28 August 2008

New types for old

This beautiful cover image is from a booklet describing the Rotofoto process, a photomechanical composition system developed in the late 1930s by George Westover, who had worked for Monotype.* Rotofoto, Uhertype (a Hungarian–German system), and the American Intertype Fotosetter are interesting because they show hot-metal type designs being adapted for photocomposition, and setting a high standard right at the start of commercially viable photocomposition.

The Uhertype, whose types are comprehensively discussed by Christopher Burke in his book Active literature: Jan Tschichold and the New Typography, had a comprehensive programme of type design, including versions of Monotype’s Gill Sans and Deberny & Peignot’s ‘French Roman’. The Fotosetter’s first typeface seems to have been Garamond, chosen no doubt because it showed off the phototypesetter’s ability to handle kerning.

The Rotofoto, reflecting its roots within the Monotype Corporation, offered Times New Roman and Monotype Old Style series 2. It’s not clear whether these were redrawn to any degree, or simply photographed from pulls of Monotype-set metal type. The Monotype connection was necessary: the keyboard for the Rotofoto was a Monotype one, and the unit widths of Rotofoto designs would have had to match those of the parent Monotype font.

I’ll be talking more about these and other early phototypesetting machines and the types they used at the ATypI conference in St Petersburg in September.

* See Boag, Andrew, ‘Monotype and phototypesetting’, Journal of the Printing historical Society, new series, 2, p. 58

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26 August 2008

Laurence Urdang

The lexicographer who was a pioneer of computerized dictionary typesetting, Laurence Urdang, died recently. Here is his obituary from the New York Times. (You’ll need to register.)

The following is from my article in Typography Papers 4:

The production of the Random House Dictionary in 1964 was a landmark in the computerization of dictionaries. The managing editor, Laurence Urdang, was the moving force in the early computerization of dictionaries, and immediately envisioned a complete process in which text was entered, stored, sorted and compared, and finally transferred to a typesetting machine. The Random House Dictionary text was keyboarded after writing and each entry was divided and entered in fields assigned to different levels of information (for example ­headword, pronunciation, definitions, etc.). This made it possible to ­prepare information for each level and in each of 150 subject fields, ‘ensuring better uniformity of treatment and far greater consistency among related pieces of information than had been achieved on other dictionaries.’ (Urdang, 1984).

Though Urdang was successful in sorting and establishing the continuity of information throughout the dictionary, he was not able to set up a usable interface between the database and photo­typesetting equipment of the time. Two machines, the Photon and the Videocomp (the US version of the Hell Digiset), were technically capable of being driven by magnetic tape, but the expected slow speed of composition caused by the frequent font changes in dictionary text, and the Videocomp’s inability to produce a true italic, ruled them out. Eventually print-outs from the database were used as copy for hot-metal Monotype composition.

For more information, see: Urdang, Laurence (1984). ‘A lexicographer’s adventures in computing’, in Dictionaries: journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, no. 6 (1984), pp. 150–65

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23 August 2008

Schleger’s stops

The recent BBC series The Thirties in Colour showed footage of London before the bombing of the 1940s destroyed the continuity of building that had previously existed.

One shot showed a street more or less unchanged in its architectural and street furniture essentials from Edwardian times – the exception being Hans Schleger's request bus stop, designed 1935–7. In the shot in question, the extraordinary modernist simplicity of this sign, and its startling use of colour, shone out in contrast to the rather fusty surroundings.

(Some idea of the effect can be seen in the photograph on page 97 of Pat Schleger’s book about her husband's work; again, the only ‘modern’ thing in the photograph is the typography.)

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21 August 2008

‘Then, with an anguished cry, Caesar (see page 5, col. 3)’

If you’ve ever been annoyed by an article on a news website whose column is interrupted by an advertisement or puff for another article—made worse if the ad is slow to load—then your frustration is not new, as this article from 1923 shows:

‘[Newspapers] put all their heads on the front page—but as for their tails— The newspaper game of hunt-the-slipper demands much skill, and more patience, on the part of anyone who attempts to join it—at least, so I am told by the few “strong perseverin’” persons who pretend (although I hardly believe them that they have tried it).’

