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Archive for 2012

ATypI Hong Kong: personal context


In less than two weeks, I’ll be in Hong Kong, for this year’s ATypI conference, which is being put on with the cooperation of the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This will be the first time ATypI has ever held its conference in Asia; it will also be my first visit to Hong Kong, or indeed to any part of China.

I studied Chinese history while I was an undergraduate at Stanford – when actually visiting China was virtually impossible for a United States citizen, although Hong Kong was then still a British colony and easily accessible. At the time (circa 1970), Stanford’s History department had what amounted to an unofficial mini-department of Chinese history, with several excellent professors, most of whom I took courses from. (The one professor I didn’t take a course from, Mark Mancall, gave a guest lecture for one of the other’s classes, entitled “The Complete History of Relations Between the Russian Empire and the Ch’ing Dynasty, in 45 Minutes – with Flourishes.” The bit I remember most clearly was Mancall’s description of how nervous the Ch’ing court was when they realized that the curious foreigners who had been nosing about China’s western frontiers in Central Asia, and the ones who had been nibbling at her northeastern frontiers in Manchuria, came from the same place; and how relieved the Chinese were when they finally realized just how far away Moscow really was.) Although I have never put that knowledge to practical use, I have a pretty good awareness of the outlines of Chinese history, including the tumultuous 19th century. In college, I read Arthur Waley’s The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes, which is essential background to understanding the founding of Hong Kong. Much more recently, I gained new perspective on the maritime history of southern China when I read Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West, as well as the East Asian parts of 1493, by Charles C. Mann. These are all fascinating and highly readable antidotes to the simpleminded tales that we’re sometimes told in lieu of real history.

The theme of this ATypI conference is “墨 [mò] – between black & white,” which refers directly to the marks of ink on paper as well as alluding to contrast, balance, art, and intellectual pursuits. Naturally, there will be a strong emphasis on the typography of eastern Asia, along with all the usual range of subjects for talks, demonstrations, workshops, and exhibits. There’s still time to register and attend; and this year we’ve adjusted the schedule so that the bulk of the main conference falls on the weekend, to adapt to the common practice in both China and Japan and make it easier for interested typographers and designers from those countries to attend. I’m looking forward not only to visiting Hong Kong but to seeing the impact of Chinese and European typographies upon each other, in the distinctly human form of this professional conference. The conversations in the corridors – the heart of any conference – should be fascinating.

Funny shapes


At TypeCon in Milwaukee at the beginning of this month, Cyrus Highsmith gave a witty, illustrated talk about spacing in text typography, which served as an introduction to his new book, Inside paragraphs: typographic fundamentals (published by Font Bureau). It startled me, because I hadn’t been aware that he’d been working on such a book, and because it dovetails with what I’ve been talking and writing about for quite some time: that typography is all about space. Appropriately enough, though without any planning on my part, my former colleagues at Microsoft had brought stacks of one of my little typography booklets, Arranging fonts: it’s all about space, which is about exactly that.

Cyrus focused on the paragraph as the basic unit of text typography, which is a sensible way of looking at it; that neatly separates what Jost Hochuli calls “microtypography” from the “macrotypography” of the page. And Cyrus can draw a lot better than I can, so his illustrations – both in the book and in his talk – make his points brilliantly and lucidly.

The book itself is small, light, and oblong – very easy to carry around and read, with long paper flaps that you can use to mark your place. Cyrus wrote it because he wanted it for the typography classes that he teaches at RISD; and because he wished that he’d had it when he was studying design. It’s probably a good introduction to the subject for graphic-design students, but even more than that, it’s a basic explanation for anyone who uses type and wonders why it sometimes looks right and sometimes doesn’t.

Edgy trust


I’ve done a number of projects with Seattle poet JT Stewart over the last few years: two chapbooks, a bunch of broadsides, promotional materials for events, and the workshop that we’ve taught together for poets who want to turn their poems into broadsides. Most recently, JT’s work was selected for a display of literary and visual works that came out of Artist Trust’s EDGE program, a “professional development program” for artists. The exhibit, called “A Celebration of Washington Artists,” is on display at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle until October 18. Most of the work on the walls is paintings, prints, photos – visual art – but interspersed among them are poster-size displays of some of the writing that has come out of the program. Since the poems of JT’s that got selected came from the chapbook Love on the Rocks – Yet Again, which I designed and produced, I created a visual display for them as part of this exhibit. Two of the four panels are the front and back covers of the chapbook (the back features a highly visual poem); the other two are poems from the body of the book, presented in a format that I thought would be eye-catching and readable on a public wall.

