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Archive for the category ‘design’

Traveling & listening & talking: Typo Day

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“I can’t believe this is your first time,” said the young Indian woman with whom I was sharing the auto-rickshaw.

“It is, though,” I replied, calmly clutching a handhold as the three-wheeled vehicle careered through the traffic of northern Mumbai.

I hadn’t even encountered yet the full roar of the city, but Indian traffic was proving to be everything I had expected it to be. Chaotic, crowded, incredibly varied, and resoundingly effective at getting everyone around, despite the lack of any perceivable patterns. Drivers seemed to navigate by echo-location, honking fairly constantly to let other drivers know that they were approaching; and they might approach from pretty much any direction, or any side. Lanes, although clearly marked, were completely ignored, and each participant in the mêlée of Mumbai road traffic claimed possession of every inch of available space, whether occupied or not. Private cars predominated, but alongside them you’d find gaily decorated trucks, flitting motorbikes, daredevil pedestrians, and of course swarms of putt-putting auto-rickshaws, all punctuated with occasional feral dogs and meandering cattle.

I was in Mumbai for only a few days, invited as a keynote speaker at Typography Day 2015, an annual event that moves around among various Indian universities. This year it was being held at its original home, IIT Bombay, or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. The large, leafy campus lies on the northern fringe of Mumbai, abutting the shore of Powai Lake and at the southern tip of the vast hilly Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The university has about 8,000 students in a variety of faculties, clustered throughout the campus; many of the central buildings are aligned along a covered open-air walkway known as the Infinite Corridor. Although the campus feels considerably less crowded than the heart of Mumbai, and it suffers much less from the ever-present air pollution, proximity to the national park requires signs like one I saw near the lake warning that a panther had been spotted in the vicinity. “Well,” as one local put it to me, “we’re encroaching on their territory, so why wouldn’t they came into ours?”

Typo Day was put on by the Industrial Design Center, the design school at IIT, and the talks were presented in the IDC’s large, modern auditorium. Outside the auditorium was a large common area where people could mingle during the breaks for the aptly named “tea and networking,” and just outside the building, a display of typographic posters was hung in the open air and a sculptural assemblage of 3D Indian letters climbed one of the twisting trees.

The displays, like the subjects of talks and workshops, were not only multilingual but multi-script. India is a land of many languages and many writing systems; Hindi is simply the largest, and the dominant one in northern India, but the only common language that educated Indians have throughout the country is English. Although most of the various Indian writing systems are somehow related to Devanagari, the complex script developed for ancient Sanskrit and used today for Hindi and several other North Indian languages, the relationship is tenuous enough that only scholars can really spot the similarities. As one Hindi-speaking designer from Mumbai put it, “If I go to Bangalore, I can only admire the writing there as shapes; I cannot read it.” Several of the talks at Typo Day dealt with the fine points of Devanagari type designs and manuscript traditions; others dealt with different writing systems, including one talk by a woman from Sri Lanka, Sumanthri Samarawickrama, about the lack of vocabulary to describe the letterforms of written Sinhala.

But it wasn’t just fine points and details. There was exuberant creativity on display, and the other keynote speaker, Itu Chaudhuri, gave an inspiring and well-illustrated talk about how a love of letters “will enrich your life.” He then proceeded to demonstrate how it had enriched his.

I was treated extremely well by the organizers of Typo Day, Prof. Ravi Poobaiah and his wife, Dr. Ajanta Sen. Not only did they fly me to Mumbai, have students meet me at the airport when my flight arrived in the middle of a hot March night, and put me up in the comfortable Guest House at IIT, but on the day after the end of the conference they arranged a car and driver for me to explore Mumbai (and its traffic), and the next night they had me staying at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which is every bit as luxurious as it sounds. We had met there for dinner the night before, but, as Ravi explained, there wasn’t a room available that night, so they drove me back to IIT, with Ajanta giving me a running commentary on the history of the heart of the city and which buildings she had grown up in.

