15 November 2008

The books they tried to ban

Test your knowledge of censors and would-be censors in this quiz from the Guardian.

The cover illustration is from the first printing of Candide in the Penguin Classics series (1947). This was volume 4 in the series. The text may be a very early design by Jan Tschichold, who took up his role at Penguin in March 1947, but the setting, in Monotype Bembo 270, does not follow his famous composition style – dashes are unspaced em-rules, there are extra spaces after sentence full stops, and the long-tailed R is used.

The cover is the original pre-Tschichold design by John Overton; the roundel is by William Grimmond.

I’ve now managed to look closely at the first few Penguin Classics, and the Overton/Tschichold question is rather more complex than implied by the above, or by the simple statement in Baines, ‘only the first seven titles appeared in this design, before it was re-styled by Jan Tschichold in 1947–8’. Not surprisingly, the transition from one design to another in a series in production was not clear-cut. There are early PCs with Overton covers/Overton text; Overton covers/Tschchold texts and vice versa. Some books feature pre-war bowing Penguins, some a Penguin standing on an open book (Baines, p. 251); at least one with a Tschichold Penguin on the half-title, but no device on the title-page. Another has an Overton ‘jacket’ wrapped around what looks like a Tschichold cover.

Baines, P. (2005) Penguin by design. London: Allen Lane (pp. 46, 64–7)

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17 October 2008

The Mad Men type spotter’s file

If, like me, you are waiting anxiously for the next series of Mad Men (those frocks! those opening credits!) but want to check those niggling feelings you have about the anachronistic use of type in the series, then here is the website for you.

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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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11 August 2008

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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25 July 2008

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.

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04 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.

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25 June 2008

Tibetan type

This post is really just an excuse to link to Jo de Baerdemaeker’s website, showing his work on Tibetan typeface design (an a rather nice display sanserif, too).

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30 April 2008

Are they related? – part two

Donna Payne, art editor at Faber, has replied to Peter Collingridge, pointing out that the Faber Children’s Classics covers, designed by Pentagram, predate the Penguin Classics design by five years or so. Let’s just recall the basic Penguin Classics look, combining Futura Medium caps with Mrs Eaves Italic. Although the Penguin design transposes author and title, the configuration (line of caps; centred logo; line of caps, line of U&lc italic; all type centred) is remarkably similar.

So, just how many variants are possible in the presentation of series name, author and title? As an antidote, here is website praising Penguin UK’s designs (but panning Mother's Kafka covers).

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28 April 2008

Do not obey this sign!

Just a few yards away from the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at Reading is this illegal direction sign, carefully set in Helvetica instead of the prescribed Transport alphabet.

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25 April 2008

Driver location signs – information or noise?

Driving regularly on the M4 and M25, I started noticing new signs, which I couldn’t immediately understand. They turn out to be driver location signs, and seem to be unique in not being part of the Department of Transport signing system – they are in fact put up by the Highways Agency, the body that repairs and provides emergency services on UK motorways.

What was it that puzzled me about the signs? There seems to be an ambiguity about them – are we supposed to see them, and understand them, or are they really intended for highway engineers? I tried to work out why they seemed ambiguous to me. They share the graphic language (colours, typefaces, configuration, media) of motorway directional and warning signs, but these design elements have been tweaked to make them just a little less clear. Orange letters on a blue ground do not have the obvious contrast of white on blue, and the lines are centred. The coded form of language used (‘M25 | B | 43.8’) also sets them apart from the straightforward use of placenames or pictograms on other motorway signs. They are really quite large, and certainly frequent – they occur every half-kilometre or so, but the Agency seems happy to place them beside other roadside objects, or just behind other signs, in a way that would not be acceptable for warning and direction signs. So they look like an add-on to the system.

All of this brought to mind thoughts of how unnecessary elements, especially pattern elements, can distract the reader from information content. It seemed to me that every other motorway sign is encountered only when the motorist actually needs to know the information – on the approach to a junction, or a hazard. These signs really look like signs (because they share the features listed above with true signs) but I think they are really more like the labels on grid-lines or chart axes: they orient, rather than give new data. My first guess was that they were replacements for the much more modest kilometre posts (actually every 100 metres along motorways), and this is pretty much the case: DLSs are intended to give drivers location information that they can relay to the emergency services by mobile phone. The size is dictated by the need to be legible from a moving vehicle in the fast lane – meaning that they have to be as prominent as other signs.

So, do they constitute necessary information or are they the motorway equivalent of ‘chart junk’? And another question is thrown up by a note on the Highways Agency web-page on DLSs:

‘Promoting and communicating the function of the signs is central to them being successful. The public need to be fully aware of the three pieces of information on them so they can then communicate accurate locations to control rooms. The current strategy to disseminate this information will be done through a national press launch which will publicise the purpose of the signs. This will be further supported by local press notices through regional media.

‘Aside from using external communication methods the Highways Agency will also be distributing leaflets and information cards on driver location signs to drivers within areas of installed signage. They also plan to display pop-up posters in prominent locations frequented by drivers.’

So, did you know about them and what they mean? If you see a pop-up poster (whatever that is) do tell me!

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22 April 2008

Is typography more than typefaces?

I saw the following link to Michael Bierut’s interview with TheAltantic.com

I’m always hoping that a designer will use an opportunity like this to talk about something more that font choice, but when you are publicizing a book typeset in no fewer than 79 typefaces (Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design) it's difficult not to reduce typography down to playing around with fonts.

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