A love letter to letterpress


Ampersand Duck is setting a book of poetry the slow way, and writing very affectionately about it.

You want the type to be invisible in a way, to let the meaning of the words exist independently. If a word is leaping out at you because it’s thick, dull and broken, it’s unfair to the reader. But the warmth of a handprinted page is delightful, ranging from dark greys to a dense black. It’s a small challenge for the spoilt eyes of a modern reader, to whom variety in print quality means the ink heads are a bit clogged, something to be fixed. It is the finite (and rapidly dwindling) number of letters that made me think about the preciousness of words set or written by hand. Poets are, by their nature, careful with words. It is a marvellous experience to get so intimate with a piece of writing. You may think your eyes and your mind caress a word as you read it, but imagine holding that word, piece by piece, and thinking about all its layers and nuances as you ease it into place (albeit upside down and back to front!).

(Sigh.) Sounds like fun.

Photo: proof_1 by Ampersand Duck; some rights reserved.

Is an educated author our best customer?

unhappy author at work on an earlier stage of the book

At the beginning of this week, I spent part of my lunch hour at the cafeteria (aka Whole Foods) casually consulting with a friend of a friend who’s checking the page proofs for her first book. It’s an anthology of articles about filmmaking, and it’s being brought forth by a reputable publisher of scholarly and professional books. Unfortunately for the author, her publisher is determined to produce the book as cheaply as possible: completely generic and poorly thought-out design, executed by apparently quite error-prone compositors in Hong Kong. She loathes the display type, she doubts the wisdom of the layout, she’s unhappy with the cover, . . . and her publisher has been fighting her at every step, since the moment the contract was signed. All in all, she’s not having a very warm and fuzzy experience as a first-time author.

And I’m torn, because she’s right—the interior design is hideous, and a lot of the layout choices just don’t make sense. For instance, perhaps half of the articles are interviews, and they’ve been indented on both sides, for their entire length. This wastes so much space that the body type in the book as a whole has had to be squeezed down quite small in order to make castoff. The design of the epigraphs and head notes is also ill-considered, and the front matter and display type throughout are extremely homely: too many fonts, too many styles, and utterly random indents throughout.

These are problems that a competent book designer/compositor, such as, oh, me or the designer friend through whom I know this person, could fix in one to two hours. I am dead certain that I could make the whole thing look much more inviting and coherent, while sticking to the desired page count, in less time than it will take the distraught author to mark up every single chapter title to be even small caps instead of caps + hideous fake small caps, as my friend and I cautiously recommended.

At the same time, however, looking wincingly at her stack of proofs, covered with Post-Its and liberally scrawled with deletions and additions, wordy corrections using nonstandard proofreading symbols, and requests for global layout changes, I deeply pity and sympathize with her editor and production crew. Continue reading “Is an educated author our best customer?”

Know Your Competition

street arm wrestling

I was going to delete this spam comment (which I’ve received twice now) without remark—

Author: Francisco Quia-ot
E-mail: francisco@datastyling.com
URL: http://www.datastyling.com


Hire our employee for only $590/month (6 days/week/8:00 am – 5:00 pm).

Welcome at datastyling.com

Having an appealing and eye catching book cover design and a book interior design that is consistent with the cover will really make a difference in the success and marketability of your book. We look forward to hearing from you and creating a beautiful book cover and/or interior for you.

Please email(francisco@datastyling.com) for more details.

—but then I thought, Wait, maybe this company actually exists.
Continue reading “Know Your Competition”

Cheap Paperbacks

useful paperbacks

Today is your last day to buy Dino dos Santos’s typefaces at 50 percent off, but you have an entire month to scoop up goodies from House Industries at a discount.

Sale items include Neutraface, which I’ve had to work with several times and been annoyed by (something about unthoughtful OpenType setup—two jobs ago; I’ve forgotten now), but which some people like the look of, and Chalet, which I remember there being a lot of buzz about when it came out.

What I’m most interested in, though, is Paperback by John Downer (whose TypeCon presentation was one of the ones that made me cringe painfully; but I’m sure he’s very good at designing type). I first read about this when I was designing a lot of swill, and it sounded to me like a useful typeface to have.
Continue reading “Cheap Paperbacks”

These are the good old days


Hey! I actually read a Design Observer article all the way to the end! From Our Little Secret by Michael Bierut (whose name, is it just me?, always grates on my brain as a typo):

As a young designer in his first real job in 1980, I learned that this made typography a high-stakes game. It went like this. You’d get a manuscript from a client, say 20 pages of Courier (although no one called it Courier, or even thought of it that way). You’d have to calculate how many characters were in the manuscript the old fashioned way—no Microsoft Word, no word count tools—by counting characters per line, then total number of lines, then doing the math. Next you’d have to decide out what text typeface you wanted to use, what size and what measure. Finally, you’d refer to a copyfitting table to see how long the columns would run: more math. If it seemed like this figure would fit the layout, you’d mark up the manuscript and send it to a typesetter. It would be back, set in beautiful type the following morning, galley after crisp, clean galley of it. If it fit, good for you. If it ran long, guess what? You just lost $250, stupid.

