Posts Tagged ‘graphic design’

I discovered typography just as I was starting my second career as a technical writer. Just as I had when learning poetic meter, I became obsessed. My newly trained eye criticized every sign I saw on the street and the design of every book I read. As I added graphic design to my list of employable skills, I realized that I wanted to develop a personal typographic brand for business cards, portfolios, and web sites.

After looking at hundreds of fonts and pairing them, I settled on Eric Gill’s Joanna for body text, and his Gill Sans for headings. The combo was classic, but not seen often enough to be a cliché, a balance that made it ideal for my personal brand. Gill thought of himself primarily as a stone cutter, and, like many classical Ancient Roman fonts, you can easily imagine both Joanna and Gill Sans being cut in stone. The result is a simplicity and boldness that makes for versatility.


Gill Sans and Joanna

I went through a period of hunting down every typeface by Gill that I could find, and I might have kept using the combination, except for two considerations. First, a biography of Gill revealed that in his diaries he was a self-confessed child molester. That revelation did not detract from his skill as a typographer or sculpture, but it did make reluctant to tie my professional identity to him in any way, even though few people would have heard it.

Second, several years after beginning my study of typography, I became a free software advocate. The fact that fonts can be used more or less freely in documents makes them something of a gray area in terms of free software, but not enough for my comfort. I began looking for alternatives – ideally ones that I could use with older documents set in Joanna and Gill Sans without any re-formatting.

I found a Gill Sans clone of reasonably in the Arkandis Digital Foundry’s Gillius ADF. It is not a perfect substitute, because it requires more leading than Gill Sans, which makes it less suitable as a body text. Also, its Regular weight is somewhere midway between Gill Sans Bold and Gill Sans Light. However, although I briefly considered using Gillius ADF for the body text in my book Designing with LibreOffice, in the end I was not especially interested in using it for anything except titles and headings.

Joanna was harder to find a substitute. However, one day, I came across Fanwood, a font designed by Barry Schwartz, who is best known for his modern versions of fonts by the American typographer Frederick Goudy. The League of Movable Type site describes Fanwood as based on the designs of an unnamed American-Czech typographer, but as I started experimenting with it, I could have sworn that it reminded me of another font.

Eventually, I realized that three-quarters of Fanwood’s letter shapes were similar to Joanna. Even more importantly, characters displayed in Fanwood occupied only a little less space as Fanwood – not an ideal situation, but far less complicated than occupying more. Since Fanwood included small capitals, old style figures, and other advanced typographical features, I left Joanna behind and have been happily using Fanwood ever since.


Gillius ADF and Fanwood

I mention this switch because it is one that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. But free-licensed fonts have become common place in that decade, offering hundreds of choices where before only a few for online display were available before. By contrast, proprietary fonts number in their tens of thousands (at the very least), but one thing that free font typographers have been very conscientious about is offering alternatives for many popular proprietary fonts. As a result, I have been able to switch entirely to free-licensed fonts for my personal branding, as well as the occasional bits of graphic design that I still do – a luxury that makes me glad to live in the times that I do.

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Every once in a while, blogging delivers an unlooked-for personal insight. I had an example of this occurence earlier this week, when I mentioned that, despite being left-handed, I had won handwriting awards in the first few grades at school. Suddenly, I realized that this experience helped to explain my interest in typography.

The connection was news to me. I thought I had developed an interest in typography when I was working as a technical-writer, and wanting to branch out into design. Partly, my motivation was to make myself more versatile and therefore more employable, and to add a extra bit of creativity to what was sometimes monotonous work.

However, I soon became fascinated with typography for its own sake. Not many people – including graphic designers – are well-versed in typography, but the selection of typefaces and their arrangement on the page is a minature art-form, full of arcane jargon and fascinating lore.

It’s hard to imagine now, for instance, that the rise of asymmetrical design was as controversial as Impressionism or Modernism in the arts – or that one leader of the so-called New Typography, Jan Tschichold, was considered so subversive in Nazi Germany that he was given the option of exile or imprisonment (he chose exile, first to Switzerland and after the war to England, where he designed the standard templates for Penguin books of the period – little gems of design that you can still find today, sometimes, in second hand book shops).

And, like any art form, once you’re comfortable with the language of ascenders and descenders and kernings and letterspace, typography changes your perception. Just walking down a street of shops became a whole new experience for me as I examined all the signs in a new light. Similarly, opening a book, my pleasure is substantially increased by a fine layout, or lessened by a poor one.

These are all reasons enough for the large collection of fonts I accumulated. However, I suspect now that my font-fetish is also a revival of attitudes formed in the first years of my education.
You see, I was left-handed, and no one expected me to write with any elegance to my letters. The very fact that we read left to right makes writing awkward for lefties, and letters in cursive script especially are easier to form when your pen hand isn’t in the way.

But, having conquered a speech defect in Grade One, by the time I was introduced to handwriting in Grade Two, I was determined to defy expectations again. By an effort of will that, looking back, I now find hard to credit in a seven-year-old, I focused on the forms of the cursive letters, drawing them repeatedly over and over at home in my own time until I could draw them perfectly.

Or so I thought. I wonder now if I won handwriting certificates as much because I did better than lefties were supposed to do, rather than because my handwriting was objectively among the best in my classes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a sample of early handwriting to confirm or deny my suspicions.

No matter. What is important isn’t whether I really deserved the certificates, but that I became interested in the shape of letters for their own sake. I remember doing class presentations on the Greek, Phoenecian, and Norse alphabets. And, well into my teens, copying out the final version of my essay (this was before personal computers) became a ritual all its own. I remember labouring over the letter forms, not much concerned with what I said, but determined to produce a beautiful page. In Grade Ten, I even did a calligraphed creative writing project that I did and redid many times, and only completed because of the deadline – and I laboured at least as much over the page borders as I did the story contents.

Those interests went unexpressed as I went through university and became an instructor then a technical writer. Even when I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I never did much of anything with calligraphy. Yet, like a root buried deep underground, the interest remained, waiting for the right conditions to send up tendrils and be reborn.
Odd, that I never saw the connection from now. The continuity and persistence confounds me – yet, in seeing them, I now know a little bit more about myself.

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