At the conference, I found myself being naturally adopted into the circle of gray-haired elders of Indian design, though I also met quite a few younger designers and students. Although I often missed the jokes, sometimes from lack of context, sometimes from not catching the accents, I enjoyed the company of these men and women with their shared history of typography and graphic design in India. (Accents varied. There was one brilliant, impassioned speaker that I had a very hard time understanding; when I mentioned this to someone else, he said, “Oh, yes, he has a strong Marathi accent. He sounds the same when he speaks Hindi.” What he was saying was so forceful that I regretted missing some of it through my own incomprehension.) I felt as though I had only scratched the surface of the typographic culture of the country.

I barely scratched the surface of Mumbai, too. I spent one afternoon walking around the streets near the Gateway of India, the monumental stone arch that once welcomed incoming ships of the British Empire during the Raj. (The Yacht Club was right across the street from the public park in front of the Gateway.) Although I clearly stood out as a foreigner, the only hassles I had on the streets were the expected attempts to sell me something; most of the time, people just ignored me and went about their way, as they ignored most of the teeming crowds around them. I visited a couple of museums, of which the oddest and thus most fascinating was the Mumbai City Museum, with its collections of objects and artifacts and models and dioramas depicting the city’s history. In one room was a current exhibit about the cultural and economic connections through history of the two sides of the Arabian Sea.

I also dropped in to the vast Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum, to see the relatively small permanent exhibit on “Pre and Proto History,” the pre-Hindu Indus Valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Most of the objects, however, were reproductions; the originals were in Delhi.

Impressions of Mumbai:

Very, very hot. No surprise there! I adopted a slow amble as I walked through the streets, in accord with the way most people seemed to be moving, just sort of easing through the humidity with a minimum of effort and disturbance.

Huge contrasts of affluence and poverty. Also no surprise, frankly; I knew I would encounter this, and I was neither shocked nor numbed by the inescapable poverty. I saw some of the upper levels of Indian society, but the top and the bottom mingle on the same streets. I did not try venturing into any slums, such as Dharavi, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed; nor did I go to see colorful fisherfolk on the quay at Sassoon Dock. For that matter, I did not go see a Bollywood movie while I was in the town that makes them. I just looked and listened wherever I was, and experienced the city that I was presented with, in all its ordinary glory.

Traffic. But you already know about that. It was wild and wooly, yet I never saw an accident of any kind.

Urban texture. It seemed as though everything I saw in Mumbai was either crumbling away or in the midst of being built. When I mentioned this to Ajanta Sen, she said yes, that’s exactly the way it is. Many big cities give this impression, but Mumbai had it in spades.

Military bands. This wasn’t something I expected, but while I was staying at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, the park across the street was closed off, with a police cordon all around the Gateway of India. It turned out that there was a huge celebration going on there during those couple of days: a big stage in front of the arch, with performances by military bands and orchestras from around the country. The music was loud; and it was eclectic, a blend of Bollywood show tunes and folk performances and military band music, accompanied by light shows. I never did quite figure out what the point was. One effect that it had was purely personal: I had hoped to catch the boat to Elephanta Island on my next-to-last day in Mumbai, to see the Hindu temple and its famous carvings, but because the quay was temporarily blocked off, the boats weren’t running.

One of the typographers I saw at the conference was Aurobind Patel, a type designer and design consultant whom I had met before, a friend of Roger Black’s. He made my last day in India memorable by inviting me to his weekend house, in a fishing village north of Mumbai, to spend a relaxing day out of the city; his driver would then drive me to the airport for my flight to Amsterdam, which didn’t leave until 2:45 a.m. So I got to see a little bit of what lies outside the city, and how the city is encroaching on the countryside year by year; and I got to walk on the beach by the shore and watch the sunset over the Arabian Sea. Aurobind’s house, which was newly built to replace a crumbling older house inherited by his wife, was in the process of being repainted and having the pool’s foundation reinforced. During the painting, the wall-size sliding-glass doors on the seaward side were covered by huge segments of Bollywood movie posters, their painted sides turned in; this gave the interiors a bizarre and dramatic look. But while I was there, that very afternoon, the workmen finished the painting of the exterior, and as I was taking a much-needed nap they removed the posters from the windows. So when I awoke I could look out through the glass directly to the sea. That was quite some transformation.