. . . It was a system that rewarded deliberate planning, not creative experimentation. You found yourself repeatedly specifying certain fonts just because you knew how they would set: after a few years I could make a pretty accurate guess about how long a typewritten manuscript would run in Garamond #3 (12 on 13, flush left, ragged right on a 30 pica column measure) just by looking at it. So I set a lot of Garamond #3.

So, here’s my flippant comment: Not much has changed for those publishers that still send their books out to to be typeset. At the job I just left, this is still how they do castoff, this is still how most of the designers choose body type and estimate length, and this is probably still how the typesetter bills. (I don’t know how much they charged us to rerun a book that didn’t make castoff on the first try, but I’m sure it wasn’t free. I’d guess that it cost less than $250, but only because if it had cost that much, I’m sure someone would have scolded me at some point—I had a lot of do-overs for a stretch, there.)

Anybody seen Helvetica or going to see it tonight? (Me, I’m waiting for it to come to Netflix, as I do with every movie.) If so, please report on how many people in attendance were wearing appropriately typographic garments.

Choosing text type

There’s a nice little article that’s been doing the linky rounds called 15 tips to choose a good text type, by Juan Pablo De Gregorio, a Chilean graphic designer and a typographer. (I saw it most recently at Coudal Partners, who got it from Andy Rutledge.)

I was already thinking about this, as the famed David Moldawer asked me about it a couple of months ago, but I’m not sure I can unravel the selection process very articulately. Most of Señor De Gregorio’s advice has to do with legibility, and that is, indeed, a very big concern. But then how do you choose among the hundreds of typefaces that are quite legible, inoffensive, and suitable for text? Continue reading “Choosing text type”

Checking Proofs

How much of a designer’s work consists of actual designing as opposed to meeting, doing paperwork, fiddling with FTP software, watching YouTube, organizing bloated font libraries, etc.? It depends on what kind of design you do, and what kind of place you work, but for most designers I’d guess that designing proper accounts for less than half of their time at work. Maybe less than a third. Of course, designers also tend to be constantly thinking about design, so you could say they’re designing around the clock; but while their heads are doing one thing, their hands are quite likely having to do another much less interesting thing.

For me, the bulk of my job consists of checking proofs. Not proofreading, which we hire someone to do, nor comparing old and new passes of a manuscript to make sure editorial corrections have been made correctly, which the production editor does, but checking for layout errors. There’s plenty of instruction on regular proofreading to be had (I recommend Mark My Words, if you want to go the book route; I’ve never taken a class in it myself, but I know many who’ve done so at NYU and the New School in NYC), but nobody’s ever told me how to check page layouts.

Well, not nobody. On my first or second day at this job, my teammate gave me a stack of manuscript and said to look for “weirdness.” That’s a bit vague for me, so in the past six months, I’ve come up with my own system:

Proofing notes

Hello, my name is India, and I am a geek. Continue reading “Checking Proofs”

Memo to Editorial

Just sent, re a book that I redesigned twice, and whose trim size changed midstream:

Dear [X]/[Y],

I’m not sure whose query this is on the design approval memo, but in answer to the question of whether the castoff (352) is “shorter now because of [larger]-size,” uh, yesish.

I managed to make the [smaller]-size design come in at 384 (castoff was a tight 400) by using Stone Print, a condensed typeface intended for use in magazines with narrow columns. The final design uses Plantin, an average-width typeface more suited to extended reading in book format. So we lost some pages to the trim change and gained a few for readability.

The result is that overall the book is shorter, but not so much shorter as it would be had I merely widened the original design to fit the new margins. Had I widened the original design, it would have become repellent—it’s difficult to continuously read text that is more than about 70 characters wide. Your eyes can’t easily jump from the end of one line to the beginning of the next; your brain can’t hold the sentences together as well. Besides that, it looks cheap and unprofessional. And it makes babies cry.

Bad typography is, in fact, the reason why most babies cry. Now you know.

I hope that answers your question.

Yr hmbl srvnt,

India Amos

I only didn’t cite sources because, well, my dog ate them.

And then a cockroach ate my dog.

A letterpress talkie

If you liked the Heidelberg porn from a while back, you may also enjoy this charming short film by Chuck Kraemer about Firefly Press in Somerville, MA. It has moving people and voices in it!

It’s hosted at the Web site of portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. There’s also a higher-resolution version (17 MB; but don’t wantonly hog her bandwidth—consider making a donation), as well as some background information.

(Via Coudal Partners.)