Legacy of Letters: An Italian Tour

So enormous are the contributions of the Italian people to typography that they often pass unnoticed. The words you are reading may be written in the English language, but they are rendered in the Latin alphabet, which comes to us via Roman ancestors. We celebrate these same ancestors in the name of our upright Roman alphabet, and we remember their country of origin in our slanted Italics. If you ever use our Requiem typeface, take note: taxonomically it is a Venetian Old-Style, its letterforms modeled on the work of a renaissance Roman calligrapher, who was inspired by the inscriptional lettering on a classical Roman monument, which was dedicated to a Roman emperor. The emperor’s name was Trajan, an Italian name you may recognize from your font menu; he is immortalized there alongside dozens of his compatriots, including Aldus, Arrighi, Bodoni, and Jenson.

Since Italy has remained a cradle of letters and literacy since classical times, it makes an excellent destination for any lover of typography. This June, design historian and calligrapher Paul Shaw will be leading Legacy of Letters, an eight-day typographic tour of some of Italy’s most typographic destinations. Including both Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto, the tour includes stops in twelve typographic capitals including Parma, Mantua, Verona and Venice. Registration is now open for a limited number of spaces.

These Aren’t The Fifty States You’re Looking For

Photo: Michael Moran. Typeface: Gotham Bold

In Fast Company, Ellen Lupton writes:

The graphic designer Michael Bierut, a partner working in the New York office of the firm Pentagram, designed a 21-foot sign for the new U.S.-Canada border crossing at Massena, New York. The sign, as well as the building, which was designed by architects Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, has received substantial praise as a bold and daring piece of federal design. Too daring, perhaps. The sign is being dismantled by the Customs and Border Protection Agency for fear that it will be a target for terrorists.

I share Michael Bierut’s hesitation in second-guessing the seasoned professionals at the Department of Homeland Security, who surely know more about armed extremists than I would ever want to. Still, I think there’s a compromise to be struck: if the goal is to create a typographic fig leaf that disguises one’s arrival at our 9,161,923 square kilometer nation, why not change the inscription to “Bienvenidos a México?” —JH

Four Shortage Strikes Nation

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

Type Tour II

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

The Guerilla Anagrammer

Photo: Jack Szwergold

One of Andy’s photographs features his friend Albert walking before a giant FU on a Williamsburg sidewalk. “The letters used to spell out You Are Beautiful,” Andy explained, “before someone started moving them around the neighborhood…” It reminded me of a similar bit of guerilla anagramming in my neighborhood: a few years ago, our local movie theater finally gave up the ghost after 93 years. During the brief interregnum between tenants, someone had a few weeks of nighttime fun with the marquee.

For a while, I got most of my news from this sign, whether it was the looming SARS epidemic or the equally ominous appointment of Chief Justice Roberts. Jack Szwergold has collected them all on Flickr; the ones that make the least sense are among the most entertaining. —JH

Until the Next Type Tour…

Angry villagers descend with torches and pitchforks.

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

More Type Tour Photos

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!

You’ve got to admire the rudeness of the above, from Michael Surtees’ Flickr set. Michael captured some other excellent moments, including this unlikely but fabulous set of inscriptional, inline, sans-serif, old-style figures. —JH

Type Tour Photos

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

A Typographic Walking Tour

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

Update: Photos and more photos from type tour attendees.

Your project exceeds the 1,000k limit, so your changes have not been saved.

Try adding fewer fonts, fewer styles, or configuring the fonts with fewer features.