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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

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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

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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.

Sprinting into the future

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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.

TypeCon2014 | Washington DC

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This year’s TypeCon, which went by the name “Capitolized” but really seemed to revel in being “Redacted,” was very enjoyable. It was a great reunion of colleagues and old friends, and a fine way to make new friends and meet new colleagues, as this sort of event always is. The hotel, the Hyatt Regency Washington (a few blocks from Union Station and the Capitol), had a nice open bar area in its lobby, with several surprisingly good beers on tap, and proved to be the sort of meeting place that you hope for when you’re organizing something like this.

There were some very good talks (and the occasional dud, of course), including some that I really wanted to hear but that started too early in the morning for me. As I was staying with local friends across town, a few stops away on the Red Line, it was often hard to tear myself away from breakfast and conversation – especially if I’d been up late the night before, doing much the same thing (except for the breakfast part). Theoretically, all the talks were videotaped (except for a couple where the speakers asked not to be recorded), so perhaps eventually we’ll have a chance to catch up on the ones that we missed, for one reason or another.

It was gratifying to see so many talks about non-Latin typefaces; TypeCon is showing an admirable international flavor, despite being the North American type conference. Emblematic of this was the choice of Bulgarian type designer Krista Radoeva as the recipient of this year’s SOTA Catalyst Award.

Even better – and carrying the non-Latin theme further – was the presentation of the SOTA Typography Award to Fiona Ross, who must have done more than any other single person to further excellence in non-Latin type design: most notably in Indian types, but in Arabic, Thai, and other non-Latin scripts as well. The enthusiasm with which everyone greeted the announcement that Fiona was this year’s awardee was palpable. It was a very well-deserved award.

Personal favorites among the talks that I did get to hear included Mark Simonson’s nostalgic paean to the pleasures of phototype, X-acto knives, waxers, and rub-down type; Liron Lavi Turkenich on a failed experiment in updating Hebrew type; Carl Crossgrove’s trawl through the much-neglected range of sans-serif types with contrast and modulated strokes; Thierry Blancpain showing us that, yes, there’s been some Swiss graphic design since the days of Max Bill and Müller-Brockmann; Nick Shinn on the visual marketing of recorded music, 1888–1967; and the very clever way that Victor Gaultney demonstrated to English-speaking readers what it’s like for readers whose scripts are barely and inadequately supported in common electronic communications media.

I can’t help pointing out that this year’s TypeCon featured one of the most unreadable nametag designs I have ever seen. The “redacted” bit was cute, but extending it to the nametags made them utterly nonfunctional. There’s a reason they’re call “name” tags.

Washington, DC, in the summertime is not an ideal climate experience, though we did get one soft, warm evening when it was a pleasure to sit outside at the bar across from the hotel and enjoy the evening breeze. The weather was not as fiercely hot as it could have been, but the humidity was up to its usual standard. I lived in the DC area for a couple of years in the early ’70s, first in northern Virginia and then for a year in the District, near Dupont Circle. (As the Metro train stopped at the Dupont Circle station on my daily commute, I found myself thinking, “When I lived above here, they were just building this station.”) I remember one summer without air-conditioning where I got through it only by pretending that I was underwater the whole time; I simply never expected to be dry, and I was never disappointed. Unfortunately, I can neither think nor work in that kind of climate.

I’ll be seeing some of the same people, as well as many who were missed in DC, next month at the ATypI conference in Barcelona. Must be the typographic season.

Blackout-alarm sign on the door in an old DC apartment

[Photos: a TypeCon2014 nametag (top); TypeCon attendees suddenly deciding to wear their nametags as headbands (middle); expressive typography in Washington (bottom); and the sign on the door in my friends’ apartment building (above).]

Mike Parker 1929–2014

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It’s hard to remember when I first met Mike Parker. I’m sure I had seen him and heard him at ATypI and other conferences before I ever got to know him; his tall, erect posture and booming voice were hard to miss, whether he was making a pronouncement or telling a joke (sometimes both at the same time).

