The Plastic Wood Type

Typeface: Knockout

One of the joys of designing typefaces is seeing the flavors that designers coax out of your work. A fair amount of exploration always goes into our own process: Gotham wouldn’t be Gotham were it not able to look simultaneously young and old, and one of Idlewild’s virtues is the range of wildly different qualities that emerge in company of friends. But type designers never have the final say on what’s possible: it’s always the graphic designers who use our work who deliver the greatest surprises.

Over on Dribbble, I’ve been collecting some of my favorite projects that designers have created using our Knockout type family. Some dial up the typeface’s wood type heritage, evoking either vintage warmth or the charm of anonymous commercial printing. Others update the genre more subtly, using Knockout to give a little traditional depth to an otherwise contemporary design. Some unexpected moments await you, in which this typeface with nineteenth century roots becomes futuristic, atmospheric, or in one moment, simultaneously festive and earnest. Check it out. —JH

Giving Thanks

Typefaces: The Proteus Project, Sentinel, and Shades

One of the things we’re grateful for at H&FJ are the designers who treat our typefaces with such extraordinary care. These days, some of the most exciting work that we get to see is on Dribbble, where designers of the highest caliber share their works-in-progress with the world. This weekend, I gathered some of my favorite fragments that designers have created using our typefaces: here are three new Dribbble collections using The Proteus Project, Sentinel and Shades.

It’s fascinating to watch the creative processes unfold, and heartening to see our typefaces along for the ride. (It’s also a welcome surprise to discover that the polished work you’re admiring comes from the hand of a second-year student, an experience that’s more common than you might imagine.) So herein you’ll find some of our favorite picks: from Roger Dario’s guilloché treatment of Saracen, to Trent Walton’s use of Sentinel for charity:water (itself a rebound of an earlier version in Vitesse), to Andrew Power’s rendering of one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes using our Cyclone typeface.

We’ll be updating these collections and creating new ones in the coming weeks, so if you’re posting to Dribbble, make sure to tag your own work with the names of any of our fonts that you use. Until then, thank you from all of us at H&FJ for making our work a part of yours. We’ll be thinking of you this Thanksgiving. —JH

H&FJ Typefaces Join the MoMA Permanent Collection

The Museum of Modern Art has announced the acquisition of four type families by Hoefler & Frere-Jones — HTF Didot, Gotham, Mercury and Retina — for its permanent collection.

In designing new typefaces, we’ve has long been consumed with the interpretation of historical artifacts, the implications of cultural expectations and mechanical requirements, and the invention of new techniques. Four type families that embody our approach to type design are HTF Didot, Gotham, Mercury and Retina, and we are honored to have these designs selected by the Museum of Modern Art for inclusion in its permanent collection.

This acquisition marks an important expansion of MoMA’s design collection, which includes historically significant objects ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s model for Fallingwater to the original Macintosh 128K computer, into the category of typeface design. “Type design is an essential dimension of the history of modern art and design,” writes Senior Curator Paola Antonelli. “The best typefaces belong in MoMA’s collection.”

The typefaces chosen for the MoMA collection have been selected for their social relevance, the ways in which they reflect technological progress, and their importance to cultural history. “Each is a milestone in the history of typography,” writes Antonelli. Alongside our typefaces are major works by a number of our friends and colleagues, including Matthew Carter, Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, and the many contributors to Emigre. H&FJ is proud to be in such distinguished company, and to be a part of MoMA’s recognition of our industry’s craft.

Lettering of the WPA

Our creative director Brian Hennings stumbled across a great resource this morning: on the website of the Library of Congress, a collection of 926 posters from the Works Progress Administration. The LOC has done a nice job with this collection, providing for each poster not only the relevant archival information, but high-resolution TIFF files that are free to download.

I’ve yet to meet the designer who doesn’t have at least a little affection for optimistic lettering of the WPA. We’ve stopped short of ever developing a full-tilt Art Deco revival, but many of our sans serifs undeniably feel the pull of the Machine Age. Verlag’s stark geometries include a conscious nod to the bold logo of the National Recovery Administration, while Tungsten is a modular typeface that resists the retro vibe of WPA “gaspipe” lettering. The Library of Congress collection offers a rare opportunity to see rarer styles still, perhaps ones that might obliquely inform some future font from H&FJ. —JH

Titles & End Credits

Changing fashions in movie titles are one of the richest veins in typography’s fossil record. On his website, graphic designer Christian Annyas has put together a nice collection of movie title stills — both opening and end credits — offering a handy synopsis of twentieth century lettering. Rather than an exhaustive survey, Annyas has curated a small and personal collection that’s conveniently organized by decade: dipping into any period offers a convenient way of getting a taste for the lettering of the era.

