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Archive for June, 2008

Vernacular information design


Everybody loves “vernacular typography,” or at least enjoys finding examples. This purely functional sign resides on a store-front church in a neighborhood in Seattle (not far, in fact, from the building with the faded “Roycroft Theater” sign that I noted last year). For several years, the church sign was characterized by the shaky lettering in the top image; I was never sure whether it was a deliberate style or the result of being painted by someone with a nerve problem. (Whatever the intention or the skill involved, presumably it served its purpose; the information was there, albeit in a rather peculiar form.)

More recently, that sign was replaced by the one in the bottom image – same information, mostly, but a more controlled sort of lettering, or at least a more formal set of models. Still not anything that would be mistaken for the work of a professional sign-painter.

Another road-sign attraction


The photo to your left is of a highway sign on Interstate 90 westbound, a few miles outside of Seattle. It’s a fine example of the comprehensive street-numbering system of King County, and also of the fussiness of too many road and highway signs.

The next exit gives access to three different roads, each of them numbered. The important bit of information is the numbers of the roads themselves; the rest is dross. Why on earth did the sign-makers clutter up this freeway sign with junk like “st” and “th” and the periods in “SE”? It just distracts from the essential information, making it harder to get the message across in those brief moments a driver has while zooming down the highway.

The right way to do this sign would have been:

161 Ave SE
156 Ave SE
150 Ave SE

In fact, given the way streets are designated in King County, you could have dispensed with “Ave” and just said “161 SE” etc. But that might have offended the sensibilities of local drivers, who expect a little more deference to tradition. But the ordinal-number designations, and the utterly useless punctuation, are offenses against function and common sense.

I won’t comment on the oddness of a road system that has all three of these local streets coming off one freeway exit. That’s a problem for highway engineers, not signage designers.

Steve Renick: book designer


I’ve been intending to write an article about Steve Renick and his work ever since his sudden death in 2002. Even before that, I had the idea in the back of my head. And clearly, such an article needs to be written, since when I google him in various ways, in search of the best link for his name above, in the first sentence, everything I come up with is partial and oblique. But this is not that article; it’s just a few notes towards one.

There isn’t a current exhibit of Steve Renick’s work that I can point you to, unless you drop by the offices of the University of California Press, where he was Art Director for twenty years. In their library/meeting room, last time I was there, they had a lot of Steve’s work on display; even without that intention, any display of books from UC Press in the past two decades would show a lot of Steve Renick’s work, either as designer or as art director. He was a consummate book designer, with an understated style in a sort of classical Modernist tradition. He was a typographer in the best sense; I remember that he had a Monotype type-specimen poster, from the days of hot-metal typesetting, under the glass top of his drawing table. We would talk about typefaces and books and the details of typography; I believe it was he who gave me a photocopy of the long-out-of-print book by Geoffrey Dowding, Finer Points in the spacing & arrangement of type.

I would try to visit Steve at the Press whenever I was in the Bay Area. He was always friendly, helpful, informal, and curious about whatever was new. I remember arriving one day when he had just gotten his hands on a Mac and an early version of QuarkXPress; he was noodling around, trying things out, finding out how the software worked, thinking about how he could incorporate these new capabilities into the way he designed books. At that point I had never used XPress, but I had been designing and typesetting books digitally for several years; we compared notes on digital type and how it was set.

Many of the most high-profile books to come out of UC Press were Steve’s work, either designed by him or produced under his art direction: Henry Thoreau: a life of the mind, with Barry Moser illustrations; Geisha, by Liza Dalby; Poles apart: parallel visions of the Arctic and Antarctic, by Galen Rowell; the Allen Mandelbaum translation of Dante’s Inferno. He designed the remarkable English-language facsimile edition of Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie, the first time this classic of Modernist typography had appeared in English. That book, in fact, I had some responsibility for: I had been corresponding with Ruari McLean, Tschichold’s biographer and sometime translator, about getting his unpublished translation of Die Neue Typographie into print, when I found out that UC Press, all unknowing, was contemplating commissioning a translation, not realizing that a translation already existed in manuscript. I got hold of Steve, who put me in touch with the editor of the project; then I got the editor and McLean together and then left them to work out the best way to approach the book.

In contrast to his elegant, spare book designs, Steve’s hobby was fixing up old hotrod cars. (No doubt the engine details were as finely crafted as his typography.) I recall the first time he drove me to lunch in his current rod, and how flabbergasted I was at the apparent aesthetic contradiction of these two wildly different styles.

Steve was famously generous with his time and advice; everyone who has worked with him, been on a book-show jury with him, or just spent time with him remembers this. He was also resolutely unpretentious; in a group photo from a book-industry event, he would be the one over on the end with the rumpled jacket and oblique tie. He had an eagle eye for typography and a fine hand for design; his influence is easy to spot in the work of innumerable younger designers. Most of all, for book buyers and readers, he quite simply produced a wealth of books that we can read easily and that we can feel happy to have on our shelves.

Digital wood type


I took a couple of pictures of this sign over a shop in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, in February – not because it was picturesque or folkloric but precisely because it was such an odd mix of digital and hands-on technologies. The plaque and the letters were all made of wood, but the letters were all obviously digital in origin: carved in wood by machine from digital letter forms. The bold caps of ‘CONSULTORIO MEDICO,” in fact, look like Arial – the most digital of digital fonts. Yet the letters were also clearly carved separately from the plaque, and later attached; the seams were easy to see, and the spacing was what you might get from someone placing each letter by hand, while standing on a teetering ladder. If you look closely, you can even see that the n in “pone” (“pone a su disposicion”) is backwards – something that could only have happened from a physical mistake, not a digital one.

Detail of wooden sign in Valle de Bravo

Vernacular typography? Yes, Jim, but not as we know it.

The work of Chris Stern


If you’re in Seattle this Thursday, don’t miss the opening of an exhibit of brilliantly creative letterpress printing by the late Chris Stern, at the Design Commission (121 Prefontaine Place S., near 4th & Yesler). Chris and his wife and partner, Jules Remedios Faye, formed Stern & Faye, Letterpress Printers, and founded their “printing farm” in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle. Each of them was a fine, and unusual, printer and artist before they met, and their work together has been amazing. When Chris died of cancer a year and a half ago, many of us lost a friend and we all lost an original talent.

The exhibit is in several parts: in addition to Chris’s printed work, there will be photos and artifacts from the printing farm, and prints produced by friends, colleagues, and students of Chris and Jules’s, inspired by their work. Much of this will be for sale, to benefit Jules and help pay off Chris’s outstanding medical bills.

The opening runs from 5 to 10 p.m. (this is “First Thursday,” Seattle’s monthly arts walk in Pioneer Square). If you can’t make the opening, the exhibit will be accessible during business hours at the Design Commission for the rest of the month.

Yes, the exhibit includes a copy of the magnificent volume that Chris created from my little story “Roman Seattle.”

Update June 6:

I’ve posted a few photos from last night’s opening.