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Archive for the category ‘science & art’

Facing the world, typographically

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On Dec. 1 & 2, Stanford University hosted “Face/Interface,” a small conference on “Type Design and Human-Computer Interaction Beyond the Western World.” The conference was held in conjunction with an exhibition at Stanford’s Green Library: “Facing the World: Type Design in Global Perspective.” The exhibition, organized by Becky Fischbach, runs until March 24. (Go see it!)

The organizer of Face/Interface was Thomas S. Mullaney, an associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford who has spoken at ATypI and who wrote the canonical book on the history of the Chinese typewriter. Tom is an indefatigable organizer and a generous host, with a clear idea of what is required to make an event like this a success (and a ruthless way with a stopwatch, if speakers run over).

The roster of scheduled speakers was impressive. I knew this would be a notable event, but, as everyone seemed to agree, it turned out to be even better than we had been expecting. There was not a single talk that I was willing to miss, even first thing in the morning, and the interplay among them, dealing with varying languages and technologies and cultures, wove a rich tapestry of ideas. Which is exactly what a scholarly conference ought to do.

Not surprisingly, there were a number of references to an earlier typographic event at Stanford: the famous 1983 ATypI Working Seminar, “The Computer and the Hand in Type Design,” which was recently written about in an article by Ferdinand Ulrich in Eye magazine. That 1983 seminar had been organized by Chuck Bigelow, who at the time was an associate professor of typography at Stanford (the only person ever to hold such a position there – so far). And Bigelow was one of the closing speakers this year, thus tying together these events 33 years apart. (Donald Knuth, also a key figure of the 1983 seminar, dropped by on Friday for a while, though he had no official involvement in this year’s event.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Face/Interface didn’t figure as prominently in future typographic memory as the 1983 gathering has over the last three decades. It felt like a pivotal moment.

Highlights for me included Thomas Huot-Marchand on the contemporary successor to the Imprimerie nationale; Bruce Rosenblum’s highly personal account of “Early Attempts to Photocompose Non-Latin Scripts”; Liron Lavi Turkenich‘s visual tour through trilingual signage in Israel; Lara Captan’s tour-de-force performance, “Facing the Vacuum: Creating Bridges between Arabic Script and Type“; Gerry Leonidas on Adobe’s treatment of Greek typefaces; and the other two closing talks (mine was sandwiched between them), by Chuck Bigelow and John Hudson. Other notable memories include Tom Milo projecting his ground-breaking live-text Qur’an technology on a wall-sized screen in the Stanford maps collection, upstairs from the exhibition reception, and a lively conversation with Chuck Bigelow over breakfast on the last day.

For those speakers who didn’t have to rush off on Sunday, there was an informal brunch and tour of the Letterform Archive in San Francisco, where Rob Saunders showed off his collection and ended up selling off some of his duplicates to eager collectors such as myself.

[Images, top to bottom:] Chuck Bigelow, John Hudson, & John D. Berry after the closing presentations (photo by Chen-Lieh Huang); Chuck Bigelow at the podium; Sumner Stone, asking a question from the audience; John D. Berry at the podium (photo by Eileen Gunn); Becky Fischbach & Fiona Ross outside the hotel in Palo Alto; Rob Saunders’s hands showing off the original Depero bolted book at the Letterform Archive.]

Farewell to Jack the printer

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“The splendid dawns — how many more of them will the gods toss into your basket of days?”

– Horace, Carminum Liber IV, trans. Michael Taylor

Jack Stauffacher died on Nov. 16, a month shy of his 97th birthday. He was both fiercely opinionated and self-deprecating; when he called you up, he would simply say, “This is Jack, the printer.” But what a printer!

I saw him for the last time just three weeks before he died, when Dennis Letbetter took me and Rob Saunders over to Tiburon for lunch with Jack and his wife Josie at their small house. The conversation ranged all over the place, as it always did, from ideas to reminiscences to literature and craft, but I was there for a purpose: to ask Jack questions about his life and career, for the biographical essay I’ve been asked to write. This essay will appear in a book by Chuck Byrne about Jack’s experimental prints, to be published next year by Letterform Archive. And, of course, I was there because I suspected that it might be my last chance to see Jack.

