Joe Clark: Design


Personal typographic Web sites are giving the musty, elitist field of typography is a stiff kick in the keister

[First published in the “LV:VI” issue of Print, 2002]

I grew up in the hick province of New Brunswick. (Eastern Canada. Think Mississippi, but with coarse French accents.) While the other kids my age were out running the streets and sniffing glue, I sat at home memorizing the Letraset catalogue and counting the days until the next baffling issue of U&lc arrived in the mail. Worse than being the only smart kid in class (as I usually was) and the only gay kid in school (as I apparently was), being the only kid who knew the name the font of every word I read was a heavy burden to bear. I was all alone in my typographic obsession.

Kids growing up today are lucky. They’ve got the Internet, so nobody needs to feel alone anymore. Kids can be smart or gay, no problem, because there are tons of smart and/or gay kids to chat with online. Screen names provide comforting anonymity. Smart and/or gay kids have their own damn Web sites. And guess what? So do typographic obsessifs. Personal typographic Web sites – TypoBlogs – are dragging the field of typography, with its galactic timescales and tradition of gentility, into the rough-and-tumble instantaneity of the Web.

If your experience of the Web dates all the way back to 1999 (“I finally gave in and got AOL”) or consists of Microsoft Hotmail, Microsoft Outlook Express, and indeed Microsoft Windows, this “blog” terminology may be new to you. Weblogs are sites run by individuals or small groups of like-minded people, usually of two types: Links to other sites (usually added several times a day and surrounded by short pithy commentary) on the one hand and diaries or journals on the other. The speed tribes of the Web deemed the twin syllables of Weblog too onerous, truncating it to blog (also a verb).

If all you read is the corporate Web, you’d never know that literally tens of thousands of blogs are online. (I run four five myself.) And a small coterie of TypoBlogs give you fodder for your typographic obsessions seven days a week. There’s quite a range of styles: Strict links and commentary; personal diatribe–slash–crusading for improved populist typography; sell fonts and publish essays.

The whole point of Weblogs is personal expression. If that conjures sick-making images of interpretive dancing and leopard-print leg warmers, then let’s restate the claim: The whole point of blogs is personality, something that has always been effaced by the dignified print medium. (Beatrice Warde, crystal goblet, etc.)

TypoBlogs boast a sort of Sigmund Freud, a source to which all successors must pay homage, in the form of Lines & Splines, run by – well, let’s just do a copy and paste from its About page: “My name is Andy Crewdson and I’m a 21-year-old student at UC Berkeley. The phrase ‘Lines & Splines’ refers to a way letters can be constructed on the computer; digital fonts are often comprised of equations which describe how points, lines and curves (splines) combine to create a glyph.” Futurologists who track the speed of uptake of new technologies (microwave oven, answering machine, fax, computer, Internet) could write an entire thesis on Lines & Splines, which became instantly and universally known among online type fans upon its inauguration on October 2, 2000 (at

Crewdson writes a “classic” links-and-commentary blog with a simple, even rudimentary single dual-column design. (No wild, animated “Flashturbation” here.) But his typographic scholarship borders on the terrifying, with the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of hot-metal type you can only get from spending weeks in musty library stacks, to say nothing of mid-century photosetting fonts and everything that’s going on in digital type. When I was 21, I could barely tie my shoelaces.

The net is a platform of irony and contradiction. It permits a combined openness and secrecy. Through its mixture of written medium and conversational tone, it encourages passive-aggression. Crewdson is an exemplar: He runs a public Weblog but refuses to be interviewed. Interviewed any more, that is; I managed to conduct an E-mail interview for one of my Weblogs in 2000. But an extended E-mail exchange with Crewdson for this article followed predictable Internet patterns, quickly deteriorating into a shouting match after he renegged on initially agreeing to be interviewed. And again in predictable Internet fashion, neither of us innocent here, including me: I kvetched and whined and told him he’d lost a faithful fan, to which Crewdson pulled a Groucho Marx and responded “I wouldn’t want any ‘fan’ who would base an article around me.”

So let’s branch further out on the tree. What do you think of Lines & Splines, Dean Allen? “Andy pisses me off. Some opinions of his are so sure and informed, nothing at all like I would have carried off at 21,” says the Vancouver Pompignan book designer/editor. Allen’s own TypoBlog,, overflows with the best kind of sarcasm (the hilarious kind), plus a range of tutorials and utilities. Flash movies cover “The Evolution of Writing” and the only 20 book typefaces Allen considers worth talking about (no Flashturbation here), while free utilities clean the crud out of Microsoft Word’s exported HTML and automate writing HTML in a plain-text editor.

