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Archive for the category ‘editorial design’

New JDB website


After a mere 13 years, this website is getting an overhaul and a brand-new design. Besides being updated to look like something from the modern world, it’s more directly focused on showing the breadth of my work. The primary purpose, of course, is to make it absurdly easy for people who might want to engage my professional services. (That might be you.)

The images on the portfolio pages are meant as examples, not case studies. If you’re interested enough to want to know the details of how a project was done, and with what purpose in mind, we should talk directly.

All the pages of the old site will still be accessible from the “legacy site” link on the main menu. (I say “will be” because at the moment it’s hiding behind a technical glitch.) The design, although not responsive, was at least intended to be comfortably viewable and readable on a phone as well as on a larger screen. (The even less responsively designed “dot-font.com” website is also still there, if you’d care to check it out. It’s got pretty pictures and free text downloads from two of my books of essays.) And of course the standalone website for the Scripta Typographic Institute, which was already responsive, remains unchanged.

Like most design projects, this one has been collaborative. I took on much more of the hands-on coding than I had ever done before, figuring out how to build the responsive grid that I wanted to use for the portfolio pages. But, as always, much of the heavy lifting and correction of misconceptions has been done by Paul Novitski, my long-time webmaster. (Remember that term?) Paul had been encouraging me for years to dive under the hood; at last, this year, I started doing so. It’s been fun as well as useful. I should also call out Dave Miller at Artefact for useful strategic thinking when I was starting this project, and Alexandru Năstase of TypeThursday Bucharest for insightful advice near the end.

Although she could have no hand in this new iteration, I still owe a lot of thanks to the late Julie Gomoll for her advice and guidance on the initial form of this website.

What really got me interested in creating a new website was the possibilities now available for responsive grids. At last, it seemed, web design was beginning to do things that interested me! I found Rachel Andrew’s CSS grid newsletter and tutorials especially helpful. I’ve had lots of fruitful discussions with Jason Pamental about flexible design and typography on the web (although I have not tried using variable fonts in this design). And as someone who originally came to design through production, and who takes a production-based approach to any design project, I was happy to finally get my hands dirty. (“How do you clean all this syntax out of your fingernails, anyway?”)

Flexible typesetting


As soon as I saw the title of Tim Brown’s new book, Flexible typesetting, I knew it was on a subject that was close to my heart.

I spent more than thirty years perfecting the art and craft of text typography using digital tools, showing that if you knew what you were doing you could create every bit as fine a book page digitally as you could with metal type. (Not to mention exceeding the low standards of phototypesetting.) And I’ve spent more than a decade translating that craft into pages of fixed typography for the screen, trading concerns about ink and paper for the strictures of resolution and screen size.

Now we’re at the next stage. The challenge today, as I’ve pointed out more than once, is not fixed pages at all, but flexible ones. Tim Brown’s new book focuses clearly and tightly on how to meet that challenge.

Instead of talking about pre-set margins and fixed point sizes, Brown speaks of ideas like pressure, tempo, and focus, creating what he calls “a pattern language of typesetting pressures.” His approach to typesetting for the screen deals with variables rather than fixed values, and he gives a finely detailed look at how to set those variables and how to think about them. Much of the book deals with those details, but his main point is to make people aware of the problems and of the tools we currently have (or will have soon) to solve them. It is, first and foremost, an introduction to how to think about flexible typesetting.

One of the tools that Brown presents us with is the modular scale, which is a concept that takes a little while to get used to. It’s a set of numbers that you can use in setting the sizes of both type and other elements of a design. Obviously, if the design is to be flexible, those sizes can only be starting points; but you can use the modular scale to set the rate at which sizes grow or shrink as conditions change. This scale-based system is designed to make the variables all feel naturally related. Brown offers several different modular scales, for different kinds of projects.

This book is full of very specific recommendations and explanations, with links to useful tools created by himself and other web designers; it will be a very pragmatic guide to anyone sitting down to practice flexible typesetting in a hands-on environment. It’s also an eloquent plea for developing better and more finely tuned tools for the future.

