Tiny Little Details

The Wired App

I’ve been following with some interest (especially after my e-reader post) the reaction to Wired’s iPad app. To say that it’s polarised opinion is an understatement and a half, and there have been a hell of a lot of confident-sounding assertions and assumptions about all aspects of how to take a magazine from print to screen, a few of which have got me thinking. The first of those things is:

Print designers vs. screen designers

There is this idea that there are print designers and screen designers — you are one or the other, you can’t be both, or neither, or some hybrid. This is a false dichotomy. I am a designer. I design for print, and I design for screen. I’ve also designed for ink on paper that wasn’t printed at all but applied with a pen. I’ve designed for paint on canvas (in a sense, it’s still designing). I design for a number of media, but it doesn’t mean my having skills with one precludes my having skills with another, and this is what gets me about this taking-magazines-online argument — it’s a form of ad hominem attack to begin with a dismissal of a piece of work for screen because the designer normally works in print. Ad hominem is a dreadful and ultimately sterile way to attempt to win an argument or ‘score points’. Focus on what has been made, first.


Some single pages from the Wired app.

You can’t bring print conventions to screen

I’m generalising with that title somewhat, as no-one is saying quite that. Oliver Reichenstein wrote an excellent piece on some of the print conventions that have been used in the Wired (and other) apps and how they don’t work. I agree with what he’s said, but perhaps not to the same degree. He presents many assertions as hard fact, as absolute truth, and I simply can’t accept them as such. Generally, yes, multi-column layouts can make a piece harder to read, and in the Wired app they rapidly become tiresome and distracting, but that’s not an effect limited to on-screen reading — I’ve found some newspapers and printed magazines hard to read for exactly this reason, but I’ve read stuff on screen just fine too, and the opposite (and conventional understanding) is true too. Wired’s use of multiple columns feels jarring, and in most cases throughout the magazine I’d like to just read the page as a single column of text. His other points on signalling, ornamentation and mixing fonts are largely true, but again, they’re not the entirety of the truth. It’s a matter of how skilled you are as a designer whether you make each thing work or not. Hard rules are true until you discover all the exceptions, and when dealing with human behaviour and preference I think it’s pretty much all exceptions.

Remember which magazine we’re talking about here

This is the kicker for me. I’ve read a lot of comments recently expressing the fear that the Wired app will not only start a trend for how they do things, but establish conventions. Possibly, but as pretty as it was, and as much of a wow-factor it had, the web today doesn’t look like Praystation (if you can remember that far back). Wired’s print magazine has always experimented with new ideas, from printing articles in spot varnishes, metallic and fluorescent inks, setting all the type on spiral paths and all sorts of fun, crazy things that make the damn thing impossible to read, but it was Wired. That’s a big part of what it’s always been about. To complain that the Wired app isn’t a paragon of usability is to complain about bears’ lavatorial habits spoiling your walk in the woods.

The future of magazines

I don’t know how magazines are going to develop and change for on-screen reading. The production values (and costs) of the Wired app are incredibly high — video, animations, complex interactive illustrations all cost a lot of money to make but don’t provide much ‘body’ to a magazine — you still have to produce a lot of editorial content as well. Most magazines will find such a high cost with such a low apparent return unsustainable, just as most print magazines aren’t full of expensive paper stocks and printing techniques. So don’t expect that to become a trend, instead they’ll be special features, just as a CD on the cover or a pull-out section is in the print world. No, I think most on-screen magazines will be dominated by long articles of fairly plain text interrupted with advertising, just as print ones are now. I’d like to see some better means of delivering advertising on-screen than we have now though — I find flickering and flashing adverts unbearably distracting and can’t imagine paying for any magazine that uses them in its articles, so I’d hope for something more respectful and dignified.

Whatever happens, and whatever conventions we end up with, I suspect that the reality will be at once quite wonderful if you stop to think about it, but disappointingly dull and prosaic on first impressions. I doubt we’ll have a wow moment from it, which is, I think, kind of the point.

On Turning The Page

I’ve been thinking about pages, print and scrolling for a while, mainly because I’m a designer and it’s part of my job, but also (I have to admit) because I quite fancy getting an e-reader of some kind. I’ll say right now I’m not going to write about any particular gadget, nor do I care which is best, which is more open, which is morally better, which one is approved by the People’s Front of Judea or the Judean People’s Front or whatever, right now I’m just thinking about one particular aspect of the technology: the page metaphor.

