Archive for June, 2007

And Now This Week I Like It

Add comment June 29th, 2007

Last week I picked at things that irritated me about the 1987 first English translation of Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography (Die neue Typographie). To be fair, it now appears to me that I reacted—mostly to Robin Kinross’ excellent Introduction—to the statement that the typesetting of the translation remained true to 1928’s original. On further review, I think I made a too-hasty judgment on the whole notion of a “new typography”. In fact, the heavy ornamentalism that I agree dominated, specifically, the book making and, generally, the typesetting of the day, deserved to go.

My last reservation, quite simply, concerns books full of sanserif type. To which I just say, “No, don’t! Please!!” And, fortunately, most everyone seems to agree.

But as I got deeper into the book—and it is a relatively slim volume—I began to see virtues that won me over. So much so, that I plan an homage to “die neue typographie”. Particularly in the shortest of pieces, postcards, Tschichold’s examples appealed to me. I think I will appropriate the design of one such postcard quite freely—on page 59; the caption reads, “THEO VAN DOESBURG: Postcard. Black and red on white—and give it a liberal interpretation.

It seems the least I can do after I was so dismissive the first time I wrote anything about The New Typography.

Die neue Typographie

Add comment June 22nd, 2007

In the movie, The Usual Suspects, there’s a scene in which it begins to sink in to those of us watching that if Keyser Soze exists, it may only be in Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal’s mind. Spacey steps outside the stationhouse he’s just been questioned in and his torturously twisted body slowly, exquisitely, straightens up.

Apropos of nothing, I reminded myself of that scene the other night. Walking out of the public library favoring my recently broken right leg, I leaned on the cane in my left hand. The leg is healing, but the day had been a long, tiring one and I was dragging. I looked at the book I had gone to pick up, a translation of Jan Tschichold’s 1928 work, The New Typography (Die neue Typographie). Looking at the front cover, I noticed the year the The New Typography had been published originally. I smiled to myself, stood erect and walked to my car without the cane touching the ground.

I anticipated opening the book and starting to read the whole drive home. The little I know about Tschichold’s original stance on a new typography appealed to me: an emphasis on a clean, modern look and away from ornamentation. Having always wondered about the use of Gothic-style type, heavily ornamented but hardly the most legible, I felt sure Tschichold’s writing would illuminate a whole path that led straight to the typography and page design I believe in.

Later, I opened the book to the Introduction, the lead-in to Tschichold’s actual translated text. A number of pages in, I read, “roman as a minimum demand … sanserif as the preferred choice … ” explaining what I found as the main textface.

… for the purposes of characterizing Tschichold”s preference, “Aksidenz Grotesk” in a light (as opposed to medium or regular) weight is sufficient description. He wanted to show that such a typeface could be easily read in continuous text … despite common belief that serif text is more legible.

I stopped and flipped around, not reading now but simply looking at the typesetting and design. The nicest way I might describe what I saw is “rough”. The last line of a recto page jumped out at me: it ended with a broken word and a hyphen. The last line of a paragraph on another page ended with a broken word. This was the Introduction. And no indents to a paragraph’s first line—throughout, not merely for the first paragraph of a new chapter or section.

I turned to the book”s end, hoping for an explanatory colophon. An endnote began:

This first  publication of the English-language version of Jan Tschichold’s Die neue Typografie (1928) has attempted to follow the author”s original page layouts and design precepts as closely as possible.

I have already read elsewhere that Tschichold later renounced much of his earlier views on a new typography. But is there any chance that the last-quoted line above is an attempt to blame a horrible-looking little book on a dead man who cannot defend himself?

When One Thing Stands for Two Opposing Thoughts

Add comment June 16th, 2007

What an interesting bit of reading I did last night! Just before putting head to pillow I cracked open one of my favorite books of late, Designing books: practice and theory, by Jost Hochuli and Robin Kinross (London: Hyphen Press, 1996).

Without quoting too many whole, long passages, let me just say that they were speaking about Jan Tschichold’s “New Typography.” Not so new, as this goes back to 1933. Tschichold was branded a “cultural Bolshevist” and fired “from his position at the Meisterschule in Munich on account of his practice of the New Typography.” This “New Typography,” emphasized clean, functional, and utilitarian typesetting. The traditional form of typesetting to that point, on the other hand, was ruled by ornamentalism and decorative excesses. The beauty of type and layouts took center stage.

I remember, as a kid, that old books with Gothic typefaces mystified me. I found them illegible. Perhaps that turned me, even at a young age, to all things designed sparingly, and to the beauty of functionalism.

In Tscichold’s case, though, the authors relate, came a reversal in the late ’30s, when he turned “to the traditional, mainly axial-symmetrical typography.”

in left-wing Basel circles it was put about that Tchichold was preparing his return to Nazi Germany. It is as simple as that: asymmetry = cultural Bolshevism; symmetry = National Socialism.

