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Evan S. Connell

Published

I’ve just finished reading Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell, by Steve Paul (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2021). Connell is a peculiar writer, impossible to categorize; he’s been a favorite of mine since I first discovered his writing through North Point Press, my favorite American book publisher of the 1980s. He’s probably best known for his bestseller about Custer, Son of the Morning Star, which examines the Battle of the Little Big Horn from both sides, with its antecedents, its contexts, and its implications. He’s a master of finding the arresting detail, and his prose is wry and precise.

Mid-way through his career, Connell became closely involved with Berkeley-based North Point Press. “Everybody there is intelligent and courteous and they all seem to know what they’re doing – which is not at all true of some people I’ve met in the NY industry.” Jack Shoemaker, North Point’s editor in chief, encouraged Connell and continued to be his editor after North Point shut down and Shoemaker had to create a new publishing company (twice). Steve Paul devotes quite a few pages of the biography to North Point, giving me more background than I knew before now. He describes Shoemaker’s and publisher William Turnbull’s desire to make quality books, though he doesn’t mention David Bullen, North Point’s long-time book designer, who was responsible for how the books looked and felt. (Nor does he mention Jack Stauffacher, who was involved at the press’s inception and set some of the typographic standards that North Point became known for). What Bullen did at North Point was a strong influence on my own ideas about book design.

The other book that Evan S. Connell is best known for is his early novel, Mrs. Bridge, which is highly respected though I haven’t read it. His examination, in detail, of the empty life of an affluent Kansas City matron has simply never appealed to me; I’m much more fascinated by his delvings into history and art. Another of his books that I’ve failed to finish, despite being history-based, is Deus lo volt! (“God wills it!”), which is so effective at conveying the spirit and mindset of the Christians who launched the Crusades that I couldn’t go on; I couldn’t stand being inside their blinkered heads. Maybe one day I’ll come back to it.

But I have read quite a few of Connell’s books, either bought new in North Point editions (which were sometimes reissues) or found and snapped up in used-book stores. Connell’s life is somewhat opaque; he was a private person, notably untalkative. Steve Paul is smart to call his biography a “writing life”; that was clearly the way Connell saw himself. Paul makes it clear, though, that Connell had connections to much livelier characters, especially when he was living in Sausalito and San Francisco. And Paul is good at weaving the strands of Connell’s life together, and at showing how the writing, the publishing, the extensive, usually solitary travel, and the thoughts he expressed were all woven of the same cloth. Or perhaps, given his fascination with pre-Columbian pottery, I should say that they were thrown from the same clay.

Little, Big

Published

Its origins are lost in the mists of time. Ron Drummond, the one-man publisher of Incunabula, reminds us that he first broached the subject to John Crowley thirty years ago: the subject being a special, celebratory edition of Crowley’s well-loved novel, Little, Big (1981). Incunabula had already published one book by John Crowley and two by Samuel R. Delany, of which I had designed two: Crowley’s Antiquities (1991) and Delany’s Atlantis: Three Tales (1995).

Incunabula, which Ron had named in a combination of respect and chutzpah, was a small press that published worthwhile literary works of science fiction and fantasy (or fantastika as critic John Clute calls it). “Incunabula,” which means “cradles” or “swaddling clothes” in Latin, is used to refer to European printed books published before the year 1501. By that time, sixty years after Gutenberg’s innovations, printing had exploded from a craft into an industry, and many of the standards of book design that we still follow were well established. In calling his new press Incunabula, Ron was drawing on a very long tradition.

I have no recollection of when it was that Ron first asked me about designing this more ambitious volume. I can find files related to the project dating back to 2003, and my earliest design file, LB design 1.indd, is dated May 9, 2005. I’ve been working on this book for at least seventeen years.

I have often referred to it as “Zeno’s book project,” for the way it seemed to keep approaching completion without ever quite arriving. I have also sometimes called it “the Oxford Lectern Little, Big,” in reference to Bruce Rogers’s monumental Oxford Lectern Bible. Our book, however, is not so monumental as to require a lectern.

The tale of how this book came to take its final form, with an intricate interweaving of original etchings and engravings by the artist Peter Milton, would take too long to tell. It has its painful interludes. Ron’s ambitions didn’t always correspond with his practical abilities, or with his never-robust health; this was a much bigger project than any he had undertaken before. But his vision was always clear: choosing and framing details from Peter Milton’s art that would create a conversation with the text of the novel.

