Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eric Gill: control, distraction, and tools

Eric Gill (1882–1940), engraver, printer, sculptor, typeface designer, recommended a hand-operated press as the best tool for letterpress printing:

This tool gives the maximum of control with the minimum of distraction. It is most important that the workman should not have to watch his instrument, that his whole attention should be given to his work. A sculptor does not see his hammer and chisel when he is carving, but only the stone in front of him. Similarly the hand press printer can give his whole attention to inking & printing, and hardly see his press.

From An Essay on Typography (1931)
I have no thoughts about printing, but this passage does make me think about tools for writing and searching.

Writing: for a maximum of control and a minimum of distraction — eraser crumbs, dull and broken points — the pencil is an obvious choice. As for pens, a plain Bic offers zero-degree distraction: fountain-pen expert Frank Dubiel used to call the Bic the most reliable pen of all. But Dubiel was willing to sacrifice some measure of reliability for the pleasure of writing with a fountain pen. And anyway, a good fountain pen is extremely reliable, needing little more than occasional refilling and infrequent cleaning. For writing at the computer, one may find a maximum of control and a minimum of distraction by using a text-editor, a much better choice than the typical word-processor, whose hammers, chisels, and dozens of other tools are always competing with words for the writer’s attention.

Searching: there’s no better example of an interface designed to maximize control and minimize distraction that Google’s nearly blank search page. Microsoft’s Bing, in contrast, offers a cluttered mess: the search box is placed (for now) against a panoramic photograph of hikers crossing a rope bridge, with links to first aid info, “Great deals on airfares,” and what’s “Popular now” — the Ferrari 458 Italia, Stephon Marbury, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carlos Carrasco. Am I here to search, or to lose track of what it is I’m looking for? Self-parody, thy name is Microsoft!

Gill's observations also make me think in a general way of Mac OS X, an operating system that lets me give my whole attention to my work, so that I can “just work,” without the ever renewed effort to figure out what’s gone wrong with the computer now.

[When I requested Gill’s book via interlibrary loan, I didn’t know that the 1931 first edition was limited to 500 copies, each copy signed by Gill and René Hague, who together set the type. I read carefully — very carefully — and returned the book with the suggestion that it never be let out again. The 1936 edition of An Essay on Typography is available as a paperback reprint from David R. Godine (1988). “It just works” is an Apple slogan, a few years old now.]

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