I have now seen a very tiny piece of India, and met a wonderful and eclectic range of Indian designers and typographers. Perhaps this will be just the first of many visits to the subcontinent.

Traveling & talking & listening: QVED

Published

At the end of February, I was in Munich for QVED, an annual conference about the design of magazines, which was held as part of Munich Creative Business Week. (The odd acronym “QVED” stands for “quo vadis editorial design,” or, if you like, Whither editorial design?) A focus of this year’s conference was “city magazines,” and one of the surprising realizations for me was that in Europe, city magazines are often published by city governments; in the United States, when we think of a “city magazine” it’s invariably published independently by a private company (though sometimes a publishing chain may produce magazines for several cities). In Seattle, for instance, there are two competing monthly city magazines, Seattle magazine and Seattle Metropolitan. The granddaddy of American city magazines might be New York magazine, which originated in the 1960s as an outgrowth of one of the major local newspapers.

Mike Koedinger’s presentation about the magazine of the city of Luxembourg, which his company produces, laid out the landscape for European city magazines, and other presenters in this part of the program followed up with their own cities’ particular challenges and opportunities.

The two opening talks (which were not the ones originally scheduled for those spots, thanks to some last-minute absences) set a high level: Jaap Biemans, who produces the website coverjunkie.com, which covers nothing but the design of magazine covers, showed and talked knowledgeably about a wide variety of cover designs, including his own for the weekly magazine of the Volkskrant newspaper in Amsterdam. Steve Watson presented his labor of love, Stack magazines, a unique subscription service where you get a different independent magazine every month. Both Jaap and Steve were enthusiastic and articulate, as well as having some wonderful images to show.

I missed the first part of Herlinde Koelbl’s talk on “The Targets Project,” and I failed to pick up a headset to get the simultaneous translation, but even with my limited German I found her presentation one of the most powerful things at the conference. The audience clearly agreed.

Organizer Boris Kochan had asked me to give a talk on U&lc, of which I was the last editor. Steven Heller and Roger Black, both of whom had long connections with U&lc, spoke in the same session, and we finished up with a roundtable discussion about U&lc and the history of typography in the phototype era that could easily have gone on another hour or two.

QVED was held in the Alte Kongresshalle (Old Conference Center), which is “old” only in the sense that it’s a postwar Modernist building – not old like the tiny streets in the heart of the city, or even like its 18th-century palaces and public buildings. The space worked well for both the theater-style presentations and the social mingling that is an essential part of any conference.

[Photos, top to bottom: John D. Berry (left) and Roger Black (right) in the cover image from an online magazine about QVED 2015; the opening of the QVED 2015 conference; street signs in Munich; Boris Kochan (left) and Steven Heller (right); Jaap Biemans as first speaker, with one of his favorite covers.]

Belated tales

Published

In late February and early March, I spoke at two very different design conferences: one in Munich, the other in Mumbai. The program, the audience, even the climate was very different, yet the enthusiasm, the intelligence, and the engagement of speakers and listeners was common to both events.

For no good reason whatsoever, it’s taken me this long to get around to writing about them. I’ll give each its own separate post.

I had to be back in Seattle during the week after the first conference, so I couldn’t simply stay in Europe and then head on to India. I got quite familiar with the Delta flights between Seattle and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

Translated serifs

Published

My little book Hanging by a serif caught the eye of Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, co-owner of Hermann Schmidt Verlag in Mainz, Germany, a fine small publishing company that specializes in books about typography and design. As a result, my book has been translated, revised, and slightly expanded, and is about to be published in Germany. The German title is Thesen zur Typografie (the someone whimsical “Hanging by a serif” proved resistant to translation), and its release coincides with the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens today.