I certainly got to know him better when he moved to Seattle for a while in the mid-1990s, to provide the typographic vision behind a start-up called Design Intelligence. Mike recruited me to design templates that would use suites of typefaces and hierarchical page designs to create a system of flexible layouts in various styles – not unlike what he had been working on already with his Pages Software, and not unlike what we are still trying to do today with adaptive page layout onscreen. We used to talk about where this idea could be taken, and while we were doing that he would tell me stories from his long history in the typographic field.

Mike was an inveterate storyteller. He might have embellished a story or two, as one does, but they were all wonderful to listen to. And they filled in many a hole in the history of type and the people who made it. Pity I can’t remember any of them in detail.

I do remember two incidents from somewhat later, during the San Francisco TypeCon in 2004. There was a big party hosted by a design firm in its studio on the top floor of an old building south of Market Street; everyone was invited, but the only access was through a rather small elevator, so you might have a long wait before you got to ascend to the party floor – and once there, you’d be reluctant to leave. Both Mike and I found ourselves uninterested in the lively dance scene that dominated the room, so we grabbed a couple of folding chairs, propped them against the wall, and spent the next hour or two watching the action and chatting comfortably between ourselves. That, I believe, was when Mike explained to me the chthonic origins of a river name in England, and regaled me with tales of the neolithic standing stones at Avebury. This was an altogether perfect way to spend the evening. Every once in a while, one of us would get up (usually me) and get us another couple of drinks.

The other conversation I remember from the same conference was over dinner, at an Italian restaurant near Union Square that Mike suggested. I don’t recall how we got on the subject, but we were talking about the transition from metal type to phototype and then to digital type, and the design compromises that had been made in adapting so many text faces to the new technology. In particular, I mentioned ITC New Baskerville, which had begun life as Mergenthaler’s adaptation to phototype of a popular Linotype text face. I lamented that New Baskerville seemed too “bright,” too high-contrast, to work well in text, and I speculated that in adapting the design from metal, they had used too large a master (14pt or larger) rather than a text size such as 10pt.

What I was momentarily forgetting was that Mike Parker had been, for more than a decade, the head of typographic development at Mergenthaler, overseeing the transition of their library from hot metal to phototype.

Mike just leaned over the table toward me and said, quietly, “I’m sorry.”

I started, then we both laughed, and continued the conversation.

[Image: From the cover of a tribute booklet from TypeCon 2012, when Mike was given the 2012 SOTA Typography Award. Illustration by Cyrus Highsmith. The type, of course, is Starling.]

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.

A brace of book launches

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I’ve been to two very well attended book launches in Seattle this week – both them within walking distance of my home. The first was for Nicola Griffith’s new novel Hild, at Richard Hugo House on Wednesday; the second, last night, was for Judith Gille’s self-published memoir, The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border, at the Elliott Bay Book Company. It was gratifying to see both venues packed.

Nicola’s book I have no connection with other than knowing and admiring Nicola and looking forward to reading each of her novels. Judith’s book I do have a connection with: I designed and typeset the interior. (I had nothing to do with the flamboyant and effective cover, which was designed by Dorit Ely.)

I got to use Mark van Bronkhorst’s recently released OpenType Pro version of MVB Verdigris, which was completely appropriate to the visual feel that Judith wanted for her book. I even got to confront the interesting problem of how to treat a chapter opening with a drop cap, when the first word is the beginning of a quote in Spanish, requiring not only opening quotation marks but an opening inverted exclamation point as well. I could have finessed the problem by de-emphasizing the punctuation marks somehow, but in the end we decided that it worked with some judicious spacing and fiddling around. (Oh, yes: our chapter-opening convention also included small caps for the first several words, which in this case required italic small caps. Happily, Verdigris Pro includes them.)

