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Archive for the category ‘society’

Typographer’s lunch 7: NYC subway map debate


In 1978, in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York, a heated debate took place over a proposed redesign of the NYC subway map. In 2021, Gary Hustwit and Standards Manual published the transcript of that debate, accompanied by photos taken that same evening, in a smart-looking little book called The New York Subway Map Debate. It’s a document of design in the very real world.

The debate was a battle of two antagonistic concepts of what a transit map was supposed to do. In 1972, Massimo Vignelli and his studio had designed an elegantly abstract new subway map, doing away almost entirely with geography and presenting a schematic, almost a wiring diagram, of how to get from one point to another within a closed system. In 1978, a new map, championed by railroad enthusiast and cartographer John Tauranac, was proposed as a replacement. The new map would restore a semblance of geography, connect the subway to the city streets above, and show how the complex tangle of New York’s subways really worked. It was, as designer and debate panelist Peter Laundy later described it, “really a tunnel map rather than a route map.”

I started riding the New York subways in 1966, when I was sixteen. Shortly before that, Vignelli and Bob Noorda had designed a new signage system for the subways, assigning color-coded numbers or letters to each route. I found this system easy to follow; what I didn’t find easy to follow was the old signs in all the stations, pointing to the “BMT trains” or the “East Side Local.” The new system had not fully replaced the old, and to a novice these mixed signals were confusing. The Vignelli map had not yet been created, but the then-current subway map did identify all the lines by number or letter. There was no clue on it to the old nomenclature, or to the fact that the NYC subway system had been cobbled together from three separate companies, the IRT, the BMT, and the IND.

That map, and the Vignelli schematic in 1972, was an attempt at imposing order on a fundamentally chaotic and contradictory system. This, it seems to me, is exactly what design is supposed to do.

[Originally published on January 1, 2022, in PPN Post and Updates, the newsletter of the Publishing Professionals Network.]

Facing the world, typographically


On Dec. 1 & 2, Stanford University hosted “Face/Interface,” a small conference on “Type Design and Human-Computer Interaction Beyond the Western World.” The conference was held in conjunction with an exhibition at Stanford’s Green Library: “Facing the World: Type Design in Global Perspective.” The exhibition, organized by Becky Fischbach, runs until March 24. (Go see it!)

The organizer of Face/Interface was Thomas S. Mullaney, an associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford who has spoken at ATypI and who wrote the canonical book on the history of the Chinese typewriter. Tom is an indefatigable organizer and a generous host, with a clear idea of what is required to make an event like this a success (and a ruthless way with a stopwatch, if speakers run over).

The roster of scheduled speakers was impressive. I knew this would be a notable event, but, as everyone seemed to agree, it turned out to be even better than we had been expecting. There was not a single talk that I was willing to miss, even first thing in the morning, and the interplay among them, dealing with varying languages and technologies and cultures, wove a rich tapestry of ideas. Which is exactly what a scholarly conference ought to do.

Not surprisingly, there were a number of references to an earlier typographic event at Stanford: the famous 1983 ATypI Working Seminar, “The Computer and the Hand in Type Design,” which was recently written about in an article by Ferdinand Ulrich in Eye magazine. That 1983 seminar had been organized by Chuck Bigelow, who at the time was an associate professor of typography at Stanford (the only person ever to hold such a position there – so far). And Bigelow was one of the closing speakers this year, thus tying together these events 33 years apart. (Donald Knuth, also a key figure of the 1983 seminar, dropped by on Friday for a while, though he had no official involvement in this year’s event.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Face/Interface didn’t figure as prominently in future typographic memory as the 1983 gathering has over the last three decades. It felt like a pivotal moment.

Highlights for me included Thomas Huot-Marchand on the contemporary successor to the Imprimerie nationale; Bruce Rosenblum’s highly personal account of “Early Attempts to Photocompose Non-Latin Scripts”; Liron Lavi Turkenich‘s visual tour through trilingual signage in Israel; Lara Captan’s tour-de-force performance, “Facing the Vacuum: Creating Bridges between Arabic Script and Type“; Gerry Leonidas on Adobe’s treatment of Greek typefaces; and the other two closing talks (mine was sandwiched between them), by Chuck Bigelow and John Hudson. Other notable memories include Tom Milo projecting his ground-breaking live-text Qur’an technology on a wall-sized screen in the Stanford maps collection, upstairs from the exhibition reception, and a lively conversation with Chuck Bigelow over breakfast on the last day.

For those speakers who didn’t have to rush off on Sunday, there was an informal brunch and tour of the Letterform Archive in San Francisco, where Rob Saunders showed off his collection and ended up selling off some of his duplicates to eager collectors such as myself.