As fantastic a leap as I find that, there comes even a reversal in this. Twenty years later, something new is published, a booklet—the title, translated to English was Realistic book art in the German Democratic Republic. This was in 1953, coincidentally the year I was born. I can only quote again, as I cannot say it any better myself:

In this we can read not only of inappropriate and inelegant asymmetry, of the shattering of forms, incompetence and amateurishness, of the class character of formalism, and of the stereotyped, intellectualistic typography since the decline of capitalism.

Now get this: asymmetric typography has gone from being representative of cultural Bolshevism, from which I strip out the Nazi overtones of the time and place in which this take on the subject originated, leaving as the meaning embodiment of an egalitarian, inclusive sort to being representative of capitalism.

I disagree that cultural Bolshevism and capitalism are necessarily two “diametrically opposed ideologies,” as Hochuli and Kinross postulate, but they certainly are not identical ideologies.

And it amazes me that, within the space of twenty years, the same idea can be run up divergent flagpoles, is all I’m saying.

The Platform and Upgrade Conundrums

Add comment June 12th, 2007

Aside from the ever-present challenge of keeping new book design and layout projects coming in, both to keep working and just to stay fresh, I find the thorniest issue to be the question of when to upgrade. This pertains to both hardware and software.

Without even considering the obvious question of whether my finances will bear the cost of upgrading, for years the first question I asked myself concerned the continued existence of Apple Computer (now simply Apple, Inc.). There was a time when predictions ran rampant that Apple could not possibly survive much longer on their own thin share of the P.C. market.

Ignoring the annoying attitude I continue to sense occasionally that one’s chosen computer platform is akin to one’s religion, I always believed that a computer is simply a tool, like a wrench or a saw. If I worked as a plumber or a carpenter, and Sear forever closed its door and Craftsman tools were no longer available, I doubt that would cause me to quit my trade. Instead, my tool company of choice would probably change. So I remember a time when I thought the next computer I bought might, of necessity, be a Windows machine. I began preparing myself psychologically. Thankfully, it never happened that way.

That said, it was back in 1990, that I first found that—at least for page design, typesetting, and layout—the Macintosh and the peripherals I needed to use were in sync from the time I plugged them in and cabled them together. They just worked properly together right from the jump. I turned the computer on, began learning to use the software I would use, and started to work productively. Every Windows machine I saw back then seemed to require technical expertise to get peripherals such as printers and scanners to work with that platform and to perform all the supporting tasks to making books: opening, copying, and saving files; printing; and otherwise using page layout software.

Currently, I work on a G5 PowerMacintosh. My G3 PowerBook laptop died over the winter, so when I can, I plan to purchase a 17-inch MacBook Pro. That will mean beginning the switch to Intel processors in my production environment. Not being one to pioneer unnecessarily, I just set up my wife on an Intel iMac.

I upgrade software even more cautiously: only when clients let me know the time has come. Until then I don’t fix something that works. For instance, I recently got QuarkXPress 7; no client has requested I use it yet, however. So my work with it has consisted of noodling to this point. I’m ready when the time comes.

Update (the advantage of having been hacked into and lost the blog’s archive, is that now I find myself going through all these posts years later, able to add another word): The past year saw the G5 I mentioned above fry, just months after I finally replaced the laptop with the 17-inch MacBook Pro I had wanted since … forever, it seems. I salvaged the 23-inch Cinema Display I had used with the G5 and now, along with a 24-inch iMac, run a two-monitor system that is everything I was ever told it would be. The MacBook Pro is everything I thought it would be and more. This year I will replace some software, notably Adobe Creative Studio, when CS5 comes out. After I originally posted this piece I got serious about InDesign and have not used uarkXPress in well over a year. No client ever mentions it to me anymore. Quark is so over.

What I Like to Do

Add comment June 4th, 2007

Having given some thought to the kinds of books I might not want to involve myself with, perhaps the time has come to consider the books I would like to help bring to press. Broadly, of course, aside from the sorts of books I prefer to avoid, any book that is a paying job I want. (Did I once mention that I sometimes refer to myself as a mercenary?) But, really, there must be books that I would be pleased or even excited to find myself working on.)

Strange as it may sound to some, after the initial kick of seeing my first books in print—and, actually, it never occurred to me to request copies of those first books I worked on—I had no favorite material or subject matter until I did my first work with heavy math and equations. The extra care necessary to typeset presentable math, the proper use of white space, and knowing where to break equations made that kind of work a lot more challenging and fun than books of straight text.

After math, though, children’s books are the most enjoyable work. I learned quickly enough when doing the page design and layout of my first illustrated children’s storybook that there was a different set of provisos to keep in mind. For one thing, while the story dictates the basic idea of each illustration, it is the illustrations that lead the story. That is, how much, and what, text goes on each page is pretty well decided by the illustration on the page. So while, on the one hand, I don’t exert quite as much control over the look of pages as with other kinds of books, on the other, there’s a stiffer format that’s really not of my own making to follow.

Right now, the next kind of book I’d like to do is a cookbook. Not the least of my reasons is that I enjoy cooking. But I also think that my work with tabular material and equations provides a natural sort of segue into this genre.

Of course, not every one of my clients consents to my getting a credit line for the work I do on their books. So there are still times when personal satisfaction and a paycheck are all I can expect for my efforts.


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