easilyamused |

Archive for the category ‘typography’

Typographer’s lunch

Published

When Dave Peattie, the vice-president of Publishing Professionals Network, asked me if I’d write a short column about type for the PPN email newsletter that he edits, naturally I said yes.

Thanks to an untimely system crash and an update that somehow didn’t get uploaded properly to Mailchimp, the July newsletter went out with an early draft of the text of my column, under a placeholder column title that I hadn’t chosen.

It would be silly to insist that Dave send out a corrected newsletter just for me, so I suggested that a simple solution: I would publish my intended version here, on my blog. And, of course, let you know about PPN.

Publishing Professionals Network (formerly Bookbuilders West) is based in the San Francisco Bay Area but widespread in its membership and influence. Its annual Book Show is a showcase for the best book designs in the West each year. In lieu of in-person meet-ups during the pandemic, PPN has had a monthly informal Zoom meet-up online, which has been a boon to those of us who don’t live in the Bay Area but like to hang out with our colleagues. You might want to join in. (You don’t have to be a PPN member to do so.)

Meanwhile, here’s the column. Some of you may have heard me talk about this subject before.

Cartoonish drawings of adults & children, and an adult shrunken down to the height of a child.

Typographer’s lunch | a column by John D. Berry | June 2021

Why use small caps? Small caps can look very elegant. They can help keep a forest of all-caps acronyms from overwhelming a page of text. They are a traditional way of setting off one kind of information, like a byline, from others, like a headline. In reference books, they are often used to highlight cross-references to terms that have their own entry elsewhere in the book.

Small caps are never strictly necessary; there are other ways of distinguishing information typographically. And many fonts, digital or otherwise, don’t include small caps in their character set. So before you specify small caps in a design, make sure they are available in the font you’re going to use. (To cover all the bases, better check for italic small caps, too.)

The software you’re using may try to be helpful by faking small caps if it can’t find them in the font. Fake small caps are nothing but capital letters that have been shrunk down to the x-height or a little higher (the height of the body of a lowercase letter). And that’s exactly what they look like: little miniatures, too light in weight compared to the rest of the letters, and too tightly spaced, so they look both spindly and crowded together. 

Fake small caps are especially distracting when they are set with full-size caps at the beginning of each word. Since the full caps are so much heavier than their shrunken companions, they draw extra attention to themselves, emphasizing the initial letter of each word. Unless you’re spelling out the meaning of an acronym, this is pointless and misleading. Just set the whole word in small caps.Small caps have to be designed, just like any other characters in a font. Like children, small caps have their own size and proportions; they’re not just adults shrunk down to child height. (When you look at Renaissance paintings where the artist has done just that, the children look uncanny and disturbing. So do fake small caps.) And they do need to be spaced out a bit, or they get into fights.

Close-up of lower part of first image, showing the drawn child and a shrunken-down drawn adult at the same height.

A talk on Jack Stauffacher’s legacy

Published

In October I joined Chuck Byrne to give a two-part talk about the life and work of Jack W. Stauffacher for the Society of Printers in Boston. No doubt in a normal time we would have traveled to Boston to address the members in person, but because of the pandemic the event was entirely virtual. This has its disadvantages (my connection was evidently a bit wonky, sometimes making my audio slur for a moment, though I had no way of knowing this until I listened to the recording later), but it has advantages as well: a much larger potential audience, one that was geographically dispersed although constrained by time zone. And of course the talk was recorded, so you can watch it now, well after the fact.

My part focused on Jack’s life, using the biographical essay I had written for Only on Saturday, the upcoming book from the Letterform Archive about Jack’s abstract wood-type prints. I was reading my text, rather than speaking extemporaneously, which seemed appropriate, since the book hadn’t yet been published. For the talk, I put together a selection of images that I hoped would give a visual counterpoint to the narration. Researching Jack Stauffacher’s life was a fascinating project, and finding a way to organize its many aspects and facets was a creative project of its own. But it was all in the service of telling people about Jack.

Chuck is the moving force behind the book, and in his part of the presentation he went through the book, page spread by page spread, explaining why they had chosen particular images and how they had put them together into a remarkable, highly visual volume. The design of the book is Chuck’s; he was quite sure that Jack’s approach to the design would have been different, but they were long-time friends and no doubt would have enjoyed mutually criticizing each other’s choices. It’s a beautifully designed book.