Tim Brown’s conclusion: “Typography is ours to shape.”

[Flexible typesetting, by Tim Brown. A Book Apart no. 27. Copyright 2018 by Tim Brown. New York: A Book Apart, 2018.]

Web Typography


At TypeCon last week in Boston, I picked up a copy of the newly published book Web Typography by Richard Rutter. While I have certainly not had time yet to read the whole thing, I’ve been perusing it haphazardly and joyfully. I’m impressed. It’s living up to the recommendations I was hearing in Boston.

It’s fitting that the largest section of this book is the one called “Typographic Detail.” Rutter has obviously absorbed a wealth of typographic knowledge; the resources he cites in his bibliography include not just Bringhurst’s Elements and Cyrus Highsmith’s Paragraphs but Dowding’s Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type, Tschichold’s Asymmetric Typography, and Jost Hochuli’s Detail in Typography. (It also includes, to my appreciative amusement, Erik Spiekermann’s 1987 Rhyme & Reason: a Typographic Novel.

Rutter is adept at explaining and demonstrating the fine points of typographic composition, and doing so in the context of responsive design for the web. His writing is fluid, direct, and informal; even when he’s making a technical point, it’s never less than clear.

Writing about choosing robust typefaces for text onscreen: “Although modern screens have a pixel density capable of rendering intricate glyphs, the nature of emitted rather than reflected light eats into those forms. Robust forms stand up to this bullying, leaving high resolutions to render any subtleties, thereby rewarding you and your reader in tempering the ruggedness of the type.”

I don’t always agree with Rutter’s aesthetic opinions, but they are always well thought out and defensible. He recommends tightening up the letter-spacing of Univers (“Tightening Univers by 1% gives a more contemporary feel”), while I think it crams the letters together and loses the woven texture that was at the heart of Adrian Frutiger’s type designs; but it’s arguable, and in shorter lines than his visual example, it might work. Disagreements like this, however, are rare as I’m reading through the book; on the whole, and in detail, I would trust Richard Rutter’s taste and typographic choices.

This well-made, well-printed 330-page book is also well designed and well thought out. The body text, set in Thomas Gabriel’s Premiéra (which I hadn’t encountered before), is inviting and comfortably readable, although I think it would have been even more so with the line length a pica shorter. The organizational hierarchy is easy to follow, the illustrations are clear and to the point, and the book is full of useful cross-references.

There’s a good bit of back matter, but for a reference book, there’s one thing obviously missing: an index. Rutter provides a “CSS Index,” which is logical given the subject matter, but that’s only helpful if you already know the name of the CSS term you’re looking for. A regular index of subjects or even of terms would be helpful in a printed book (“Where was it that you were talking about letter-spacing Univers?”). But there is one very useful thing tucked into the back pages: a list of “Guidelines,” in sequence by chapter, with page numbers. “This book is written as a series of guidelines,” says Rutter, and this list serves as an excellent guide to the book’s essential information. It really belongs up front, as a sort of expanded table of contents.

My only production quibble is that the physical book is heavier than it needs to be. A somewhat lighter stock would have made it lighter in the hand, feeling less like a tome.

One little surprise that I discovered was a short section at the end, “Communicating your design.” If you’re not doing all the coding yourself, you’ll have to communicate accurately all the details of your typographic design to the person who is going to implement it in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and perhaps more arcane languages and tools. Which brings us back around, full circle, to where I came in: as a phototypesetter in a small Seattle printshop in the early 1980s, offering workshops to our clients on how to spec their type properly so they would get back the typeset results they were hoping for.

You could quite easily use Rutter’s book as an introductory guide to typography, not just to typography on the web. It is aimed squarely at the most flexible and problematic area of publishing today, but its advice is grounded in principles drawn from five centuries of typography in print, and it’s applicable to any form of visual communication that uses words.

[Images: cover and a couple of page spreads from Web Typography.]

More writing


I have just added a couple of complete essays to the rather minimalist “Writing” page on this site, and links to several others.

