It’s All in the Details…

Ask any designer what their favorite thing about typography is, and I’d be willing to bet few would answer the way I do. I know, I blog a lot about type. But bear with me—let me tell you why punctuation is such a great feature of modern typography.

The Ancient Greeks are well-renowned for their beautiful sculptures, their rich culture and mythology, and their love of battle. Lesser known is the terrible state of their pre-type “typography”. You see, Greek letters originally had no distinction between uppercase and lowercase, and on top of that there were no spaces or punctuation marks demarcating the words.

One Greek scholar, Aristophanes, grew fed up with how impossible reading could be because of this. He created a system of dots in the middle, the top, or the bottom of the letter height between characters, to indicate spoken pauses. However, it never caught on. And, when the Romans took so much of Greek culture for their own, this system of dots between words marking out spoken pauses was left by the wayside entirely.

For a while, Roman letters had interpuncts (small middle dots) placed between each word, but this was eventually discarded. Roman letters became one giant string of unbroken capital letters. Allow me to demonstrate:

hard to read

It was very hard to make out the words, and it’s especially hard to read now, for someone more used to typography that’s so much easier to read.

And modern folks aren’t the only ones who think that looks like unreadable nonsense. When the Roman empire began to fall apart, Christianity began to take over the area, and Christian monks sought to write their psalms and hymns more clearly than Latin’s current script allowed. They embraced and bettered the use of punctuation, including creating paragraph marks and also making use of Aristophanes’ early system.

Then, as Latin moved farther North and its speakers encountered the Gaelic tribes, these predecessors to the Irish and the Scottish didn’t think very highly of Latin’s approach to writing. Unused to picking apart huge strings of unbroken verbage, Gaelic scribes added spaces between words to make them easier to read quickly.

Then, finally, a German king ordered his scribes to create lowercase letters, creating the alphabet we know today—with punctuation making up an integral part of the new system of writing. Although it was all in blackletter at the time. Quite a departure from the Romans’ thinly chiseled letters!

And of course, this punctuation was also developed further as time went on and more people used it, with modern commas, periods, hyphens, apostrophes, dashes, ellipses, slashes, question marks, and semicolons all gradually taking the place of Aristophanes’ simple dots.

And with the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, punctuation finally became a solidified, unchanging system for communication. With punctuation standards set in stone (or lead), they no longer changed… Unless, of course, you consider emoji to be the newest members of the punctuation family.

But that’s what’s so great about punctuation, I think. The changes it’s been through over so many hundreds of years, growing along with the very advances of society, are fascinating. The way we communicate as human beings echoes our very society. And while punctuation’s changes may not be so obvious as the linguistic shift from thou to you as the casual second-person pronoun, they’re still readily apparent.

But just imagine how it might have gone if Aristophanes hadn’t come up with those three dots. Do you think we would ever have come up with this system of punctuation? It could be entirely different than the one we have now—if we had punctuation at all. I hope we would, because I love it so… but what do you think?


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Being Your Own Business

In my entrepreneurship class this year, we’ve had a variety of guest speakers come in to talk to the class about various aspects of running one’s own business. Among them was Michelle Paquin, who works in the school of business. She spoke about a number of things I think are important to remember, and also several things that never occurred to me beforehand. I feel like I should share a few of my thoughts about and notes on what she talked about.

Maybe it’s a boring topic, but financial management is probably one of the most important things there is about running a business, on your own or otherwise. The entire point of being part of operating a business (non-profit organizations aside)  is to earn money. If you don’t have good financial management, then you won’t make money, and your business will be a flop—plain and simple.

The quickest, most painless solution? Hire an accountant and bookkeeper to manage your money for you. But even when you do this, you should still be involved somehow in the financial management of your business. You’re still buying your materials and bringing in revenue with your work, so you should at least have a cursory understanding of the monetary workings of your business.

The thing that struck me the most during Michelle’s presentation was the idea of keeping every single receipt for every purchase you make for your business, right from day one. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me—probably because I don’t save my receipts from the school cafeteria, and I’ve gotten in the habit of tossing them out once they’re a couple weeks old. (I buy from the cafeteria with my meal plan so often it isn’t funny; the receipts pile up.)

But when you think about it, it makes sense. You need to keep track of everything you’re spending on business expenses if you want to apply for tax deductions and keep more money for yourself and for your business. This is especially important for a sole proprietor, upon whom all financial and tax responsibility falls.

(The complicated side of tax deductions is something I might talk about another time, but only if there’s interest. That might get even drier than this post is already.)

Another thing I really suggest folks keep in mind is that you have to start paying HST to the government when you go over $30,000 of income for any annual period. If you go over $30,000 income before taxes, then you have to pay that HST even if you’re not charging your clients for it—which means  the tax comes right out of your income.

