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Archive for October, 2007

Working in place

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Julie Gomoll, who gave me and Paul Novitski a lot of help in figuring out how this blog ought to work, is involved in a project that makes me envious. She’s busy setting up LaunchPad Coworking, a co-working café in Austin, Texas – and as soon as I heard about it I wanted one in my town, too. I’d like one around the corner, please. (Actually, since I live in Seattle, it seems entirely likely that someone will open such a café here, and when they do, it’ll probably be in my neighborhood.)

I’ve always liked the idea of dispersed work, and the complementary idea of places where people could work independently together. The physical combination of a workplace and a social space could be disastrous, but it could also be enormously energizing. Depends on the people, of course, and on how it’s set up.

Julie has started a number of businesses (go ahead, google her), and this one has instant appeal. She and her co-conspirators are documenting the ramp-up on a blog (naturally), with photos. Looks like fun. Let’s see, when will I be in Austin next?

They’re aiming to open in the spring.

iHelvetica

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Almost everything about the iPhone seems to be brilliantly designed. Almost. The big exception is the font. What on earth were they thinking? Helvetica?

Helvetica has many virtues, as the recent movie makes clear. But the same thing that makes it so smooth, so all-of-a-piece, is what makes it hard to differentiate one letter from another – and particularly one number from another. Helvetica’s numerals are among the hardest in the world to tell apart, yet Helvetica gets used over and over again in situations where telling those numerals apart is essential: on business cards, for instance. I am continually irritated by Apple’s Address Book program, where it’s hard to tell at a glance whether I’m looking at a 3 or an 8, a 6 or a 5. The same thing crops up in Apple Mail, where the number of messages in a mailbox is communicated in little Helvetica numerals, faint against a pale background.

Apple is a company whose corporate culture understands design. So it’s astonishing to see them make such a foolish choice. Does Apple’s designers’ visual resolution not extend to fonts? Do they never look up a phone number, or quickly glance at the date on a calendar?

As an exercise for the user, here are the most easily confused numerals. At the top is Helvetica, first in black and then with each numeral in a different color. On the left is a composite of all of them overlaid on top of each other. The four lines below show the same numerals in ITC Franklin Gothic, ITC Stone Sans, FF Meta, and Calibri. I’m only showing the “lining” or uppercase figures, which are all the same height. Which do you find easiest to read?

Punctuational cleansing

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“Well,” said a friend of mine, with a laugh, “the New York Times thinks hyphens are old-fashioned.”

My god, what in inordinately stupid article! Hyphens exist for clarity. All punctuation exists to make it possible to read our words right the first time through, not have to puzzle over them. (That’s why we have spaces between words, too. We didn’t always.) There’s no virtue in less or more punctuation; only in exactly the right punctuation to communicate clearly.

Charles McGrath, who ought to know better, is just twittering on about fashion.

And I won’t even get into the usefulness of hyphens in typography.

Little, Big @ 25

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A book project that’s nearing completion is the 25th anniversary edition of Little, Big, by John Crowley. I’m designing it for Incunabula – for whom, fourteen years ago, I designed Crowley’s short-story collection Antiquities. This edition will present the definitive text, carefully edited by Ron Drummond and approved by the author, and it will marry Crowley’s prose with art by artist/printmaker Peter Milton.

These are not illustrations; they were not done for this book. They work as complements to the text; both the text and the art existed independently long before they came to be combined in one edition. Making that juxtaposition work, of course, is the hardest part of designing the book.

In June, Ron Drummond and I drove from Ron’s home near Albany, N.Y., to northeastern Vermont, to Stinehour Press, to supervise the printing of a poster that would serve as a print test for the book. Most importantly, it would prove to us – and to Peter Milton – that what we were planning and what Stinehour could deliver would do justice to his art, in a format that would still be a comfortably readable volume. We picked up the printed posters first thing in the morning in Lunenburg, and drove down to southern New Hampshire in time to have lunch with Peter and Edith Milton in their large, art-festooned old house in Francestown, where Peter signed off on our print sample (literally, as Ron prevailed on him to sign several of the posters). Then we drove west to Conway, Mass., at the edge of the Berkshires, to have dinner with John Crowley and his family, and get his approval. We covered the complete range of the project in that one day.

The project, like most labors of love, has taken a little longer than we anticipated, but it’s in its penultimate stage. This week, John Crowley was in Seattle, teaching a workshop and giving a reading at Richard Hugo House, and I had the pleasure of handing him a bound blank book, a sample of the binding. It’s a heavy object, but not unnecessarily weighty; I like to call it “the Oxford Lectern Little, Big,” and in fact the lectern at Hugo House looks a bit like something you’d read a sermon from. Hefting the book and looking at its blank pages, Crowley said, “So do I get to keep this and use it as a journal when the project is finished?” Yes, of course. When the project’s finished.

Brighton, brightly

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Just five days after getting back from Japan, I was off to the UK for the 2007 ATypI conference in Brighton. The theme was “Hands on,” and the series of talks and workshops dovetailed nicely with that flexible idea. The nearby village of Ditchling, where Edward Johnston had lived and Eric Gill had established one of his utopian crafts communities, came up repeatedly in presentations and casual conversation; indeed, one of the pre-conference excursions was a day at Ditchling, although I was too busy with conference organizing and board meetings to get to it.

The kick-off on Thursday night was Looking for Mr Gill, a short film by Luke Holland about Gill’s reputation in Ditchling and his effect on the village. It’s a film that I think ought to get shown in the United States; I’m going to see what can be arranged in Seattle and San Francisco.

At the ATypI annual general meeting, I was elected president of ATypI. As I told a friend who asked what extra work and duties this illustrious post entailed: “The presidential palace, of course, and the Praetorian Guard. Potemkin villages built for my benefit, every time I tour the countryside. I don’t think there are any drawbacks, though they did say something about a little ceremony they do come harvest time…”

At the Saturday night “garden party,” we announced that next year’s conference will be held in St. Petersburg – Russia, that is, not Florida. Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the creation of the “Civil Type,” Peter the Great’s dramatic reform of the Cyrillic alphabet. Since St. Petersburg was founded by Peter to be his new capital and “window on Europe,” the conjunction of city and anniversary is especially appropriate.

[Photo: the kinetic Ken Garland, one of the principal speakers at the ATypI conference, spun on his heel just as I snapped the picture.]

A Sense of Gender

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While we were in Japan, Eileen’s book won the Sense of Gender Award, in the category of works in translation. It’s an award to “celebrate works that invite us to reconsider gender in various fields, including literature, movies, and manga”; it was established in 2001 by Mari Kotani, Reona Kashiwazaki, and Noriko Maki, for the Japanese Association of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy. There was an amusing, thoughtful awards ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 2, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama, and Eileen came away with a handsome little crystal trophy and a great big smile.

That’s why we were in Japan at such a hot, humid time of year: because the convention was then. Eileen’s collection of short stories, Stable Strategies for Middle Management, which I had designed and produced for Tachyon Publications in San Francisco, had been translated into Japanese as 遺す言葉、その他の短編 and published last year in Japan by Hayakawa Publishing. The Hayakawa edition owes nothing to my design, but it’s a handsome volume in its own right: a well-made hardcover (complete with silk ribbon!), intelligently and allusively illustrated both inside and out, and as far as I can judge well designed typographically. The title story of the Japanese edition is “Coming to Terms,” which had been recently published in Hayakawa’s SF Magazine, rather than “Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” the title story of the U.S. edition. “Coming to Terms” is a title that doesn’t lend itself easily to translation, though; the Japanese title for the story seems to be closer to something like “Testament,” which is also multivalent and appropriate to the story.