The Murderer Wore Serifs

Typeface designers live with the permanent possibility of encountering their work at unexpected moments. Your old college now uses a font that you designed; in a movie, whose story takes place before you were born, your typefaces are used for prop newspapers and storefronts; the intimidating signs that scold you in public places now address you in your own handwriting. These odd social dislocations have lately been compounded by an additional weirdness, the phenomenon of the literate non-specialist. There are now celebrities and politicians who know fonts by name, so off-duty type designers run an increasing risk of hearing their typefaces mentioned by talk-show hosts or newscasters — to say nothing of seatmates on long airline flights, or anyone desperate for conversation at a family funeral.

None of these strangenesses prepared me for learning this morning that in The Scarpetta Factor, a crime novel by Patricia Cornwell, there is a plot point that revolves around our Gotham typeface. The font first makes an appearance on page 400, when it’s name-checked by an FBI document specialist during the delivery of an expert opinion, but it returns on page 415 for a two-page discussion about the typography of a suspicious package. “Gotham is popular,” says the computer-whiz niece of our sleuth, Dr. Kay Scarpetta. “It’s supposed to suggest all the right things if you want to influence someone into taking you or your product or a political candidate or maybe some type of research seriously.” Our clients have always known as much; we can only assume that one of them is the murderer. —JH

Typography Shared

Typefaces: Ziggurat, Archer, Gotham

Designers who use our fonts have been sharing their work on our Facebook page, much to the delight of both the designers at H&FJ, and our followers online. Some recent lovelies, clockwise from top left: Christopher Simmons designed this cheerful festival poster using Ziggurat, Leviathan, and a little Hoefler Text; a corporate identity that uses Archer (and a clever emboss) by Mike Kasperski; Gotham in a terrific typographic abecedarium by Paul van Brunschot and his students; a lovely collection of journals by Jodi Storozenko, featuring Archer in a moment of quiet repose; and a bit of Gotham in Anna Farkas’ exhibition identity for The renaissance of letters. Feel free to share your own creations: more then 6,500 other designers are tuned in. —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

Groovy Tech

Spy shots from Macworld! If only. This is one of Mark Richards’ spectacular photographs from Core Memory Project, his terrific survey of vintage computers. Mark’s sexy shot of the DEC PDP8/F explains all those day-glo set dressings in The Prisoner and The Time Tunnel, both worlds in which the higher the technology, the brighter the orange. Like the steampunks who reimagine today’s aluminum boxes as a festival of valves and gears and brass, when will we see the Modpunks, who will wickedly return us to a world of ochre cabinets, spooling tapes, and knobs that reassuringly click? (Or are they here already?) —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 10

Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is one of those seminal information graphics that has come to define an entire category. It must be as widely recognized as Mendeleev’s design for the periodic table of the elements; it’s surely been as influential, and as widely imitated and spoofed.

What makes both diagrams significant is that they bravely dispense with information traditionally thought to be crucial. Mendeleev described matter without any of its physical characteristics, which freed scientists to infer more significant information purely from the table itself. And Beck realized that the scale of a city was irrelevant to a commuter (as well as difficult to draw), so he bent the shape of Greater London to meet the needs of the map, in what’s technically called a cartogram.

Mark Ovenden’s Transit Maps of the World is a terrific and well-illustrated tour through the world that Beck created. It’s interesting to compare the choice of cartograms and equal-area maps in different cities, and at different times: Beck’s diagrammatic plan for the Paris Métro was rejected in favor of a beloved but impenetrable drawing, which is just the kind of Gallic gesture that has been confounding the English for centuries. The images in Ovenden’s book make it tempting to make inferences about the cultures behind the maps: the diagrams for Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhiny Novgorod have an undeniably Suprematist bent, and those for Beijing and Guangzhou look as if they could actually be the Simplified Chinese ideogram for “subway.” Closer to home, the map of Los Angeles looks likes an Anasazi petroglyph, and that of Washington, D.C. resembles nothing more than a pit of highly partisan snakes. —JH

Books as Furniture

Years ago, I walked into a used book store in Chicago, and beheld an astronomically unlikely thing: a run of pristine leather books, each stamped “caslon” in gold letters, each in a typeface of a different vintage. These were type specimen books from the Caslon foundry, and to see them in such quantity was a singular experience. Type specimens are usually accumulated individually, painstakingly, and expensively, from antiquarian specialists or the occasional flea market. Only rarely do they surface in sets, and when they do it’s usually at a private auction, not on the shelf behind the counter at a bookshop that also sells gum.

Noticing the tag marked “sold,” I asked if perchance they’d gone to a fellow type designer. The shopkeeper replied that they had not: they’d been sold to one of the store’s regulars, a philistine decorator who’s always on the lookout for clean leather bindings, for use simply as a background texture in someone’s living room.

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Reconstructing Harry

One of the best things about the type community is the way in which attitudes seem to transcend its generations. It’s heartening to be at a professional event, and see that the exciting new idea that’s being embraced by art school undergrads is also received with equal enthusiasm by, say, Max Kisman, Wim Crouwel, and Adrian Frutiger. But I’ve experienced one clear division in typography that’s drawn along generational lines, and it’s this: typophiles above a certain age know the type historian Harry Carter, and his son who’s also involved in type; and those below that age know the distinguished type designer Matthew Carter, and perhaps also that his dad was in the business. A recent book points out what woefully insufficient descriptions these are.

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