I’m writing this with full knowledge that there are some truly excellent articles out there about this very subject, this one in particular, which you might want to read too. Thing is, while people are talking about digital books, the talk is about the printing, transport and warehousing costs and trees it’ll save, and there’ve only been a few scant mentions of how the form of your everyday novel or reference book could change. Any discussion on form has been about the premium-quality books, the Alice for iPad style remakings, the ones that make new and playful uses of the page-as-screen, and there will be some truly wonderful digital books made, we know there will. However, it’s just taken as read that for all the other books that a bunch of text will be squeezed into an arbitrary set of pages of arbitrary size, like making sausages out of text. We’re not doing these books justice with this tired old page metaphor.

What’s so good about pages?

There are some functional and aesthetic reasons we might like to use pages for a long text. The main functional one that I can see is that we get a handy idea from pages where we are — they are numbered. To return to the book later we need only remember a single number and we can find that page again and carry on where we left off. That’s a great idea, but it breaks, and breaks badly if you were to change the text size, or to carry on reading on one device from where you left off on another. I think as these are two big advantages of digital books, we can’t easily ignore them. Fortunately placeholding is pretty easy on a digital book. It simply remembers where you were and loads the book up at that point.

Yes, I know my metaphor has holes in it, like a huge Hampton Court Palace shaped one. Just bear with me, OK?

So, what about aesthetic reasons? Well, here I like to compare it to architecture, specifically building materials. In years past, and here I’ll emphasise I’m assuming quite an early sensibility, if you built your house with cut and dressed stone, it marked you out as being a pretty wealthy and (presumably) classy individual. If you built your house out of brick, it just said you had a house made of brick. It might be a nice house, but it’s a house made of brick. Nothing wrong with that, you understand, but hey, it’s not stone, and brick was something associated with industry, with commerce and with houses built on a massive scale for factory workers. So houses were built out of brick and then given a coating of render which was then scored and moulded to look like stone. It didn’t really fool anyone, so while it didn’t mark you out as wealthy, you could at least appear to be classy, and that’s important to a lot of people.

And so to books. The equivalent in my metaphor of a stone house is an actual professionally set, printed and bound dead-tree book. They’re the kind of book that is made to store Great Works; the dictionaries, philosophies, histories, plays, religious texts, the physical manifestation of all human knowledge that can be set on a page. No wonder people place great store in the idea of a printed book, for the past couple of centuries they’ve been the acme of Stuff That’s Worth Keeping. Of course, now we have perfect-bound (ha!) books produced in the millions and I don’t think even I could be accused of snobbery in saying that most of them are from the category of Tedious Drivel than Great Work, but there you go, we still have this idea that printed books are so very special, better than any other medium.


Your typical red brick terraces. Moss side, photo by Gene Hunt.

So, what of the brick house in my belaboured Victorian metaphor? This, to me, is a scrolling page of text on a screen — pretty much the kind you’re reading right now, and do on any website. Yes, it’s called a web page but it is at least a true digital page in that it can be any length, any width and be as static or dynamic as you want. It is a product of the digital age, and while the code we use to describe its content may still be inadequate and subject to billion-dollar playground fights it does the job pretty well. The reason I liken it to the brick house is that there’s nothing really wrong with it but it hasn’t the cachet, it’s associated with the mass-produced red brick terraced house in some mill town somewhere — it’s commercial, it hasn’t the sense of permanence, it’s just a this’ll do commercial pragmatism about it. Of course, just as there are astoundingly beautiful brick buildings there are beautiful web pages, but it’s all about how these things are commonly associated in people’s minds.

And so to our prettified house. The brick one with the rendering on the outside made to look like stone. It can be built nearly as cheaply and quickly as a plain brick house, but it just looks so much better (well, more fashionable) and will sell for a load more cash. It’s got the association of quality in people’s minds but very little of the cost. And here we find the metaphorical equivalent of nearly every damn e-reader on the market right now. Loaded with serif fonts because printed books use serif fonts, sepia-toned backgrounds because printed books go a bit brown with age, with justified text because… and yes, here we get to it. Justified text! For crying out loud. They’re justifying text on a small screen with such an appallingly crap set of algorithms that sometimes it’s like looking at two lists of words against opposite margins — sometimes there might be a few words floating about in the middle somewhere but in all cases the reading experience is dreadful. I’ve only heard of one app that has a decent algorithm for hyphenation and justification, but even so I think the easiest (and given the size of the screen, the best) option for justification is a setting called OFF. For a particular erudite complaint about all this, check out Stephen Coles’ article for the FontFeed.


Early Edition, Eucalyptus and iReading Classics.

