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Archive for 2007

Gone baby gone

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Okay, here’s a good example of type used creatively. You may have seen these ads for the recent movie Gone Baby Gone; this one is from the Arts section of today’s New York Times. There’s nothing very subtle about the ad as a whole (big close-up head shots, lots of WORDS IN ALL-CAPS, excited declarations of awards and award nominations, a cacophony of visual noise), but the use of descending weights of type in the title is evocative, playing off the meaning of the words themselves. Not beautiful, but expressive and appropriate.

I won’t say anything about the competing sans serifs around it. My lips are sealed.

Maximum unreadability

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This is a nearly perfect example of how not to space type, if you want the words to be read. It was a poster-size ad on the side of a bus stop near the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco; I snapped this photo several years ago, but I still haven’t run across a better bad example.

It’s a good thing the names are familiar; otherwise you might be wondering who “Oeune Don,” “Dxe Choks,” and “Mary J Buge” were. Perhaps if you were standing around for a long time waiting for a bus, and you had nothing better to do than puzzle out what this says, it would be effective. But the real point of advertising on bus shelters isn’t to reach the captive audience of bus-riders; it’s to catch the attention of the people driving by – for whom this collection of letters would look like a rickety bunch of yellow sticks.

If typography is all about negative space, this is negative typography.

Thots on Starbucks

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When I first arrived in Seattle, at the tail end of 1975, you had to go to another neighborhood just to find an espresso. Starbucks was a little shop in the Pike Place Market that sold bulk coffee and tea, with a single outpost on Broadway, on Capitol Hill, a short but steep walk away from where I lived. And they didn’t sell espresso in those days; that came later. For that full sipping-an-espresso experience, you had to go to one of the city’s hip student coffeehouses, such as the Last Exit or the Allegro, in the University District.

That changed. When Starbucks became an international chain of coffee bars, I realized that what it was really selling wasn’t just coffee: it was design. Or at least the feeling of design. (This raises all the perennial questions about the relationship between design and style.) Quite simply, it felt good to go into a Starbucks and spend some time there – sort of like having coffee in an art-museum café.

What Starbucks is these days, as far as I can see, is basically a caffeine-based soda fountain. In a lot of Starbucks outlets, they look at you funny if you order a straight espresso; they have to go searching for a real espresso cup. An Overhead Hemi Double Frappuccino Nonfat Mocha, on the other hand, they can handle with ease.

This isn’t a bad thing, except for those of us who like straight espresso. The American soda fountain was a cultural institution and a social gathering place; its demise has been a loss for American culture. If Starbucks fills that gap, I won’t complain, even if they do so by imitating the sweet soda-fountain offerings of my youth (with an extra jolt for the workaholic). Well, maybe I’ll complain a little.

[Photo: the original Starbucks logo, currently found only on the original Starbucks store, in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Photo by me, this afternoon.]

Grate expectations

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This is one of my favorite pieces of decorative iron grillwork in San Francisco – a city full of decorative grills. Most of them are simply security grates in front of doorways or windows, but even those usually take the form of something elaborate, even baroque. This one, on a neighborhood bar in the Mission District, is stark in its simplicity (though the bright red wooden frame does rather spoil the effect).

Despite the frame and what looks like fake-wood paneling, this is not a view from inside the bar, but from the outside, on the street.

Have you seen this poster?

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If you’ve been to our house, perhaps you have, though it’s currently displayed in an unconspicuous place. I’ve had this poster since I picked it up on the street in Berkeley, California, sometime in the early 1970s; most likely during the year I lived in San Francisco after graduating from college in 1971. I bought it not just for its political content but because it was beautiful. But I’ve never been able to find out who made the poster.

It’s silkscreened, in many colors. There’s no signature. The art is brilliant, the lettering very funky (deliberately, I assume), and the vertical placement of the word “DOWN” is witty. But who did it? I asked David Lance Goines, who I thought might know, but the artist he suggested wasn’t working in Berkeley that early in the ’70s. Have you seen this poster before, or other work by the same artist? I’d love to solve this mystery at last.

When I got this framed, several years ago, by the Seattle artist and frame-shop owner Kay Rood, she reminisced about her days in France in May 1968, helping student radicals print revolutionary posters for that spring’s huge demonstrations. But alas, she said ruefully, it never occurred to her to keep copies of any of them.

[Update, Dec. 14:] I’ve added a close-up of a detail from the poster, to give a little better idea of what the artwork is like. Some of it reminds me of cut-paper techniques and of woodblock prints, though this is silkscreened.

Typographer’s lament

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Browsing through a local bookstore yesterday, I kept picking up interesting-looking new books and opening them, only to put them down again when I saw the inside typography. An uninviting text page can put off any reader; it’s just that as a typographer and a book designer, I can tell exactly what it is that puts me off.

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, in Penguin trade paperback: typeset in an overly contrasting version of Baskerville (probably ITC New Baskerville, though I couldn’t be sure), in lines that were two or three picas too wide for comfortable reading. John Crowley’s The Solitudes, in the newly reprinted edition from Overlook, is set in Rotis Serif, a typeface that looks superficially attractive but consists of a mismatched set of letterforms in which the most common letters are quirky and draw attention to themselves.

The Landmark Herodotus sounded fascinating: a spacious volume, informatively annotated, bedecked with useful maps. But its text type appears light and blotchy throughout. The typeface is Matthew Carter’s excellent ITC Galliard, but it looks like the early Adobe version, which was indifferently digitized and has a poorly spaced italic. The numbers are all set in lining uppercase numerals, jutting up to full cap height, instead of old-style lowercase numerals, as befits any text, and especially a translation of a classic. In addition, the page design doesn’t quite fit the binding; it’s a thick book, and the gutters are too narrow, which would make reading uncomfortable.

