What makes a good webfont? Before we wrote the first line of code for Cloud.typography, or lit the first pixel of our first ScreenSmart font, we began the search for a solution to this riddle. The answers are unexpected: a good webfont is more than just legible, and more than just attractive, and some provocative solutions come from some unexpected places. Webfonts can learn a lot from nineteenth century engraved maps, twentieth century dictionaries, and twenty-first century authors.
If you’re in New York this month, join me at Ampersand NYC this Saturday, November 2, or at a special lecture for AIGA/NY on November 14, for an exploration of what constitutes fine typography on the web. I’ll be sharing a behind-the-scenes look at how H&FJ brought its library of fonts to the web, and some new ways of looking at type that are useful for every cross-disciplinary designer. —JH
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.
Learning to draw letters is hard enough, but learning to create typefaces is something else entirely. For those with an interest in both, H&FJ’s Sara Soskolne will be teaching “Turning Letters into Type,” a week-long workshop at New York’s School of Visual Arts, July 12–16. Registration is now open, and seats are limited.
Soskolne, who has contributed to some of our most exhaustive projects (Verlag, Chronicle, Gotham) and some of its snappiest (Tungsten, Sentinel, Numbers) will introduce the tools and principles of digital typeface design by working with students individually on projects of their own invention. “Be it systematizing your own lettering, imagining a complete alphabet from a found fragment,” she says, “articulating that ideal set of forms in your mind, or reviving a non-digital typeface you love,” letters will come alive as type. The workshop will foster a critical eye for shapes and spacing, and a deeper understanding of how typefaces work, all skills critical to both type design and typography. Prerequisites include experience with Bézier drawing (know Illustrator?), and either lettering or typography. —JH
Manhattan’s urban grid is a vaunted model of simplicity, a rectilinear plan of numbered streets intersecting numbered avenues. Never mind that West 4th Street crosses West 10th, that those walking from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue will seldom encounter Fourth Avenue, and that “North” in the New York sense differs from conventional “North” to the tune of 29°. It’s this kind of accuracy, transparency and accountability that makes New York the perfect home for Wall Street.
A fixture of the corner of Broadway and Houston, where H&FJ makes its home, is a tourist population forever asking that question of the ages, “which way is uptown?” I can’t entirely blame them: in the math of the NYC grid, Houston is 0th Street, and local signs wickedly conceal the real names of avenues below fake labels that are designed specifically to ensnare tourists. (Watch the meter when you ask a taxi driver to take you anywhere on “Avenue of the Americas.”)
To the rescue comes our own Andy Clymer, whose joint interests in typography, programming, and human decency are combined in Uptown App, his new utility for the iPhone 3GS. Andy’s thoughtfully used some of our fonts on what’s actually a pretty handy app: because it uses the iPhone’s built-in magnetometer, it can give you a quick read on “uptown” in places where GPS signals and cellular networks are unavailable or slow to come online, like when stepping out of freezing cold subway stations. Compared to the inconvenience of frostbite, 99¢ is a genuine bargain. —JH
Uptown App by Andy Clymer, 99¢ from the iPhone App Store.
Continuing its celebration of the tenth anniversary of the National Design Awards, The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is offering a wealth of excellent programming this season. On display through April 4, 2010 is Design USA: Contemporary Innovation; if you’re planning a visit soon, make it next Tuesday evening, when you can also attend Thinking in Type, a lecture by Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones. Registration is required, and seats are limited.
Thinking in Type
Tuesday, December 8, 2009, 6:30–8:30pm
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
New York, NY 10128
I have a friend, an editor at a renowned university press, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the English language. He is my go-to man for typo-lexico-philological questions, like whether there’s an English word that contains the adjacent letters h and x (there is); he’s the sort of gent to casually drop the words “usufructuary” and “megaboss” in the same sentence. It was therefore with great temerity that I once challenged him to a game of Scrabble, which to my surprise and relief he declined. “I hope you understand,” he said, “I can’t. What would happen if I lost?”
This allegory was far from my mind when I agreed to captain Team C at “The Type is Right,” the AIGA/NY’s first-ever typographic game show. Join me and H&FJ designers Andy Clymer and Sara Soskolne, along with nine other nerds and nerdesses, as we go for the gold tonight in Brooklyn. The contestants’ range of interests and inclinations suggests a fun evening, probably one rife with withering embarrassments that you won’t want to miss. So come and join us this evening at Galapagos in DUMBO, and see which lucky typographer gets the chance to go all Kanye on the actual winner. —JH
The Type is Right
Monday, November 9, 2009, 6:30–8:30pm
Galapagos Art Space
16 Main Street
Update: Team H&FJ clinches the vaunted title! Assisted in no small part by our fourth contestant, selected from the audience by random draw: typomaniac Ina Saltz. (Which is a little like learning that “one of the dads,” who has volunteered to fill in at a Little League game, turns out to be Barry Bonds.) Thanks to the AIGA/NY, emcee Ellen Lupton, host Matteo Bologna, puzzlemaster Paul Shaw, and all the other participants for making it a fun evening. And please never remind us that we mistook a line of Zuzana Licko’s Filosofia (1996) for a line of Giambattista Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico (1788). Our only explanation is that the venue boasts very bright spotlights, and an enviable collection of pale ales.
