THE DESIGN ERA
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN...
updated 3/2/17; posted 10/14/16
SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE DESIGN ERA updated 3/2/17, posted 7/22/16
AD MEN: TWO BOOKS updated 10/14/16; posted 12/29/15
SIMON LOXLEY ON ITC AND NEVILLE BRODY updated 7/22/16
BOOK REVIEW: THEO ROSENDORF,
THE TYPOGRAPHIC DESK REFERENCE (gaack!)
last update 7/5/17; posted 10/14/16
related articles on separate pages:
ON BRINGHURST’S THE ELEMENTS OF TYPOGRAPHIC STYLE
(review of a dangerous mixture of quality and ignorance)
BODONI TO MORRIS: FROM ONE EXTREME TO THE OTHER IN THE FASHION TYPOGRAPHY OF THE 1800s
(debunking two typographic saints venerated by designers)
Having seen what I have seen, as described on this page, I cannot regard as a colleague any graphic designer who claims to advise others about any aspect of type, language, graphics production, or related matters. At very best, they are people whose basic integrity has survived the standard “designer” indoctrination and, somehow, survived,—or, more likely, evaded—the intense economic pressure (see “Social History of the Design Era,” below) that destroys the integrity of most designers. They have learned, and can teach, some basics, without handing on too much of the b.s. that usually accompanies even the basics.
Such people, however, are quite rare: they are not the kind of people normally attracted to a field like design. For the rest, I can only regard designers who talk about type as impostors. I can’t even allow that they may just be fools, since, in a viciously competitive setting like design, a fool must be an unrelenting and unscrupulous impostor to survive.
All this applies in particular to designers who write books and articles about type and typography, and set themselves up as experts. As a rule, they are no more knowledgeable than any of the others—just more aggressive.
Over the fifty-odd years of the Design Era, the consistent impostures of designers have drastically lowered the quality and productivity standards of the graphics industries, to the point of obscuring the real value of the products of those industries, and the value of base of technology-independent skills on which those industries were founded. Those skills are as valuable in electronic media as in print media, and the lack of those skills is responsible for much of the dysfunctionality, wasted potential, and wasted production expenses of today’s electronic media. The bluffing guesswork that is the designer’s response to any challenge outside of his legitimate specialty of arranging color and form, and the resulting confusion, wasted time, and constant do-overs, have vastly increased the costs of graphics production in all media.
In addition, over the past twenty years or so, the consistent impostures of designers have driven most of the competent typographers and production specialists out of the graphics industry. (They also aided a similar process that has largely eliminated competent editorial people form the industry.)
As I witnessed this process first-hand, I had innumerable confrontations, over basic issues of quality and productivity, with delusive and aggressive designers. Often, those designers were senior people who were not at all used to having their utterances questioned. I’ve seen too many of them collapse after I pulled out a type specimen book, or similar evidence.
Over my thirty years in type shops, ad agencies, and design studios, I found that if you know your work well enough to be sure of yourself, have the evidence handy, and possess the verbal skills to make your case, it’s just a question of standing up to them—as with any other set of bullies. Until fairly recently, however, if they managed to get you fired before you could pull out the specimen book, you just went and worked for their competition.
I therefore make no apologies for anything I say on this subject—except to the exceptions mentioned above and to the very few designers I’ve known who were active exceptions to the rule and who had no illusions about their fellow-designers. (Most of these were in Minnesota, especially at Martin Williams and BI Worldwide, or people I know from MCBA who are more artists than designers.) Most of my opinions and attitudes are shared by hundreds of the people I worked with for thirty years from the mid-1980s, doing the work that designers claimed to have done themselves.
There are still plenty of people, and pundits, in the field who believe the designers’ claims, but that’s their problem, not mine.
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN...
I have worked with hundreds of designers in many ad agencies and design studios, mostly in New York, as well as at dozens of type shops that did work for every ad agency and design studio in the business. I speak from experience that few have had.
I was among the production people who took the vague layouts and contradictory or nonsensical type specs sent in by the designers, and used our typographic knowledge to make the innumerable decisions required to turn each job into something that could be printed, that would do what the client (and the designer) wanted it to do, and be published without being laughed at.
The designers, despite their cutting-edge pretensions, never even know what technology was being used in the shops. They loved to throw around the names of computer typesetting machinery—but they were typically a generation behind what was actually being used.
The typographic knowledge used in the shops to make the designers’ work real had been transmitted directly from the old craft shops by craftspeople who had moved from lead to digital production. The designers of the design era never knew that knowledge existed, much less how it was transmitted. They were carefully insulated from contact with craftspeople. Protecting the sensibilities of the designers was a major part of the job of the type shop salespeople.