Chapter opening from 'The View from Casa Chepitos'

I’ve already read and enjoyed Judith’s memoir, a thoughtful and empathic account of becoming a part-time resident of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Now I’m enjoying Nicola’s lively historical novel, in which she creates a believable milieu and a strong character for the 6th-century Anglo-Saxon abbess, Hild of Whitby.

One thing that both books have in common is strong women – including the authors.

In Amsterdam

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The ATypI conference in Amsterdam last week was my last one as President of ATypI.

After six years as president, I was stepping down, and at Sunday’s annual general meeting the membership elected José Scaglione as the new president of ATypI. I will remain on the Board, and I expect to be actively involved with ATypI for years to come, but I’m looking forward to attending next year’s conference in Barcelona as a civilian.

I’m pleased with what we’ve done with ATypI in the past six years (and it was by no means just my doing; it was a collective effort). I’m especially pleased with how we have visibly expanded the organization’s reach beyond its heartland in western Europe, staging conferences in St. Petersburg, Mexico City, Reykjavík, and Hong Kong, and taking the design of non-Latin typefaces from a marginal sideshow to a central part of the programming at each ATypI conference, no matter where it’s held. ATypI may have begun fifty-odd years ago as an industrial trade group, but today its most important function is educational. At a time when type, type design, and typography are in the hands of everyone with a computer, there’s more need than ever for an explanation of the history, the standards, and the future possibilities of type.

Which leads directly into my own talk on Sunday morning, just before the lunch break on the conference’s final day. I spoke about design for the onscreen page (something that anyone who has followed this blog knows that I’ve written and spoken about many times over the past two years), and I launched a new initiative: the Scripta Typographic Institute, a think tank and advocate for excellence in digital typography and the development of new tools for text typography on screens of every kind. At this point, it’s all about intentions; but by making it public at ATypI I meant to turn it into a real organization, with participation by many more than just myself. If it works the way I hope, Scripta will become a nexus for the development of new ideas and new ways of thinking about reading, and thus about designing for reading, onscreen.

John D. Berry talk: The onscreen page

Between my duties as ATypI president and my preparations for the launch of Scripta, I had very little time to enjoy being in Amsterdam. But I had an unexpected companion: thanks to the machinations of Barbara Jarzyna, ATypI’s executive director, and Thomas Phinney, our treasurer, with the connivance of the rest of the board of directors, my partner Eileen Gunn found her way paid to Amsterdam to join me; and we did manage to have a day or so of plain exploration before the conference itself drew us in.

And on Saturday night, at the gala dinner, after the main event – the presentation of the Dr. Peter Karow Award to Donald Knuth – Tom Phinney grabbed me and said, “No, wait, you’re not done yet.” He then gave a short, moving speech to thank me (and embarrass me), handing me a most wonderful keepsake: a metal composing stick full of hand-set type, locked in place, with an inscription (if that’s the right word) that I had to read backwards and upside-down.* I can assure you that it beat the hell out of a gold watch (or any kind of certificate that could have been printed from the locked-up type). I felt honored.

John D. Berry & Thomas Phinney share a laugh

Commemorative stick full of type

That was only a minor part of this year’s ATypI conference, which featured two keynote addresses (by Alice Rawsthorn and Petr van Blokland), each of which presented different perspectives on the nature of design; three awards presentations (the TDC medal to Gerrit Noordzij, the Karow award to Donald Knuth, and, as the closing event of the conference, the Prix Charles Peignot to Alexandra Korolkova); and innumerable excellent talks and presentations by a wide variety of typographers, type designers, educators, and generally inspired people. We had the largest attendance since Mexico City in 2009, and as far as I can tell everyone regarded it as a successful and enjoyable conference.

There was a certain fittingness to ending my term as president in Amsterdam. The last time I had been in the city was in 1990, right after my very first type conference, Type90 in Oxford. At that time I was a rank neophyte, at least in the type world; today I’m at risk of becoming one of the old guard. (That still seems a little weird.) What has changed more than anything else in that time is that type is now in everyone’s hands; the need for understanding it is much greater, and much more widespread, than it has ever been before. Which, of course, offers us a truly wonderful opportunity.

