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If there is nothing for dinner but beans, one may hunt for an onion, some pepper, salt, cilantro and sour cream to enliven the dish, but it is generally no help to pretend that the beans are really prawns or chanterelles. When the only font available is Cheltenham or Times Roman, the typographer must make the most of its virtues, limited though they may be.

-Robert Bringhurst

Is it possible for a book about typography–not a biography of its heroes or a politically connotated manifesto–to be a page-turner that the reader is loathe to set down? Apparently so. Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Tyopgraphic Style, Version 3.2, is so full of colorful analogies and eloquent phrasing that it’s easy to forget that the subject matter is one that is typically considered nit-picky and disproportionately impassioned.

Bringhurt’s book was recommended to me by a friend who is a copy editor. When I decided to become a technical writer, I asked his advice on copy editing. Since I already write for magazines, branching out into copy editing seemed a logical counterpart to learning technical writing for me. This book was among his recommendation, but it was nearly a year before I broke into its plastic wrapping. I was busy reading more pressing books for school, and this one was more “fun” (I know I have a different idea of “fun” than most people), so for a workaholic like me, it took back burner.

As evidenced in the quote above, this text is a specimen of creative writing, not in the sense that it is fiction, but that it is full of colorful description and poetic metaphor. After reading it, it is hardly a surprise to learn that Bringhurt is literally a poet, author of many books of poetry as well as prose. While the book is structured like a reference book–sort of a thorough style guide plus encyclopedic listings–it reads like an intricate and heartfelt story. Technical specs collide with unmitigated opinions collide with every ancient art, from mathematics to music to philosophy. Details are so dense (as they must be with this art), that the under-initiated has the feeling of drowning, but in a pleasantly temperatured river on a hot sunny day so that one hardly even minds; it just seems like the perfect day to drown.

It sounds like I’m about to give this book a rave review, but I must hold back some praise. It ended up being a little boring. Probably this is due to my overzealous determination to read it from cover to cover; it was probably not meant to be read so. As interesting as it is, it is 350 pages about typography, including names of designers and typefoundries which can be meaningful only to a few of us.

So as a reference book, then? Well, for all its pages, this book is not complete enough to be a pure reference. Fonts are examined in detail, but only the fonts which the author felt like talking about. The most remedial, such as Helvetica and Times New Roman, are passive-aggressively ignored. Fonts are organized by serif and sans serif, but a list of more detailed specs for each (aperture, axis, modulation) would have been helpful.

Alternately, the book contains too much information, not just too little. There are so many appendices it can be confusing to know which to open when. Few people will be interested in the short paragraph bios of 13 pages’ worth of designers, let alone typefoundries. And while the linguaphile in me enjoyed the “Working Alphabet” reference of every relevant character across many languages, I wonder how many people felt the same.

As with any book about design, this book is and should be a thing of beauty. It actually makes me a little sad to see how worn it is after a month or two in my messenger bag, though I know that’s supposed to be a sign of use and “love.” The inside is so crisp, however, that I still hold the pages up to my nose, expecting it to have that “new book” smell. I think this must be an effect of the paper, layout, and type combined, as all these topics are covered between its pages.

A common complaint among my classmates was that our books about design were all black and white. Bringhurst’s book breaks the cost taboo by adding a splash of red to the title and referential opening pages. The effect is striking. Kudos to the author for requesting (demanding?) this of his publisher.

Another highlight that is both design and content is the inclusion of interesting, beautifully set poetry sprinkled throughout the book to show examples of the fonts in use. It’s a delight to come across a gorgeous Yeats quote that shows the power of good typography.

Neither fully reference nor ornate prose, you get the feeling that Robert Bringhurst wrote the book he wanted to write. Through both explanation and example, he ties typography to all the classic arts. Even for someone like me who only knows the basics, it was a bright, contoured, enjoyable read. Maybe don’t go the cover-to-cover route. Just pick what looks interesting to you. There should be plenty.

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I spent four–five, effectively–days last week at the Society for Technical Communicators 2012 Summit. I was a student volunteer, which meant that I got in for free in exchange for helping with registration and room monitoring. There was no way I could say no–the summit was actually happening in my own town, Chicago!

