Helvetica is Jan

August 8th, 2014 by Sean
Neue Haas Grotesk, Christian Schwartz, 2004

Neue Haas Grotesk, Christian Schwartz, 2004

Speaking after Stefan Sagmeister at a conference is a bad idea. I’ve done this many times. It’s not that Stefan is nothing less than a true gentleman and good friend, it’s that when he finishes, I can look out at the audience from the side of the stage and see people streaming out en masse. “Well that’s what I came for, time to go,” they must be saying. I’m not crazy about doing this, as I tend to come off as, “and now for the easy listening break.”

Years ago, I spoke at a conference following someone, not as generous as Stefan, who was one of the hip and cool designers at that time. She talked about the critical theory and deconstruction of meaning regarding a logo she designed that looked exactly like Helvetica, but the crossbar of the “A” was removed. People seemed enthralled. I just thought, “and…”

Now, I’ve become that person, waxing on about the importance of the differences between Haas Grotesk and Helvetica. Sorry. I know everyone has a major hard-on for Helvetica, but I can’t look at it as anything but the less attractive sister of Haas Grotesk, like Jan and Marsha. Originally, Helvetica was Haas Grotesk, but over time changes were made for expediency. Christian Schwartz redrew Haas Grotesk in 2004, based on Max Miedinger‘s 1957 version.

Compared to standard issue system Helvetica, it’s elegant, crisp, warm, and legible. It doesn’t suffer from the “generic” look of Helvetica. I’ve been using it probably more than I should. I promise, however, to not talk endlessly about the lower case “r” at my next lecture. Maybe just a little.

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Haas Grotesk (L) Helvetica (R)

Haas Grotesk (L) Helvetica (R)

Helvetica in Switzerland

Helvetica in Switzerland

Helvetica in Switzerland

Helvetica in Switzerland

 

Dynasty

July 31st, 2014 by Sean
King Edward II

King Edward II

King Edward III

King Edward III

Several readers have sent me notes asking for a family history post. So, I’m heading way, way back for this one to 1295 AD. The story of my 17th grandmother and 17th grandfather is filled with soap opera drama.

Isabella de Capet of France, also known as the she-wolf of France, was the only surviving daughter of Philip IV, King of France (16th grandfather). She was engaged to King Edward II of England as a child to cement a treaty between England and France.

The fun begins when she marries Edward II. It seems that he enjoys the company of young men, his “favorite” when they married, Piers Gaveston. Obviously this can cause discord in a marriage. Gaveston ends up being captured and executed by angry Barons who weren’t too keen on Edward’s policies and unorthodox arrangement. After a failed campaign to conquer the Scots, Edward was even more unpopular.

Now, he took up with a new favorite, Hugh de Spencer (yet another 17th grandfather). For several years, Edward and de Spencer imprisoned and executed enemies, confiscated lands from the barons, and punished extended family members and courtiers. Eventually, Edward and de Spencer confiscated all of Isabella’s lands and imprisoned her. This was a good sign to Isabella that the marriage wasn’t really working well.

Isabella returned to France and began an affair with Sir Roger Mortimer (18th grandfather). Together, they raised an army and returned to England to dethrone Edward II. Edward and de Spencer fled London, but were captured by Isabella and Mortimer’s forces. She had de Spencer hanged, castrated, disemboweled, drawn and quartered. She was very mad. Edward was forced to abdicate the crown to his son, Edward III (16th grandfather).

Now, the story gets confusing. The official story was that Edward II fell and died while imprisoned. Rumors spread that Isabella had him murdered with, sorry for the graphic part here, a red hot poker put up his rectum. Recently historians have argued that evidence points to Edward escaping and living the rest of his life as a hermit.

Isabella and Mortimer now thought they had it all wrapped up. Edward III was too young to rule, so they were ruling England, making lots of money, and everything seemed swell. But when Isabella became pregnant with Mortimer’s child, which would have created a new heir, Edward III was pissed. So he raided their castle, captured Mortimer and had him executed, even after Isabella begged for his life saying, “Fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer!”

Edward III took on his role as King of England and exiled his mother to Norfolk. She lived well, as one of the richest women in England and died at 62. She was buried with Edward II’s heart. This is real life, and so much more exciting than Game of Thrones.