The equipment manufacturers themselves contributed to the insulation of the designers’ minds. The manufacturers addressed their marketing to the designers. They never understood that the people who bought and used the machines were the craftspeople, and that the designers knew nothing and cared less about production and production technology.
The same was true of software, except that the designers played with the software before passing their files off the to people who “took care of the details.” I would say that the demise of Quark was a direct result of this delusion about the nature of the market, and that the same is true of recent developments in Adobe’s Creative Suite.
The realities of production were also largely obscured by outsourcing (external, and later internal) and false claims as to how the work was done.
Back when Apple was making its first appearance in the graphics field (which became Apple’s first customer base), I was working in a type shop in New York where we produced ads designed by a major agency touting Apple’s desktop publishing capabilities. The ads were being produced on a dedicated DOS-based typesetting front-end (probably Magna), printing to a Linotype L300. The Mac-generated paper comps (mockups) sent to us by the ad agency were pretty awful. The Mac-generated graphics files were not part of the production flow.
The worm turned a few years later, when, at another type shop, I supervised production of a raft of IBM ads containing language which implied—but did not state in any legally actionable words—that the ads were produced on IBM equipment. The ad agency twiddled around with PCs and Pagemaker to produce mockups. But the ads were produced—under my direct supervision—from scratch, on Macs, using Quark. That was back in the days of Quark 2 and 3. IBM was still pretending its ads were done on PCs, using Pagemaker. Quark by then was the only wheel in town for high-end production. (But even then, the better you knew it the more you hated it. Yes, some of us had been waiting that long for InDesign.)
A bit later, IBM moved all its advertising to Ogilvy & Mather, and I followed shortly afterwards. O&M finally persuaded IBM to drop the PC/Pagemaker pretense, because O&M wasn’t about to drop Mac/Quark, and O&M was big enough to talk straight even to IBM (and was giving IBM the first really good creative it had had for some time).
Another ad agency that had retained a small piece of IBM work was sucking up to Big Blue by running a small PC/Pagemaker section for IBM work. They called me in to see if I was interested in taking over for the departing lead person for that section. I had a meeting with the lead, whom I knew professionally. He made it graphically clear why he was departing, and compassionately and successfully exerted himself to persuade me not to take over the disaster. (One reason was that nobody in New York who was any good was willing to work on Pagemaker.)
But ever since graphics production has all been done on the Mac, all is transparency and light, no? Ahhh, no, not really.
When desktop came in, the ad agencies often, at first, claimed to be doing work themselves that was actually still being sent out to the type shops.
After the type shops were proclaimed obsolete (that is, after kickbacks from the type shops were replaced by kickbacks from creative temp agencies supplying production people to the ad agencies), the agencies often claimed that their designers were doing the production work. The production work was actually being done by a separate in-house production department (staffed, back then, by former type shop people). The designers—you guessed it—just twiddled around producing more or less awful comps, and sent them to production to “take care of the details.” They made a pretense of sending the digital files too, though they could rarely assemble all of the pieces, and the files were often not usable.
At one ad agency, around 2001, they had three levels of this—the designers sent their comps and files to a department staffed by people they found more congenial than those awful production people. That department, after doing I know not what, sent the stuff to MY department, where the work was done that went to the press.
It was the designers, of course, or their bosses, who were interviewed by the trade press and the software vendors about production. As these experts walked the visitors through the “pre-press” department, we’d hear them explain how the work was done using technology that we had quietly stopped using months ago, or used for something else, or had never used at all.
It was the designers, of course, or their bosses, whom you saw in the Apple ads, and who were about all Cupertino ever knew about print graphics production in the digital studio. Designers, in turn, were just the sort of people who went for Apple’s fashion-oriented products and marketing. (Remember the G4 Cube? The hockey-puck mouse? Candy-colored Imacs?)
The one constant through time is that, if you hear talk of a moderately difficult job that (allegedly) went to press without problems and looked good when printed, it was probably not completed by the person who is supposed to have done it, may not have been done using the claimed technology, and was almost certainly not done using all the claimed techniques.
I have been happily out of that business since 2008. Today the burden of making the work real is probably on the backs of the pre-press people in the printing businesses, or some obscure techs in Web-publishing operations. Increasingly often, the work isn’t made real, and so doesn’t function very well.
Valuable typographic options (including hand-tweaking text kerning, and justified text) that were routine for production craftspeople were abandoned or declared passé by designers who lacked the basic patience and minimal technical skill those options required.
The resulting decline of functionality has helped to make the “decline of print” a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since that low standard of quality and productivity has been the norm throughout the developement of the Web and other electronic media, nobody ever even realized that these media could maintain a much higher standard of quality than they have ever in fact achieved.