That page has so far consisted of short, and I hope intriguing, excerpts from various longer pieces of my writing. Now I’ve added links to almost all of the originals, making this a sort of landing page or entry point to these essays.

I’ve added the introduction to Contemporary newspaper design (2004), where I attempted to look at the development of newspaper typography over several technological and economic revolutions, and “The Business of Type”, my account of the origins, development, and demise of U&lc, which was the introduction to U&lc: influencing typography & design (2005). Both of these were books that I edited for Mark Batty Publisher; both of them are now out of print. I think those essays are worth making available again.

I’ve added some more links, too. Check ’em out.

[Update, April 15, 2016:] I’ve now added the missing piece, the preface to Language Culture Type. It is a less substantive piece than the others, but still worth having intact.



During last year’s TypeCon in Washington DC, FontShop’s David Sudweeks videotaped interviews with a number of type designers, and with at least one non-type-designer: me. He asked questions about how I’d gotten started in the field of typography (“sideways”) and about book design, which gave me an opportunity to set out my ideas about the typography of onscreen reading, and the nascent Scripta Typographic Institute. (That’s a subject that I’ll be taking up again at ATypI 2015 in São Paulo next month.)

Now that interview has been published. The parts about book design & e-book design start at 1:25, after some introductory material.

All of the FontCast interviews are short, focused, and well edited.

Traveling & talking & listening: QVED


At the end of February, I was in Munich for QVED, an annual conference about the design of magazines, which was held as part of Munich Creative Business Week. (The odd acronym “QVED” stands for “quo vadis editorial design,” or, if you like, Whither editorial design?) A focus of this year’s conference was “city magazines,” and one of the surprising realizations for me was that in Europe, city magazines are often published by city governments; in the United States, when we think of a “city magazine” it’s invariably published independently by a private company (though sometimes a publishing chain may produce magazines for several cities). In Seattle, for instance, there are two competing monthly city magazines, Seattle magazine and Seattle Metropolitan. The granddaddy of American city magazines might be New York magazine, which originated in the 1960s as an outgrowth of one of the major local newspapers.

Mike Koedinger’s presentation about the magazine of the city of Luxembourg, which his company produces, laid out the landscape for European city magazines, and other presenters in this part of the program followed up with their own cities’ particular challenges and opportunities.

The two opening talks (which were not the ones originally scheduled for those spots, thanks to some last-minute absences) set a high level: Jaap Biemans, who produces the website coverjunkie.com, which covers nothing but the design of magazine covers, showed and talked knowledgeably about a wide variety of cover designs, including his own for the weekly magazine of the Volkskrant newspaper in Amsterdam. Steve Watson presented his labor of love, Stack magazines, a unique subscription service where you get a different independent magazine every month. Both Jaap and Steve were enthusiastic and articulate, as well as having some wonderful images to show.

I missed the first part of Herlinde Koelbl’s talk on “The Targets Project,” and I failed to pick up a headset to get the simultaneous translation, but even with my limited German I found her presentation one of the most powerful things at the conference. The audience clearly agreed.

Organizer Boris Kochan had asked me to give a talk on U&lc, of which I was the last editor. Steven Heller and Roger Black, both of whom had long connections with U&lc, spoke in the same session, and we finished up with a roundtable discussion about U&lc and the history of typography in the phototype era that could easily have gone on another hour or two.

QVED was held in the Alte Kongresshalle (Old Conference Center), which is “old” only in the sense that it’s a postwar Modernist building – not old like the tiny streets in the heart of the city, or even like its 18th-century palaces and public buildings. The space worked well for both the theater-style presentations and the social mingling that is an essential part of any conference.

[Photos, top to bottom: John D. Berry (left) and Roger Black (right) in the cover image from an online magazine about QVED 2015; the opening of the QVED 2015 conference; street signs in Munich; Boris Kochan (left) and Steven Heller (right); Jaap Biemans as first speaker, with one of his favorite covers.]

