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Archive for the category ‘information design’

Imperial identity system unearthed

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(Lyons, France; 1 April 2010) – Researchers from the Institut internationale de l’identité romaine reported on Thursday that they had discovered fragments of what might be the first graphic-design manual in history. According to Jean-Claude Garamond-Jannon, head of the research team that excavated the find, it appears to be part of a manual for the presentation of the visual identity of the Roman Empire, dating from the early 2nd century A.D., during the reign of the emperor Trajan.

Although the unit system used is unclear, it appears that the Roman design administration had a thoroughly worked-out system for the measurement of inscriptional letters, which allowed them to cut inscriptions in matching lettering styles and in consistent sizes throughout the extremely widespread area under Roman rule.

“It was part of a visual identity that shouted ‘Rome!’,” said the Institut’s vice-director, Robespierre Danton, waving his arms enthusiastically at the partially excavated site. “They projected their power and their brand through a coordinated system of graphics that was instantly recognizable anywhere in the Mediterranean world.” The manual’s threadbare pages, according to Danton, specify exactly how the visual system should be implemented, with hints (barely legible) of extreme penalties for misuse of the empire’s intellectual property.

Although the fragments are in a poor state of preservation, one intriguing supplementary find has excited the interest of Dr. Giambattista Farben, a color researcher with the Institut. “This broken tablet, made of baked and polished tufa,” he says, “was found in close proximity to the manual itself. The tablet shows traces of a pattern of varying colors in lead-based paint, and scratches that may be notations to identify the different colors.” Dr. Farben was cautious, but he said that one theory of the colored tablet was that it constituted a color chart for painters who would turn the Romans’ marble walls into a panoply of colors. “It could be the earliest Pantone matching system,” admitted Dr. Farben.

Scholars from the University of Northern California dispute the primacy of the Roman identity system. Professor Chien Su-ma of UNC says that he has spent more than twenty years cataloging a collection of inscribed tortoise shells found under a pile of Han-dynasty tax receipts at Dunhuang, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in China’s Gansu province. “The Han Dynasty had a clearly defined visual identity,” claims Prof. Chien, “and I believe these fragments, which were preserved at a major entrepot and outpost of empire, are a key to the system in its earliest form. They certainly predate this Western find by at least a century.”

[Photo: Detail of the lettering at the base of Trajan’s column, in Rome.]

Angles of acuteness

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This outdoor telephone box sits next to the entrance to one of the far-flung buildings on the Microsoft corporate campus. It’s a remarkable example of someone thinking about what angle you might be looking at a sign from. Viewed straight on, the lettering looks curiously wide and squat; it takes you a minute to figure out what it says, though it’s ultimately recognizable. The lettering style really comes into its own, however, when viewed from an acute angle – as might be the case if you were approaching the door from the side. The word is most readable when it’s seen from the most extreme angle.

I suppose they could have simply put the word ‘TELEPHONE” on the side of the box, too, and solved the problem that way. But this is an ingenious bit of sideways thinking.

Drive-by typography

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Last week we were in Madison and other bits of Wisconsin, and on the way home I noticed this bit of inadequate signage at the Dane County Airport in Madison. (This is, I should note, generally a very well designed small city airport.) We were flying on Northwest, but the signage problem would be the same for any airline. It’s all about, as I keep saying, space.

When you’re driving up to the Departures gates at an airport, what is the primary thing you’re looking for? The name of the airline. In an airport the size of Madison’s, there’s no question of multiple terminals; it’s just a matter of deciding where to pull up at the sidewalk and let your passengers off. The one and only thing that the signage needs to do at that point is identify each airline, distinguishing it clearly from all the others.

This sign for Northwest Airlines fails at its task. (The signs for the other airlines fared similarly poorly; this just happened to be the airline we were flying on.) The light, thin letters are squashed together so tightly that you cannot distinguish one from the next at any distance – and distance is exactly what counts in signage like this. The tight spacing might be readable if you were looking at this on a printed page held in your hands; at a distance of thirty or forty yards, as you drive up to the terminal looking for the right airline, it just merges into a single barely intelligible shape. (I almost wrote “unintelligible,” but since the name is set in caps and lowercase, rather than all in caps, at least it does have an irregular shape that you might potentially recognize.)

The two photos at the left are close-ups, one closer than the other; the one below is a more realistic example of what you might see as you arrive at Departures. (Except that I’ve sharpened the photographs in Photoshop, so they might be a little easier to make out.)

Sure, other airlines have longer names, which would fill up more of the area of the sign. But that’s not the point. The spacing is much too tight for a functional sign. The curbside signage at the Dane County Airport may look elegant, but it doesn’t do its job.

I only wish it were alone in this failure. Unfortunately, it has lots of company.

Distant shot of airline signage at Madison airport

Not-so-fine print

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Today’s New York Times has an article about the new credit-card legislation that just passed the U.S. Senate (and, later in the day, the House), which would limit the exorbitant interest rates and extra fees and sudden changes of terms that have become standard practice among credit-card companies in recent years. One of the details that I noticed deep in the article has typographic relevance:

“The bill also bans expiration dates on gift cards and certificates any sooner than five years after the card’s original issue date. And the retailer or card issuer will have to print the terms of any expiration date in capital letters in at least 10-point type. Call it the fine print rule.”

