Posts Tagged ‘typography’

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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Most people have the vague understanding that writing their name entirely in lower case characters is a claim to being avant-garde. However, few people have any idea why this connection is made, or exactly what it supposed to signify.

The practice dates to the 1920s. Back then, Germans had a bewildering selection of alphabets to write in, including Roman and Italic characters, cursive characters for handwriting, and black letter characters, all of which used both upper and lowercase characters. Black letter characters, or fraktur as they are sometimes called were especially popular because of the growing German nationalism, because they originated in Germany. However, they were the least legible of the selections and made for old-fashioned, often cluttered page designs.

In this situation, a small group of German typographers rebelled against the layout conventions of their day, advocating designs that were simple and minimalistic. Their ideas were codified in Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book The New Typography.

These ideas included the elimination of all the alphabets available to German typographers except lower case Roman. This choice was made because lower case Roman characters are not only simple, but also distinctive. Unlike with any upper case characters, lower case Roman characters have more distinctive characters, so much so that even if you only see an outline of a word, you can often make a good guess about what the word is.

Today, this idea seems trivial. But in the atmosphere of Germany, which was sliding towards Nazism, all the New Typography’s ideas seemed unpatriotic, even treasonous. In fact, under Hitler, Jan Tschichold was accused of “cultural Bolshevism,” and fled Germany one step ahead of his arrest to exile in Switzerland, and, after World War 2, in England. In other words, using only lower case Roman was daring and progressive, and both an artistic and a political statement.

As the New Typography became known, its ideas were adapted by Modernist designers of all sorts, even among those who had little idea of the justification for using only lower case Roman characters. By the time the idea reached the English-speaking world, only the practice was left, and its justification totally lost.

Today, using a lower case name still has the reputation for being avant-garde, even though after ninety years it is hardly new or daring, let alone any kind of political statement. In fact, ironically, many of the ideas of the New Typography are so far from the cutting edge that they are the nucleus of orthodox design and layout today.

However, one of the ideas that did not become standard was using only lower case Roman. By the mid-1930, many of the leading New Typographers had relaxed their original aesthetic position, falling into practices similar to those used in the English world. Tschichold himself eventually became the lead designer for Penguin Books, producing gem after small gem of typographic excellence for popular use – a worthy accomplishment, but hardly a radical one.

This history is mostly unknown, partly because typographer is an art that most people know little about, including many graphic designers. Even more importantly, although the English-speaking world was influenced by the New Typography, Jan Tschichold’s manifesto for the movement was first published in an English translation in 1998 – seventy years after its German publication.

However, when you know the story, one thing becomes clear: those who insist on only lower case are following a practice that is behind the times instead of ahead of ahead of them, and taking no political or aesthetic position where once the practice could actually be dangerous to their freedom in some places. Whatever meaning the practice might once had, for all they stand out as artistic or political radicals, they may as well be wearing black T-shirts and jeans.

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When someone suggests that design doesn’t matter, I like to mention Jan Tschichold, whose ideas help to create modern typography and were considered so subversive that Nazi Germany gave him the choice of exile or imprisonment. I can’t say that typography was quite so important in my own life, but there was a period when it helped to keep me sane.

At the time, I was working as a technical writer, having realized that the reduction in tenured positions made academia a dead end. Technical writing was far more lucrative than teaching, and it taught me the importance of organization and brevity, but it was far from challenging. In six months, I had gone from a beginner to hiring my own sub-contractors, and I was looking for the next step.

I branched out into marketing, which quickly lead me to graphic design. I soon realized that typography was a craft in itself that most designers knew little about, and, the more I studied, the more fascinated I became.

Part of the appeal was the esoterica. To appreciate typography, you have to learn about ascenders and descenders, bowls and leading and all the details that most people see without observing. Moreover, the roots of typography were in the early Renaissance, although the modern concepts of design were less than a century old. If you had any hope of understanding what typography was about, you had to train your eye by absorbing obscure concepts that most people never even guessed existed.

Yet paradoxically – and contrary to what many believe – the point of typography is not to call attention to itself. In fact, design that called attention to itself can be called a failure by definition. The point of typography is to enhance the content, to make it more legible and, present it appropriately. Such goals are so contrary to those of our post-modern age that they seemed to me an example of art for art’s sake. After all, why else would someone labor over a design that, if successful, would affect people’s experience with only a handful ever appreciating what it accomplished? Such attitudes immediately commanded my respect. I wanted to understand what successful design was about.

Also, I soon realized that my growing obsession had a practical side. If I could design as well as write, I would become highly employable. I could market myself as an all-in-one service, combining writing, design, and project manager in a way that no one else was doing. Even more importantly, I would have enough variety in my work that I would rarely be bored.

It became common place for clients to tell me that they wanted accurate manuals, not pretty designs. Often, I was cleaning up after writers who thought the ability to put words on paper was all they needed, so the last thing clients wanted was someone else giving themselves airs. I did my best to deliver the hands-on accuracy that other writers avoided – but, for my own sake, I also gave clients well-designed manuals and help files without saying anything.

To my satisfaction, almost every client as they signed off would say some variation of, “I know I said I didn’t care about design – but damn, that design is something else.” I enjoyed giving them a little extra, and proving that accurate content and quality design were not polar opposites. To this day, I can look at my work from that period with artesianal pride at a job well-done.

Soon, however, my restlessness led me to management and finally to journalism. Both were satisfying in themselves, but neither gave much scope for design.

