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

Introducing THE NEW TUNGSTENS

Typeface: Tungsten Compressed

A good type family balances cohesion and diversity. Its styles need to feel related, but each is entitled to its own personality. Nothing’s worse than paying for a collection of two dozen fonts, only to discover that each speaks in exactly the same voice.

Tungsten began as a focussed set of styles that aspired to being disarming instead of pushy. “Smart, tough, and sexy” was how we described the design, a brief that gave us enough latitude to create four distinct designs: a sporty Medium, an articulate Semibold, a stylish Bold, and a persuasive Black. We stopped at four, discovering that so many of the strategies that served the design in these proportions became impractical at lighter weights. Tungsten is all about the interplay between positive and negative space, a relationship that disappears when the strokes become thin, and the spaces cavernous. So while we could make the design perform mechanically at lighter weights, it no longer felt like Tungsten.

But then we discovered something interesting. We found different strategies to use at these proportions, which could make the design look familiar but feel different. We created new designs whose forthrightness came through in different ways: some were elegant, others earnest. And when we started exploring different widths, we found we could gradually turn up the volume, and watch Tungsten go from cool to vibrant to ecstatic.

So today, we’re delighted to introduce The New Tungstens, a set of four different widths, each in eight weights, starting at $199. The full collection includes Regular, Narrow, Condensed and Compressed, and right now you can save $300 when you buy the complete collection of 32 styles.

FORZA: A New Font Family from H&FJ

Typeface: Forza

There are stylized typefaces that speak in a singular, powerful voice, and there are versatile ones capable of expressing many different moods. We feel the pull of both extremes, and are especially fascinated by the typographic styles caught in between. Sans serifs based on the rounded rectangle are an interesting study: they’re adaptable enough to have survived almost two hundred years, but in every incarnation they return with a new but overly specific agenda. The ones on enamel railway signs are charming, but a little sleepy; the ones on battleships are somber, if a little aloof. We’ve long wondered if this style could be harnessed to create a more expressive family of types, and recently had the opportunity to find out: Wired commissioned us to design a square sans as their editorial workhorse, one that could handle everything from philosophical essays to down-to-earth service pieces.

The result is Forza®, a new family of sans serifs from H&Co. Forza’s sophisticated visual vocabulary makes it alert and engaging, and its broad palette of weights ensures that Forza can meet the needs of the most demanding designer, from painterly display typography to text-heavy listings. Ardent, disciplined, shrewd, and commanding, Forza offers a range of voices to choose from, and is now available in twelve styles, from $199.

Typography Without Ink

This weekend, I replaced a DVD player that finally conked out after eleven years. Whatever delight I once took in acquiring a new piece of electronics has long been eclipsed by the responsibilities of dealing with its byproducts: its packaging, thankfully limited to recyclable cardboard and biodegradable packing peanuts, and also the carcass of the old device itself, which this year a local equipment recycler will be disassembling and recycling as responsibly as possible. Even the best process is not a perfect one, as industrial designers and packaging designers will be the first to admit, but every little bit helps.

The supplied accessories came in this cardboard box, which made me smile. Rather than print the cardboard before it’s cut and folded, whoever was responsible for this piece of packaging realized that the die-cutting step offered a no-cost opportunity to mark the sheet at the same time, by shaping the strikeline into letters that partially perforate the box. That I’m charmed by this solution probably comes as no surprise, since I have an admitted love of perforated letterforms, but I admire any effort that makes design more honest, easier to produce, and less wasteful to consume.

Because cutting dies can’t be curled too tightly, the medium demands big letters and brief messages, which I especially appreciate. Missing from this box is all the bumf to which we’ve become accustomed, but never needed in the first place: a reprise of the manufacturer’s name and motto from the outer box, a fuzzy rendering of the product that by now is on the coffee table, a wordy title like ETS1041E-ACC Supplied Accessory Parts Kit (US/120V), a list of serial numbers for other compatible components that you didn’t choose to buy, and finally a numbing set of bullet points that patiently explains in eight languages what you already know, which is that the box contains the power cord, a remote, and two AA batteries. “Accessories” says it all, and is a welcome relief to anyone now facing an evening of plugging it all in. —JH

The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 2: Incoming

Typeface: Gotham

Type designers are accustomed to approaching the line between homage and parody with great care. It’s especially daunting when its subject is a living colleague, as was the case last Friday when Tobias presented an award of his own design to Wim Crouwel, winner of the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize. (In keeping with the tradition, the current holder of the prize designs the award given to its next recipient.) To design an award for Crouwel, a Dutch icon who is indelibly associated with a strong and recognizable personal style, takes great sensitivity: imagine having to design a business card for Piet Mondrian, or select a ringtone for Igor Stravinsky.

If there is anyone able to see past the obvious, it is Wim Crouwel. In the 1960s, Crouwel’s fresh yet doctrinaire approach to graphic design earned him the pejorative nickname “gridnik,” which Crouwel, with typical flare, adopted as a moniker, and later chose as the name for his best known typeface. In his acceptance speech on Friday, Crouwel described his decades-long disagreements with his friend Gerrit Noordzij — in whose name the award is given — and both men reflected gleefully on their continuing philosophical differences. This fruitful synthesis has colored both the study and the practice of graphic design, and it’s satisfying to see it recognized. This is what awards should be for.