Capital letters? I can see the intended effect, but the real effect will be to make the important text less readable than it would otherwise be. ALL-CAPS are inherently less readable and less inviting than upper- & lowercase – especially if they haven’t been tracked looser than normal, to give a little extra space between letters.

Legal contracts such as “Terms of Use” agreements often use all-caps to emphasize the most important parts. But if there’s a long passage in caps, it’s even more likely to be skipped by anyone reading it than the regular text might be. (Perhaps this is the point, in some legal agreements.) Far better would be to set the important bits in normal case but make it bold for emphasis. (Maybe not in Times New Roman, whose bold is really a headline typeface rather than a bolder version of the text face.)

Requiring “capital letters in at least 10-point type” does have one advantage: it’s easy to define. Although typefaces vary wildly in their apparent size, it’s usually the lowercase x-height that varies the most (compare Times and Helvetica at the same point size); the capital letters are likely to be of similar height even when the design is different. But this just highlights the folly of trying to define legible type simply by its point size.

Detail in typography

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When I read through the new edition of Jost Hochuli’s Detail in typography, I found myself wondering, “Have I really learned anything about type in the last twenty years?” Most of the points I find myself making to people over and over again can be found in these pages, organized and explained more clearly than by any other writer I know. A large part of what Hochuli says can be summed up (inadequately) in the aphorism I keep repeating: typography is all about space.

Detail in typography was originally published in 1987 by Compugraphic, as one of a triad of little booklets by Jost Hochuli; the other two were the complementary volume The design of books and a jeu d’esprit called Jost Hochuli’s Alphabugs, in which the author/designer played with expressive display typography and the meaning of words. The books were (all three of them, I think) published in several languages; the English-language edition was translated by Ruari McLean. (One of my two copies of Detail in typography is inscribed to me by Ruari McLean, dated February 1989. I never met McLean, unfortunately, though we were in contact about his then-unpublished translation of Jan Tschichold’s Neue Typographie.)

The book was revised and updated in German in 2005, and this new English edition, published by Hyphen Press in London, is expanded and newly translated by Charles Whitehouse. Although the book is slightly longer than its first edition (64 pages instead of 48), its format is even smaller: 125 x 210 mm, to match the Hyphen Press format for small books. It fits handily in most pockets. Like its original edition, this one is two-color, paperbound with full-width flaps, on uncoated off-white paper stock, and it opens easily in the hand. Jost Hochuli is a master of book design, and Robin Kinross, proprietor of Hyphen Press, is a stickler for production quality.

Hochuli’s focus in this little book is the details of text typography, or “microtypography.” (The design of pages and whole publications is the realm of “macrotypography”; he has expanded on that subject in Designing books: practice and theory.) The fundamental elements that he writes about are the letter, the word, the line, linespacing, and the column, with a bit at the end that he calls “the qualities of type.” He leads off with a short discussion of the process of reading; this was where I first encountered the word saccade, a technical term for rapid eye movement, specifically the way our eyes move as we read a line of text. (They don’t move smoothly along the line, but jump from clump to clump of letters – not necessarily by word, but by visual cluster. They jump backwards, too, quite frequently; just how frequently is one of those things we quantify while trying to come up with a scientific measurement of readability.)

I won’t make Hochuli’s points for him here, nor will I expropriate them as my own. (I quote them often enough.) I’ll just repeat one paragraph from his introduction, because he clearly lays out the scope of what he’s writing about:

While macrotypography – the typographic layout – is concerned with the format of the printed matter, with the size and position of the columns of type and the illustrations, with the organization of the hierarchy of headings, subheadings and captions, detail typography is concerned with the individual components – letters, letterspacing, words, wordspacing, lines and linespacing, columns of text. These are the components that graphic or typographic designers like to neglect, as they fall outside the area that is normally regarded as ‘creative’.

This is one of those books that belongs on everyone’s bookshelf – everyone who deals in any way with turning text into readable pages, whether the words are their own or someone else’s.

Well spaced

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Yesterday I was walking past a newly built apartment building on Seattle’s Capitol Hill when I noticed three people huddled around the rectangular frame next to the front door. They were in the process of peeling off a big piece of blank cardboard that had been covering the sign underneath. They were laughing and joking: “We ought to have a camera to record this!” I stopped and watched as they got the cardboard off, revealing the new, three-dimensional lettering that identified the building as the Pearl apartments. “It opens tomorrow,” one of them said, “and the first tenants will be moving in.”

I didn’t have a camera with me, but I went back later and snapped a couple of pictures, because that sign seemed like a good example of clear, simple signage. The lettering on the sign was remarkably well spaced – not so loose that it would fail to hold together within the larger space when you’re standing right in front of it, yet loose enough so it wouldn’t squish together when you view it from an angle, as you would if you were walking along the sidewalk. There are so many poorly conceived and poorly executed bits of public signage on our buildings that it’s a pleasure to see a new one that’s done well.

