Michael Bierut on typography
March 17, 2008 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Michael Bierut Talks Typography with ‘The Atlantic’ "In a video interview with The Atlantic, Michael Beirut talks about typography, including Stanley Kubrick’s favorite font, the cover design of The Catcher in the Rye, and the link between phototypesetting and Free Love." (8 min) via
posted by vronsky (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoy how lets the audience in on some private jokes -- the AT&T article is set in the phone book's Bell Gothic font, for instance.

I kept hoping somewhere in the course of the interview, we'd learn why the camera isn't focused on the speaker, but rather, on the concrete column behind him. Perhaps when the Atlantic has an essay on taped interviews, we'll find out.
posted by borborygmi at 2:11 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Futura is my favorite font too.
posted by hellphish at 2:48 PM on March 17, 2008

Every time someone makes an FPP about typography, I always want to mention that I used to hang out with the guy who invented Hoeffler. Not that this adds anything to the discussion really, I just like to feel like I have something to contribute.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 2:55 PM on March 17, 2008

MetaFilter: Not that this adds anything to the discussion really
posted by Doohickie at 3:03 PM on March 17, 2008

Jonathan Hoefler's dad?
posted by BaxterG4 at 3:05 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Michale Bierut was one of my favorite things about Helvetica.

Bierut on Massimo Vignelli's 1972 New York subway map - do check out the comment thread, to quote a friend "the gods walking among us."
posted by needled at 3:27 PM on March 17, 2008

Can someone help me understand why typography is important? Specifically, is it analogous to architecture, where you may not know good design as a science but on a human, emotional level will respond differently to a building/dwelling depending on how much thought went into it's design (i.e. suburban cookie-cutter v. 1800's farm house, etc.)? I sort of get it, in that when I look at something in comic sans it looks juvenile versus other fonts that don't. I guess the whole notion of it being almost its own scientific endeavor is intriguing, sort of like wine and perfume analysis, but as a discipline I've never quite understood its origins.
posted by docpops at 4:54 PM on March 17, 2008

Can someone help me understand why typography is important?

Hoo boy. Big question, here's the example I use often w/design students, but almost everyone can understand this.

Let's consider a resumé, which is essentially your entire life (from an employment angle) expressed as type. If you're making your resumé in a layout program such as Word or InDesign, why might you *not* want to use Times New Roman?

Because Times New Roman is the default, and while it's not a "bad" font per se, the fact that you use it actually says something about you. (I.e. you're the type of person who either doesn't care enough to change it or doesn't know that you're looking like everyone else).

So most smart people don't want to look like everyone else so they will choose another typeface. So the question is, if Times New Roman says something about your personality then won't another type choice also say something about your personality? And wouldn't you want to choose what that is and not just let it be random?

So it's fair to say that type expresses character and personality and in the hands of experienced designers can subtly or loudly convey a message or feeling, in the best examples, the form of the letters enhances the content.
posted by jeremias at 5:16 PM on March 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

jeremias - thanks. That helps.
posted by docpops at 5:31 PM on March 17, 2008

Can someone help me understand why typography is important?

I'm not the best volunteer to answer that question, but I have to say that by what you write you mostly get it.

Typography, the engineering discipline, is in some sense obsolete. In the days of lead type and even in phototype a typeface was a mechanical feat as well as an aesthetic one, because the medium had real physical constraints. Obviously one letter couldn't overlap another. But beyond that are subtler, less obvious problems, such as in lead type how very small angles or counters (such as the loop in a lowercase 'e' in a very small font) can act like an ink reservoir and fill itself when printed.

Type design is liberated of most of that now, but we haven't seen the complete radicalization of text for a few reasons. First and most importantly, we read most efficiently the forms we're used to reading. It's pretty straightforward: You'll recognize an 'E' if it looks more like all the other 'E's you encounter every day for years. So, basically, our minds are pretty conservative. But it's for a better end; you simply don't want to have to think about the characters you're looking at. You want to parse the information and move on.

So new forms are usually derived from old forms. The new forms are tweaked to meet certain needs. For example, on-screen text (television and computers both) benefit from large x-heights, even strokes and wide spacing because, basically, your TV and computer displays are too coarse to handle nuances.

Designing type is not simply a matter of drawing an alphabet, either. The characters all have to fit together just right so that their spacing appears even. Uppercase characters have to harmonize with lowercase characters. Similarly, the bold, italic, bold-italic, demibold, etc. weights all have to be perfectly appropriate. And they all must harmonize with each other. Designing a type family is hardly the effort now that it used to be, but (in my opinion) loses the benefit of a master designer concentrating for days on each character in each typeface.

We're used to typefaces being used in certain ways. Dense narrow columns of a mechanical-looking serif font will always connote a newspaper. Valentines will use script. These are so obvious as to be cliches. Beyond that, purposes have gotten muddled in the past twenty five years thanks to cheap, ubiquitous high-resolution computer output, which allows people to run off their investing newsletters in Comic Sans, or use a banker's all-caps serif face for the sign of their tattoo parlor, and on and on. But -- getting back to our minds being conservative -- your resume will still look better in Helvetica than in Tekton, even if you're applying for a job as a landscape architect, simply because the lettering will get out of the way of the message they're carrying.

You can obey certain rules of thumb to optimize readability; columns should be just-so wide, fonts should be just-so big, spaces between lines should be just so. Good typographers can know how certain fonts will work within these parameters, so one typeface may be more appealing without losing readability when closer together than the rule of thumb dictates. If nothing else, they continually balance the needs of readability and visual appeal, because reading will become boring if it all looks the same.
posted by ardgedee at 6:08 PM on March 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

There was a novel that came out maybe a year ago, and I don't know the title so google fails me, but it had a cover design that matched the patented look of the current Salinger editions (which I love) so closely I nearly shelved it under S until I looked at the name. Then I realized it was by a different author, and the little coloured stripes were in the opposite corner. Then I flipped inside and realized the plot was about a reclusive writer, clearly modeled after Salinger, though not named as such. I thought the cover design was a brilliant way to extend the allusion.

"This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart--but you will never forget it"--boy, they really went to town on those 1950s cover blurbs, didn't they? (The cover of my second-hand paperback copy of The End of the Affair actually uses the phrase "the slut who becomes a saint." I mean, c'mon!)

PS. Bonus points to the video for using Postal Service for the soundtrack.
posted by roombythelake at 12:22 AM on March 19, 2008

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