Books and Movies about Graphic Design History and Typesetting

I just saw the movie Graphic Means last night at its world premiere, and I am so excited about it. It’s about the history of graphic design production during the transition from the hot metal era to high-quality digital output. I worked part-time as a typesetter from around 1984 to 1989, and then as a compositor, imaging center supervisor, color separator, and graphic designer part- to full-time from 1989 through the late ’90s. I lived through this transition, in which major changes could happen every few months. It was delightful to see that period so well explained, and learn a lot of new things, including how phototypesetting was opposed by unions and how it provided an entrée for women into the printing world.

Graphic Means is in limited theatrical release before it goes to digital downloads and DVDs. So I have recommendations for other books and movies:

  • Shady Characters, a wonderful history of punctuation marks and other parts of type that we use and may have some idea of where they came from. It arose from a blog of the same name. Delightful book, and despite my nerdery about type, I didn’t know most of what was in it.
  • The Book, by the same author, traces the history of the book as a thing. Again, learned so much despite thinking I knew a fair amount of book history.
  • Linotype: The Movie traces the history of this most remarkable mechanical invention that sped up the transmission and production of the printed word manyfold, and had a good 80-year run before we get into the period covered in Graphic Means. They’re neatly bookended, and the Linotype director was a mentor to Graphic Means’ director.
  • Making Faces: Metal Type in the 21st Century, a movie I purchased years ago and somehow managed to never watch! I'm rectifying it soon, and I’m told it’s great.

I’ll be looking through my collection and adding to this.

A quarter’s worth of printing

The collected work from my first quarter at the School of Visual Concepts as its designer in residence from the three courses I took. From upper-left, clockwise:

  • A broadside (poster) as part of a workshop focused on Copper Canyon Press poets’ works that related to water (part of a set of eight). The workshop was taught by Ellie Matthews of the North Press in Port Townsend.
  • A broadside celebrating The Incomparable network of podcasts, where I’m a regular panelist and a host, using elements from its logo and an inside joke about a fake city name. 
  • A greeting card that I chose the theme of fireworks and celebration. The skyline is from a photo I took in Cal Anderson Park; the fireworks from a picture I took from my home's balcony a few July 4ths ago.

The spring quarter starts this week, and I’ll be taking a single course as I accelerate the preparation for letterpress printing a book this summer.

You can still become a patron of my letterpress book project

My project to letterpress print a book of my reporting on type, printing, and punctuation reached its funding goal weeks ago and then finished out a couple weeks back. All 100 copies of the book have been spoken for, though I am working up plans to produce a few special copies sales of which I'll donate 100% of the proceeds to causes that need help right now.

However, those who want to still come in as patrons at the two lower levels offered in the Kickstarter campaign are very welcome. 

  • Ebook-only reward ($15). Receive an ebook that contains the full text of the letterpress edition plus articles I write over the next several months about producing the book. (Link to book ships by August 2017.)
  • Keepsake plus ebook ($30). Receive a letterpress-printed keepsake I make that will be interesting to look at, hold, and share with others, and the ebook edition. (Keepsake ships by June 2017.)

You can use this simple ecommerce page to pledge at those levels. As with Kickstarter, you'll be charged immediately and I plan to deliver the goods by the above dates, and communicate any delays in the meantime.

Letterpress printing a book of my writing

I first studied letterpress in the late 1980s, when it was barely used commercially and seemed to be a dying craft, as no new equipment was being made, metal type foundries were fading, and hot-metal systems required parts that no longer existed and maintenance few people knew how to handle. (The movie Linotype tells this story very well.)

The letterpress shop at SVC

I thought it would disappear for good. But it was saved through a combination of digital and analog factors that I'll be bringing to bear in my new crowdfunding project, Hands On: the Original Digital, a limited-edition book of my reporting on type, design, and punctuation that I'll be letterpress printing at the School of Visual Concepts. SVC asked me to be its 2017 Designer in Residence, inaugurating a program to bring in outside experts to make use of their facilities to learn, create, and teach.

Here's the video explaining my Kickstarter campaign:

What saved letterpress in part is photopolymer plates. You can create work digitally, send it to a service bureau (notably, Boxcar Press in New York), and they create film from the file just as we used to do for offset printing, but then expose a photosensitive rubbery material. Exposed areas harden. The rest washes away. And these robust plates can be used on letterpress equipment. It bypasses the problem of a lack of and the fragility of metal type.

That's how I'll be able to make this book. I'll design it digitally (in InDesign), have plates made for the interior pages, and then print it on a press at SVC. It's the best of both worlds.

SVC teaches visual communications, such as user experience (UX) design and graphic design, but has a full-blown letterpress program with regular courses and special events. The program's founder, Jenny Wilkson, asked me to be in residence and will mentor me on this project.

