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Archive for the category ‘writing & editing’

Questionable practices


Many of you know that I live with an author: my partner and wife Eileen Gunn is a well-respected short story writer, whose first collection, Stable Strategies and Others, was published in 2004 by Tachyon Publications. Not surprisingly, I designed and typeset that book (and ended up doing a good bit of design for Tachyon, sometimes covers, sometimes interiors, over several years). We also developed a visual identity for the book and its marketing campaign – a necessity in today’s publishing world – where I had fun putting the incendiary cover image to work in other contexts.


Now I’ve designed her second collection, Questionable Practices, which will be out in April from Small Beer Press. The interior text design echoes the earlier book, but we gave this one a distinctly different cover design – though one that I think will sit comfortably on a bookshelf next to Stable Strategies. The publisher has just sent out ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to reviewers.

The cover for Questionable Practices went through three entirely different versions, as these things often do (not counting the innumerable iterations of each still lurking on my hard drive). It’s in the nature of commercial book publishing that the publisher needs a cover image, for publicity and marketing purposes, long before they need a finished book; indeed, often enough the text isn’t finalized until long after a cover image has been widely distributed. When I was working as a typographer at Microsoft Press in the mid-1980s, we used to get outside “designs” from a local studio that simply provided cover sketches and sample pages with typical interior design elements; these were done long before the book was even written. Not only did we have to execute the final covers, but we often had to invent designs for new interior elements that came along as the books were written and edited. Eventually, since we were doing half the design work anyway, we took the interior design in-house.

Eileen’s stories don’t fit into obvious categories; they’ve almost all been published as science fiction, but she refuses to ever repeat herself, and her work rejects easy classification. When I designed the cover for her first collection, I was trying to do something that would stand out both on the general-fiction table and in the science-fiction section of a bookstore. As I discovered, though, few bookstores were willing to shelve copies of the same book in two different sections; it was always one or the other. Today, with online marketing and bookselling, perhaps it’s easier to place a book in multiple categories at the same time. In any case, today a book cover needs to be clear and work well as a little thumbnail image, not just at full size on the physical book.

Naturally, each of the three cover versions for Eileen’s book seemed perfect to me at the time, but in the end the one you see at the left worked best – and will be on the book. As a completely objective and nonpartisan observer, I can say: watch for it.

[Update, Jan. 16: I just sent the book to the printer today. Publication date: March. Typeface: Dolly Pro.]

Hanging by a serif


Recently I published a little booklet called Hanging by a serif: a few words about designing with words. This is the culmination of a project I’ve been working on, off and on, for more than a year: pulling a selection of statements about typography and design from my own writing and presenting them, one to a page, along with a simple decorative element. The hook – quite literally, in some cases – is that those visual elements are all enlarged details of serifs, taken from a wide variety of typefaces. (You’d be surprised how much alike the serifs look on a lot of otherwise distinctive typefaces, when you blow them up in size and cut off the rest of the letter.) I had fun with this, as you might imagine. The hardest part was forcing myself to edit or rewrite my own words, to make them more appropriate to this format and purpose. It was also difficult choosing the quotes, and picking the serifs, but that was the kind of task that you can only revel in: a richness of choice.

One early recipient of a digital version, Scott-Martin Kosofsky, unexpectedly suggested that I “may have invented a new genre, design maxims, making you a kind of typographic Rochefoucauld.” I certainly doubt that my little booklet will go through as many editions and revisions as La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, but I’ll be happy if it finds a use in the hands of its readers.

For an early draft, which I wanted to take with me on a visit to San Francisco to show to Jack Stauffacher and others at one of his weekly Friday lunches, I had trouble getting the booklet to print properly as page spreads, so I just printed the pages individually and bundled them into a wrap-around folded cover, just to suggest how it might all work as a booklet. What that inadvertant format showed me, however, was that these pages could also work singly, as individual cards. The actual content of those pages has undergone a good bit of revision since that San Francisco trip, but this is the reason why I’m offering Hanging by a serif both as a saddle-stitched booklet and as a set of cards.

When I showed a version of the cards to Juliet Shen at one of our local typographers’ pub gatherings, her immediate thought was, “I could give each of my students one of these and have them do a project based on it.” I hadn’t thought of that; perhaps they have a future use as a teaching tool. (You be the judge.)