I haven’t held a copy in my hands yet, but I know it has a sewn binding and two-color printing – more ambitious than my original self-published edition. And a few different serifs. Perhaps it will see a more ambitious American edition, too.

Thesen will join other new books in the Hermann Schmidt line at their display at the Book Fair this week.

Display of new Hermann Schmidt Verlag books

Sprinting into the future

Published

My e-book essay “What is needed” has just been republished on the website of “Sprint Beyond the Book,” a project of Arizona State University’s remarkable Center for Science and the Imagination.

In May, Eileen and I met up with nine other invited guests to participate in CSI’s third “Sprint” event, a workshop/conference focusing on “The Future of Reading.” CSI’s first Sprint, with a theme of “The Future of Publishing,” had taken place last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the participants worked in the midst of the hurly-burly of the world’s biggest book festival; the second (“Knowledge Systems”) took place in January on CSI’s home turf at ASU. This third one was held at Stanford University, in conjunction with Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel.

The mix of people and ideas was invigorating, and the fruits of that brainstorming are intended to be published. (One description of what the Sprint was all about was “creating and publishing a book in three days.” But what kind of a book, exactly?) The other participants at the Stanford event were Jim Giles, Dan Gillmor, Wendy Ju, Lee Konstantinou, Andrew Losowsky, Kiyash Monsef, Pat Murphy, David Rotherberg, and Jan Sassano. The whole project was organized by its instigator and ringleader, Ed Finn, and his talented and indefatigable staff members Joey Eschrich and Nina Miller. I’ve been working with Nina, when we each have time, on the format for eventually publishing the results of the Sprint.

In the meantime, in somewhat kaleidoscopic form, parts of our conversations and digressions, and the texts that we created in the course of the three days, are available now on the “Sprint Beyond the Book” website.

“What is needed,” which I wrote more than two years ago as a post on this blog, is essentially a high-level technical spec for the missing tools that we need in order to do good e-book design. Most of these tools are still missing, two years later, despite the rapidly changing nature of digital publishing. Some of the ideas have made their way into various proposals for future standards, but not much has been reliably implemented yet. I’m still looking forward to the day when everything I was asking for will be so common as to be taken for granted. Then we can make some really good e-books; and our readers will be able to enjoy them.

Massimo Vignelli & organizing information

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When Massimo Vignelli died last month, the obituaries and remembrances all mentioned his famous 1972 map of the New York City subway system. The New York Times, of course, spent a good deal of ink and pixels on the subject. In retrospect, everyone keeps talking about how confusing that map was to people at the time, implying that it may have been a brilliant design object but that it was a failure as a navigational tool. That’s not what I remember.

I first learned how to navigate the complex, contradictory New York subways in the late 1960s, when the Vignelli map had not yet appeared but the Vignelli-inspired system of color-coding the lines and identifying them by numbers or letters had been implemented. This was truly a system, and it made sense of a wildly inconsistent tangle of lines; it also made the sometimes chaotic interiors of the subway stations themselves navigable and understandable, at least to an extent. The system was designed not to tame the chaos but to give its users – the subway riders, both straphangers who used the system every day and newcomers or first-timers like me – a tool for navigating, for making our way through the jungle and getting to a destination.

The maps we used before 1972 were already highly stylized; they were really diagrams, not maps, despite the nod to geography in the background shapes of the city’s waterways and landforms. The 1966 subway map, which would have been the first one that I used, was already nothing like a realistic map; the lines in the outer boroughs were compressed and condensed, while Manhattan was shortened and fattened, not reflecting the actual geography at all. But the lines still had names, not numbers or letters (“SEA BEACH, W. END” or “JEROME LEX AV”).