Who teaches the typography and production courses in schools? The designers who fiddle with the files and dump them on the pre-press people. There are a lot of out-of-work designers who are eager to take teaching positions. Who writes the books and articles and Web pages on typography? Designers who view publication as self-promotion, which is a desperate need in a market glutted with dime-a-dozen talent.
For these reasons, much of what designers write and say about type (and graphic technicalities generally) cannot stand checking against even the basic facts documented in the literature produced and used by typographic production professionals—including the foundry specimen books. This literature covers whole ranges of knowledge of which few designers are even aware. (An extreme example of how bad a book about type can be when written by a designer is the so-called Typographic Desk Reference, reviewed in some detail below.)
Even where what designers write is not flagrantly erroneous, much of what designers write and say about typography is mediocrity—rarely more than half-understood facts or factoids, out of context, selected more or less haphazardly from literature written by production professionals (who were not designers). Even the best writings by designers are likely to mix gross misinformation with truth, in a way that can only be dangerously misleading. Even the few relatively knowledgeable graphic designers tend to have an inflated notion of their expertise, so that such knowledge as they have only makes them more dangerous. An example of what can happen when otherwise able people learn about type from designers is Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, which I review on another page.
In sum, everything—EVERYTHING—written about typography by designers since about 1960, or by people who learned from designers or their writings, is, in order of probability, either:
1) demonstrably wrong
2) half-truths that are usually seriously misleading due to incomplete information or inadequate context
3) basic information available with less trouble and risk of misinformation from trade typography sources that you need to read anyway
4) an infinitesimal residue of ideas or knowledge of genuine merit but minor importance, which is simply not worth the confusion and waste of time entailed by using designers as a source of information about typography.
This also applies to what designers have written—or, more often, taken for granted—about language. And it applies to most of what they have written about graphics production.
That’s the way it’s been for fifty-odd years, the period that I, and probably others, call the Design Era. The production history above explains how designers got away with posing as typographers. The social history in the following section explains how the mess got started, and how the actual job market in the fields proves my points.
SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE DESIGN ERA
(For production realities in the design era, see the following article,
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind The Curtain....)
The “creative revolution” arose when the fat post-WWII years, an era of continued prosperity and safety to which no end was in sight, entered a crazy-fat stage in which, in some industries, even counterproductive activity on a mass scale was not checked by economic consequences.
From about the early 1960s, the conception of design as a craft, requiring knowledge and long practice like other crafts, was replaced by the idea that the essence of design was “creativity,” conceived of as a sort of emotional state accessible only to a sensitive elite. Being an emotional state, however, it was believed accessible to that elite without any preconditions in the way of knowledge or experience. This new elite consisted of a flood of graduates of design programs that were essentially undemanding vocational degrees for the less energetic children of the newly prosperous post-WWII middle class. This was the first generation to go straight from adolescence to college on a mass scale. (I’m talking about my own generation here.) The new design subculture proceeded under the auspices of a few poseurs of an earlier generation, whose small numbers helped reinforce the elite aura.
The reality, however, was reflected in the design job market: insanely overcrowded and viciously competitive. As usual in such markets, when they are not kept in line by economic realities, the least scrupulous rose to the top, while the rest, having no skills that were either scarce or very demanding, survived by keeping their heads down and were typically replaced after their thirties by new graduates who really could do just about as much as their elders could.
Design was not the only field to be overrun by immature people with inflated qualifications, whose pretensions were unchecked by economic constraints. It was similar souls in other fields who provided much of the business custom, artistic patronage, and public credibility enjoyed by the new designers.
It might be thought that there were aspects of the work that would benefit from experience, such as the nuts and bolts aspects of interactions with clients, printers, typesetters, and other suppliers. But designers, as a rule, completely ignored such vulgar considerations, as being beneath the notice of “creatives.” This was a major and constant problem for the clients and suppliers of “creative” firms, and the subject of extremely common complaints to the management of those firms. These complaints often resulted in lost accounts, or in scapegoating of junior designers by senior designers, which accounts in part for the high turnover in the field. Thus the designers who clawed their way to the management level knew quite well that a forty-year-old designer was usually no more capable, and much less flexible, than a less-expensive twenty-two-year old. The twenty-two-year-olds were also cuter, which counts for a lot in design, just as it does in, say, film.
The new designers had to do a lot of talking to promote and defend themselves in the new market. Their writings are marked by touchily defensive ignorance, bluff, and major inconsistencies. Especially in shorter articles in periodicals, and on the Web, much was and is written to quickly and cheaply fill some space with copy, and build up a resumé of published work.
