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Archive for 2011

’tis or ’tain’t

Published

’Tis the season for backwards apostrophes. The web, and the pages of magazines, are full of variations on the phrase ’tis the season, half of which have the apostrophe backwards (like the example at left) – presumably because someone just typed an apostrophe on the keyboard and their software helpfully turned it into a single open quotation mark. But that ain’t an apostrophe. The apostrophe, like the comma, only faces one way. Pay attention, please, and get it right!

Web-page headline with backwards apostrophe

(Not sure how to get the right glyph? Copy and paste it from someplace else. If your software is giving you an open single quote, just type an apostrophe at the end of the word, where it’ll face the right way; then delete that and paste it at the front.)

[Images: from the holiday-season home page of lee.com – hardly the only high-profile retailer to make this mistake.]

Text on the pages of iBooks

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Two intelligent blog posts appeared today covering the new iBooks software and its choice of fonts; both of them included a link to my 2001 review of one of the new type choices: Iowan Old Style. I’m pleased to see John Downer’s Iowan Old Style get its due at last; I’m even more pleased to see iBooks expand its typographic palette in the direction of actual text typefaces. (Now about actual typography…)

Glenn Fleishman’s essay for Boing Boing is insightful and mindful of the cyclical development of typographic technology; he also mentions the current problems with trying to incorporate web fonts in e-books. Yves Peters in the FontFeed has more to say about the history of the typeface designs, and his illustrations cleverly show the fonts in all three of iBooks’ screen views or “themes.”

What I don’t understand is why Apple chose to drop three of the previous iBooks fonts (Cochin, Baskerville – really Monotype Baskerville – and Verdana). None of them were ideal for books onscreen, but why reduce the choices instead of simply adding to them?

And now the newly introduced Seravek is the only sans serif font available for reading in iBooks. It’s a nicely designed humanist sans, but it doesn’t have to be the only sans, humanist or otherwise, on the system. And the small eyes of Seravek’s e and a tend to visually close up under some circumstances.

[Image: one of the illustrations from Yves Peters’ review, showing Iowan Old Style. In the FontFeed original, you can click on any of the three sections to see the full page in that view.]

Showing backbone

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The Print Regional Design Annual hove into sight the other day, joining the stack of recent graphic-design and typography magazines: Metropolis, Eye, Typo, and the new one, Codex. The Print annual was a particularly fat example, but then you’d expect it to be. What distinguishes all of these disparate magazines, however, besides interesting content, is their binding: every one of them has a flat spine.

What’s the point of this? To look at a set of issues on the shelf, after the fact? If a magazine contains enough pages, of course, you have no choice; it must be perfect-bound (the pages trimmed and glued into a spine), since saddle-stitching (folding the sheets and stapling in the middle) is only practical for a relatively thin publication. But it seems as though most magazines these days (not just graphic-design magazines) are bound so they have a flat spine, no matter how thin the issue itself may be. I even got an unsolicited men’s-clothing catalog last week, all of 68 pages, that was bound into a spine, for no apparent reason.

The problem with perfect-binding a magazine is that it won’t lie flat. Nor can you fold it open to read one page at a time, for convenience in a crowded space (or simply to keep the pages less floppy). The spine creates a gutter, which neither editorial designers nor designers of ads for those pages ever seem to take into consideration; on the inner edge, both images and text curve into the gutter and get lost. It’s possible to design with that in mind, but how often have you seen it done?

Print is a perfect example of the real advantage of a glued spine to the publisher of a graphic-design magazine: it makes it very easy to bind in inserts from paper companies who want to show off their wares to potential customers. This isn’t new; the very first issue of Print, in June 1940, included paper samples to accompany an article on the design of wallpaper, and subsequent issues had bound-in samples from printers and paper manufacturers. Today, Print and other popular design magazines like How are thick with this kind of insert. These stiff or thick or off-size pages may serve a function, as illustration or advertising, but they make it impossible for a reader to flip through the pages – one of the most common ways of reading or browsing any printed publication.

