Sure, I Guess That’s My Final Answer

Typeface: Whitney Semibold

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
DUMBO, Brooklyn

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.

The H&FJ Institute for Unapplied Mathematics

Typefaces: Gotham Narrow Book, Archer Book, Indicia, Dividend, Gotham Extra Narrow Medium, Bayside

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.

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A Typographic Challenge at 0.000007086614175 points

With what is delightfully being called “The Atomic Pen,” a team of researchers has created what are likely the world’s smallest letters. At left is an array of silicon atoms measuring two nanometers in height, or a little less than one hundred thousandth of a point.

Their technique, documented in today’s issue of Science magazine, makes use of an earlier discovery: that within a certain proximity, individual atoms from the silicon tip of an atomic force microscope will exchange with tin atoms on the surface of a semiconductor. “It’s not possible to write any smaller than this,” said researcher Masayuki Abe, which sounds like a challenge to me: I can already think of one way to make letters that are 8% smaller, using the team’s own technique. Can you? Answers next week. —JH

The Oxford English Dictionary in Limerick Form

Nineteen years of designing typefaces has amply proven H&FJ’s Third Law, which states that for every act of exhaustive research, there is an equal and opposite act of total silliness. This principle extends from typography into other disciplines as well: behold — no kidding — the Oxford English Dictionary in Limerick Form.

Precisely the kind of project that the internet was made for, the OEDILF (stop snickering!) has brought together contributors from around the globe for the purpose of rendering every entry in the world’s most famous dictionary into a-a-b-b-a form. The fascicle A-Cr is well underway, with 45,297 entries so far, making this a site you don’t want to stumble upon when you’re up against a deadline.

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Mrs. Gray and the Mystery of the Grecian Italic

“Grecians” are slab serif typefaces in which curves are replaced by bevelled corners. The fashion for octagonal letters took off in the 1840s (the style may have begun with an American wood type, produced by Johnson & Smith in 1841), and by the end of the decade there were all manner of Grecians on the market: narrow ones, squat ones, light ones, ones with contrasting thicks and thins, and ones without. It’s unusual that the rather obvious “square-proportioned” Grecian didn't arrive until 1857, and that no one thought to add a lowercase until 1870. It’s this very center of the Grecian universe that our Acropolis typeface occupies, which includes an additional feature of our own invention: a Grecian italic, something that no Victorian typefounder ever thought to create.

Or so we thought. This is the Six-Line Reversed Egyptian Italic of William Thorowgood, which sure enough qualifies as a Grecian italic. It has many peculiar features, but the most unearthly is its date: 1828, thirteen years before the first Grecian roman appeared. What’s the story?

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