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

H&FJ: The AIGA Video

As part of the presentation of the 2013 AIGA Medal, the American Institute of Graphic Arts commissioned this short video about type designers Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones. In addition to offering an intimate glimpse at some recent works-in-progress, the video features an inside look at the H&FJ offices in a moment of rare repose.

Thanks once again to the AIGA for recognizing our work, and to Dan and Andre at Dress Code for presenting typeface design with such thought, care, and wit. —JH

Hoefler & Frere-Jones on PBS

Typefaces: Gotham and Tungsten

“Off Book” is a series from PBS Arts dedicated to documenting the creative process, and expanding the definition of art. Produced by New York filmmakers Kornhaber Brown, the series premiered with an exploration of “light painting”, and the intention to explore a new artistic genre every episode. Episode two focusses on typography, with our own Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones representing the sub-sub-sub-genre of typeface design. Pentagram partners Paula Scher and Eddie Opara discuss their unique perspectives on typographic identity (in both senses of the word), and designers Julia Vakser and Deroy Peraza of Hyperakt discuss the range and reach of data visualization, a genre unto itself. And kudos to Kornhaber Brown for wrapping up with the one-minute segment, “How to talk about type like you know what you’re talking about.” Required pre-holiday watching for our families. —JH

Typefacial Recognition at H&FJ Labs

Typeface: Ideal Sans

We’re generally content to control font outlines by pushing points around on a screen, but an intuitive interface for managing the entire gestalt of a type family remains elusive. Andy Clymer at H&FJ tends to develop fonts and tools together (one always seems to be the excuse to create the other), and this is his latest exploration: using facial recognition to control the basic parameters of a font’s design.

Behold Andy modeling his latest creation, which employs Kyle McDonald’s FaceOSC library, GlyphMath from RoboFab, and Tal Leming’s Vanilla to mutate the geometries behind our Ideal Sans typeface in realtime. I’m intrigued by the potential to control local and global qualities of a typeface at the same time: fingers and mouse to design the details, faces and cameras to determine their position in a whole realm of design possibilities. I wonder about the possibilities of a facial feedback loop, in which one’s expression of wonder and delight could instantly undo a moment of evanescent beauty. And then there are the possibilities of environmental pathogens affecting letterforms: what might too much caffeine, air conditioning, or ragweed pollen do to a typeface? Listening to Louis C.K.? Too many whiskey sours? —JH

The Tablet Magazine

Typefaces: Vitesse, Forza, Tungsten, and Gotham Rounded

Wired gets it. Today they’re going public with the prototype they shared with us a few weeks ago, and if you’re like me, your reaction will be an instantaneous “neat!” followed immediately by “well, isn’t it obvious it was supposed to work this way?” When something creates and fulfills expectations at the same time, you know you’ve got it right. —JH

The 21st Century Object Poster

In 1906, the Priester Match Company held an open contest for the design of a poster. Art Nouveau was in full flower, so surely the judges expected to receive decadent renderings of languid smokers, things perhaps in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec or Alphonse Mucha. What none of them expected was a shockingly bold drawing of two matchsticks, almost antagonistically free of nuance: this winning entry, by a twenty-three year old designer named Lucian Bernhard, would come to be recognized as the world’s first Sachplakat, or “object poster.” It was arguably one of the most important design artifacts of the twentieth century, and came to define an entire approach to design that lives on in everything from corporate logos to desktop icons.

104 years later, Austrian designer Albert Exergian has explored this ever-modern idea in the creation of a marvelous set of posters offering witty reductions of television shows. Some of them have Bernhard’s brash disregard for subtlety (Twin Peaks is a pair of mountains), most are considerably more sophisticated and wry (I hadn’t considered how essential the red and blue stripes are when representing a Ziploc bag: see Weeds, above.) Each matches the cleverness of the show it portrays: Exergian’s X-Files is a not merely an X, but the secret signal masking-taped to Special Agent Mulder’s window. Is it possible not to love an interpretation of Charlie’s Angels that features not the girls, not the guns, but the speaker on Bosley’s desk? Is there any better symbol for MacGyver than a bent paperclip? Some of my favorites are above, but the entire collection is worth a look: if nothing else, you’ll be delighted by Exergian’s interpretations of Boston Legal, Miami Vice and Lost. —JH

The Alphabet: A Dramatic Reading

This clip of James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet is so disturbing that I can’t believe it actually aired on the Sesame Street of my youth — not without dissuading me from my current career, anyway. All I can say today is that I wish he’d included an “and,” so that I could cobble together a sample of “This... is H&FJ” for my ringtone.

