Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Typo Expo à Go-Go

In April 1996, we in Toronto repaired to the astonishingly superswanky Design Exchange to attend the Typographic Exposition put on by the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada. Various superimpressive speakers from faraway lands like England, Holland, and Alberta were heard. I have uploaded the two stories I wrote for the local rag (first article; second) on the event, but here I’ll guide you, dear reader, through the event day by tiring day.

Day 0: The Opening-Night Party

I picked up my superintimidating and superillegible media badge from the media desk, staffed by superebullient media-relations types (does MAC makeup owe its millions to freelance publicistrixen? the answer, if the Typo Expo is an indication, is yes), and sat down to listen to moderatrix Karen Woolley perkily introduce us to the SGDC’s four founders. “Tonight’s festivities,” quoth she, “are brought to you by the letter A” – Adobe, Apple, Agfa – “and the number 40,” since it’s the SGDC’s 40th anniversary this year. Apparently graphic design is soon to become an officially “accredited” profession in Ontario. (Will we need a license? Does this mean we can have people’s credentials cancelled if they use Helvetica Narrow, underlining, neutral apostrophes, and double hyphens?)

SGDC Ontario presidentrix Catherine Didulka briefly took her place behind the scuffed stainless-steel DX podium and consistently pronounced the word “typographer” and its plural as if it were written “tippographers.” And she cried at one point! And people applauded!

(While Didulka should at least learn how to pronounce a fundamental word like “typographer,” I don’t know what to make of her clearly spontaneous and genuine emotion and the clearly spontaneous and more-or-less genuine reaction to it.)

Things were brought down to earth when the four founders of SGDC (whose names are not written in any of the 2 kg of materials I came away with, so I won’t risk mangling their names here) delivered anecdotes. One speaker (Frank something) described how the redoubtable Beatrice Warde “stood 4-foot-8 but spoke 8-foot-4” and dared anyone to set "God Save the Queen" in Gill lowercase. So of course one of the other founders did, slipping it under her hotel-room door.

The disappointment was palpable when it was later announced that Adrian Frutiger Himself, the star of the Expo, would not be coming “due to medical reasons.” Organizers had just been informed that day or the day before, apparently. More on Frutiger’s replacement later. (The pronunciation of Frutiger, by the way, is just as it looks: froot-i-grrr.) This was a major letdown, as Univers is the font that most aptly sums me up, though you really should not get me started about the Univers ampersand problem.

I ambled upstairs (stumbled upstairs, actually: the staircase is more decorative than functional) to look at the Exhibits. There were several banks of posters about Frutiger’s work that truly tested my comprehension of concisely-written French. Other exhibits were juried showings of recent Canadian typography, only some of which was worth an award and most of which, as ever in this country, came from Toronto or Montreal. (Type designer Nick Shinn complained that Diane Schoemperlen’s book In the Language of Love should not have received an award due to the fact that its body text, which indeed is full of copy errors, uses fake small caps. I’m sure they gave the book the award because of its fuzzy/sharp multilayered word-heavy cover, which links closely to the book’s structure – each chapter is based on a single word.)

I mosied around alone amid the well-dressed cliques and wondered again exactly why fate would cast me into the one and only sphere of the visual arts not dominated by homosexual men. The only other queens there immediately averted their gaze. Perhaps they too were cowed by Toronto Bylaw Nº 1, which forbids talking to strangers. These issues will come up again, I assure you.

Day 1: Sleeping It Off

I cycled down to the DX and noted that Delegates were stepping around the homeless person sleeping on a grate outside the refurbished stone façade. And here we were debating which version of Bodoni is the nicest.

David Pankow

I missed the opening remarks of Amerikanski type/printing historian David Pankow, whose lecture, “Type as Performed on Original Instruments: The Exalted Joys of Imperfection,” was tremendously confusing and ponderous. By showing slide after slide of 15th-century printed pages, all about as legible as a mosquito’s Scrabble tiles from my seat in the back row, and with musical renditions of Brandenburg concerti performed on contemporary and original instruments, Pankow was attempting, I think, to show how visual imperfections caused by the technology of one era are often improperly duplicated in subsequent revivals even if then-current technology could fix the original problems.