The roadblocks along the path through a magazine rarely come at logical stopping or starting points in the magazine’s content. Very few magazines these days maintain an “editorial well” that’s separate from the advertising, and converging trends in editorial and commercial design make it hard to tell the content from the ads. That’s hardly a new trend, but it’s reinforced by the random-seeming intrusions of stiff-papered inserts.

The current popularity of spines on magazines seems part of a dismissive approach that looks at the magazine (or a book, for that matter) as a physical object to be sold, without giving any thought to how that object will be used. There are exceptions – Eye, for instance, uses multiple paper stocks in each issue, but they have similar weight and flexibility; and the page design almost always takes the gutter into account, so despite being perfect-bound, Eye is pretty comfortable to open and read. So is Typo, although its binding is stiffer than Eye’s. But Typo is usually thin enough that it could dispense with the spine entirely, which would make it easier to hold and read.

Some magazines have content that demands immersive reading; others are almost entirely meant for casual browsing. Neither of these functions is well served by pages that are tightly bound into a hard spine.

[Images: two spreads from the Print Regional Design Annual 2011.]

Georgia & Verdana’s expanded palette

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While I was a program manager at Microsoft Typography, two of the typefaces that fell within my purview were Georgia and Verdana, the highly readable screen fonts designed by Matthew Carter in the 1990s to make reading text onscreen easier on the eyes. So I was in a position to encourage and approve a joint project of Ascender Corporation (now a part of Monotype Imaging) and the Font Bureau to work with Carter to create a much-expanded set of fonts for both Georgia and Verdana. The project was announced two years ago; this week, Font Bureau and Monotype Imaging have released the new fonts.

Georgia Pro and Verdana Pro are now large type families, with five weights instead of two, each one with its accompanying italic, as well as small caps and several alternate kinds of numerals; and all of those weights and styles are repeated in condensed form. This makes it possible to have truly bold headlines in either typeface, or to fit copy into narrow measures, or to combine weights and widths in expressive ways within a typographically consistent page.

Not surprisingly, given the advent of downloadable web fonts, both Georgia Pro and Verdana Pro are being shown off in a web-based type specimen from Webtype. And they’ve been hinted to be as consistent as possible across platforms and browsers.

I’m looking forward to seeing them put to use.

Type different

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Thomas Phinney wrote a thoughtful blog post last week about “The Impact of Steve Jobs on Typography”: about how the Mac pioneered proportional fonts on the screen, and how the combination of Aldus PageMaker and the LaserWriter created desktop publishing; and about a host of later improvements and developments: “Being able to see what fonts look like on screen. Showing proportional fonts on screen. Scaling the same font outlines for screen as for print. Putting a ‘font’ menu in applications, and having all applications share a pool of fonts installed at the system level (instead of associated with some specific printer).” Jobs was famously attentive to details; more to the point, he was famously attentive to the details of design. His flare and care for industrial design made Apple’s products desirable – and usable.

Which is why I’ve always been disappointed that Apple doesn’t bring that same level of perfectionism to its use of type. The graphic design, both in Apple’s marketing and in its products themselves, is always careful and clean; but the choices of fonts have been erratic, and they’re not always used consistently. Just looking at a current page of the Apple website, about Mac products, I see both their corporate font, Myriad, and the current Mac user-interface font, Lucida Grande. Both are well-designed humanist sans-serif typefaces, and either one works well; they actually play together better than you would think, but it’s still subtly jarring to see two competing sans serifs on the same page. But that’s not all.

Ever since the introduction of the iPhone, Apple has been moving toward using versions of Helvetica on screen. I’ve written before about the problem with reading numbers in Helvetica. The same repetition of shapes that makes Helvetica look consistent and “modern” (or at least retro-modern) creates ambiguity and makes it all too easy to mistake one number or letter for another. As Thomas Phinney said in a comment on his own post, “I love iOS, but I am still horrified that it uses Helvetica as a UI font.”

