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THE EXAMINED LIFE

The evolution of the ampersand

A HEATED DEBATE recently broke out on the popular new graphic-design weblog Design Observer over a little-noted but apparently urgent matter -- the impending extinction of the ampersand.

Earlier this month, in a foreboding posting titled "The DNA of AND," Design Observer cofounder Jessica Helfand (whose book "Reinventing the Wheel" was recently noted in this space) suggested that the evolution of the ampersand -- that elegant symbol used to signify "and" in the names of law firms and telecoms -- may have run its course. If the history of typography has been a centuries-long quest to render ideal letterforms into print, she wondered, will designers in a postmodern era that mistrusts such pursuits still continue to tinker with the ampersand, or has the squiggle reached the end of the line?

Not so fast, wrote designer Tom Gleason, who asked whether typographic idealism has truly been lost "when everything we say, do, and design seems to be a longing for it, even still." A French software exec chimed in that the esperluette (ampersand) is a poetic holdout in an increasingly technologized era. Needham-based graphic designer Julie Teninbaum agreed, calling the ampersand "a break from the monotony of type that plays by the rules, a creative doodle amongst measured letterforms.

"But Dmitri Siegel, publisher of the design journal Ante, suggested that the ampersand still had a useful role to play. "In film credits, & represents a closer collaboration [between individuals] than and," he noted. What's more, Siegel suggested, the world needs more single-letter character signs -- starting with one for the humble "the," if only for efficiency's sake -- not less. To join the discussion, visit www.designobserver.com.

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