Archive: fonts

This is part 4 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Day four map:

London map day four

This was my final day in London, and my train was at 2pm. So I had only a few hours to spare in the morning, and decided to take in the Design Museum as my final activity in London.

There were two exhibitions on when I visited, both of which are still currently on.

On the first floor is a Terence Conran exhibition. Called The Way We Live Now, the exhibition outlines the massive contributions Terence Conran has made to the British design industry since the 1950s.

On the second floor is Designs of the Year 2012. I found this absolutely fascinating. It’s tempting to think that wandering round looking at these designs is like having a sneak preview of the future. It spans everything from funky lighting to magazine designs; from the Olympic torch to potentially life-saving furniture.

Some of the objects on display were really great contributions to the improvement of the world. Take, for instance, the earthquake-proof table, or the redesign of the ambulance which it is said could reduce hospital admissions by 60%. This is design at its best, with a social conscience.

Sadly, there is currently nothing from the Design Museum’s collection on display. It will be good when it moves to its new, larger premises in 2014.

Design Museum mug: "Good Design = Happy World"

Downstairs there is a great shop with loads of cool design-related stuff. I got my hands on Type Trumps 1 (I had already received Type Trumps 2 as a Christmas present). I also bought this cool mug, which I think sums up why I’m interested in design.

Then, sadly, it was time to make my way back up to Dundee.

This is part 3 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Day three map:

London day three map

Science Museum

My original tentative schedule saw me planning to visit the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A in one day. But some last-minute chopping and changing of my schedule saw me eventually trying to squeeze the Science Museum into a 90 minute visit.

It didn’t take me long to realise that 90 minutes was nowhere near long enough to take in the Science Museum, which was much larger than I was anticipating. I remember wanting to visit the Science Museum as a kid, and in the end it is such a shame that I ended up spending so little time here! This is the main reason why I feel like I need to go back to London again.

I saw maybe about two thirds of the ground floor, where I spent a fascinating hour. But with an eye on my watch, I decided I had to make a beeline for the second floor to see Oramics to Electronica, an exhibition about electronic music.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the incredible Oramics machine. The Oramics machine was invented in 1959 by the pioneering Daphne Oram. The concept is almost implausible: “drawn sound”. The musician painted shapes on strips of 35mm film and glass slides. These shapes controlled the pitch, volume and waveform of the sounds.

Oramics Machine

The machine is incredibly complex and fragile-looking. A spaghetti morass of wires dangles across rustic metal frames. The strips of 35mm film stretch across the top of the contraption. Only the speakers provide the clue that this might be some form of musical instrument. Fantastic.

Delia Derbyshire's green lampshade

There were also displays about EMS, the British synthesiser manufacturers, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Here, Delia Derbyshire’s famous green lampshade was on display. (Apologies — my photograph was dreadfully out-of-focus due to my crappy camera focusing on the glass case.)

I was very sad to leave the Science Museum having seen so little of it. I reckon in 90 minutes I was lucky if I saw a quarter of it. I will definitely have to go again!

London Transport Museum

In the afternoon I made my way to the London Transport Museum. In a way, this was the worst value part of the trip. Admission costs £13.50, and while you can use the ticket for up to a year, the likelihood of someone like me being able to go again is slim. Mind you, I had to queue for a very long time to get in, so it’s impossible to imagine how busy it would be if entry was free.

It is a brilliant museum, and I probably spent about two hours there. As you might imagine, my favourite part of the museum was the section dedicated to design. This covers architecture, print materials, information about the development of the tube map and the Johnston typeface.

Dotted around the museum are posters from throughout the history of the London Underground. It has always had such a strong and striking visual identity, and it’s amazing just how modern some posters from as far back as the 1930s can look.

The price would put me off going again too soon, but this is a brilliant museum that I would happily visit again a few years down the line.

Just My Type cover

My name is Duncan and I am interested in fonts. Against my better judgement, sometimes I blurt out this fact, and people run a mile.

But is it becoming acceptable? Simon Garfield’s book, Just My Type, would make it seem like a perfectly normal interest. Though there is a nod and a wink towards the quirkiness of the subject, the book is a serious and well-researched work, crafted with passion and wit.

This is one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. It is breezily written and easily read. I don’t think I have ever made my way through a book so quickly.

It covers everything from the ubiquity of Helvetica to the illegibility of Grassy. You go on a journey using Johnson’s Underground and road signs in Transport. Political lessons are learned through the font choices of Nazi Germany (gothic) and Barack Obama (Gotham).

The amazing thing is that each of the fonts covered in this book could almost have a book to themselves — or at least an essay. At most, a font is given a chapter to itself. Yet you go away feeling that you have been given all the salient information in an astonishingly concise fashion. Nothing necessary is left out of this book. Nothing unnecessary has been put in.