Type to be read


While I was relaxing in one of the comfy chairs in Typekit’s temporary Pop-Up Library, at TYPO SF in San Francisco last spring, I spotted a small booklet that I had never seen, displayed on the shelf. It was one of the series of booklets produced in the 1960s by the Canadian typographer Carl Dair for West Virginia Pulp and Paper (Westvaco), “A Typographic Quest,” each one of which covered a particular aspect of typography. These little booklets are among the best guides to the basics of typography that you can find; Carl was a master of explaining by showing, and his book Design With Type is justifiably renowned for its clarity and usefulness, despite being by now hopelessly outdated in terms of typesetting technology. (The principles don’t change, only the means.)

The book I spotted was A Typographic Quest Number Three, subtitled type to be read; it was the only one of the series that I had never been able to find in my bookstore spelunking. As it talks about exactly what fascinates me in typography – making a page or paragraph of text easy to read – I had kept looking for a copy, but the last time I had checked, the only copy available was fabulously expensive. I resisted the illicit urge to slip Typekit’s copy into my pocket and spirit it off, but I did come away from the conference with a renewed impetus to seek out a copy of my own.

Which, of course, turned out to be available from several sources, and not at ruinous prices; my earlier searches must have been conducted at infelicitous times. At any rate, I now have my own copy of the excellent Number Three in Carl Dair’s series, complete with its own plastic-coated insert, the “Alphacast,” which is a handy tool for “casting off,” or “estimating how much space a typewritten manuscript will occupy when set in any given size and style of type.” Tools like this are pretty much unneeded these days, when we set type digitally and can simply apply the relevant type size and style to the text and see exactly how much space it takes up, but in the days of handset type or hot machine-set metal, there was no easy way to do this.

The Alphacast

In the sort of detail typical of Dair’s work, his Alphacast even deals with the variance created by texts that are full of narrow letters (illicit still) versus those full of wide ones (mammal); the typewritten copy would treat all letters the same, since typewriters typically use fixed-width alphabets, but typeset copy is almost always set in a font with variable widths.

Now the set of A Typographic Quest on my bookshelf will be complete.

A measured response


In on online discussion recently about book design, someone with long experience in print design made the claim that it was a proven fact that unjustified text was harder to read than justified. This was presented as an indisputable conclusion. That got me curious, so I made an effort to get hold of a copy of the source he cited: Colin Wheildon’s Type & Layout: Communicating – Or Just Making Pretty Shapes?. Obviously I would be in sympathy with a book with such a subtitle, but I was skeptical about the claim to hard data.

Wheildon first published this in Australia as a slim booklet in 1984; the version I found was the American edition, revised and expanded, published in 1995 by Strathmoor Press in Berkeley, with a cumbersome new subtitle: How typography and design can get your message across – or get in the way. (There’s a yet newer edition, from the Worsley Press in 2005, which I haven’t seen; happily, it goes back to Wheildon’s original subtitle.)

The heart of the book is the controlled experiments that Wheildon carried out, with as much care as possible and all the expert advice he could get, to test different typographic treatments, and try to find out, scientifically and measurably, which worked better and which didn’t. He came to this question from magazine publishing, with experience in both advertising and editorial design, so his examples are all from the pages, either real or made up for the experiment, of magazines.

Since Wheildon spells out in an appendix exactly how he conducted his research, it’s possible to judge the results. As far as I can tell, his methods for measuring comprehension after reading an article make sense, as far as they go; comprehension of facts may not be the only thing that’s important in reading, but at least it’s measurable.

Basically, he tested comprehension of articles that the participants had read, using a randomized series of questions that would tell him whether they had read all the way through the article or just read the first part and skimmed or skipped the rest. He also mixed this with anecdotal responses to particular features of his sample layouts, which he probably found irresistible but which renders many of his results dangerously subjective.