Other videos I’d like to see include Christopher Lloyd reading “lorem ipsum,” and Christopher Walken performing the 1940 type specimen of the Linotype company: “How, is one... to assess, and evaluate, a type face in terms. Of its esthetic. Design.” —JH

All The News That’s Fit To Write

Photo: Scott Carney

The distance between handwriting and typography is at its greatest in the West. It’s been more than five centuries since the Latin alphabet, as we experience it in type, looked anything like letters made with a pen; the very anatomy of our alphabet, with its stonemason’s “serifs” and printer’s “cases,” has come a very long way from writing indeed. It can hardly be surprising that as type has come to represent the official, the sanctioned, and the eternal, handwriting has become an almost trivial appendix to our notion of what letters look like.

It’s especially easy for Westerners to forget what a minority opinion this is. Most of the world attaches special significance to the hand-written, and lives with an intimate knowledge of its forms and an appreciation of its cultural and social dimensions. A Chinese businessperson of stature can be expected not only to admire the calligraphy in a colleague’s office, but to correctly identify it as the work of Song Huizong, and to discuss its virtues with erudition. Contrast this with his American counterpart, who can go an entire career without needing to learn the name of his corporate typeface.

Both senses of the word “writing” remain united in the Arab world, where calligraphy and literacy are at times inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the offices of The Musalman, a Chennai newspaper published since 1927, which has the extraordinary virtue of being the world’s last surviving newspaper written entirely by hand. “We somehow manage to make ends meet,” says one of the newspaper’s four calligraphers (or katibs) who every day devotes three hours to a single page. “There’s no monetary benefit for us, we are just here to learn Urdu.”

The handwritten newspaper gained wider attention last summer when Wired dispatched photojournalist Scott Carney to document The Musalman’s inner workings. Later this year, we may learn more about the paper’s inevitable entanglement with digital typography, when Premjit Ramachandran releases his documentary film The Last Calligraphers. —JH

Aesthetic Apparatus Explained

I started a typeface called Feldspar some years ago, which I’ve yet to complete. After eight years, most such projects would have lost their inertia, but this one’s moving steadily along, driven by a single, fervid dream: I am determined to one day see it in the hands of Dan and Mike at Aesthetic Apparatus.

Aesthetic Apparatus is one of those studios we love to see using our fonts. It’s not merely because they’re fans of our more American-inflected designs (above, some AA posters featuring Cyclone, Acropolis, Gotham, Knockout, Ziggurat, and Giant), it’s because they put the screws to the fonts: they juice them for every last drop of flavor, and then come back to coax still more out of every design, creating new and unexpected textures that you wouldn’t think possible. The driving philosophy behind the studio’s work is — well, here: let’s let Dan and Mike explain the process in their own words:

A transcript is not yet available. —JH

Fonts on Television

Thanks to a few well-traveled blogs, this clip has been getting some traffic lately: it’s a segment about typeface design that ran on CBS Sunday Morning last summer, featuring us. Correspondent Russ Mitchell spent some time at H&FJ, and speaking with Steve Heller, to introduce non-designers to the strange world of font design.

Now that the clip is easily freeze-framed, a few designers have written to ask about the fonts themselves. (The opening montage features our Shades and Didot families, and the fonts created for People magazine are part of Verlag Compressed.) But two frighteningly hardcore individuals have outdone themselves, writing to inquire about the font shown at left. In this candid scene, which is definitely not staged at all, the camera captures Tobias and I discussing a font proof. Gentle stalkers, you are correct! What appears here is part of our work for The Nature Conservancy, and you’ll find a more extensive look at it here. —JH

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