Mmm…jello-based mass communications.

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

I kinda snuck up on my passions about ‘the right type’ after becoming aware (at an extremely early age) that my father’s typewriter was different than anyone else’s (father’s?) typewriter.

An old Royal, it typed in italic big and small caps–only. And my mom and dad were all right with that—when I said “hey, why do we have a mutant typewriter?” they just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said “it works.”

And yet, for me, it didn’t. I had a lot of trouble churning out page after page of what looked to be urgent messages…even before the days of email ITALIC CAPS JUST SEEMED LIKE YELLING.

My mom, seeking to encourage my interest in writing (and/or typing), went up to Van Sickle Office Supply on Grandview Avenue and picked up a Hektograph—technology that consisted of an 11 x 14 inch shallow tray of plain gelatin—yeah, the food kind—that would accept the dyes of special pencils or typewriter-created grade-school ‘ditto’ masters…and then, by placing a sheet of paper on the solidified goo and pulling smoothly, you got, well, something very much like a ditto at home…up to about 50 copies before it began to fade.

(Gracias oh internet, I found a picture—and only one—of the very device here, thanks North Dakotans.)

It was, of course, the closest thing we could achieve to desktop publishing, and my mom knew it would let me create a newspaper for our neighborhood, which of course would be named THE DAILY PLANET (a name since used by some..uh, well.) And at a very early age and with only a limited amount of help from my mom, I did just that, setting the type on the damnable Royal, layering hand-drawn images and logos and finding my first frustration over achieving a look that, darn it, just wasn’t close enough to the way the letterpress-solid front page of the Columbus Citizen-Journal looked for my satisfaction.

The echoes of typographic limitation followed me subsequently through my design careen (as opposed to career): sorry, we only have these Letraset sheets in stock; we can only afford two Photo-Typositor headlines a week; the IBM Composer only has the Univers and Times New Roman type balls; the Vidifont has two sizes, large and small, and the Chyron IV will let you create any font you want as long as you can get it straight under the crappy black and white camera and spend the weekend cleaning it up, bit by bit.

One of my early mentors (can you call him a mentor if you really didn’t work with him?) pretty much set the gold standard for turning typographic limitation into design opportunity. WGBH’s Chris Pullman and his mid-1970s design team turned out a monthly newsletter for the staff that was a paean to typewriter type in its many incarnations (meaning, hey, we can set it all on the Selectric). Printed on cheap newsprint, nooz (edited by the late Dali Cahill) hung from a hook in the hallways of Channel 2 and had a warm and inviting style—for me, the progenitor of a type of smart-yet-corporate positivism that I associate with Apple—the little articles and gathered softball pictures sure made WGBH seem like a fun place to work.

Now of course, I have almost all of the fonts of my dreams in pristine vector form on my Mac, and my one remaining font-slash-design roadblock centers around what fonts are available to most browsers, and for that I am the unwilling taste-slave to Bill Gates and the Redmonians. Sure, I like Georgia (good name, too), but it’d be nice to have about a dozen other robust serif fonts you can count on. Make it two dozen. Make it…oh.

Some web designers, fed up with exactly this, have developed an only slightly byzantine system where headlines are imaged into flash vectors (on demand!) and embedded in a DOM structure that does some amazing lifting to remain accessible and gently degrades to plain old readable headlines if no flash is allowed. It’s really quite impressive. (And their sample page has newspaper-y typography any junior jello Gutenberg would have killed for back in the mid 1960s.