The writer discusses serious news stories interrupted by puffs for more popular features and badly judged turns to the continuation of a story (see my headline). Then, with a surprising example, he goes on to discuss the interruptions to the book reader from the arbitrary juxtapositions caused by printing text and illustrations on separate pages or in separate sections:

‘To my great discontent, I find the hunt-the-slipper dodge adopted, for no apparent reason, in Some Account of the Oxford University Press, 1468–1921. Thus: ‘The privilege of printing the Bible was not exercised at this date [1632]; but in 1636 Oxford University Arms’ (two p ages of them, dropped in on “anywhere-will-do” principles). Personally, I don’t see why the letterpress should ever be interrupted and the interest of the illustrations scattered in this irrational fashion. I like far better the orderly and systematic fashion of putting all the illustrations together at the end of the book, so that they shall not corrupt and obscure the text they are supposed to elucidate. This decorous arrangement is often observed in good books.

‘Reading on, I come to more “hunt-the-slipper” make-up. Thus: “The total quantity of type in the Press is estimated at FELL 3-line Pica John Fell, 1689, Christ Church.” Slightly incoherent, because four pages of specimens of type have been dumped into the midst of the text. After another page of text we get four pages of illustrations; very interesting they are, no doubt; but the more interesting the more distracting and exasperating. So we stagger on to the end of the book—a page of two of letterpress, then some illustrations. Why do people do that sort of thing? Surely the Oxford University Press ought to set a better example of congruity and good manners.

‘Such a jazz performance might be condoned, though deplored, in a penny picture paper; but from Oxford one expects better “form”, more polite manners than those suggested by an untidy mixture of text and illustration. In substance, the book is intensely interesting to printers. Type, paper, machining are all that could be desired by the most fastidious book-fancier; but the arrangement is, as we have hinted, hardly satisfactory. Why will not the modern book-producer content himself with being simple and straightforward? Who wants to see him doing “clever stunts”? Plain aviation is far more likely to “get there”.’

‘Rough impressions’ by Spero (CXLII—On ‘doing stunts’), The London Typographical Journal, vol. xviii, no. 207 (March 1923), pp. 5–6.

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19 August 2008

Britain’s Olympic rings

Inspired by Jessica Hagy

18 August 2008

Who won all the medals? (2)

The BBC reported today that Britain is third in the medals table at Beijing, while the New York Times ranks Britain sixth.

As you can see, the BBC ranks by gold medals, the NYT by total number of medals. Both rankings seem less than fair: one rates only excellence, not a spread of results, the other denies that golds are, in everyone’s eyes, worth more than silver or bronze. So I recalculated the results using a University-entrance system of 3 points for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze. Here is what emerges:

gold  silver  bronze  total  points 
 1 China 39 14 14 67 159
 2 USA 22 24 26 72 140
 3 Australia 11 10 12 33  65
 4 Russia  8 13 15 36  65
 5 Great Britain  12  7  8 27  58
 6 Germany  9  7  7 23  48
 7 South Korea  8  9  6 23  48
 8 France  4 11 13 28  47
 9 Japan  8  5  7 20  41
10 Italy  6  6  6 18  36

I don't think this post on the BBC website was inspired by this blog, but it picks up the same theme.

17 August 2008

Designers and engineers

A great quote from Le Corbusier in a recent TLS:

‘Engineers are healthy and virile, active and useful, moral and joyful. Architects are disenchanted and idle, boastful or morose. … Engineers make architecture, since they use calculations that issue from the laws of nature, and their works makes us feel HARMONY.’ (Vers une architecture, 1923)

Modernism as moral hygiene. I can just image the engineers of the twenties gathering on a playing field to perform Swedish Exercises while the non-modernist architects lounge morosely in seedy bars.