Then we get to the real fake-Georgian pediment over the front door, the overly-shiny brassy door furniture, the PVC window frames, something that infests reading software rather than dedicated e-reader hardware (but is no less annoying for it): yes, it’s the page turn animation. Oh how these software producers love their page turn animations. They might not make a big deal about their font selection, their crappy justification algorithms or even the number of books you can buy through their store, but they will always make a great big bloody feature of their sodding page turns, even the app I pointed to above. Even if an app doesn’t have these damn things, you get the impression they’re working on adding them. In a book, an actual dead-tree book, you don’t notice turning the page because it’s just part of what a book is. That’s how you get to the next bit of text. The whole idea of pages bound like that is an artifact of a particular printing technology — it’s the nature of the delivery medium, not the message. So when we have a digital book, we’re using technology that has its own set of conventions, its own restrictions and its own freedoms, and every bit of digital technology has some means of moving through any arbitrary content: a keyboard has cursor keys, page up and page down keys, a mouse has a scroll wheel, laptops have trackpads with scroll areas, and smartphones have touchscreens, joysticks or D-pads. But no. Those aren’t good enough. They’re not booky enough. You’re going to be reading Ullysses on this thing, War and Peace, The Illiad with this thing for crying out loud! You can’t sully things like that with a scroll wheel! You’re supposed to be imagining reverentially turning the thick, musty, ancient pages in some great national library somewhere, worshipping at the altar of Knowledge! Never mind the story! Never mind leaving you free to just read! No, every 250 words, perform the gesture, watch the animation!

Just let me scroll, please? I’ve been reading stuff off the screen seriously for what, 15 years? More? Scrolling is fine, you know.

I guess you could assume I’m not a fan of the current state of e-reading software. I hold out a lot of hope for it though. I think if the Instapaper (say) people went and made a full e-book reader I’d be very happy indeed. Of course, there may well be an absolutely blindingly-good bit of software out there that was made by someone who cares about simply reading but I don’t know of it — I assume someone will write one eventually. For iPad/iPhone please. If you know of one, please do let me know.

If you have an opinion on iPad/iPhone/Apple please don’t let me know it, I’ve heard enough about it to last a lifetime already. Sorry, and thanks.

Make The Type Bigger

I’ve been thinking for a little while that the text on Ministry of Type is maybe a tad too small, making me guilty (perhaps) of that terrible designers’ conceit, small type syndrome. I’ve been designing sites for clients lately with much larger text, around the 13-15pt range, and coming back to my own site with its small text gives me a bit of a jolt. So here goes, bigger text, and a switch to FF Dagny Web Pro from FontFont, delivered via Typekit. I like FF Dagny a lot for its own characteristics, but I have to admit I’m fond of it too because it reminds me of Univers and Folio. Of course, if either of those two Linotype faces were ever to be available for online embedding (ice-skating through Hades, anyone?) there’s no guarantee they’d actually work well in the browser anyway. Perhaps right now type designers at Linotype are working on web versions of their entire back catalogue?

Oh, and yes, I was thinking of this when I wrote the title.

Optimistic Wine

There’s quite a few things I’ve been meaning to post about lately. One of them is this post by FPO on Siquis’ annual gift to their clients — a bottle of wine — but more specifically, the label. It’s a nice idea, every year a different designer gets to design the wine label, and this year’s designer, Greg Bennett, focussed on optimism — the old question, is the glass half full or half empty? Of course, with the ‘full’ side of the glass being a cutout that you can (theoretically) see the wine through, and reversed, if you want to see it you’ll end up pouring out some wine, thereby filling your glass. Of course, that assumes you’ve opened the bottle (and have a glass), which I guess is the point — it’s a subtle way of saying, “drink me”.

The Hebrew Writers Guild

Related to the previous post, I’ve also found this collection of stamp designs. There are a lot here from the Mid Century Modern aesthetic too, including this beautiful Israeli stamp celebrating the Hebrew Writers Guild. I love the irregularity of the numerals, the complex detail in the design, and the pleasing visual metaphor:

In case you’re wondering, yes, I do like a lot of the Israeli stamp designs, but it’s not an exclusive thing; I like stamps from Poland, travel brochures, emergency banknotes and commercial packaging too.

Buried Type

I was going through some old photos I found in a folder and came across this one. I took it in Brighton several years ago, there were some roadworks in the North Laine and I must have wondered at the tape and signage buried in it. I found it amusing when I saw it again and rather like the effect, so I’m putting it up here.