I found one fine exception: Maps: finding our place in the world, edited by James R. Ackerman and Robert W. Karrow (University of Chicago Press). The typeface is Dolly, which is robust and easily readable in extended text, and the page design uses it effectively. That one I might actually buy. It’s the shame the same designers didn’t take on the Herodotus.

Helvetica outtakes

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My copy of the Helvetica DVD arrived a couple of days ago – you know, Gary Hustwit’s full-length documentary about a typeface, which has become inexplicably popular far beyond the typographic world. What this film does more than anything else – more than tell us about the actual typeface Helvetica, though it does that quite well – is show us how ubiquitous type is in the world around us, and how this obscure practice, typography, is something we live with every single day. That, I imagine, is the source of its wider appeal.

I’ve been browsing the DVD’s “Extras” – outtakes and extra material that didn’t make it into the movie. My favorite quotes are from Neville Brody and Erik Spiekermann:

Neville Brody on type in the world: “All schools should be teaching typography. We should be fundamentally aware of how typographic language is forming our thoughts.”

Erik Spiekermann, after describing how he’s been re-designing the timetables for the German railroads: “That stuff is what makes a nation’s culture: it’s the visual surrounding. You know: good architecture, good food, and good timetables, or good announcements on the walls of stations – I think that’s a very important cultural contribution.” [Erik Spiekermann]

I was also pleased to hear that, like me, Erik looks first to the lowercase a when identifying a typeface.

Rooms at the top

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When I saw the photos of the door and room signage in the New York Times building, in John Hockenberry’s article in the current Metropolis, I wondered how easy it would be to find your way around in the newspaper’s new digs.

Signs on rooms and doors, designed by Pentagram, use images from the newspaper’s photo archives as backgrounds – a nice touch of context and tradition. Labels are superimposed over the black-and-white photos, in reversed-out industrial-grotesque lettering. Each room number contains several levels of information, encoded in an alphanumeric string: 20S2-234, for example, means room 234 in quadrant 2 of the south section of the 20th floor.

But if you’re actually walking around the 20th floor, trying to locate a particular office and wondering exactly where you are, does this undifferentiated string do the job? I haven’t been in the new Times building, so I don’t know the answer first-hand, but I’ve wandered the corridors of enough confusing office buildings to know the problem. Room numbers like this all tend to run together, at least at first glance – and first glance is exactly what you use to orient yourself in unfamiliar surroundings.

It seems that a simple bit of added contrast would help sort out the parts of the complicated number. Why not use weight or color to make the “S” or “N” stand out, which would also clearly separate the numbers of the floor from the number of the quadrant? Wouldn’t that make these numbers more functional?

As it stands, they seem excessively uniform and minimal, as though the photo were the most important part, not the information conveyed by the sign. They’re like a stereo remote where all the buttons look the same. Which one is fast forward? What floor am I on?

Portland transit

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In the quest for transit signage all around the globe, I snapped this shot last weekend on the platform of Portland, Oregon’s MAX light-rail system, at the Hollywood station. Helvetica was in evidence on the platform, although in the trains themselves, much of the informational signage used Thesis Mix.

Close-up of directional signs at MAX station in Portland, Oregon.

Portland’s light-rail system is more extensive than I’d realized. It has three lines, with more planned. There’s also a downtown streetcar line, and of course a whole network of buses. MAX is part of a three-county metropolitan system (which is why the transit agency is called “TriMet”). While it falls short of the kind of city-blanketing network you’d find in New York, London, or Tokyo, it does get people around. Seattle’s single line, still incomplete, looks anemic by comparison.

Post-cyberpunk

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Cory Doctorow just posted a note on Boing Boing about a book I designed: Rewired: the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007). He wasn’t writing about the design, of course, but about the content; still, it was startling to scroll down the page and come upon my own cover design. The infrastructural photo was taken at a construction site south of Market in San Francisco; the photographer, Patty Nason, went roaming one night with Tachyon editor Jill Roberts, in search of a suitable cover image.

The book’s title is in a typeface I’ve always liked but never expected to find an actual use for: Jonathan Hoefler’s Gestalt. It could never be used for an unusual name or word; the letterforms themselves are so unusual that the word has to be familiar and easy to recognize. (The repetition of re in the word “rewired” helps that recognition.) I always get a frisson of pleasure out of finding that one perfect use for an unusual typeface or type element.

I’ve designed several anthologies for Tachyon, including the three (soon to be four) Tiptree Award anthologies and a previous Kelly/Kessel collaboration, Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology. It’s always an adventure dealing with an anthology, where the material may be in all sorts of divergent forms (and will inevitably arrive in a host of incompatible formats). It’s most satisfying when I’m designing both the cover and the interior, so the two will be integrated; even better is when I design an entire marketing campaign, with a consistent message and graphic style, as I did three years ago for Eileen’s book when Tachyon published it.

I’ve been carrying Rewired around with me, testing it out as a physical object and finally reading the stories that I didn’t get to during book production. I’m pleased with the way this one came out; it’s light and portable, even though it’s a big book, and it seems comfortable to read, which is the whole point. (The typefaces used throughout, apart from the title on the cover, are varieties of Josh Darden’s Freight family.) Good stories, too. Cory’s own remarkably moving story “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is one of the highlights.