Tiny Little Details

Helveti-Pollution

There’s a nice article on Cocoia Blog about the ‘pollution’ of various Mac OS X user interfaces by Helvetica. It’s worth a read, though I can’t resist excerpting this little bit, as it made me laugh:

Speaking of iCal, which proudly boasts Helvetica in miniature point sizes on the screen, it has the utterly mind boggling feature that it shows you calendar information on a computer screen with everyone’s favorite 1950 typeface for print, and prints these exact calendars on paper in Lucida Grande, a computer display font from this milennium. “Utterly backwards” might be an apt term for such misfit typography.

Point-Virgule

The Guardian today had an interesting article on the possibly imminent demise of the semi-colon in French. It also goes on to suggest that this particular punctuation mark is already dead in English, and it is the Anglo-Saxon influence that’s causing the problem with modern French. I use it quite freely myself, and I’m sure anyone who’s read this site knows I’m rather fond of long sentences. In fact, it’s from re-reading what’s I’ve just typed that leads me to add semi-colons; commas are too weak (and in a long sentence, confusing) and full-stops are too heavy, too much of an end, which isn’t always what you want. I wholeheartedly agree with Michel Volkovitch when he says:

“For constructing a piece properly, distinguishing themes, sections and sub-sections - in short, for dissipating any haziness or imprecision of thought. It puts things in order, it clarifies. But it’s precious, too, for adding a little softness, a little lightness; it can stop a sentence from touching the ground, from grinding to a halt; keeps it suspended, awake. It is a most upmarket punctuation mark.”

I agree with the closing paragraph of the article, too, in that it is the fear of using the semi-colon incorrectly that leads to it not being used. I was never taught how to use it at school, and a quick straw poll of some friends and colleagues today shows that of 12 people, only three were taught to use it. Of course, those three were French. Still, half the people polled did know how to use it, so all is not lost.

A World of Typographic Sin

David at Typographer.org points out the latest article that shows us how we’re doing it all wrong. He’s right; if you’re really concerned about such things, get The Elements of Typographic Style, and develop an informed opinion on how and when to break the rules, by learning those rules. As I’ve written before, one of the main reasons we use the typographic approximations we do is the keyboard itself, from its development in typewriters to today’s use with computers. If you would rather the world was divided cleanly between typesetters and those who type, then you will never be satisfied - it’s never going to happen. We live in a world of what we might term hybrid-typography, where we routinely use many typographic techniques and tools not available to the typist, but not all the ones available to the typesetter. We rely on Word (say) to convert three dots to an ellipsis, a dash to an em-dash, straight quotes to curved, but we don’t get interpuncts in prices, multiplication symbols in dimensions or true primes in measurements. Well, not most of the time anyway. We could try putting them in, but as many people have complained, many fonts don’t have primes, never mind mathematical symbols, interpuncts or even true degree symbols. Of course, that’s only if you’re using poor quality fonts*. Then, of course, we could just all use typewriters again, but unless you’re a first-year design student that…

* I use the term font, as distinct from typeface, here. The typeface may have the design of the symbol, but it’s not certain whether the font would.

The Ampersand


Zapfino, feeling special.

I like drawing the ampersand. It’s the character that when you’re designing a typeface seemingly gives you the greatest artistic freedom. It’s big and swooshy, with lots of room for playing with curves, swirls and if you’re feeling special, lots of fine, delicate lines. But why? Why does this, and no other character, allow so much freedom? Well, the ampersand is hardly ever used in body text any more. It used to be - Gill used it frequently to adjust line length* when setting text - but modern usage has it pretty much limited to combining pronouns in titles, company names and credits. So when we design an ampersand, we can design it with a general assumption that it’ll be used in display sizes and weights, and we can fill it with beautiful refinements and detail, knowing that any uses at body sizes will be rare enough not to be a serious problem. Well, perhaps. There are plenty of typographers who feel that the ampersand should again be used in English as a legitimate replacement for the word ‘and’, and mourn the demise of it in common use. After all, until relatively recently the English language was considered to have 27 characters in its alphabet, with the ampersand right after z. A good thread to read on the topic is here.

Logos for E&A, Victoria and Albert Museum, Herb Lubalin’s ampersand and Mother & Child Logo and ampersands from Goudy Old Style, Hoefler Text Italic and Bell MT Italic.

* This seems to be the reason, though I by no means have an exhaustive knowledge of Gill’s work.

A Great Figure

Another great link via Ace Jet 170, this article on the Font Feed about lining, tabular and old-style figures. I’m a fan of old-style figures anyway, and prefer to use them in most of my work as I find them much more readable, even for numerical data. Still, I suspect I’m somewhat disnumerate, so having the extra ‘word shape’ provided by old style numerals is going to be helpful for readability. I was also raised at a time when maths books were also set with old-style, and somewhat contrary to the example in the Font Feed example, so were most recipes I saw.

