Matchbox First!

“Mobile First” is an indispensable approach for designing digital experiences. The idea is to first consider the restrictions and expectations of the handheld browser, and thereby identify and distill our very best ideas. For designers working on broader identity systems, I propose a parallel rallying cry: matchbox first.

A matchbox might be a charming memento of an evening well spent; a matchbook an ersatz way to share a phone number or jot down an idea. But materially, these tiny pieces of cardboard are usually the most reduced manifestations of an organizations’s visual identity. Only the best parts of a resturant’s front window, its menu, or even its business card will make it to the matchbox, so it’s here that both design and designers must be at their best. When it comes to working with limited resources (both space and budget), it’s often typography that comes to the rescue, and sometimes typography is the only ingredient. One de-prioritizes the mission statement and thought leadership/heritage backstory right off the box, and discovers the freedom to also leave them off the website, the billboard advertising, and the rest of the business. If the matchbox doesn’t need them, nobody does.

Today at Discover.typography, thirty-nine small-scale identities reduced to their very essence. We love the way these tiny tableaux rely on the smallest type to do the heaviest lifting, and the joy of seeing how the right fonts can communicate all the essentials at a single glance. —JH

The Inspiring Everyday

Whether they’re typeface designers, graphic designers, web developers, or part of our business group, nobody at H&Co is immune to the charms of found typography, and we’re all compulsive sharers. Recently, our chief operating officer paid a visit to the garage to have her car serviced, and returned with a souvenir that made us smile: a paper tag left dangling from the rear view mirror, designer unknown, indifferently printed with a giant number in four inch block type. It prompted a conversation about the pleasures of anonymous typography, and how even the humblest bits of ephemera can suggest visual strategies for solving far more complex design challenges. So for those who take pleasure in life’s little typographic moments, we’re pleased to share a few of ours, today on Discover.typography. —JH

What’s Cooking

Menu typography at Discover.typography

If you’ve ever dated a graphic designer, this has likely happened to you. You’re seated comfortably at a charming restaurant, presented with menus, and you watch as your companion scans up and down the entrées. Menus are flipped over, brows furrow; eyeglasses are lifted as eyes squint at the details. You catch an occasional “huh” that suggests the discerning judgment of the true connoisseur, and think you’re in for a treat. “See anything you like?” you ask innocently. “I like the italic small caps on the wine list,” comes the response, “but they used Arial for the bottom two lines.” It’s amazing we get invited anywhere.

Lunchtime at H&Co tends to provoke these conversations, and with no civilians in attendance, we’re free to nerd out. We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the different typographic idioms that restaurants use to telegraph what’s in store — how the folksy barbecue joint distinguishes itself from the faux French bistro, or the more-Brooklyn-than-Brooklyn sandwich shop — and have been looking for ways to help designers communicate a restaurant’s culture without resorting to shopworn clichés. No wood type with the pulled pork, or belle epoque frippery with the poached eggs: you can definitely use modern, relevant, and satisfying typography, and still set the right tone.

You’ll find a few of our suggestions at What’s Cooking, a collection of thirteen typographic menus (plus a few amuse-bouches), today at Discover.typography. These autumnal settings are a follow-up to Save the Date, our summertime celebration of the invitations that turn into cherished keepsakes once the first chill of fall enters the air. We hope you’ll enjoy them both. —JH

Things We Love

Eduardo Recife for Upper Playground, 2008.

I’ve always had a thing for collage. If I was more highfalutin, I’d claim some childhood fascination with Joseph Cornell or James Rosenquist — both of whom I love, but didn’t discover until adulthood. The truth is that I probably developed a taste for collage listening to The Pixies, and reveling in all those magnificent album covers designed by Vaughan Oliver. Oliver’s work for the record label 4AD was for me an incandescent highlight of the early nineties, and his enigmatic album covers for The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares always left me shaking my head in wonder, asking “where does this come from?” Sometimes the music inside would echo an answer.