By 1968, the map was clearly a wiring diagram of the city, and it introduced the consistent system of identifying each line by a unique number or letter (6, F, RR). The lines were color-coded as well, just like the signs within the stations. (In the 1966 map, the only color distinction was used to show which lines were part of the old IRT, IND, or BMT systems.) The map was complex, because the city’s subway system was complex, but it formed a very useful and usable chart that enabled you to understand how the system was put together and how to get from one point within it to another efficiently.

The famous 1972 map was just a continuation of this to a slightly more abstract level. Actually, to a slightly more abstract-looking level; the abstraction was already there. Compare the 1968 map to the 1972 one: both are diagrams, it’s just that the ’72 map makes this even more obvious. The biggest innovation was how it showed potential transfer points: instead of inscribing all the line numbers or letters in little boxes, the Vignelli map placed black dots side-by-side where trains from adjacent lines stopped at the same station. It was simple and clear, and if your line passed by but didn’t show a dot, that meant it didn’t stop at that station.

None of these subway maps were intended as a way to understand the city; they were intended as a way to understand the subway system, and to use that to get around the city. They were superb at that, and the more abstract they got, the better they did that job. I know; I used them constantly.

The first “schematic” map of the New York subways was produced in 1959. If you want to see what that was an improvement on, take a look at the 1948 map, which makes a brave attempt to reflect the geography and still show the tangle of lines and where they go. The comparison is educational. I know which one I would want to use as a guide.

Strangely, many of the people who complained about the 1972 Vignelli subway map would be perfectly content to use the equally abstract London tube map, which was introduced decades before New York’s attempts. Nobody in London would claim that the tube map gives you any idea of the layout of the city; but it’ll get you from station to station within the system brilliantly. The 1972 NYC subway map did the same.

Thank you, Massimo, for making it easier for me and a lot of other people to get around.

[Image: a detail from the recent digital version of the Vignelli subway map, even more simplified and rationalized than the original.]

Big on the web

Published

This week a pithy statement of mine has been making the rounds on Twitter: Only when the design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible. I first noticed this quoted by Graphis, but when I googled it, to remind myself where and when I had said it, I was amazed to see how many times it’s been quoted and requoted over the past seven years. It even appears as one of “50 Inspirational Quotes on the Art & Science of Design.”

When I wrote this, in a 2007 column for Creativepro.com, I was talking about something very specific: designing the table of contents for a book. But obviously this sentence has struck a chord for many people, and it’s certainly applicable to many aspects of design.

If I ever do a second edition of Hanging by a serif, my small book of aphoristic statements about typography and design, I’ll have to include this one too. I wonder what serif I’ll decide to hang it from?

Back on the wall

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It’s gratifying to see, from a story on the TDC’s website, that the three-dimensional typographic mural that Lou Dorfsman constructed in 1966 for the cafeteria at CBS headquarters in New York City has finally found a permanent home.

As I wrote six years ago, the “Gastro­typographical­assemblage,” which a subsequent régime at CBS was ready to junk, got saved thanks to the efforts of NYC designer Nicholas Fasciano, and was given a temporary home at the Center for Design Study in Atlanta, while funds were being raised to preserve and restore the crumbling masterpiece.

Now, as you can see from this short video, it has been lovingly restored and installed at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. Sounds like a visit to Hyde Park is called for.

Structured writing for the web

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At the end of June, at the Ampersand conference in Brighton, Gerry Leonidas gave a shout-out to an early version of the prospectus for Scripta (“Typographic Think Tank”) in his talk. I had somehow missed this until Tim Brown mentioned it in an e-mail recently inquiring about Scripta. I can highly recommend Gerry’s talk, and not only because he quotes me (7:07–7:49 in the video). Although he starts out with a disclaimer that “this is a new talk” and he’s not sure how well it will hang together, in fact it’s extremely coherent; Gerry is both articulate and thoughtful about the wide range of questions (and, rarely, answers) involved in typography on the web.

