Tattoo U

The new tattoo. Another in my ongoing series of tattoos based on letterforms I think are beautiful. From a visual standpoint, I’ve been wanting something big, black, and smooth-edged that would peek outside of most clothing, but that I could cover up when I wanted to look respectable. As I was walking home from CBGB’s last night (this month’s Homo Corps, where I looked like an ass because I was wearing a suit and carrying a box of Jordan almonds since I’d been at a wedding earlier in the evening), I had this flash of inspiration that a letter with an umlaut on my back would be a nice touch, so that the dots would be visible above the neck of a t-shirt.

So I started looking at old-style serif typefaces, thinking that an “o”, with its off-axis center, would be very lovely. Just for kicks I started looking at some bolder sans serifs and other letters, and the Meta Bold “u” really looked outstanding. I decided to move the dots of the umlaut out to the sides a bit more than where they would sit if the letter were used in text, since it looks better that way on its own. Once I did, I noticed this lovely effect where the letter began to look like two simplified figures standing side-by-side, one reaching out to the other. A little precious perhaps, but that little bit of added conceptual value was the clincher. (see how a nerd like me can turn an otherwise kick-ass tattoo into a tedious exercise of over-analysis?)

This one hurt like a motherfucker. It was so much bigger and darker than either of my last two, and went right over the bony parts of my spine. The sensation of the needle in the soft parts of my neck was also extremely unsettling. It was so uncomfortable that this time I give myself at least two or three days before I start thinking about another.

Old School

I don’t mind being 29. In fact, I was speaking with Gina today about how I think I may have been born in time to enter the design field at just the right moment. My education and experience as a designer started the old-fashioned way: I drew type by hand as a regular homework exercise, I used gouache and Letraset and colored paper to make comps, and my first job involved specifying type for professionally set galleys that I pasted down by hand for a 180-page book which I planned out on a Mac. And when I started working as a typesetter for B.U., I learned how to use a serious, complex typesetting system on which no assumptions could be made. Every decision about typography and page layout had to be considered, so I learned discipline and craftsmanship which served me through the dark times of the desktop publishing revolution. But at the same time, I was right there working with Macs and the Web as they exploded, and I was in a great position to learn as they developed.

So I am old enough to have learned the craft that preceded me, and young enough to be open to — and a part of — the possibilities that are swirling around us now. And lucky enough to have been able to learn how to use the best elements of both approaches. I love me!

Another Call to Arms, of a Sort

Subject: Neither Quark nor PageMaker is the answer
Date: Wed, 20 May 1998 23:39:42 -0400
From: Daniel Rhatigan <>
Newsgroups: alt.zines

Frequently, discussions in this group turn toward the practical discussions of zine-making: printing, computer programs, layout problems, etc. Everybody’s always got a lot of good ideas about how to fix technical problems, but how about some of the design problems that a lot of the questions bring up? Pagemaker or Quark won’t give you a good-looking zine, only good choices will. I’m still a fan of people doing it the old-school way with typewriters or even decent handwriting, but for everyone who’s moved onto writing and publishing in the digital
age along with me, let me rant a little of my design philosophy.

At work, in my zines, in everyday life, I’m always grappling with the relationship between typography and technology. As the fields grow more interrelated each day, each demands a greater understanding of its influence on the other, and those of us who dabble in one cannot help but learn more of both. Consideration of the two can allow us to profit from their relationship rather than be thwarted by it.

I have a true love and respect for type, and I know I’m a geek about it. I think the abstract beauty of a single letterform can be breathtaking on its own, but more importantly I think typography is our means of conveying language, integral to how we read and how we communicate. If typography suffers then communication suffers with it, robbed of its full potential. I value the role that typography plays in language, and I feel a responsibility to allow it to play its role as perfectly as possible. Type should help us understand words, and its complexity should never be underestimated.

Perhaps the easiest way to ignore the complexity of typography is to become distracted by the complexity of the technology we use to set type. Though we are now expected to develop expertise with computers, we are not freed from our responsibility to think critically about
typography. Computers are powerful tools that have offered us many new opportunities, but they do not offer us solutions to the problems of working with type.