I really don’t have a clue what the hell he was talking about. Just as average people are so oblivious to graphic design as a concept that trying to discuss any of the details that interest people like us is futile, it is the case that most designers today know very little about the history of printing 500 years ago and don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about when you bring up the subject. Hand a nicely-designed ad to an average person today and ask him or her to comment on the design and that person won’t know where to start; show a bunch of slides of printed and illuminated pages five centuries old and we won’t even begin to know what to look at even if we are otherwise typographically aware. (Show the slides from far away and responses worsen still. Pankow’s slideshow reminded me of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, who carried fake aspirin tins from his far-away world with little blurry lines instead of fine print because they were copied from TV broadcasts with low resolution.)

Worse, Pankow was slavishly scripted, slow in delivery, and prone to overpronouncing foreign words. This is not an ad hominem dis; speaking style becomes all the more important if the message itself is muddy (Cf. Porchez later).

After this, we started on another of our interminable breaks. 40-minute intervals between lectures were common. There were effectively no Q&A periods, and we all really had to scramble to think of things to do between sessions. (Pre- and post-lunch lectures had up to 2.5 hours of “free” time.) If scheduled more tightly, the whole Expo, from opening party to closing party, could have happened in under two days.

Jeffery Keedy

Next up was Jeffery “Mr.” Keedy of Emigre/Keedy Sans/Cal Arts fame. He always thinks he has more to say than he does.

Let’s face it: Emigre, Eye, and The Graphic Language of Neville Brody notwithstanding, it is simply impossible to impose grand hyperdetailed theoretical constructs onto graphic design. I have tried it, been embarrassed at the results, and on reflection have given up. I urge others to do likewise. Rather, what could be described as middlebrow analysis is all graphic design can bear. Read Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design, which brilliantly describes and categorizes individual works, corpora of work, and entire design eras, but does so without reference to semiotics or any of the other hopelessly overblown theories that Überintellectuals think they are required to cook up to make graphic design seem just as valid as the other very important sectors of the visual arts, like painting, photography, and architecture.

The Keedy show carried the title “A Type of Change.” He opened with a computerized slideshow of weirdo techno grunge pomo deconstructivo fonts his current students at Cal Arts designed. The gratingly atonal techno soundtrack was marginally more palatable and easy-to-assimilate than the fonts themselves, which simply whizzed by. It takes more than a second or two to evaluate a font. In another assignment, Keedy said that he has his students start out with calligraphy on paper using traditional pen-and-ink; then they adapt their calligraphed font, with a full character set, into a relatively legible form on the computer. Finally, they produce an interpreted version (i.e., jazzed-up, whacked-out, Emigréd, etc.), making use of “a kind of cultural legibility” that makes the font relevant today. And indeed, the final results of his students, as presented in a much slower slideshow, were generally quite intelligent radicalizations of age-old calligraphic forms. Nearly all of them could be used for headline type, at least – and you could expect real people to be able to read the damn things.

Keedy then kvetched about today’s resistance to Modernist “good design,” which we of course see in the weirdo disco jazzola fonts the kids are churning out. Modernism is “no longer an ideologically relevant [style]. It’s only the most popular one.... Now we’re in ‘timelessness,’ with revivals of old styles... the New that Modernism once promised is now Old,” and our New isn’t remotely similar to their New. (This is about as theoretical as you can get without causing me to expectorate. And I always welcome historical analyses when well-explained.)

“Print will continue to be interesting” but it will not be cutting-edge. Soon “print will look to the interactive environment for inspiration.” (I find “interactive-inspired” designs in print generally more pleasing than the real thing on computer screens if only because the colours and resolution are better.)

Type design was the last bastion of “elite design professionals.” About his fonts: Keedy Sans seems to have been around forever (born 1989), but “if I don’t do a good job [with a font], it will only seem they’ll be around forever.” Keedy Sans was inspired by U.S. highway signs’ “quirky vernacular crudeness.” (Gotta watch the condescension there, Jeff.) You can’t predict the details of one character from another character – a typically postmodern calling-attention-to-oneself.