Talkin’ punctuation

Published

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do a short talk on the subject of punctuation, to kick off an online British science-fiction convention that was called, for obscure reasons, Punctuation. I was happy to do it, as this gave me a chance to overlap my two long-time communities, typography and science fiction. (There are a few other people with a foot in each puddle.)

The original suggestion, from organizer Alison Scott, was for either a talk or a panel. “Say something about punctuation,” she said. Doing a short talk seemed like the better idea, but the mention of a panel was what prompted me to speak briefly about the very different notions that the two communities have of what a “panel” ought to be.

As intended, my talk was quite short, followed by Alison’s reading questions from the chat stream and my trying to answer them. It was fun to talk about punctuation, along with a few other somewhat related topics, and Alison was an excellent host.

The video is available on YouTube.

New JDB website

Published

After a mere 13 years, this website is getting an overhaul and a brand-new design. Besides being updated to look like something from the modern world, it’s more directly focused on showing the breadth of my work. The primary purpose, of course, is to make it absurdly easy for people who might want to engage my professional services. (That might be you.)

The images on the portfolio pages are meant as examples, not case studies. If you’re interested enough to want to know the details of how a project was done, and with what purpose in mind, we should talk directly.

All the pages of the old site will still be accessible from the “legacy site” link on the main menu. (I say “will be” because at the moment it’s hiding behind a technical glitch.) The design, although not responsive, was at least intended to be comfortably viewable and readable on a phone as well as on a larger screen. (The even less responsively designed “dot-font.com” website is also still there, if you’d care to check it out. It’s got pretty pictures and free text downloads from two of my books of essays.) And of course the standalone website for the Scripta Typographic Institute, which was already responsive, remains unchanged.

Like most design projects, this one has been collaborative. I took on much more of the hands-on coding than I had ever done before, figuring out how to build the responsive grid that I wanted to use for the portfolio pages. But, as always, much of the heavy lifting and correction of misconceptions has been done by Paul Novitski, my long-time webmaster. (Remember that term?) Paul had been encouraging me for years to dive under the hood; at last, this year, I started doing so. It’s been fun as well as useful. I should also call out Dave Miller at Artefact for useful strategic thinking when I was starting this project, and Alexandru Năstase of TypeThursday Bucharest for insightful advice near the end.

Although she could have no hand in this new iteration, I still owe a lot of thanks to the late Julie Gomoll for her advice and guidance on the initial form of this website.

What really got me interested in creating a new website was the possibilities now available for responsive grids. At last, it seemed, web design was beginning to do things that interested me! I found Rachel Andrew’s CSS grid newsletter and tutorials especially helpful. I’ve had lots of fruitful discussions with Jason Pamental about flexible design and typography on the web (although I have not tried using variable fonts in this design). And as someone who originally came to design through production, and who takes a production-based approach to any design project, I was happy to finally get my hands dirty. (“How do you clean all this syntax out of your fingernails, anyway?”)

A history of TypeLab

Published

At the beginning of 2020’s online virtual TypeLab, Petr van Blokland was telling the story of how TypeLab started in the early ’90s.

He described it as “a rogue version of ATypI,” which he and a few collaborators (among them Gerrit Noordzij, David Berlow, Erik van Blokland, and other ATypI designers) put together for the 1993 conference in Antwerp. It grew out of the experience in Budapest a year earlier, when the various international delegates who didn’t speak Hungarian found themselves milling around outside during a lecture on Hungarian type that was being delivered in Hungarian (naturally) without translation (unfortunately). It became apparent, Petr said, that there might be value in providing something else for people to do when they didn’t want to spend all their time in the official program. (In those days, ATypI conferences were fairly small, and they had only a single track of programming.)

After Budapest, Petr suggested to the ATypI Board of Directors that they plan some kind of informal alternative for the Antwerp conference, but the Board wasn’t willing to do that. So Petr and his friends set up their own alternative, which they dubbed TypeLab.

