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Have you seen this poster?

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If you’ve been to our house, perhaps you have, though it’s currently displayed in an unconspicuous place. I’ve had this poster since I picked it up on the street in Berkeley, California, sometime in the early 1970s; most likely during the year I lived in San Francisco after graduating from college in 1971. I bought it not just for its political content but because it was beautiful. But I’ve never been able to find out who made the poster.

It’s silkscreened, in many colors. There’s no signature. The art is brilliant, the lettering very funky (deliberately, I assume), and the vertical placement of the word “DOWN” is witty. But who did it? I asked David Lance Goines, who I thought might know, but the artist he suggested wasn’t working in Berkeley that early in the ’70s. Have you seen this poster before, or other work by the same artist? I’d love to solve this mystery at last.

When I got this framed, several years ago, by the Seattle artist and frame-shop owner Kay Rood, she reminisced about her days in France in May 1968, helping student radicals print revolutionary posters for that spring’s huge demonstrations. But alas, she said ruefully, it never occurred to her to keep copies of any of them.

[Update, Dec. 14:] I’ve added a close-up of a detail from the poster, to give a little better idea of what the artwork is like. Some of it reminds me of cut-paper techniques and of woodblock prints, though this is silkscreened.

Typographer’s lament

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Browsing through a local bookstore yesterday, I kept picking up interesting-looking new books and opening them, only to put them down again when I saw the inside typography. An uninviting text page can put off any reader; it’s just that as a typographer and a book designer, I can tell exactly what it is that puts me off.

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, in Penguin trade paperback: typeset in an overly contrasting version of Baskerville (probably ITC New Baskerville, though I couldn’t be sure), in lines that were two or three picas too wide for comfortable reading. John Crowley’s The Solitudes, in the newly reprinted edition from Overlook, is set in Rotis Serif, a typeface that looks superficially attractive but consists of a mismatched set of letterforms in which the most common letters are quirky and draw attention to themselves.

The Landmark Herodotus sounded fascinating: a spacious volume, informatively annotated, bedecked with useful maps. But its text type appears light and blotchy throughout. The typeface is Matthew Carter’s excellent ITC Galliard, but it looks like the early Adobe version, which was indifferently digitized and has a poorly spaced italic. The numbers are all set in lining uppercase numerals, jutting up to full cap height, instead of old-style lowercase numerals, as befits any text, and especially a translation of a classic. In addition, the page design doesn’t quite fit the binding; it’s a thick book, and the gutters are too narrow, which would make reading uncomfortable.

I found one fine exception: Maps: finding our place in the world, edited by James R. Ackerman and Robert W. Karrow (University of Chicago Press). The typeface is Dolly, which is robust and easily readable in extended text, and the page design uses it effectively. That one I might actually buy. It’s the shame the same designers didn’t take on the Herodotus.

Helvetica outtakes

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My copy of the Helvetica DVD arrived a couple of days ago – you know, Gary Hustwit’s full-length documentary about a typeface, which has become inexplicably popular far beyond the typographic world. What this film does more than anything else – more than tell us about the actual typeface Helvetica, though it does that quite well – is show us how ubiquitous type is in the world around us, and how this obscure practice, typography, is something we live with every single day. That, I imagine, is the source of its wider appeal.

I’ve been browsing the DVD’s “Extras” – outtakes and extra material that didn’t make it into the movie. My favorite quotes are from Neville Brody and Erik Spiekermann:

Neville Brody on type in the world: “All schools should be teaching typography. We should be fundamentally aware of how typographic language is forming our thoughts.”

Erik Spiekermann, after describing how he’s been re-designing the timetables for the German railroads: “That stuff is what makes a nation’s culture: it’s the visual surrounding. You know: good architecture, good food, and good timetables, or good announcements on the walls of stations – I think that’s a very important cultural contribution.” [Erik Spiekermann]

I was also pleased to hear that, like me, Erik looks first to the lowercase a when identifying a typeface.

Rooms at the top

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When I saw the photos of the door and room signage in the New York Times building, in John Hockenberry’s article in the current Metropolis, I wondered how easy it would be to find your way around in the newspaper’s new digs.

Signs on rooms and doors, designed by Pentagram, use images from the newspaper’s photo archives as backgrounds – a nice touch of context and tradition. Labels are superimposed over the black-and-white photos, in reversed-out industrial-grotesque lettering. Each room number contains several levels of information, encoded in an alphanumeric string: 20S2-234, for example, means room 234 in quadrant 2 of the south section of the 20th floor.