When I stopped by the WSCC on the first day of the exhibit, I could spot our installation immediately from the escalator. On the way back down, I caught a snapshot of someone already stopping to read the poems.

Garamond after Garamond


James Felici has an article on CreativePro about the many different typefaces called “Garamond.” It’s not a new subject, but it’s one that we need to be reminded of every so often. As Felici explains, many of the typefaces that we know as “Garamond” are actually not based directly on the work of Claude Garamond, the 16th-century French punchcutter, but on the work of Jean Jannon, who was working several decades later. Jannon was inspired by Garamond, but his types are distinctly different.

I took a crack at explaining this myself in the early ’90s with a Garamond family tree that I put together for Aldus magazine. (When I say “put together,” I mean that I researched it, organized it, and wrote the text; I did not, however, design the actual page.) That’s what you see a snapshot of over there to the left.

The tree gets complicated. Monotype Garamond, for instance, is a Jannon revival; so is Garamond No. 3, released by Mergenthaler Linotype in the early 20th century. ITC Garamond, although its letter forms are clearly based on Jannon’s, is so wildly inflated and exaggerated that I always wish ITC hadn’t called it “Garamond” at all; it’s a useful advertising typeface, but never a book face. Stempel Garamond, on the other hand, is based on Claude Garamond’s own types; so is Adobe Garamond, and the even better Garamond Premier Pro (both designed by Robert Slimbach).

Garamond Premier Pro was Slimbach’s return to the source several years after he designed Adobe Garamond (and well after I created this family tree). Although both of them are based on the Garamond type specimens in the archives of the Plantin-Moretus museum, Garamond Premier draws on several sizes of Garamond’s types to create optical sizes for the digital typeface. I find it a more satisfying and versatile typeface.

[Images: Garamond family tree (top), from Aldus magazine, March/April 1993; samples (bottom) of optical sizes of Garamond Premier Pro.]

Copper Canyon e-book potlatch


On Wednesday I was in Port Townsend for an “E-book Potlatch” at Copper Canyon Press. The press is housed in one of the old wooden buildings at Fort Worden, a former military base turned into a state park and cultural & arts center; Copper Canyon has been there since the 1970s, publishing some of the best in modern and international poetry. Right now they’re figuring out how to bring their backlist (and their front list) into e-book format alongside their printed books – and how to do it right. Consortium, the independent-books distributor, and the “e-book aggregator” Constellation (both part of the Perseus Books Group) sent three people to this planning meeting; according to Consortium’s Michael Cashin, Copper Canyon is on the cutting edge of creating readable e-books for poetry.

For five years in the ’90s, I was the designer for Copper Canyon’s books and collateral, and I’ve done a few projects since then, but my only current connection is as a friend and supporter of the press. Still, e-book typography is what I’ve been thinking about for the past year, so it made sense to participate in the meeting. I was impressed by the level of thinking and planning that was already going on. Both Copper Canyon and Consortium are committed to finding good ways to get books into practical e-book form right now, for immediate sale, and at the same time to developing formats that will be true to the unique demands of poetry and the future demands of technology. It’s not an easy task, but it’s well worth doing. This is an essential part of our culture.

The all-day summit was productive but exhausting. At the end of the day, Copper Canyon hosted a cook-out on the beach at Discovery Bay, where executive editor Michael Wiegers cooked up clams and prawns and salmon, and a few bottles of wine were drunk. It was one of this summer’s rare warm, sunny days, and some of the madder members of the crew ran out into the cold, cold water for a refreshing dip. That’s how the future of publishing happens.

[Photo: Michael Wiegers (left) and me on the beach at Discovery Bay. Photo by Valerie Brewster.]

Granshan 2012


In June, I traveled almost halfway around the world to the tiny Republic of Armenia, for Granshan 2012, the fifth non-Latin type-design competition and its accompanying small conference. This year is the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first book printed in Armenian (the book was printed not in Armenia but at an Armenian monastery in Venice, which was then a center of both printing and scholarship); this year Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, was also named the World Book Capital by UNESCO. Armenians are enthusiastic about their unique alphabet, which was created 1600 years ago by Mesrop Mashtots (now a saint in the Armenian church); we visited not one but two locations where giant stone letters are placed like so many statues, one set on a hillside facing the republic’s highest mountain, the other under the trees in a garden next to the Church of Saint Mesrop Mashtots in Oshakan. (Armenia is the world’s oldest Christian country; it officially adopted Christianity in 301 CE, decades before Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman empire.)