14 August 2008

Google images ≠ picture research

As this story shows, doing picture research takes more skill than just a bit of Googling …

In yesterday's Guardian, the priceless comment from Birmingham city council: ‘We accept the wrong photo was used, but the text is correct, which is the main thing.’ Do we laugh or cry?


Admitting defeat

Found on the notice-board at the top of a stairwell in the University of Reading:


11 August 2008

Getting into the right position

John Hudson has posted the following images from an Australian car park:

They are a modern take on the renaissance technique of creating paintings that need to be viewed from a particular angle for their perspective to resolve correctly. You’d hope that, if you line your car up to see the words correctly, you’d be in the right position to drive forward. Worryingly, it looks to me as if you’d drive straight into that column!


Who won all the medals?

This interactive graphic from the New York Times lets you move a slider across the Olympic timeline from 1896. You can see the medal counts in Eastern Europe swelling (on steroids?) in the post-war period, the odd collection of participants in the early years, the relatively recent rise of South America and the Pacific nations and, perhaps obviously, the head-start the host nation has gaining medals.


Making notes user-friendly

Readers reasonably report difficulties when flicking back and forth from text to endnotes in editions of classic novels. What can designers do to help them?

There’s obviously a need for discretion in cueing notes in a text intended for continuous reading. One really wants the reader to be able to decide whether to follow up any cue to a note, or simply let the text wash over them. So, first question, what cueing marks to use? An incrementing/sequential system, or a single mark for all notes? Superior numbers or a symbol system?

Oxford English Novels, a hardback (later paperback) series of the 50s and 60s, used notes numbered by page. This means that almost all notes are cued by single-digit numbers, reducing the disruption in the appearance of the line. InDesign can handle by-page numbering. The notes at the end were identified in the following way:

Page 4. (1) It droppeth like the gentle rain: Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, iv. i. 181.

A problem here is that the start of each note is identical (‘Page‘), and the note number has to be parenthesized to distinguish it from the page number. The lemma (the words quoted from the actual text that are being glossed) is therefore some way into the note. The reader’s operation in seeing a note is as follows:

1. notice the cue
2. notice the words immediately before the cue
3. notice the current page number
4. turn to the back of the book
5. scan through the notes to find ‘Page X’
6. scan to see the relevant note number – if there is only one note to a page, then the note number is omitted as unnecessary
7. confirm that the lemma matches the words you are expecting
8. read the note

Probably the most difficult part of this operation is 5 – the identical starts to notes and the consistent running headline (simply ‘Explanatory Notes’) don’t help.

When OENs were re-purposed as [Oxford] World’s Classics in the 70s, the system was perpetuated. You might still find an OWC with this system. Newly-set OWCs used a system with much more help provided for the reader in the design of the notes pages, but with a less helpful cueing system in the text. Instead of a sequence of numbers, a single cue mark was used, the asterisk. Because asterisks vary in design from font to font, including some which don’t look like asterisks (Bembo and Plantin, for example, have 5-pointed starts instead of asterisks, and Ehrhardt, the default typeface for OWCs, has a very hairy asterisk that fills in at small sizes) it was decided to standardize of Baskerville asterisks, whatever the text face. A model for this is the annotation in many Norton texts, where a degree sign (º) is used.

The presentation of the notes was re-thought with a stub column for the page number (which is inserted only when the page number changes, and with the lemmas, still italicized, brought to the start of the note itself in the main column.

91crinkum-crankum: a winding way.
abating: a reduction in price.