Leonardo da Vinci might have made scientific studies of the vascular system and designed the steam cannon, but today he’s best remembered as the painter of the Mona Lisa. Some identify Johann Sebastian Bach with his concerti, cantatas, and brilliant fantasias for the keyboard, but most know him only as the tunesmith behind that staple of afternoon weddings, “Air on the G String.” It’s a cruel fate, to be remembered only for your least ambitious work, as type designers from Frederic Goudy to Ed Benguiat can surely attest. But none has suffered more than the estimable Herb Lubalin, a situation which the Cooper Union will begin to correct tonight.
Lubalin’s name has become convenient shorthand for his eponymous family of typefaces, ITC Lubalin Graph. The design, an okay slab serif in seventies dress, was in turn an adaptation of his sans serif design ITC Avant Garde — itself an adaptation of his earlier logotype and lettering for Avant Garde magazine. For many, Lubalin’s body of work ends here, a tragedy that eclipses a whole universe of letters that came from the hand and mind of one of typography’s most significant practitioners.
Tonight, the Cooper Union in New York opens Lubalin Now: the inaugural exhibit at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. The exhibit, curated by Mike Essl and Alexander Tochilovsky, celebrates not only Lubalin’s work but that of contemporary designers who channel the Lubalinesque. Just a very few of my favorites appear below; the show promises lots more, as well as an answer to an age-old question: it’s Loo-bal-in, not Loob-a-lin. —JH
Opening Reception Thursday, November 5, 2009, 6:00–8:00pm
Exhibit on view through December 8, 2009
The Cooper Union
41 Cooper Square
New York, NY 10003
I knew I wanted to work with type by the time I turned eleven. Back then, my curiosity about letter-making could only be satisfied in oblique and solitary ways, most of which involved borrowed sheets of Presstype, and goofing off with the family typewriter. The Mac couldn’t have come soon enough.
Young typophiles today have more outlets for their enthusiasm (you are here), but next Monday will gain rare access to the profession as well: National Design Week begins October 18, when the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum will inaugurate the festivities with its 2009 Teen Design Fair in New York. Teenagers with an interest in design are invited to learn about type design — as well as graphic design, fashion, industrial design, and architecture — by chatting one-on-one with dozens of practitioners, including me. And Project Runway host Tim Gunn emcees the event! —JH
Teen Design Fair
Monday, October 19, 4:00-6:30pm
The Times Center
242 West 41st Street
New York, NY 10018
Hot on the heels of my open question about artists and fives, I came across this marvelous photograph by Berenice Abbott featuring a pair of gorgeous fives in starring roles. Abbott is best remembered for Changing New York, her seminal collection of photographs that documents New York of the 1930s; it’s both an inspiration and a great resource for designers, especially typeface designers whose work is influenced by the public sphere.
For eighty years, the A. Zito Bakery stood at 259 Bleecker Street, a short walk from the H&FJ offices. In a street now dominated by bar room neon and vacuform plastic, Zito’s window looked in 2004 much the way it did when Abbott photographed it in 1937. Bread Store is among a collection of Berenice Abbott Photographs now available from AllPosters.com as high-resolution Giclée prints, lovely not only for the glimpses they offer into a grander New York, but for some marvelous lettering as well. These barber shop windows (1, 2) must be tremendous up close, and the humble decals in Zito’s window above have long been a favorite of ours: our Delancey font is based on them. —JH
If you missed Tobias’s Typographic Walking Tour last September, and weren’t one of the 22 lucky callers to register for his 2008 encore performance, you’ve one more chance. Come to the 2008 FUSE conference, April 13–16 at the Chelsea Piers, where Tobias joins Malcolm Gladwell, Stefan Sagmeister, Debbie Millman, Chip Kidd and other sharp tacks for a three-day exploration of design and culture. The Type Tour begins April 13 at 11:00, and places are limited! —JH
Gertel’s Bakery, 1914-2007,died last week from complications arising out of escalating land prices, finally succumbing to demolition on November 2. It was 93.
Born at 53 Hester Street, Gertel’s storefront had long been a fixture of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Between the early forties and late fifties, the store acquired a new facade, with the store name rendered in a carefully executed script, and a “streamer” below. The auxiliary lettering, including the memorable one-liner “Bakers of Reputation,” was made in the contrasting “gaspipe” style of flat sides and rounded tops.
In a daring (and endearing) move, its neon sign included three different forms of the letter “E,” which friends recall fancifully as a nod to the neighborhood’s melting pot history. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Gertel’s was regularly photographed in public, though often unable to hide the tragic effects of irreversible sun damage.