Saturday was a pre-conference event, the Madcap 2012 Roadshow. It was free admission for summit attendees, and I’d heard of Flare and knew it was something I was supposed to know about, so I decided to go. Anyways, some of my tweeps were going, so it was a good chance to meet up IRL!

I actually did understand some of it. Speaker Mike Hamilton was a rockstar of a presenter, and was fun and easy to follow.

I believe I knew the least about Flare out of everyone there, so I had to do a lot of “guessing” and fill-in-the-blanks to figure out what they were talking about at any given time. I like guessing games, though. Oh, and they gave us the most fabulous breakfast!!

The first day of the Summit, I was arriving in a flurry from my choir gig. I was also parking at the L, since that was $5 and parking at the hotel itself was $20, so I had a few blocks to scramble down. It’s funny how I wear a nice suit and leather bag but still end up running barefoot across the hotel lawn. I think I ended up making it exactly in time.

We divvied up volunteer duties. It was a little complicated for me since I was switching between both registration and room monitor jobs, so I just let them give me whatever was easiest for them. As a result, I got assigned to a lot of under-attended talks that were sometimes really good, but just didn’t have the mass appeal on paper that the more in-demand ones did.

The keynote speaker was Scott Berkun, who gave a good enough talk that I bought one of his books. Both, I felt, were enjoyable, but didn’t contain anything particularly revelatory for me personally. Maybe because I’m an artist (and yes, I am an artist as Berkun describes, much to the detriment of my lifestyle and livelihood, though I’m trying to kick the art habit), I just kind of felt like I already think the way he proposes.

It’s hard to say what else I did at the summit, because I just used my program to kill a roach.

I worked registration during one of the quieter periods, which was nice because I got to say hi to so many people, some of whom remembered me later.

I worked various sessions, which mostly meant I took a headcount and had to run out of the room if there were any problems and find someone to fix it. I actually did get called to action a few times, which was fun. It makes me feel like a hero! Not in a Superman kinda way, but firefighter or something.

If there’s one thing that I learned, it was to ALWAYS do a sound check before you start a talk. The majority of speakers had their mikes too far away from their mouths and had to be interrupted because we couldn’t hear them.

The other thing I learned is that “technical communicator” is too generous a term for most of us. Only a few of the speakers I saw had any actual public speaking skills. The ones that did were great, but they were the minority.

Maybe all the other people were “technical writers” or “documentation specialists.” But this is the Society for Technical Communicators, and if you consider yourself a “technical communicator,” you need to communicate orally. And communicating orally is only 20% words. (I’m making that statistic up by roughly averaging the estimates in the second paragraph of this.)

I was living off-campus for the Summit, as my house is a 45 minute drive from the hotel. So I missed out on all the social activities, even the ones I really wanted to go to, like the jam band and the tweet-up. But it would have meant little sleep, and I get cranky if I don’t get my beauty rest.

I’ll still be eligible to student volunteer next year in Atlanta. Hopefully I can find a place to stay so I can go! I have always wanted to go to Atlanta. I love the South (that’s where my mom is from) and my parents actually met in Atlanta, though I’ve never been. So, hope to see you all next year!

One of my greatest woes as an up-and-coming technical communicator is the hailstorm of tools and programs I’m expected to know how to use. I feel like every job application I look at, I’m pelted with a new one. Viso! Flare! Framemaker! Robohelp! I’m still getting used to Adobe Creative Suite, so it can feel overwhelming.

Those that have gone before me have suggested attending live product demo events, and one of my gurus sent me a link to the Perforce Road Trip 2012, which was coming through Chicago. I was going to be in the River North neighborhood that day anyways, so it worked out perfectly!

The slogan for Perforce is “Version Everything.” I had no idea what Perforce was. I did know what versions were. I had never heard it used as verb before, but I got the picture. I decided to be surprised, rather than figure out what the product was like beforehand.