While I was there, Jack gave me a copy of his last book, a beautifully designed volume of “fragments from a Tuscan diary, 1956–1958,” which he had entitled Oxen. Plough. Bicycle. It is fully in the tradition of Jack Stauffacher’s long book-design and printing career, simple and unadorned yet exquisitely arranged. Its contents consist of photographs that he took while bicycling around the countryside outside Florence when he was living there on a Fulbright scholarship; the photographs are complemented by notes, almost poems – phrases and sentences of reflection on where he was and what he was seeing. It’s a fitting culmination to a publishing career, and I’m glad I got it directly from his own hand.

When Jack turned 90, seven years ago, his friends put together a spectacular celebration at the San Francisco Center for the Book. We won’t be able to celebrate his 97th birthday, except in his absence, but ideas are being floated for a fitting memorial sometime in the new year.

Several obituaries and moving reminiscences have been published already: by Chris Pullman in Design Observer, by Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Chronicle, and by Pino Trogu in Domus. Dennis Letbetter has been putting together a photographic record that he’s taken of Jack over the years (from which the photos at the left are taken).

The Letterform Archive

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I recently had my first chance to visit the remarkable Letterform Archive in San Francisco. This is the fruit of thirty-five years of collecting by Rob Saunders, all of it related to type and lettering and printing – especially type specimens and printer’s samples, along with books, manuscripts, and all kinds of printed and hand-made ephemera. In 2013, Rob turned his private obsession into an institution and established the Letterform Archive as a formal entity. More recently, as he announced last month at TypeCon, he acquired the enormous collection of the late Dutch bibliophile Jan Tholenaar, consisting of thousands of type specimens from the last 400 years.

The purpose of the Letterform Archive is to make original research materials available to people for hands-on study: so you can not just look at them but pick them up and hold them in your hands. There are larger collections than his, as Rob freely admits; but too many of them are closed to the public and not easily accessible. With the Letterform Archive, Rob hopes to provide a resource to students, researchers, type historians, graphic designers, and anyone interested in the history of letters. It’s easy to arrange a visit; the space is bright and welcoming, and so are the people.

The other initiative that Rob announced at TypeCon is a new program in conjunction with Cooper Union: Type@Cooper West. This will be a West Coast equivalent of Type@Cooper, the post-graduate program in type design that Cooper Union has been offering for several years at its campus in New York City.

Rob has a few other ambitious plans in mind, too. I’m delighted to see such an energetic undertaking. And I can say from personal experience that it’s a pleasure to sit in the Archive and peruse type in all its many forms.

Sprinting into the future

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My e-book essay “What is needed” has just been republished on the website of “Sprint Beyond the Book,” a project of Arizona State University’s remarkable Center for Science and the Imagination.

In May, Eileen and I met up with nine other invited guests to participate in CSI’s third “Sprint” event, a workshop/conference focusing on “The Future of Reading.” CSI’s first Sprint, with a theme of “The Future of Publishing,” had taken place last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the participants worked in the midst of the hurly-burly of the world’s biggest book festival; the second (“Knowledge Systems”) took place in January on CSI’s home turf at ASU. This third one was held at Stanford University, in conjunction with Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel.

The mix of people and ideas was invigorating, and the fruits of that brainstorming are intended to be published. (One description of what the Sprint was all about was “creating and publishing a book in three days.” But what kind of a book, exactly?) The other participants at the Stanford event were Jim Giles, Dan Gillmor, Wendy Ju, Lee Konstantinou, Andrew Losowsky, Kiyash Monsef, Pat Murphy, David Rotherberg, and Jan Sassano. The whole project was organized by its instigator and ringleader, Ed Finn, and his talented and indefatigable staff members Joey Eschrich and Nina Miller. I’ve been working with Nina, when we each have time, on the format for eventually publishing the results of the Sprint.