This system puts a bit more work on to the reader in the book text, because the step of noting the likely lemma (the context of the note) is now the critical step, but provides more help in the actual look-up:

1. notice the cue
2. notice the words immediately before the cue
3. notice the current page number
4. turn to the back of the book
5. scan through running headlines to find ‘Notes to Page X’
6. scan down the stub column to find ‘Page X’
7. scan down the main column to find the lemma that matches the words you are expecting
8. read the note

The use of the stub column, and the use of a vertical space between each note (the latter admittedly used in the OEN system) are the essential components. Essentially the notes are presented as a continuous table, whereas in the OENs they were a simple list. But the use of the page information in the running headline is a crucial piece of redundancy (redundancy meaning the duplication or re-presentation of information in a way that helps the reader) allowing for stage 5 in the reader’s process. A further consideration is that the page extents in these running headlines (‘123–134’) should probably be set in full rather than in a space-saving convention (‘123–34’).

As an aside, superior numbers are now available in correctly designed form in OpenType fonts (PostScript fonts used to be very variable in their support) so it’s easier to specify numbers that align correctly and blend in colour with the text. There isn’t any excuse for using normal figures scaled and aligned as superiors 123 – which were often too light, too narrow, and too high, unless the designer had carefully specified the parameters to be used.

I'll add some illustrations shortly.

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08 August 2008

Some readers like footnotes (2)

There is certainly a trade-off between convenience of access and simplicity of appearance in deciding whether to place notes on the page or at the end of the book – especially if the book started life as a non-academic text and explanatory notes have been added later. In the early days of phototypesetting, when pages were made up by hand using (literally) cut and paste, footnotes became an additional cost, and were avoided where possible by many publishers. Large-scale, automated page make-up systems such as Miles and Penta made the position of notes irrelevant, as the pagination process could deal with foot-of-page, end-of-chapter, or end-of-book notes equally well; but these systems could not compete on cost with simpler Mac-based applications such as Quark XPress, which had nothing like the functionality. Footnotes in XPress used to be a real pain.

InDesign’s relatively competent handling of footnotes means that there is no reason for foot-of-page notes to be avoided any more, but I wonder if there is still a folk-memory that footnotes are ‘difficult’? I was pleased to see that some readers are still in favour of footnotes, as evidenced by this blog – but note the rueful ‘I guess footnotes have been done away with in this day and age’, as if publishers have persuaded readers that ‘there’s no call for them now, sir.’

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07 August 2008

Some readers like footnotes (1)

Publishers conventionally say that readers don't like notes at the bottom of the page. It makes a book, especially a classic novel, look far too academic. I recall being grateful for the presence of foonotes in an edition of Marcuse I was reading as a student - I was staying with my rather stern Italian aunt at the time who was alarmed (it being the sixties) by the picture of the underdressed girl on the cover. Could this be a suitable book for her good Catholic nephew? Grimly, she opened it. Her face relaxed. 'Ah,' she exclaimed, 'it has footnotes. It is an academic book.'

06 August 2008

Typographic Clerihews

I promised Katherine Gillieson I'd write some typographic Clerihews so here they are. (Warning: not to be taken as serious biography.)

The alluring charm of Beatrice Warde
Made printers, who could ill afford,
Buy brand-new types from the Super Caster –
She drove men (panting) to financial disaster.

Ladislav Sutnar had a scheme,
To design sales brochures by machine;
A steady hand and a ruling pen
Defy that his grids are the works of men.

Beatrice Warde
Could call on the Lord
To approve of her posin’ for Eric’s engravin’
Wearing nothing more than a ‘Monotype’ hairpin.

Mrs Eaves kept house for John,
Whose many trades, not only one,
(japanner, writing-master, and printer)
Would keep him in business both summer and winter.

Beatrice Warde used blatant temptation,
To enrich the Lanston Corporation;
Her purple prose on the latest designs,
Drove time-served compositors out of their minds.

Stanley Morison
Performed his orison,
In the Catholic Church in Times New Roman:
It’s unlikely he rated the movie ‘The Omen’.

As a model for women, Beatrice Warde,
Is surely more than a little flawed,
Promoting the Monotype Corporation,
Was hardly a blow for liberation.

Walter Tracy grew
A beard and drew a font or two,
When asked what all type tyros should learn,
He replied, ‘Mono does, Lino doesn’t – kern.’