do we have to forgo ripping off, er, using the styles, because it was the evil USSR came up with them? I really don't know myself. Maybe there's a time limit - you shouldn't use graphic styles invented by evil regimes for maybe 40 years, then it's ok -- the association with evil has withered away and the style exists out there, and it's now fine to enjoy it and rip it off, er, use it. Like I say, I don't know.

Anyone have any thoughts about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 9, 2008 11:55 AM


The use of parentheses is a peculiarly pomo trope, and I suspect the designers caught on from the lit critters and others in that zoo.

MLA papers seems to have led the way here. Parens are used by MLA members in more or less conventional ways, here as a conditioning tool--a normal use though unusual in a paper title:

"The (Sometimes) Amiable Glory of Mark Twain's Humor."

Parens are also used for punning and making a point:

"Run A(Broad) Run: Female Escapism in E. M. Forster's Novels."

And also to add ambiguity:

"(Re)Presenting the Visual: Verbal Illusions and Visual Distortion in John Banville's Frames Trilogy."

. . . and double entendres . . .

"Ecological Compos(t)ing: Sustaining Composition through Ecocomposition.."


Posted by: fenster moop on November 9, 2008 11:56 AM

The Obama campaign used the Soviet poster style quite extensively, as Michelle Malkin noted with great anger.

You get into these stupid questions of fairness. Would the left think that Nazi chic was ironic? (Clearly (to use a parenthetical) a lot of gay guys like the Nazi uniform style.) And, The Producers successfully employed Nazi style for comedic purposes. Of course (to use yet another parenthetical) many people (including myself) think that the Nazis were a leftist manifestation.

There is something within the left's willingness to use Soviet graphic style that legitimizes that old "good intentions" saw. That is, communism was just a misguided, but well intentioned movement. In the right hands (i.e. the leftist currently speaking) those commie policies would be correctly and humanely implemented. Thus, a little humor about Soviet tyranny is allowable. The ideas weren't horseshit... it was just Lenin, or Stalin or Mao or Che... whoever, misinterpreting the gospel of Marx.

Since the Obama campaign used Soviet poster style so extensively, I think we're about to find out whether that foreshadows their rule. Is Obama, as many conservatives claims, a stealth socialist?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 9, 2008 12:21 PM

Totalitarian regimes always have great design.

However, I'm with Michael. Screw this petty typography discussion, focus on Bellucci.

Posted by: JV on November 9, 2008 12:53 PM

I didn't realize that parentheses had become a fad -- I've always loved to use (over-use?) parentheses (and commas, dashes, quotation marks, numbered items, broken line separators, and dialog formats) because they just seem to be so useful in expressing my thoughts, which have always included a strong element of what I guess we now call (if we want to be nice) non-linear thinking. (I'll admit that there may also be some lack of writing talent, ignorance of correct usage and laziness involved too.)

(Don't recall if Tom Wolfe, a favorite writer of mine since I was a teenager, actually uses parentheses a lot, but his writing does seem to have that "feel.")

It's only relatively recently, however, that I've "discovered" the usefulness of brackets and begun using them a lot -- as in "New [Sub-]Urbanism." To me (and I realize I could be wrong about this), brackets express a different meaning than parentheses: they strongly indicate that what is between the brackets is the author's own interjection. If I were to use parentheses instead of brackets, as in, "It seems to me that many proponents of "New (Sub-)Urbanism" are really anti-city at heart," it wouldn't be as clear to the reader that what is between the parentheses is MY comment about what I believe New [Sub-]Urbanism to be.

- - - - -

P.S. -- I've always (at least since the late 1960s?) liked "Wallabee" shoes, and I've always (at least since the 1950s?) liked preppie clothes -- and this has been both convenient and "embarrassing" when they've become fads: 1) convenient because they are easier to buy; 2) embarrassing because people think you are trying to be faddish when you are not.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 9, 2008 1:14 PM

Pupu has been a fan of this blog for years!

PatrickH, you are followed:)

Posted by: Pupu on November 10, 2008 9:53 AM

Michael: The Pupu charm and fragrance seem to bring out the Flann O'Brien in you!

Life is good at Blow-Two-Hards.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 10, 2008 11:33 AM

Ok agnostic, we know who to blame when the single paren becomes the new black.

ST's right about "cutting edge". As a Web designer/developer I've played that game many times. A few years back I got a request to do something "very Web 2.0". I thought, what the hell is that? A Google search brought me to a designer's page that laid it all out. It was like snapping Legos together. The client thought I was a genius, haha, what a racket I'm in...

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on November 10, 2008 11:55 AM

Parens can be funny. I still crack up every time I think of how Jonathan Franzen used them in The Corrections to illustrate the fatuity of the academic brother, Chip:


I kind of like the way they used it for the kitchen. Kitchen catches your eye first--it's all naked-y and un-parened--and then there's this "oh, and it's the Mercer kitchen by the way".

Kind of modest, but with a wink.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 10, 2008 4:16 PM

And speaking of irony: I was genuinely unaware of the con(not)ations of "Blow-Two-...". Not that I don't find Michael and Friedrich attractive! I mean, FvB can do 65 pushups! What's not to like in a man who can do that?

Never mind. Pupu has this strange effect on my mind. I think she somehow manages to slip me some of those Delphic Oracle fumes I always accuse her of imbibing. I end up sounding all HEY MAN LIKE LIFE IS THIS LIKE ORANGE PEEL YOU KNOW ALL ORANGEY AND PEELY LIKE YOU KNOW

Pupu, my heart belongs to another. But I do think you are very cool (and fragrant!).

Just wanted to let you know.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 10, 2008 4:24 PM

I'll believe parens have gone beyond the fad stage when we begin seeing them on gravestones.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on November 10, 2008 8:37 PM

Re: "cutting edge" and the like... Funny how "thinking outside the box" has itself become a cliché, eh?

Posted by: Will S. on November 11, 2008 12:53 AM

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