Gerry used my “wish list” from “Unbound Pages” (in The Magazine last March) as a jumping-off point for his own ideas about the structure of documents and the tools that he wants to see available. He wants tools for writers, not just for designers, that will make it easy to create a well-structured digital document, one that will maintain its integrity when it gets moved from one format to another (as always happens today in electronic publishing). Gerry’s own wish list begins at 20:47 in the video, though you won’t want to skip the entertaining steps by which he gets there.

What he proposes is a way to separate the sequence of information from its relative importance and interrelatedness. “This is what I really want: I want someone to go out there and take Markdown, which I use constantly, and take it from something that clearly has been written to deal with streams of stuff with some bits thrown on the side … and allow me to have this extra intelligence in the content – while I’m writing it – that will tell me how important something is, what sequence it has with other things, and will then allow me to ditch quite a lot of this stuff that is happening there.” The “stuff” he wants to ditch is all the hand-crafted formatting and positioning that makes a digital document cumbersome and difficult to translate from one form to another.

The problem is, as Gerry admits, training people to write with structure in mind. (Every editorial designer who has tried to get writers to use paragraph and character styles will break out into a hollow laugh at this point.) What he’s advocating is tools that will make this easy to do, instead of something that only makes sense to experts. I think he was a little disappointed that nobody leapt up at the end of his talk to say, “We’ve already done that!” But perhaps he has planted the seed.

Hanging by a serif

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Recently I published a little booklet called Hanging by a serif: a few words about designing with words. This is the culmination of a project I’ve been working on, off and on, for more than a year: pulling a selection of statements about typography and design from my own writing and presenting them, one to a page, along with a simple decorative element. The hook – quite literally, in some cases – is that those visual elements are all enlarged details of serifs, taken from a wide variety of typefaces. (You’d be surprised how much alike the serifs look on a lot of otherwise distinctive typefaces, when you blow them up in size and cut off the rest of the letter.) I had fun with this, as you might imagine. The hardest part was forcing myself to edit or rewrite my own words, to make them more appropriate to this format and purpose. It was also difficult choosing the quotes, and picking the serifs, but that was the kind of task that you can only revel in: a richness of choice.

One early recipient of a digital version, Scott-Martin Kosofsky, unexpectedly suggested that I “may have invented a new genre, design maxims, making you a kind of typographic Rochefoucauld.” I certainly doubt that my little booklet will go through as many editions and revisions as La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, but I’ll be happy if it finds a use in the hands of its readers.

For an early draft, which I wanted to take with me on a visit to San Francisco to show to Jack Stauffacher and others at one of his weekly Friday lunches, I had trouble getting the booklet to print properly as page spreads, so I just printed the pages individually and bundled them into a wrap-around folded cover, just to suggest how it might all work as a booklet. What that inadvertant format showed me, however, was that these pages could also work singly, as individual cards. The actual content of those pages has undergone a good bit of revision since that San Francisco trip, but this is the reason why I’m offering Hanging by a serif both as a saddle-stitched booklet and as a set of cards.

When I showed a version of the cards to Juliet Shen at one of our local typographers’ pub gatherings, her immediate thought was, “I could give each of my students one of these and have them do a project based on it.” I hadn’t thought of that; perhaps they have a future use as a teaching tool. (You be the judge.)

This is the “first iteration” of Hanging by a serif; I’m sure it will evolve and appear draped in other clothes. Right now, you can buy the booklet or the cards from the newly created Shop page on this website, and they will undoubtedly be available through other sellers eventually. I sold a few at TypeCon in the SOTA store, and I expect I’ll have at least a few with me at next month’s ATypI conference in Amsterdam. Or you can use PayPal to buy a copy right here, and have me send it to you directly. (If you’re interested in a larger quantity, just send me e-mail at john <at> johndberry <dot> com and let me know.)