Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fonts Ahoy!

There's a good article (print-only) in this week's New Yorker on Matthew Carter, inventor of Verdana and sixty-two other font families -- probably more than anybody. (I would have thought that the font nerds over at Snarkmarket would have already jumped on this, but I guess I read [and blogged] it first.) Here are some highlights.

One of Carter's current projects:

The Times wanted for its magazine an alphabet of the face it uses to print its name. All the paper had were the letters that spell "The New York Times."
On his expertise:
Another time, at an antique auction, [Carter] saw a poster announcing the sale of slaves, which was being offered as genuine. He noticed that some of the writing was in a typeface invented in the nineteen-fifties. He thought it was strange that someone would take so much trouble to forge a document and then be sloppy about the typeface, but people tend to think that typefaces have always existed.
Memories of childhood:
To teach him to read, his mother cut an alphabet for him from linoleum. "Gill Sans," he says, "a popular typeface of the time."
His apprenticeship during the 1950s at Enschedé en Zonen, a printing company in the Netherlands:
Since the late ninteenth century, type has been made by machine, but Enschedé made type by hand, using techniques that hadn't changed for four hundred years. Carter was apprenticed to a cutter of type called P.H. Rädisch, who was eccentric and secretive. Enschedé had bought a machine to manufacture type. Each night, Rädisch removed part of the machine and on his way home dropped it into a canal. Eventually, the machine disappeared entirely. Rädisch had for years refused to train anyone to succeed him but had lately taken on an assistant. The assistant was "willing to tolerate an amateur," Carter says. Carter sat between the two men, and though Rädisch said very little to him, the assistant was helpful. Carter was one of the last men in Europe trained to cut type by hand."
Reordering the alphabet:
[D]esigners don't regard the alphabet as a linear sequence. Instead they tend to see round letters ("O," "G," "C," "Q"), square letters ("H," "F," "L," "T"), and diagonal ones ("A," "W," "X," "Z"). The classic approach to type design is to begin with the capital "H" and "O"... [Carter] prefers to start with the lowercase "h" and "o." He proceeds carefully, because any misjudgment multiplies its effect as he continues. He does a "p" and a "d" next, because they include elements of the "h" and the "o" and are also inversions of each other. "If something looks awful with your 'p' and your 'd,'" he says, "you know something's wrong with your 'h' and 'o,' and you revise them." Next he might draw a "v," because it involves new considerations.
The quirks of the eye and the drama of design:
Perfect geometry appears to form the basis for many typefaces, [type designer Tobias] Frere-Jones says, "but in fact the eye will become confused if it sees pure geometry. The forms will seem stiff and labored." Designing type involves a kind of stagecraft -- "organized cheating," Frere-Jones calls it -- so that the eye will accept as symmetrical forms that are actually imperfect.
On avant-garde typography:
It is all but universally agreed that type is intended to convey ideas and should not aggressively draw attention to itself, except in advertisements or signs or trademarks--what is called display typography--or perhaps in fine printing. Avant-garde typographers whose intention, according to the designer Jonathan Hoefler, is "to do with type design what Joyce did with words and Stravinsky did with music" print texts that are meant to be difficult to read, to be deciphered like a code...
For the other side, on the illusion of invisibility:
That type should be serviceable and undemonstrative was stated, nearly as a manifesto, by a critic named Beatrice Warde, in 1932... In "Printing should be invisible," an address delivered to the British Typographers Guild, and later collected in "The Crystal Goblet," Warde said, "The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author's words." He might build a stained-glass window that is beautiful to look at, she says, but a failure as a window... "There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page."
Something I've always wondered -- why we call fonts "roman" or "italic":
The alphabet was organized into capital and small letters around 800. The capital letters derived from inscriptions on Roman monuments, and the smaller letters from handwriting. Initially, all printing imitated handwriting. The first book that could be easily carried around was printed in Venice in 1501. It was called a pocket book. It was printed in italic, which was thinner than the other styles of type, and was said to be an imitation of Petrarch's handwriting.
On how John Coltrane convinced Carter to stay in New York:
In the spring of 1960, the John Coltrane quartet played its first engagement. Carter was in the audience. Over several weeks, he heard them three or four times. "Sometimes they played the same songs in the second set as they played in the first," he says. "Not because they were lazy but because they wanted to surpass themselves, or find something in the music that they hadn't found earlier in the evening. They were that acute."
All in all, an excellent read. Especially if you're a great big dork.


Gavin said...

Uhm, to attest to my dorkiness, I dragged the article to my computer and typed out eight alphabets and four sets of numerals so I could see the variations in the typefaces they were talking about.

Prove it you say? Not only does the capital "I" in Verdana have serifs, so does the lower-case "J."

Matt said...

Great big dork here: I don't usually get my New Yorker until later in the week. Maybe it'll be in the box. Needless to say, there will definitely be some Snarkremarks about this.

Matt said...

I wonder if Tobias Frere-Jones has any relationship to Sasha Frere-Jones?

Tim said...

I was wondering the same thing on the TFJ/SFJ connection. Unless there are more Frere-Joneses (Freres-Jones?) out there than anyone thinks.