Ben Crowder

Archive: Typography


I’m starting to get more into typeface design, and so I put together a little web app to generate PDF templates for sketching type out (with guides for the ascender, baseline, x-height, etc.). It’s called Typlate:

You twiddle with the numbers till you get proportions you like, then print out the PDF and start drawing:

Technical note: I’m using jsPDF to generate the PDF in-browser. In fact, there’s no server-side code at all. It’s amazing what you can do with JavaScript these days.

Ordinals and degrees on OS X

For a while now I’ve used option-0 on OS X to type a degree symbol, primarily for tweets about how blasted cold this winter has been. But I’ve accidentally transgressed. That symbol (º) is not in fact a degree symbol, though it sure looks a lot like one. It’s actually an ordinal indicator. Sayonara to my typography street cred…

To get the real degree symbol (°), type option-shift-8 instead. Now if only I could go back and edit all those tweets… (I blame iOS, where holding down the 0 key does in fact get you a degree symbol.)

Source Sans Pro

Unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Adobe just released Source Sans Pro, their first open source type family. It’s a nice looking typeface, inspired by News Gothic and Franklin Gothic, and it comes in lots of weights (extra light, light, regular, semibold, bold, and black). Oh, and it’s available on Google Web Fonts, Typekit, and WebInk. You can also see it in action on Brackets. Kudos to Adobe.

Download the font (and source files, if you want).

Myron’s minimum

Being in a font design sort of mood, I was reading last month’s MyFonts newsletter interview with Jim Parkinson, and I came across this bit on how he starts out:

Every alphabet or typeface I did from Hallmark on until the End of Analog was done in essentially the same way. First, the initial designing, maybe just vowels. The vowels appear the most and therefore contribute the most to the quality and personality of a font. I like to start with the capital I. It’s not too challenging and offers the designer instant reward and the encouragement to go on. After the vowels, I add an m and an n. Then I can start tracing long strings of letters to establish spacing, relative weight and proportional characteristics, etc. I always start with “minimum.” Myron’s word. The parade of verticals helps establish spacing and color. After that, it is page after page of tracing lettering strings, adding new characters and adjusting old ones the whole time.

Interesting… I’ve been yearning to design fonts for a while now, and I’ve used FontForge a little bit, but nothing’s happened. Time for that to change, I think. Mmm. I can’t wait till I can design books using my own typefaces. :) (Assuming said typefaces are any good, of course. But we’ll cross our fingers.)

Path of least resistance

On days when I’m tired (like today), it seems like designing is a whole lot easier than writing. Drafting out the new stake leadership directory went smoothly, but even just the thought of writing was enough to make me want to take a nap. (Which is what I would do if I had time…) Not sure why that is.

Speaking of design, I just rediscovered, a site with Thai fonts. The SIPA collection is my favorite so far — not only do the fonts work in Photoshop and all, but they even have beautiful OpenType alternates. I’m in heaven. :)

The ugly ducklings

Just now I was browsing through the children’s classics section of the bookstore, the titles catching my eye with delight as memories of childhood swept over me. There were some editions that looked rather nice until I opened them up. Pathetic typography. Zero margins, or Times New Roman, or double-spaced text. So disappointing. The covers and bindings were lovely, but inside they were whited sepulchres.

I want to change that! While I obviously can’t change the books on the shelves, I can publish classics set attractively. The only hard part (right now, at least) is having enough control over the process to make them as cheap as possible. Lulu’s okay but it’s still more expensive than a traditional run would be (of 500+ copies or more, that is). And I’d like to be able to determine more of the factors that go into the book’s production — paper, binding, bookmark tassels, etc. But alas, for now ‘tis not to be. Someday, I hope…


A few scattered thoughts:

  1. To actively develop my photography skills, I’m going to choose a weekly theme (which will end up as a set in Flickr) and make an effort to find photo opps that fit. Things like “hope,” “yellow,” and “triangle,” for example. This week the theme will be…hmm…”solitude.”

  2. I’ve been wanting to work on my illustration skills for a while, and yet nothing’s been happening. (Other than the cover of A Christmas Carol.) Getting ideas for subject matter has been slow — mainly because I haven’t been actively looking — and so I’ve decided to start illustrating existing stories, as practice. I’ll most likely be working on scenes from the Chronicles of Narnia and other favorite children’s books.

