Sunday, 22 February 2009

Atlantis found – Plato comments

However barmy the story, and however corny the illustrations, at least the Sun should get credit for supporting its speculation with graphic material. British on-line newspapers are far behind sites such as the New York Times in this respect.

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Friday, 20 February 2009

The provisional book

Thanks to Joseph Sullivan for pointing out this article by Nicholas Carr via Twitter:

‘ “Your library has been successfully updated. The next update is scheduled for 09:00 tomorrow. Click this message to continue reading.”

One of the things that happens when books and other writings start to be distributed digitally through web-connected devices like the Kindle (right) is that their text becomes provisional. Automatic updates can be sent through the network to edit the words stored in your machine – similar to the way that, say, software on your PC can be updated automatically today.’

[read more]

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Parole in libertà

The Guardian reports the British Library’s purchase of Marinetti’s Parole in Libertá Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche, printed on tin, here.

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Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Design for people who won’t pay

Talking to an architect the other day about careers in the design profession, he reminded me of the great disadvantage that graphic and information designers have compared to architects: there is no professional standard by which clients can judge the services they are offered. Anyone can set up as a typographer or web designer. Architects have to pass exams and belong to a professional body, regulating their practice. I hope that this is one aspect of the ‘professionalization’ of design in the post-war period that Paul Stiff will address in his forthcoming writing on the ‘Optimism of Modernity’. But for now, thanks to John Boardley of ATypI, we can see exactly what you get if you think you only need pay peanuts for design.

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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Discussing interface design

Damon Clark visited the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication today, to talk to MAs about designing interfaces for mobile devices and tvs. In particular, he drew a distinction between the relatively free placement of ‘hot’ areas on computers and touch-screen devices, and the way that phone and tv screen interfaces are limited to up–down, left–right selection. This is enforced by direction buttons on phones and on tv remote controllers, resulting in a cruciform arrangement of options on screen. (Subsequently, it was interesting to see one MA experimenting with this format in her book design project: using a left–right axis to show a sequence of activities, with a vertical axis to offer alternative actions at certain points.) Damon’s work is currently for Orange, but he is also responsible for the Espy screen font used on the Apple Newton and iPod Mini.

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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Per Mollerup visits Reading

The Danish designer Per Mollerup made a welcome visit to Reading today to talk to MA students. He reminded them that wayshowing is what we need to do to support wayfinding. And he also demonstrated that pictograms confuse as well as enlighten in many cases. (For example, is male and female, or is it the other way around?)

Here is an example of his work at Copenhagen airport, replacing illegible white-on-yellow signs with clearer white and yellow type on a dark blue background.

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Sunday, 8 February 2009

Futura v Gill Sans

To celebrate the return of Mad Men, and also to acknowledge Revolutionary Road, this blog has been transformed* to point out the typeface blunder that both the tv show and the movie make: to think that Gill Sans would be used for signage in 1955 (RR) or 1962 (MM). Gill Sans was simply not on the radar in the US then – surely they mean Futura? And as for the Helvetica in the realtor’s sign in RR – arrrgh!


* At least, for users of Mac OS X. It’s Twentieth Century if you're using WIndows.

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Saturday, 7 February 2009

More than one process …

This little guide book, published in Moscow in 1957, shows how the contents of such books were constrained by the printing processes available. The first 176 pages are printed letterpress and contain only text and line drawings; photographs are confined to a 48-page gravure section at the back of the book.

A. Ковалиев (Trans. V. Shneerson). По Москве: краткий путебодитeль. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1957

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Cold-weather cover

I thought this book-cover from 1898 would be appropriate given the current temperatures.


