Bruce Rogers, drawing of the typeface Centaur for the Monotype release, 1929. Source
What, these old things?
I’m being glib, I know. I legitimately feel privileged that part of my job is to work with these incredible, unique materials and help show them to the world. However, it does give me a tremendous kick to see work I’ve been involved with in my day job job appear in my Tumblr feed when I least expect it. In this case, it almost took me a second to realize that the Centaur drawings were being posted by the superb Design Is Fine, because I am so used to seeing this particular photo and these particular drawings. In fact, the caption is even one that I wrote originally, when we were preparing material for the Monotype Recorder/Pencil to Pixel mini-site.
I’ve made a point over the last few years of getting material from Monotype’s archive out into the open more often. It requires a lot of care to make sure the materials are protected, but I truly believe these are most valuable if they are seen and discussed in a way that makes it clear how much they connect to what we do today. What I’ve found from showing things like original lettering drawings and the mechanical type drawings made from them is that people get really excited about seeing physical artifacts that connect to design work that they’ve most experienced digitally. I think fonts are a particular case, too, as it is so easy to take them for granted when they appear in ever-expanding pull-down menus. When people see the hand-drawn shapes it is much easier to realize that even though few designers draw out a complete typeface in pencil these days, those shapes have to come from somewhere, and a person will have been involved in drawing those shapes.
I full-on love the part of my job that lets me be archivist and historian. LOVE. IT. I love spending time with these materials and learning more and more about what went into producing them, and I love getting to digest all that information and use to get people excited about what can they can do with typography now.
Just released: another in the series of short videos produced by D&AD that peer into the wonders of the Monotype archive. In this latest one, I have a chat with James-Lee Duffy of We Are Shadows about a stack of Futura specimens from the Bauer foundry, and how Futura is used today.
[Unfortunately I can’t embed the video, but you can watch it on D&AD’s site.]
OMG AMG! I just noticed that the days of the week in 2014 are going to line up with those in my 1964 Athletic Model Guild calendar. I'm already a big fan of Bob Mizer's work, so expect to see more of this this throughout the year!
It’s pretty common to hear people shake an angry fist at the close of a year, and I’ve certainly done the same. All in all, though, this past year was pretty spectacular for me. Lots of opportunities came my way, I was generally able to make the most of those, I got to do a lot of cool things, and I had fun a lot, regardless of a fair amount of stress. (This was probably the year I became a workaholic once and for all.)
I did a lot of cool things and met some intimidatingly talented people through work, and seized some great chances to do things like come back to New York and look after things going on here. I saw a couple of my old favorite bands — The Specials and Chucklehead — play some fantastic reunion shows. I made new friends, and got back in touch with some old ones. I travelled a lot! (So, so much travel.) It was often exhausting, but also fun to see Manchester, Ditchling, Boston, Portland, Chicago, Atlanta, Savannah, Stockholm, Guwahati, New Delhi, Bologna, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Berlin, Paris, and probably some others I can’t remember. I had many feelings, some simple and some more complicated. I stayed healthy, and thought a lot about how I spent a long time assuming that would never be the case by now.
So in all honestly, I just hope 2014 doesn’t suffer too much by comparison. I hope I avoid a few obstacles looming on the horizon. I hope all goes well with a few big projects. I hope I get more time with my folks. I hope new exciting things come my way, too.
For posterity, since I neglected to post it earlier in the year. This super cut of old Monotype and Linotype films still gets me excited.
I’ve been having a serious dilemma with this entire web site for the last few years. Ultrasparky.org doesn’t really serve much purpose any more, and it hasn’t for some time. At the same time, I don’t want to retire the site itself because it’s been my primary online home for longer than most people have been using the internet. The blog itself — the core around which the site is built — is not a blog anymore. It’s not a log of anything on the web anymore. At best, it’s a place where I dump press clippings for posterity, or write the occasional bit of fluff that runs longer than a tweet.
The things that this blog once gave this blog a purpose — a forum for personal writing, a way of connecting to other people doing the same — are long since dead, killed by the growth of the medium itself. Too may people came to see the personal stuff, but without the context of all the stuff that came before it. The idea of keeping a blog as a mental mood board of things that you like was killed by platforms that made that mode of writing commercially viable and too tightly focused for me to bother with it. The social aspect was the first part to die, really, and the part that can never be resuscitated now that online interaction has moved from blogrolls and trackbacks and comment threads to juggernauts that make it too seductively easy to keep up with people in a constellation of commercial platforms rather than my own little homestead.
I certainly don’t mean to critique social media for this. I am far too avid a user of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, et al. to think they are awful, or even a problem. They make it so easy to do many things, but it does pain me a bit that they all do what they do better than I could ever do here, and they separate a big, messy experience that I once enjoyed into so many splinters of activity.
The means of publishing and sharing ideas, recommendations, activities, or other things on the web have become too mature in their own ways to even make it simple to fold them back into this format, as I used to do with all my side projects that had run their course, like Rumpus Room, the Poseable Thumbs, the Trusty Sidekicks, the WYSIWYG Talent Show, and others. I don’t have the technical chops to fold in activity from my Facebook feed, multiple Twitter accounts, my many Tumblr blogs, and other online presences, nor do I think it would even make sense for that material to sit here without the hooks to other people that make them all work so well in their own spaces.
There is, of course, the divide between the personal and the professional — the private and the public — which is nothing new to lie or too the web, but becomes much more of a hassle with maturity. I think the diplomatic issues about an online presence has dampened the spark of far more of the blogs I once followed than defection to other platforms. I certainly have grappled with it over and over again over the years, and this was never even the place for all my stories even at its most candid.
