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

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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

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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.]

Typographer’s lunch

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When Dave Peattie, the vice-president of Publishing Professionals Network, asked me if I’d write a short column about type for the PPN email newsletter that he edits, naturally I said yes.

Thanks to an untimely system crash and an update that somehow didn’t get uploaded properly to Mailchimp, the July newsletter went out with an early draft of the text of my column, under a placeholder column title that I hadn’t chosen.

It would be silly to insist that Dave send out a corrected newsletter just for me, so I suggested that a simple solution: I would publish my intended version here, on my blog. And, of course, let you know about PPN.

Publishing Professionals Network (formerly Bookbuilders West) is based in the San Francisco Bay Area but widespread in its membership and influence. Its annual Book Show is a showcase for the best book designs in the West each year. In lieu of in-person meet-ups during the pandemic, PPN has had a monthly informal Zoom meet-up online, which has been a boon to those of us who don’t live in the Bay Area but like to hang out with our colleagues. You might want to join in. (You don’t have to be a PPN member to do so.)

Meanwhile, here’s the column. Some of you may have heard me talk about this subject before.

Cartoonish drawings of adults & children, and an adult shrunken down to the height of a child.

Typographer’s lunch | a column by John D. Berry | June 2021

Why use small caps? Small caps can look very elegant. They can help keep a forest of all-caps acronyms from overwhelming a page of text. They are a traditional way of setting off one kind of information, like a byline, from others, like a headline. In reference books, they are often used to highlight cross-references to terms that have their own entry elsewhere in the book.

Small caps are never strictly necessary; there are other ways of distinguishing information typographically. And many fonts, digital or otherwise, don’t include small caps in their character set. So before you specify small caps in a design, make sure they are available in the font you’re going to use. (To cover all the bases, better check for italic small caps, too.)

The software you’re using may try to be helpful by faking small caps if it can’t find them in the font. Fake small caps are nothing but capital letters that have been shrunk down to the x-height or a little higher (the height of the body of a lowercase letter). And that’s exactly what they look like: little miniatures, too light in weight compared to the rest of the letters, and too tightly spaced, so they look both spindly and crowded together. 

Fake small caps are especially distracting when they are set with full-size caps at the beginning of each word. Since the full caps are so much heavier than their shrunken companions, they draw extra attention to themselves, emphasizing the initial letter of each word. Unless you’re spelling out the meaning of an acronym, this is pointless and misleading. Just set the whole word in small caps.Small caps have to be designed, just like any other characters in a font. Like children, small caps have their own size and proportions; they’re not just adults shrunk down to child height. (When you look at Renaissance paintings where the artist has done just that, the children look uncanny and disturbing. So do fake small caps.) And they do need to be spaced out a bit, or they get into fights.

Close-up of lower part of first image, showing the drawn child and a shrunken-down drawn adult at the same height.

A talk on Jack Stauffacher’s legacy

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In October I joined Chuck Byrne to give a two-part talk about the life and work of Jack W. Stauffacher for the Society of Printers in Boston. No doubt in a normal time we would have traveled to Boston to address the members in person, but because of the pandemic the event was entirely virtual. This has its disadvantages (my connection was evidently a bit wonky, sometimes making my audio slur for a moment, though I had no way of knowing this until I listened to the recording later), but it has advantages as well: a much larger potential audience, one that was geographically dispersed although constrained by time zone. And of course the talk was recorded, so you can watch it now, well after the fact.

My part focused on Jack’s life, using the biographical essay I had written for Only on Saturday, the upcoming book from the Letterform Archive about Jack’s abstract wood-type prints. I was reading my text, rather than speaking extemporaneously, which seemed appropriate, since the book hadn’t yet been published. For the talk, I put together a selection of images that I hoped would give a visual counterpoint to the narration. Researching Jack Stauffacher’s life was a fascinating project, and finding a way to organize its many aspects and facets was a creative project of its own. But it was all in the service of telling people about Jack.

