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Archive for the category ‘science & art’

Font science

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The Large Hadron Font Collider could soon begin a search for new sub-pixel positions, a leading typographer says.

If commissioning work goes well, the LHFC could become sensitive enough to probe a hitherto unexplored domain in typography by the end of the year.

Among the first candidates for discovery are two discretionary ligatures that have been predicted to exist. The £6bn ($10bn) collider is being used to smash together kerning pairs to shed light on the nature of the Universe.

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.]

Books alive!

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Truly remarkable piece of book-related animation from the New Zealand Book Council, “where books come to life.” The text takes on a life of its own through the literal medium of the book pages.

Thanks to Bruce Sterling for this. Following a link from his blog, I found this thoughtful description by an earlier poster, Arwen O’Reilly Griffith, on the site Craft: transforming traditional crafts: “This really is an extraordinary stop-motion animation from the New Zealand Book Council. It usually makes me sad to see books cut up, even for artistic purposes, but this is so masterfully done (and for such a good purpose!) that I can’t mind too much. Yay for books! (Via All About Papercutting.)” Well put.

Looks like the book in question was set ragged-right in Adobe Caslon, as far as I can tell. With title & author’s name in Gill Sans.

The irony of using voiceover and animation to embody such a silent, solitary experience as reading a book isn’t lost on me. But it’s a representation of the kind of visualization you go through in your own mind every time you read an engaging story. It’s just continuation of communication by other means.

It wasn’t good association, but it was free

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This morning I was trying to think of the name of the musicologist who compiled the famous 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. “Harry Something-or-other,” I muttered to myself. The name I wanted was Harry Smith, but what my sieve-like brain came up with instead was Harry Carter. I immediately found myself imagining an alternate history in which noted typographic historian Harry Carter had gone out and conducted field recordings of ephemeral fonts. He would have hunted down an agèd and forgotten Garamond in the back country of northern France, a frail but feisty Bodoni in a village in the Apennines. Carter’s compilation would be credited with sparking the later type revival that swept the coffeehouses and small printshops of post-Eisenhauer America.

All right, my flight of fantasy probably owed more to another musicologist, Alan Lomax, and his father John, who actually did conduct field recordings to an extent that Harry Smith never did. But the imagination isn’t held back by petty fact.

Signage on the hoof

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I love seeing how things actually get made. This set of Flickr photos shows the shop that manufactures the highway signs for Washington State.

As successive photos reveal more of the underlying letters, and the visible part seems to be “ypo,” I find myself fantasizing that it will turn out to be spelling “Typography” – or perhaps the little-known Washington town of Typopolis. It is, however, “Keyport.” Oh well.

[Photo: Distributed by WSDOT under Creative Commons license.]

Petersburg: the old · the new

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I got back last Tuesday from a week in St. Petersburg, Russia, for this year’s ATypI conference. The theme of the conference was “The Old · The New,” and we saw plenty of both – not only in contrast to each other but in many varied forms of both old and new. Our two principal venues, for instance, reflected different current uses for old buildings.

The main program was held in a 19th-century palace, the “pink palace” or Beloselsky-Belozersky Dvorets, which is situated right on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt, the Fifth Avenue of Petersburg, and the Fontanka river, which reminded me of the Seine in Paris. Inside the pink palace, we had two highly decorated function rooms, one an auditorium and the other more of a big seminar room. The old wooden floors creaked when people walked in or out, but otherwise the sound was good. The foyer in between was where we served lunch and had the coffee breaks, and where people could mingle (one of the main functions of an ATypI conference). In the evenings, we adjourned to a very different venue: the Loft Project Etagi (it should be spelled “Etazhi” in English, but the Latinization must be based on French), a five-storey former bread factory that’s been converted into art galleries, boutiques, and culture-related offices. As their description puts it, “The conversion of the space was minimal; as a result, many industrial artifacts have been kept as part of the interior setting: cast-iron floors, tied concrete columns, a boring mill [stet], backing equipment, etc.” This sort of “downtown” arts space contrasted nicely with the faded elegance of the pink palace. We put up the various exhibitions on the second floor of Etagi, and Friday night’s exhibition opening was open to the public; it was jammed. Saturday night we took over the top floor, a modern art gallery with a wine bar, for the main conference party. (This was a more informal replacement for the “gala dinner” that ATypI always used to have.) It was a fine party. Briefly we had to stop everyone from having fun so I could thank all the organizers and sponsors, and so a representative from the government press & arts entity could give a short speech and hand out commemorative plaques. After the party closed, I accompanied a group of typographers to a nearby bar, where we talked and drank until nearly 4 a.m. As I put it on Sunday, “I can no longer blame my exhaustion on jetlag; this time I’ve earned it fair and square.” But I was up for the first talk the next morning, ready to kick things off in my official capacity.

Everyone seemed to agree that the conference went well. There was a certain amount of division between the Russian-speakers and the non-Russian-speakers, as in general one track was in Russian and the other in English, but there was also a fair amount of fluidity and overlap. (We were trying to plan things to encourage as much cross-communication as possible, but some sorting by language is inevitable.) I couldn’t even begin to describe all the things that people spoke on or presented; it was generally a very good program. I ended up being the MC for one track some of the time, so I couldn’t be as flexible as an ordinary attendee in deciding which track to follow. And being president of ATypI, I was always feeling responsible, even when other people were actually carrying out the tasks.

Leaving on Tuesday meant that I had one full day free, after the end of the conference; and Monday turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day, not a cloud in the sky and temperatures around 60°F. I visited the Russian Museum, where I made a beeline for the 20th century art and found two iconic paintings of Anna Akhmatova; I also ran into a couple of people from the conference there. Otherwise I strolled up and down and over the canals, admiring the 19th-century buildings, most in a classic Italian style, and wandered through the Mikhailovsky Gardens and one end of the Summer Garden, past the brooding palace known as the Engineers’ Castle, finally enjoying a cup of coffee outside a Seattle-style coffee company (a local chain called “Coffee House”) on Malaya Sadovaya Street in the sunlight. Earlier, on Wednesday, after checking in with our conference director and making sure there wasn’t anything I needed to deal with, I walked my feet off (the long, wide avenues do go on a long way) and visited the Hermitage, where I finally got to reacquaint myself with the Van Gogh that I had first seen in DC in 1973, in a tour called “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings from the USSR.” That painting had brought tears to my eyes thirty-five years ago; today it didn’t, but still I spent ten or fifteen minutes just looking at it. I also renewed acquaintance with a number of other paintings that had been in that exhibition (Derain, Cézanne, Matisse) and saw many more that had not gone traveling.

[Photos, top to bottom: transport: the old, the new; the second book printed in Cyrillic (Krakow, 1491); Oleg Genisaretsky delivering the keynote address; School #308; advertising poster at a bus stop on Nevsky Prospekt – another take on the old, the new.]

Typescapes

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Israeli typographer and type designer Oded Ezer keeps turning language into arresting, surreal landscapes of letter forms. Sometimes they even seem to be biological. His most recent project is a short movie called The Finger, “an homage to the Israeli poet, choreographer, and art critic Hezi Leskley (1952–1994).” Even without reading Hebrew (which I don’t), you can see the intertwining of meaning and pure form, as Ezer twists and teases letter shapes into three dimensions and now extends the effect in time.