Don’t Believe the Type!

We will, we will Rockwell. Rock the Caslon. I Meta Girl. ITC Clearly Now. Tempted by the Frutiger ’nother. Weiss Do Fools Fall in Love? Rockwell Amadeus. Dax The Way (uh huh, uh huh) I Like It. Please Mistral Postman. If I Could Turn Back Times. Gill Sans in a Coma. Get Down Onyx. Myriad a Little Lamb. Clarendon (I Know This World is Killing You.) On the Wingdings of Love. I Wanna Bold Your Sans. Some Like it Haettenschweiler. Janson Queen. I Do Not Want I Avant Garde. Scenes From an Italic Restaurant. Hang On to Your Eagle. Take a Janson Me. My Name is DIN (and I am Fonty.) Font Like an Egyptienne. Hotel Caledonia. Electra Avenue. Garamond (My Wayward Son.) My Tahoma. Fear of a Black Italic. I’m So X-Heighted. Nothin’ V.A.G. Thing.

Twitter is reaching a cultural apotheosis right now with the #fontsongs topic, still trending strong. (Ms. American Typewriter Pie, Burning Down the House Gothic, Love Me Two Times Roman, Ring My Bell Gothic...) Special thanks to everyone who included an H&FJ font in their title (We Are The Champion, Knockout on Heaven’s Door, Whitney Baby One More Time, Dirt Didots Done Dirt Cheap, Auld Verlag Syne, It’s a Hard Knox Life, Chronicle Man…)

Yesterday I asked — rhetorically, I thought — “who can work Arnold Böcklin into one of these?” Meeting the challenge triumphantly came @mattwiebe with It’s Arnold Böcklin Roll (But I Like It), @mlascarides with Keep Arnold Böcklin (In the Free World), @angvalenz with Block Böcklin Beats, and @e_limbach’s No Sleep Till Böcklin. (I would also have accepted They Say The Arnold Böcklin Roll Is Still Beating.) Anyway, next challenge: “Figgins’ Two Lines Pica Antique No. 2.”

The thread’s still running if you want to join in. And if you really love me, darling, bring me Exocet. —JH

Laminitis, or English As She Is Drawn

Typeface: Mercury Text Grade 3

Some would argue for Bleak House, others Middlemarch. The Great Gatsby has its proponents as well, along with Lolita and Heart of Darkness. But for me, it is none of these: there is a clear winner in the category, a single book that is the finest work of literature written in the English language. It is English As She Is Spoke, an 1853 phrasebook by Pedro Carolino, offered to Portuguese speakers as a guide to the English language. Uniquely, Carolino spoke not a word of English, and was not possessed of an English-Portuguese dictonary.

He overcame this disadvantage through the clever combination of a Portuguese-French dictionary and a French-English one, through which the entire corpus of English idioms was dragged, backwards, screaming. Thanks to Carolino, Portuguese readers of the nineteenth century might have learned such workaday English expressions as “to look for a needle in a hay bundle” and “the stone as roll not heap up foam.” Other timeless chestnuts include “take out the live coals with the hand of the cat,” “he has fond the knuckle of the business,” “he has a good beak,” and, bewilderingly, “to craunch the marmoset.” Mark Twain said of the book, “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.” Twain wrote the introduction to the American edition, which was first published in 1883 and has remained in print ever since. It is a classic.

Our industry’s standard-bearer seems to have gotten the Carolino treatment this morning. This profile of Matthew Carter that ran in the Washington Post has somehow found its way into and out of another language, presumably courtesy of some cruelly indifferent software. Of the craft of type design, our subject is quoted as saying, “the options are rattlingly limited. I can’t determine one forenoon I’m fatigued of the ‘b’ and I’m attending redesign it from excoriation. There holds defeat and captivation.” (What type designer has not experienced this?) Pay special attention to the passage in which Carter designs “the lowercase hydrogen,” whose ascender, of course, distinguishes it from the lowercase nitrogen.

Tobias and I were honored to offer up an encomium or two. “He holds the footing to be sort of haughty or elitist,” says Tobias, “but that ne’er haps to him.” And I obligingly identified Matthew as “the bozo who formulated brown.” But in any language, I think we all agree that Matthew Carter is “the Jehovah of Georgia.” —JH

Two Fools

I pretty much agree with Anil Dash on the topic of wacky April Fools’ jokes for websites, so instead I thought that today might be a good day to share a piece of genuine idiocy from the archives.

By the time Tobias and I began working together in 1999, we'd been friends for a decade, and had spent most of the previous years in close contact by phone. Our biographers will report this as a period of august correspondence in which we developed the philosophical framework that would inform our later collaboration, but the truth is that much of this time was spent goofing off, and naturally the arrival of the internet helped this project immensely.

Since we’d always been the types to tackle exhaustive projects, we both spent most of the nineties utterly exhausted. Many of our late night conversations were wits-end grievances about the impossibility of doing something or other, and these commonly degenerated into a discussion of Dumb Ideas for Typefaces. One of these, which I suggested in 1995, was that the OCR-A font — used on bank statements and designed for optical character recognition — really needed to be outfitted with a set of swashes. Using Adobe Illustrator, I ginned up the image above in about ten minutes, and sent it to Tobias. His response, which arrived within the hour, was a file named ¡¡¡Estupido-Espezial!!!.sit, which contained the following:

Continues…

Selectric Days

My reputation compels me to deny that I ever spent adolescent weekends hanging out at Tannen’s Magic Shop or The Compleat Strategist, and I certainly never wasted sunny afternoons playing with the Ohio Scientific computer downstairs at Polk’s Hobby Shop (even if it did have Lunar Lander in 16 colors.) But having burnished my nerd credentials through a career as a type designer, it seems safe to admit that, as a teen, I sported an enviable collection of golf balls for the family typewriter, a beloved IBM Selectric II.

Yesterday, a conversation with my friend Tal induced a Proustian flash in which I recalled — and was actually able to find in the studio’s library — the above: entitled “GP Technologies Typing Element Handbook,” it’s a brochure from the early eighties that shows the complete range of styles available for the IBM Selectric typewriter. Sure, I had Courier, Orator, and both Prestige Pica and Prestige Elite, but it was more exotic numbers like these that I really went in for. A major coup was scoring Olde English, warts and all (let’s talk about that capital H some time), but my unattainable Philosopher’s Stone was Oriental, which no office supply shop in the five boroughs seemed to carry. What I would have done with the typeface is anyone’s guess (utility isn’t always relevant to the completist), but I can only imagine, given the font’s facile design and appalling intent, that it would have been something spectacularly ghastly.

Still, there are things to admire in old Oriental. Its ampersand is a model of efficiency, and the economy of its at-sign (@) is downright clever. That this goofball font was outfitted with such serious accessories as a paragraph mark and a set of fractions hints at the work of a wicked mind, not unlike that of the latter-day typefounder who soberly includes an fffl ligature in text face. Perhaps these are subtle absurdities that lie in wait for attentive eyes, or perhaps they really are useful things to have in a font. In either case, it seems evident that type designers of all ages are, in their hearts, completists. —JH

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