Trivia and significa as crystal goblet

January 16, 2009

21 November 2008: Ben Schott gave us his summary of 2008 at yesterday’s RSA Thursday. The story was rich with wit in the details, and pregnant with meaning in the larger themes, all delivered with the dispassionate restraint of this arch-taxonomist. Ben warned me (as chair) that his presentations seldom provoked questions. Although there were a number yesterday, I mused that facts are less provocative and contestable than opinions.


More importantly my office gave me the opportunity to press Ben on the issue of Design. Exercised in my new role at the RSA by giving definition to the relationship between design and social progress, I have been baking a little theory that one of the spanners in this relationship is the absence of amateurs in design – as I mentioned last week with respect to Tod Machover’s talk here. There’s DIY, there are crafts and hobbies, and there’s more or less incompetent poster layout of the “lost kitten” genre, but it’s hard to edify anything in this amateur league of form-giving with the title design, and there are virtually no shades of grey between it and the work of trained professionals.


Ben Schott, however, gives the lie to my theory, being no slouch at all with 8-point Garamond and printers’ ornaments. When he clamed a couple of years ago to have designed the Original Miscellany himself, I was initially sceptical, but quickly convinced. He explained yesterday, via a respectful nod to Edward Tufte, past master of the visual display of quantitative information, that he has never wavered from his early discovery that the facts, purely and simply displayed, have a persuasive elegance that outweighs any “big” design. It’s cheering to see geo-politics, trivia and significa, through Beatrice Warde’s crystal goblet.

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