You can read a lot more about the project at the Kickstarter page, and I hope you'll consider supporting it!

Glow Little Forge, Glimmer, Glimmer

I'm long past the point in my life where I want more stuff. My goal is less stuff and more creativity—more exploration of making ideas and things without accruing more material objects. This comes after watching my parents shed their house and pare down and do more paring over time; my mother passing away, leading to my dad going through her stuff; then my dad finding a new partner and marrying and helping her comb through her house, bring her stuff west, and then move to a smaller house they bought together. And my in-laws going through a move a few years ago that required sorting through decades of meaningful possessions.

Lynn and I probably own less, even with two kids in the house, than we have at any point in the last decade. I no longer even need much office furniture, because most of the stuff I had used to be for filing and managing paper in some form.

Which is why it may be odd that I'm about to buy a relatively large object that costs a few thousand bucks.

Glowforge white background.jpg

My friends at Glowforge (Dan Shapiro, a founder, and Dean Putney, our mutual friend, who is a programmer) just announced something they've been working on for months. It's a relatively inexpensive laser cutter. While computer-controlled laser cutters have been around for years, there's never been one at the price point they're offering it—starting at $4,000 list, and 50% off that during a pre-order stage right now. (It ships in December.)

They used software to substitute for hardware, which is increasingly common. Instead of expensive parts, a camera and cleverness can produce results to the desired degree of precision. They also are offering a very high degree of control over beam intensity, which allows engraving and etching all the way down to cutting. The camera in the unit automatically recognizes lots of materials, and streams a picture of what it's doing while it's engaged in its task. (It also takes a picture of you when you open the bay when it's done!)

It can cut and engrave a huge range of materials: paper, metal, stone, acrylic, leather…and chocolate, nori, and other foods. Watch the video and browse the site. It's amazing.

When Dan first showed me a video months ago of what Glowforge would do, I was genuinely blown away. I'm an old, cynical, grizzled tech veteran. I've seen so many useless products that are hammers in search of nails. There's little I've seen introduced in recent years that I feel is truly useful. It may be more efficient, more fun, smaller, and so forth. But Glowforge falls into a different category: it's a creativity amplifier, whether for personal hobbies or for professional purposes.

Many hand crafts involve a lot of drudgery. I've learned many of them earlier in life. I made houses for my model railroad. I did shop class and theater arts, and can sew and build sets. I was a typesetter (both hand and digital), and letterpress printer. I was an art major in graphic design and spent a lot of time working with my hands to create things.

Many of the things I've been interested in, and many parts of arts and crafts, involve repetitive cutting from templates or precise placement of holes or removals. This work often requires enormous training, but the point is to produce a precisely, often identical result. The work represents typically taking and working with those repetitive elements.

I found my aptitude lies in digital things. My hand and eye coordination are such that I put tens of thousands of hours into working on computer-aided design, compared to thousands on hand work.

Glowforge is a glue between my digital and analog interests. It's an amplifier, in that it lets me focus my hand abilities on the stuff that's most interesting, while using a digitally connected tool to bypass the frustrating part that I never mastered or don't have the time (and, honestly, often the interest) in mastering—because the outcome is making something that's better made by a machine. It removes none of the creativity for the kinds of things I'm interested in.

I'm getting one and I can't wait to start taking half-formed ideas in my head and turn them into meaningful work. This is the same feeling I had when I bought a mirrorless digital camera a few years ago: it recaptured so much of the joy and control I had with analog, but bolstered me up, too.

(If you use my referral URL, you get $100 off on the pre-order price, and I get a $100 rebate, too.)

The Blandification of Scalable Logos

Google introduced a new logo today.

The memory of charm, but quite efficient.

At first glance, it seemed exceedingly bland to me; the longer I look at it and a new font that's related, the more I think they made a series of good choices. It's still bland, but it's a well-thought-out bland that makes sense for their company.

Google has never had a strong design sense; Android developed one when Google hired Matias Duarte, who helped bring style, simplicity, unity, and some pizzazz over there. He art directed the creation of Roboto, a bespoke Android font, designed by Christian Robertson. I had the same reaction to Roboto as I do here.

It runs the gamut from a to b.

It runs the gamut from a to b.

His involvement with the new logo seems remote (he congratulates the team and his name isn't on the designers’ post), but it was clearly informed by similar principles. The logo was developed alongside a new font, Product Sans (Product Sans!), which is also the basis for the Alphabet holding company's logo. (There's a downloadable PDF specimen sheet of the full font.)


When Yahoo introduced a new logo almost exactly two years ago, I was quite contemptuous about it, because it looked bad in a way that any non-design person could see. From the graphic design perspective, all the rationale that Yahoo created around the logotype's design process and final result were nonsense. They had thrown away hundreds of years of understanding about legibility and communication in their pursuit of rationalizing a poor process that started from scratch. (I'm thinking specifically about stroke widths and kerning, which they got completely wrong on the perceptual side.)