It is easier now than ever before for anyone to put type on a page and have it look pretty clean, but it is also too easy for the finer elements of effective typography to be ignored. This can be the result of too little technical proficiency, too little visual sophistication, or even too little patience to make the adjustments needed to perfect computer-generated type. All designers now working as typesetters also have the responsibility to master the technology that creates their type. Just as we should not allow ourselves to forget the many responsibilities involved in designing with type, we should also not underestimate the complexity of our common tool ? the computer.

Computer operating systems and software packages are complex tools that allow us to achieve far more than we may have once thought possible. Conversely, their complexity may limit our abilities if we are not able to work within the parameters of their logic. As with any tool or any printing process, we must be sensitive to the way computers work so that we can make the greatest possible use of them. Once we understand the working of these systems, then we often find that we were limited not by the tool, but by our ability to use it.

My years in school and my subsequent years working for myself and for other people have taught me the importance of design and typography. I have come to believe that they present us not only with opportunities, but with problems that we must solve to aid communication and also to improve our visual culture. I say we should seek the best solutions to these problems, while trying to be clear, inventive, expressive, and efficient. This requires sensitivity to subject, concept, medium, and tool alike.

Don’t fall into the trap and just play dress-up with visual style. If you’re doing your zine out of love, show it all the love you can. Make it as effective and as right-on-the-money as possible. Don’t cheapen your writing or the writing of your contributors by making things look
“cool” with funky fonts and clip art that aren’t really supporting the writing or the tone of the zine. Don’t make it too busy just because you can. Don’t think that because your program will let you do something that means it’s a good thing to do. Make good choices, pay attention how
truly readable and how true to itself your zine is. I don’t even mean making your zine look slick — if your zine is raw, then use your tools to make it raw. If it’s thoughtful, use your tools to show that.

And keep on keeping on.

Is That Really Natural Gas?

Odor-ama numbers
Odor-ama art

Oh, the sad and sorry life of Francine Fishpaw! But the
pungently sweet glories of having my very own Odorama card! Carefully preserved
since a 1988 showing of “Polyester” at Cinema Village in New York, I only
take this out once every couple of years or so in order to let someone
or another have their very own sniff of this holy relic.

This card became even more important to me during college, when I went
to a double bill of Hairspray and Polyester at the Somerville Theater,
hoping to get my hands on another card or two. I was anxious because the
show was billed as having the last load of Odorama cards in existence,
and sure enough, I arrived five minutes after the last ones had been dispersed.

I’ve heard that New Line Cinema
manufactured more cards to be packaged with the laserdisc of the movie,
but apparently they were not able to perfectly duplicate all the original

What Made Me into the Nerd I Am Today

One of my primary reasons for starting the print version of Rumpus
back in 1994 was that I had a burning, frustrated passion for graphic design.

I had gotten it stuck in my head at an early age that I wanted to be a "graphic artist" (I term I now use in reference to printmakers and draughtsmen) — at the time I suppose I thought of it as a more practical goal than my original desire to draw comic books for a living. As time went on, my interest in traditional forms of art never wavered, but I was thinking of graphic design as my vocation.

Working as the graphics editor for The Owl, the school paper at Regis, had whetted my appetite for working with type and illustration, and offered me some of the tools needed to produce Kumquat Popsicle, the one-shot zine that my friend Neil Butterfield and I produced our senior
year. I really loved the kind of visual assemblage that was required to put a zine together, and also got a real charge from having the final creative say in the end product. I bucked the running trend of my college-prep high school and headed off to art school at B.U. on a full scholarship, and put my design work on hold for the first two years while I studied painting, drawing, sculpture, and art history.

I really flowered, though, once I started the design program as a junior. I had already started hanging around the department the year before, since my enthusiasm was too big for me to keep in check, and was anxious to get started. Once I started dealing with honest-to-goodness graphic design issues, I realized that the "secondary" career choice of my youth was probably the best thing I ever pursued. To me, solving the problems and issues involved in graphic design seemed to be the perfect synthesis of my desire and aptitude for art, math, writing, and being anal-retentive.
I came to realize that graphic design could be as much a vehicle for self-expression as any traditional forms of art, it just involved different processes and problems. And I could get paid to do it for a living, to boot.

