The face of type

Designing books is easier than posting on WordPress.

Talk about comparisons that will get lost in the shuffle. Most likely the older computer that I am still using (I have a new one) is why WordPress seems to be so slow and stupid when trying to create a simple post with flush left text. Back and forth between visual and HTML to get the justified blocking to go away, select all, click, save, and again, why is that image floating over there?

Learning by Rote poetry by Martina Reisz NewberryMy system isn’t that old. My design program is not that old. Fortunately they function well enough that I can still design books and covers while I am reviewing the new software on the new computer. Yes, really, new books in progress. They are a big part of what I / we live for. We being me and the authors.

Now I have seen a Kindle and a Nook. I have seen statistics about how e-books are selling, and news of making their way into the library. I can see benefits and important uses in education but I still have questions. For instance, why even bother trying to make them seem bookish? If the idea is to replace books, why go to the trouble of making a pseudo book? We’ve had computers around for years and are used to the text on them being wanting at times, and blogs and Web sites can be well designed, innovative, stylish, even graceful and elegant. The Fire makes the crossover well as far as I can tell with color and linkage.  I don’t really have a problem with the kindle, a smallish grey screen, and I like the ivory,  with type that seems much less pixellated though always the same in less you change it to one of the four other typefaces offered. Nothing to get excited about. My impression is they seem small and rather prototypical. How can it be expected to keep our attention for reading text books, illustrated books, polyglot books, what about footnotes and marginal notes in scholarly books. The progressive mind has to ponder the possibilities that future such devices will come up to our already vivid imaginations that have been met by the desktop.

tablets from early history I saw a blog by a designer that was getting attention for designing a typeface for a tablet (and this word tablet is from the roots of information history) by creating a typeface reminiscent of an old modern face like Century, or Corvinus Skyline with short ascenders and descenders—not all that appealing for reading, probably designed for use in tiny sizes while still legible and squashed into blocks with no leading or space between lines. Then to take this face and put it in columns of short word count like and old magazine or newspaper on a tablet that has room to have healthier lines of average word count, about nine words per line is a desirable reading length. It makes no sense at all. If one has the magic of being able to use this digital format with the ability of looking like any book, why not go to finely printed books to take from, use typefaces optically designed for reading comfortably on pages of good line length. Websites already do this. The New York Times Magazine does this; columns yes, but two maybe three columns on a page not six or eight. Advertising types may have their appeal in display but they were not meant for book text. And don’t use too many typefaces on one page, two or three at the most with appropriate space and we will all be reading better for a long time.

Another important factor is the WYSIWYG factor, or so it is called. What is on most screens when looking at type is a bunch of squares arranged in shades and grades to try to make themselves look the way typefaces were designed and meant to look, but they are not. This fact and the tact that a monitor is an illusive two-dimensional non focal surface. What I am trying to say is that it is not really a surface that the eye can focus on. There are some tablets like the kindle that come closer to being an improvement. This non-focusing aspect is tthe face of typeiresome to the eye. For all the wonders and convenience that computers bring us, this is a factor that must be recognized so that we don’t completely lose track of our graphics heritage. The printed page and the film based photo process is all but being eclipsed by new systems that are illusory. We should be teaching and reminding ourselves that the old forms have value and quality that should not be completely lost or made so rare they become out of reach or the inquisitive mind and eye.

I know I may sound like a curmudgeon but I don’t mean to be saying anything but keep in mind the treasures of our not too distant past and maintain a balance of perspective regarding these things so that our creative minds and youth can be wiser for them. All design should be based on a foundation that considers the wisdom of previous accomplishment and engineering. Lets not forget the ideas of the private press movement, the arts type on the screenand crafts movement, nor the techniques and designs of the designers that gave us the designs that are the basis for what we have today and typefaces are only one example. Most of our fonts are redrawn and reissued types from previous ages.

