That awful Yahoo! logo

September 5th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

When I first saw the new Yahoo! logo, my initial reaction — after the total horror wore off — was that Optima is a great choice if you want your company to be perceived as at least as hip and ahead-of-the-curve as John McCain’s 2008 presidential run. At least McCain had a good excuse.

Proxima Nova’s ubiquity

May 14th, 2013  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s an argument that Proxima Nova is to the 2010s as Helvetica was to the 1970s. I guess something had to take Myriad’s place after its fin-de-siècle dominance, but I would like to note that I was at least using Proxima Nova everywhere before it was everyone else’s default choice. (I think I licensed it in 2006 because I was looking for an alternative to Johnston Underground, which is too iconic, and Gill Sans, which I object to for moral reasons.)

  • This list of logos from defunct department stores has some beautiful and diverse examples of a generally-lost art. In addition, if you happen to assume that Macy’s has absorbed almost every regional department store in the United States in the last four decades, the brief captions will do little to convince you otherwise. This is a shame, since even an mediocre lettering job is superior to just about anything set in Avant Garde.


Ligature (ab)use

March 25th, 2011  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Even people who don’t care about typography probably recognize ligatures, or special glyphs that can represent the combination of two or more letters. Most commonly, these are used to make unsightly glyph combinations like these:

Ligatures before

look less awkward:

Ligatures after

In the bad old days of computer typesetting, getting ligatures to print involved some degree of manual effort and suffering, depending on what applications and typefaces you were using. However, now we have OpenType fonts, which can specify that the rendering engine should automatically select particular glyphs for sequences of characters, thus bringing WYSIWYG typesetting in the 21st century roughly up to par with where TeX was in the early 1980s.1

Delightfully, digital font designers have taken full advantage of these capabilities, offering faces like Typodermic’s Owned, which uses a wide range of contextual-alternate glyphs to mimic felt-tip graffiti, or like Alphabet Soup’s Metroscript, in which ligatures can both provide natural-looking lettering and convert sequences of underscores to tails like you might see in sports-team logos:


Certainly, these take automatic ligature replacement far beyond simply replacing common sequences of glyphs with more attractive alternates. But one of the most amazing applications of OpenType’s ligature technology I’ve seen is Travis Kochel’s Chartwell, which converts a sequence of numbers separated by plus signs into bar charts, pie charts, and sparkline graphs. For example:

Pie chart

In the image above, the two sides of the equals sign have the same text — but on the right, ligature replacement is enabled, and on the left it is not! Because the raw numbers remain in either case, Chartwell essentially supplies simple, flexible charting capabilities to any application that can render OpenType fonts: you can turn ligature replacement off, edit, recolor, and rearrange your data and then turn ligature replacement back on. It’s an extremely clever hack, but one that is also likely to be useful in a lot of domains.

1 TeX and LaTeX have always had decent support for automatically applying common ligatures (e.g. “fl” and “fi”). But LaTeX hackers also developed more involved applications, like automatically generating Cyrillic text from a Latin transliteration (!)

Typographical jokes

July 15th, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

One of these typefaces was designed as a joke

Consider the swash capitals pictured above: from Estupido Espezial and from Comic Sans. You might assume that both of these saw their genesis as elaborate inside jokes within type foundries. You would be half right.

Delightfully, the press release announcing a font package including a swash-enabled Comic Sans includes the following surely spontaneous and heartfelt quotation:

“The new versions of Comic Sans and Trebuchet have a lot of great OpenType features” said Vincent Connare, the original designer of the fonts. “My hat’s off to Ascender for creating swashes and other delightful flourishes that give these fonts a breath of fresh air.”

I have to assume that this statement isn’t something Connare merely “said” so much as something he snickered, wept, or spit out from behind bitterly-clenched teeth. But I suppose that press releases are typically imprecise about the delivery of quoted utterances.

(Ascender press release link via DF.)

Wordmark watch

March 16th, 2010  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment


I often pass a Savers department store on Madison’s west side. The Savers wordmark has always bothered me, but I haven’t thought carefully about why it has bothered me, because I’m usually driving and thus keeping my eyes on the road. I don’t really care for the aesthetic behind this kind of wordmark, but this weekend I realized what really bothers me is the execution. Specifically, it looks like this wordmark is based on a typeface designed to appear at much smaller sizes. Little details, like the tall “s” and “e” glyphs, could imperceptibly improve color in 9 pt body text but are unsubtle in a 500-pixel-wide logo (as above) and approach caricature in an 8-foot-high sign on the side of a store.


The two settings of “mixer” above are an example of the misused optical size phenomenon; both are set in Chaparral Pro at 168 pt, but the one on top is set in the version of Chaparral designed for captions and the one on bottom is set in the version of Chaparral designed for display use. At the same size, the caption version is almost a parody of the display version. These exaggerations wouldn’t be obvious in a footnote, but they are glaring at more than an inch and juxtaposed against the version designed for display sizes.

The problems with the Savers wordmark go beyond its execution, but it would be interesting to see how much it could be improved simply by starting from a more appropriate typeface.