But if you’re actually walking around the 20th floor, trying to locate a particular office and wondering exactly where you are, does this undifferentiated string do the job? I haven’t been in the new Times building, so I don’t know the answer first-hand, but I’ve wandered the corridors of enough confusing office buildings to know the problem. Room numbers like this all tend to run together, at least at first glance – and first glance is exactly what you use to orient yourself in unfamiliar surroundings.

It seems that a simple bit of added contrast would help sort out the parts of the complicated number. Why not use weight or color to make the “S” or “N” stand out, which would also clearly separate the numbers of the floor from the number of the quadrant? Wouldn’t that make these numbers more functional?

As it stands, they seem excessively uniform and minimal, as though the photo were the most important part, not the information conveyed by the sign. They’re like a stereo remote where all the buttons look the same. Which one is fast forward? What floor am I on?

Portland transit

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In the quest for transit signage all around the globe, I snapped this shot last weekend on the platform of Portland, Oregon’s MAX light-rail system, at the Hollywood station. Helvetica was in evidence on the platform, although in the trains themselves, much of the informational signage used Thesis Mix.

Close-up of directional signs at MAX station in Portland, Oregon.

Portland’s light-rail system is more extensive than I’d realized. It has three lines, with more planned. There’s also a downtown streetcar line, and of course a whole network of buses. MAX is part of a three-county metropolitan system (which is why the transit agency is called “TriMet”). While it falls short of the kind of city-blanketing network you’d find in New York, London, or Tokyo, it does get people around. Seattle’s single line, still incomplete, looks anemic by comparison.

Post-cyberpunk

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Cory Doctorow just posted a note on Boing Boing about a book I designed: Rewired: the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007). He wasn’t writing about the design, of course, but about the content; still, it was startling to scroll down the page and come upon my own cover design. The infrastructural photo was taken at a construction site south of Market in San Francisco; the photographer, Patty Nason, went roaming one night with Tachyon editor Jill Roberts, in search of a suitable cover image.

The book’s title is in a typeface I’ve always liked but never expected to find an actual use for: Jonathan Hoefler’s Gestalt. It could never be used for an unusual name or word; the letterforms themselves are so unusual that the word has to be familiar and easy to recognize. (The repetition of re in the word “rewired” helps that recognition.) I always get a frisson of pleasure out of finding that one perfect use for an unusual typeface or type element.

I’ve designed several anthologies for Tachyon, including the three (soon to be four) Tiptree Award anthologies and a previous Kelly/Kessel collaboration, Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology. It’s always an adventure dealing with an anthology, where the material may be in all sorts of divergent forms (and will inevitably arrive in a host of incompatible formats). It’s most satisfying when I’m designing both the cover and the interior, so the two will be integrated; even better is when I design an entire marketing campaign, with a consistent message and graphic style, as I did three years ago for Eileen’s book when Tachyon published it.

I’ve been carrying Rewired around with me, testing it out as a physical object and finally reading the stories that I didn’t get to during book production. I’m pleased with the way this one came out; it’s light and portable, even though it’s a big book, and it seems comfortable to read, which is the whole point. (The typefaces used throughout, apart from the title on the cover, are varieties of Josh Darden’s Freight family.) Good stories, too. Cory’s own remarkably moving story “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is one of the highlights.

21st-century art on the Sea of Japan

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In August we visited Kanazawa, an old city on the Sea of Japan, where there’s a ruined castle, one of the three most celebrated gardens in Japan, and the brand-new, opened-in-February 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.

What got my attention was the museum. It’s circular in plan, with four entrances; there’s no “front,” and the museum’s spaces comprise a cavalcade of rooms, corridors, and open courtyards, all of them of different sizes, shapes, and even heights. It’s the most amazing interpenetration of outside and inside, public space and private space, that I’ve ever seen. The art was pretty good, too, but it was the museum itself that I’m glad I saw.

One of the permanent installations is the James Turrell Room, a huge square room like a Roman pluvium: open to the sky in the middle, with stone walls and bench seats and a stone floor with subtle, nearly invisible drainage for the runoff when it rains. And it did rain. When I first went into the Turrell Room, it was a humid, pre-storm day; the clouds ran overhead on the wind, with patches of blue sky appearing and disappearing behind them, and the air in the room was intensely humid. (So was the world outside.) A little while later, when I dragged Eileen and Ellen Datlow back to see the Turrell Room, it had rained; the floor was wet, and a light after-storm sprinkle still fell through the wide square opening in the roof. In typical James Turrell style, extremely subtle banks of lights glowed behind the backs of the side-benches, tinting the walls a slowly-changing range of pastels, which added to the luminous effect. It was a peculiar form of site-specific magic.

