The ongoing saga of mis-representing the periodic table for any darned list of objects continues… Here is a new one sent in by my friend and colleague Patrick Dickson: A periodic table of Typefaces.

Now I won’t beat a dead horse here, (Nashworld has a great posting about this and I have written about it here) but tables of this kind just drive me up the wall.

The design of a representation needs to emerge from the properties of the data being represented. It bugs me no end when designers (who are really the people who ought to know better) try to shoe-horn their information into a representation that is pre-selected based on its “cuteness” factor. In fact the page above that includes this table, the designer describes how they came about developing this table. This is what they say:

Ranking was determined by statistically sorting and combining lists and opinions from the the sites listed below. The final overall ranking was achieved depending on how many lists the particular typeface was presented on and it’s ranking on the lists (if the particular source list used a ranking system; some did not, in which case just the typeface’s presence on the list boosted it’s overall score.) After averaging the typefaces appearances and rankings a composite score was given and the list was sorted on a spreadsheet then finally given an overall score of 1 through 100 based on it’s final resting position.

So far so good… but everything goes south in the very first sentence of the next paragraph. Check this out:

Unfortunately, the typefaces could not be sorted exactly numerically on the table while at the same time keeping them in groups of families and classes. It had to be one or the other. Of course it COULD have been done but I would have had to seriously sacrifice aesthetics of the overall design (i.e. it wouldn’t have come out looking AT ALL like a traditional periodic table.) However, upon close inspection, you find that at least the typefaces are ordered within their family/class groupings.

Just read through the last paragraph again. Two key issues stand out for me. The first is the fact the designer is willing to forsake the emergent patterns, based on all the work they had done described in the earlier paragraph, in order to force fit it into a shape like a periodic table. Clearly as they say, “it had to be one or the other” but the choice they make seems fundamentally incorrect to me.

Second, I have a big concern with the superficial manner in which the word “aesthetics” is used by the designer. Too often “aesthetics” has been caricatured as being the surface features of a design, something that can be tacked on after everything else, of importance, has been finalized. Genuine aesthetics, it seems to me, is a sense of coherence and elegance, of coming-together of the inner and outer worlds of the design.

Now this can be seen as a fun project, completed tongue-in-cheek, a quasi ironic statement on ideas of representation, in which case my ranting here may be a bit over the top. It that is the case, I apologize, without taking back any of the larger points being made here.