Chuck is the moving force behind the book, and in his part of the presentation he went through the book, page spread by page spread, explaining why they had chosen particular images and how they had put them together into a remarkable, highly visual volume. The design of the book is Chuck’s; he was quite sure that Jack’s approach to the design would have been different, but they were long-time friends and no doubt would have enjoyed mutually criticizing each other’s choices. It’s a beautifully designed book.

Talkin’ punctuation

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A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do a short talk on the subject of punctuation, to kick off an online British science-fiction convention that was called, for obscure reasons, Punctuation. I was happy to do it, as this gave me a chance to overlap my two long-time communities, typography and science fiction. (There are a few other people with a foot in each puddle.)

The original suggestion, from organizer Alison Scott, was for either a talk or a panel. “Say something about punctuation,” she said. Doing a short talk seemed like the better idea, but the mention of a panel was what prompted me to speak briefly about the very different notions that the two communities have of what a “panel” ought to be.

As intended, my talk was quite short, followed by Alison’s reading questions from the chat stream and my trying to answer them. It was fun to talk about punctuation, along with a few other somewhat related topics, and Alison was an excellent host.

The video is available on YouTube.

New JDB website

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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?”)

A history of TypeLab

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At the beginning of 2020’s online virtual TypeLab, Petr van Blokland was telling the story of how TypeLab started in the early ’90s.

He described it as “a rogue version of ATypI,” which he and a few collaborators (among them Gerrit Noordzij, David Berlow, Erik van Blokland, and other ATypI designers) put together for the 1993 conference in Antwerp. It grew out of the experience in Budapest a year earlier, when the various international delegates who didn’t speak Hungarian found themselves milling around outside during a lecture on Hungarian type that was being delivered in Hungarian (naturally) without translation (unfortunately). It became apparent, Petr said, that there might be value in providing something else for people to do when they didn’t want to spend all their time in the official program. (In those days, ATypI conferences were fairly small, and they had only a single track of programming.)

After Budapest, Petr suggested to the ATypI Board of Directors that they plan some kind of informal alternative for the Antwerp conference, but the Board wasn’t willing to do that. So Petr and his friends set up their own alternative, which they dubbed TypeLab.

This was a time when digital typography was still thought of as new; it was only three years since Zuzana Licko had épaté la typoisie at Type90 with her HyperCard-based, music-enhanced presentation on fonts for the screen. Very little content about digital type had made its way into ATypI’s main program so far, and what had been included was largely theoretical. TypeLab was meant to be a sort of hands-on side-conference, an experimental laboratory, with a room full of equipment where anybody could try out the new technologies.

They managed to secure sponsorship from Agfa, which made it possible to have the computers, software, and printers all freely available.

“The room of 15 x 15 meters,” says Petr, “was divided into four quarters: a little lecture theatre of 40 chairs, a design studio with Macs and software, a ‘lounge’ where people could sit, talk, and show their sketches and drawings (note that there wasn’t anything like phones or laptops back then), and a printing department (loaded with printers, a typesetter, and copying machines).

“The board of ATypI didn’t go for the idea, so we planned to rent a space on the other side of the street. In the summer of 1993 Agfa, the main sponsor of ATypI that year in Antwerp, got wind of the idea, so Petr got invited to the Antwerp headquarters in late July. The appointment was made with the chairman of the board of Agfa, and also present was the then chairman of ATypI, who still didn’t want TypeLab to happen. But Agfa left ATypI no choice and promised the intended lunch space to TypeLab, also allowing a wish list for equipment.”

Over the course of the conference, they made their own magazine for the delegates, conceived and printed on the fly, using fonts that had been created right there just the day before. “The A3 printed newspapers, ready at breakfast for the attendees, were indeed made with the type that was created the day before. Many traditional/regular ATypI participants thought that to be impossible. Making type was something costing years, not days.”

Petr recalls a student at the Antwerp conference telling him how Adrian Frutiger had wandered into the lab, and the student had shown him how Fontographer worked – a technology that Frutiger was completely unfamiliar with at the time.

That was the first of six TypeLabs, Petr said, the last one being held at the 1996 conference in The Hague. By that time, Petr himself was on the ATypI Board, and from then on, the essence of TypeLab got incorporated into the regular conference program. It was no longer necessary as a guerrilla alternative; it had arrived.