Small caps

January 12th, 2010  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Like a lot of other fussy nerds, I typically use properly spaced small capital letters when typesetting acronyms. The reason for doing so is simple: large capital letters are designed to appear next to lowercase letters, and are not designed to appear in sequence. As a consequence, strings of large capitals, as might appear in an acronym, are jarring to the reader and can disrupt the color of a page. Small capital letters, on the other hand, are designed to appear next to other small capital letters.

I didn’t think that setting acronyms in this way was controversial, but yesterday John Gruber linked to Toronto author Joe Clark’s mildly-amusing but wrongheaded tirade against the use of small caps in typesetting acronyms. Roughly, Clark’s argument is that:

  1. Small caps fare poorly when applied in a host of pathological cases (like camel-case abbreviations, portmanteaus, or other similarly wretched feats of orthographic gymnastics), and
  2. Only (putatively) pedantic commentators like Robert Bringhurst insist upon using small caps for acronyms, anyway.

I believe that the first claim is the best part of his argument. Indeed, small caps can be applied in the service of careless typography just as well as ordinary Roman capital and lowercase letters. If someone were advocating the universal application of small caps as a panacea, then Clark would really have a point. However, I’ve not seen any well-regarded commentators recommend slavish devotion to small caps, even when amateurish settings result (Bringhurst certainly does not). The second claim strikes me as irrelevant, and I’m disinclined to address it further here.1 Judging by his writing elsewhere, Clark takes some delight in the “fusillade of defamatory comments on pipsqueak blogs” that appear in response to ad hominem attacks on Bringhurst; I like Bringhurst’s work a great deal, but decline to join the fusillade.

Of course, it’s far easier to point out the flaws of others than it is to identify something that actually works, and where Clark’s argument really falls apart is in his proposed solution, which we’ll get to after a bit of background. Recall that real small capitals must be designed separately from large capitals; thus, not every typeface has them. You’ve probably seen “fake small caps” before, which are simply regular large capitals that have been automatically compacted by a word processor.2 Fake small caps look terrible, and Clark himself points this out in his piece (as well as elsewhere on his site). It is thus at least a little ironic that Clark’s recommended solution to the problem of setting acronyms involves making your own fake small caps and then setting them properly spaced: “What works nicely, though? Knock the size down a point, add a few units of tracking, and equalize spacing.”

1 Since I started writing this post, Gruber has also linked to a piece that treats the ersatz anti-bourgeois sentiment of Clark’s second point more directly. (I describe this attitude as ersatz because, honestly, it is hilarious to consider the mere prospect of an anti-bourgeois opinion about typography.)
2 On this matter, Bringhurst says “Any good set of small caps is designed as such from the ground up. Thickening, shrinking, and squashing the full caps with digital modification routines will only produce a parody.”

Find that symbol

August 10th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Detexify2 is a neat web application that lets you draw a mathematical or logic symbol with your mouse and then it will tell you how to make that symbol in TeX or LaTeX. (It learns from other users’ inputs.) So if you’re a LaTeX user who can never remember how to make a turnstile (vdash) or a definition symbol (triangleq), then this is probably useful for you. I suspect it would also be useful for identifying some name for an unfamiliar symbol even if you have no intention of using it in a LaTeX document.

(Via Geoff Washburn.)

Anachrony in the U.S.A.

June 15th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Never mind the bollocks and never mind the provenance. Imagine you’re an auction house selling off a flyer for a Sex Pistols show from 1978. Now imagine that said flyer has a huge chunk of Comic Sans (designed by V. Connare in 1994) in it. The thread on typophile that presents this sad case is the sort of thing that you’ll love if you’re the same kind of nerd I am.

Unlike the infamous forged Killian documents, which were clearly the product of a delusional and careless conspiracy theorist’s extended reverie, some effort clearly went into this Sex Pistols forgery. The creator of this fake flyer didn’t merely dump some text into Microsoft Word’s AutoAnarchy Wizard (see below); he or she was obviously concerned with aping at least the most basic characteristics of the form. The fact that the flyer included four consecutive characters in Comic Sans makes me wonder if the creator wanted to be caught, whether he or she intended such flagrant anachronism to be a John Lydon-style two-finger salute to the sorts of people wealthy enough to buy old punk rock flyers at auction.

RIYL: See my take on the Killian scandal and consensus genres, which is the source of the above image; see also my post on Nike and Minor Threat, in particular the humorless, outraged comments from (I assume) suburban kids who were born years after Minor Threat broke up.

  • Do you need a quick reference card for all of the symbols included in the LaTeX pifont package? Well, someone might, anyway: share and enjoy.



December 6th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I’m really growing to like Warnock for the text of my dissertation, but my longtime complaint with it — I find the capital “W” sort of distracting — hasn’t gone away. I guess people with other names are probably more likely to notice different letters….


(Click to see the whole page at lower magnification — I think the “W” is still obvious!)