One of Oliver’s regular collaborators was the Japanese collage artist Shinro Ohtake, whose work came to define the art form for me. His incorporation of type made his work irresistible to a typographer; I archly enjoyed watching it come full circle, as his works of fine art gradually came to be used as pieces of commercial art themselves. (The Bill Laswell album Seven Souls uses an Ohtake collage, full and unaltered, for its cover.) Because collages pose an energetic dialogue between high and low art, they’ve always been fertile ground for graphic designers, as demonstrated by the dominating “Knopf style” of the nineties. Knopf designers Carol Carson, Barbara de Wilde, Archie Ferguson and Chip Kidd proved two things: first, that collage was not only dynamic and intriguing, but inviting and literary; second, that it required a dab hand. Things that look easy have a way of being difficult to do well.

Wandering online this weekend, I came across the site of Eduardo Recife, whose work includes the piece I’ve reproduced above. To me, this is what collage aspires to be: a motley company of ordinary performers choreographed into something that expresses the ineffable. I especially admire Recife’s ability to crash incongruous elements with elegance and wit (q.v. the donuts, above), as well as his egalitarian affection for all kinds of typography, from engravings to parking tickets. Spend some time with Recife’s work this afternoon: it’s a delight. —JH

Voting Irregularities Already!

The donkey is universally recognized as the symbol of Democratic Party of the United States. Except inside voting booths in New York State, where affiliation with the Democratic party is marked by a five-pointed star. Midwestern voters indicate the Democratic ticket with a rooster, except in Missouri, where the symbol has traditionally been the Statue of Liberty — coincidentally also the symbol of the Libertarian party, which appealed to use the symbol when they joined the ballot in 1976. They’ve settled for using the Liberty Bell instead, though some Missouri Libertarians also use the symbol of the mule. Not the Democratic mule, mind you, the Missouri mule. The mule is the state animal of Missouri.

Those who suspect that Republican iconography will show the same mastery of political organization as the rest of that party are correct: Republican candidates are always signified by an elephant, except inside voting booths in Indiana, New York, and West Virginia, where an eagle is used instead. And in these states, as well as the 47 others, the eagle is also the national symbol of the United States itself.

The Chicago typefoundry of Barnhart Brothers & Spindler showed these “Election Typecuts” in their Catalog 25-A, published around 1930, and 78 years later I think my district is still using this same art. Cheerily Barnhart Brothers accompanied their samples with this legend:

When changes in the political situation — the birth of new parties, revision of election laws, or other causes call for new emblems or characters other than shown above, our facilities enable us to produce the material promptly at moderate cost.

I’m ready. You? —JH

A Parisian Palimpsest

This one took me a minute.

Gustave Peignot spent the last four decades of the nineteenth century acquiring small French typefoundries, which by 1899 were formally organized into the firm of G. Peignot & Fils. Twenty-three years later they would merge with the venerable foundry of Laurent & Deberny, and Deberny & Peignot would be born. Soon after, this collaboration would produce the most significant typefaces of the Art Nouveau period, designs by Eugène Grasset and Georges Auriol, and later, Machine Age masterpieces by A. M. Cassandre. There would be historical revivals in the manner of Garamond and Didot, new work by Imre Reiner and Maximilien Vox, and in 1952, a series of faces by a new Swiss designer named Adrian Frutiger. Five years into their collaboration came Univers.

A design long associated with Peignot — but not attributed to any particular designer — is the typeface Nicolas Cochin. Named after an eighteenth century French engraver (but not especially representative of his work), the Nicolas Cochin typeface was advertised in a lovely little booklet produced by Peignot & Fils around 1920, a copy of which survives, barely, in our library. After an introduction and a number of settings in period dress, the specimen unfolds into an album of blue kraft paper pages, framing a charming collection of printed ephemera. There’s a menu, a calendar, a business card; one delightful page is an interior decorator’s invoice. And then there’s this.

Aside from the fabrication technique — the checkered background has the smoothness of offset lithography, and the image appears to be impossibly continuous-tone (!?) — there’s the design, which looks about sixty years ahead of its time. The atmospheric quality of the background reminds me of a Vaughan Oliver album cover for 4AD, and the deconstructed typography-in-motion feels very much like something Pierre Bernard might have made with Grapus. The explanation, of course, is a happy accident: the page was originally a pink and lavender parquet, parts of which have oxidized through eighty years of contact with the facing page, but the result is simply beautiful. I’m hoping that whoever designs the poster for the next Peter Greenaway film keeps this typographic ambience in mind. —JH

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