In the meantime, in somewhat kaleidoscopic form, parts of our conversations and digressions, and the texts that we created in the course of the three days, are available now on the “Sprint Beyond the Book” website.

“What is needed,” which I wrote more than two years ago as a post on this blog, is essentially a high-level technical spec for the missing tools that we need in order to do good e-book design. Most of these tools are still missing, two years later, despite the rapidly changing nature of digital publishing. Some of the ideas have made their way into various proposals for future standards, but not much has been reliably implemented yet. I’m still looking forward to the day when everything I was asking for will be so common as to be taken for granted. Then we can make some really good e-books; and our readers will be able to enjoy them.

The Briem Report

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Last year, after a highly entertaining turn as the keynote speaker at the ATypI conference in Reykjavík in 2011, designer and lettering artist Gunnlaugur SE Briem asked around 100 practitioners of lettering or typography to contribute a two-page spread each to a new compendium, The Briem Report: Letterforms 2012. I was pleased to be among those invited to participate. The resulting volume was published earlier this year as a freely downloadable PDF, and recently Briem sent printed copies to all the contributors. (I recommend the print-quality PDF, as the hard copy is a black-and-white print-on-demand edition; you can order it from Amazon and it’s wonderful to have, but I consider the core edition to be the digital one.)

Briem did something similar once before, in 1986, when he edited and produced a book for Thames & Hudson called Sixty Alphabets, asking sixty noted calligraphers to introduce themselves and their work and to contribute a design of their own choice. That in turn had been inspired by a much earlier compendium, Dossier A–Z 1973, which had been put together in 1973 by Fernand Baudin for that year’s ATypI congress in Copenhagen, on the theme of “Education in the Design of Letter Forms.” Both Baudin’s 1973 volume and Briem’s 1986 one examined the place of written letter forms in a world dominated by print. The Briem Report takes this one step further: what is the place of both calligraphy and type design in a world that’s becoming thoroughly digital? Baudin was looking at the changing nature of type and letter design in 1973; Briem is asking much the same question today.

The answers are all over the place; there is no one thesis to be found in this anthology. But as a snapshot of current practice and ideas, it’s invaluable. The contributors include most of the people you might expect, and many that you might not be aware of; Briem drew from many different streams of practice. Some are artists, some are technical experts, many are educators. As Briem describes the book, aptly (and in thoroughly Briem fashion), on his Operina website: “Inspiring ideas, firm convictions, lovely dreams.”

Edgy trust

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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.

Substrate

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I’ve been musing about that wonderful word substrate, and contemplating its many permutations. The word has uses in biochemistry and philosophy, but the meaning that intrigues me is literal. By its etymology, a substrate is an “under-layer,” or what lies behind or underneath something. When it comes to letters, the substrate is the surface you write or print on.

The substrate gives typography its third dimension. Even when the surface is perfectly flat, it’s the surface of something. In printing, the substrate is the paper (and the occasional non-paper surfaces that people choose to print on). The substrate for digital type is the screen that it appears on, whether that screen is held in your hand or propped on your desk. (Or, indeed, mounted on the wall in your living room or a theater.)

Printing, in all its many forms, deposits ink on the paper. Type on screen is projected out of the substrate on the surface (and from there into our eyes). In e-ink and other kinds of smart paper, the letters are actually displayed inside the substrate. The substrate is the physical ground of “figure & ground.”

Essentially, type is about the nature of the substrate and how the type is rendered on that surface. In traditional printing, this is a matter of inking and presswork. On a screen (like this), this depends on resolution, and all the many tricks for making it appear finer than it really is.

Printing or display depends on the relationship between substrate and rendering. Everything else – the real heart of typography – is arranging.

[Photo: “Rock 6,” copyright Dennis Letbetter.]