Graphic designers, with very few exceptions, generally believe they are experts on typography by virtue of a typography class or two in design school, reading filler articles in design media, exchanging knowledge with similar experts, and getting paid for pretending to work with type. With few exceptions, they are so ignorant of typographic matters that they don’t even realize how little contact they have with the actual work, most of which was formerly done by type shops and is now done by pre-press departments. This craziness increased greatly with the advent of the Web, and again with that of social media.
Things changed again starting in 2001, when a lot of the money flew away and economic and functional constraints began to bite for the first time since the 1950s. (It started early in the year. September just made it worse.)
Businesses in general got scared about the future and began to think about whether they were getting value for money from the ad agencies and other creative businesses. Businesses hadn’t thought seriously about that since about 1960. The result was waves of layoffs in ad agencies and design studios.
This was the real world’s verdict on the superficial, spoiled, and defensively intolerant “creatives” of the creative revolution. That verdict has barely begun to register in the current literature of typography.
AD MEN: TWO BOOKS
Roman, Kenneth. The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (div. of St. Martin’s Press), 2009.
The advertising business has had a great deal of influence on the design subculture, and on the type business, because that’s where a lot of the money is—or was, at any rate. This was especially true in the second half of the 20th century.
The present book is a very readable and interesting biography of David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, one of the largest ad agencies in the world.
One of the themes is Ogilvy’s conviction that the “creative”-centered approach to advertising (and ad typography) that came in with the 1960s was bunk, that it demanded little ability from its creators, and didn’t sell products. My take on this is much the same as Ogilvy’s. (I was at O&M for a year and a half in the mid-90s, when Ogilvy’s policies had ceased to guide work there.)
Della Femina, Jerry. From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. 1970. (The 2010 edition has a new introduction by Della Femina written that year.)
The book is a fascinating read, a whole lot of fun, and probably a good picture of the ad business in the 1960s—as seen from the top ranks. It’s probably essential for understanding the nature of that business from the 60s to 2001. The Mad Men series (which I haven’t seen) was based on this book.
What Della Femina’s book doesn’t convey is that quite a lot of the people in ad agencies, and the creatives above all, would have been considered intolerable shits by non-ad people who saw them at work when the clients weren’t present. The rest of the agency people would have lost their jobs if they had stood up to the shits. The shits were the ones who got promoted. At all levels, ad people kissed what was above them on the ladder, and kicked what was below them. This was especially true in New York. As Della Femina notes, few people lasted in the ad business into their forties. (See “Social History of the Design Era,” above.) It’s still true, in ad agencies, design studios, and commercial visual creative businesses generally.
The only people who could stand outside the snakepit were a few technical specialists who could do things nobody else could do. These included a few old-school production typographers from the type shops.
This is where I fit in back then. For example (forgive me for boasting a bit, but I think it’s an instructive story, of a sort that rarely sees publication), I freelanced for a year at Wells Rich Greene and never kicked back or sucked up to anyone. Anyone who remembers Wells Rich Greene knows what that means. I doubt that more than a handful of freelancers or vendors from this period can say they worked for WRG without kicking back, and I doubt very much that any of them are creatives. WRG’s print production boss was the most famous itchy palm in the business in the 80s and 90s. (AdWeek’s May 22, 1995 issue had a feature article on this aspect of his career. You can read part of it here.) He didn’t want to call me back after my first gig there produced no kickback. But too many of his people asked for me. (Their studio head had told me, “You’re the best we’ve ever seen.”) I was called in on one major project at WRG over the explicit prohibition of the print production exec. At one point in the course of that project, the senior designer in charge was yelling for my scalp–and then simpering at me shortly afterward, when I had made my case by pointing to two type showings in the Linotype specimen book. (Part of the issue was that she literally did not know the difference between Times Roman and Century Schoolbook.)
SIMON LOXLEY ON ITC AND NEVILLE BRODY
Loxley, Simon. Type: The Secret History of Letters. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
(The most important and generally interesting points about this excellent book are covered on the Reading page. The following is a discussion of the last two sections, in which Loxley treats the International Typeface Corporation and the type designs of Neville Brody.)
Loxley’s historical contextualization of ITC is valid and valuable. So is his criticism of ITC’s belief in large x-heights and tight letterspacing as fundamental typographic values, in opposition to the traditional letter proportions and letterspacing that have reasserted themselves since the ITC era. I would say, however, that the ITC style worked better for headlines, advertising, and short text than Loxley thinks it did, though it certainly did not merit being applied as relentlessly as it was.