[Images, top to bottom:] Chuck Bigelow, John Hudson, & John D. Berry after the closing presentations (photo by Chen-Lieh Huang); Chuck Bigelow at the podium; Sumner Stone, asking a question from the audience; John D. Berry at the podium (photo by Eileen Gunn); Becky Fischbach & Fiona Ross outside the hotel in Palo Alto; Rob Saunders’s hands showing off the original Depero bolted book at the Letterform Archive.]

More writing


I have just added a couple of complete essays to the rather minimalist “Writing” page on this site, and links to several others.

That page has so far consisted of short, and I hope intriguing, excerpts from various longer pieces of my writing. Now I’ve added links to almost all of the originals, making this a sort of landing page or entry point to these essays.

I’ve added the introduction to Contemporary newspaper design (2004), where I attempted to look at the development of newspaper typography over several technological and economic revolutions, and “The Business of Type”, my account of the origins, development, and demise of U&lc, which was the introduction to U&lc: influencing typography & design (2005). Both of these were books that I edited for Mark Batty Publisher; both of them are now out of print. I think those essays are worth making available again.

I’ve added some more links, too. Check ’em out.

[Update, April 15, 2016:] I’ve now added the missing piece, the preface to Language Culture Type. It is a less substantive piece than the others, but still worth having intact.

Traveling & listening & talking: Typo Day


“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.

ATypI Hong Kong: personal context


In less than two weeks, I’ll be in Hong Kong, for this year’s ATypI conference, which is being put on with the cooperation of the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This will be the first time ATypI has ever held its conference in Asia; it will also be my first visit to Hong Kong, or indeed to any part of China.

I studied Chinese history while I was an undergraduate at Stanford – when actually visiting China was virtually impossible for a United States citizen, although Hong Kong was then still a British colony and easily accessible. At the time (circa 1970), Stanford’s History department had what amounted to an unofficial mini-department of Chinese history, with several excellent professors, most of whom I took courses from. (The one professor I didn’t take a course from, Mark Mancall, gave a guest lecture for one of the other’s classes, entitled “The Complete History of Relations Between the Russian Empire and the Ch’ing Dynasty, in 45 Minutes – with Flourishes.” The bit I remember most clearly was Mancall’s description of how nervous the Ch’ing court was when they realized that the curious foreigners who had been nosing about China’s western frontiers in Central Asia, and the ones who had been nibbling at her northeastern frontiers in Manchuria, came from the same place; and how relieved the Chinese were when they finally realized just how far away Moscow really was.) Although I have never put that knowledge to practical use, I have a pretty good awareness of the outlines of Chinese history, including the tumultuous 19th century. In college, I read Arthur Waley’s The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes, which is essential background to understanding the founding of Hong Kong. Much more recently, I gained new perspective on the maritime history of southern China when I read Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West, as well as the East Asian parts of 1493, by Charles C. Mann. These are all fascinating and highly readable antidotes to the simpleminded tales that we’re sometimes told in lieu of real history.

The theme of this ATypI conference is “墨 [mò] – between black & white,” which refers directly to the marks of ink on paper as well as alluding to contrast, balance, art, and intellectual pursuits. Naturally, there will be a strong emphasis on the typography of eastern Asia, along with all the usual range of subjects for talks, demonstrations, workshops, and exhibits. There’s still time to register and attend; and this year we’ve adjusted the schedule so that the bulk of the main conference falls on the weekend, to adapt to the common practice in both China and Japan and make it easier for interested typographers and designers from those countries to attend. I’m looking forward not only to visiting Hong Kong but to seeing the impact of Chinese and European typographies upon each other, in the distinctly human form of this professional conference. The conversations in the corridors – the heart of any conference – should be fascinating.

Ernest Callenbach


Ernest Callenbach died the other day, at the ripe old age of 83. (Doesn’t actually seem that ripe when I’ve got friends in their 90s, but it’s at least a respectable total.) Callenbach was the author of the seminal 1975 book Ecotopia, which certainly had an effect on my thinking and my experience of the ’70s.

Ecotopia wasn’t very good as a novel; I remember thinking at the time that it felt like an account by a college freshman of his discovery of a life wider and more exciting than the one he’d grown up in. (It reminded me of “encounter groups” that I experienced when I was a college freshman myself in the late ’60s.) But it carries you along, keeping you interested enough in the characters to enjoy the story, while mostly presenting the society of Ecotopia that he had envisioned and invented. That vision of a radically environmentally sustainable society was what got people excited in the later 1970s.