Even for someone like me, who was already interested in fonts, Just My Type has taught me to at fonts in a newly enlightened way. For instance, my appreciation for the design of an ampersand has been greatly increased. The vivid description of Garamond’s ampersand (“resembling the darting tongue of a lizard catching flies”) is one of the book’s highlights.

Segoe UI ampersand

It has clearly affected me. Today I suddenly noticed that the ampersand in Segoe UI (the font Microsoft use for their user interfaces) resembles a cat licking its paw. Now I can’t shake that image out of my head.

Clearly, if you are interested in fonts, you really must buy this book. If you are not interested in fonts, you really must buy this book. You will be surprised at how fascinating it is. Simon Garfield is the perfect writer for it. His bright tone is far away from any nerdy connotations that the subject might evoke.

This is probably the perfect book about fonts. It might even be the perfect book.

One thing I noticed in the Senna film was just how clear Ayrton Senna’s body language often was. The editors probably chose these shots for this very reason. You didn’t need his words. You could see when he was uncomfortable or embarrassed, even if he was pretending otherwise. It reveals so much about Senna that he didn’t want to be revealed.

Sometimes I feel like I have that trait, which is quite a negative from my point of view. Put simply, the ability to bluff is a major life skill that I lack.

I have long known that I am a poor actor and an unconvincing liar. I have been straight out told so on the occasions where I have tried it. Only little lies, of course!

This year I decided to make myself more accessible. I know you should be yourself. But the fact is that people don’t always take well to someone like me, whose primary interests include television idents, fonts and CSS. Many people don’t even know what those things are.

Friends have been known to tell me that I need to keep things like that to myself. So I have taken to attempting play down those obscure aspects of my personality, and emphasise other interests that might make me seem a bit more normal.

I was recently asked by someone if I like films. The thing is, I do like films. But I am not what you would call a film buff. For instance, I have never watched Star Wars. Nor have I seen any James Bond film in full. There are huge numbers of films that most would take for granted that I have seen, but I have not.

So I answered ‘yes’ to the person asking if I liked films, in the remote hope that this would make me seem vaguely approachable and interesting. I was telling the truth. But only in the sense that I can like some films.

Helvetica DVD cover

The entire ruse crumbled with the very next question. I was asked what my favourite film is. I don’t really have a favourite film. For some reason the only thing that was occupying my idiotically-poor-at-small-talk brain was Helvetica, a documentary about a font. As I recall, I unwisely said so.

Instant failure. Failure not only for being caught out basically lying about being interested in films, but also stepping right into the dog turd-shaped fact that I am a such a geek-not-to-be-touched-with-by-a-bargepole that I watch films about fonts, and moreover I count such films among my favourites.

In that instance, my own words let me down. But sometimes I can even end up seeming like a prat by saying absolutely nothing. One time I was at a pub having a relaxing evening with some friends. Then someone that knew us came in. Everyone else recognised her, except for me.

I could sort of recognise her, but I couldn’t tell where from. I knew it was almost certainly school. I was reaching deep into my memory banks to try and work out who she was. By this stage I was devoting half of my brain frantically trying to recognise her, and the other half of my brain frantically preparing to bluff my way through it.

She came to me, took one look into my eyes and immediately said, “You don’t know who I am.” I couldn’t really object, because she had a point.

Example of a motorway road sign

I was pleased to see an article on the BBC News website about the brilliance of the design of the UK’s road signs. Minimalist and clutter-free, British road signs are a design triumph.

I often look to transport-related design of all types for inspiration. The reason is because they have to work well. Lives might depend on it. As such, a lot of research goes into them.

In the case of road signs, they have to be clear enough to read when travelling at speed, from a distance. They need to be processed quickly. They must deliver an unambiguous message.

It is not easy. But the the design of road signs almost never changes, and hardly anyone ever complains about them. That is an indication that they have got the design right.

The BBC News article outlines some of the research that took place when the signs were originally designed in the 1960s. It reminded me of the research that took place in the USA more recently, in the development of the Clearview typeface for road signs there. If you are interested in design, those articles make for interesting reading.

It’s not just road signs I like to take inspiration from. If anything, railway design is better. Railway signs may not have to be read at speed, but they still have to convey complicated information with clarity. Often these signs will have to be read by visitors from other countries, making it essential that the signs can be understood by people who might not speak English as their first language.

Earlier this year I read this fantastic article about a book called British Rail Design. It looks brilliant. I would love to get my hands on it, though sadly it seems to be rare and expensive.

Both the road signs and the British Rail Alphabet were designed by Jock Kinneir. But surely the granddaddy of railway graphic design must be Harry Beck, whose work needs no introduction.

Harry Beck's London Underground map

Harry Beck designed his original map in his spare time and was paid just five guineas. The iconic British Rail logo was designed by a 21-year-old, Gerald Barney. These are the sorts of facts that make you look at yourself and wonder what you have achieved in life.