The event was held at the Westin Chicago River North, which was a beautiful hotel. I don’t stay in fancy hotels–when I travel I usually couch surf or stay in youth hostels–so I sometimes feel pretty lost inside them. I didn’t know how to find the room, and the only people I could find to help were at the “Preferred Guests” counter, and I wasn’t a Preferred Guest–I wasn’t a guest, period! But of course, all the people who work in fancy hotels are crazy nice because that’s their job, so they helped me anyway.

I checked in and got a name tag and a swag bag containing a hardcover notebook and a set of those cardboard box speakers you can assemble. (That seemed like an odd choice, but how many pens and t-shirts that don’t fit can you really use?) I was one of the first people there so I could sit wherever I wanted, but I quickly realized that the seat I had grabbed was too far back, as I was already having trouble reading the projector screen. So I moved up to the front. Even then there were things I couldn’t read. Projectors are designed to be used in the dark. If you’re going to use them with the lights on, you need to adjust accordingly.

Ironically, the guys behind me and I struck up a conversation where they were telling me about all these interns they were interviewing. Turns out I had applied for an internship for their company, but no one had ever gotten back to me. It was a completely different department, though, so they were off the hook.

I was one of the only women there, so there was no line for the bathroom!

So there were basically four lectures and two snack times.

The first lecture, “Managing the Flood of Content,” was my favorite. As a writer who does a lot of remote collaborating, the problem of figuring out which version of a document is the latest, or the “correct” version, and of knowing who changed what when, is far too familiar. And it’s something you can manage, but everyone has to be on the same page. Even if you’re just working by yourself, it’s too easy to not rename a new or old version of a file and assume everything will be fine.

The presentation featured some robo-cartoons, like XtraNormal or something, that were actually pretty funny. The line “Didn’t you get my file, ‘Project Version Two April 2012 Final 06 Really Final’?” (paraphrasing) hit home. Mr. Seiwald also made an interesting point about the problems in sharing documents via email. You end up with too many copies of the same document–all with the same file name–and it’s hard to know which have been edited. I’ve been hassled lately by the separate copies of my colleagues’ and my documents that are auto-saved in my mail downloads folder. My only complaint about the first lecture is that I understood what the product was for, but didn’t have a clear picture of how it worked. Some screenshots or demo videos would have helped.

The second lecture I had more trouble following. It was clearly geared towards developers, so as a documentation specialist I didn’t really relate to it.

Then we had a break with snacks and demos. I was hoping “demos” would mean we would get to try the product, but it was really just two stations of people showing examples of how it worked. I got one of them to let me try it anyway! I made a new branch and made an edit and saw how to merge it with another branch. That helped me a lot more than just watching.

The third lecture was even worse for me than the second. It was all about development, so there was nothing in it that spoke to me. If I hadn’t been sitting in the front row I probably would have ended up playing on my phone.

The final lecture was both interesting and over my head at the same time. It was two people who work for the New York Stock Exchange/Euronext explaining how they used the product and how helpful it was. Now, this kind of company is obviously an extreme case, which is what made it so interesting. Just the thought of all that money/all those transactions/all those countries. What a logistical nightmare, but at the same time, imagine the whole world depending on your systems. So most of the details went over my head, but I understood the larger concepts of why a product like this is important. Adam Breashears, who had a fabulous bass voice, summed it up best when he said, “If you don’t use a system like this, at some point you’re going to lose your job.” I can see that.

So then there was a reception with an open bar, where I talked to the guys who’d sat behind me and some of their colleagues, which was fun. It seemed like almost everyone there was a developer, so it was more like being around nerds than around business people. (I was all dressed up like a business person, but that’s because I need a job and you never know when you might meet a potential boss!)

Anyways, Perforce seems like a really great tool, but I don’t feel that it applies to me in my current position as a freelancer and student. It’s meant for people working on teams. I might work on a “team” with a client or a classmate, but I can’t expect every person I work with to download Perforce so they can work with me. If I were working for a big company, I would definitely want to use a tool like this.

One of my top priorities software-wise is to learn InDesign. It’s maybe not the top-used tool among technical communicators, but many do use it, and since I write for magazines I thought it would help me get copy editing work. Plus, I figured getting to know one of the Adobe Creative Suite programs would help with the others.

