Square words

Square word calligraphyWriting has been described as the most significant human invention. We tend to think of inventions as mechanical things, like the wheel, or fire, or the printing press, the airplane, the internal combustion engine or cell phone. But without writing, few of them would exist. Writing allowed us to share the others, to improve them, to record them, to pass them along and record them.

Writing allows us to share ideas, emotions, visions, beliefs, stories, poetry and music through a series of abstract squiggles. Without writing there would be no literature, no religion, no philosophy, no songs, no politics. We would not have a history or mythology beyond what we could share orally. And when you consider writing is no more than 5,000 years old – out of a history of humankind that is millions of years old – it’s pretty astounding that is is so relatively recent.

Humans experimented with various pictographic scripts prior to writing, but they tended to stay localized because they were both difficult and complex to learn and share. They are inefficient for conveying large amounts of information and data, too. With writing came laws, taxation, the census, banking, the codification of government and of religion.

cuneiform tabletTurning sounds into abstract symbols that could be pieced together into words was a new idea that seems to have developed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt almost simultaneously (both before 3000 BCE).

The Sumerians first used writing to keep track of mundane lists: sales, inventory, receipts and temple donations. That evolved to put laws, genealogies and myths into clay – works we still have and can read today. To be able to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, a remarkable tale written around 2100 BCE, today is entirely thanks to the invention of writing.

In Egypt, migrant workers developed a written script as a phonetic way to learn the speech of their Egyptian taskmasters because they couldn’t master the hieroglyphs. Or it may have begun with their graffiti scratched into a quarry wall. Either way, it was a brilliant and necessary invention.
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Back to black

Grey scalesI had noticed of late that several websites are more difficult to read, that they opted to use a lighter grey text instead of a more robust black. But it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t my aging eyes: this was a trend. That is, until I read an article on Backchannel called “How the Web Became Unreadable.”

It’s a good read for anyone interested in typography, design and layout – and not just the Web, but print as well. It makes several good points about contrast including providing some important technical details about how contrast is measured.

I’ve written in the past about how contrast is important in design (here, and here for example). But apparently there’s a design trend of late away from contrast towards murkiness. In his article, author Kevin Marks notes:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Others have noticed this too, even before Marks. In 2015, Katie Sherman wrote on Neilsen Norman Group’s site:

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable. Lured by the trend of minimalism, sites are abandoning their high-contrast traditions and switching to the Dark Side (or should I say, the Medium-Gray Side). For sites willing to sacrifice readability for design prowess, low-contrast text has become a predictable choice, with predictable, persistent usability flaws.

This trend surprises and distresses me because it seems a singularly user-hostile trend; anti-ergonomic against the whole point of the internet. Apparently it’s part of a minimalist design trend. Now I don’t mind clean, uncluttered web pages, but I balk at making them unreadable. Pale grey reduces accessibility and legibility.

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Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

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