Considering the costs of living where I do*, $30,000 is not really that much. Even despite how scary such large monetary figures look to me and how badly I might want to avoid ever touching them, I may have to make that much or more to live comfortably where I am (and I would have to earn even more to live someplace like Toronto). It’s safest just to register an HST number with the government ahead of time so you’re charging HST from the start. Then if you go over $30,000, it’s not a problem—and, as a small bonus, your clients will be used to the HST-prices you charge from the start and you won’t have to explain a price hike to them.

I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topics of what Michelle spoke about, but this seems like an all right stopping point all the same. Y’know, before I talk your ear off.

I think it’s enough to make one thing clear enough at least. She made me think. And she made me really realize how important keeping track of the legal and financial aspects of your business is. It’s something I’ll be giving some long, hard sessions of thought if and whenever I set up my own business in future. It might not be a bad idea to look* at* some* resources* and do the same yourself, readers.

Consulting the Masters

Before making this blog post, I watched (or, for the most part, listened to whilst making notes) an RGD video with Rita Sasges titled “3 Things I Didn’t Learn in School”, dated 1800h November 28th, 2013.

I went in with the hopes that I would just learn a few things to carry forward in my classes and on into my career after college, if possible. Then, I opened the video—and it was 41 minutes long. I was more than a little bit flabbergasted, to be sure.

The video was packed full of information, life stories, and advice. There’s too much good information to cover in detail in one blog post, so I’ll cover things in brief.

Rita talked about how to sell your ideas to a client—how you shouldn’t talk about your process work; you should talk about the client’s problem and end on your design—the solution. She stressed confidence in delivery and control of the pace being imperative to the success of your presentation. She talked about how the details and the execution of your project are the most important parts.

Rita also highlighted the advantages of making and keeping connections with colleagues who have skills in other disciplines, including the legal and accounting fields. And at the end, after a rant about her pet peeves that made me feel a little better about my own perfectionist, prone to ranting tendencies, she left on a few answered questions. These included what to do with your portfolio as a student and how to get yourself out there when looking for a design job.

All in all, I’m quite pleased in my choice of archived webinar to have spent time on. I will likely look up a few more videos when I have more time—of course, time is always the issue. I’m glad that I took the time for this video, though. 41 minutes isn’t so bad when there’s so much good information packed into it.

Unjustified Design

Recently, I’ve stopped using justified text nearly as much as I used to. I used to have a compulsion to be sure I perfectly filled each line of text—I still do try my hardest to be sure I don’t leave whopping gaps at the end of lines, whether I’m writing digitally or on paper. But I’ve come to realize that fully-justified text isn’t necessarily the best way to do things.

At first, I’ll admit, I was quite skeptical when my typography instructor impressed this fact upon me. But so many people agree (and have evidence) that I’ve changed my way of thinking somewhat. Ken Adams is one blogger who also advocates for the use of a rag on the right side. Another is David Kadavy. Both make arguments against the use of fully-justified text columns—from rivers in the text, to lines that it’s easier to become lost in, to bad text-block texture.

And I agree with them—for the most part, at least. It’s much more pleasing to the eye not to have massive holes between your words, regardless of how much messier the right edge might look. And it is easier to find and keep one’s place while reading if the margin is rougher on one side, I’ve found.

But at the same time, there is still something I find very pleasing about a perfectly aligned set of margins. I especially love it when the final line of a chunk of text either comes flush with the end of the line or makes a perfect mirror of the initial paragraph indent. It’s so even and symmetrical that way—and if I can do it that way without gappy rivers and gross letter-spacing, I’ll often prefer to. At least, as long as it’s a personal project, anyway.

And anyway, when writing a story (something I dabble in quite frequently), there’s something that’s still oh-so-very bookish about fully-justified text. Somehow the feel of it helps to draw me deeper into the story—like the perfect margins and the slightly different spacing between words frame the world and give the prose its own audible texture inside my head, much the same way placing an em-dash directly before a line break creates a more dramatic pause that’s longer-lasting and easier to savor.

But then again, perhaps that’s just me. I always have been a bit on the strange side of things.

Romans and Serifs and Printing, Oh My!

Many people have already written about the topic I’m going to cover today. However, because I’m well-known among my circle of close friends for talking about things everyone else has already spoken on, I have no qualms in saying that today I’d like to talk about the Renaissance period—with regards to typography.

The Renaissance was a time of great creative and mechanical advances which began in Italy. Typography was one of many things which received a boost in this period. The invention of both Gutenberg’s printing press and Roman-style typefaces helped to pave the way for modern typography.

It’s the typeface that I’ll be discussing in a little more detail. Nicolas Jenson’s Roman-style typeface set the stage for modern lettering. In contrast with the heavy strokes and dense, complicated flourishes of the blackletter typefaces which were used for print after Gutenberg’s printing press was developed, this new typeface is far more clean and easily legible. It has an appearance which would not be out of place even in a modern typesetting application.

Aside from the fact that the image is very small (good images are hard to come by) and the text is in Renaissance-era Italian or Latin, the letters are easily legible. I know for a fact that blackletter typesetting is not nearly so readable at small sizes—I’ve tried to read printed text set in blackletter before (in German, and in a physical book, no less), and it went quite badly. Jenson’s typeface, however, is easy to decipher.

