When I launched GrafikDesijn, someone asked me, “why don’t you write everything in lowercase you’re a great famous graphic designer, right?” This is actually a very good question. To which I had a very good answer that is worth the tale.
To understand the significance of this lowercase question, we need to dig into 1900s Germany. Into the movement that first had the idea of what design is. Interested in a long story time? Read on! TL; DR be damned!
THE BAUHAUS AND THE LOWERCASE
It was the year 1919 when The Staaliches Bauhaus art school opened its doors in Weimar, Germany. The Bauhaus masters believed in functionality above all else. Form follows function—that is law. And as a designer it would do you good not to commit crimes against it! You must also consider that at the time, The Bauhaus artists (yes, they weren’t called designers yet) didn’t have the powerful computers and printers we have today. They used typewriters and did everything manually.
To publish anything, you need to do typesetting–that is, the labor-intensive task of arranging the literal piece of glyphs (one character at a time) in order to print it.[i] Another concern for The Bauhaus was the German language. Unlike English, German was anal about capitalizing the first letter of every noun, adding complication in writing and typesetting, to the dismay of the efficiency-loving Bauhaus Masters.
As such, in 1925 a Bauhaus Master with the name of Herbert Bayer created a typeface that abandoned uppercase letters. Capital letters were not used because “we do not use them as we speak.” In other words, there were no phonetic difference between upper and lowercase letters. We don’t pronounce I am differently from i am (note the case). The idea was to come up with a universal language that was efficient and appealed to everyone. Hence, the Beyer Universal typeface was born.[ii]
The Bauhaus believed that by removing uppercase letters, they were making language more efficient and easier to learn. Uppercase letters were deemed inefficient and unnecessary, a serious crime against the laws of Bauhaus efficiency. It also made a lot of economical sense, since lowercase letters took less space and ink. (I becha cost cutting was the real reason for omitting those innocent little letters!) Typesetting would also become simpler and cheaper, typewriters could also be simplified this way too. Thus “wir shreiben alles klein, denn wir sparen damit zeit” (we write everything small, thus saving time) was emblazoned on the footer of The Bauhaus’ letterheads.[iii]
When printers set font by hand a letter at a time, they placed the case holding the most frequent forms of the letters on a lower shelf for convenience. They called this box the 'lower case.' Capital letters were placed higher in a different box called the 'upper case.'
Wanda Sanseri, "Spell to Write and Read," says on p. 34 [iv]
SO WHY NOT WRITE EVERYTHING IN LOWERCASE THEN?
personally, i would loooove to write everything in lowercase and follow the footsteps of the great design masters who wrote exclusively in lowercase letters such steve jobs and max bill. in fact, i sign my name in lowercase letters. i actually started writing the content of this site all in lowercase. however, as a student of design where form follows function there were certain things that made me pause to reconsider this decision.
I was inspired by The Bauhaus because I believe that it was the historical movement that gave birth to modern graphic designers and I would like to follow tradition to fill some anachronistic need. But as a graphic designer, I’m bound by the laws of good design practices. I dare not commit heinous design crimes! So I decided to write in mix-case letters.
A CASE FOR MIX-CASE LETTERS VS LOWERCASE
Writing in mix-case letters, upper and lower, has its function. A very important one and denying it would not only be a crime but sacrilege to the prime design principle of usability—guiding the user through the interface. Although there is no phonetic difference between upper and lowercase letters, uppercase letters, however, have a very important visual function:
Writing in mix cases aid reader comprehension. It makes it easy for a reader to parse information from a chunk of text on a page that would otherwise be a blob of cute lower-arsed characters. Readers usually use uppercase letters as a visual cue to mark the beginning of sentences. Anyone who practice speed-reading could attest to this.
Another reason is, some words are inherently written in mix cases. As in the case of some brands like McDonalds and GrafikDesijn or last names such as DeSalinas or DelaCroix.
Let’s take DeSalinas as an example. When you write DeSalinas, the uppercase letters help you decipher that DeSalinas is read and pronounced as De-Salinas, not Des-Alinas or Desa-Linas or De-Sa-Linas. DeSalinas is easier to read than desalinas, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the last name… like most people.
I’m also fortunately not plagued with the 1900 design problems that Walter Weimar and his Bauhaus homies had. I currently have a beast of a MacBook Pro! Printing is also done with a push of a button… or a call to the purchasing department. Ha!
For these reasons I, begrudgingly, decided to stick with writing in mixed-case letters. After all, form follows function. And that is law. I also don’t want to be shut down by grammar Nazis. And of course, there are those anal-retentive folks who would get distracted from the content, wondering where all the capital letters went? Jeez, talk about usability!
So little arse, shove it! I’m sticking with mix cases.