ATypI Reykjavík 2011

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By all accounts, this year’s ATypI conference was a notable success. People kept coming up to me and telling me how much they were enjoying the event, how impressive the venue was, how well everything was organized, how intelligent the talks were, how much they liked the food. I kept telling them that I couldn’t take any credit for these things, that it was the organizers, both local and from ATypI, who had brought all this together. But it was certainly gratifying to hear.

The venue was spectacular: a brand-new building, Harpa, built right on the edge of the waterfront in the harbor of Reykjavík, which houses the national symphony as well as serving as a state-of-the-art conference center. Harpa’s irregular geometry and fishnet-over-glass windows all around highlighted the location and gave us a light, airy interior to inhabit and meet in. Its various meeting spaces were easy to configure for both talks and meals. And when the weather got bad – Sunday saw a good bit of wind and rain – it was satisfying to sit snug in Harpa and gaze out at the wind-whipped harbor.

There were fewer attendees than usual this year (no doubt a reflection of the dismal economy, and of the fact that while Reykjavík is easily accessible from both North America and Europe, it’s not exactly local to anyone but the Icelanders). But those who came were excited and stimulated, and came away talking about ideas.

How often do you have a head of state opening a typography conference? The President of Iceland, H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, not only welcomed ATypI to Iceland but gave a twenty-minute talk about the Icelandic language and its typography – an intelligent, eloquent commentary that set a high standard and neatly prefaced our keynote speaker, Gunnlaugur SE Briem. Briem spoke wittily about type, letters, and language. Together, they kicked off the main conference brilliantly.

The theme of the Icelandic letter “eth” (ð, the voiced “th” sound found in English too) led naturally to a rich track of talks on other special characters, and on a wide range of non-Latin writing systems as well. We heard about the typography of Indic, Korean, Arabic, Mongolian, Chinese, and Khmer scripts, not to mention Danish, Irish, German, and Turkish letters within the Latin alphabet. The number of presentations on Indic typography on Sunday was particularly appreciated; and there was talk of making a proposal in a few years for holding an ATypI conference somewhere in India.

The structure this year seemed to work quite well: two preliminary days of workshops and technical and educational items, in two parallel tracks, followed by the official opening on Thursday night and then a single main track of programming on Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday. This allowed for specialization in the preliminary days, but a common experience during the main conference – and no running around trying to switch from one track to another, or worrying about coordinating the timing between multiple simultaneous talks. Our program structure is partly determined by the venue, but I think we’ll try to repeat this success in the future.

Saturday night we clambered into city buses for a short ride out of town to a penthouse restaurant with wide views in all directions, where the restaurant’s staff were quickly accommodating when they discovered that we had more people for dinner than we had planned. That was followed by a crowded party back in town at the Icelandic Design Centre, and the usual dispersal to the bars of downtown Reykjavík.

The city is so small that it was easy to keep running into each other; at one point, one of the pleasant local bars was entirely filled with typographers. This also meant that no matter where you were staying, it wasn’t more than a walk away from the conference venue. So not only did Harpa provide excellent spaces for talking and mingling, but the city itself contributed to this lively interpersonal dynamic. Reykjavík is a very cozy capital.

For a flavor of the event, check out write-ups by Roger Black on his blog (“We are all one culture, here on Œŧħ. We’ve just taken different glyphs”) and by Dan Reynolds on ilovetypography (“Font editors & a book steal the show”), and scan the photos from various attendees on Flickr. (I’d be happy to hear of other reports that I’ve missed.) And take a look at the impressionistic, kaleidoscopic videos put together by a group of young Icelandic filmmakers who were roaming the conference, cameras in hand.

[Photos, top to bottom: the exterior of Harpa, with pool in front; the interior of Harpa, looking out; the bar before Saturday’s gala dinner; Thomas Phinney and Dawn Shaikh, at the pub; Mark Barratt and Dave Crossland, suitably out of focus, at another pub; Nick Sherman’s sartorial splendor (what, no hoodie?); and one of the images from the Typographer’s Guide to Iceland.]