Allen and I conversed via instant messaging. (It’s not just for bobbysoxers anymore.) “I champion universal access to publishing,” Allen says, “and, as much as I frown and fret over ‘perfect’ type design, I don’t think that thinking about type and text deserves the shoddy treatment given it by highfalutin’ typesnobs. Knowledge of type is wrapped up in this Masonic guild mentality; those who have it guard it closely. ‘I worked hard to gather this knowledge, this taste, and you don’t deserve access to it.’ Listen to the lisping twats of Typo-L, fer chrissakes,” he adds, referring to the leading online mailing list on typography. “Most of the instructors in graphic design programs were themselves educated in a time wherein type was something produced from their pencil sketch by a professional.”

Back on the topic of Crewdson: “Actually, scratch that last bit,” Allen writes. “He’s bright, eager, interested in the right things.... I like that he’s not all nancy-boy about the site; he’s happy to leave things unpretty.”

It’s not as though he – or anyone else – has much choice. The Web’s coarse screen resolution and the unpredictable installed typefaces of a typical Web-surfer’s computer are brought to bear to expound upon high-resolution typefaces. (The Web is a platform of irony, remember.) It’s a trend that is displacing the age-old class structure of typography.

When the only medium in which to discuss print was print itself, discourse was expensive. You had better have a good reason to write, design, typeset, print, and ship your typographic treatise, because it’s sure gonna cost you. Magazines on typography per se, as opposed to those with a catholic focus on “graphics,” “all eventually die or fade out because you can’t go on knocking your head against the wall forever,” says David Michaelides, co-owner of the Canadian FontShop franchise in Toronto (interviewed by voice telephone – he’s oldschool). “There is no money to be made. Quite the opposite –eventually you run out of money. [Lines & Splines is] in some ways a replacement for a combination of Fine Print and U&lc on a much smaller and much more personal level than either of those... but the only thing it’s costing the fellow is energy and time, which he may well run out of."

Looking back at the typophilia of my youth, there was a marked emphasis on coverage of two genres: Very prestigious Important Books (turgid, seldom-read volumes that win type-design accolades from the usual suspects but gather dust on shelves) and Manhattan advertising awards. Type specimens were a sort of hermetic, onanistic subgenre useful only unto themselves; type houses seemed reluctant to use actual words, actual prose, actual text to epitomize their typefaces. (How many times did I read the meaningless phrase “26 good reasons to use ITC [typeface name]” in the International Typeface Corp. specimen books I spent so much money mail-ordering?)

It seemed important to defend typography as an Important Artistic Form against the dark wolves of base utilitarianism baying at its doorstep. After all, the same technologies that typeset James Joyce and Stanley Morison worked just as well to typeset supermarket flyers, shop manuals, and pornography, which the elites conveniently segregated into the gulag of “vernacular” typography. It was pros vs. the amateurs, in other words – or, seen less charitably, the quarterbacks and cheerleaders vs. the geeks and nerds. But now, the same Web that’s home to eBay and, indeed, oceans of pornography also hosts TypoBlogs.

Allen disputes this history, which he sees as true “only for a brief period of the last century. Previous to that, the typographer was often also printer, bookseller, editor, publisher,” very much tied into actual words. And Michaelides asserts that “in point of fact, there were huge amounts of ephemeral material, whether things like the Monotype Recorder, which sort of split the difference between writing about fine typography, about fine-press work and that sort of thing, and writing about commercial and practical issues of typesetting; and trade publications and catalogues from purely commercial lettering houses like Andreesen or SWolor or Photo-Lettering New York. One certainly couldn’t look at Photo-Lettering’s catalogues and accuse them of being elitist or snobbish or oriented towards the artisitic use of typography. The same would be true of Lettering Services or most of the catalogues of those companies that did the bulk of at least advertising and display and packaging typography for decades.”

He continues (and remember, this is all by voice – Michaelides is oldschool and prolix): “There were huge amounts of literature produced about commerical lettering, about optical lettering systems, whether it was Typositor or Starmat systems or hand-assembly or whatever it was, not to mention Letraset, that just gets ignored as though it’s not part of the books about books or the typographic literature.”

All right, then. My history isn’t the only one. I can live with a little poststructuralism. Now, though, the TypoBloggers are writing a history of their own – a history of the entirety of typography up to and including the very present day, written in the present day and read that same present day. But type sites are analyzing typography using a medium so inimical to the subject that special screenfonts had to be custom-engineered to assure simple legibility. Georgia and Verdana are the quarterback and cheerleader here, designed by Matthew Carter, hinted by Tom Rickner, and distributed free of charge by Microsoft, which commissioned them.