  • I hadn’t noticed Frutiger Serif before; it’s very nice. It’s too bad that (1) I’ve basically already decided on a dissertation typeface and (2) I’m too poor to license new fonts right now.

  • Thanks to Mark Eli Kalderon for bringing this cartoon to my attention.


Bembo’s Zoo

July 8th, 2008  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I’m excited about Bembo’s Zoo, since I like type, design, and children’s books. However, the official site commits a horrific gaffe. In the “o” on the right, it says “Click here if you don’t have Flash:”


Since I prefer to avoid Flash, I did so, expecting a non-Flash-enfeebled version of the site. Instead, I got this.

(Bembo’s Zoo link via DF.)

Wal-Mart to Walmart

July 1st, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  2 Comments

Well, if you needed any further evidence for my claim about Myriad, I’m happy to oblige; Wal-Mart’s new branding eschews the hyphenation and is obviously based on a certain ubiquitous typeface:


Armin Vit is, I think, essentially right about the effect of removing the hyphen and all-caps:

[W]ith no reasoning or no explanation of what the new star burst stands for, or why the decision to change to a single word, all we have to go by is the logo that replaces the 16-year-old sans serif that was as thick and heavy as the beige boxes it adorned for so long…. The change to title case helps humanize Walmart with a name that reads more like John, Albert, Sarah or Wilbur….

It will be interesting to see how, or if, this new branding affects public perception of Walmart over time. I don’t have the sense that Walmart is a particularly image-conscious company — all of their current branding seems clumsily transparent and rhetorically amateurish to me. Will a new logo steer Walmart’s brand away from its current association with philistines who don’t mind melamine pet food?

In any case, removing the hyphen from “Wal-Mart” is far less jarring than it was when “Kmart” did the same thing. Honestly, “Kmart” seems like the name of a talking duck from a fake Icelandic children’s book: “Kmart was sad, because he had no more cookies and couldn’t play with his brothers and sisters. Suddenly, a friendly dog arrived!” “Walmart” at least looks like a string of letters that could be pronounced “wôl-märt” and might naturally occur so ordered in American English.

(via DF)

Two type observations

June 24th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

One. Is Myriad the Helvetica of the aughts? This may well be confirmation bias, but I see Myriad everywhere in corporate identities and advertising. In a five minute span this weekend in Milwaukee, I saw Myriad parking garages, Myriad Summerfest posters, and
Myriad Verizon Wireless ads — and these just walking around the block! Is Myriad becoming so ubiquitous, like Helvetica in the 1970s, that we might soon not even notice it anymore? Of course, I love Myriad and have long used it for slides and as a headline sans in print work; certainly its widespread application and “safe choice” status is well-deserved. I wonder, though: will it ascend to Helvetica’s iconic status? More generally, given the abundance of digital faces, will any single face will ever be as dominant as Helvetica was in its prime?

Two. Also from Milwaukee, this sign made me laugh. My first thought was: hm, looks like someone failed to use a supported printer font. (My second thought was: crumb, I’m old.) If you also thought the parking sign was funny, you may appreciate “How did he do it?” from Mark Simonson.

  • The Hamilton Wood Type Museum, located in the former Hamilton Type Factory, is about three hours away from Madison and looks like it would make a great daytrip. (via the Veer blog, which also mentions Typeface, an upcoming documentary.)


Fools’ names and fools’ faces

April 15th, 2008  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  2 Comments

I generally try to avoid paying attention in even-numbered years unless I have a ready supply of antiemetics, but I’m always happy to read about the competing goals of different typeface choices. Perhaps the most delightful thing that I read during my hiatus from posting here was this snarky riff on the typographic choices of presidential campaigns — and the questionable design goals each seem to aim for — from the always entertaining and quotable Hoefler & Frere-Jones Blog. (Note to typeface designers with weblogs: “mocking national politicians,” “type nerdery,” and “snarky riffs” become so much more powerful when combined, just like Voltron.)

Immediately preceding that post was a cute piece reflecting Hoefler’s delight that Barack Obama’s campaign is using H&FJ Gotham for some of their signage. As Gary Hustwit points out, Gotham’s aesthetic recalls Modernism and its attendant idealism — themes that resonate with Obama’s progressive base. (I suspect it is also resonates with voters who love flawless and absurdly expensive digital fonts with restrictive licenses.)

To my eye, Gotham is the finest typeface choice from any of these campaigns, both for its quality and for its rhetorical compatibility with the candidate. However, I note that Obama’s main wordmark does not use H&FJ faces. Rather, the ubiquitous Obama yard signs and bumper stickers employ two classic Eric Gill faces: Perpetua and Gill Sans. I am not sure if there is a similarly felicitous design goal behind this design choice. If I had to guess, though, I’d assume that this choice increases the campaign’s appeal among dog lovers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stealing sheep

June 30th, 2007  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s some heinous logo work as spotted at the Madison airport today:


I can’t say anything about the bar fare ($7 for bottled macrobrews and $5 for french fries is far too steep for me), but this is certainly some of the würst treatment of blackletter I’ve ever seen. (Background info)