Two Fat Ladies

There’s a design agency near where I live called Eighth Day, and when they put up their sign I enjoyed the use of the numeral ‘8’ to form a lowercase ‘g’. I’ve seen some hand-drawn examples of it in the past, but not in a logo. I’m sure plenty of examples must exist - it is after all an effective and yet straightforward typographic trick. I thought this example was even more intriguing, with all the letters formed from part of numeral eights. I’m especially loving the neat positioning of the trademark symbol - it’s unusual to see it nicely integrated into a logo.

Quote, Unquote

What is an apostrophe? What is a quote mark? Are they curved, or can they be straight? It’s hardly a question on everyone’s lips, but it’s certainly raised the ire of people on this site, Apostrophe Atrophy (via Daring Fireball). With the link text on DF, I was fully expecting the usual suspects of grocers’ apostrophes - potato’s, orange’s, apple’s and the like - and instead finding a set of “straight” apostrophes and quotes in place of curved ones.

Call them what you will, “straight”, “dumb”, “ambidextrous” or whatever*, the apostrophes and quotes shown on the site appear (from the ones I saw) to be otherwise grammatically correct, which is reassuring. The point of the site however, is to say that it is entirely incorrect to use a straight quote or apostrophe instead of curved ones. Is it though? A comment by Michael Beiruit garnered this response:

Michael Beirut linked to us on Design Observer. He says that if people understood the difference between its and it’s he wouldn’t care what kind of quotes they use. Our opinion is that if you are setting type you should know about the correct kind of apostrophe and ALSO [sic] know about proper grammar. We have never shown html [sic]** text before, but when the site is for designers, you would think they would take the time to use the correct apostrophes and quotes…

All very true, and yet we have this, on MetaFilter. I’ve reproduced some comments here in case the page goes away:

I always turn off “smart quotes” in Word. I think it looks pretentious.

I agree! Up with the “dumb quotes” backlash!

I agree with the smart quotes issue. But the apostrophe thing… sometimes a dumb apostrophe looks better.

Smart quotes are the fastest and easiest way to make your web page look like garbage on half the computers that visit, particularly since most designers use cute PHP tools that replace the dumb quote with the Unicode or Windows-font smart quote characters rather than with an HTML entity.

So there are people who would rather use straight quotes, for aesthetic, ease-of-use, technical and even social reasons, and their reasons do have some validity. But why do we have straight quotes at all? If they’re incorrect, where did they come from? Well, perhaps rather obviously, it’s a compromise created by the lack of space on original typewriter keyboards (more specifically, lack of space inside the typewriter for the extra workings for more keys). There wasn’t room to have an extra dedicated key for left or right quote/apostrophe marks, so a single key was used for a new “ambidextrous” set of quotes and apostrophes. As typewriters were a way of getting words hammered onto a page; faster than a scribe, easier to read than most people’s handwriting and always consistent, no matter who was doing the typing, this compromise was acceptable. If you wanted to publish your words, you would send it to a printer where typesetters would take your words and use their typographic skills to make them readable and (hopefully) beautiful.

With the advent of word processors that do everything except what you wanted to do, people are used to picking a font, typing their stuff and printing it out. The operative word here is typing. The keyboard still only devotes one key to the two symbols, and they are used for mathematical primes, feet, inches, minutes, seconds and arc as well as quotes and apostrophes. It’s up to the program you use to work out the context and hopefully replace it with the correct typographic entity. Of course, not everyone agrees that this is desirable:

For the better part of the twentieth century, the distinctive forms of typewriter type (notably its single-character width and unstressed stroke) characterized the immediacy of thought: getting the idea down without dressing it up. Now that computers have replaced typewriters, most word processing programs default to Helvetica or Times Roman (or their derivatives) as the typographic expression of simple typing. [...] As a typographer, you should recognise the difference between typing and typesetting. Time and usage may ultimately make Inkjet Sans the expected typeface for letters. For now, however, on paper, typewriter type is still the best expression of the intimate, informal voice - direct address. Imitating the formalities of typesetting in a letter is always inappropriate because it suggests an undeserved permanence - the end of a discussion, not its continuation. John Kane, “A Type Primer”, p85

So why the problem? Why do some people prefer straight quotes? Perhaps it has something to do with how the symbols are perceived. If you type something and the program you’re using changes it, then your first reaction may well be one of resentment, “How dare this program claim to know better than me!?” If what it changed it to is better, for example, a spelling correction, then you will accept it and move on. However, if it made what appears to be a superficial change, a stylistic correction, then it is more likely your resentment will remain, and you’ll go looking for that know-it-all option in the program preferences and self-righteously turn it off. I’ve done stuff like that before, and I doubt I’m unique with it! Curved quotes are perceived as ‘proper’, the kind of thing that people who publish things for money would do, people who care about such details. To use them in your work might make people think that you are one of these people, and we end up with the first quote above: curved quotes are pretentious. Think how this consideration would influence companies when they create their advertising, their billboards, their brochures and leaflets.