Now, amazingly, Zeno’s arrow has hit its target. A couple of weeks ago, my advance copy of the trade edition arrived in my hands, a few days after Ron’s copy reached him. It’s an 800-page tome, 7½ x 10 inches, sewn in signatures, printed on luxurious Mohawk Superfine paper, rich with art, and all digitally typeset in Akira Kobayashi’s historically inspired typeface FF Clifford. I can say, having hefted the book and laid it in my lap and begun my own rereading of a favorite text, that it’s everything I had hoped for: comfortably readable pages, beautifully printed images, in a sturdy yet flexible binding. The printer, Brilliant Graphics in Exton, Pennsylvania, did a masterful job.

Fulfillment will be handled through Dallas-based literary publisher and distributor Deep Vellum. There are still copies of the trade edition available for purchase. The 25th anniversary edition of Little, Big, which is now the 40th anniversary edition, is finally a reality.

Typographic memories: designing for Copper Canyon

Published

After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve come back to my sporadic typographic memoir, this time to talk about the years in the 1990s when I was the house designer for Copper Canyon Press. In that time, I designed not only the books but all the collateral material as well, trying to keep a consistent feel to everything that came out of the press while maintaining a variety of approaches to individual books.

This chapter is posted on Medium, as are all the previous chapters of the ongoing memoir project.

I still have all the files I created in producing those books, but I was working on a Mac before Apple adopted OS X, which fundamentally changed the file formats of the entire operating system. Unfortunately for future compatibility, all of those old files, none of which had filename extensions, now show up in the modern MacOS as “Unix executable files,” for lack of any other identification. Of course, the file information is still there; add the proper extension and the file type becomes recognizable. Whether it becomes openable, after something like a quarter century, is another question. But there are old Macs and old OSes and old versions of PageMaker. Somewhere.

In a few cases, I did create PDFs of my designs, either book covers or collateral like brochures. But any instances of Minion Multiple Master, the most advanced type technology of the time, which I used a lot, got lost in translation; current Adobe Acrobat technology doesn’t recognize the old MM fonts.

Such a waste of a brilliant technology! Such a short-sighted abandonment of sophisticated design. (Don’t get me started.)

Of course, with today’s variable fonts technology, you can get many of the same effects – and more. I just hope this tech doesn’t get left by the side of the information highway the way multiple-master formats did.

Really, isn’t the point to not lose information as techology advances? Including typographic and graphic-design technology. Our books need to be still readable in 500 years; or five years.

Typographer’s lunch 8: hey, look!

Published

I would like to direct your attention to a typographic element that is often ignored. Allow me to point out what makes it unique.

That element? The manicule. It’s also known as a fist, a hand, and by many other names, but it always takes the same basic form: a small image of a human hand, with the index finger pointing (usually to the right). Manicules date back to at least the Middle Ages, when it was quite common for readers to annotate their books, drawing a little hand in the margin to point out a particularly important or noteworthy passage. (“Manicule” comes from the Latin word for “little hand.”) Today they’re more likely to be part of a font, and to be used typographically, whether very large in a supermarket ad or at small size as an indicator of importance in a system of typographic hierarchy. They are often given a bright color to make them stand out. (Red is the traditional second color.)

Manicules can take the style of the font they’re in, just like ampersands or currency symbols. And now, the Dutch/Finnish type studio Underware, whose typefaces range from one of my favorite book faces, Dolly, to the truly bonkers stencil typeface Plakato, has issued a small booklet they call a “Manicule specimen,” demonstrating their versatility at imagining new forms of manicules for every occasion.

This little limited-edition book has a short text running through it, changing typeface twice per page, facing enlarged manicules in the same typeface, two per page. It’s a tour-de-force in its own highly specific way. And it serves to remind us that we have manicules at our fingertips, in many digital fonts, and that sometimes it’s appropriate to use them.

[Image: page spread from Underware’s Manicule specimen.]

[Originally published on February 8, 2022, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Typographer’s lunch 7: NYC subway map debate

Published

In 1978, in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York, a heated debate took place over a proposed redesign of the NYC subway map. In 2021, Gary Hustwit and Standards Manual published the transcript of that debate, accompanied by photos taken that same evening, in a smart-looking little book called The New York Subway Map Debate. It’s a document of design in the very real world.