Gerard Unger

And now the bow-tied and deadpan Gerard Unger. (Get your voiced velar fricatives running for that name. I stumble on the ng part.) He is, as we know, a renowned designer of highly legible fonts, including his new space-saving Gulliver, which he went on about. Presentation: “26 Variations of Reduction and Expansion” (Max Kisman illustration). He cracked the audience up by running a slideshow of 26 characters, then 52, then 100 or so encompassing numbers, U&lc and symbols, then various weights, then italix, then various sizes, then all of the above in numerous fonts, all with the message that, far from being a simple means of communication based on a small number of E-Z-read symbols, typography today depends on vast repertoires of discernible characters.

Unger got another chuckle by mentioning how the little-used @ character has received a new lease on life thanks to the net.

“In typography,” he said, echoing a sentiment that is so manifestly relevant that I’ve read it or heard it a half-dozen times now, “mere legibility is not the only goal anymore.” (I have argued that the real change is an increase in the number of people willing to do explicit decoding of typefaces and designs to understand their informational and contextual meaning. In the olden days, only fans of math and physics, say, put any work into understanding what their complex texts meant, and they were the only ones who needed to, since 99% of the rest of the typographic world was traditionally legible. Raygun generalized this phenomenon.)

We now live in a period of increasing individualization, with types relating to a single period, or person (he didn’t say this, but think of Brodyfonts, or early Emigre releases), or “feel,” or whatever. “Identity is growing as a way to attract readers.” Typography is becoming tribal, an initiation rite. “Theatrics are now part of the repertoire.”

Typography also is becoming word and logo design, with zillions of ligatures and Matthew Carter’s snap-on serifs. This did seem to me to overlook 50 years of logotype design, and it’s only desktop publishing, in particular the Macintosh and ISO Latin-1 character sets, that conditioned designers to believe that small character sets with only two ligatures are and should be the norm.

Unger was back on planet earth in discussing how increased worldwide paper usage requires ever-more-compact fonts that are still legible and don’t strike average readers as strange. His font Gulliver has narrower caps than Times, but the same ascender-to-descender length and a larger x-height. So Times 10pt = Gulliver 8.3pt, but presumably the whole aim of Gulliver is to set an equivalent-looking mass of type that actually takes up less space, not to work out a size+lead spec that exactly duplicates a size+lead spec in Times.

Scott Makela

Last speaker before lunch was P. Scott Makela, who before this point I thought could do no wrong. I got there early (long breaks, remember?) and found a FLABBERGASTINGLY HIDEOUS, INTERMINABLE, EARSPLITTING, TORTUROUS PURGATORIAL VIDEO playing. Defocused picture, LOUD! Tibetan chanting on and on and on. People were being indulgent; they shouldn’t have. They should have found a breaker box and shut off the power until Makela promised not to run the tape again. They should have demanded their $420 registration fee back. I stormed out of the room and asked Woolley, “What the hell is this bullshit<interrobang>” She meekly replied that it’s what Scott wanted.

So I clomped downstairs and griped biliously to all sympathetic ears and killed yet more time waiting for the real show to get underway. Woolley opened the lecture with “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re back.” Man in audience: “Thank God.”

With modest exceptions, Makela’s presentation did not disappoint. He confessed that he nearly flunked out of design school, but found a mentortrix professortrix who Showed Him the Way. (Her name? He didn’t say. It might be April Greiman; see below.) He started out as a highly conventional, even Saul Bass–esque designer. Early on, he admits, there was a conflict “between what I wanted to do and what I could possibly make money doing – at least a little bit. But it’s all typography. It’s all about form. It’s all about communicating with language.”

