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Archive for August, 2011

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

Limbic artifice


One of my favorite local shop-front signs (on Capitol Hill in Seattle) – not just for its contrast between the two typefaces used, but for the contrast between the pretty-looking type of the second line and the meaning of the words. It’s carefully composed (not vernacular or naïve at all), but the interplay of what it says and what it looks like is striking. As, no doubt, it was meant to be.

PLINC is in the House


It was impossible resist: when I got the package from House Industries with the catalog for their new Photo-Lettering collection, I had to use my old Photo-Lettering, Inc. letter-opener to slit the envelope. It seemed the right thing to do.

The catalog showcases lots and lots of newly digitized Photo-Lettering fonts from the heyday of over-the-top advertising typography in New York. Like all of House Industries’ productions, it’s a keepsake in itself. The cover stock for the catalog was milled exclusively for House by the only other business that could match their flair and sensibility, French Paper.

Most of the lettering styles sold by Photo-Lettering, then and now, are playful and exuberant; they were headline styles, sold to type shops that would price headlines for their clients by the letter or the word. Today you can buy headlines the same way, but in digital form, from photolettering.com.

The letter-opener? It was on my desk when I started at ITC as editor of U&lc, just down the block from where Photo-Lettering’s shop used to be; and it’s on my desk today.

Handle of the PLINC letter-opener

Designing digital books


At TypeCon in New Orleans last month, I spoke about “New problems in book design” – basically the question of how to apply good typography to the design of books that are meant to be read on a screen. Here’s a little of what I said:

“What does it mean to design a book, at a time when books take multiple forms?

“I have no answers; this is all about questions. As Nick [Sherman] said, we’re in a period that people will look back on and see as a seminal time. It is; we’re inventing this as we go along. And the reason I find it interesting is that I read books, and I’ve been designing books for twenty-five years. I’ve spent most of that time — starting out demonstrating that you could use digital typesetting and design tools to do typography every bit as good as what could be done in old metal systems. And now it’s about time to translate that onto the screen.

“One of the reasons it’s interesting now is that I think the tools are beginning to be there for us. And publishers are desperate for it.


“Basically, what we need is control over all the typographic aspects – but give up the idea of control to make a static page. We want that level of control – I want that level of control – over a dynamic page. So I can say, if somebody decides to change the type size: okay, the line length should stay the same. The number of columns would change – not just making the font larger and making the leading change, which is what happens today in a website when you do that (depending on whether the browser allows you to do that or just blows the whole page up). All those factors need to be controlled together. What we need is dynamic design, we need flexible design, we need intelligent design – intelligently flexible, intelligently dynamic – in order to create good design. And the reason for that, the purpose of that, is the readers: for us, the readers. You can’t design books well if you don’t read them, and that’s true for the screen as well as for paper.

“Every publisher I’ve talked to, every editor, even most of the writers I’ve talked to, is desperate for some kind of solution here. I know writers with backlists that they have the rights to but they don’t know what to do with; they just want to say, ‘Can I put it on a Kindle somehow?’ So the marketing and the sales of books are going to change too – dramatically. But I think that what we need to do is think globally about that, think about how to design, and sell, and market books, both in printed form – for those where that’s appropriate – and in digital form. And as much as possible, for practical reasons, design it so that you actually…so the book can grow out of one file, one set of files. It’s hard! But that’s what we need. Because otherwise, again, you’re back to doing several different versions of everything.

“So in the spirit of it all being questions, I’m concluding inconclusively, and I will throw it open to questions.”

Some of the best stuff, as you can imagine, came out in the questions.

Roger Black: “John, are you saying that we need to set, basically, an extension of HTML rules for typographical things like the relationship between line breaks and leading?”

Me: “Absolutely. How you go about it is a good question, and it’s something that I’m working on right now; but it’s important to have the capability, just as it’s important to have, in browsers and the systems that support them, support for OpenType features.

“But it’s the layout and spacing controls that are the most important part. It’s hard – but not impossible. CSS3 and HTML5 are beginning to add these capabilities. Obviously, in terms of browser constraints, not everybody is going to support that, but… It may be that you use HTML-based systems to still make applications; essentially the book could be an app, if you need control that you can’t have otherwise. I suspect that we’ll do it in both formats. It’s an open question.”

[Thanks for Jill Bell for sending me a copy of the video she shot from her phone, so I could find out what we actually said. The photos above are snapshots grabbed from that video.]