Typo at Center Stage

November 2nd, 2009 by Bruno Nadeau

Day 1

Typ09 began in style.  Speakers had to adjust to the 360 degrees of audience surrounding them, wishing they had paid more attention to how they appear from behind when practicing their talk. The audience, surrounded by 16 screens displaying the same slide presentations and videos, must decide which one to pay attention to, and end up looking like noone is listening because of each participant’s different focus point.  And, to whoever sets up 16 contiguous screens, please exploit the opportunity of making one connected screen space instead of just duplicating content.

Among the tidbits of information that struck me most, Jan Middendorp presented some really interesting work of hand-lettered book covers of the 50’s and 60’s. One caught my eye more than others, a design by Hermanus Berserik that could have been the long lost relative of Donald Knuth’s Punk font (I couldn’t find the cover online, so if anyone has it please forward).

Soon after that, Francois Chastenet presented his research, which was recently published in “Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles.” Looking back, this was for me one the most interesting talk of the five days of Typ09. I am curious to know more about Chastenet’s comparative study between photography of 1970’s LA and his recent research. From my geeky perspective, I couldn’t help but think of how graffiti, its form and style, creates not only the physical boundary that Chastenet’s was talking about by defining a perimeter, but also creates boundaries between the different groups that interact with the signs. Who writes them, who erases them, who understands them, who doesn’t.

I was looking forward to Alberto Coberto’s talk on “Spanish Type Specimens, and even though I was please to see so many specimens I would never come across, I felt it fell short of what it could have been.  From the title, my expectations where steered in the direction of Alastair Johnston’s “Found Poetry: The Dude Typographers” article found in “Text on Type.” Coberto did poke at the idea when he mentioned, over a single slide, the religious used as content for the one specimen. I would be surprise if this was an exceptional case. As a recent example of interesting type specimen that goes beyond the oh-so-common and boring lorem ipsum or random news headlines, Tipo distributed their type specimen as a nice recipe book, found on the table of free goodies. This leaves me with one problem. Where do I place this ‘book’, on the shelf with other type specimens, or in the kitchen with the cook books?

Day 2

And on the second day Spiekerman spoke. After a morning session that involved too many instances of the word “global” without really digging into the interesting and “honest” (thank you John Downer) reality of type designed today, the work of contemporary Mexican type designers closed the session. However, already after a day and a half, my brain was overflowed with type design, so much that I remember apppreciating the work of comtemporary typography in Mexico, but could not name one that was presented.

Which gets me to Spiekerman’s presentation. This was a great example that all those monotone try-to-talk-about-everything-i’ve-done-in-the-past-until-now presenters should look at and remember the next time to want to entertain an audience. People, pick a subject, no matter how precise and be excited about it. Spiekerman’s talk  about his work designing door numbers for modern furnishing supplier Design Within Reach was inspiring, not because it showed a million typefaces on slides flicked at seizure inducing speed, but because it showed the whole process, its ups and downs.  The first types of numbers are beautiful and designed for certain contexts, and just like any other technology, type is used and abused in ways that type designers could not have even imagined.

Another somewhat unrelated tidbit of information that struck me was the presentation of Chilian artists by Felipe Caceres. The one Chilian artist that caught my attention enough for me to remember is Alejandro Faure (1865-1912). At first sight, and before Caceres mentione the name of the artist, I would have sworn that the art work in front of my eyes was made by Alphons Mucha (1860-1939), a check artist whose work I really appreciate. Given the simililarity of their work, the two artists must been part of the same singles, and everything came together when Caceres mentioned that Faure moved to Paris for a certain period of time, just like Mucha did in 1887. This is something I would like to did further into.

Day 3 (aka First Signs of Type Overdose)

The morning session took us in an interesting direction, from my perspective, that would question some technological issues. One presentation I was looking forward to was Granados and Zenke’r talk on “Reading Technologies” (I’m not sure which one of the two presented). Sadly, this presentation fell short of what it promised. Instead of truly questioning the Amazon Kindle, with its e-ink paper, networking capabilities, and graphical possibilities, the presentation digged itself a hole by complaining about issues pertaining solely to the Kindle’s software. If half the presentation involves slides that show a close-up of the screen of a device, without pertaining to the actual devices, then you should realize that you are talking about a completely different problem. A problem that might be present on the Kindle currently, but that is not tied to the Kindle.

Soon after, Christopher Moore briefly explored the possible uses of e-ink paper in the future, based on, again, the Kindle and one of Esquire magazine’s cover that used the technology. However, ten minutes is no doubt too short to really dig into the subject, Moore started a discussion on a subject that will certainly be more present in the future of the Typ conference. Hopefully, the conference’s organizers will realize that 40 minutes to talk of one persons typeface is often too long and boring (unless they are Dutch and can make it exciting), and that 10 minutes to question a difficult subject is just a tease and leave the audience a little dry.

Day 4

On the fourth day, we presented both workshops, “Computational Typography for Beginners with NextText for Processing” and “Bending Letterforms with Mr. Softie.” The workshops went well, even tough the number of attendees was fairly small, probably due to different reasons. Coding scares people, especially when the workshops are organized in a school or department that might be unrelated to the subject (we had to kick out med students that were having a quiz in the room scheduled for the workshop).

Mr. Softie, which is considerably more user friendly, attracted a few people who actually stuck around, went for a break and came back to play with the software, which was a nice thing to experience. If beta testing is like leaving your children uder  someone else’s supervision for the first time, this might be similar to having the baby-sitter aggreeing to come back a second time, telling you that you kid is, well, baby-sitter friendly. Of the things I might would change for future workshops would be to start the conversation with the attendees earlier.

Day 5

Say no to tuna tacos.