The judges of the competition chose the best designs among the typefaces submitted, and gave a Grand Prize to Dalton Maag for Nokia Pure, which was a prize-winner in three categories: Greek Text, Cyrillic, and Armenian. Meanwhile, the two-day conference opened with a day of public lectures (I spoke briefly about the importance of space in typography) and concluded with a day of more specialized talks about type design. (Actually, it concluded with the field trip the next day to the giant letters in the countryside.) I was particularly taken with Ken Komendaryan’s talk about designing the currency symbol for the Armenian dram (with its relationship to the tall arch form common to many letters in the Armenian alphabet and to architectural forms in medieval Armenian buildings) and with Panos Vassiliou‘s discussion of harmonizing type designs across different writing systems (something that you could see every day in the streets of Yerevan, where Armenian, Russian, and English all appear frequently in multilingual signage and advertising).

The two co-organizers, Edik Ghabuzyan and Boris Kochan, brought together an international group of type experts, not only for the judging but to encourage conversations and cross-fertilization within the field of non-Latin type design. This was a high-profile event in Armenia: we were interviewed for local television (and Edik told me later that Granshan was covered on all the local TV stations – something he had never seen before), and as president of ATypI I was invited to join Edik and Boris in a meeting with the Minister of Culture.

After the official events, Edik and his team took us on a day trip into the country to see Lake Sevan, one of the largest high-elevation lakes in the world (“This is our lake, our sea, our ocean,” said Edik proudly), the Black Monastery on a former island in the lake (the island is now a peninsula, thanks to Soviet-era engineering), and the historic monastery of Haghartsin. Then we claimed a patch of ground overlooking the forested river in the valley near Haghartsin for a family-style barbecue masterminded by Edik. I’ve posted a few photos from that day, along with Yerevan street signage and some images from the amazing exhibition of ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, and early printed books at the Matenadaran museum, on Flickr.

Jack Stauffacher: Master of Types


If you’re in San Francisco on June 15, I suggest that you drop by Swissnex, 730 Montgomery, between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. to hear Jack Stauffacher in conversation with his friends. I’ve written plenty of times about Jack, who simply calls himself a printer but in fact carries on the cultural traditions of centuries of printing and learning through his practice of the printer’s trade (and, not incidentally, his practice of talking and thinking and encouraging others to do the same in his company). If I weren’t going to be in Yerevan for Granshan 2012 next week, I’d be sorely tempted to bop down to the Bay Area for the event.

This evening marks the close of “Types We Can Make,” an exhibition at Swissnex of “new typographic works from Switzerland.”

Swissnex is conveniently located just up the street from William Stout Architectural Books, which is a dangerous place to enter if you’re a bibliophile, especially if your vulnerability is in the line of architecture, typography, or graphic design. You’ve been warned.

New: Check out this very nicely done short video of Jack talking about his creative working methods and interacting with people at last week’s event.

[Photo: Jack Stauffacher at the AIGA National Design Conference in Vancouver, B.C., October 2003.]

Ernest Callenbach


Ernest Callenbach died the other day, at the ripe old age of 83. (Doesn’t actually seem that ripe when I’ve got friends in their 90s, but it’s at least a respectable total.) Callenbach was the author of the seminal 1975 book Ecotopia, which certainly had an effect on my thinking and my experience of the ’70s.

Ecotopia wasn’t very good as a novel; I remember thinking at the time that it felt like an account by a college freshman of his discovery of a life wider and more exciting than the one he’d grown up in. (It reminded me of “encounter groups” that I experienced when I was a college freshman myself in the late ’60s.) But it carries you along, keeping you interested enough in the characters to enjoy the story, while mostly presenting the society of Ecotopia that he had envisioned and invented. That vision of a radically environmentally sustainable society was what got people excited in the later 1970s.

Not long after I moved to Seattle, I signed up for a class at the Experimental College, a sort of officially unofficial adjunct to the University of Washington, on the concepts of Ecotopia. In that class I met a lot of people who were involved in trying to create a sustainable counterculture and asking themselves serious questions about how to really live in a place in modern North America. It tied in with ideas that I’d been reading and thinking about through writers such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, and with currents of thought that were rife in the Pacific Northwest at that time. The concept of “Ecotopia” was very satisfying: it was a country comprising Washington, Oregon, and Northern California that had supposedly seceded from the United States and set up an ecologically based society with very little communication with the rest of the US. The precept of the novel is that an American reporter is finally able to penetrate Ecotopia and make a journey of discovery there. The story is told as entries in his diary.