This is the “first iteration” of Hanging by a serif; I’m sure it will evolve and appear draped in other clothes. Right now, you can buy the booklet or the cards from the newly created Shop page on this website, and they will undoubtedly be available through other sellers eventually. I sold a few at TypeCon in the SOTA store, and I expect I’ll have at least a few with me at next month’s ATypI conference in Amsterdam. Or you can use PayPal to buy a copy right here, and have me send it to you directly. (If you’re interested in a larger quantity, just send me e-mail at john johndberry com and let me know.)

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.

Talking about fonts


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

Word play


In a completely self-referential bit of digital navel-gazing, I’ve used the little online toy Wordle to generate a “word cloud” from the text of this very page. Wordle takes whatever text you feed it – or the text from a webpage whose URL you give it – and turns it into a visual representation of how frequently the text repeats certain words. The more often the word is used, the larger it appears. Wordle has several controls for changing what the visual representation looks like (color, orientation, language, even whether to exclude or include certain kinds of words), but the end result is generated at random. If you run the same text through again, with the same set of parameters, the sizes of the words will stay the same but the word cloud they form will be different.

As you can imagine, Wordle is a wonderful time-suck. (It’s also hard to type; my fingers keep wanting to type “World” instead.) The word cloud at the left has no significance whatsoever; it just represents what I’ve written in recent blog posts right here (at least, before this post itself is added). But it’s recursive fun.

Download my book!


Do it now! Act without thinking! Do it now!

Inspired by the success of Cory Doctorow in giving away the texts of his books in every conceivable electronic form, and yet ending up selling more copies of the printed books than his publishers would otherwise expect, I have put together a digital version of Dot-font: talking about design, which you can download for free.

This PDF is designed for easy onscreen reading – or for printing out two-up on your laser printer and reading in a comfy armchair. I am also including the full text in a Microsoft Word file (.doc) and in a “plain text” file (.txt), for those who prefer either of those formats.

This electronic version is published under a Creative Commons license; you’re free to share the files, though not to claim them as your own or make money off them. (For the details of the license, look here or see the copyright page of the digital book.) I haven’t included the right to create “derivative works” based on this book – but hey, if you’ve got an idea for a stirring adventure series set in the “dot-font” universe, or if you have an uncontrollable urge to make “dot-font” action figures, let me know.

Unlike Cory’s novels and essay collections, the print version of Dot-font: talking about design is illustrated. The electronic version is not. I can’t give away other people’s images, but I can freely distribute the full text.

So go ahead, download the book. Pass it on. Let me know what you think. And let Mark Batty, my excellent publisher, know too. Let a hundred dot-fonts bloom!

Download dot-font

With a little text


Cory Doctorow was in town Friday, as part of his whirlwind tour for his new book For the Win, and Linda Stone hosted a small late-afternoon gathering for him on her back deck. (Linda’s house has a glorious view of Lake Washington, and Friday turned out to be a warm, sunny day. We even spotted a bald eagle cruising overhead. “The emperor will die,” muttered Matt Ruff, gnomically.)

Cory had with him four printed copies of his next new book, the quixotic project With a Little Help, each with a different cover. This is a collection of short stories, which Cory is publishing himself in a variety of formats, some of them given away – largely to find out what happens when you do this without a regular publisher. I had designed and typeset the interior of the book, creating pages that I hoped would work both printed and bound as a perfect-bound paperback by Lulu and read as a PDF onscreen, but until Friday I hadn’t seen it printed out, except as drafts from my laser printer. Now I have an advance copy, with a cover by Frank Wu, and I’m pretty pleased with the way it all came out. The binding is flexible, and the paper is an off-white with no glare. (Cory was going to get some galleys printed at a quick-print shop in London, but found that it was cheaper just to order copies for himself from Lulu and have them delivered to him en route. A truly dispersed publishing method!) The pages seem readable, which is the whole point.

I’m not sure when the official launch is, but no doubt it’ll be soon. Meanwhile, if you’re in San Francisco this Wednesday, Cory will be doing a benefit reading at the 111 Minna Gallery, as a fundraiser for EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation).

The typography of e-books


It’s gratifying to see, at last, some attention given to the shortcomings of the various e-readers. It took the hoopla around the introduction of the iPad to get us to this critical state. Perhaps the most telling thing about the iPad as a reading device is where it doesn’t improve on its predecessors.