I finally invested in a lynda.com membership, and went through the entire “Up and Running with InDesign” tutorial. Once I got through the whole thing, I wanted to practice my skills on my own project, but I didn’t really have anything to work on. So I just sort of randomly made up a “family newsletter.”

If you’ve done the tutorial, you’ll see different skills I used, like the drop caps and the “logo” building.

Anyways, it’s just a minor little project full of inside jokes, but I thought you might like to see what I managed to learn from the tutorial!

Get the pdf here!

“I get kind of obsessed with things.”

-Michael C. Place

Describing this movie by saying “Helvetica is not just a film about a font, but also about _____________” seems cringingly obvious. But it’s hard to find a way around doing so, so I’m gonna go for it. Helvetica is not just a film about a font, but also about the people who are fascinated by it.

This movie was suggested to me in a timely manner by a friend of mine who works at an Art Museum. I was talking about how I was getting into information design, and she told me about the movie and said it sounded like something I would like. Just a few weeks later, we hit our unit on typography in Reading Theory and Document Design class. The moment had presented itself: I bought Helvetica on iTunes.

Typeography is a pretty new thing to me. I mean, it’s not entirely new to any of us who grew up with computers with word processing software that let you pick your own font. But actually analyzing typeface and typeface choices, beyond “mixing too many fonts in the same document looks amateurish,” is new to me. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned since peeking into the world of typography, it’s that there is an astounding number of typography nerds in the world. And I don’t mean the people who know the difference between serifs and sans serifs–I mean people who have obstinate opinions on things like x-heights and descenders, and feel that fonts are political choices.

This movie is about these people. People who design typefaces, and obsess over them. They all have different work styles, and different opinions about Helvetica, but they share one trait in common: They not only pay attention to details, but they are passionate about them. They fixate on them. They are able to find universes in what the rest of us consider minutiae.

Watching this movie was fun for me as a (former) New Yorker, because so many of the “on the street” shots of Helvetica were familiar to me, from subway signage to Times Square billboards. Having specific examples of “see how much Helvetica there is that you never noticed?” that actually applied directly to me was eye-opening.

However, the movie didn’t go specifically into how Helvetica was constructed. (You would think a feature length film about a font would have time to break it down for us. Do they assume anyone watching this is already enough of a geek that they know already?) So I’m still not 100% sure when I’m looking at it, or when I’m looking at a similar sans-serif. So I’m catching myself walking down the street and tuning my vision to signage, exclaiming not “Ooh, Helvetica!” but “Ooh, that might be Helvetica! Or something like it!”

You may assume that people who fixate on a topic that the man on the street might consider “bland” and “unimportant” would be rather dull to talk to. Quite the contrary! The bread and butter of this film are interviews with extremely varied and lively characters. I didn’t even wait until the film was over before finding and following Erik Spiekermann on Twitter. The one thing that these people have in common is that they are all artists, and all obsessive (as the above quote from Michael Place, one of the interview subjects, demonstrates).

This film was a good sort of introduction to the world of typography for someone like me who understands a little bit about what makes fonts differ from one another, but not about why people get so worked about about it. You get a little glimpse into why it matters to the people it matters to, and maybe just a hint of why it should matter to you, too.

Purchase Helvetica here.

One of the classes I’m taking is Reading Theory and Document Design, and the first book I’ve finished reading for that class is Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions by Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett.

The title can be taken quite literally: the book really is about conventions in visual communication. Traditions, habits, our “default settings,” and how they change, evolve, get stuck, and get unstuck.

Despite its black and white status–an odd choice for a book about design, especially one that costs $50–this is a beautiful book, with fascinating diagrams from throughout the ages splashed on nearly every page. If I took nothing else away from this book, it sparked my enthrallment with information design as a creative visual art. There are representations of information in here that are so far from anything I’d imagined, it’s like finding out for the first time that there are other religions, or other languages, in the world.