Sidewalk in front of the Pearl apartments, Seattle

Close-up of the lettering on a Seattle apartment building

Vernacular information design

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Everybody loves “vernacular typography,” or at least enjoys finding examples. This purely functional sign resides on a store-front church in a neighborhood in Seattle (not far, in fact, from the building with the faded “Roycroft Theater” sign that I noted last year). For several years, the church sign was characterized by the shaky lettering in the top image; I was never sure whether it was a deliberate style or the result of being painted by someone with a nerve problem. (Whatever the intention or the skill involved, presumably it served its purpose; the information was there, albeit in a rather peculiar form.)

More recently, that sign was replaced by the one in the bottom image – same information, mostly, but a more controlled sort of lettering, or at least a more formal set of models. Still not anything that would be mistaken for the work of a professional sign-painter.

Another road-sign attraction

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The photo to your left is of a highway sign on Interstate 90 westbound, a few miles outside of Seattle. It’s a fine example of the comprehensive street-numbering system of King County, and also of the fussiness of too many road and highway signs.

The next exit gives access to three different roads, each of them numbered. The important bit of information is the numbers of the roads themselves; the rest is dross. Why on earth did the sign-makers clutter up this freeway sign with junk like “st” and “th” and the periods in “SE”? It just distracts from the essential information, making it harder to get the message across in those brief moments a driver has while zooming down the highway.

The right way to do this sign would have been:

161 Ave SE
156 Ave SE
150 Ave SE

In fact, given the way streets are designated in King County, you could have dispensed with “Ave” and just said “161 SE” etc. But that might have offended the sensibilities of local drivers, who expect a little more deference to tradition. But the ordinal-number designations, and the utterly useless punctuation, are offenses against function and common sense.

I won’t comment on the oddness of a road system that has all three of these local streets coming off one freeway exit. That’s a problem for highway engineers, not signage designers.

News! Papers! Live!

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Thursday’s column by Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle (which I read online at the excellent SFGate.com, since these days I’m usually not local and can’t pick up the Chron on the street) was all about newspapers. About how newspapers, which everyone says are dying, aren’t dying at all – although, he suggests, they might be signing up for a mutual suicide pact. As Jon Carroll points out, newspapers do make money – in fact, as Roger Black has pointed out, they make profit margins that would cause some other large businesses to break out in great big smiley faces all day long. (Check out the profit margin in supermarkets sometime.) It’s just that someone upstairs thinks they’re not making money – or not enough money.

As an editor/designer who has put together a book about the design of newspapers, not about their business, I’m no expert on the profit-and-loss sheets of our nation’s daily papers (not to mention those of other nations around the globe). But it’s perfectly obvious that newspapers are still a profitable business, overall; and also that they are a fundamental part of our information system – in other words, in how we think. The good ones are worth their weight in, well, paper (not such a cheap commodity these days), and even the mediocre ones offer an astonishing value for a pittance every day. Plus, they’re good for wrapping fish.

Newspapers: still not dead. Changing, yes; that’s usually a sign of what we call life.

The future is here

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We’ve all been reading for quite a while about the future of advertising, where ads would be targeted directly at each individual consumer, based on information collected about our buying habits, our viewing habits, our listening habits, maybe even our philosophical habits. But I hadn’t realized that it was already happening.

Yesterday I dropped by a local website that I check periodically, Crosscut, a Seattle-based news and comment site with some smart thinking and good writing. As I browsed down the home page, I came across an ad from Amazon – and stopped cold. The four books being advertised were all design and printing books. All of them. How likely is that? Would the average reader have a yen for books about graphic design? No, but I would; in fact, my recent browsing habits on Amazon would probably show a lot of books about typography and related subjects. Was this ad tailored specifically to me?

Personally tailored Amazon ad

The answer is yes. If you click on the ad’s link to “Privacy Information,” you find that, indeed, Amazon is using their records of what you’ve looked at on their site, and choosing which books to push in their ad based on that. Which means that each Amazon ad on Crosscut (or any other website that hosts such an ad) varies its content depending on who’s looking at it, or more precisely whose computer you’re using to look at it. The future is here.

If you refresh the web page, the Amazon ad changes its contents – but they’re still based on your own recent patterns at Amazon’s own site. The contents even seem to vary by web browser; I was using Safari when I discovered this, but logging on to Crosscut from Firefox brought up an Amazon ad with no obvious relationship to me. (Something to do with how my preferences are set in the two browsers? Probably.)

I’m never surprised by invasions of info-privacy; I’ve read enough science fiction to have been expecting this for a long time. But the potential for embarrassment, at the very least, is large. You log on from somebody else’s computer, and when you get to the Amazon ad, you see a suspicious number of books about…typography! “You, uh, look at a lot of, uh, ‘type,’ don’t you?” you ask your friend. His guilty secret is out, for all the world to see.

Update March 10:

Today’s New York Times has an article on this very subject – how web ads are being targeted directly to individuals – but it conspicuously fails to mention Amazon. A surprising omission.