The man then described the “surfaces” in which he works – namely print, “digital” (read “multimedia”), and film. What he specializes in is “welding of language and imagery together,” which explains the name of his company: Words + Pictures for Business + Culture. His first commercial typeface, Dead History, is an avowed (hence likely illegal) amalgam of VAG Rundschrift and Linotype Centennial. Released by Emigre, the font was marketed with a poster that featured, in the extreme bottom-right corner, a photo of his dad’s hand resting on his mom’s head mere minutes after she had passed away from Alzheimer’s. “Dead History,” indeed. “When you’re a graphic designer and you work intuitively, sometimes whatever is in your life at the moment [is something] you feed into the situation, with a minimum of being judgemental.”

(This is a rather telling remark. Graphic designers are supposed to present the truth with, at best, a nice paint job or a good shiny polish, but not with interpretation. That was never really the case – not since the ’20s, at least – but it’s the current idée fixe. It’s a good thing that graphic artists are taking on the mantle of artist per se, seasoning their designs with their own experiences. Typically the closest we come to this kind of personal dimension is accepting or rejecting a certain type of work, like, say, deliberately producing album covers for the Red Hot Organisation. There are rather few activist designers, as I’ll talk about later.)

Anyway, about these hybrid fonts (there’s really only one, but he uses the plural): “Sometimes you put fonts together and things come out, with birthmarks and everything. They’re artists’ exercises in seeing what happens when two breeds come together.”

Makela’s designs frequently show letters as structural elements, as 3D letters within a 2D drawing: Typography becomes a “cultural alloy – when the typography actually becomes architecture.” The letters work as de facto photoillustrations in the absence of a photo budget. That’s not particularly difficult using today’s software, but it’s difficult to do well, and Makela definitely does it well.

I enjoyed a superexclusive interviewette with P. Scott, snippets of which follow:

Q.Who are some designers you respect?

A. Tomato in London. Even though Tomato is composed of 12 people, “it seems to be fairly intelligent.” He doesn’t know them personally, though. “We’re talking about an intuitive emotional response.” “I’m starting from nepotism, OK? but I’m a big fan of my own wife’s work [Laurie Haycock Makela’s work], because she does this incredible fascist mix of old and new typography, and because she’s a mentor of mine, I really respond emotionally to her work and the way she uses typography.” Barry Deck (late of Cyberotica fame) is “really a brilliant type designer, but as an actual graphic designer, his work doesn’t sing as much as his individual typography does.” Also Rick Valicenti of Thirstype, whose font design “kind of has an Italian slut quality to it that has an attraction to me.”

Other names: Joel Polevy is a young designer who worked at Ray Gun and was a student of Makela’s at Kodak Imaging Centre. Substance in London are design directors of the new British Raygun (sign of the apocalypse?). Alan Hoarey, a former classmate of his at Cranbrook, he likes; also Martin Beresky in San Francisco.

Perhaps surprisingly, April Greiman was a big influence. Makela met her and her husband “and that was a major changing point in my life, and she has been a major mentor to me.”

Q.“If you had to (at gunpoint, say), could you create similar designs with standard fonts?”

A. “I think that I absolutely could, in the sense that my work is based much more on the merging of typography and illustration than it is strictly on clever typography.” He could work with Helvetica if “I was able at least to play in Illustrator a little bit to fatten it up.” Makela likes “types that carry a little weight to them, and often [with] stock fonts, I’d like to meat them up a little bit.” (Yes, “meat them up.”) “To kind of poke through again and to pop thorough all the clutter, with everybody and their brother doing Fontographer in their bedrooms (I’m talking 16-year-olds), [it’s necessary] to go back to very basic styles.” He’s using Futura now, which imparts the “excitement and cleanness and geometry of when the sansserifs [first] hit.”

Q.“You seem to be yet another practitioner of the trend of the ’90s, fuzzy/sharp conjunctions. Pourquoi?

A. “When Photoshop first came out... back in 1987, 1988, I was one of the first designers to start blurring type as an atmospheric effect. It was relatively new and it wasn’t possible to do without using a stat camera and a photograph.... [It’s] more about creating depth of field with typography. This is one of the reasons why I moved kind of away from that... to kind of three-dimensional type. And now [it] has proliferated everywhere. And now there’s nowhere to run and hide.”