Fridtjof Nansen, “Farthest North”, being a record of a voyage of the ship Fram 1893–96 and of a fifteen months’ sleigh journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen with an Appendix by Otto Sverdrup Captain of the Fram. London: George Newnes Ltd. 1898

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Friday, 6 February 2009

How typography happens

The following is adapted from a review that first appeared in the Printing Historical Society Bulletin

‘Making books made easy’ was the headline in an issue of Design Tutor, a how-to-do-it-yourself guide that promoted the make-over and the quick-fix design solution – much in the manner of today’s gardening programmes on tv. In such an approach, a discussion of small capitals naturally found its place in ‘Nitpickers’ Corner’, while ‘Our Heroes’ featured a designer who, the magazine claims proudly, ‘wasn’t a designer at all’. Perhaps one drawback of the title, How typography happens, chosen for the casting into print of Ruari McLean’s measured and elegant Sandars Lectures is that it will be taken as part of the ‘how to do it’ genre. The explanatory line, which appears on the back of the jacket but nowhere in the book itself, ‘an account of how typography became a profession in its own right, and changed the face of book and type design’, is closer to a description of the contents, but perhaps not close enough.

For a book which claims to describe the emergence of a profession, this is still a firmly top-down history, not a social one. Few designers are discussed in any detail – and all of them are master practicioners (there are no women). The scene is restricted by something akin to the dramatic unities: Britain, America, France, and Germany; concentrating on the period 1830–1930; mainly book and type design. Perhaps the demands of the public lecture require an adherence to narrative and to the promotion of strong rulers and law-givers – as Simon Schama’s 1990s television history of Britain showed. The historian whose writing is rich in social context went for the 1066-and-all-that approach when confronted with the screen’s demands for visuals and a strong story line. The trick is to do it well, as both Schama and McLean proved by pulling it off.

But typography doesn’t just happen. It is made. McLean is careful to explain that, despite the early printing manuals’ focus on the tasks and duties of the compositor, the executors of typesetting are not those who make typography happen. He points to the need for a guiding intelligence, initially provided by the master printer. For McLean, the starting point of the typographic profession, and the point at which the word typography began to shift its meaning from printing to design, is the transfer of this guiding intelligence to the publisher, to the person who commissions print rather than carries it out. Naturally this shift is a result of economic and social as well as technical developments, and McLean places it firmly in England in the 1830s, when the publisher William Pickering can be identified as responsible for the design of books printed for him by Charles Whittingham.

McLean’s ideal typographer needs to be more than a competent professional. Changes in typography can only happen, he argues, if practitioners take part in education as well as design. And that involvement in education needs to be practical. The publication of manuals and histories (De Vinne’s aimed at printers, Updike’s aimed at ‘intelligent people interested in printing’) allows experience to spread. Different national cultures influenced this process in different ways. He points out the difference in status between the British and German printing trades at the turn of the century, and traces the transfer of the typographic torch from the unadventurous British to the technically educated, status-conscious Germans, with their printing schools in Berlin, Munich, and Leipzig. McLean clearly admires the thoroughness he sees in the German approach, naturally focusing on what he describes as ‘Tschichold’s “New Typography” ’. Jan Tschichold is his ideal practitioner and educator: he writes economically for compositors and printers, not dilettantes, and his writing is practical, sensible, and ‘truly efficient’. McLean contrasts his 24-page, A4 booklet on how to draw layouts with Thibaudeau’s ‘expensive and elaborate’ Manuel Français de Typographie ‘that few compositors could have afforded or would even have seen’. McLean emphasizes Tschichold’s youth, and the speed of his typographic development: 21 when he first saw modern art, 23 when his essay ‘elementare typographie’ was first published by the national trade magazine Typographische Mitteilungen.

McLean retells the bemused reaction to the New Typography in the Anglo-Saxon world, reserving praise only for Edward McKnight Kauffer and the printers Lund Humphries for promoting Tschichold in London before the second world war, and Paul Rand for understanding it in the States after the war. The ‘moderne’ American approach to typographic design is illustrated (and decried) by showing Frederic Ehrlich’s ‘faulty’ manual The New Typography & Modern Layouts, its hectic page tellingly placed opposite a calm Birkhäuser title-page by Tschichold. McLean is more ambivalent about the new traditionalist club of British typographers, but implicitly criticizes Francis Meynell, Morison and Oliver Simon for their ‘numerous trial proofs of title-pages’. If only they had drawn their layouts more carefully!