Not long after I moved to Seattle, I signed up for a class at the Experimental College, a sort of officially unofficial adjunct to the University of Washington, on the concepts of Ecotopia. In that class I met a lot of people who were involved in trying to create a sustainable counterculture and asking themselves serious questions about how to really live in a place in modern North America. It tied in with ideas that I’d been reading and thinking about through writers such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, and with currents of thought that were rife in the Pacific Northwest at that time. The concept of “Ecotopia” was very satisfying: it was a country comprising Washington, Oregon, and Northern California that had supposedly seceded from the United States and set up an ecologically based society with very little communication with the rest of the US. The precept of the novel is that an American reporter is finally able to penetrate Ecotopia and make a journey of discovery there. The story is told as entries in his diary.

Ecotopia is a utopian novel; so is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which came out shortly before Ecotopia. Although they are miles apart in literary quality, I remember intending to write a comparative review of the two books, because they took different, perhaps complementary, approaches to creating a fictional utopia. Le Guin’s Annares was a world of scarcity; Ecotopia, by contrast, was a world of abundance (the rich economy and ecology of northern California and the Pacific Northwest). Comparing the utopias, if not the novels, would have been enlightening.

After taking that Experimental College class in Ecotopia, I was so moved by the energy and the excitement among such a bunch of creative people that I and two other students from the class decided to continue it by teaching it ourselves the next quarter; and when we had done that, a couple of our own students did the same, taking the class and its community to a third quarter. (I don’t think it went farther than that.) There was a ferment at that time in environmental and “alternative” lifestyles and ideas on the West Coast, and the connections made through that class fueled a lot of creative activity in Seattle and environs for several years to come. We certainly didn’t create any utopias, but the study formed some of our perspectives and assumptions about the land we lived in and how we intended to go forward in our lives. Much of it later fell by the wayside, but some of it has persisted.

I only met Ernest Callenbach once, when he came through Seattle and visited our class to see what he had wrought. He seemed an unassuming man, who had simply had some good ideas at the right time and succeeded in expressing them in a way that people responded to. Before he wrote Ecotopia, he was better known as a film critic and the editor of Film Quarterly magazine. I remember his telling us that what had led him to writing Ecotopia was living in Berkeley and simply asking himself questions about where the waste went to. When he followed its route (intellectually, I assume, not literally), he realized that he was discovering a whole way of looking at the world.

You might think that Ernest Callenbach and Ecotopia don’t have much to do with design, which is the ostensible subject of this blog. But in the larger sense that we live in a designed world and ought to get better at it, this is very much at the heart of design.

TypeCon surges ahead


TypeCon 2011 – the first one run by SOTA on an all-volunteer basis – seemed to be a successful conference, and it was held in a fascinating city: New Orleans. The single-track program was well designed to engender conversation; in fact, individual presentations seemed to be speaking back and forth to each other, even when they had not be planned with that in mind. A lot of that conversation was about web fonts, design for the screen, and new forms of publishing. That’s what I spoke about myself, in a rambling talk full of questions and explorations (“all questions; no answers!”) about the problems and possibilities of designing books for a digital age. You won’t be surprised to hear that I embraced flexible design and adaptive layout as the best way to design any extended text for a variety of screens.

Everyone enjoyed New Orleans – the food, the music, the culture – though some attendees weren’t prepared for the binary contrast between the hot, steamy outdoors and the brutal air-conditioning in the hotel and in the bars and restaurants. The hotel was in the heart of the French Quarter, however, right on Bourbon Street; a fun place to be, but definitely also a tourist bubble. Bourbon Street seemed the least changed of any part of the city that I saw, since my one previous visit back in 1988 (also for a conference, also in the summer). I’m sure this is not only because the Quarter is on high ground and Katrina’s flood waters mostly didn’t reach that far.

I couldn’t, of course, make it to everything on the program; and as I didn’t arrive until Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t there for the pre-conference Education Forum or workshops. Presentations that stood out for me were Bill Berkson’s provocative “Great Readability Scandal”; Amelia Hugill-Fontenel’s well-crafted and artfully delivered “Artifacts All Around,” about some of the typographic curiosities in the Cary Collection at RIT; Otmar Hoefer’s affectionate tour of the collection of the Klingspor-Museum in Offenbach; Veronika Burian and José Scaglione on their joint type-making venture; and the “three guys in hats” (Scott Boms, Brian Warren, and Luke Dorny) on how designers use web fonts. Particularly notable was the presentation by three guys from the Cherokee Nation, about designing type for the Cherokee syllabary; this was a real-world application of type design that really matters. (“Every font that’s made makes your culture stronger.”) I also liked the tail end of Nick Sherman’s talk, filling in at the last minute for the absent David Berlow, though I missed much of Nick’s talk because I was too busy preparing for my own, which was up next. It was also fun hearing Matthew Carter, John Downer, and Akira Kobayashi do an onstage type crit of each other’s well-known typeface designs.