Makela also will use computer-controlled cameras to go “inside the architecture of typography,” inside the letters themselves. He’s doing a BellSouth commercial in which he cuts letters out of skateboard polyethylene material and works a motion control camera around and through them. “In the end it’s going to look like really expensive natural computer graphics. But it’s not going to be. It’s just going to be film” – except that the typography and animation will cost $50,000.

He may design the photograph-like case for a Motorola cellphone. He and the Wife have been named head of the 2D design department of Cranbrook in Michigan, necessitating a move from Minneapolis: “I have to take my sights off myself and start to look at another young group of Turks and look at new stuff.”

Important postscript: Scott Makela died of a viral infection in May 1999. We’re still a bit shocked by this.

Siobhan Keaney

Keaney, from London, was asked to uphold the mantle of “Women in Graphic Design.” The convenors of the Type Expo, who are so clueless and/or classless that they didn’t even bother to invite local Toronto type designers like Paul Sych, Nick Shinn, or Val Fullard to speak, decided to fly in a marginally-competent graphic designer who has no type-design experience and who sets everything in Metro or Gill; importing Keaney presumably would offset all those nasty brutish male type designers dominating the conference and poisoning the atmosphere with their Y chromosomes. I suspect that many readers could nominate three or four female type designers each who could have described their work and experiences at the conference. Could Keaney’s selection have anything to do with a recent article about her in How? Were Typo Expo organizers really this clueless? Apparently so.

At a pragmatic level, Keaney’s presentation was borderline incompetent. She had aimed to include videoclips and slides from three designer friends (all women) in England, Holland, and California, but the slides and videos never came together, and of course Keaney was stymied by the fact that Europe and North America use different television systems (though conversions are easy and inexpensive). She did open her lecture with a stultifying and self-indulgent video that would have rated a D+ in any experimental-film course; it told us very little about her work or her attitudes, apart from the entirely credible claim that she’s in design for the money. It certainly can’t be for art.

The opening video was accompanied by a squelchy jungle soundtrack that only called into greater relief the video’s vapid and ostentatiously “deconstructed” editing.

Keaney started out in the field in 1985. She tends to reuse the same ideas over and over. (Care to come up with a list of designers who do so? It would be rather lengthy.) She created a photomontage of floating slippers, bags, and jewelry for Brown’s in the U.K., and another similar montage for Seymour-Powell, a product-design firm.

Keaney slapped a globe on the cover of an annual report of a (Saudi Arabian?) company, Apicorp, that aimed to look and feel global. Apparently Arab(ian) clients understand abstract imagery more directly than Occidentals. Keaney traffics in yet more fuzzy/sharp combinations, with saturated or milky gel-like backdrops or anamorphic manipulated photos as background.

The British designer spent 15 full minutes on every scrap of work she’s ever done for the Mill, a video postproduction house in London. Little cutout cartoons embodying job functions (editors, etc.) festoon the doors of their respective offices. Her Mill layouts invariably involve “postmodern” (but actually Russian Constructivist) rotated axes, with blocks of body copy, nearly always in Metro, contorted into contours. It was kind of readable.

Keaney, improbably, was selected to design H.G. Wells stamps for the British post office in 1995, which she Photoshopped into submission. They were somewhat pulpy, reminding one of 1950s sci-fi (sic) novels. That, of course, was the point.

The Just-N-Erik Show

Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland were in every way an antidote to the Keaneystones scraping through the digestive tracts of unfortunate conference delegates. Claiming to have actually given up a job for MTV to attend the Typo Expo, the beanpole Dutch design duo, who could probably goose the Statue of Liberty if one stood on the shoulders of the other, charmed the audience to death with their ridiculously deadpan wit and weirdly telepathic onstage banter. It’s a cliché to say that, par exemple, couples who’ve known each other for decades finish each other’s sentences. Just-N-Erik speak in consecutive sentence blocks (Just says a bit, then Erik picks up that thread, then Just, then Erik). The two are individually incapable of finishing a paragraph – a singularly typographic means of verbal collaboration.

