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Archive for the category ‘books’

Typographic memories: designing for Copper Canyon


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!


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


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


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


“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


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


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)


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.

Adieu, W.S. Merwin


The wonderful poet W.S. Merwin died two weeks ago. I had the pleasure of meeting him once and being in his presence twice, and I had the honor of designing one of his books (Flower & Hand: poems 1977–1983, a reissue of his early work by Copper Canyon Press) and designing the cover of one more (East Window: the Asian poems, also for Copper Canyon). I came to his poems from designing the first of these books, but his work has become a touchstone for me and an example of what poetry can be.

The time I got meet him was when he was in Seattle for a reading at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (in fact, it might have been so long ago that it was still the Seattle Art Museum, before SAM opened a new site downtown and the Art Deco building in Volunteer Park became the Asian). After the reading proper, Merwin was ready sign books – but the art museum was strict about its closing time, so we ended up on the loading dock at the north end of the building, in chilly weather, with Merwin gamely signing books for everyone who had bought one and wanted a signature. I’m sure he later remembered that somewhat trying moment.

He came back to Seattle for a later reading, at the Seattle Public Library’s main branch downtown, and afterward there was a party at the tippy-top of Smith Tower. It was hosted by a patron who was living in the almost-secret apartment at the top of Seattle’s oldest skyscraper (for a brief time, around the turn of the last century, the Smith Tower was the tallest building west of the Mississippi), tucked into the top, above the level formerly known as the Chinese Room (now an observatory and bar) that everybody thinks of as the highest part of the tower. The family that lived there was well-off, obviously, or they wouldn’t have been there; and they welcomed a bunch of artsy types into their home to celebrate the work and the presence of W.S. Merwin. Details I remember: the Dale Chihuly glass-sculpture chandelier (bottom left) hanging down from the pointed top; the mezzanine/balcony level running around the interior of the pyramidal space; lots of very fine food and wine catered on tables on the main floor; and the ladder to the actual tip of the tower, where you could crawl out into the night air and view the lights of downtown Seattle (I decided that I was probably not svelte enough to make this ascent, and declined). I never did actually talk with Merwin at that event, but I think he had sufficient attention from the other admirers present.

Merwin’s elegiac poems from his later years speak volumes to me, and fit my own autumnal sensibility as my friends and I age and as the world seems (sometimes) to be descending into darkness. But then, the world always seems to be doing that, at least when you yourself have gotten old. I take Merwin’s late-in-life poems as a guide and a voice in the mist; and I appreciate all of his words, recent and old, as an expression of what it means to be human. Thank you, Bill Merwin.

Gerard Unger, Theory of Type Design


I recently finished reading Gerard Unger’s final book, Theory of Type Design, which I bought at the ATypI conference in Antwerp last September and which Gerard signed at the book-launch event there. It was the last time I saw him, as he died of cancer only a couple of months later.

It took me quite a while to read through Theory, not because it’s at all difficult but because each time I finished a chapter, I wanted to put the book aside and savor what I had just read. It is not, after all, a book with a plot, like a novel; it is, however, a book with a theme and a clear development of that theme.

What Gerard Unger does in this book is nothing less than provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the design of type, from its origins to the ways we design, read, and design with digital type today on a multitude of screens. Unger always thought about type systematically and observantly, looking for the connections and common elements that bind together such a disparate and unruly history. He was himself a consummate type designer, and a famously thoughtful and helpful teacher. You can hear his voice on every page.

Although his range as a designer was wide, you can often tell a Gerard Unger typeface at a glance; they have a commonality of approach and feel that transcends individual style. One element that I’ve noticed for many years is the way he would pare away what isn’t necessary, including connections within letters: he explored how much you could delete while keeping a typeface happily readable – a useful experiment when you design type for unfavorable conditions of printing or screen viewing. In a note (on page 196), he remarks, “The purest forms I have made as a type design are those of Decoder (1992).” Decoder was a purely experimental typeface (based on the shapes in his typeface Amerigo) issued as an early part of the FUSE project, to see what people would make of the detached yet recognizable parts of Latin letters.

I had hoped to have a chance to interview Gerard for the history of ATypI that I’m working on, since he had been closely involved for many years, but his deteriorating health made that impossible. Despite this, amazingly, he took the trouble after the conference to write me a short note, to let me know that he wouldn’t be able to help after all. That’s the kind of person Gerard Unger was.