Keep an eye out for “in-camera” lettering, in which lettering is incorporated into on-screen props. The book in Jeux Interdits uses a popular trope; the telephone in Dial M for Murder and the playing cards of Le Roman d’un Tricheur have become classics. Truly stirring is the occasional title that feels jarringly modern: The Fly has the sort of purposeful unease that still strikes a chill, fifty-one years later. —JH

“Curved, Pointy, and Nervous-Looking Types”

It is 1953, and you are a graduate student at the Yale University School of Art. Alvin Eisenman has just established a new discipline called “graphic arts,” in which you are studying — under the legendary Josef Albers, Herbert Matter, and Alvin Lustig — a new approach to design, which will come to be known as Modernism. Five years from now, the world will witness the birth of Helvetica and Univers, typographic milestones that will forever affirm the ascendancy of the Swiss International Style. It is amidst this visual culture, with its disciplined sans serifs, rationalized grid systems, and asymmetric layouts, that you discover your deep love of typography. So you dedicate yourself to the study of its most unfashionable, shadowy, and anarchic tributary: nineteenth century American wood type. You are Rob Roy Kelly.

Today, Kelly’s name is synonymous with American Wood Type: 1828-1900, his 1969 opus that remains the standard desk reference on the subject. Forty years ago, the manuscript was the result of a long and difficult search for answers. After leaving Yale, Kelly went to the Minneapolis School of Art to establish a graphic design department, and his attempt to procure a collection of material for the school press revealed at once how moribund wood type had become, and how neglected it remained as an area of study. Beginning with a collection of ephemeral type specimen books, and ultimately growing to include several hundred full fonts of type, what quickly became “The Kelly Collection” served as a working library for Kelly’s own research. Between 1966 and 1993, the collection passed through the hands of several individuals and institutions, finally finding a home at the University of Texas at Austin. During this time, Van Nostrand Reinhold’s publication of American Wood Type went out of print; Da Capo Press introduced a paperback version, which also went out of print; what designers and scholars have been left with is the diluted and incomplete 100 Wood Type Alphabets produced by Dover Editions in 1977. Happily, the University of Texas has adapted the original work for the web: The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection is now available online, featuring much of Kelly’s scholarship, and many of the illustrations from the original work.

In keeping with the traditions of the trade, Kelly’s enthusiasm for wood type was obsessive. Chronicling his work on American Wood Type in the book’s introduction, Kelly wrote, “my reputation as a bore at cocktail parties grew immeasurably during these years,” a sentiment doubtless familiar to anyone connected with type. Like many enthusiasts, Kelly’s devotion to typography was deep, sincere, and consuming, but it was also mercurial. In 1990, when I went to the Modernism & Eclecticism symposium to hear Kelly deliver a lecture entitled “Cast-Iron and Brass Trivets,” I learned along with hundreds of other graphic designers in the audience that “trivet” was not an obscure term of art from the golden age of wood type: Kelly had concluded his study of wood type, and had simply moved on to another area of scholarship, namely cast-iron kettle stands. Somewhere, I hope there is a blog devoted to trivets that will include the opposite anecdote, the story of the eminent trivetologist who was once, bewilderingly, a leading authority on wood type. I suspect Kelly would love it. —JH

A Treasury of Wood Type Online

The Hamilton Manufacturing Co. traces its roots back to the very first wood types made in the United States. Darius Wells produced the first American wood type in 1828; his business was reorganized into Wells & Webb, then acquired by William Page, later passing back to the Wells family, and finally sold to Hamilton sometime before 1880. The product of this consolidation was a type specimen book issued in 1900, Hamilton’s Catalogue No. 14, which offers a good survey of American display typography of the nineteenth century.

Open to the public is the Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a collection of 1.5 million pieces of wood type maintained by volunteers of the Two Rivers Historical Society. For at-home viewing, the calendar printer Unicorn Graphics has just launched their Web Museum of Wood Types and Ornaments, which offers a sundry collection of scans and photographs of American wood types — including every page of the great Catalogue No. 14.

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Collection of the Day

I am not wistful for the days of carbon paper and Ko-Rec-Type, and the era of the typewriter ended before I ever figured out what to do with those wheely-eraser-brush-things that populated my parents’ offices. But a truly grand leftover from the vanished world of the typewriter is the ribbon tin; my friend Tal sent me this collection of product packaging shots on Flickr, which are resplendent with lovely lettering. Some are sweet and others serious, some are frank, and some are simply fantastic. —JH

A Secret Universe in Your Desk Drawer

My weapon of choice is a Pilot Precise rollerball, but I keep a General’s Sketching Pencil below my monitor. I don’t write with it: it’s not sharpened; it’s there because I admire its typography, which in less than four inches goes from italic small capitals to a cheery script, to a pair of unrelated sans serifs in two different sizes. It is eclecticism incarnate, and it’s got a lot of heart.

