Fear not, true believers, I’m still here and still kicking. We've spent the last couple of weeks at school doing workshops in greek and Indic scripts, which involved an awful lot of work with a few impromptu social events throw in for mental health.
At the last minute, the American posse here decided we didn't want to let Thanksgiving go uncelebrated, so my flatmates and I donated our generously proportioned lounge so we could invite our classmates over for a some Indian take-out. (Because Thanksgiving is all about Americans and Indians coming together, right?) Even though it's the one holiday I get really sentimental about, I’d mostly forgotten about Thanksgiving, and in the end I was glad we were able to celebrate it properly. By properly, of course, I mean that it wasn't about the food so much as about family, and this year my family is effectively the ragtag group foreigners I spend every day with now.
I was beginning to note that Advent seems to be a much bigger feature of the Christmas season here in the U.K., and then it suddenly dawned on me that they need Advent more than we do in the States since they don't have the day after Thanksgiving to open up the season for them.
I won't be going home for Christmas this year. Or rather, I won't be heading back to visit on relatives or friends, since I technically have no home of my own to which I can return. We're expected to keep working through most of the month-long Christmas break, so I decided that it would be too stressful and exhausting to fly to the States for a few days of madness and sentiment, only to race back and hit the books. I’m sure I'll have a lovely Generic Midwinter Holiday with the other expats, and best of all I'll have a few days to just sleep and slack off.
How did I manage to forget how much I love Echo & the Bunnymen? I think it's because I never replaced all their stuff that I had on vinyl. Like many bands I love, they accidentally fell by the wayside when other media came along to distract me. Thank goodness I stumbled across some old tracks to refresh my memory.
(Yes, I was totally New Wave in high school.)
This week at school we've taken a brief detour from our alphabets and immersed ourselves in the world of North Indic scripts. (Apparently I have a flair for Bengali — who knew?!) Rather than bore you all with exposition about how all this makes you rethink what you know about your own writing system, let me share this relevant bit of humor instead (since multi-cultural environments are all about people teasing each other about stereotypes):
While having a mini-reunion with my mother, sister, and a bunch of very distant relatives in Limerick this past weekend, I found myself trying to explain many, many times what it is I’m doing here. If only I’d known that BBC Radio 4 had just broadcast a little feature that explained it for laymen much better than I did! Listen to it here, and thrill to the mellifluous Greek accent of the director of my program (and, you know, some other people, too).
Sketches, as requested. Notice my many explorations of how to build an "a" that fits in? (I’m partial to the third from the left, bottom row.)
Drawing was better today, but the letters became too distorted when I tried to blacken them in Photoshop to get a sense of how they'll look at text size. I'll do another round of drawings and refinements and then ink them so they'll be easier to scan and manipulate.
Work on my typeface is coming slowly, despite my rushing ahead. My method for the first couple of weeks was to plow ahead from rough sketches to tight contour drawings to cringeworthy Fontlab outlines, just so I can get a feel for how to handle drawing at each stage of the game. As Gerry rightly pointed out, though, my contour drawings keep eliminating the best features emerging from the rough sketches. That method also made me focus on details and particular features a little sooner than I should have, thereby neglecting more basic proportional issues like x-heights and relative character widths. My handling of details has been a little inconsistent, but that’s more been due to the haphazard way I’ve been trying out different kinds of connections and terminals and such.
Gerry urged me to slow down and look at more specimens and draw more examples, even having me just focus on how the letter "a" has been handled in different typefaces. So for the last few days I’ve been drawing lots of versions of "a" and thinking about proportions and connections and counter shapes, and how certain shapes seem to go with certain details. It's helped a lot, and another round of sketches based on my initial gesture drawings are looking OK.
It dawned on me that part of my trouble — aside from some impatence — is that I’m so used to looking at typefaces as options to choose from. I'll look at features and details and overall tone, but without thinking all that much about issues like sensible widths or consistent handling of stroke weights and curve shapes. A type consumer tends to take for granted that those issues have been sorted out already. A type designer has to worry about them from the start, getting the blunt proportions down before obsessing over the details. It was good to look at a variety of glyphs in a more focused way, rather than picking and choosing at random. I took much less for granted when I resumed my own sketches, thinking a little more about good relationships from letter to letter.
I need to look at "e" a little more closely now...
Now that winter is setting in, it's getting dark awfully early. I’m so used to life in big cities that it's very disconcerting to wander across an unlit campus and down pretty dark roads at 5:30 in the evening. Obviously I have a lot of spooky nights like this ahead of me.