Powers of observation

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In an unexpected confluence of two of my areas of interest, science fiction and graphic design, I discovered that design critic Rick Poynor has been waxing lyrical, over on Design Observer, about the surrealist cover paintings done by Richard Powers for so many science-fiction paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up on those covers. Although I knew nothing about surrealist art, nor for that matter about book design, I remember those Powers paintings as representing the mood and style of science fiction to me. They were very far from the rocketships and spacemen that might adorn a less sophisticated cover. It wasn’t until later that I learned who he was (it was rare for an artist’s credit to be included in those books), yet his visual imagination burned its way into my own, all unknowing.

Powers’s images were almost never representational; they were dreamlike and evocative, with flowing shapes, curving lines, and polished surfaces, floating in a limitless space of the mind.

Poynor takes off from a reference in the Guardian’s science fiction issue, where the editors asked a wide range of science fiction writers to describe their favorite novel or author; Christopher Priest wrote about J.G. Ballard’s early short-story collection, The Voices of Time (left). The cover of that Berkley paperback was classic Richard Powers; so was the (different) cover of a later reprinting (also from Berkley). This provides Poynor with a perfect jumping-off point.

The image to the left is not a swipe from the Guardian, but a scan of the cover of my own lovingly tattered copy of The Voices of Time. The only time I met Ballard, on a reading tour for Empire of the Sun, I had the pleasure of getting his autograph on this book that I had kept with me since I was a youthful sf reader.

Back to the Futura

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A couple of weeks ago, we drove down to Portland to see a play that promised to mix science fiction and typography. How could I resist a that combination? (“Are you sure you didn’t write this play?” asked a skeptical friend of mine when I told him about it.)

The play is Futura, written by Jordan Harrison, and directed in this performance by Kip Fagan at the Portland Center Stage. (I say “this performance” because the play was having a sort of parallax début: it opened simultaneously in Portland and Los Angeles, after being workshopped in 2009 at the JAW Playwrights’ Festival in Portland.)

The opening act is a lecture on typography – and a good one. In the best science-fiction tradition, you realize, as the lecture goes on, that there’s more to the context that you thought. When the lecturer whips out a genuine piece of paper, it is clearly meant to be a shock to her students. This is a world where physical books have been superseded, and banned, replaced by an agreed-upon digital library that keeps changing, and has no grounding in solid fact. The lecturer drops acerbic references to her late husband, who seems to have been murdered, apparently by the forces of imposed order.

The first act ends [spoiler here!] when the lecturer is suddenly kidnapped, blindfolded and hustled offstage.

The trouble with Futura is that it breaks down after that. The four actors seem good; it’s the writing that lets them down. The arguments between two of the main characters in the second act are true to life, the kind of half-thought-through emotional arguments that people really make. But the play itself doesn’t rise above them, or go any deeper. The logic falls apart at the slightest touch. The metaphor, reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, doesn’t really offer any more insight than a sort of worried extrapolation of Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books.

The stage sets were wonderful. (I wonder what they were like in the LA performance.) I’m not at all sorry that I went to see this play; I’m just disappointed that it wasn’t better than it was. There’s a lot to be said about books, printing, digital literature, and society; but this play didn’t go beyond its own characters’ blinkered arguments.

Still: “Futura”? How could any typographer resist?

When s changed

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The best use I’ve seen yet of Google Labs’ nifty new Books Ngram viewer is from Frank Chimero: “Rest in peace, medial s.” By doing a little intelligent searching on several words that would have used the long-s in earlier books but had lost that form in more recent times, he pinpointed when it changed: right around the year 1800.

Which is just about what I would have guessed, based on a thoroughly unscientific analysis of what I recall from books and publications I’ve seen from various periods. It also corresponds reasonably closely to the much more detailed summary given by James Mosley in his article “Long s,” which records not only changes in usage around the turn of the 19th century but also changes in the availability of the long-s in new type fonts.

[Image: long & short italic s, and a long-s/t ligature, from Adobe Jenson Light]