None of the existing e-reading devices – or at least none that I’ve seen – have good book typography. They look superficially impressive – “a decent simulacrum of printed pages,” as Ken Auletta said of the Kindle in his recent New Yorker article – but when you look closely at the actual words on the page, you find that they’re rather crudely typeset. I’m not talking about the fonts or how they’re rendered onscreen; I’m talking about spacing, which is what typography is all about. Most notably, none of the most popular e-readers employ any kind of decent hyphenation-and-justification system (H&J, in digital typesetting terms). And yet all of them default to fully justified text.

Kindle text sizes

As anyone who has done production typesetting or has designed a book meant for reading knows well, the factors that make a block of text easy or hard to read all occur at a scale smaller than the page. The most obvious is the length of the line, but line length is engaged in a complicated dance with the space between lines, the space between words, and the spaces between letters. The choice of typeface is almost irrelevant; any legible typeface can be made readable with enough care given to the spacing. (Well, almost any legible typeface.) Finding the right combination of all these factors for a particular typeface, and for a particular author’s words, is what text typography is all about.

All of these space relationships will be thrown to the winds if you typeset a page with justified text but no hyphenation. There’s a reason why the words “hyphenation” and “justification” are used together.

In producing a printed book, you can massage all these variables until you get pages that look consistent and that are effortlessly readable. You can do the same for a book that’s going to be read on a screen, but only if the end result is in a static format, such as a PDF document – essentially, a printed page by other means.

But one of the great advantages of e-readers is that you can change the type size at will. (In some, you can also change the typeface, within a narrowly circumscribed range of choices.) Lovely! But then what happens to all those careful choices about line length and word spaces and so on? They have to be made again, on the fly, automatically, by the software. And if the software isn’t smart enough to know how and when to divide words, then the spacing is going to look like hell.

Which is pretty much the way it does look, except when we get lucky, on all of the popular e-reading platforms. Great big holes appear in some lines, or a cascade of holes opens up on adjacent lines, which typographers call a “river.” It’s not just ugly; it slows down reading.

This is bad enough on a normal rectangular page, but it gets even worse when some visual element – an illustration, for instance – intrudes into the text block and the text has to wrap around it. Bad examples abound.

Some people like justified pages on an e-book page because they’re used to it in printed books. Fine. But they’re also used to better typesetting in printed books (even sloppily done ones) than we’re getting so far in e-books. The simplest solution is to give the reader a choice: justified or unjustified. And make the default unjustified. A ragged right-hand edge is easier to read than a ragged middle that’s full of holes.

The ideal solution, of course, is to have a good H&J system built into the e-book reader. But creating a really good hyphenation and justification program isn’t a trivial undertaking. Not only does the software have to know where it can break a word, and have some parameters for knowing when to break it, but the program should also modify these choices depending on the lines above and below the current line. This is what Adobe InDesign’s “multi-line composer” does. No automated system is perfect, but InDesign’s default text composition is pretty good. Certainly something like that would be a vast step upwards from what we see in e-books today.

Since we’ll all be stuck reading digital books at least some of the time, I’d like to see the standards of book composition improve, and improve fast. It might start with reviewers not blithely passing over the poor typesetting and getting wowed by the hardware or the pretty pictures. There has to be a demand for good composition in e-books. Attention to quality on that level doesn’t often get rave reviews; most people never consciously notice it. But they definitely notice it on an unconscious level, and it affects their willingness to read a book or abandon it. This is true in printed books; it’s just as true in e-books.

Who will bring out the first really good e-book reader?

[Photos: iBooks page spreads from iPad in landscape mode (left); animated GIF of Kindle page as the font size changes (above).

Four score and three cheers


Time to mark one of those arbitrary points on the calendar that mean so much to us. October 21 is the 80th birthday of one of the finest American writers, Ursula K. Le Guin. Her novels have embodied a thoughtfulness, a humanity, and a pragmatic sensibility that have resonated with me since I read the earliest ones when I was just a teenager. Her essays, beginning with The Language of the Night, edited by Susan Wood, joined the most intelligent conversations in print, the ongoing weaving of ideas and their telling that humans have been engaged in since they first had time to speculate.

She’s got a great laugh, too. Happy birthday, Ursula!

[Photo: Ursula Le Guin, by Eileen Gunn]