Gnuf

One of the design sites I read regularly is Fubiz, and on there I recently read this post on Daniel Carlsten’s work for the new gambling site, Gnuf. I’m rather fond of the type and iconography of playing cards (as I’ve posted before), so a new identity using many of those themes is going to get my attention, especially as Carlsten has designed a typeface for Gnuf based on them. Looking at how the whole identity works on gnuf.com, I like how he’s not tried to ‘smooth out’ the type, keeping the instead the odd widths and shapes of the letters and numerals and their exaggerated, oddly-placed serifs. I guess there are free fonts out there that do the playing card thing well enough, since the theme hardly requires fine kerning or balance, but it’s unusual and worthy of comment to see it as part of a nicely integrated identity like this. It’s worth checking out the rest of Carlsten’s work too, there’s some lovely work in his portfolio.

Small Caps

I just read this post by Joe Clark, linked from Daring Fireball, about why you shouldn’t use small caps for acronyms. In it, Clark provides some examples which at first glance seem to support his argument, but a little thought reveals them to be mere examples of ill-considered typography rather than a crushing blow on the use of small caps.

I’m well aware the whole article may well be trolling, but there is one particularly egregious argument I’ve heard many times when the subject of typographic style comes up - though normally about apostrophes:

This nonsense, promulgated by snobs like that bore Bringhurst who have not read anything written after Jane Austen croaked, ostensibly improves typographic colour. What it actually does is inhibit reading.

Of course, anyone who has actually read ‘that bore’ Bringhurst would know that he is far from a bore and that he is all about promoting typography that aids reading. Setting acronyms in small caps does work well in a large number of cases, and it does indeed improve page colour, thereby reducing distractions to the reader, but as in anything there are no universal solutions. From the very section in The Elements of Typographic Style on the use of small caps for acronyms, Bringhurst states, ‘Refer typographic disputes to the higher courts of speech and thinking’. In other words, if you’re not sure, remind yourself how you’d say it or think of it — think of the meaning first and the style should follow.

I feel a little dirty responding to stuff like this, but I have a point to make. Articles like this promote a dichotomy, an idea that this way is right and that way is wrong, this way is snobbish and that way is proletarian — but when applied to typography it boils down to utter nonsense. The goal here is to allow the meaning of words to shine through. If you use small caps and it makes something hard to read, you should stop using small caps for that thing, and vice-versa.

Making a typographic decision based on some political or class motivation is fine if it’s appropriate for the text, but beyond that vanishingly rare case it’s a mere affectation. Don’t be swayed by trash-talking and accusations of ‘snobbery’, please.

Oh, and on the subject of apostrophes (amongst other things), read The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. It’s a good read, and full of good sense.

MMX

For all that I’ve heard and read from friends, colleagues and associates, it seems that the end of 2009 can’t come soon enough. I’ve not had a bad year at all — it’s been full of good things, both professional and personal — but somehow I’ve picked up the excitement and promise of a new year and I’m looking forward to 2010. It’s going to be a good year, I think. So, without further ado, I’ll bring your attention to a fantastic collection of ‘The End’ title stills from Warner Bros on The Movie Title Stills Collection, perfectly timed to commemorate the end of the year. Go and take a look!

Have a very happy and prosperous new year, and thank you for your visits, your kind, interesting and useful emails — I read every one and even if I can’t reply I appreciate and enjoy all of them. Here’s to two thousand and ten!


Some end titles from The Movie Title Stills Collection

Gravestone Lettering

I’m fascinated by the (mostly) Ohioan gravestones in this Flickr set by Tom Davie. Take a look, then have a look at these ghost signs, and you’ll notice how similar the lettering is. I’ve never seen gravestones lettered like this —any flamboyance I’d seen was kept to Celtic patterning or hideously overblown Victorian sentimentalist statuary; the lettering was universally rendered in a sombre, understated style, or at least an archaic one. Still, most of these stones look to date from the mid-19th Century, when commercial lettering like this was all the rage, and I can imagine that for many towns the best-qualified letterer was the same person who did the signpainting and advertising, so much of the style would have carried across. I wonder also whether people simply preferred to have their relatives’ gravestones done like this — who’d want a dull, plain bit of lettering when even a tin of Cocoa gets something far more ornate? What, didn’t you love Grandpa? It’s a theory anyway. The three at the bottom are all ones I’ve taken myself, all from the north of England, so you can see the style I’ve been used to.


All images from this Flickr set by Tom Davie


The left and centre ones are from St. Oswald’s church in Warton (my hometown!) and the one on the right is from Kendal’s parish church.