I took it very seriously &mdash I was a total nerd. By the time I graduated, I didn’t think that I had learned all I really felt I ought to, especially about typography, but I was happily free-lancing at a design studio in Chestnut Hill, and figured I would learn along the way. After that gig petered out, I snapped at a chance to take a job as a typesetter for the B.U. Office of Publications, thinking of it as an opportunity to do an apprenticeship of sorts and just focus on the minutiae of type for a while.

Well, that "while" turned into two-and-a-half years of the best education that I ever got in my life, but it was leaving me feeling pretty creatively stifled. All day long fine-tuned my typographic and technological skills, but was usually unable to exercise much creative judgement at all, expected to assist other designers in their work.

I made a brief attempt to take advantage of B.U.’s employee tuition remission program and I started the Graduate Graphic Design program. Big mistake. I was basically wasting time in a class of foreign students with little to no design background, and I spent the whole time repeating work I had
done during my last two years as an undergrad. I lasted a semester-and-a-half. By the time I quit grad school, I was incredibly frustrated with my lack of outlets for real design work — especially work that would allow me some degree of expression — so I decided to pursue a self-education. I basically had a good idea of what I wanted to learn, and I would be better off seeking the answers myself. I figured grad school might be a good idea in the future if I felt like I’d hit a roadblock and need some external guidance, but I was to be my own "sensei" for a little while.

So on my return from a trip to visit my oldest pal Eddie in California, I decided to muster whatever motivation I could and turn my experiences from the trip into a zine. Finally, I had some material that I felt strongly about, a creative focus, a particular set of design problems I wanted to tackle, and the available cash to pull it off. It went well and was extremely satisfying, and the mood carried me through to a second issue, which also went well, and for which I set myself a different set of design problems to tackle.

I was sidetracked for a while after that by a few very long-overdue romantic involvements and various other occupations, and then the urge hit me again to take a big step forward with my creative self-improvement program. So I quit the job I then had as a typesetter/techie for Candlewick Press,
a children’s book publisher in Cambridge, and free-lanced back at B.U. long enough to save up the money to move back to New York (money which I actually blew on a trip to China, but that’s another story altogether). The point of that was to team up with my other best pal Mark to devote ourselves to an ongoing lifestyle of constructive creative ambition. We’re doing okay with all the side projects, but I’m very happy to report that my career as a designer has finally blossomed now that I’m out of Boston. After a couple of lean weeks down here, I landed a free-lance gig at Thirteen/WNET, New York’s PBS television station, which which lasted for eight moths and still rears its ugly head now and then. I’m also staring down the mouth of a lucrative and intriguing position with the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers, which holds some promise for interesting challenges and good perks. I’m finally able to channel all that creative energy into my professional life, which has helped me to become a MUCH better designer than I once was, and that has also given me a renewed vigor once it comes to my personal work.

So wish me luck on a continuing life as a stuck-up, pretentious, arty bastard who’s able to do for a living exactly what he would do for fun if he had to pay the rent by working as a short-order fry cook.

Le Car Cards

Milles Bournes

My roommate Mark came home from the weekly visit to the neighborhood thrift store with a set of Milles Bournes cards that Parker Brothers put out some time in the sixties. (Milles Bournes is a card game where you rack up points by metaphorically travelling through the French countryside.) I instantly fell in love with the design of these cards — the style of illustration, the use of type, all of it. It is such an elegant solution — a breezy sense of fun was created without neon, dumb jokes, product placement, or low-brow caricature. Those were the days.

Broiling or Frying Teenagers?

Cel-O-Pak Meat-O-Mat

I found this little gem on the roof of my building one day, apparently a leftover from my landlord’s Memorial Day barbecue. I’m so enamored of this mysterious boxtop that I don’t even really want to know exactly what it is. I’m afraid that the brutal truth would only convince me that Meat-O-Mat really isn’t good for teenagers.

Continue reading “Broiling or Frying Teenagers?”