One of the two current exhibits was created for the Kanazawa museum, although the artist was from the UK: Grayson Perry’s “My Civilization” presents a kaleidoscopic overview of Perry’s transgressive work, in a form created expressly for this venue. The show opened in Kanazawa, and only later would it head off to London. While Perry’s drawing and ceramic skills impressed me, and he struck me as a wonderfully disruptive kind of artist, it remained the museum itself that pleased me more than any of the art within it.

The interior spaces vary in height and shape and purpose; they’re intertwined with corridors and courtyards that are open to the air – and sometimes to the public, who otherwise have to pay an admission fee for the main exhibits. That interpenetration is at the heart of the Kanazawa museum: literally as well as intellectually.

The museum even uses a schematic of its circular layout as its logo. At the museum shop, I picked up a nicely patterned orange-and-white neck cloth (one of those necessities of Japan’s hot, humid summers) with the logo worked into its design; it served me well, both practically and as an image of the museum, until I left it on the Gatwick Express, three weeks later and a world away.

Although Kanazawa has a long history, establishing a cutting edge art museum there is probably a bit like creating, say, a Spokane Museum of Contemporary Art, and endowing it with a huge budget and a global mission. (Not that I wouldn’t be happy to see such a thing.) It appeals to my anti-metropolitan bias, though my equally strong metropolitan bias just shakes its head. I applaud what looks to me like a heroic effort, and I’m glad to have had the chance to walk through this museum only months after its opening, before some of my Japanese acquaintances have even had a chance to visit it

Cultural node

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When I was in San Francisco last week – no, the week before last – at Jack Stauffacher’s regular Friday lunch in North Beach, the people seated around the table found themselves reading about…themselves. Occasional luncher Kristina Bell had brought one of the editors of Task Newsletter, and he had brought with him copies of the first issue – which included an article by Kristina about these very lunches. Actually, it was a selection of transcripts from the conversation on various Fridays, plus a few thumbnail photos of attendees. To see some of the same people intently reading, or at least browsing through, an article about themselves and their conversation some months earlier…it gets recursive, like an infinitely receding set of mirrors.

I always make a point of trying to time my San Francisco sojourns so that I can make it to lunch on Friday. The café is nothing special, just a friendly place with decent sandwiches, not too crowded and not too noisy, where we can talk. To preserve the privacy of these permeable but non-public gatherings, the Task article blacks out the name of the café each time it’s mentioned, giving the piece a resemblance to something you might obtain through the Freedom of Information Act after it’s been redacted by the FBI.

Jack encourages a sort of show-and-tell from the people who come to these lunches, and you never know what people will bring. Sometimes it’s a book from Jack’s own collection, sometimes a project someone is working on, sometimes intellectual booty brought back from afar by a recent traveler. This time, Jack had brought a copy of the 1946 edition of László Moholy-Nagy’s The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist, designed by Paul Rand; I had just been looking at this very book’s title page in Alan Bartram‘s Bauhaus, Modernism & the Illustrated Book. It was instructive to see how much more effective Rand’s design was in the hand than in a tiny reproduction.

Like Jack himself, the lunches make connections: not just of people, but of ideas. I firmly believe that it’s in unpretentious exchanges like this that culture is made.

[Photos | Top: William Clauson, Jack Stauffacher. Bottom: Pino Trogu, Slobodan Dan Paich, Eileen Gunn, Kristina Bell.]

Hopeful lettering

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On a street in London, on my way back to the tube station from Hoxley Square, I spotted this mixture of lettering: the lovingly hand-drawn text and logo, and some unusually hopeful-looking graffiti underneath. Not a bit of pre-formed type to be seen.

I almost got hit by an over-enthusiastic driver gunning his engine when the light changed, as I was out in the street getting a good angle for the photo. Typespotting can be hazardous to your health.

Working in place

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Julie Gomoll, who gave me and Paul Novitski a lot of help in figuring out how this blog ought to work, is involved in a project that makes me envious. She’s busy setting up LaunchPad Coworking, a co-working café in Austin, Texas – and as soon as I heard about it I wanted one in my town, too. I’d like one around the corner, please. (Actually, since I live in Seattle, it seems entirely likely that someone will open such a café here, and when they do, it’ll probably be in my neighborhood.)

I’ve always liked the idea of dispersed work, and the complementary idea of places where people could work independently together. The physical combination of a workplace and a social space could be disastrous, but it could also be enormously energizing. Depends on the people, of course, and on how it’s set up.

Julie has started a number of businesses (go ahead, google her), and this one has instant appeal. She and her co-conspirators are documenting the ramp-up on a blog (naturally), with photos. Looks like fun. Let’s see, when will I be in Austin next?

They’re aiming to open in the spring.