Posts tagged ‘typography’


An old slant for Labour

08.06.2016

I noticed this on April 28 and Tweeted about it, tagging the New Zealand Labour Party at the time. It still hasn’t been fixed as of today. That’s supposedly Commercial Type’s Stag Bold Italic in the headline, but someone has slanted the italic. Is this a signal that Labour leans to the right more than it’s letting on? Did someone say 1984?

   Still, Stag is a far more inspired, and typographically appropriate, choice than the Futura used by our present government’s political party, after years of Gill Sans. Interestingly, I seem to recall the Labour of Bill Rowling having Futura Italic in its logotype. If only modern-day Labour could get its italic displaying correctly.
   Good typography wins votes. I should know.

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Posted in design, internet, marketing, New Zealand, politics, typography | No Comments »


Meizu M2 Note: welcome to a Google-free mid-2010s

16.01.2016

Other than for the landline, I’ve never bought a phone before. Each cellphone has come as a result of a company plan or a loyalty gift from the telco, but when my Huawei Ascend Y200 began needing resets several times a day—I’ve had computer experts tell me this is the phone, or the SD card (like any endeavour, it’s hard to find agreement; this is like saying that the problem with an axe lies with the handle or the blade)—I decided to replace it. Plus, having built websites for clients it seemed only fair to have a device on which I could test them on an OS newer than Android 2.3, and after a few days I have to say the Meizu M2 Note has been worth every penny. (The Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 was on the shortlist but the Meizu performed better in online tests, e.g. this one.)
   You can find the specs on this device elsewhere, in reviews written by people far more au fait with cellular technology than me, but a few things about arriving in the mid-2010s with such a gadget struck me as worth mentioning.
   First, I opted for a blue one. They’re usually cheaper. Since I have a case for it, I don’t have to put up with the colour on the back anyway, so why not save a few bucks if the guts are the same?
   Secondly, it’s astonishing to think in five inches I have the same number of pixels as I do in 23 inches on my monitor.
   Thirdly, cellular battery technology has come a heck of a long way. (Down side: you can’t replace it in this device.)
   But here’s an absolutely wonderful bonus I never expected: it’s Google-free. Yes, the Flyme OS is built on Google’s Android 5.1.1, but the beauty of buying a phone from a country where Google is persona non grata is that I’m not stuck with all the crap I had on the Telstra Clear-supplied Huawei. No Google Plus, Google Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps and all the other stuff I had to switch off constantly. I could have had the phone rooted but it never was a big enough priority, even with my dislike of the big G.
   I don’t know how much ultimately gets back to Google through simply using its OS, but I’ve managed to keep away from signing in to any of their services. In this post-Snowden era, I regard that as a good thing.
   The phone booted up for the first time and gave me English as an option (as the seller indicated), so the device’s OS is all in the language I’m most fluent in. However, it’s not that weird for me to have Chinese lettering around, so the apps that stayed in the Chinese language are comprehensible enough to me. There is an app store that isn’t run by Google, at which all the apps are available—Instagram, Dolphin Browser, Opera Mini, plus some of the other admin tools I use. Nothing has shown up in my Google Dashboard. The store is in Chinese, but if you recognize the icon you should be all right, and the apps work in the language you’ve set your OS to.
   The China-only apps aren’t hard to dispose of, and the first ones to go were Netease, Dianping (I don’t even use an Anglo dining review app, so why would I need a China-only one?), Amap (again, it only works in China, and it can be easily reinstalled through Autonavi and its folded paper icon), and 116114, an app from a Chinese telco. Weibo I don’t mind keeping, since I already have an account, and I can see some utility to retaining Alipay, the painting app, and a few others.
   And having a Google-free existence means I now have Here Maps, the email is set up with my Zoho ’boxes, and 1Weather replaces the default which only gives Chinese cities.
   What is remarkable is that the Chinese-designed default apps are better looking than the western counterparts, which is not something you hear very often. The opposite was regularly the case. A UI tipping-point could have happened.
   I also checked the 2G, 3G and 4G frequencies against Vodafone New Zealand’s to ensure compatibility—there are at least two different M2 Notes on the market, so caveat emptor. Vodafone also recommends installing only one SIM, which suits me fine, as the other slot is occupied by a 64 Gbyte micro-SD card.
   The new Flyme-based-on-Android keyboard isn’t particularly good though, and I lose having a full set of smart quotes, a proper apostrophe, and en and em dashes, but far more obscure Latin-2 glyphs are accessible. I’m not sure what the logic is behind this.
   I had an issue getting the Swift keyboard to install, but I’ve opted for Swype, which, curiously, like the stock keyboard, is missing common characters. Want to type a g with a breve for Erdoğan? Or a d with a caron? Easy. An en dash? Impossible.
   This retrograde step doesn’t serve me and there are a few options in Swype. First, I had to add the Russian keyboard, which does give an em dash, alongside the English one, though I haven’t located a source of en dashes yet. Secondly, after copying and pasting in a proper apostrophe from a document, I proceeded to type in words to commit them to my personal Swype dictionary: it’s, he’d, she’ll, won’t, etc. This technique has worked, and while it’s not 100 per cent perfect as there’ll be words I missed, it’s better than nowt.
   I see users have been complaining about the omissions online for three years, and if nothing has been done by now, I doubt Swype’s developers are in a rush to sort it.
   Swype’s multilingual keyboards are easy to switch between, work well, but I haven’t tried my Kiwi accent on the Dragon-powered speech recognition software within.
   Going from a 3·2 Mpixel camera to a 13 Mpixel one has been what I expected, and finally I get a phone with a forward-facing camera for the first time since the mid-2000s (before selfies became de rigueur). It’s worth reminding oneself that a 13 Mpixel camera means files over 5 Mbyte are commonplace, and that’s too big for Twitter. I’m also going to have to expect to need more storage space offline, as I always back up my files.
   I haven’t found a way to get SMSs off yet (suggestions are welcome), unlike the Huawei, but transferring other files (e.g. photos and music) is easier. Whereas the Huawei needed to have USB sharing switched on, the Meizu doesn’t care, and you can treat it as a hard drive when connected to your PC without doing anything. That, too, has made life far easier.
   I’ve been able to upgrade the OS without issue, and Microsoft (and sometimes Apple) would do well to learn from this.
   It leaves the name, Meizu (魅族), which in Cantonese at least isn’t the most pleasant when translated—let’s say it’s all a bit Goblin King. Which may be appropriate this week.
   I’m not one who ever gets a device for image’s sake, and I demand that they are practical. So far, the Meizu hasn’t let me down with its eight cores, 16 Gbyte ROM and 4G capability, all for considerably less than a similarly equipped cellphone that wears an Apple logo. And it’s nice to know that this side of Apple, one can have a Google-free device.