In keeping with the custom, Tobias designed an award that uses his own work but includes a nod to Crouwel’s. In celebration of the pre-history of the Gotham typeface, Tobias arranged for the fabrication of a traditional enamel sign, featuring an abundant grid of Gotham’s many styles (64 out of 66, to be precise.) Hearing Crouwel speak with such good humor at the presentation ceremony, I was almost tempted to reveal Tobias’s original idea, which was to find a way to bridge the Dutch tradition of chocolate letter-making with Crouwel’s arresting new alphabet of 1967. (“I probably could have done it with Kit-Kat bars,” Tobias mused.) I am certain Crouwel would approve. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 12

I liked samplers as a kid. In the fictional account of my life, I could trace this affection to my dear great-grandmother Abigail, who spent hours embroidering by candlelight (when she wasn’t busy repairing uniforms for returning Union soldiers.) But having grown up in New York in the seventies, it’s more likely that I first noticed the style while watching Family Feud, and that a steady diet of Atari 2600 and NAMCO simply predisposed my developing brain to a sympathy for bitmaps.

Etsy is carrying a charming little bag that pays homage to the cross-stitch, a gusseted Canvas Tote silkscreened in orange or blue. At 11" × 14" (30cm × 35cm) it’s big enough for the usual junk that designers lug around, and is of course a sound alternative to grocery store plastic, whether you’re ecologically responsible or just self-righteous. Either way, be stylish. —JH

On the Death and 441-Year Life of the Pixel

The struggle to adequately render letterforms on a pixel grid is a familiar one, and an ancient one as well: this bitmap alphabet is from La Vera Perfettione del Disegno di varie sorte di ricami, an embroidery guide by Giovanni Ostaus published in 1567.

Renaissance ‘lace books’ have much to offer the modern digital designer, who also faces the challenge of portraying clear and replicable images in a constrained environment. Ostaus’s alphabet follows the cardinal rule of bitmaps, which is to always reckon the height of a capital letter on an odd number of pixels. (Try drawing a capital E on both a 5×5 grid and a 6×6, and you'll see.) Ostaus ignored the second rule, however, which is “leave space for descenders.”

I’d planned to introduce this item with a snappy headline that juxtaposed the old and the new — for your sixteenth-century Nintendo! — before reflecting on the pixel’s moribund existence. Pixels were the stuff of my first computer, which strained to show 137 of them in a square inch; my latest cellphone manages 32,562 in this same space, and has 65,000 colors to choose from, not eight. Its smooth anti-aliased type helps conceal the underlying matrix of pixels, which are nearly as invisible as the grains of silver halide on a piece of film. And its user interface reinforces this illusion using a trick borrowed from Hollywood: it keeps the type moving as much as possible.

Crisp cellphone screens aren’t the end of the story. There are already sharper displays on handheld remote controls and consumer-grade cameras, and monitors supporting the tremendous WQUXGA resolution of 3840×2400 are making their way from medical labs to living rooms. The pixel will never go away entirely, but its finite universe of digital watches and winking highway signs is contracting fast. It’s likely that the pixel’s final and most enduring role will be a shabby one, serving as an out-of-touch visual cliché to connote “the digital age.” —JH

Atoms & Aldus

Last week I mentioned the atomic pen, which scientists used to construct some awfully tiny letters one atom at a time. These are small letters indeed: measuring two nanometers in height, they’re about ¹₄₀₀₀₀ the thickness of a human hair, which surely gives their inventor sufficient authority to issue the casual throwdown that “it’s not possible to write any smaller than this.” But it is, of course, and the technique for doing so has been known to typefounders for more than five hundred years.

Continues…

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…

Digital Analog

Writing about the glories of the nixie tube last December, I wondered aloud whether there’s anyone alive who has any affection for the ubiquitous LED display. Today I have my answer.

At RISD, BFA candidate Alvin Aronson has made the witty and beautiful “d/a clock,” in which seven-segment LED numbers are made manifest in Corian and wood. There’s something irresistable about digital artifacts come to life; watching this mesmerizing video of Aronson’s functioning clock, I’m reminded of the Game Music Concerts in which the Tokyo Philharmonic performed the themes from Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. Like these, Aronson’s work is certainly mordant and entertaining, but it’s undeniably Art. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 7

It’s hard to begrudge the polish and flexibility of a good pixel, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the earlier technologies. Mechanical and electronic displays with fixed images were somehow knowable in a way that screens are not, lending a palpable something to the things they inhabited. Has train travel been the same since the disappearance of the thip-thip-thipping flap display? Didn’t buses seem more resolute when emblazoned with hand-lettered roll signs, before today’s dot-matrix mayhem doomed them to speak in half-hearted and confounding abbreviations (or cheerily exclaim Out of Service as they malingered along?) Has the person yet walked the earth who has fond feelings for the starburst display of a credit card terminal?

One of my favorite outmoded technologies is the nixie tube. A tiny vacuum tube containing individual glowing cathodes for each digit, nixies were once a staple of high-end office calculators and measuring devices. Every few years, someone unearths a cache of virgin nixies and brings a nixie clock to market, which promptly sells out; this year’s offering is the Chronotronix V400 Nixie Tube Clock, an especially attractive contender in a polished cherry case, candidly offered in a limited edition. —JH

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