The heart of the event is always just meeting and talking with people, often at the evening social gatherings. Sometimes they were just a late-night party overlooking Bourbon Street, or an expedition to go “type busking” in Jackson Square in the hot summer night. TypeCon traditionally concludes with a special Sunday-evening event, after the close of the official programming; usually it’s something type-related, such as the visits to printing museums in Boston and Los Angeles, but this time it was pure tourist indulgence: a ride on the riverboat Natchez up and down the river, with music and drinks and commentary as we viewed the city and its environs from the middle of the Mississippi. The ship was by no means ours alone; we were just one among many groups aboard. But despite the cliché’d nature of the voyage, it proved to be a relaxing and enjoyable way to end a conference, and also to get a better sense of just where we were.

I got an even better idea on Tuesday, before catching an evening flight back to Seattle, when my friend Nevenah Smith, an artist who has lived in New Orleans for more than ten years, gave me a whirlwind tour of the city’s neighborhoods. It was great to get away from the Quarter and see something more down home. Even seeing parts of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward or the flooded-out sections near Lake Pontchartrain was a welcome reality check – and encouraging, when Nevenah pointed out to me the new houses being built there by volunteers for returning locals, and the people hanging out on their front porches the way they always used to. New Orleans has been devastated, especially the poorer neighborhoods, and its people treated shabbily. There’s no reason to expect that it won’t happen again; but there’s a resilience among those who’ve stayed or come back. I had prepared for this visit by watching Spike Lee’s powerful documentary When the Levees Broke and by reading Ned Sublette’s excellent book The World That Made New Orleans; I was trying to finish Ned’s more recent Year Before the Flood before I left for TypeCon, but I’m still reading it now at home. All of these gave me a little bit of insight into the context of the city I was visiting. (Even after the fact, I would recommend them to anyone who was in New Orleans for TypeCon.)

No venue was announced for next year’s TypeCon. Perhaps you’d like to put it on.

[Photos, top to bottom: what really goes on at a type conference (hint, hint); Ed Benguiat can’t escape his own typefaces; TypeCon attendees on the Natchez riverboat.]

Back to the Futura


A couple of weeks ago, we drove down to Portland to see a play that promised to mix science fiction and typography. How could I resist a that combination? (“Are you sure you didn’t write this play?” asked a skeptical friend of mine when I told him about it.)

The play is Futura, written by Jordan Harrison, and directed in this performance by Kip Fagan at the Portland Center Stage. (I say “this performance” because the play was having a sort of parallax début: it opened simultaneously in Portland and Los Angeles, after being workshopped in 2009 at the JAW Playwrights’ Festival in Portland.)

The opening act is a lecture on typography – and a good one. In the best science-fiction tradition, you realize, as the lecture goes on, that there’s more to the context that you thought. When the lecturer whips out a genuine piece of paper, it is clearly meant to be a shock to her students. This is a world where physical books have been superseded, and banned, replaced by an agreed-upon digital library that keeps changing, and has no grounding in solid fact. The lecturer drops acerbic references to her late husband, who seems to have been murdered, apparently by the forces of imposed order.

The first act ends [spoiler here!] when the lecturer is suddenly kidnapped, blindfolded and hustled offstage.

The trouble with Futura is that it breaks down after that. The four actors seem good; it’s the writing that lets them down. The arguments between two of the main characters in the second act are true to life, the kind of half-thought-through emotional arguments that people really make. But the play itself doesn’t rise above them, or go any deeper. The logic falls apart at the slightest touch. The metaphor, reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, doesn’t really offer any more insight than a sort of worried extrapolation of Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books.

The stage sets were wonderful. (I wonder what they were like in the LA performance.) I’m not at all sorry that I went to see this play; I’m just disappointed that it wasn’t better than it was. There’s a lot to be said about books, printing, digital literature, and society; but this play didn’t go beyond its own characters’ blinkered arguments.

Still: “Futura”? How could any typographer resist?

When disaster strikes


As I have followed the news about the earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan, naturally my thoughts have turned to the many people we met in both the typographic and science-fiction communities when Eileen and I visited Japan in 2007. Our closest Japanese friends, we found out quickly, were all right, as was everyone in their circle of friends. I certainly hope that all of the wonderful, generous people that I met in the Tokyo Type Directors Club, in the Japan Typography Association, at Idea magazine, and from other parts of the Japanese typographic community are safe and sound; and that all of their families and friends are, as well.

[Photo by Taro Yamamoto, 2007.]

Imperial identity system unearthed


(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.]