The Making of Neon Signs

Every neon sign has a “start and stop position,” a point on each letter where a tube begins and ends. I’ve just learned how a signmaker chooses this point, and it’s something I’d never have guessed. It is fascinating.

It’s nothing to do with a letter’s traditional form, or its cultural dimensions. These are the first ways that neon speaks to us, whether it’s the plainspoken sans serif on a liquor store or the elaborate fantasy of a Las Vegas casino. In The Making of Neon Signs, an eleven minute film produced by Cpak Studio for M+, Hong Kong’s museum for visual culture, we’re introduced to a craftsman who first approaches signs from the their cultural angle: the bank that wants something honest, the restaurant that wants a simple semi-cursive script, or the sports club that uses the strong and powerful Northern Wei style. But none of this affects a letter’s start and stop position.

It also has nothing to do with neon’s visual aspects, how single-line letters work in small sizes, but different kinds of intricate doubling are used as letters get larger. Nor does it have to do with the physical considerations of the medium, the ways that inert gases combine with different kinds of colored glass to produce efflorescence, or the ways that glass can bend, or the order in which pieces can be attached. Even as I watched men without gloves hold incandescent glass rods over an 800°C flame, the obvious didn’t occur to me, which is this: you design the letter so that it’s possible to bend it into shape without burning your hands.

There are other great moments in the film that I won’t spoil, and some terrific footage of vintage sign maquettes that designers will love. Spend eleven minutes with it today. —JH

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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