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Archive for the category ‘books’

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 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.]

A talk on Jack Stauffacher’s legacy

Published

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.

Designers of books

Published

“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?

Visualizing with text

Published

I had fun recently collaborating with Richard Brath, the author of Visualizing with Text, on a cover for this upcoming book from CRC Press. It’s part of the AK Peters Visualization Series, a line of books from Routledge that focuses on different ways of visualizing information, largely scientific or technical. Brath has written a specialized yet informative study of the many ways that text can function as an element of visual design.

Not surprisingly, the book is richly illustrated, so we had lots of possibilities when it came to pulling images that might be used on the cover. But first I tried out a number of dramatic single images of type or letters that did not come from the book. Richard responded with a very dense collage of images from within his own text, which I found fascinating but probably overwrought for a book cover. Especially for the cover of a book that would most likely be seen as a thumbnail in a catalog or online, rather than displayed lavishly on the front table of a bookstore.

The process, as I said, was fun, going back and forth and trying out different combinations to find one that would both be dramatic and reflect the diversity of techniques that his book covers.

I also got the publisher’s permission to replace the ITC American Typewriter that they had been using on the covers of this series with David Jonathan Ross’s recent revival of Dattilo, a typewriter-inspired Italian typeface of the early 1970s that was originally issued by Nebiolo. Like American Typewriter, Dattilo is not actually monospaced at all; it just reminds us of a monospaced typewriter face. But Dattilo has a much richer variety of weights and optical sizes, enabling me to take the same series design and give it a much more dramatic typographic treatment.

Richard Brath has written his own informative blog post about designing the cover of his book. The book will be published this fall.

Trouble in Tiny Town

Published

We’re all locked away from our favorite bookstores during the current pandemic, so I haven’t seen the trade-paperback edition of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel The House of Broken Angels in printed form. But I did see a little thumbnail image of the cover in Moira Macdonald’s recent book column in the Seattle Times. That image didn’t quite have the effect it was meant to have: I burst out laughing the moment I saw it.

The symmetrical arrangement of the principal words of the title, and the small size of the ancillary words, turns the title into what appears to be a stack of three words. And the tiny “OF” next to “HOUSE,” at this size, can easily be mistaken for a hyphen.

So you end up with “THE HOUSE-BROKEN ANGELS.” Which would no doubt be a very different book.

The paperback cover looks just fine at full size, as it would if you saw it displayed on a table in a bookstore. And the very different design of the hardcover jacket isn’t so symmetrical, which makes it less prone to this kind of misreading.

I’m not showing this to make fun of the book-cover design. I’m using it to point out how important it is for a cover designer to look at their design in all the contexts it may be seen in, including at Lilliputian size on a newspaper page or on a website on someone’s phone. How can it be misread? If it can be, it will be.

[Images: trade-paperback cover (top) and hardcover jacket (bottom) of Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels]

Hanging by a serif (again)

Published

The visual concept behind Hanging by a serif came from something I was playing with for our 2012–2013 holiday card. “The stockings were hung by the serifs with care…” read the front of the card; inside, the text continued, “…in hopes that typographers soon would be there.” On the front, a wild cacophony of huge serifs barged in from the outer edges, with little green Christmas-tree ornaments appended to a couple of them. The background was a pale-green image of a potted conifer, drawn in stained-glass-style, taken from an image-based “Design Font” that Phill Grimshaw had designed in the 1990s for ITC. (The inside also featured a pale background image from the same font, this time of a wrapped package.) It was fun, though I wondered what our non-typographer friends and family would make of it when we sent it out.

Later that year, I began experimenting with the concept, juxtaposing short snippets of text from my own writing with big details from various serifs. I found that I had a lot of statements or fragments on the subject of design that seemed to fit into this format. Eventually, these epigrams and serifs took the form of the first edition of the book Hanging by a serif.

That first edition caught the eye of Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, whose Mainz-based company, Hermann Schmidt Verlag, has published so many excellent books on typography and design. Bertram wanted to do a German edition of my little booklet, which would be a nice calling card for his publishing program and might even sell a lot of copies. (It didn’t.)

Bertram’s approach to publishing is thorough, and he wanted to include notes about which typefaces all the serifs had come from. This sent me back down the rabbit hole into my own production process, since I had been working with truncated images for most of the design of the book, and I hadn’t kept very careful track of what typefaces my serifs had originally been attached to. It took quite a bit of retrospective detective work to find all my sources. (Hint: a couple of the images had been reversed.) In this sense, the German edition is more thorough than mine. It also has a couple of serifs or serif-like glyphs that are different from the ones I used.

But one of the epigrams bothered Bertram: “Most graphic designers never get more than rudimentary training in typography.” While true, this struck him as too negative, and he suggested coming up with a replacement. In the end, we went with a statement in German that translated as, “Typography is never an end in itself, it targets the eye of the beholder.” (Probably pithier in German.)

When it came time to do a new English edition of the book (since I was running out of copies of the original), I decided to make two changes. The serif I had used on the cover of the first edition was taken from Justin Howes’s ITC Founder’s Caslon, a digital reproduction of William Caslon’s original types in which Justin attempted to re-create the exact effect of the metal type printed on hand-made 18th-century paper. The outline, therefore, was rough. This roughness around the edges bothered a number of people, some of whom asked me if perhaps the image had been printed at too low a resolution. It hadn’t; this was precisely the effect that the typeface was designed to have, but blown up to extra-large size like this, it was distracting. So for the new edition I searched out a new serif that would work well on the cover. (The serif I chose is from Matthew Carter’s newly released type family for Morisawa, Role.)

And I did replace the problematic epigram that had bothered Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, though not with the one we used in the German edition. As I had mentioned once in this blog, a quip of mine had been making the rounds of social media for some time, being quoted repeatedly out of context, and I thought it really belonged in this compendium. So if you turn to page 16 of the new edition, you’ll find this: “Only when the design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible.” It really wanted to hang with the other serifs, and now it does.