I would also say that ITC’s faces added a much-needed range of well-designed faces created specifically for publicity typography. ITC did indeed push its faces as being good for every sort of typography. A couple of them actually are good for some long-text applications. (One of them, believe it or not, is ITC Cheltenham, at least on narrow measures. I have to respect anyone who can make any sort of text face out of Chelt. Tony Stan did it for ITC.) On the other hand, there’s ITC Garamond (also by Stan), a nice publicity face which, in long text, exhibits ITC’s shortcomings at their very worst. (Also, it should never have been called Garamond.)
However, for long-text work the inadequacy of the ITC style and most ITC faces was apparent from the first to any competent typographer. You didn’t see book typographers using them on books that people bought to read. Loxley misses the main point when he places the blame for the prevalence and misuse of the ITC look on ITC’s publicity. No amount of publicity would have imposed that look on the design community if designers in general had been anything but semiliterate herd animals with no real knowledge of typography.
After Loxley’s criticisms of the ITC look, it seems a bit odd that the next section celebrates Neville Brody. Brody’s merits and importance are real and striking, but are confined to display type. Even on Loxley’s low estimation of ITC-style display typography, Brody’s should fare no better. It is finely executed, and excellent in its place, but its importance does not extend to the whole field of typography, or even to the whole field of display typography.
There have been a number of interesting developments in text typography in the digital era, but Loxley mentions only a few, and those the least interesting and most pretentious. Good text faces take many months of often nerve-wracking work. This is not often within the means of the small foundries that Loxley discusses. It was never highly profitable for anyone. One of the significant developments of the last couple of decades is the production of unprecedentedly extensive families of good text faces adequate for the whole range of print applications. The primary source for such developments is probably Adobe.
Another, more widespread development is the increased liberation of text letterforms from purely historical precedent—by a few skilled designers who retain full consciousness of the perennial functional constraints. (Mindless novelty is another matter. It’s everywhere, and it’s nothing new.)
I haven’t run into a good general account of the development of text typography in the digital era. But as always, one can study the typefaces and families themselves, in foundry specimen books and, above all, on the job. Adobe, in fact, used to include a number of fine fonts free with the CS package, and may still do so. (Try searching your computer for filenames that include “Arno”, the name of one of them, a family of faces whose extent and variety cover so many typographic situations that it represents a real advance in text typography.) There’s no better way to study a typeface than to put it through its paces on a live job of the sort for which it was intended.
Rosendorf, Theo. The Typographic Desk Reference. 2nd ed. New Castle DE: Oak Knoll, 2016.
THE TYPOGRAPHIC DESK REFERENCE, by THEO ROSENDORF
Far from being The Typographic Desk Reference, this is probably the most inaccurate, misleading, and insultingly sloppy book on typography that I’ve ever seen—and that’s saying a lot. The book is grossly unreliable even about basic information that is transmitted accurately and without fuss or pretention in innumerable other books. Avoid it strenuously. (Note that, in the introduction, even Rosendorf tries to fudge the explicit claims for the book made by its title and presentation. This suggests that he has some awareness of some small—but still unnerving—fraction of its shortcomings.)
Even granting that there is any reliable content in the book, that content will already be handy in better sources which an experienced typographer will already have available, and that a less-experienced person will need to acquire in any case.
The 100-page section on terms (more than a quarter of the book) is cut-and-paste pseudo-scholarship at its very worst, at a level that rarely sees print even in the current post-information age. Much of the information in this section, even on basics that are covered correctly in innumerable other books, is quite inaccurate and incomplete. Much of the rest of the section is absurdly trivial, even for lovers of type trivia, and in any case deserves no place in a “desk reference.”
As an example, far from untypical, of Rosendorf’s scholarship is his entry for “leading”: “Strips of lead used to adjust the vertical space between lines of type. Leading is sized in points: thick leads being cast four to the pica thick (three points) and thin leads being cast between 12 or eight to the pica thick (one or one and a half points). A so-called middle lead cast two points thick. The smallest cast six, ten, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen to pica is the hair lead.”
(The twelve or so instances of bad English and editorial sloppiness are Rosendorf’s text, not my typing. It’s a remarkable score for seventy-three words in a published book.)
Rosendorf’s information here isn’t even erroneous. It isn’t even obsolete. It’s typographic gibberish. Where to begin? The expressions “thick-,” “thin-,” and “middle-,” lead, and “four to the pica”, etc., are explicitly and obviously not specifications of thickness in points. They are a practice that predates the point system, from a time when nothing was specified in points, and when the pica varied from one foundry to another. They were made obsolete by the point system—which was introduced in 1878, became standard in the U.S. in the 1880s, and by 1900 had transformed typographic practice.
Since then, for over a century, the thicknesses of metal leads have been specified in points and, very rarely, in half points, not in fractions of a pica. For most or all of that time, the only leading commonly seen has been one- and two-point leads (and slugs sized in multiples of six points). Even one-point leads are less common than two-point; they are fragile, and cost three times as much as two-point, because they are hard to manufacture. (Fragile half-point leads were even less often made or used, and few can have survived.)