However, in the last few months, I’ve returned to typography, designing the book I’m writing and even designing templates for a client. I’ve probably forgotten more than I ever knew, and I never was more than an apprentice in the craft, but I find the work as satisfying as ever. As far as I’m concerned, combining writing with design is the closest I’m likely to come to what Bill Reid used to describe as “the well-made object”– a tiny piece of art in which I can demonstrate all my knowledge in every aspect of it.

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Like writing, typography is an art everyone imagines that they are competent to judge. From Dorothy Sayers imagining her opinion was better than Jan Tschichold’s to Mark Shuttleworth altering his company’s direction so that he could play with design, otherwise intelligent people are constantly falling into the fallacy that they can judge typography despite having no experience with it. The latest high-profile example of this fallacy is Marissa Mayer’s comments on the new Yahoo! logo, the majority of which reveals her lack of design expertise.

I knew the process is doomed to mediocrity as soon as I read her first criteria: “We didn’t want to have any straight lines in the logo. Straight lines don’t exist in the human form . . . so the human touch in the logo is that all the lines and forms all have at least a slight curve.” Aside from how arbitrary the limitation is, what strikes me is the immediate escape into metaphorical explanation. Such explanations are rarely a sign of someone with any expertise; in my experience, they are the sign of someone who does not know what to observe. A trained designer is more likely to reflect that giving all the otherwise straight lines in the logo a slight curve is mostly wasted space for the simple reason that most people are going to look at the logo carelessly, and see straight lines regardless, simply because that is what they expect to see.

Mayer’s next criteria is: “We preferred letters that had thicker and thinner strokes – conveying the subjective and editorial nature of some of what we do.” Not only is there more meaningless metaphor, but the logo will be largely seen online, and even a beginning designer knows that online legibility generally requires fonts with consistent strokes.

Further down the list of criteria, Mayer adds a “mathematical consistency.” Although this requirement sounds impressive, it becomes meaningless when you consider that all typefaces are designed to have a mathematical consistency. She might as well have said that she wanted the logo to have a breadth and depth.

Mayer goes on to explain that “we felt the logo was most readable when it was all uppercase, especially on small screens.” However, against what Yahoo! employees “felt” are centuries of practice and study that shows that lower case letters are more legible because they have a more irregular shape that a solid block of upper case letters of the same size – especially at smaller sizes.

In the end, only two of Mayer’s seven criteria are reasonable starting points: wanting to keep a hint of the old design (although having something serif-like as that hint is somewhat odd), and wanting to do something “playful” with the final “oo.”

Judging from the final result, it was already clear that the logo’s designers were less than expert. However, Meyer’s blog does have the advantage of confirming the visual evidence. Predictably, her confused and poorly advised priorities are reflected in the result, and Yahoo! has labored to replace an outdated logo with a poorly conceived one.

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I was in high school when I realized that being observant was not just a talent or trait – that to be observant, you had to know what to observe.

I made this discovery because I had decided that, if I were going to write poetry, I needed to educate myself about traditional verse. Armed with a rhyming dictionary with a good prologue, I set out to learn about metric feet: iambs, trochees, anapests, and dactyls, along with outliers like spondees. Through repetition, reading, and practice sonnets, I learned to recognize each foot in a way that I never had naturally (although I had heard of them long ago). I learned that what you could consider an accented syllable varied with the sounds around it, and how some syllables could count as accented or unaccented depending on how you pronounced them. I learned, too, that free verse was not an absence of meter, but an absence of consistent meter (a subtlety that escapes three-quarters of modern poets, and how the whole idea of metric feet did and didn’t fit the way that English was used.

For a while, I became so obsessive that I went around mentally scanning everything that I and people around me were saying. I don’t think anyone noticed the inevitable slowness that crept into my speech, but I was relieved when I finally shook off the obsession. I soon found myself publishing my first poems, and left with a means of perception that most people lacked.

Much the same thing happened in grad school when I realized that, if I were going to teach composition to students, I needed to know more about essay structure. Accordingly, I summarized the sections of essays I admired from people like George Orwell or Gloria Steinhem, making notes of the tactics used. What were the different ways of starting an essay? Of concluding? How should points be arranged? When should opposing views be mentioned, and how should they be handled?

A few years later, I did the same with fiction, both short stories and fiction. Then, as I started exploring graphic design, I did the same with font selection and layout – so thoroughly that I still sometimes walk down a commercial street critiquing the signs. Usually, there’s a lot to criticize, since, to say the least, our culture is not exactly graphically literate.

Each of these circumstances left me with a different way of seeing from most people. Or, rather, I perceived the same things as everyone else, but I understood what details mattered. I could understand, too, how well what I perceived fit together. Instead of a generalized reaction, I could go into detail (usually more than anyone else wanted to know) about exactly what created my reaction.

Some people might argue that I have lost my spontaneous reaction as a result. They might say, for instance, than I can no longer watch a badly written movie, because I can anticipate what is going to happen and, sometimes, when the script writer has become especially lazy, even what the characters are going to say and what will happen to them.

To some extent, that claim might be true. However, my self-taught expertise can tell me to avoid the movie, which I consider an advantage. Or, depending on my mood, I might watch it anyway with a two-track mind, one responding as an uncritical consumer, and one running in parallel observing what doesn’t work and why.

Far from losing anything, I believe that I have gained from acquiring expert vision of selected fields. Because of my efforts, I not only respond, but can articulate why I respond the way I do. In looking for greater knowledge of what I was experience, I have also gained knowledge of both myself and others – and that’s never a fact that I’ll regret.

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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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