A typographer is not a type designer

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Earlier this summer, I got e-mail from Abebooks.com, promoting a bunch of books about type and typography that they had for sale. It was a nice set of books. (Happily, I already owned most of them.) But in the text of the e-mail, the writer seemed to be misinformed about just what a typographer was:

“The book world revolves around typefaces. You might not even notice them but they are right under your nose. Typographers like Claude Garamond, John Baskerville, Eric Gill, Giambattista Bodoni, Adrian Frutiger and Hermann Zapf define the style of the words we read.”

And if you click through to Abebooks’ page about type books, you find that the very first two sentences contradict each other: “Typography is the art of arranging type and that includes the selection of typefaces, the point size and the leading. A typographer is someone who designs typefaces.”

This confusion has been creeping into print over the last couple of years: people who are newly come to writing about fonts start calling type designers “typographers.”

That’s like calling someone who makes violins a “violinist.” Typography is the art and craft of using type; it’s not the art and craft of designing type. That’s done by type designers. The classic type designers named by Abebooks may also have been typographers – Bodoni and Baskerville were renowned for their book design and printing as well as for the types they designed for those books – but what this e-mail is talking about is type design. Please don’t mix them up.

Talking about fonts

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Now download my other Dot-font book

Four years ago, Mark Batty published a pair of books by me, Dot-font: talking about design and Dot-font: talking about fonts, which were intended to be the first of a series of small, handy books on typography and design. Last year, I made the first one (on design) available as a free download. Now, I’m posting the second book (on fonts) as well, also as a free download.

Please download the text of both books and enjoy them.

You can download the complete text of Dot-font: talking about fonts as a PDF, designed and formatted for onscreen reading; as a Word document; or as a text file. The illustrations that appear in the printed book are not part of these downloads; I don’t have rights to reproduce and distribute all of the images in digital form, so for the full visual effect you’ll have to buy a copy of the physical book (which of course I encourage you to do). Some of those images appeared online at Creativepro when the original columns were published, but there are quite a few original images that were created for the book: for example, the series of photos that Dave Farey made from scratch, to illustrate the process of cutting a letter by hand out of Rubylith in order to create a Letraset font in the 1960s.

This book, like the last, is published under a Creative Commons license. Please do not distribute it without that license information.

The Creativepro columns that seemed worth collecting into a book broke down naturally into three categories: design in general, typefaces or fonts, and typography or how type is used. So I’ve still got the material for a third book, Dot-font: talking about typography. Is there a demand? You tell me.

Download dot-font

Limbic artifice

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One of my favorite local shop-front signs (on Capitol Hill in Seattle) – not just for its contrast between the two typefaces used, but for the contrast between the pretty-looking type of the second line and the meaning of the words. It’s carefully composed (not vernacular or naïve at all), but the interplay of what it says and what it looks like is striking. As, no doubt, it was meant to be.

PLINC is in the House

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It was impossible resist: when I got the package from House Industries with the catalog for their new Photo-Lettering collection, I had to use my old Photo-Lettering, Inc. letter-opener to slit the envelope. It seemed the right thing to do.

The catalog showcases lots and lots of newly digitized Photo-Lettering fonts from the heyday of over-the-top advertising typography in New York. Like all of House Industries’ productions, it’s a keepsake in itself. The cover stock for the catalog was milled exclusively for House by the only other business that could match their flair and sensibility, French Paper.

Most of the lettering styles sold by Photo-Lettering, then and now, are playful and exuberant; they were headline styles, sold to type shops that would price headlines for their clients by the letter or the word. Today you can buy headlines the same way, but in digital form, from photolettering.com.

The letter-opener? It was on my desk when I started at ITC as editor of U&lc, just down the block from where Photo-Lettering’s shop used to be; and it’s on my desk today.

Handle of the PLINC letter-opener