They’ve designed a half-dozen or so fonts, including some of the more overused vernacular faces de l’ère, tels que Trixie, Confidential, Schulbuch and Schulschrift, Karton, Dynamoe, and Stamp Gothic. Also Beowulf, Brokenscript, Justlefthand, Erikrighthand, Advert, and Beosans (see LettError font page).

Their first message was a criticism of the design profession – that designers unwittingly limit their imaginations to what the existing software, etc., can actually do (the ToolHorizon). Hence, to use their terminology and in its sense of “much less than,” ToolSpace ≪ IdeaSpace. Erik: “We basically allow some programmer in Silicon Valley, who’s maybe doing his best, to make some decisions for us.... You can do a million different things with Photoshop, but they will always be things you’ve done with Photoshop.”

J-N-E started working together only in 1990. The name of their new firm, LettError, brings to mind the charming juvenile HORROR of skull-and-crossbones markings and the like.

The duo’s presentation was entitled “Fonts as Programs, Not the Result of Programs.” Many of you will be aware of Beowulf, whose form changes randomly with each print. A later font, Kosmik Flipper, integrated a more limited variability – each character comes in three slightly-different versions, with each of the three master character sets invoked one after the other letter-by-letter. Originally I saw this explained in ShontFop propaganda as a cheap way of livening up slideshows – create the same slide ×3 in each of the character sets, command the software to alternate them at full speed until commanded to stop, and voilà, you produce jiggly little animated type onscreen.

Advert Rough, a variant of the conventionally legible and usable Advert sansserif, has identical character widths in each of its five weights (à la the very strange early-’80s text face Else – Robert Norton, are you reading this?).

Erik admitted that Trixie has been overused. The two constantly receive queries on how to find a distressed typewriter font to digitize. The three obvious responses are, of course,

  1. “Can’t you think of something better to do?”
  2. “Buy Trixie”
  3. “Just find an old typewriter, type something out, and use that art directly.”

The metamultimedia moment du siècle occurred when the telepathy between the two broke down momentarily – perhaps the sheer awfulness of Keaney’s slide tray was exerting enough of a momentary gravitational attraction to become a singularity, enveloping all psionic impulses with five parsecs. Just van Rossum, sitting at the computer, said, “Just go ahead. I can flip back and forth.” Pause. “It’s interactive.” Pause. Erik: “Yeah. Just like slides.”

In another metadiscursive moment, the two showed a set of weirdo po{m,rn}o fonts from Fuse 11, with Erik noting that “these are not scanned and taken from bad neighbourhoods in town. These are designed afresh. They’re not fonts, they’re superfonts.” The font, devised for the Fuse theme issue on pornography, shows normal letters onscreen but prints only in outlines. Which one is real? Which is fake? Exactly why are you disappointed? Clearly this is the question to be asked about pornography.

BitPull is a font containing an overlay metafont consisting of muddying dots. You type out your nice word and then go back and add these dots on top, à la the Walker Art Center’s snap-on-serifs font Walker. Mark my words: These kinds of built-in typographic dirtying kits (the font equivalent of those little silver balls we used to decorate our birthday cakes with when we were kids) are going to be the biggest thing since... Trixie.

Jorge Frascara

Jorge Frascara of Alberta offered the most socially-engaged presentation, entitled “Design Education: From Lettering to Human Interaction.” You will recall that graphic design is, at its essence, about effective communication. Frascara focused our attention on low-profile, unsexy applications of graphic design (broadly defined) that affect people’s everyday lives.

“So much is done by imitation. So many times people imitate a style that is ‘cool,’ even if its values do not match our society.” (He was thinking of cigarette ads. How come no one has written a really good exposé of Newport “Alive with pleasure!” ads along the lines of the one Spy ran in its heyday?)