The real problem, though, is that in too many of his experiments, he didn’t measure comparable alternatives. It doesn’t really tell you much about the difference between serif and sans-serif text typefaces if the serif face you’re testing is Corona, a workhorse newspaper face, and the sans-serif is Helvetica, which was never intended for long text – and you’ve set both examples at exactly the same point size and leading. Testing a sans-serif typeface that was designed for text, and adjusting the size and spacing parameters to make them appropriate and comparable, rather than literally the same, would have been a much better comparison. Similarly, in a section about optimal text sizes, he made no allowance for varying x-heights and the difference in apparent size of different typefaces; he just compared 10pt to 10pt, no matter what the font. Even his test of ragged-right versus justified text tells us nothing about the details of how the text was typeset; it was just the same layout with either justified or unjustified setting.

I showed my borrowed copy of Type & Layout to Kevin Larson at a recent type pub in Seattle. Kevin is Microsoft’s researcher into typographic readability and legibility, so this is right up his alley. Naturally he refused to pass judgment based on just browsing through the book, but he did ask some pertinent questions about the specific test conditions and methods, which I found useful in thinking about Wheildon’s results.

What I found missing in Wheildon’s examples and his tests was the fine points of text typography that I’ve been dealing with for the past thirty-five years. In comparing serif and sans-serif settings of the same text, he used typefaces that, while indeed serif and sans, do not otherwise have much in common. Not surprisingly, the test subjects had a harder time reading a column of 8/9 Helvetica than they did a column of 8/9 Corona.

That’s the most obvious failure, but there are all too many places in Wheildon’s examples where he’s testing gross differences rather than well-adjusted settings in each format. He wrote this in the 1980s, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t reflect the current state of typesetting technology, but it doesn’t even reflect the state of the technology in the 1980s: I was amazed that in his discussion of letter-spacing he confused kerning with tracking, and he seemed to think that letter-spacing in digital type could only be adjusted using one to four rather large units. (Perhaps he was thinking of the four pre-set tracking values in Aldus PageMaker?) Even at that time, typesetting systems were spacing in tiny fractions of an em.

Nothing in his trials had any way of measuring how much of a reader’s response was inherent and how much was just a matter of what they were already used to. (“We read best what we read most,” as Zuzana Licko famously quipped.)

What I came away with, after reading this book, was disappointment. I appreciated what Wheildon was trying to do; I just wish he had done it better. Some of his data is useful; some of it, unfortunately, is useless, or even misleading.

The focus of Wheildon’s attention was on magazines and advertising, rather than books, though most of what he says about reading text would have some relevance for books too. This 1995 edition of Type & Layout is not itself a very good example of book typography; the publisher and editor, Mal Warwick, makes it clear in a note that he is no typographer, and this is borne out on every page. Too often, Warwick’s re-creations of Wheildon’s examples use a different typeface, usually the light digital version of Goudy Old Style that he’s using as the text face of the book. That makes the examples impossible to judge. (Most of the examples that are reproduced directly from other sources are shown much too small to read, so we have to take the author’s conclusions on faith.) The general text typesetting is perfunctory, not carefully considered and adjusted. It’s a shame that the book itself doesn’t set a better example.

This edition is decked out with a foreword by David Ogilvy, an afterword by Tony Antin, and an introduction by Warwick, all of whom make much more grandiose claims than Wheildon himself does. Where Wheildon offers his conclusions modestly (though not without strong opinions), his promoters put them forward as proof positive of everything they hold dear. I don’t blame Wheildon for that, but it undercuts his book’s effectiveness. And it certainly doesn’t help that the publisher added two chapters of his own, which just show bad examples and make snarky comments about them; those two chapters can safely be ignored.

It’s the subtleties of composition, not just the broad strokes of layout or the size or choice of typeface, that make a page of text easy and inviting to read. Anyone who works professionally with book pages and text composition spends all their time on these fine points; and they don’t do it by rote or rules, but by intuition, experience, and paying attention to the text.

The allure of hard numbers – what software companies love to call “metrics” – is that you can quote them to clients or managers as a justification for your design decisions. But when the metrics rule the design, the tail is wagging the dog.

Rules of thumb can be very handy, but all they are is useful patterns; if you treat them like imperatives from on high – or from a few limited tests that others have inflated into ironclad laws – they’ll trip you up every time.

It would be interesting to see the real subtleties of readability tested, but it’s very hard to do, and it would take a lot of time and effort to come up with anything meaningful.