This break from tradition into something new and wonderful with an influence that lasts so long is typical of the Renaissance era. Works of art such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper are still regarded as some of the greatest paintings of all time. They are still as beautiful now as they were then; just the same, Jenson’s idea of Roman-style letters for typesetting is every bit as functional today as it was then—if not more so, because blackletter is no longer a feasible fallback option.

In my opinion, making note of such huge successes in classical design is incredibly important. The design of a typeface which inspires the style of lettering for centuries to come is a clear example of ideas gone very, very right. It’s inspiring to me that such a huge change from the norm of the times could take off and have such success long-term. It’s exactly this that I feel is the largest benefit to studying older design, in fact. The possibility for such huge success is still around today, and that’s incredibly inspiring.

And isn’t inspiration the biggest factor in coming up with successful design to begin with?


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The Capital Eszett

Ein großes Problem für Deutsch Typografie!

Because of the diverse additional characters in the alphabets of the Western world, there is a strong need for the inclusion of special characters in typefaces.

Characters such as É/é, Å/å, and Ñ/ñ are already supported in many typefaces. This makes typography in languages like Spanish, French, and Swedish easy to do without losing the meaning and pronunciation of words. Some languages, however, are not always so lucky.

The German alphabet contains additional letters with umlauts, as well as one other character—the eszett. As said in an article on ergonis, “The eszett (sometimes referred to as the esszett or Scharfes S) is a letter that is totally unique to the German alphabet” (German letters, n.d.). The appearance of the eszett is similar to a Greek beta:

The eszett represents a sharp “S” sound—not, as non-German speakers might assume from the appearance, a “B” sound. This means the word “weiß” sounds similar to the English word “vice” (although it means “white”).

There is a problem with the use of the eszett, however. Because it never appears at the beginning of a word, it was not initially created with an uppercase form—only a lowercase one. Because of this, any instance of an eszett has traditionally been replaced with “SS” when rendered in uppercase or small-caps. This can, however, cause confusion between similarly spelled and pronounced words and names. This necessitates the use of a capital eszett character for typesetting (Capital Sharp S, 2011).

German Typographers have had to invent this capital eszett as a new Unicode character. It looks like this:

However, compared to the number of typefaces that exist on our planet, only a few support the capital eszett. Support for the character is especially sparse on mobile devices (Hardly any Support, 2012).

Many people argue that there is no need for this character. However, as Herrmann argues quite thoroughly (2011), there are multiple reasons. More common support for and use of the capital eszett character will reduce confusion in uppercase and small-caps typesetting of all kinds.

Is not conveying a message without confusion the reason for typography? And wouldn’t supporting the capital eszett help that goal in the German-speaking world?

I invite you to share your opinions on the ẞ!


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On occasion, a designer will find themself in need of inspiration for typographical projects. Visiting a blog dedicated to the art of typography can serve as that source of inspiration, but finding a good blog to visit can be an intimidating prospect. When found, however, these shining jewels among blogs stand out quite clearly as sources of Muse.

One such blog is Typostrate. This blog immediately comes across as impressive. Scrolling horizontally between header and content are many black-and-white examples of different typographic pieces. Below this are more examples, some similar and some different, but in this case in color. The explanatory type on the blog is easily legible; the title is also legible, and attention-getting as well; and the typographic examples shown display many different forms and meanings. There is even an option for designers and typographers to submit their own typographic works to the blog. It’s a wonderful source for a variety of inspiration!

Another blog I was pleased to stumble upon is Wayfinding & Typography. The blog has very clean and easy-to-use navigation, which is a big plus. And, knowing from reading the ‘about’ section that the author of the blog is German, the minor language errors are easily excusable. The blog discusses topics such as character support for unusual characters not used in English (for example, the “capital sharp S” character, ẞ), signage, and webfonts[sic]. It’s very cool and worth a look, especially for those who consider support for other languages to be an important feature in a font, which I definitely do.

A third and final blog I would like to share is the design et typo blog. (The blog is written in French, and I did read it in French, but a link to the translated page is available for English-speakers.) An example of one interesting post on this blog is one where the author of the blog was asked to review another, younger typographer’s typo en mouvement, or “moving typography”. What’s really cool about this is the fact that the blog author was willing to review it and offer helpful input like he did. I always enjoy seeing a professional that is willing to help a younger person along and tell them not to give up. It’s really heartwarming, on top of the blog and its content being inspiring.

Of course, these aren’t the only inspiring typography blogs on the internet. When I searched for “typography blog” in a Google search, it yielded “about 25,600,000 results” in “0.25 seconds”! That’s way more than I could possibly comb through, so don’t take my word as the be-all-to-end-all of great typography blogs. Go ahead and hunt for yourself as well… But definitely check out those listed here, too. If you like my writing, then chances are you’ll like the work on those blogs as well.