There are also a few technical reasons for preferring straight quotes - the main one being that they exist in “low ASCII” and no special codes or character encodings need to be used to show them. This is important consideration when programming, but is just a convenience for the lazy when creating (say) web pages. I keep my browser encoding in UTF-8, and frequently come across pages where the encoding is different from mine and the page hasn’t been put together properly with this possibility in mind. I’m left looking at a page with loads of question marks and “unrecognised character” marks everywhere. There’s no excuse for getting it wrong accidentally. Most word processors will automatically replace the straight quotes with curved ones, and for online editing, most CMS tools will automatically insert the correct HTML entities so that the symbols appear consistently on all browsers, and will usually handle (say) Word’s smart* quotes perfectly well too.

In the end, I would say that of course it is always preferable to use type correctly, but typography is the servant of meaning, not the master. If straight quotes, however much of a modern bastardisation of type they may seem, enhance the meaning of a piece (or if curved quotes would distract the reader), then you must use them. Otherwise, don’t.

From Pride and Prejudice, on the low-ASCII and straight-quoted Gutenberg Project.

* I absolutely refuse to use the terms “smart quotes” or “dumb quotes”.

** Capitalising ‘also’ but not ‘HTML’ is unfortunate, for a site so apparently devoted to correct typographic usage.

2008: A Type Odyssey

I always liked the display screens in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I was reminded of them the other day by something. I went online to have a look round for a picture of some of them, and, well, there’s really not very much. Even the IMDB pages have very low resolution blurry shots that barely show the HAL console, never mind the details of what the info screens are showing. I’ve got the DVD, so a bit of stepping through frames later I can at least recreate the basic appearance of them. The small text is unreadable for the most part, but I could make a guess (that’s part of the fun). I created a desktop (iPhone/mobile) out of them too.

The big question of these things, though, is, “What are they showing?” Given that so much of the rest of the film is pretty carefully thought out, it seems a bit odd that these screens should end up as a slightly more sophisticated version of Star Trek’s blinking lights. There are some graphs, some video feeds, and a few lines of numbers, but these three-letter codes are the most eye-catching. If they’re supposed to be some representation of HAL, what are all the buttons on the console for? Actually, I do wonder why the buttons are there - since everything is done by voice, and when HAL goes wrong, there’s no frantic hitting of buttons or any hint that these consoles do anything at all.

Still, it is all rather pretty!

Update: Steve Siers has pointed me to this fascinating site, with actual paintings of some of the screens. It’s definitely worth a look round the site at the rest of the work on there too. Also, he sent me this link, which kept me happily engrossed for quite a while - there is a HAL 9000 simulator and a screensaver in there.

Keming

Made me look twice, thrice… does that say, “kerning?” or “keming?”. A neologism from David Friedman:

A Kaleidoscope of Planes

A few weeks ago, I spent a good hour trying to find some background info on the rebrand of Dubai International Airport, without success. I just went back to the Brand New post on it and there it is, a link, courtesy of Ty Wilkins.

While the airport logos have patterns similar to the tesselations characteristic of islamic art, the main logo pattern is rather reminiscent of a compass rosette, perhaps to imply that Dubai is at the centre of things? I generally agree with the Brand New post (and many of the comments) in that the positioning of the type on the individual airport logos seems clumsy and distracting. Having the type endpoint line up with the apex of the implied sphere is a straightforward solution, and yes, it’s not all that bad, but it’s not all that good either.

There’s something oddly old-fashioned about the choice of typeface and colour too, like something from the late 1980s. I’d prefer to see either the word “Dubai” or the airport identifier in a different weight, or black (instead of grey), or something - anything to give the type some life. I’m not sure about the face - it does look a bit like the Emirates logo, and I’m interested to see that there’s no arabic version of it too. Changing the positioning of the type, as below, focuses attention on that centre of the centre-of-things pattern and would look even better in arabic right-to-left lettering - in my everso humble opinion, naturally:

Mind, when we get some wider applications of the logo to brochures, signage, wayfinding and the like, it could appear quite different, with the odd type integrated and comfortable with the patterned globe.

Oh, and I have to point out the odd language on the logolounge article,

Dubai Airports tapped Cato Purnell Partners in 2007 to develop an identity system that would not only unite the organization’s holdings, but also mark Dubai as an international air hub.

Tapped? How do you tap an agency? I have horrific visions of plumber-surgeons installing chromeware directly into living flesh, a media agency relationship direct from the mind of Guillermo del Toro! Of course, this would hardly be the only linguistic horror inflicted on the language by the media industry, I say over and over again, the word creative is not a noun, no, not even when applied to a person, and especially not when referring to artwork. Rant over.