  3. Something else I’m really interested in is font design. Since FontLab et al. are rather expensive, if anything happens with this it’ll be via FontForge. FontForge has all the basic functionality to create fonts, albeit with a horrifically ugly interface. ~sigh~ But it’s the only way (unless I shell out hundreds of bucks for Fontographer or FontLab, but since I don’t know if I actually have any talent for font design, I’d better test the waters first :)). (Oh, check out a cool post by Raph Levien on Typophile. I don’t know if anything’s happened with this since then, however.

  4. One of my main interests with fonts and typesetting is Unicode. Four and a half years ago I re-typeset Henry Sweet’s An Icelandic Primer using TeX and the Omega system, and it was blissfully fun (especially in getting Omega to display the Icelandic-specific characters properly). I miss it. This is one of the reasons why I want to typeset foreign language texts for Riverglen Press. I just need to start making more time for RGP work, rather than getting caught up in schoolwork and such. ;)

  5. Keeping the Moleskine sketchbook in my pocket is working, I think. Today in class I pulled it out and doodled instead of, erm, taking notes. :) Having it more accessible — the weight in my pocket reminds me it’s there — will help me draw more. And design more.

A question of aesthetics

I was reading my Penguin Classics edition of War and Peace the other day and noticed, to my astonishment, widows and orphans all over the place. And quite often there were lines at the end of a paragraph with less than five characters. Picking up my copy of Fellowship of the Ring, I found the same thing. Isn’t that against the rules of copyfitting?

Having said that, I’ve noticed in copyfitting Phantastes that it’s rather hard to copyfit fiction nicely. Dialogue’s the main culprit, I think. Regardless, though, the question now in my mind is this: does it matter? Are these rules there for a reason, or are they just tradition without much basis in aesthetic value? Are widows and orphans really that hard on the eyes? Are “rivers of white” after paragraphs a bad thing?

I’m not sure. The main question is whether these get in the way of reading, since readability is the main function of typography. I think the answer is clearly no. There are a few exceptions (if the small word is at the end of a page, it could easily get skipped as the reader moves on to the next page), but generally speaking they don’t get in the way.

Aesthetically? Possibly. But maybe not. I’m thinking about recopyfitting Phantastes. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll wait till the next book to try out these theories. :)

Success on the Middle Eastern front

I’m happy to report that I figured out an intermediary solution to typesetting Hebrew and Arabic in InDesign. What I do is pull the text into TextEdit (and I suppose Word would work just as well), format it the way I want (right-to-left), and print it to PDF. I can then place it in InDesign and it shows up perfectly in print, with no quality loss. (The preview doesn’t look as good, but it turns out fine.)

Caveats: this probably isn’t a good way to typeset a long text (anything more than a couple of pages), since you have to freeze everything in PDF first. It’s doable, of course, but just a tad bit crazy. :)

It’s also not a particularly ideal way to include Arabic/Hebrew words within the flow of a paragraph (intermingled with English or another left-to-right language). Again, I think you could do it, but if you’re doing more than a few words, I’d suggest getting the Middle Eastern edition of InDesign.

Anyway, this is enough for me to do the bilingual Hebrew/English psalter. Mmm. :)

TeX, Hebrew, and some symbols

I tried to typeset some Hebrew in InDesign today. Doesn’t work. Apparently InDesign doesn’t support right-to-left text flow — not unless you have the Middle East edition. ~sigh~ Hopefully Creative Suite 3 will integrate that. So much for my bilingual psalter…

In other news, I’ve been working on some art for New Symbols, a Mormon book project which will be published next spring. Here’s a sneak preview at some drafts:

New Symbols

Last night I started reading Donald Knuth’s Digital Typography. Fascinating book (I’m only 100 pages into it, but it’s got me hooked). I used to use TeX. In fact, the summer before my mission I used Omega (a Unicode-enabled TeX system) to typeset Henry Sweet’s An Icelandic Primer. It turned out decently well — especially considering that I’m not even embarrassed about it. :) (Often when I go back to my old work, it makes me blush. I’ve come a long way.)