The debate was a battle of two antagonistic concepts of what a transit map was supposed to do. In 1972, Massimo Vignelli and his studio had designed an elegantly abstract new subway map, doing away almost entirely with geography and presenting a schematic, almost a wiring diagram, of how to get from one point to another within a closed system. In 1978, a new map, championed by railroad enthusiast and cartographer John Tauranac, was proposed as a replacement. The new map would restore a semblance of geography, connect the subway to the city streets above, and show how the complex tangle of New York’s subways really worked. It was, as designer and debate panelist Peter Laundy later described it, “really a tunnel map rather than a route map.”

I started riding the New York subways in 1966, when I was sixteen. Shortly before that, Vignelli and Bob Noorda had designed a new signage system for the subways, assigning color-coded numbers or letters to each route. I found this system easy to follow; what I didn’t find easy to follow was the old signs in all the stations, pointing to the “BMT trains” or the “East Side Local.” The new system had not fully replaced the old, and to a novice these mixed signals were confusing. The Vignelli map had not yet been created, but the then-current subway map did identify all the lines by number or letter. There was no clue on it to the old nomenclature, or to the fact that the NYC subway system had been cobbled together from three separate companies, the IRT, the BMT, and the IND.

That map, and the Vignelli schematic in 1972, was an attempt at imposing order on a fundamentally chaotic and contradictory system. This, it seems to me, is exactly what design is supposed to do.

[Originally published on January 1, 2022, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Typographer’s lunch 6: the coming demise of PostScript fonts

Published

When I recently opened a book file that had been created several years ago, InDesign informed me, “Type 1 fonts will no longer be supported starting 2023. Your document contains 1 Type 1 fonts.” It was easy enough to replace the Type 1 font with an OpenType version of the same typeface, but what does this portend for book publishers with long lead times and large backlists?

I asked Thomas Phinney, the former CEO of FontLab and a former Product Manager for fonts at Adobe, what he thought about this. He told me he had just gotten off an hour-long call with an unnamed university press to discuss exactly this question.

The OpenType font format has been around for more than 20 years, and pretty much every digital font foundry upgraded its library to OpenType long ago. But not every user has upgraded their own type library. Anyone involved in publishing has probably made a big investment in fonts and is not in a hurry to make the same investment all over again.
The fact is that it’s time to bite that particular bullet. Thomas Phinney’s advice is to start thinking about your upgrade path right now: make a plan, budget for it, don’t leave it to the last minute.

If you subscribe to Adobe Fonts, you already have all those fonts in OpenType format. It makes sense, Phinney points out, to inventory the fonts you commonly use that are not in Adobe’s library and plan to upgrade those fonts first.

Incidentally, you don’t have to be actively using a Type 1 font to get that warning message when you open a document; if a Type 1 font is referenced in a paragraph or character style, even if you’re not using that style, it can trigger the warning.

Although there are apps for converting a Type 1 font into an OpenType font (notably FontLab’s TransType), the font’s license may not let you modify the font. Check with the font foundry to see what your options are.

[Originally published on December 1, 2021, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Typographer’s lunch 5: Letterform Archive in its new home

Published

I’ve just had a chance to peek behind the curtain at the Letterform Archive, to see its new digs in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. The move to larger quarters began before the pandemic, but everything moves slowly when you’re in quasi lockdown. The new Archive has much more space than the old location, including a spacious, well-lit double room that will become both a classroom and a reading room, with a folding dividing wall that is actually soundproof and that doubles as a whiteboard.

The first post-Covid exhibition opens in early November, a celebration of the centennial of the Bauhaus. Archive founder Rob Saunders showed us a sample copy of the elaborate catalog of the exhibition, which shows off the strengths of the Archive’s publishing program with its finely controlled stochastic printing, where you can peer closely at tiny reproductions of full two-page spreads and even read the text.

We looked at early printing examples such as Claude Garamond’s first Greek type (16th century) and the first type specimen known to be published by a woman printer (18th century). We also perused issues of the San Francisco Oracle from the late 1960s and an alternative newspaper from Ottawa, Octopus. On the back page of one issue of Octopus was a surprisingly professional-looking ad for “3 Days of Peace & Music” at Woodstock.

The Archive plans to begin regular tours in January (pandemic permitting).

[Originally published on November 1, 2021, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Typographer’s lunch 4: Gerard Unger’s life in letters

Published

Christopher Burke, Gerard Unger: Life in Letters (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij de Buitenkant, 2021).