Having said that, there are great new typefaces being designed digitally that take into consideration the fundamentals of type design. These are things every typographer must know. Things that have to do with basic lettering and the optics of reading handed down by generations. These are the things that by the nature of good design in typography are meant to go unnoticed, yet we know when we see them, such as proportion, or balance, the natural distinctions afforded by the true mechanics of typography.


Reading & roses

If you don’t read poetry, you won’t find the roses while looking for the puppy jobby. If you don’t read poetry, you won’t notice the lace wing that lands on your window, or suddenly appears on your bedroom wall in the late winter. Someone I was working with smirked when I told them I was writing a spoof piece (after the Onion) about reading being good for the brain, and said that music is what stimulates all parts of the brain, don’t you know, you’ve heard them speak of the music by Mozart? Of course, and I was a musician for many years, and know of the way different pitches, bass, mid range, treble, etc, stimulate different parts of the body. I also know a student that told me she felt inclined or inspired to write when she read a good book, or got an idea to make an image in paint, or was inspired to make up some music, after reading poetry.  Does it seem so far-fetched that reading inspires writing as well as doing other creative things? Being creative does not only come from the creative genius of an individual mind above all others. Creative writer Scott Hartmann ( page 25, Why We Write, July-August, Poets & Writers) writes, “I’ve never found an art form that touches me—or that I can touch people with—more powerfully than the written word.”

Reading can be difficult when a book is poorly designed. An author and I were talking the other day, and he told me about a book of poetry that was designed using a typeface something like Gothic Bold or Helvetica Bold for the text. This is something that should never be done. Most typefaces were designed for reading, most text or book faces, are designed with reading in mind. Every letter is designed to integrate with the rest of the alphabet. The eye has adapted to reading these faces. Even new faces that are designed using some older form has reading as it’s purpose, either for display or for text. Text should never be composed of display faces, or all caps, or faces that were designed for signage, or subways, or for advertising. Display faces are what newspapers use to head articles, or books use for titling, chapter openings at best.

Most book faces are based on ‘old style’ or ‘transitional faces’ from earlier centuries. Originally these faces, take Bembo for instance, were designed for printing books, and the styles were based on earlier innovations in hand writing, and took into consideration how they would appear when printed on the laid paper used in printing books of the time. Their display faces were usually larger sizes of the face in Roman or Italic, and every size was designed, drawn and cut in metal punches. The designer and punch cutter knew that each size had to have individual adjustments made to it. The metal punches were then punched into the copper matrices to be used in the hand-held mold for type casting. Each individual piece of type was cast in this way, usually quantities of each letter being cast while the mat or matrix was in the mold. Bembo also has a short alphabet length, and so it was used quite often because it actually meant you could fit more text on a page and make the book a bit shorter. Not to mention that it is a very good-looking typeface.

After casting, each type had to be cleaned and planed to be as near to exactly the same for setting by hand in composition sticks. The text would be set on a line length determined for the entire book, except in the case of marginal text or extracts, and placed in galleys, later to be made into pages, according to the book design. The pages were then imposed according to the size of the sheet of paper and how it would be folded into signatures, gathered and sewn for the binding of the book. A lot of people spent a lot of time making books this way for a lot of years. So it kind of comes down to “don’t fix what’s not broken.”

A stick of Ludlow mats ready for casting

And there is more to this integrated topic of type and book design. You may have noticed that the New York Times Magazine changed its look sometime over the past several years, so that now much of it is set in two columns or maybe three to a page, instead of four or more, like a lot of magazines and newspapers did for a long time for various reasons, partly due to the limitations of metal type machine composition. So when the New York Times Magazine determined, or a designer of stature recommended this change, it was due to the rule of thumb that designers for over a century or more knew about, good designers know, that a sentence is most easily read when it has at least nine words in it. Anything less and the eye is quivering around on the page and this kind of reading has the effect on the eye similar to what they warn can happen while playing action computer games. I never liked reading magazines much for this reason, and found out why when I studied book design and printing history.

Look at these books, to name a few: William Morris – The Ideal Book page 75, (University of California Press); Jan Tschichold: typographer by Ruari McLean (Godine); Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing by Joseph Moxon (Dover)