[Images: photos by the ubiquitous Henrique Nardi of me opening the conference (top left), talking about the onscreen page (above), and with Thomas Phinney (also above); my own snapshots of Donald Knuth with Barbara Jarzyna (above left), of Alice Rawsthorn giving her keynote talk (above left, bottom), and of the composing stick full of type that was given to me (above).]

[*Oh, all right. The inscription reads: “Association Typographique Internationale | John D. Berry | President 2007–2013 | In appreciation of your tangible and significant | contributions to typography and graphic design.”]

TypeCon Port L’ampersand

Published

For last month’s TypeCon in Portland, Oregon (“TypeCon Portl&” as it was dubbed), Jules Faye and I prepared a talk about the work of her late partner Chris Stern, who was an innovative letterpress printer with a particular fondness for sans-serif type. Although he came to typography through learning to set phototype at a local job shop, and later headed up the type department at the fledgling Microsoft Press, Chris taught himself letterpress printing and became an expert in hand-set and hot-metal typesetting. At his death, Chris had been working on a manifesto about the use of sans-serif type in metal, with lots of images both informative and playful and lots of samples of carefully set Monotype and foundry sans-serif type. He never completed this work, but Jules unearthed enough notes and proofs and trial settings that we could weave a narrative around them that we thought would inspire some of the printers and typographers in the audience.

We got to show some of Chris’s meticulously layered typographic compositions, as well as fanciful characters – printed faces and bodies made up entirely of metal type. We also showed some of his serious book work (concentrating on the ones where he used sans-serif), as well as some sample spreads for his unfinished manifesto: juxtaposing sober blocks of sample text with whimsical but pointed illustrations. I even scanned and zoomed in on several pages of Chris’s notes and edits to his own proposed text – but a little of that goes a long way when you’re seeing it projected on a big screen. One passage from his own text that we quoted and showed in a sample setting was his description of the type for the manifesto itself: “Sans Transgression/ This book was going to be 100% sans serif. It seemed only fitting, after all. But along the byways of design, Commercial Script jumped into my path and I couldn’t resist. I feel confident that this will be my only sans transgression. My partner, however, says not to worry because there aren’t any serifs, just swirls.”

Among my favorite images are the multi-color prints of U-Man, an anthropomorphic character whose body is a bold, condensed capital U (sans-serif, of course!) and whose other body parts sometimes changed from one incarnation to the next.

In presenting this material, Jules felt that we were opening up Chris’s unfinished manifesto and giving it a continuing life, whatever form that may take. Nothing is ever finished.

Warning! Adults Only! Product contains letterforms at their most exposed! Viewer Discretion Is Advised. Adults Only: Warning!

On Sunday afternoon, I caught a city bus up to the north end of town for an open house at the C.C. Stern Foundry, which is now the home of much of the printing and type-casting equipment that once filled up the barn at the “printing farm” of Stern & Faye. Many TypeCon attendees made the trek, so there was a lively group of printers, typographers, and interested amateurs. And whoever designed the nametags for the volunteer staff of C.C. Stern put to shame the design of the TypeCon nametags, which (typically) gave pride of place to the logo and kept the name too small to read from across a room.

This was a good TypeCon, full of good conversations and with a number of excellent talks and presentations. Of course Portland is a great city to visit – it’s hipster central, a land of coffee, beer, wine, and food trucks, with a very convenient transit system. The weather even gave us a taste of Northwest drizzle, though it also gave us some un-Northwestern warm humidity. I think pretty much everyone had a good time.

The visual identity for this TypeCon rendered the host city as “Portl&” in a very retro-’80s graphic style. I kept referring to it as “Port L’ampersand” – the little settlement on the Willamette River that grew up to be a real city written with real letters.

Next up on the typographic calendar: ATypI in Amsterdam, October 9–13. See you there?