While McLean is able to knit together a typographic narrative that that binds events and practitioners in Britain, Germany, and America, he admits that France must be treated as a separate case: in France ‘we find something completely different’. McLean provides a convincing explanation for la différence, pointing out the stronger tradition of the book-illustrator and artist (Daumier, Delacroix, Doré) in nineteenth-century France, and the lack of influence that the closed, subscription-only private presses had on the trade in general. McLean’s illustrations for this chapter include four pages from Tolmer’s Mise en page and five from Thibaudeau’s Manuel. But as the latter is set in the Auriol typeface, and George Auriol’s designs are shown in a further three illustrations, the reader is overwhelmed by his particular style. In contrast Maximilien Vox, whose wide-ranging talents are described, is illustrated by a portrait, some quotations, but not by examples of his work. Vox’s typographic guidelines for corporate clients such as the French Ministry of Finance or the French broadcasting organization after 1945, which would seem to indicate the final arrival of the typographic designer as a professional, are not mentioned at all. The chapter on the French convinces the reader that they were certainly different, but does not show that theirs was a genuine contribution to modern typography.

The book ends with Vox’s comment ‘I can only work joyfully’. This book has the advantages of a strong narrative thread and an engaging style. Quotations in French and German appear in the original language as well as in translation. The text is neatly set in Fred Smeijers’s Renard typeface, but some of the illustrations in the chapter on France are not quite as sharp as they could be; none show the items illustrated as three-dimensional objects, and not all have exact reduction values. The illustrations, which come in groups of up to 8 pages, occasionally interrupt the flow of the text for the reader.

Ruari McLean
How typography happens
London: The British Library/New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000
0-7123-4634-1 (BL cased edn.)
234 x 156 mm, 96 pp., 69 b/w illustrations

Monday, 2 February 2009

Enid Marx, you should be living now


Recognition that you shouldn’t moquette from Modern Toss in the Guardian Guide the other Saturday.

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Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Form of the Book

A brief review of the excellent one-day conference The Form of the Book organized at St Bride by Fraser Muggeridge and Sara de Bondt.

Catherine de Smet
Le Corbusier disseminated his architectural ideas through his books as much as through his buildings, but had a cynical attitude to publishers, changing them at random after one, to whom he had entrusted a series, went bankrupt. He had decided anti-Bauhaus views, and the his personal involvement results in designs that veer from the dull and conventional to a personal version of French moderne, never reaching the rationalism of Tschichold or the boldness of Herbert Bayer. Irregular daubs of pastel colours used to fill spaces or underlay type and stencil or condensed antique (sanserif) types became trademarks of his books, although they appear widely in French design of the period.

James Goggin
James Goggin discussed the thin line between homage and pastiche. Is it right or too obvious to appropriate artists’ techniques and apply them in the design of books about artists?

My favourite quote: ‘The concept is perfect: the only thing a graphic designer can do is mess it up.’

Richard Hollis
Richard Hollis’s first job was as a photoengraver’s messenger, and his background in printing technology informed his presentation as much as his scholarship and his experience as a graphic designer. He reminded the audience of the need in the pre-digital age of understanding imposition schemes and the best pages in a section to position half-tones. He discussed books such as Ways of seeing, talking about his desire to balance the weight of text and illustrations, and, surprisingly, using the verb ‘to typograph’ to mean applying typographic formatting to text.

My favourite quotes: ‘It’s only when you get a book in your hands that you know it’s satisfactory.’ ‘I was passionately anti-Schmoller.’ ‘I use only one typeface – it’s a very boring decision to make.’

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