(that’s the outside of the building where I have all my classes. It's all about what's inside, rather than any razzle-dazzle to the structure itself, obviously.)
Miraculously, we've had a short string of lovely days, although the price we're paying for the brief respite from the rains is a sudden plummeting of the thermometer at night. The afternoons are crisp and lovely and autumnal and all that, but it's dropped below freezing the last couple of nights. The frozen dew is perfectly picturesque...
...but I can't say I’m looking forward to the damp chill that’s about to settle in for the next few months. that’s a minor complaint, really, considering how much I love it here, but if I don't grumble about something once in a while you'd hardly recognize me. Let's end on an up note with a picture of my sunny little Ikea-riffic room, showcasing the bed and the chair where I spend all my time when I’m not at school (please note the super-gay Isaac Mizrahi pillowcases from Target that came over with me from Brooklyn):
I have two big windows that get the morning sun, so it's a bit like waking up in the middle of a laser beam on sunny days, but that’s actually very cozy.
Since helpful pals like Jean-Baptiste insist on enabling my penchant for typographic clothing by showing me gems like the Hel-fucking-vetica shirt, I thought I may as well let you all know how to head down this slippery slope with me. Here are some of my sources for typonerdwear:
Threadless is always a good start, but there are many sow's ears mixed in with those silk purses, design-wise.
Your contributions to the list are, of course, greatly encouraged.
Even though I can barely sew on a button I’ve been fantasizing what I could do if I bought up every stitch of it that this eBay seller could get her hands on, especially once I discovered that she has other kinds as well:
Friends, students, admirers, and mockers already know of my vast collection of type-themed t-shirts, but now I’m imagining myself wearing a full suit made out of type cloth. Perhaps all Helvetica, with a nice shirt made out of the serify stuff, and a tie and pocket square made from the numbers? Or at least some sheets and pillowcases. What with the tattoos, the t-shirts, and flights of fancy like this, I realize that I’m on the verge of becoming a Batman villain, albeit one with much more style than this loser. Still, if anyone can make this happen I will be your slave for life.
Of course, I’d much rather have a Cooper Black leather jacket. (Thank you folks, I'll be here all week.)
Now that we've started drawing and sketching for our practical work, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about the kinds of forms that might work well for the problems I’ve been talking about so far. In many ways, it's a very open-ended question: it's not a unique problem to want clarity and legibility in type for dense text situations that may not be produced well. For the kind of technical publications I’m targeting, a certain kind of "classical" or "traditional" feeling would probably be received well, but I’m determined to sneak in as many technical adaptations (addressing issues of reproduction quality, optical sizes ranging from titles down to elaborate superiors and inferiors, legibility of individual letters as well as words) as I can.
As I devoured material on all sorts (hah! No geeky pun intended, I swear) of type and type history, I ran across a notion over and over again about the need for open counter spaces, especially at smaller sizes, as a key factor of legibility. Reading Fred Smeijers's Counterpunch got me thinking about how punchcutters dealt with internal shapes as a discrete design solution which could be shared among glyphs and adapted as needed at a later stage of the production as a punch. It was a way of building a letter from the inside out, suggesting a relationship between outer contours and inner ones that was sympathetic, but not necessarily tied together any more than it needed to be. The details of the outer contours could bear the burden of overall style while the inner contours bear the burden of keeping the shapes clear and defined. Of course, they work together to produce the overall effect, but they don't necessarily have to address the same problems in the same ways.
I kept going back to Dwiggins as I thought more about this sneaky trick of mixing inner and outer shapes, appearance and utility, and — in his use of stencils to build sets of trial characters out of recurring shapes — laying out the fundamental parts first in order to set up the patterns in a given design. I was noticing certain qualities i his types that all snapped together and made sense when I read about his "M Formula" in Gerard's Quaerendo article, a brilliant notion of using optical illusions that somehow zipped past me during Typecon's "DwigFest" this past summer.
It's clear that plenty of type design harkens back to Dwiggins' ideas: I’ve found people like Gerard, Cyrus Highsmith, and Christian Schwartz taking cues form his work, not to mention the various revivals of his types. I haven't stumbled across anyone else connecting his optical tricks to those of punchcutters, even though they were constructing letters part by part in a way all their own.
So I’m thinking I may be onto something I can look into for my essay, while I keep looking into it for my practical work. I’d like to inspect some punches and matrices and look at their details more closely, and trace how this idea of separate development of inner and outer contour shapes has made its way through to digital types today, considering what technical and legibility issues have been encountered along the way. It could be a vast topic, probably, but it could be useful to at least investigate some fundamental patterns to it.