Isabella de Capet of France, played by Aure Atika, World Without End

Isabella de Capet of France, played by Aure Atika, World Without End

Inspection of Piers Gaveston's head

Inspection of Piers Gaveston’s head

Execution of Hugh de Spencer

Execution of Hugh de Spencer

Isabella and Roger Mortimer

Isabella and Roger Mortimer

Isabella accepts Edward II's crown

Isabella accepts Edward II’s crown

Edward II, played by Blake Ritson, World Without End

Edward II, played by Blake Ritson, World Without End

King Edward II, played by Ben Chaplin, World Without End

King Edward II, played by Ben Chaplin, World Without End

Ho in Hawaii

July 29th, 2014 by Sean
Blackwood Brothers Quartet, Paradise Island, album cover

Blackwood Brothers Quartet, Paradise Island, album cover

 

Hawaiian Polka Tour, album cover

Hawaiian Polka Tour, album cover

I was waiting with my nephew, Chance, outside the Haunted Mansion and asked him about his favorite bands. Of course I didn’t expect to know any of the ones he said; he’s a teenager. When he asked me, I told him I liked older music like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney.

I’m sure this felt like talking to someone from ancient Mesopotamia to him, but he’s always polite, and said, “I like them too.” I didn’t reveal the more embarrassingly uncool truth, that I like cheesy Hawaiian music. Sure I appreciate the authentic Hawaiian music, but I have a soft spot for the schlocky stuff.

I buy many of these records at Amoeba Records. They’re always in the 99 cent bin, or left outside to be taken away free. Clearly there is low demand for Don Ho’s Hawaii-Ho (which is not about prostitutes on Waikiki).

Yes, sometimes they are too bad, even for me. The Blackwood Brothers Quartet album cover reads as either a gay wedding or white party, but it turned out to be gospel music in a Hawaiian style. I don’t know what happened to the actual record, but the cover for Hawaiian Polka Tour with Eddie Blazonczyck’s Versatones is remarkable. You can’t ignore the Jim Jones style portrait on the cover.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the design is not half bad. Alfred Apaka’s Hawaiian Favorites, the Ilikai Hotel’s Music of Hawaii, and of course, Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii are classics. There’s some good letterforms too. I assume the message with these is, “primitive, wacky, and carefree.” That sounds like my normal weekend.

Ilikai Hotel Music of Hawaii, album cover

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Alfred Apaka, Hawaiian Favorites, album cover

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Refined Manners

July 24th, 2014 by Sean
London Guide, Herb Lester Associates, Anna Hurley, 2013

London Guide, Herb Lester Associates, Anna Hurley, 2013

Here’s one of the differences between being a surgeon and a designer: surgeons are required to be meticulous and have an OCD level to details. If they are, in most probability, people live and have healthy outcomes. Designers are required to be meticulous and have an OCD level to details also. If we are, nobody except another OCD designer notices. The upside is that bad word-spacing doesn’t kill people.

I can spend hours kerning the crap out of a headline. Does anyone apart from me care, or notice? Probably not. We zoom in to a gazillion percent to make sure a point is absolutely precise, obsess over the difference between Adobe Bodoni and Monotype Bodoni. But of we didn’t, we’d be slobs and hack designers, and it wouldn’t be as much fun.

Herb Lester Associates produces a wonderful collection of guides to different cities. Let’s face it, most city guides look like the Map to the Stars Homes. The Herb Lester guides are not only pertinent to travelers who prefer something more interesting than mobbed, but are detailed to death. Every tiny piece of type has been considered. The illustrations are wonderful and change from map to map. I know the designers were working on a the files at 400%, and it shows. Even the packing tape on the envelope is a work of art (which I plan to steal).

In this instance, I noticed. Every thoughtful and beautifully crafted detail adds to the overall extraordinariness of the guides. The lesson here, go ahead and fine tune the shit out of the details. If only one person in the world sees it, you’ve succeeded.

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Mutilated Bodies

July 14th, 2014 by Sean
Herb Lubalin poster, Davida Typeface, Louis Minott, 1965

Herb Lubalin poster, Davida Typeface, Louis Minott, 1965

Some fonts are bad. They are like that photo of a horrible car crash that you can never unsee. It’s not because they are cursed or especially ugly (well, some are), it’s because they have been mutilated and left to die. As I’ve grown older, I’m drawn to typefaces that may, perhaps, strain the limits of good taste.

Last week, I used Davida, designed by Louis Minott in 1965, on an annual report project. Noreen suggested I was not following the corporate system and could be opening the door to future infractions. I saw it as adding some zest and excitement. I see so much good taste sans-serif typography on a daily basis that I’m starving for something wrong.

The problem was getting a good cut of Davida. The original is really well drawn and formed. But someone along the way discovered it in the bin of forgotten typefaces and beat it regularly. The digital version is a far cry from where it began. It’s been around the block. My only choice is to redraw it myself and try to save it.

The lesson here is to find the original version of any font, see what it was meant to be before someone redrew it in a dark basement. I pledge to continue to rehabilitate Davida regardless of the current typographic style du jour.

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