This was a time when digital typography was still thought of as new; it was only three years since Zuzana Licko had épaté la typoisie at Type90 with her HyperCard-based, music-enhanced presentation on fonts for the screen. Very little content about digital type had made its way into ATypI’s main program so far, and what had been included was largely theoretical. TypeLab was meant to be a sort of hands-on side-conference, an experimental laboratory, with a room full of equipment where anybody could try out the new technologies.

They managed to secure sponsorship from Agfa, which made it possible to have the computers, software, and printers all freely available.

“The room of 15 x 15 meters,” says Petr, “was divided into four quarters: a little lecture theatre of 40 chairs, a design studio with Macs and software, a ‘lounge’ where people could sit, talk, and show their sketches and drawings (note that there wasn’t anything like phones or laptops back then), and a printing department (loaded with printers, a typesetter, and copying machines).

“The board of ATypI didn’t go for the idea, so we planned to rent a space on the other side of the street. In the summer of 1993 Agfa, the main sponsor of ATypI that year in Antwerp, got wind of the idea, so Petr got invited to the Antwerp headquarters in late July. The appointment was made with the chairman of the board of Agfa, and also present was the then chairman of ATypI, who still didn’t want TypeLab to happen. But Agfa left ATypI no choice and promised the intended lunch space to TypeLab, also allowing a wish list for equipment.”

Over the course of the conference, they made their own magazine for the delegates, conceived and printed on the fly, using fonts that had been created right there just the day before. “The A3 printed newspapers, ready at breakfast for the attendees, were indeed made with the type that was created the day before. Many traditional/regular ATypI participants thought that to be impossible. Making type was something costing years, not days.”

Petr recalls a student at the Antwerp conference telling him how Adrian Frutiger had wandered into the lab, and the student had shown him how Fontographer worked – a technology that Frutiger was completely unfamiliar with at the time.

That was the first of six TypeLabs, Petr said, the last one being held at the 1996 conference in The Hague. By that time, Petr himself was on the ATypI Board, and from then on, the essence of TypeLab got incorporated into the regular conference program. It was no longer necessary as a guerrilla alternative; it had arrived.

Five years ago, TypeLab got revived as an adjunct to the Typographics conferences that were getting started at Cooper Union in New York. Organizer Cara di Edwardo had suggested that there ought to be some sort of program on the side during the main conference, so Petr re-created TypeLab for the occasion. It has been a Typographics fixture ever since, and this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, TypeLab became an online-only, virtual event (“a 72-hour marathon,” says Petr), with participants and audience from around the world.

[Image: big blue TypeLab-branded folder for conference materials, from ATypI 1993 in Antwerp.]

Franklin Press

Published

More history, this time my own. As I worked on researching the first part of a history of ATypI, I came to realize that I myself had been around long enough that my recollections formed part of typographic history. So I’ve started writing down my memories of how I got involved with typography – a sort of typographic memoir. I came to type sideways, like everything else in my so-called career. I’ve just posted a draft of the first bit on Medium. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

Visualizing with text

Published

I had fun recently collaborating with Richard Brath, the author of Visualizing with Text, on a cover for this upcoming book from CRC Press. It’s part of the AK Peters Visualization Series, a line of books from Routledge that focuses on different ways of visualizing information, largely scientific or technical. Brath has written a specialized yet informative study of the many ways that text can function as an element of visual design.

Not surprisingly, the book is richly illustrated, so we had lots of possibilities when it came to pulling images that might be used on the cover. But first I tried out a number of dramatic single images of type or letters that did not come from the book. Richard responded with a very dense collage of images from within his own text, which I found fascinating but probably overwrought for a book cover. Especially for the cover of a book that would most likely be seen as a thumbnail in a catalog or online, rather than displayed lavishly on the front table of a bookstore.

The process, as I said, was fun, going back and forth and trying out different combinations to find one that would both be dramatic and reflect the diversity of techniques that his book covers.

I also got the publisher’s permission to replace the ITC American Typewriter that they had been using on the covers of this series with David Jonathan Ross’s recent revival of Dattilo, a typewriter-inspired Italian typeface of the early 1970s that was originally issued by Nebiolo. Like American Typewriter, Dattilo is not actually monospaced at all; it just reminds us of a monospaced typewriter face. But Dattilo has a much richer variety of weights and optical sizes, enabling me to take the same series design and give it a much more dramatic typographic treatment.

