“Modern Gaspipe” is the charming taxonomic name for this kind of letterform. We’ve explored the style in our Tungsten type family — itself a fine holiday gift, ahem. But for those with a hankering for decor, the always fruitful Three Potato Four has this unlittle item for sale, a huge handpainted wooden figure three (34" / 86cm), perfect for your living room, studio, or threearium. Thanks to Brian Hennings for finding this one: frankly I’m amazed that he hasn’t had his fill of these kinds of letters. —JH
Annual reports offer designers a marvelous opportunity to strut their stuff. In the hands of a thoughtful typographer, a dense volume of technical text can become warm and welcoming, its changing rhythm of introductions, statements, analyses, and disclosures calling for a beautiful typographic system to help organize the text. Financial data can be uniquely satisfying to design, offering an irresistible opportunity to work with large type families in intricate ways. There are tables both long and short, as well as charts, graphs, and diagrams, all studded with headings, footnotes, and legends that defy even the most ingenious grid.
Each of these details places a special burden on the fonts, making it especially important to choose the right palette up front. We’ve collected some thoughts about choosing fonts for annual reports on Ask H&FJ, where you’ll find four things to think about when considering a typeface — and five families of fonts designed to meet these specific challenges.
We’ve received our share of intriguing questions over the years, but this one takes the cake. On Monday, a correspondent called from National Public Radio to discuss the implications of typesetting a number with twelve million digits.
The number in question is 243112609-1, which holds the title for World’s Largest Known Prime Number. Mathematicians have known since at least the third century BC that for many values of n, the formula 2n-1 produces a prime number. When it does, the result Mn is called a Mersenne Prime, after the seventeenth century French mathematician who calculated the first 257 of them by hand — quite something when you realize that M257 has 78 digits. (And, so very cruelly, it’s not prime.) The search for prime numbers, an esoteric pursuit that rivals typeface design for its cultishness, has continued ever since; these days it’s assisted by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, a project that organizes the downtime of almost 90,000 volunteers’ computers into a collective effort to find the next great prime.
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
Picking up where we left off last year, we thought we’d round out 2008 with some holiday ideas for the recovering typophiliac in your life.
I’m intrigued by Jen Bekman’s 20x200, which every week produces small runs of small works on paper, at prices to match. Among their collection of prints and photographs is this limited edition print by Superdeluxe, the studio of designers Adrienne Wong and Karin Spraggs. The appropriately named Ziggurat 5 is a happy riot of color and type, featuring of course the figure five from our own Ziggurat Black typeface. (What is it about artists and fives?) The print is produced in three different editions: a small 8½" × 11" (22cm × 28cm) in archival pigments, a larger 17" × 20" (43cm × 51cm) that includes a letterpress impression, and the largest 30" × 40" (76cm × 102cm) which combines printing and silkscreening. Collect all three. Fives. —JH
The New York Times reports on crippling shortfalls in the nation’s strategic four reserve:
‘With regular gas in New York City at a near-record $4.40 a gallon, station managers are rummaging through their storage closets in search of extra 4s to display on their pumps. Many are coming up short… “Typically, we have a lot of 9s and 1s, and we had a shortage of 3s before we got a lot of 3s in,” Mr. Nair said.’
Welcome to the world of frequency distribution. The popularity of different letters is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Wheel of Fortune, as well as anyone who’s ever seen a Linotype keyboard (where the confounding qwerty is replaced by the ranked-by-popularity etaoin shrdlu.) But numbers, counterinituitively, have their own frequencies as well: a simple example of this is to write out the numbers from one to twenty, and notice that while most digits are used twice, the two appears thrice, and the one appears twelve times.
Different applications have their own unique frequency fingerprints. North American area codes traditionally favor zeroes and ones, retail prices favor fours and nines ($49.99); Golan Levin and Jonathan Feinberg explored the topic beautifully in their Java applet The Secret Lives of Numbers. There’s also a lot of occult numerology in the background of our Numbers collection, in which everything from cash register receipts to monuments reveals something about the culture of numbers. Of course, gas pumps are in there too, fours and all. And fives. And sixes… —JH