Week 2

Monday

→ Burmese and Pali, with Nancy Cunningham
Nancy is a lexicographer, and a friend of Ben’s. She came to the department in the morning to introduce us to Burmese. Burmese is a descendant of Brahmi, and was added to the Unicode Standard in 1999 (though it became very useful only after major issues were resolved with version 5.2 that was released in 2009). Today, the script has less than a dozen Unicode compliant typefaces.

Learning the basics of Burmese was a lot of fun. It also made me realize, once again, what a privilege it has been to have learned both Latin and Devanagari as a child. This means that the threshold at which scripts start to look far too complex or different is higher than if I had only known one of them.

→ Typographic Delights, with Michael Twynman
We had our first session with Michael Twynman. He talked about real documents, and how we now are used to dealing with only surrogate copies. There is information that only real documents can give us, the most obvious of them being able to verify their authenticity. What he asked us to do again and again, was to look. We can only notice things when our eyes are really open. Without that we can’t ask any questions or find any answers.

We looked at French posters, and next week we will look at (and compare) English posters from the same period of about the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century.

I loved looking at characters that had been rotated and used as diacritical marks for type set in larger sizes, especially, in full caps. The problem of diacritical marks, Michael said, was not restricted to type manufacturers and their willingness to offer them, but also to the printer. When setting uppercase letters with marks on them, the empty space on the left and right of the mark would have to be meticulously filled as well. Printers weren’t always willing to do that.

Notice the cedilla in français in the first image, and the circumflex and acute in arrêté in the second.

Tuesday

→ History of Letterforms, with James Mosley
Taking off from where he left us last time, James Mosley finished his introduction to the uppercase letters, and then moved on to the lowercase ones. We looked at the possible origins of the serif, and of the ampersand symbol. He shared with us the website launched by the French cultural ministry in commemoration of 450 years since Claude Garamont’s death. The website is (quite obviously) in French, though an English version is expected soon. Since my half-broken French can only take me so far, I’ve been looking at at their collection of images.

→ Morning and afternoon with Gerry
Most of the class had shared their ideas for the practical projects with Gerry last week, and we spent most of the morning discussing these ideas. He also reviewed our sketches from last week. I’ve been trying my hand with calligraphy, so my letters ended up borrowing quite a bit from that. I’ve been warned to not fall in to the trap of only looking to calligraphy.

Wednesday
I spent Wednesday drawing, starting afresh. My first aim was to try to work out the correct proportions between the x-height and the stroke width. We’ve been talking again and again in our sessions with Gerry about the relationship between the thicks and thins of the letter, and how horizontal strokes meet vertical ones. This was my focus. I wish I could say that was enough to get me going, but it wasn’t. I felt a bit lost and started with some Devanagari letters instead. That got me some shapes I liked, but I couldn’t translate them to the Latin letters very well.

Thursday
Thursday was the first day of TypoLondon. We had a brief session to review our latest sketches before everyone left for London. I was glad that Gerry saw potential in the same shapes I had liked from my drawings. Of course that left me with the same problem of visualizing how they could be of use in my Latin drawings.

A couple of people in class had digitized the letters in the test word a/d/h/e/s/i/o/n, and set dummy text with their designs. Working fast is important, and I need to get over my FontLab-phobia. Unless I digitize some of my drawings, there is no way to know how one can replicate the essence of a sketch into vector outlines, or how the letters look in sizes they have to function at. Seeing other people do it was a push in the right direction.

Friday and Saturday
The weekend was spent at TypoLondon. My favorite talks were by Tim Fendley about urban way-finding and Michael B. Jonhson about the process and tools that go into making movies at Pixar. What made these talks great was that while the speakers were showing us their own work (like most speakers), they spoke about the problems they had set out to solve, the false starts and how they eventually got to a solution. I find hearing people talk about their design process so much more useful than simply watch them run through a showcase of their work.

So much of what Michael B. Johnson said could be applied to type design. There were two things that I especially needed to hear:

“I don’t know what to do next! – Well, do something so we can change it!”

“It’s not about being real, its about being believable.”

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