Richard Brath has written his own informative blog post about designing the cover of his book. The book will be published this fall.

Trouble in Tiny Town

Published

We’re all locked away from our favorite bookstores during the current pandemic, so I haven’t seen the trade-paperback edition of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel The House of Broken Angels in printed form. But I did see a little thumbnail image of the cover in Moira Macdonald’s recent book column in the Seattle Times. That image didn’t quite have the effect it was meant to have: I burst out laughing the moment I saw it.

The symmetrical arrangement of the principal words of the title, and the small size of the ancillary words, turns the title into what appears to be a stack of three words. And the tiny “OF” next to “HOUSE,” at this size, can easily be mistaken for a hyphen.

So you end up with “THE HOUSE-BROKEN ANGELS.” Which would no doubt be a very different book.

The paperback cover looks just fine at full size, as it would if you saw it displayed on a table in a bookstore. And the very different design of the hardcover jacket isn’t so symmetrical, which makes it less prone to this kind of misreading.

I’m not showing this to make fun of the book-cover design. I’m using it to point out how important it is for a cover designer to look at their design in all the contexts it may be seen in, including at Lilliputian size on a newspaper page or on a website on someone’s phone. How can it be misread? If it can be, it will be.

[Images: trade-paperback cover (top) and hardcover jacket (bottom) of Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels]

Hanging by a serif (again)

Published

The visual concept behind Hanging by a serif came from something I was playing with for our 2012–2013 holiday card. “The stockings were hung by the serifs with care…” read the front of the card; inside, the text continued, “…in hopes that typographers soon would be there.” On the front, a wild cacophony of huge serifs barged in from the outer edges, with little green Christmas-tree ornaments appended to a couple of them. The background was a pale-green image of a potted conifer, drawn in stained-glass-style, taken from an image-based “Design Font” that Phill Grimshaw had designed in the 1990s for ITC. (The inside also featured a pale background image from the same font, this time of a wrapped package.) It was fun, though I wondered what our non-typographer friends and family would make of it when we sent it out.

Later that year, I began experimenting with the concept, juxtaposing short snippets of text from my own writing with big details from various serifs. I found that I had a lot of statements or fragments on the subject of design that seemed to fit into this format. Eventually, these epigrams and serifs took the form of the first edition of the book Hanging by a serif.

That first edition caught the eye of Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, whose Mainz-based company, Hermann Schmidt Verlag, has published so many excellent books on typography and design. Bertram wanted to do a German edition of my little booklet, which would be a nice calling card for his publishing program and might even sell a lot of copies. (It didn’t.)

Bertram’s approach to publishing is thorough, and he wanted to include notes about which typefaces all the serifs had come from. This sent me back down the rabbit hole into my own production process, since I had been working with truncated images for most of the design of the book, and I hadn’t kept very careful track of what typefaces my serifs had originally been attached to. It took quite a bit of retrospective detective work to find all my sources. (Hint: a couple of the images had been reversed.) In this sense, the German edition is more thorough than mine. It also has a couple of serifs or serif-like glyphs that are different from the ones I used.

But one of the epigrams bothered Bertram: “Most graphic designers never get more than rudimentary training in typography.” While true, this struck him as too negative, and he suggested coming up with a replacement. In the end, we went with a statement in German that translated as, “Typography is never an end in itself, it targets the eye of the beholder.” (Probably pithier in German.)

When it came time to do a new English edition of the book (since I was running out of copies of the original), I decided to make two changes. The serif I had used on the cover of the first edition was taken from Justin Howes’s ITC Founder’s Caslon, a digital reproduction of William Caslon’s original types in which Justin attempted to re-create the exact effect of the metal type printed on hand-made 18th-century paper. The outline, therefore, was rough. This roughness around the edges bothered a number of people, some of whom asked me if perhaps the image had been printed at too low a resolution. It hadn’t; this was precisely the effect that the typeface was designed to have, but blown up to extra-large size like this, it was distracting. So for the new edition I searched out a new serif that would work well on the cover. (The serif I chose is from Matthew Carter’s newly released type family for Morisawa, Role.)