Google—well, they did it right. The final result isn't arbitrary. The new logo is purpose built: it carries corporate history while shedding the naive, amateurish (but charming and disarming) details of their longest-running company mark. The redesign is still absolutely Google, while being optimized for legible display at many sizes and for many uses. Having a set of the logo, four colored dots corresponding to the logo's colors, and a single G mark that incorporates those four colors gives them a lot of flexibility and consistency across many platforms and uses. The design team's description of its goals and how it achieved them is solid and even admirable. It's not a series of compromises and justifications that got them here, but a number of constraints in the design brief.

One of my favorite typefaces is Kabel, designed by Rudolf Koch, one of the greatest modern type designers. You can see a little taste of Kabel in the Google logo: the tilted bar of the lower-case e is absolutely characteristic of Kabel and rarely seen elsewhere. More generally, Product Sans reminds me of a blend of Futura and Gill Sans with the idiosyncrasies of both steamrollered out.

Many typefaces still in wide use were designed for books and newspapers, and while adapted to the medium of the web, still haven't caught up with what's needed for mobile. The designed-for-screen fonts of the late 1990s and early 2000s lag because they were born when screen displays were far below today's retina-and-beyond densities. New faces don't need to be bland, but faces with a broad and custom purpose like this will be less interesting and less quirky than those intended for general reading.

Unlike Yahoo, which lacks a mobile platform (though it designs beautiful, highly functional apps), Google needs a font that works everywhere in an ecosystem that has a ridiculous number of screen sizes and densities, devices and intents, and which also has to deal with bandwidth and computational rendering constraints.

I'm not in love with the new logo or Product Sans, but I respect how they made it. Inoffensive can be a design goal for a company.


The Social Tandem

The social tandem contains no more than two members at any given time. It is a chat room that two invited parties participate in. There are no identifiers, except what the parties decide to reveal. The conversations are streamed realtime on the public site and archived.

At any time, there are two participants. Each participant's session remains active for ten minutes, offset by five minutes with the other. Thirty seconds before the end of a session, the system provides a reminder and an increasingly frequent countdown. Thus each participant has encounters with two people. All interactions are in-band, meaning any information they wish to reveal is public.

Participants apply to be placed into queue. It costs a nonrefundable $5 to be placed into queue and requires a valid email address to validate one's hold position. Queue positions are determined randomly and automatically and open up continuously across all hours of the day. Email is sent 12 to 24 hours ahead of one's queued position. One may post the time one has been offered to let others watch and know it is you. You may defer the queue slot offered free of charge and you will be offered another no sooner than 24 hours later.

As demand ebbs and flows for slots, the fee will dynamically adjust. One may sell slots privately, as the slot will be triggered by a code, not an account. Secondary markets are welcome and encouraged.

People may discuss anything. Material deemed offensive or of a private or sensitive nature may be deleted from archives or turned over to law enforcement. IP addresses will be logged. Confirmation email addresses will be stored for a relatively short period of time, no more than a month or so, and then permanently deleted from active storage and backups.

There are no guarantees implied or otherwise.

Approaching Halfway with Kickstarter

The Magazine: The Book is nearly at 50% of the goal we need to make it happen.

Kickstarter campaigns can follow a few arcs.

They can flatline, which is about 20% of them, last time I was able to get statistics. 20% of all projects approved by the company get no bids. Another 20% get less than one-fifth of the way to their goal amount. 16% of all projects fail between about 20% and 50% of the total amount they plan to raise.

But at the halfway mark, when you raised 50% of your total, the odds are pretty dramatic: 97% of Kickstarter projects that fund halfway proceed to fund fully by the end of the campaign.

We're about 48% of the way to our total, and I'm confident that, as we hit our last 12 days, we'll start to see some steam as people both see that it's coming to a close and it's not fully funded. It's an exciting thing, and daunting, and nail-biting. But we'll get there.

The campaign is to make a hardcover book of some of the wonderful stories that reporters and essayists wrote between October 2012 and October 2013 (and an ebook as well). The reward for pledging is the book! (And more.)

The campaign covers all the costs of paying for design, printing, shipping, and contributors, and will leave us with some print books left to sell and the ebook to offer online. It's a great way to run a project like this: to scale production with actual demand.

I'll admit that it's scary to sit here with about 33% of the time and 50% of the money left to go — but I also feel strongly about the stories in the book, the design that's being created for it, and the interest in making something cool and new that people will enjoy. Thanks for those of you who have backed the project already, and I hope those who haven't will consider jumping in to get a copy as soon as it's hot off the presses!