Still, I can’t bring myself to shut the doors and turn out the lights. I've lived here far longer than anyplace I’ve lived physically, and I don’t want to erase or simply archive over 17 years of online output and declare, “That’s that!”. Lasting this long his has been, in many ways, the greatest thing I have ever done, even if the blog and I are only limping along at this point. What should I bother to do here, if no else is paying attention anymore?
I’m certainly not alone in this dilemma. Jason Kottke has been thinking about the death of the blog. Frank Chimero has been thinking about how to defrag one's online activity and gather it together in one spot again. I would love to see some tools for bringing the richness of my overall online experience back into my own home, but it’s hard to imagine what that would be like, and how it would connect to the older material on this site. But who knows? Perhaps this is the year I can find a way to breathe some life into this old idea.
I was specifically asked to show something racy, presumably to spice up the story a bit. It was easy enough to comply.
I have always considered Valley Girl the most self-aware, perfectly crafted 80s movie of them all. The soundtrack is sublime, and was painfully hard to find before the era of digital music. I carefully looked after my copy of a popular bootleg cassette that had this soundtrack on one side, and the (also seminal) soundtrack to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on the other.
One of the things that's always made me a little uneasy about designing things for the web is the likelihood of the stuff you make being wiped away for good once a site is updated. I tried to break myself of the habit of building comps in Photoshop relatively early (although I'd build some "furniture" there to place in and around my blog templates), so I've never had very good records of what early versions of this site used to look like. Since I've been posting material in some manner of another since 1996, that's a lot of evolution wiped away.
That's why The Wayback Machine is so wonderful. Thanks to its digital archive (and my tendency to post static rather than dynamic pages out of my blog databases), I can get a glimpse of how much I've tinkered with the site over the years:
[Photo by Matt Carr]
When we show material from Monotype's archive in the UK, I like to include photos of the Monotype Works, the company's cluster of factory buildings in Salfords, Surrey. Seeing an aerial view of the Works and a few glimpses inside some of the factory buildings gives a real sense of scale to the operation. It took a lot of people, space, material and equipment to make all those machines and all that type, and it can be tricky for people who've only interacted with digital type to really appreciate what went into creating the typefaces that carry over from the days of metal type.
Another point that I like to make is that the Monotype Works in Salfords was just one location out of many that were producing type (and type-making machines). Even if you look at the companies that are part of Monotype today, there were (at one time or another) the Works in Salfords, a plant in Scotland, a plant in Frankfurt, plus Lanston Monotype in Philadelphia, and Linotype's plants in Brooklyn, England, and Germany. That's an awful lot of activity and infrastructure. And it's only one slice of the industry.
Even traditional foundries (as opposed to companies like Linotype and Monotype who made machines that letter people produce their own type) were huge. Have a look the Caslon Letter Foundry in London around 1902, or the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland in 1950, or even a printing operation that made its own hot-metal type like the US Government Printing Office.
When we talk about the type industry today, we're talking about software and design companies, from tiny one-person studios to (at Monotype's end of the scale) a few hundred people. What has disappeared is a proper industry of machines and factories and scores of people. Physical type is a small-scale craft these days, which is pretty great in some ways, but a sad loss in others.
[A short blog post I recently wrote for Design Week...]
The English language (and the Latin alphabet it uses) is well-known for adapting itself with the times and the needs of the many different people who use it. Because the language and the writing system have changed so much already, someone or another regularly comes along with a new pitch for yet another change. But is it a great idea or just a gimmick to propose something new when we’ve already got the building blocks?
Recently Paul Mathis, an Australian restaurateur, has decided to “improve efficiency” by shortening the word “the” to a letter “Ћ”* which is designed to look like a combination of the letters “T” and “h”. Mathis seems baffled that “and” can be abbreviated with an ampersand while being only the 5th most commonly used word in English, while the most commonly used word still requires THREE WHOLE LETTERS! His pitch is that his new character could save valuable strokes of the pen or valuable characters in a tweet. Maybe so, but is his the right solution?
Although he proposes this as a new shape, in fact just writing about it requires an existing solution (and probably not the best): the Cyrillic capital letter “Tshe”, used for Serbian.** If you look at Ћ in just about any typeface, though, you can see that it’s already got better proportions than just a T and an h crammed together. What troubles me the most, though, is that saying Ћ can replace “The” would be awkward for people who already know the Cyrillic alphabet and the sounds its letters can make.
Besides, the Latin alphabet already has a Unicode-ready single character that makes the right sound, and it comes in both upper- and lowercase: the thorn! Used mostly in Icelandic today, Þ and þ are used for the “th” sound of “the”. The eth (Ð and ð) might work a little better linguistically, but thorn also has history on its side. That quaint “Ye Olde” tavern you like? That comes from an older way of writing thorn that looked more like a “y”.
These gimmicks occasionally gain some ground, though. Martin Speckter invented the interrobang — ‽ — in 1962 and it finally made its way into the Unicode standard, although you’d be hard-pressed to find it in general use. You may also have seen talk of the SarcMark - which someone suggested could be used to denote sarcasm to avoid any awkward misinterpretations during text or email conversations - however that idea didn’t really take off either.
The ampersand grew out of writing convention, and eventually took on a slightly subtler meaning than just any instance of “and”. That kind of evolution is how these concepts take root. Mathis’s gimmick is more of a limp stab at a revolution, and probably one we should dismiss. Þ end.