Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Dostoevsky translated by Yoda

Stuart Jeffries has written an amusing article about the inversion of normal English word order that most translations of Братья Карамазовы use, following the Russian pattern slavishly in a way that we would think most odd if it were applied to the Brothers Warner or the Brothers Marx. (The OWC edition calls them The Karamazov Brothers.)

Monday, 28 July 2008

A shocking back panel

This extraordinary back panel might not be possible today, when prices, bar-codes, and tv tie-ins are de rigeur. More about this innovative series later.

The men in white coats

In films and tv dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, the scientist (usually male) was instantly recognizable by his white coat. As the printing industry began to move to photo-typesetting and computer-aided composition in the same period, the image of the printer in a white coat was part of the message to customers that here was a new, less inky age, with highly trained technicians producing perfect results from finely calibrated equipment. The printer was seen with the new tools of his trade: a light-table, film, and a scalpel. All that was missing was the stethoscope. Even when the machinery was not so different (Monotype used the same basic keyboard for its Monophoto machines as for its hot-metal system) the operator was duly dressed up in a white coat for the publicity photo, eschewing the traditional printer's brown garb.

This attempt to rebrand the printer went alongside calls for designers to re-think themselves: ‘Print designers … should be trained not in art schools, but in schools of engineering print design.’ Thus John Duncan in 1964. ‘There is still too much woolly thinking in out training programmes for designers. Too often the basic disciplines of draughtsmanship and the cardinal responsibility of communicating an idea or message are overlooked or neglected and issues are clouded by the striving for the vague goals of so-called originality and aestheticism,’ wrote Lawrence Wallis in 1965. ‘This is an age of specification writing,’ continued Duncan, accurately describing the role of the designer for computer-controlled composition as someone who had thought out all the issues beforehand, so the the machines could run at maximum speed, with little need for time-wasting corrections. ‘What other industry,’ wondered Wallis, ‘would put up with the specification being altered half way through the production of a job, or even worse with no specification at all, or with an inaccurate one.’

Alongside the elevation of the specification was the development of work-flow diagrams: the one below even schematizes the operations with labels such as ‘intellectual–manual’ and ‘automatic–electronic’.

What was this a reaction against? Perhaps the best example I can find from the early post-war years of a designer being determinedly anti-scientific (if you take scientific as meaning a method involving measurable, repeatable things) is Jan van Krimpen, whom Robin Kinross called 'the principal bearer of tradition in Dutch typography’. Here is is talking of how he would ‘specify’ amendments to a typeface design:

‘I meant to offer … to have them put in order, under my own eyes, by my own punch-cutter. … When we talk of punches cut by hand we use terms like “a hair or even less” or “the tiniest little trifle” &c. I am sure they could not convey or mean anything to the people of the [Monotype works who] talk of “tens” and “thous[ands of an inch]”.’

Sources: Penrose Annual, 1964; The Monotype Recorder, 43, 2, Summer 1965; OUP archives

Keeping your hand in

I don’t usually take photos in loos, but …

Here is the new Dyson hand drier. So good, it needs instructions. And endorsements. In fact, the endorsements are bigger than the instructions. I think I understand the endorsements (‘British Skin Foundation validates Dyson’s skincare research’ = ‘This is really good, it’s scientific). I don't think I understand the instructions. Two unattached mitts are inserted in the drier. Something (waiting time? drying time?) takes 10 seconds (or mustn’t exceed 10 seconds?). The mitts pop out like toast from a toaster. The instructions are white on silver. But hey, Mr Dyson is an engineer, not a designer. Except, aren’t engineers designers?

The University of Reading is, I am told, planning a full-size wall graphic to explain how you use these machines – which are very quick and efficient – no more turning round from the sink with wet hands, seeing the hand-driers, calculating the minutes it will take to dry your hands, and opting for a quick wipe on the jeans instead.

PS. I dried my hands perfectly well by rapidly moving them up and down in the blade-like airstream. It worked. I am told this is the wrong way to do it. You insert and slowly draw them out through the airstream – presumably taking 10 seconds to do this. That's the trouble with instructions. If you try, there’s usually another way to do it.

Friday, 25 July 2008

What the readers think …

This blog has some interesting – if light – responses to the redesign of the Oxford World’s Classics series. The overall feeling is very positive, but with some strange asides (‘don’t they look a lot like the Penguin ones?’ – Sophie; how?). The continuity of the colour red from the old design to the new is clearly a good thing (‘I will miss the red banner though. I relied on it to find them on the bookstore shelves!’ – Stefanie; ‘These still have the red on the spine, but it's a bit smaller.’ – Tara).

And I’m glad that someone else has noticed the optical illusion that occurs when you compare the old and the new: the previous design (come on, let's be honest, my old design) made the books look taller and thinner, whereas the new design makes them look wider (‘if they are, that would be a big plus!’ says Sophie; sorry Sophie, they’re exactly the same size).

How Comic Sans saved the world (well, at least saved Courier)

You must watch this splendidly tacky typographic joke from College Humor. Thanks to Cynthia Batty of ATypI for spreading the word about this.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Why hyphens (and commas) were invented

A recent University document provides the perfect example of how to confuse a reader by not using hyphens to identify phrases used adjectivally, or a comma to clarify a conjunction:

Individual Learner Profile - a quick and easy to complete confidence rating questionnaire providing students with a snapshot of how they feel about their academic skills and signposting to sources of help

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Nothing so dated …

Recycling an old mobile phone, I came across this guide to texting (still called ‘text messaging’) from a BT Cellnet guide dated November 2000.

Some of the abbreviations seem to have stayed the course, but several now mean nothing to my 22-year-old son David, a prodigious user of Skype, AIM, etc., as well as SMS. On the other hand, a Google search seems to turn up most of them. Did BT Cellnet attempt to research usage in 2000? Is predictive text removing the need for such telegraphese?

Friday, 4 July 2008

Does that typeface play a tune?

Well, Eurostile always goes dum-dee-dum-dum-dum-dee-dee for me. And yes, Microgramma (‘They call me Eurostile – that’s not my name!’) was the typeface used for the zero-gravity toilet instructions in 2001.