I don’t know exactly when speaking of leading in odd fractions of a pica ceased to be practically relevant, but it has never been normal usage for any typographer now alive. R.W. Polk, in The Practice of Printing (1st ed., 1926, p. 30) illustrates 1-, 2-, and 3-point leads, but says “By far the most common thicknesses of leads and slugs are two points, and six points, respectively. In fact, the term, ‘a lead,’ would be understood to mean a two point lead, and the term, ‘a slug,’ to mean a six point slug unless otherwise specified.” A.A. Stewart, in Typesetting (1919, published by a major trade organization), writes “Leads are made 1-point, 1½-point, 2-point, and 3-point thick.”
Three-point and four-point leads were in fact made into the late twentieth century–or at any rate, were available if someone wanted them. They may still be. (Try M&H.) But they are unlikely to be found today in any working composing room or printery, except as occasional oddities. (Even these are not particularly durable relics: leads are made of softer metal than type.) A competent typographer would be unlikely to use odd leads if he did find them; they would probably not be available in needed lengths or in sufficient number. Today, they might be set aside as curiosities. While lead type was still a commercial proposition, they were more likely to go into the hellbox, unless there was a good supply of them.
The main reason for keeping a supply of three- and four-point leads would have been for leading in book work, which only a few shops did. The point system came into general use at about the time when the Linotype and Monotype machines made obsolete the setting of books and magazines by hand. (Some leading might have been used for Monotype settings.) Without the need to do that sort of work, I doubt that many but the largest shops would have found it worthwhile to maintain a supply of leads thicker than two-point. Three- and four-to-pica leads from before the standard point system would have been troublesome, at best, and gone into the hellbox.
For over a century now, a competent typographer has been one who thinks in points and picas (and, where greater precision is necessary, in fractions of a point), not odd fractions of a pica. That century includes the final seventy years of the commercial metal type era, and the creation of virtually all the lead typographic material now in existence. IF Rosenberg’s information had been historically accurate, and IF it had been provided with even a minimum of historical context, it would be of historical interest—IF it had been labeled as of historical interest only.
As it stands, this entry is meaningless, confusing, and misleading to any letterpress craftsperson today, even granted the necessary concern of such a craftsperson with the history of the material he works with. It is also both useless and seriously misleading even for a digital typographer who cares nothing at all for historic practice, since it muddles the concept of leading and ignores the measurements a competent typographer uses to work with leading. (It even ignores the means used by incompetent typographers: thousandths of an inch, or decimal fractions of a meter, or vertical justification.)
This, too, is a remarkable score of error for seventy-three words. Welcome to the “new school.”
I’ll come back to this review (maybe) when I have the stomach for reading through the rest of the book. I’ve already browsed it all heavily, which is a lot more than some of those who endorse it seem to have done. The further examples of extreme ignorance and sloppiness detailed below are merely some of what I’ve found by browsing. That such a book should come out under the Oak Knoll imprint is a matter for wonder and puzzlement. I would guess that part of the deal was that Rosendorf took responsibility for the typesetting and editorial side, thus greatly reducing the investment required of the publisher.
Later sections cover technical information for digital typography. These sections may be of some value to digital typographers. I suspect, however, that better and more reliable sources for this information—particularly the information on Unicode—may be easily findable on the Web.
The section on Glyphs seems usefully comprehensive, though much of the information, in fuller form and probably at least as reliable, can be found via the Wikipedia page List_of_Unicode_characters.
Even in this section, though, there are things that do not inspire confidence. For example, on p. 150, in the section on Unicode glyphs, Rosendorf tells the reader that the solidus (known to many only as the “upslash,” “forward slash,” or just “slash,” terms not mentioned by Rosendorf) is the same as the fraction bar. These are in fact two separate glyphs in Unicode. (The only technologies that don’t distinguish them are typewriters and low-grade word processing practice.) Unicode is the best and dominant digital font encoding, and the first and almost the only typographic technology in which the term “glyphs” is relevant.
The glyphs for the fraction bar and the solidus are not even visually identical. To accommodate the numerator and denominator, the fraction bar must be angled more steeply than is the upslash (solidus)—the upslash is more vertical, to avoid excessive white space between it and the surrounding characters. The two glyphs may also require radically different kerning metrics.
For these reasons, the two characters had to be carefully distinguished in Unicode and in every previous typographic technology. In typography, whether metal or digital (or phototype), confusing the two is a mistake that only a raw novice might make. It is a mistake that carries consequences, so that a novice of any intelligence, working in a professional environment, is unlikely to make it more than once or twice.