Ecotopia is a utopian novel; so is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which came out shortly before Ecotopia. Although they are miles apart in literary quality, I remember intending to write a comparative review of the two books, because they took different, perhaps complementary, approaches to creating a fictional utopia. Le Guin’s Annares was a world of scarcity; Ecotopia, by contrast, was a world of abundance (the rich economy and ecology of northern California and the Pacific Northwest). Comparing the utopias, if not the novels, would have been enlightening.

After taking that Experimental College class in Ecotopia, I was so moved by the energy and the excitement among such a bunch of creative people that I and two other students from the class decided to continue it by teaching it ourselves the next quarter; and when we had done that, a couple of our own students did the same, taking the class and its community to a third quarter. (I don’t think it went farther than that.) There was a ferment at that time in environmental and “alternative” lifestyles and ideas on the West Coast, and the connections made through that class fueled a lot of creative activity in Seattle and environs for several years to come. We certainly didn’t create any utopias, but the study formed some of our perspectives and assumptions about the land we lived in and how we intended to go forward in our lives. Much of it later fell by the wayside, but some of it has persisted.

I only met Ernest Callenbach once, when he came through Seattle and visited our class to see what he had wrought. He seemed an unassuming man, who had simply had some good ideas at the right time and succeeded in expressing them in a way that people responded to. Before he wrote Ecotopia, he was better known as a film critic and the editor of Film Quarterly magazine. I remember his telling us that what had led him to writing Ecotopia was living in Berkeley and simply asking himself questions about where the waste went to. When he followed its route (intellectually, I assume, not literally), he realized that he was discovering a whole way of looking at the world.

You might think that Ernest Callenbach and Ecotopia don’t have much to do with design, which is the ostensible subject of this blog. But in the larger sense that we live in a designed world and ought to get better at it, this is very much at the heart of design.

Unfortunate signage


The street signs in the town of Alcoa, Tenn., which I found myself driving through a couple of weeks ago, have this unusual choice of typeface. It looks like Impact, though a bit straighter and narrower than even that impactful typeface. You can see what whoever chose this was thinking: keep it narrow but bold, something that will really stand out when seen from a car driving up to an intersection. The unfortunate part is that it’s too bold; it certainly draws your eye, but that doesn’t make it legible. The excessively fat strokes combined with the compressed shapes, and the very tight spacing and tiny counters, make it turn into a blob of black (or, in this case, white) against the background, so that it’s not in fact easy to read at all.

Oh well. Nice try.



Last weekend I was in San Francisco for TYPO SF, the first episode of FontShop’s ongoing series of Typo conferences to be held in North America. I’ve written about it, briefly, for the Eye magazine blog, but of course there’s always more to say.

The only other Typo conference I’ve been to was Typo Berlin, back in 1999. There’s plenty of continuity, of course, starting with the fact that the overall organizers are the same (though the hands-on organizers, Michael Pieracci and Meghan Arnold, were local, and no doubt too young to have organized a type conference thirteen years ago; they certainly seemed to know what they were doing, though). Deeper continuity and context was provided on Friday afternoon by Neville Brody, who put the whole event into perspective by referring to Typo’s antecedents in the first FUSE conference, in London in 1994, and the second one, right there in San Francisco in 1998. I heard echoes of some of the themes and ideas that I remembered hearing from Neville and from Jon Wozencroft in those heady days, though perhaps with less of the stirring call to arms. (I had to leave before the end of Neville’s talk, but if there was any overt barricade-storming, I didn’t hear about it later.)

Erik Spiekermann, Jan Abrams, and Kali Nikitas took turns with the mastering of ceremonies, presenting a seamless front end; I know that both Kali and Jan took pains to find out context and interesting insights for the speakers they didn’t already know, and I think that care paid off in how well integrated it all felt to the audience.

From a speaker’s perspective, I can say that TYPO SF was very well organized. There is inevitably a divide between the speakers and the audience, more so than at a smaller professional conference like ATypI or TypeCon, but I felt it less this time than I remember feeling at Typo Berlin. There was a lot of interaction, good conversation, and sparking of fresh ideas. I know I came away from Typo SF with some new contacts and a lot of new energy.

[Photo: a snapshot taken by Chuck Byrne during my talk]