If you see my Mind Map about this book that I shared in a previous post, you’ll get an idea of the way Kostelnick and Hassett categorize these conventions: by discourse community, by currency, and by longevity, to name a few. One idea that was enlightening to me was the idea of “currency” as it applies to a convention–that is, how widespread it is. Some symbols are understood across cultures, such as a triangle for a warning sign (38). Others, such as company logos, might only be recognized by a few. (Then again if the logo in question is Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, I’d bet those have the highest currency of all.)

One important theme of this book is how much flexibility we have when working with design conventions. When do we have to toe the line? When can we rock the boat? What are the consequences of flouting tradition, and how can the world change if we don’t? These are all topics that deserve much discussion among the technical writing and information design community, and Kostelnick and Hassett do a fabulous job of getting the ball rolling, with solid examples and relatable hypotheticals. Although, as a small complaint, some of their categories needed fresh examples by the later chapters in the book. If I heard about the extinction of handwriting cultures or the reemergence of oversized initial letters one more time, I was going to scream.

I enjoyed this book for its thorough examination of visual conventions, its discussion of their place in rhetorical communication, and its pretty pictures. I will never look at an exploded diagram the same way again.

Probably my favorite aspect of technical writing is less on the writing side, and more on the information design side. I love creative visuals. You know, infographics and charts and stuff. Unfortunately, I’m not a designer (yet?), so it’s not something I’ve gotten to play around with much first-hand. Until I found out about the Information is Beautiful Awards. They’ve started running a monthly contest where they share some data, and ask people to turn them into a creative visualization. There are three divisions: interactive (for people who can do flash and stuff), static designs, and the “napkin challenge.” The napkin challenge is for people like me, who have creative ideas, but lack the design skills (and/or expensive software) to execute them. You can just sketch a prototype of your idea, write a little about how it works, and send it in. The idea is that it’s so simple and informal you can even draw it on a bar napkin.

I only found out about this contest about a week before the deadline, so I wasn’t sure if I’d have time to make something. But I was so enchanted with the idea that I couldn’t help reflecting on it until I had an idea that I liked, and then it was just a matter of setting aside an afternoon to put it into action.

You had to title your work, and I couldn’t think of anything good, so I awkwardly present to you “The Stars over Hollywood”!

WordPress is making the image come out kinda weird and squished, so if you want to see the full thing, it’s here.

So this is a sketch for an interactive design. The bigger the star, the more money it grossed worldwide. The “twinklier” it is (here demonstrated by lines emitting from the star, but in the interactive graphic the “twinkliness” should be animated), the more profitable it was, as related to percentage of budget. (If you have trouble reading the word “Profitability,” it’s because I accidentally wrote “Profability” and didn’t notice until it was hard to erase. I’m just not used to using pencil and paper!) The point is to be able to compare and contrast big “stars” that may not have been as profitable, with smaller ones that might have had a bigger return on investment, like that one tiny one with so many lines it looks like a dandelion puff–I forget what it was, but it made over 6000% profit.

This isn’t just an imagined sketch–I actually plotted these out. Deciding how to convert the numbers into circle sizes and shine-lines was the hardest part. I can’t remember exactly how many millimeters diameter I used for how many billions in revenue. I think with the lines, I gave 4 lines to anything that was 100% profitable, and an extra line for every 100% beyond that (eg, a 300% profitable movie got 6 lines), leaving the unprofitable films with no lines, as sort of “black holes.” There were even a few sloppy attempts at using a compass. The data set was for 5 years worth of films, so I only used the latest year (2011) and only plotted the first 60 alphabetic films, just as an example. In reality, you’d be able to choose the year, and narrow the field down to certain dramas. Oh, and I specified that when the user selects another year, the new image should slide in rotationally, as in a planisphere. You know, like those little cardboard charts you used to get when you were little with your copy of Odyssey Magazine? No?

They announce the “short list” February 20th. I hope I win, ’cause I’m unemployed, and first prize is $1000, and that would eradicate my credit card debt. But even if I don’t, I think this is really good practice for me as an information designer. And if I get short listed, maybe I’ll be noticed by a company who would hire me. If all goes well, I hope to enter their contest every month. Maybe I’ll even be able to enter the design and interactive categories in the future!