(A possible point of confusion here: the fraction slash and the division slash are separate glyphs that can be visually identical. But the solidus is a different glyph, and a visually different form, from either of these. Neither the fraction slash or division slash is—or can be—the character you get when you type the /? key.)
The “Anatomy and Form” section contains much basic information that can be found in far better books that a working typographer will, or should, already have. There are also a number of novelty replacements for commonly-used terms (especially for letter anatomy).
Many of the terms here look to me like something I’ve seen extremely often in ad agencies and design studios: somebody bluffs with a guess at what the technical term is, and a few other people follow along, often because they’d lose their jobs if they didn’t. Such terms sometimes become current in some clique, and sometimes make it into print (sometimes in technology documentation) as if they had some basis in general usage. But it is not wise to imitate their use if you want to communicate with people outside the clique in which they are affected.
Even among terms that have some basis in usage, Rosendorf does not distinguish widely-used terms from little-used equivalents. There is also some inflation of this section with terms from letterpress that have no place in a typographic desk reference.
The entry “begin even” is every bit as ridiculous as the above-described entry for “leading”. “Begin even” is a novelty term or a bluff (or possibly a forgotten relic from an early book, or one of the lesser-known Britishisms). I have never seen or heard it in fifty years of typographic and editorial work at nearly 100 establishments. It would certainly not be recognized by many experienced typographers, who would expect “flush” or “no indent.” And anyone in a handset shop who habitually cut copy the way Rosendorf, in this entry, says it was done might be assaulted by a compositor and would certainly be fired by the owner—every time it was done, it would mean that one compositor’s entire take would have to go back through the stick to be broken into new lines, each of which would have to be re-justified.
In the section on “Classification and Specimens”, the classification shown, in its entirety, on page 217 is useful in itself (though “Rational” is an absurd novelty term for the irrationally simplistic Didones). But it is little improvement on the old Vox/ATypI classification. Like Vox/ATypI, it is much too simple, and the categories too broad, to be of use except as a general frame of reference. Such a frame of reference is indeed quite valuable, but it hardly merits the 40-odd pages of specimens and history used to illustrate it here. (The Vox/ATypI classification has also gotten far more wordage in the literature than it merits.) Such a simple classification would be much better comprehended, and much better used, if it were presented on a single page, and presented for the very basic thing that it is, with the admonition that, to learn more, one should study type specimen books and read typographic history.
Because the classification is so broad, the numerous and varied faces used to illustrate each category are unlikely to do more than confuse a reader who doesn’t already know more about typeface classification than Rosendorf seems to. For instance, placing Windsor with the Humanist faces is mere pedantry, and Stempel Schneidler, though it’s been around for a while and its original designer apparently believed that it was based to some meaningful degree on Humanist models, is an odd and atypical humanist face.
The information given on each face used as a specimen looks interesting. Most of it, at least on recent faces, may well be reasonably accurate. But the entry on Garamond is inadequate, and, as to accuracy, it reads in part: “There are also designs that are not Garamond at all, but based on designs by the. Garamonds can also be classified as Garalde.” (Period after ‘designs by the’ is the way Rosendorf’s text reads; words are obviously missing.) It is true that Garalde, in another system of classification, includes the Garamonds; Rosendorf does not mention that it also includes many other faces that are not Garamonds by anyone’s reckoning—the -alde refers to the faces typified by the important humanist types of Aldus Manutius, who preceded Garamond by a busy generation or so. These post-Jenson Italian Renaissance faces are distinguished from the Garamonds by knowledgeable typographers: they’re closely related, but there are so many Garaldes that a distinction is useful. Rosendorf also does not mention that there are widely-used Garamonds, such as Sabon, that don’t have “Garamond” in their names.
Many of the faces shown in this section hardly warrant inclusion in a desk reference because they are uninteresting to all but the most superficial “typographers,” or are without value as illustrations of any historical development or typographic relationships. Most of these superfluous faces are the products of small digital foundries or currently active small design studios, and one suspects that the motivation is “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” or just social necessity. There is little other reason for mentioning many of these faces. Many of them are trivial variations on earlier and more typical forms that are much more likely to be encountered (Ferox, Voz Gotica, Mrs Eaves, Bureau Grot, Knockout, Nitti, Aktiv Grotesk, Gotham, FF Mark, Amplitude, Archer, Giza, AW Conqueror, Dala Florida/Moa, Black Sabbath). Some are just amateurish (Karloff), or are trivial display faces (Sutturah, Armchair Modern, Black Sabbath). Many of the newer faces, while good designs, are very close to earlier, and far better known, twentieth-century faces on which they are no improvement. Also, as always with the products of small foundries (and many large ones), one must wonder if they have adequate character sets that will not leave you improvising in order to set your client’s copy, and if the quality of the fontware is at all equivalent to that of the standard faces they imitate.