Gertel’s will likely be survived by a condominium, Luxury, and an awning, Arial. —TFJ
Passing fancies in lettering often vanish without a trace, and no style has died a harder death than Art Nouveau. Even in its heyday, the style’s contributions to typography were slight: there were never many Art Nouveau typefaces, and the few eccentrics that have survived may owe something to a resurgence in the sixties, when their smoky and vegetal forms found favor among the psychedelic set. It was not typography but lettering in which Art Nouveau reached full flower — sometimes literally — famously in the posters of Alphonse Mucha, and the Paris Métro signs of Hector Guimard.
Parisians have guarded their Art Nouveau treasures well; New Yorkers less so. New York was no stranger to the style — two blocks south of our office is Ernest Flagg’s splendid Little Singer Building, and it was in the borough of Queens that Louis Comfort Tiffany established his factory — but lettering from the period has become scarce. This morning, David W. Dunlap writes in The New York Times of a new piece of lettering that has surfaced, in of all places, the uptown platform of the No. 1 subway line at Columbus Circle. A visit is yours for $2.
Dunlap’s article contains the full and fascinating story, including this irresistable opener: this lettered encaustic tile, specially created for the station, is somehow older than the trains themselves. —JH
Thankfully this was publishedafter my cab ride back from the airport, after AIGA Denver:
“Whatever design changes befall the yellow taxi, in my mind they’ll forever have checker striping, double headlights, and a rate card posted on the front doors that’s quirkily lettered and reckoned in fractions of a mile. (But then, I also believe that ‘The Train to the Plane’ is still in operation, because its noisome jingle has never stopped playing in my head.)”
“It’s hard to argue with the principles behind the solution, but with so many different ideas at work it’s not surprising that the final form feels kind of unfinished. I do have to admire Smart Design for trying to introduce a form of lettering that evokes the old computer-printed hack licenses, since for me this is the defining typography of the backseat. But divorced from the puzzle of spending an entire ride trying to decipher a name like ‘rnprowit sj,’ I don’t know that everyone will get the connection. Perhaps they could have sealed the deal with ‘nyct axi,’ accompanied by a photo of someone who's clearly not the driver?”
That’s me, one of eight designers invited by The New York Times to critique the new NYC Taxi logo. (And I wonder why they don’t go to Brooklyn…) —JH
After taking a moment to recover, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who came out for the AIGA/NY “Alphabet/City” type tour this past weekend. Being a native New Yorker, I’ve come to think of the city’s lettering as a kind of home to me. So it was a real pleasure to see so many people ready to walk the streets for hours and look at letters, reaching for their cameras to capture an old carving, or some weatherbeaten shopfronts.
Winding through the heat and crowds, we saw lettering grand and humble, prominent and hidden. (Thanks to Michael Surtees, John Kwo and Caren Litherland for these photos.) We even got a serenade from a Mulberry Street maitre d’ (did anyone get a shot of that guy?), and a very special outdoor concert on Chrystie Street. All part of a weekend stroll in Manhattan.
Even after three miles or so and two and a half hours, it was less than half of what I wanted show for those neighborhoods. Perhaps there’s material for another tour someday. Until then, keep shooting! —TFJ
John Kwo posted this Flickr set with some beautifully crisp photos from the type tour. Don’t miss some of the great inscriptional lettering to be found on lower Manhattan’s municipal buildings, including these spirited NH and TT ligatures.
Over at Villatype, Joe Shouldice has assembled some instructive comments to accompany his photos. Points for relating why signpainters’ dropshadows point left instead of right, and defining the term “gaspipe lettering.”
More goodies from Matt Sung, again on Flickr. Matt definitely shares our thing for distressed typography!
For those of you who missed this weekend’s typographic walking tour that Tobias led for AIGA/NY, designer Karen Horton has uploaded a Flickr set containing some of the highlights. There are a couple of treasures here that aren’t to be missed, including at least one rare architectural palimpsest that won’t be visible for long. (Demolition in the city regularly exposes sudden windows into the the past, as in 1998 when Times Square was suddenly home to a 121-year-old advertisement for “J. A. Keal’s Carriage Manufactory,” painted in 1877.) Some of the lettering on the type tour is older still, and some of the newer signs may find themselves covered up by adjacent construction. So catch them while you can, or wait another 121 years to see if they resurface in 2128. —JH
More than fonts, it’s lettering that contributes the dominant flavor to New York City’s typography. More often than not, these one-off inscriptions and signs, handmade by artisans in a variety of media, were rendered in styles unconnected with the business of typography, which refers only to the practice of creating alphabets for printing. But the advent of digital type has made it easier than ever to use a mere font for architectural lettering as well. Combined with the building boom that’s transforming the city faster than ever, the grand inscriptions and humble signboards that constitute our alphabetic inheritance are vanishing fast.
In preparing the Gotham typeface, which celebrates just one of New York’s unmistakable typographic themes, Tobias Frere-Jones assiduously photographed tens of thousands of signs throughout the metropolis. On Saturday, September 29 at 11:00, Tobias will be leading a typographic walking tour for AIGA/NY, which promises two and a half hours of the city’s most unexamined — and imperiled — typographic treasures. Space is limited, so book early. Don’t forget your camera, and a snack.Sold out! —JH