And I did replace the problematic epigram that had bothered Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, though not with the one we used in the German edition. As I had mentioned once in this blog, a quip of mine had been making the rounds of social media for some time, being quoted repeatedly out of context, and I thought it really belonged in this compendium. So if you turn to page 16 of the new edition, you’ll find this: “Only when the design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible.” It really wanted to hang with the other serifs, and now it does.

Designing the Poets’ flexible logo

Published

When Tree Swenson asked me to create a new visual identity for the Academy of American Poets, the brief included creating a new logo. Tree was then Executive Director of the Academy, which was (and is) based in New York City but represents poets and poetry from all over the country. Other parts of the visual identity included the annual report, the website, and promotional material and program books for the Academy’s annual fundraising event in New York, which featured, each year, several very prominent people from the literary and entertainment worlds.

In the logo, Tree told me, the emphasis should be on “Poets”: that was the word she wanted people to remember, not “Academy.” So from the first I thought it should be a two-element logo, with “Academy of American” essentially modifying “Poets.”

As you can imagine, I played with all sorts of typefaces and all sorts of arrangements. At first I aimed for something symmetrical, preferably square or circular, because that’s the least troublesome shape for a logo that has to be used in a wide variety of circumstances. But then I began breaking the boundaries.

By turning the word “Poets” into the central element, spelled out in all-caps in Matthew Carter’s elegant, sparkling typeface Big Caslon, and placing it within a classical-looking rectangle, I gave the logo a solid, clearly recognizable mark. But what about the rest of the name?

Poets horizontal logos

For that, I tried something entirely different, though also in an elegant and somewhat old-fashioned tradition. I set the words “Academy of American” in Zapfino, Hermann Zapf’s swooping calligraphic typeface, a dramatic contrast to the solidity of the Big Caslon caps. And I let the calligraphic strokes overlap the main element.

In fact, I tried out a large number of different placements of the Zapfino words, and what this process made me realize was that there was no one solution; in fact, there should not be a single solution. Instead, it became a modular logo that could change again and again in various uses.

Poets logo variations

Zapfino has an enormous number of swashes and alternate forms of letters, notably for both the lowercase f and the uppercase ‘A’. This meant that varying the logo wasn’t just a matter of moving around a calligraphic element, but of choosing a different arrangement of strokes for each instance.

The version we used most often had restrained A’s but an exuberant f in “of,” which swoops down into the word “POETS” and up outside the top of the box, plus somewhat restrained swashes on the d and y of “Academy.” Other versions substituted a swash version for the first A, breaking the box on the left as well as at the top.

In some instances, we did away with the box altogether. The membership cards boxed “POETS” but left “Academy of American” outside the box, floating above it, with swashes penetrating the space of the box and a swash on the final n flying out to the right. For the mailing label, where a horizontal approach was called for, both elements were in the same line, rather than stacked; though they still had a little overlap.

Poets business & membership cards

Then there was the website logo: poets.org. In ads in the New York Times and elsewhere, promoting National Poetry Month, we used a “poets.org” logo done in the style of the Academy logo: POETS in Big Caslon, and the “.org” in Zapfino, in a second color, with the tail of the g dramatically sweeping under the word “POETS.” (This proved to be a difficult design for use on the website itself. In the end the website design was done separately.)

Poets combined logo

On the cover of the annual report, the logo’s elements were rearranged along with the other typographic elements, including an enlarged ornament from the Zapfino font (which changed from year to year; the first one was the tip of a calligrapher’s pen). I would use Zapfino ornaments as occasional accents on later pages.

One other situation called out for a special treatment: when the logo would be displayed on the front of the lectern during the annual fundraising events at Lincoln Center. I tried out the slightly bold “Forte” weight of Zapfino, but decided that it wasn’t necessary. Instead, it was a simple stack of four words, in Zapfino and Big Caslon, on a black background, enclosed in a single-line box that some of the (relatively short) swashes burst through. It was meant to be readable at a distance in a large, dimly lit auditorium, yet still to be recognizably the logo of the Academy of American Poets.

This identity, with its ever-changing logo, was used for three years, until changes at the Academy brought on, as they often do, a change in its visual direction. The Academy’s current visual identity is very attractive and effective, though it is entirely different in style and feel.