Far more useful and instructive collections of classified specimens can be found elsewhere (see the Reading page on this site). The experienced typographer will already have well-thumbed copies of some of them within easy reach.
The history in Rosendorf’s first sentence on Sans Serif faces (pp. 232–3) is more gibberish: “Popularized by the 20th century [sic] Bauhaus and De Stijl design movements, sans serifs originated as far back as the 5th century BC in early Latin, Etruscan, and Greek inscriptions.” In fact, as even many typographic dilettantes know quite well, sans serifs were very popular—indeed omnipresent—as bold publicity faces for seventy years or so before the Bauhaus and De Stijl. Well before either movement arose, the publicity sans faces had given rise to important text-weight sans serifs such as Akzidenz Grotesk and News Gothic.
Dragging in early inscriptions as ancestors of sans faces is pretentious pseudo-learning. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever demonstrated, or even explicitly claimed, any historical or intellectual continuity between those inscriptions and the sans faces that arose in the early 1800s or the text-weight sanses that came later. The 18th-century sanses had no determinable or likely sans-serif precedents in the previous two millennia, and virtually no precedents at all in any but the crudest and earliest lettering. Early inscriptions were not sans serif letterforms in any meaningful sense. They were merely crude lettering that didn’t happen to have (or need) serifs. Consciously shaped letterforms—and serifs—arose only several centuries after the early inscriptions Rosendorf refers to. It is unlikely that anyone in the 1800s (or in the preceding two millennia) would have looked to the crude early inscriptions for typographic inspiration. It is much more likely that sans serifs were just fat Didones with the serifs lopped off and the contrast reduced—just one among the innumerable, mechanical, letterform variations that arose in the 1800s.
Whatever this book is, it is definitely not the useful general typographic reference that its title claims it to be, much less the “quick reference across the entire craft” promised in the Introduction to the first edition.
In that same introduction, Rosendorf fudges these claims: “Because typography is a vast subject, I’ve limited the TDR to Latin-based writing systems, with emphasis on form and practical application. Mention of software and printing technology has been kept to the essential minimum. The same goes for discussion of hand-set metal type, except in cases where modern terminology finds its roots in that endangered art.” In the Introduction to the second edition, he notes that he’s added more history “for the simple reason that our making and using of type today is fundamentally based on the past.” True, but it’s not based on the past as portrayed by Rosendorf, which can only mislead and confuse the student. There are innumerable sources for that history that are far more reliable than Rosendorf, and the knowledgeable typographer should already have a number of them, or intend to acquire them shortly.
In a modern typographic reference there’s also nothing wrong with leaving out metal-type information that is not even conceptually relevant to present-day typographic technology or to basic typographic practices, and thus provides no history relevant to current practice. But about one quarter of Rosendorf’s book is in fact devoted to such matter, as if it were intended to supersede other basic sources on the subject. (And as if it were intended to give the impression that Rosendorf knew something about the subject, and that his book is of interest to those in search of historical perspective and perhaps even to letterpress printers.)
There’s also nothing wrong with limiting a book to “Latin-based writing systems, with emphasis on form and practical application,” and if this book has any value at all, it’s here. But the book, and its title, pretensions, and presentation, are obviously not limited to this subject.
Rosendorf can’t have it both ways—especially when he loads up the Terms section with terms from forgotten games played with pieces of type in the 1800s, and an apparently random selection of the more obscure and technology-specific terms from the metal era, terms which have no place in a desk reference and little place outside of hard-core technological history. And especially when he gets so absurdly wrong so much of the less obscure and more generally important technical information from every era.
Of Rosenberg, the publisher’s blurb states “Theodore Rosendorf’s career has taken him to clients in the US and abroad for some of the world’s most well known brands.” How is this compatible with the assertions I make in this review? Any production person who has routinely intervened between designers (even the most distinguished of them) and the final product will know that, among designers, incompetence, ignorance, and effrontery are the norm, rather than the exception, and are often carried to extremes that have to be seen to be believed. Other articles on this page describe the culture which makes this possible.
SEE ALSO RELATED ARTICLES ON SEPARATE PAGES:
ON BRINGHURST’S THE ELEMENTS OF TYPOGRAPHIC STYLE
(Review of another “standard reference,” in this case a dangerous mixture of quality and ignorance.)
BODONI TO MORRIS: FROM ONE EXTREME TO THE OTHER IN THE FASHION TYPOGRAPHY OF THE 1800s
(Debunking two typographic saints venerated by designers because they are useful as excuses for their own sloppy practice.)
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