Once you start to notice their markings, pencils draw you into a beguiling world of exotic lettering. With color unavailable to their designers — absurdly, the color of a pencil either definitely indicates the color of its lead, or is completely arbitrary — pencils have historically expressed their identities through playful typography. The range of information they need to convey (manufacturer, product name, grading and classification, place of origin) calls for a self-contained system of semantic distinctions, and the unforgiving process by which tiny letters must be hot stamped into soft pine demands durable letterforms of considerable ingenuity. These conditions recall the challenges of designing newspaper text faces, which must first and foremost be legible. But where expressiveness trumps clarity, things get interesting.

Bob Truby’s Brand Name Pencils offers an inviting tour of his collection, complete with closeups of each and every specimen. The brief sampling above already reveals more kinds of script, blackletter and tuscan than can even be categorized, and these are among the collection’s more conservative members. Check out the Dixon Aerial 2280 No. 2, whose logotype might be classified as “open Lombardic capitals with terminal lightning bolts.” Definitely not a species you see every day. —JH

Fantasy League Typography

One of the things I most love about the design of the late nineteenth century is its unpredictability. Across all of the decorative arts there was a strong emphasis on novelty, and a succession of new technologies made it easier than ever to execute these strange and untested ideas. (You can see this in the terra cotta work of architect Louis Sullivan, or the elaborate inlays of furniture designer Gustav Herter.) The period was a riot of ornament, and to be sure, much of the work was awful: most of what we remember today is hopelessly cliché, or cloyingly overwrought. But then there are moments like these.

Above is a piece of nineteenth century engraving, which looks as if it might have been the product of a CalArts group project by Wim Crouwel and Louise Fili. (The rest of my fantasy league is no less oddball; images after the jump evoke Jonathan Barnbrook vs. John Downer, and Max Kisman vs. Marian Bantjes.) These excerpts come from an incredible collection of American sheet music from the period 1850-1920, currently being exhibited online by Duke University. The documents from the 1870s are my favorites, many of which are from the hand of an engraver named Reed (note his signature hiding in the fourth image below.) His stylistic pairings are among the more remarkable — above, the constructed sans serif and swelled rules are unexpected bedfellows. But some of my favorite moments are those in which unrelated visual agendas collide in the letterforms themselves. Is there anything more fabulous than the monoline blackletter of “Mazurka Elegante” below, or the squared-off shapes of the final line, “Tiny Birdlings of the Air?” Will you check out that lowercase g? —JH

The Evolution of Tech Logos

It took a visit to Finland in 1996 to realize that Nokia the cellphone company and Nokia the tire company were one and the same. Apparently these are merely the latest stops on a very long journey: Nokia was founded in 1865 as a wood-pulp mill, on a channel of rapids between two Finnish lakes, all of which goes to explain why the company’s original logo was this slightly alarmed salmon.

Neatorama is running a very entertaining look at the evolution of tech companies’ logos, which includes such well-known corkers as IBM’s grand typographic globe, and the short-lived Apple logo (that still makes me hear strains of “Carry On My Wayward Son.”) Less publicized, with good reason, is the original Canon logo — née Kwanon — which had all the worldly sophistication of a Charlie Chan movie. I’m gravely concerned for the Motorola logo, though: it’s memorable, distinctive, and typographically lovely; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, which means it’s probably next in line for the ax. (Xerox, I’m looking at you.) So I'm adding this one to the H&FJ Endangered Logo Watchlist, and offering 3:2 odds on a tragic redesign before the decade’s out. —JH.

Not Playing at a Theater Near You

Now appearing at Vanity Fair is a great exhibit of lobby cards from the collection of the late Leonard Schrader. From Schrader’s collection of 8,462 items the editors have chosen an attractive and representative set of 36 that celebrates the golden age of lettering, before its ultimate fall to typography.

At left, an excerpt from Saved by Wireless, Joe and Mia May’s 1919 epic about which the IMDB is strangely silent. (Judging from the cavemen, presumably it does not deal with the convenience of 802.11; been there, though.) Other highlights include MGM’s The Devil Doll, whose inside-out lettering prefigures Roger Excoffon’s Calypso typeface of 1958, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis rendered in a whimsical style of lettering that befits the movie’s cheery themes of dystopianism, technological isolation, and internecine strife. For ages six and up. —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 what by then had become a reflexive question: “Are these going to Tobias Frere-Jones?” The shopkeeper replied that they were 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.

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A Treasury of Hollywood Lettering

Lettering buffs and cinephiles alike may enjoy this lovely Flickr set containing final frames of classic films. Romantically, these hearken back to an age before typesetting replaced hand-lettering as a matter of convenience, but sociologically they tell another interesting story as well. A movie concluding with “The End,” perhaps followed by a list of its major players, definitively dates a film to before the rise of the unions, which now negotiate on-screen credits for even off-screen contributors. Best Boys and Key Grips are old hat: today it’s Mouse Wranglers and Assistant Caterers who are the little people, along with the occasional Compositing Inferno Artist. (But where are the type designers, hm?) See this fascinating infographic in The New York Times, comparing the length of the credits in Casablanca with those in Lord of the Rings. —JH

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