Christopher Burke writes clearly and knowledgeably about type and the people who design it. His just-published biography of Dutch type designer Gerard Unger, one of the most prolific and talented type designers of the later 20th century and the early 21st, is quite simply a must-have book. It’s well made, effectively designed, artfully written, and lavishly illustrated.

Gerard Unger: Life in Letters is above all a book about process. In tracing Unger’s life and career, Burke shows Unger repeatedly wrestling with new techniques and new technologies, figuring out how to take advantage of them and finding creative ways to put even their constraints to use. Unger did not begin by cutting metal punches, but he came into the field of typography when it was adapting to phototypesetting, and he then encountered each new iteration of digital typesetting and type design. The book’s ample and detailed illustrations show these processes in abundance.

Unger was a pragmatic designer, always focused on making type that people could actually read. Whether designing signage faces for highways or metros, or text faces for daily newspapers, he studied what made the letters readable and incorporated his insights into each design. The distinctive curve forms of his letters were unique to him, often making it easy to spot an Unger typeface when you saw it. He incorporated history but always created something new; his last major typeface, Alverata, with its sanserif companion Sanserata, is both a usable text face and an exuberant expression of letter forms that first blossomed in Romanesque lettering a thousand years ago.

[Originally published on October 1, 2021, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Typographer’s lunch 3: DJR’s Font of the Month Club

Published

Need a font that’s strange and bonkers but also well made and usable? And a new one every month? Then join the Font of the Month Club.

Type designer David Jonathan Ross, better known as “DJR,” worked for nearly ten years at The Font Bureau, before starting his own independent digital type foundry in 2016. In 2018, he was awarded the Prix Charles Peignot, given by the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) to an outstanding type designer under the age of 35. You can find practical, versatile type families like Roslindale, Gimlet, and Forma at Type Network or through DJR’s own website. But what’s fascinating is when he goes wild, taking established typographic norms and forms and turning them inside out, to see what they might be capable of.

That’s what his Font of the Month Club is for. You can subscribe for a nominal fee ($6/month, or $2/month if you have a financial hardship), and every month Ross will send you a different, unpredictable new font. It might be something as pragmatic as Fern Text or as geometrically crazy as Megazoid, as spectacularly reverse-contrast as Tortellini or as unabashedly Victorian as Clavichord.

I have sometimes found ways to put some of these fonts to use the very month they are released. I’ve recently used Roslindale, Dattilo, Job Clarendon, and Rhododendron on book covers, for instance. It’s a delight to be able to send DJR a PDF that shows his typefaces in use (as I try to do whenever I’m using typefaces by a contemporary type designer). And it’s fun to try out freshly baked new fonts, fresh from the digital oven.

[Images: two snapshots of DJR’s tiny, tiny type specimen booklet.]

[Originally published on September 1, 2021, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Typographer’s lunch 2: Calibri

Published

You may have seen Microsoft’s recent announcement that they were releasing five new font families, one of which will end up replacing Calibri as the default font in Microsoft Office. “Calibri has been the default font for all things Microsoft since 2007,” the announcement read, “when it stepped in to replace Times New Roman across Microsoft Office. It has served us all well, but we believe it’s time to evolve.”

Originally Calibri, designed by Dutch type designer Luc(as) de Groot, wasn’t meant to be the new Office text face; that role would be given to Jelle Bosma’s sturdy serif typeface Cambria, which was designed to be a Times replacement. But Calibri worked so well that their roles got reversed.

Calibri is a humanist sans, which means that its letters are based on the familiar forms of Renaissance types and handwriting, but in a modern form: serifless and with hardly any contrast between thick and thin strokes. Calibri also features softly rounded ends to its strokes, which gives it a friendly, informal feel even though it’s a classically structured typeface.

De Groot gave Calibri a lot of extra features, including small-caps numerals, direction arrows, an alternate g, a swash ampersand, and an unexpectedly wide range of ligatures. Like all of the ClearType fonts, Calibri was designed simultaneously for Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic.

Both Calibri and Cambria were part of the ClearType Font Collection, a suite of digital typefaces commissioned in 2002 to take advantage of Microsoft’s then-new ClearType technology. Calibri proved versatile and popular, even after the underlying technology was superseded by higher screen resolutions.

Interestingly, all five of the new proposed replacements for Calibri are sans serifs.

[Originally published on August 1, 2021, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]