Letter (and Number) Man
Wayne writes: Christina says that I’m the only person she knows who will sit on a platform waiting for a train, look across at the station sign, and criticize its spacing. After so many years of working with type and scripts, I do notice if a sign is badly made – also if it’s well made – because I know how such things are made, or should be made for the sake of communication and aesthetics, based on principles refined over centuries of writing and printing. Good spacing – between letters, between words, between lines – is critical, because it makes a difference in pattern recognition, and therefore in how we take in content, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. Of course, this must follow on the choice of good letterforms to convey the information.
A book I’ve just finished relates directly to train signs: Helvetica and the New York City Subway System by Paul Shaw (new edition, 2010). The typeface Helvetica, first released in metal in 1957, is ubiquitous in printed matter and on the web. It’s one of the most legible of sans-serif faces, and versions have been included with many personal computers and laser printers. It’s often used for transportation signs, but was not, as Paul Shaw demonstrates, the face originally chosen by New York City for its transit authority sign overhaul of the 1960s: that was Standard Medium, based on Akzidenz-Grotesk. All of these sans-serif types are similar to one another – as is Monotype’s Arial, and other variants – but can be distinguished by certain features. Shaw’s purpose is to show how different typefaces were used for signs in the New York City subway system, and how that signage has evolved over the years. His very thorough book is important reading for anyone interested in typography and information graphics, how signage systems are developed, and how the work of designers may be upset by political and technical incompetence. (An abbreviated account of this subject by Paul Shaw may be read on the AIGA website.)
I’ve also been pleased to read Cutting through the Colleges by Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley and Thomas Sherwood (2010), a record of inscriptions by the Kindersley Workshop in colleges of Cambridge University. The late David Kindersley, his associates, and his successors have produced beautiful inscriptional lettering in slate, stone, brass, and glass for a wide variety of clients since his workshop was established near Cambridge in 1945. Cutting through the Colleges illustrates examples variously in close-up and in situ. It’s a small book but well designed, set in Ms. Kindersley’s lovely Emilida typeface. (For more about Kindersley lettering, see this post from last July.)
Next on my reading agenda is Underground Maps after Beck by Maxwell J. Roberts (2005), a book I’ve had on the shelf for a while. It seemed a good choice – an account of maps of the London Underground after the earliest ones designed by Henry Beck – to follow Paul Shaw on the New York Subway. I’m in a period of non-fiction now, after reading a few novels, one of which was The Parrot’s Theorem by Denis Guedj, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (2000). Again, this was a book I’ve had for years, having picked it up remaindered. I needed to wait for the right mood to strike, because although on the surface it’s a mystery or thriller, underneath it’s a history of mathematics, beginning with Thales of ancient Greece and his measurement of the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza using geometry. The late Denis Guedj, a professor of the history of science, wrapped a series of short lectures within a modestly engaging plot, which is sparked by the gift to a bookseller in Paris of a major library of rare mathematics books (a device which attracted me to The Parrot’s Theorem in the first place). Since I occasionally talk about the history of mathematics using rare books, The Parrot’s Theorem was a good course of study. About two-thirds of the way through, though, I began to find the equations and diagrams very slow going, and felt much as I did during my fourth quarter of calculus in college, when what had seemed fairly simple suddenly became desperately hard – proof, surely, of the truth in Euclid’s statement to Ptolemy II that ‘there is no royal road to geometry’, and no easy path either to algebra, trigonometry, and so forth. These days, I don’t have much use for higher mathematics, but am glad I studied as much as I did, and have had an interest in it ever since the day in 10th grade algebra when the teacher pointed out that mathematics is a language, a way of expressing facts and concepts more concisely than we can do with words – an epiphany I’ve never forgotten.
Images: Dust-jacket for Helvetica and the New York City Subway System; cover for Cutting through the Colleges.