Structured writing for the web


At the end of June, at the Ampersand conference in Brighton, Gerry Leonidas gave a shout-out to an early version of the prospectus for Scripta (“Typographic Think Tank”) in his talk. I had somehow missed this until Tim Brown mentioned it in an e-mail recently inquiring about Scripta. I can highly recommend Gerry’s talk, and not only because he quotes me (7:07–7:49 in the video). Although he starts out with a disclaimer that “this is a new talk” and he’s not sure how well it will hang together, in fact it’s extremely coherent; Gerry is both articulate and thoughtful about the wide range of questions (and, rarely, answers) involved in typography on the web.

Gerry used my “wish list” from “Unbound Pages” (in The Magazine last March) as a jumping-off point for his own ideas about the structure of documents and the tools that he wants to see available. He wants tools for writers, not just for designers, that will make it easy to create a well-structured digital document, one that will maintain its integrity when it gets moved from one format to another (as always happens today in electronic publishing). Gerry’s own wish list begins at 20:47 in the video, though you won’t want to skip the entertaining steps by which he gets there.

What he proposes is a way to separate the sequence of information from its relative importance and interrelatedness. “This is what I really want: I want someone to go out there and take Markdown, which I use constantly, and take it from something that clearly has been written to deal with streams of stuff with some bits thrown on the side … and allow me to have this extra intelligence in the content – while I’m writing it – that will tell me how important something is, what sequence it has with other things, and will then allow me to ditch quite a lot of this stuff that is happening there.” The “stuff” he wants to ditch is all the hand-crafted formatting and positioning that makes a digital document cumbersome and difficult to translate from one form to another.

The problem is, as Gerry admits, training people to write with structure in mind. (Every editorial designer who has tried to get writers to use paragraph and character styles will break out into a hollow laugh at this point.) What he’s advocating is tools that will make this easy to do, instead of something that only makes sense to experts. I think he was a little disappointed that nobody leapt up at the end of his talk to say, “We’ve already done that!” But perhaps he has planted the seed.

The Magazine & I


There’s something curiously recursive about linking to a website to read an article I wrote for an app-based magazine. But happily, The Magazine has just expanded its subscription base from its iOS6 app to include web subscriptions; and even non-subscribers can access and read one full article each month. (Other links that month will just show previews: the first couple of paragraphs.) So you can go right now and take a look at “Unbound pages,” my article about the typography of reading onscreen, in the Mar 28 issue.

I questioned the initial limitation of The Magazine as an iOS-only app (indeed, one that requires iOS6, which lets out older iOS devices like my first-generation iPad). But what that limitation did was focus squarely on a specific audience: tech-savvy readers who are likely to be early adopters and who work or play in one of the creative fields (which tilt strongly toward Apple’s digital ecosystem). It also meant that the app itself could be clearly and simply designed.

While there’s a difference between how the app displays an issue on an iPhone and on an iPad, the basic typographic treatment is fixed; the only real change appears if you shift the orientation, which affects how long the lines of text are. (This is all directly related to what I was writing about.) The display of the articles on the website is similarly simple and limited, but by the nature of current web-design tools (again, directly related!) it’s less typographically sophisticated, less well adapted to the screen “page.” But you can subscribe to the web version even if you don’t own an iOS6 device; that expands the potential readership.

With the current update to The Magazine’s software, you can also link, as I’ve just done, to a single article that a non-subscriber can read in its entirety, along with previews of other articles in the issue. That “porous paywall” is a smart marketing move: it encourages dissemination of material from The Magazine without giving it all away. (And the terms of The Magazine’s contracts are that they’re only buying one month of exclusivity anyway; authors can do anything they want after that first month, including posting the article for free on their own website or broadcasting it to the entire world. This seems like a model that’s well adapted to the realities of current online publishing.)

Go ahead and subscribe. There’s a bunch of other good material in the new issue, and I expect that I’ll write for The Magazine again.

[Image: detail of one of the illustrations done for my article by Sara Pocock.]