The reason I don’t use TeX anymore, however (other than that I have InDesign), is that I don’t particularly like the font choices. Computer Modern is indelibly associated with math in my mind, and even if it weren’t, I still don’t like it that much. I’ve yet to see a decent TeX font. Give me a good Garamond! With decent fonts, I’d consider using TeX again — not for my normal projects (InDesign is treating me just fine), but for other stuff. Maybe one of these days I’ll design my own Garamond-esque font in METAFONT…

A few links

Came across a good article on paper at Creative Pro, Paper Tips: Going Against the Grain. Also found Mark Boulton’s Five Simple Steps to Better Typography. His is a beautiful site, very clean and elegant. In the comments to one of the articles on his site (alas, I can’t remember which one at the moment, but it doesn’t really matter), someone mentioned Alan Pipes’ book Production for Graphic Designers. So I checked it out from the library and started reading it, and I’m really liking it. More later (after finals).

Oh, one last thing. I was thinking about buying Jan Tschichold’s The Form of the Book online. Not anymore — it’s $90 used! Rats. I can’t find it cheaper than that anywhere. Oh well. At least I have Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style to keep me happy. I wonder why Tschichold is so expensive…

Tiger Character Palette

I was looking at Mike Clark’s TextMate Cheat Sheet for Rails Hackers a minute ago and saw the Command key sign (⌘, if your font has it). It was the first time I realized that the symbol had to be in a font somewhere (yes, I know, I’m slow :)). And Lucida Grande was the natural font for it to be in. So I went to Finder->Edit->Special Characters and pulled up the Character Palette.

It was different! I’d been using Panther on my Powerbook, so when it came up and had all the Unicode stuff sorted by category, I got goosebumps and started drooling uncontrollably. Then I saw the “By Radical” tab. If only I knew Chinese… But it gets better — they’ve added a Font Variation area at the bottom which shows you the selected character in all the fonts in which it appears. That’s cool. It means I can select a Thai character and instantly see which of my fonts support Thai. I love Macs! :)

Pearls before machines

After being sick for almost a week now, I’ve decided to start doing homework so that I’ll be caught up when I finally do get better. For my History of the Book class, we’ve started reading Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, which is an amazing book. No typographer should be without it.

And on page 42, I came across this: “No typesetting software should be permitted to compress, expand or letterspace the text automatically and arbitrarily as a means of fitting the copy. Copyfitting problems should be solved by creative design, not fobbed off on the reader and the text nor cast like pearls before machines.” Them’s strong words, there. :) And I agree. Yesterday when I wrote that auto-PDF post, I originally was dead-set against it and was going to write about why human-crafted is better. But something got the better of me. That something is now gone (whatever it was), and I won’t be casting my lot with any automatically generated PDF crowd any time soon. Book design is an art.

The art of hand-lettering

The calligraphy bug bit me today. It happened when I saw the back of a greeting card — the name of the press was styled in some kind of chancery cursive, and it looked really good. Hand-lettering would give a nice feel to my Riverglen books (the title pages, that is). So I’m going to learn calligraphy. There’s a calligraphy class here on campus and hopefully I’ll be able to get into it this next spring term, but even if I don’t, I still plan to teach myself.

Beyond that, eventually I’d like to start designing my own typefaces which I could use for printing books. But that’s a ways down the road. FontForge could do it, I suppose, but it’d be nice to have a native Mac font-making app that isn’t $700 (ahem, can we say Fontlab?). I’m really tempted to write my own. But that’s a project that will have to wait, because I’ve got too many other things on my plate right now. Someday, though… ~wistful sigh~

One last thing: for some typographical coolness, check out Wow. :)

No luck with the fonts

I tried cleaning out my fonts folder (with FontExplorer X) and that didn’t help at all. Why aren’t the fonts showing up in the Adobe apps?!? I checked Illustrator CS and the fonts do show up and I can use them just fine. So what changed in CS2? Argh. I have no idea how to fix this…

Thai font problems

Ever since I upgraded to Adobe CS2, I haven’t been able to access my Thai fonts from within Adobe apps. I can still see them in TextEdit and Font Book and even Word, but Illustrator and InDesign (and probably Photoshop too) don’t even show them in the font list. It’s bizarre, because two of the fonts do show up. I don’t know what the difference is between CS and CS2 and what changed, but it’s frustrating and I’ve got to figure out why the fonts don’t show up.

Speaking of Thai fonts, most have problems with floating tone marks on the Mac (but not on Windows), which I suspect has something to do with the way the font is created. I think I’ll take an in-depth look at the fonts in FontForge and see what I can find. (I also seem to remember finding a PDF last year about creating Thai fonts, written in Thai, and hopefully that’ll have some insight — if I can find it again.)