Posts Tagged ‘typography’

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.


“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.