Actually, even those fonts are insufficient; the Web tosses more obstacles to simple legibility in the designer’s path. Dean Allen: “The majority of effort I put into ‘design’ of my sites isn’t about design as dressing, it’s about overcoming the impediments to reading that are found in plain [text] delivery... bad hinting, solid leading, potentially marathon line lengths, terrible jittery colour, bad linebreaks, unclear structural hierarchy.”

“In the end, on screen all typefaces at certain size [and] resolution look similar,” counters Jean-François Porchez. Unlike Allen, Crewdson, and Michaelides, Porchez is an actual type designer (Angie, Apolline, Parisine, and a range of custom fonts for Le Monde, among others).

Porchez’s site, (also, which resolves to the same address), barely fits the traditional Weblog mould, given that it carries only a few journalistic articles in its Gazette section. (Heck, one of them carries the title “Where are the Typonews Web Sites?” It’s not as though you have to look very hard for them.) At first blush, the site seems to be all about Porchez faces, and as such, it serves as the face of Porchez. The man is prodigious, able to sketch the basic outlines of a new typeface in a single afternoon. He’s a bit shy about his English (which is more than serviceable), but in person he is nonetheless able to advance very learned but instantly understandable points about traditional book and newspaper typography – exactly the sort of thing that blocky Web sites militate against.

Given these lemons, Porchez chooses to make lemonade, offering large-format type specimens, well-chosen text typography (in Georgia and Verdana, natch), and a creamy earth-tone palette. Porchez also avails himself of the standard cheat of online display typography – working up a display block in Photoshop and uploading it as a GIF. The result is a site that feels learned but not twee and constipated, technically up-to-date but focused on the Venetian, Garalde, and Art Deco styles of antiquity.

Porchez’s site started in 1997 “with some printed material I had in hand, such the new Le Monde [typeface] specimen just produced then. If you’re interested in some good articles on type, then you’ll you come back to the Web site and finally buy a font one day. But that’s not the main reason. I just like to share views on typography.

“Also I’m influenced by French people such Gérard Blanchard. Until his death in 1998, I enjoyed discussing and exchanging views on typography with him. It’s the Rencontres de Lure phenomenon,” Porchez says, referring to type meetings held monthly in Paris and little-known outside France.

Indeed, TypoBlogs make it possible to carry on actual conversations about typography. (Again, no more sitting in your lonely room moonily fingering Letraset flashcards.) Except that irony and contradiction raise their heads again. Unlike the Rencontres face-to-face meetings, or instant messaging, or a mailing list like Typo-L, TypoBloggers are talking at each other rather than with.

“Is a conversation about typography?” asks Erik van Blokland, half of the kooky Dutch type–programming–design duo LettError. “ is a monologue,” his partner, Just van Rossum, instant-messages in response. (I had to twist van Rossum’s arm to sully himself by using the instant-messaging medium. For him, it’s E-mail or bust.)

There was even some dispute as to whether is more of a business. I sat there and let “Just-n-Erik” argue back and forth about how little lucre the site brings in, if it serves as a kind of credibility device for clients already interested in them, or acts as a playground. “We’re just complaining about our own inability to set up something profitable,” van Rossum wrote in apology, suddenly remembering my continued presence.

But truly, you can’t ask for more personality than Just-n-Erik’s, the merry pranksters who view type as programming. (The Beowolf typeface never prints the same way twice, and Just-n-Erik invented entire subroutines to create the internal cross-hatching of the Federal family.) To paraphrase Wilde, leaves the impression that typography is too important to be taken seriously.

This could be the triumph of the TypoBlog, the personal typographic Web site: Taking typography down a notch. There won’t be any more aficionados, only fans, just as nitro-burning monster trucks have fans rather than aficionados. “The book arts in general have always attracted the individuals with the collector mentality,” says David Michaelides. “A certain portion of the subculture of typography is composed of individuals with compulsive collecting manias.... Even serious practical typographers, career typographers who are not in it purely for interest’s sake, can virtually never resist the temptation to identify a typeface.

“It’s the nature of typography that it is an encyclopedic field. It’s a kind of taxonomy very similar to biological taxonomy – perfect for 18th-century scholars in the naturalistic scheeme, and perfect for the obsessive crank.”

“Those with an interest in type are furious researchers, jealous of other’s knowledge,” says Dean Allen. “The Web is the ideal arena for the exchange of maniacally detailed opinion. What used to be solitary, quiet work now happens in cubicle mosh pits.”

And the kicker? Andy Crewdson is now running his own interviews on Lines & Splines.

Updated 2002.05.03

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