Five years ago, TypeLab got revived as an adjunct to the Typographics conferences that were getting started at Cooper Union in New York. Organizer Cara di Edwardo had suggested that there ought to be some sort of program on the side during the main conference, so Petr re-created TypeLab for the occasion. It has been a Typographics fixture ever since, and this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, TypeLab became an online-only, virtual event (“a 72-hour marathon,” says Petr), with participants and audience from around the world.

[Image: big blue TypeLab-branded folder for conference materials, from ATypI 1993 in Antwerp.]

Setting type on Skid Row

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I have continued my memoir of falling into phototypesetting and working in a small print shop in Seattle in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Franklin Press moved from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square within a month of my starting there. Being in the heart of the city, and in the heart of Seattle’s pre-grunge alternative culture, I felt intimately connected with the life of the city. And I was learning a craft I had never suspected that I would take up.

Franklin Press

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More history, this time my own. As I worked on researching the first part of a history of ATypI, I came to realize that I myself had been around long enough that my recollections formed part of typographic history. So I’ve started writing down my memories of how I got involved with typography – a sort of typographic memoir. I came to type sideways, like everything else in my so-called career. I’ve just posted a draft of the first bit on Medium. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

Designers of books

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“Who’s your favorite book designer?” That was the innocent-seeming question that Deborah Iaria, an Italian typographer based in London, asked me yesterday, during one of TypeThursday’s one-to-one “coffee” chats on Zoom. We had just established that we both loved designing books, so that question didn’t come out of the blue. But it’s a question I haven’t been asked very often, unlike the much more common query, “What’s your favorite typeface?” (My reply to that is usually, “It depends on what I’m going to use it for,” followed by naming a few perennial favorites like Verdigris, Dolly, Profile, and Beorcana.)

After a long pause while I pondered the question, I decided on an answer: the late San Francisco printer Jack Stauffacher. Not only had I learned a lot from Jack in person, but examples of his aesthetic and his craft, even before I met him, had taught me a lot of what I know about placing text and image on a page. And about the importance of books as carriers of culture.

But since that conversation, I have kept coming back to the question. There are lots of excellent book designers, both historical and contemporary, but which ones have influenced me the most? Which ones are my “favorites”?

From the first half of the 20th century, I would cite Jan Tschichold, W.A. Dwiggins, and Bruce Rogers as primary influences. And Jack Stauffacher’s old friend, whom unfortunately I never met: Adrian Wilson. From my own time, I greatly admire the work of the late Steve Renner, long-time art director at the University of California Press, whose spare, modern style always seemed in direct contradiction to his passion for restoring old hotrod cars.

Two more recent designers whose work I have tried to emulate are David Bullen and Tree Swenson. David Bullen established and maintained the high standards of the Berkeley-based North Point Press in the 1980s (the initial templates owed a lot to Jack Stauffacher), which was a model to me of an independent book publisher of works worth reading. Tree Swenson was the long-time publisher and designer of Copper Canyon Press, the eminent international poetry publisher in Port Townsend, Washington. After Tree left and Sam Hamill asked me to take over as house designer, it was Tree’s established standards of quality that I tried to live up to. (I was very happy when she seemed to think that I had succeeded.)

Others who leap to mind are Valerie Brewster, who later took over much of the book design for Copper Canyon and has produced many, many subtly and elegantly designed books, and Saki Mafundikwa, who was an art director at Random House before returning to Zimbabwe to found the visual/digital design school ZIVA, and who wrote and designed the seminal book Afrikan Alphabets. And John Hubbard, whom I worked with at Marquand Books in the 1990s, and who has continued to design exquisite art books ever since. No doubt I’ll think of more the moment I commit this post to pixels.

I haven’t even considered anyone from before the turn of the 20th century, and I’m not reaching beyond the Western world of printing and publishing. I’ve seen some brilliant book designs from Japan and China, but since I can’t read either language, I can’t really consider them to be influences on my ideas about text typography.

So: who’s your favorite book designer?