“There are more ways to be passive than watching TV,” Frascara says, and this means you: Graphic designers who do not work for and with causes that have a real impact on the world are engaged in cozy passivity. (Pick whatever cause you like. Just don’t pretend that making better and better advertisements for Golden Crisco shortening is all that graphic designers should be doing.) The exciting and dynamic graphic designs produced by the savvier activist groups are themselves a rebellion against boring “legible” layouts, which again are passive in J.F.’s view.

Some real-world horrors:

In discussing the redesign of forms for the British government, Frascara noted that the redesigned, linguistically simplified forms produced radically higher usage rates – even for programs to which nearly everyone had a basic right, like pensions. “Bad typography had removed the rights of citizens from their hands.”

“Personally,” he stated in conclusion, “I am not interested in the debate between modern and postmodern, or deconstructivist, or computer gimmicks. My concern is the welfare of people.”


The apparently quite likable Allan Haley ran a fast-paced by still boring seminar, “Cold Cash for Cool Fonts: Successful Typeface Design and Marketing.” If someone else wants to recount what he said, go for it. Expo moderatrix Karen Wooley actually attempted to boot him offstage at one point even though he had less than a minute left of his speech. How gauche.

Adrian Frutiger

Adrian Frutiger, meant to be the star of the show, didn’t make it to Toronto due to “medical reasons.” He sent a longtime collaborator, Hans-Urich Heizinger, in his place. I’ve never seen something as close to onstage paralysis as this, but he did manage to deliver his speech, and one advantage of his slow delivery was that it was at least easy to understand. (Haven’t we all sat through presentations written in a style meant for reading whose dependent clauses and long intricate multilayered phrasal adjective chains left you gasping for breath?)

“A good typeface is one that is not consciously perceived by the reader.” (Well, for text faces in most applications, yes. We know that this is no longer true at the level of mass readership, and since the ’20s it has not been true for the elite readership.) “A good text typeface is both banal and beautiful at the same time.” (And how. Why don’t people use Melior more? You can literally read that face all day, but its calligraphy is clearly evident, particularly in the italic, which is so readable you could use it as roman and the roman as italic.)

Work on Univers was begun in earnest in 1954 after having made early drawings in 1949. One of my books pegs its début at 1957. (This is one of the truly amazing things about sansserif typefaces. They really do exemplify the 20th century in holographic microcosm. Futura is ~65 years old, Helvetica ~40, Univers ~40, Franklin ~92. A world in which all these fonts are not still in use is unimaginable. In the year 2525, if man is still alive, we will still have 20-year-old punker kids ripping off Babs Kruger illos with Futura Heavy Italic. Count on it!)

In the Expo’s first Q&A period (come on, kids! we don’t spend years sitting alone reading type books only to be satisfied to sit there passively and have people talk at us about a subject we rarely get to talk about!), Heizinger was unaware that Adrian Frutiger used the same numbering convention for weights, condensation, and romans/italix in other fonts like Frutiger and Serifa; he admitted to having designed Cyrillic Univers, which is another joy (check the ш and щ characters).

The presentation was a bit of a disappointment, all together.

Jean-François Porchez

Finally, the Jean-François Porchez show. First, the unerring French sense of style was in manifest deployment when Porchez asked a question of Heizinger. The extremely bright neon plaid of his shirt, buttoned to the collar, contrasted winsomely with the dead-conventional navy blue of his cardigan (!). And then there were the glasses and earrings. JFP was the fashion leader among conference speakers. And, I’m sorry, that does count.

This lad, only 31 (I am “only” 31), has won the Morisawa typeface-design competition twice. And both the fonts were pretty good – Angie and Apolline. As an Agfa propaganda sheet says, «Jeune créateur de caractères Jean-François Porchez, 30 ans, a été formé dans une école d’arts graphiques et à l’Atelier national de création typographique. Il a travaillé comme créateur et conseiller typographique chaz Dragon Rouge. Ses deux premières créations [deux premières créations, kids!], le FF Angie et l’Apolline, ont été primées au concours international de création de caractères Morisawa.» He’s now also designing custom fonts.

Porchez’s talk was on horizontality in type design. We’ve all read descriptions of and seen illustrations about the “stress” or basic visual orientation of fonts. Typically they show us a font with vertical stress, like Bodoni, then a bunch of others, like Garamond, with stress they describe using historical type taxonomic terms like “transitional.” Porchez simplified this in a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that manner: Fonts are either vertical or horizontal. The latter are more readily recognizable and are easier and more pleasant to read. (This is his opinion. He did not dismiss the utility of vertical-stress fonts; he just prefers horizontal. Insert Tony Curtis bath scene from Ben-Hur here.)

Using some very French-looking, information-dense, yet immediately apprehensible slides, Porchez made the horizontal/vertical distinction stunningly obvious. He then showed how, for example, a single designer can work in both modes, viz. Univers and Frutiger. (Check the as.) Porchez believes that horizontal fonts need true italics, not sloped romans; he accused Frutiger Italic of being a fake.

With their serifs and stress, Centaur and Berkeley Oldstyle are too verticalish, he said, even with their horizontal tendency. In Apolline, Porchez attempted to fix that problem and also produce a font that set bolder than the other two. (ITC Berkeley is unusably light in the Book weight and just a hair too heavy in Medium for text use.)

His Angie face is unduly similar to Optima; he should bill it as a reinterpretation, a sampling, of the Zapf original. Apolline excited me terribly at first (some fonts do this), and I had converted all my instantiations of Adobe Garamond to Apolline and was happy... until I noticed that the ) character, and most other punctuation marks, are quite simply too thick. It’s unusable. So now I have Adobe Garamond parentheses around the area codes in my Apolline letterhead. What does this say about Agfa’s quality control? (Porchez later explained that the problem appears only on original-PostScript printers, not those running Level 2 or greater.)

Porchez ran us through the thinking behind his huge suite of fonts for Le Monde – several titling variants, text serif, text sans, and an “informal” Courrier face for office correspondence. They’re very unlike stereotypical newspaper fonts and strike me as Méridienesque. (Méridien: Another Frutiger face. Would there even be European text typography without him?) The lad also created a remarkably Frutiger-like font for the Paris metro, explaining the psychology behind signage and how people hate to see a lot of blank space on a metro sign (unavoidable, since some station names are five characters while others are five words). This font, Parisine, also comes with real italics, and each of the letters b–d–g–o–p is different enough that they cannot be formed by rearranging the other letters’ parts.

It’s funny how my recounting of the Porchez lecture makes him sound so derivative. Actually he’s simply heralding the reality of traditional typography as expressed by Gerard Unger: All new fonts are inspired by all old fonts. And someone apparently made Porchez believe that his English is bad. Actually, it isn’t, but that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when you’re the very last speaker facing a scant crowd (2/3 of whom were at other simultaneous seminars – all other seminars had no such competition) that’s exhausted after 2½ long days of lectures, breaks, recesses, lunch periods, pauses, and interludes.

So I sashayed up to the stage after it was all over and waited my turn to chat him up. He was calm and sophistiqué with the other acolytes. When my turn came, I asked what he thought about type terminology in les deux langues. (They’re not entirely equivalent. People use police for “font” and caractère for “typeface,” but there are different connotations.) Then I asked him if he agreed that most designers working in traditionally readable fonts these days spend much of their time drawing faces for special projects, like computer screens, or subways, or newspapers. Yes and no, he said, pointing to Angie and Apolline in his own work.

I found out later that Jean-François can whip out basic outline drawings for a font in an afternoon and more detailed filled-in drawings in another afternoon. (He doesn’t draw on computer, but does digitize. I mean, we all digitize. There’s no shame in it anymore.) One imagines him at a local café nursing a 10 FF double espresso and doodling another Morisawa prizewinner in the time it takes plebes like us to decide on whether to do the laundry before going grocery-shopping or vice-versa.

Posted: 2007.03.19 or earlier ¶ Updated: 2010.02.04 17:12, 2010.02.24 13:23

Homepage: Joe Clark Homepage: Joe Clark Media access (captioning, Web accessibility, etc.) Graphic and industrial design Journalism, articles, book