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Posted in China, design, New Zealand, technology | No Comments »


Remarks on the typography of Star Wars

16.12.2015

Star Wars is in my feed in a big way. To get up to speed on the film series, I had to start with the memorable theme by John Williams.

Thanks, Bill and Paul.
   And who better to describe the plot than someone else in the science-fiction world, Doctor Who?

   Seriously though, I hope all friends who are big Star Wars fans enjoy Episode VII. It seems to be getting positive reviews, partly because it appeals to our sense of nostalgia. It hasn’t blown anyone away in the same manner as the 1977 original, but then Disney would be very foolhardy to stray for this sequel. If you are building a brand that was at its height 30 years ago, nostalgia isn’t a bad tool—just ask the team that came up with the 1994 Ford Mustang. J. J. Abrams—the creator of Felicity and What about Brian?, plus some other things—has apparently been a genius at getting just enough from the past.
   One item that is from Star Wars’ past is the opening title, or the crawl. I’ll be interested to learn if they’ve managed to re-create the typography of the original: they were unable to provide perfect matches for Episodes I through III because of the changes in technology and cuts of the typefaces that made it into the digital era. The main News Gothic type is far heavier in these later films. ITC Franklin Gothic was used for ‘A long time ago …’ for I to III; this, too, was originally News Gothic, but re-releases have brought all six films into line to use the later graphic.
   However, it could be argued that even between Episodes V and VI there were changes: News Gothic Extra Condensed in caps for the subtitle for The Empire Strikes Back, switching to Univers for Return of the Jedi. (It seems even the most highly ranked fan wiki missed this.) And, of course, there was no equivalent in the original Star Wars—’A New Hope’ was added in 1981.
   Here’s how it looked in 1977:

And if you really wish to compare them, here are all six overlaid on each other:

   I wasn’t a huge fan in the 1970s: sci-fi was not my thing, and I only saw Star Wars for the first time in the 1980s on video cassette, but I did have a maths set, complete with Artoo Detoo eraser (I learned my multiplication table from a Star Wars-themed sheet) and the Return of the Jedi book of the film. But even for this casual viewer and appreciator, enough of that opening sunk in for me to know that things weren’t quite right for The Phantom Menace in 1999. I hope, for those typographically observant fans, that The Force Awakens gets things back on track.

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Posted in humour, marketing, TV, typography, UK, USA | No Comments »


My first day with Windows 10

17.11.2015

I never expected that the Windows 10 download would ever begin. I had registered for it, but the Windows 10 notification window kept coming up with various excuses, talking about my drivers being out of date, then claiming that because of the automatic log-in, the download would not start. Clicking ‘Tell me more’ never did a thing: that took you to Microsoft’s home page. This went on for months.
   But on a day when I upgraded a new office Mac to El Capitán (and migrated the old data on to it), and reinstalled Lubuntu on another PC which threw a wobbly after being asked to adopt the Cinnamon desktop (which took many hours), Windows 10 decided it was ready after all on my main Windows 7 machine, via Windows Update.
   First signs were promising, with the 2½ Gbyte download coming in five minutes, although the computer stayed on ‘Preparing for the upgrade’ overnight. I had heard that the upgrade process would take an hour or so, not overnight, so something was wrong. Typically I had this trouble with one of the Macs on OS upgrades—one took 18 hours while another took 30 minutes once—but this was new territory for Windows.
   One thing I will say for Windows is that when things go wrong, there is help. One piece of advice, which proved right, was to crash out of the process (using the process manager), and to start it all over again.
   Windows just need a second stab at it, and recommenced the download. This time the ‘Preparing’ window flashed up and was gone, and the hard yards then began. It did wind up taking just over an hour. Getting it on a second attempt isn’t bad, considering I’ve had Mac OS upgrades fail far more times than that.
   First impressions are pretty good though most Windows 7 initiés will tell you that things are a bit harder to find. Don’t believe a soul when they tell you it’s faster to boot up: it isn’t. I’m sure it takes an extra minute compared to 7. Doing some basic things in the File Manager takes more movements of the mouse, to open menus and to click, and the menus aren’t as streamlined once you open the panel to find the functions you used to see at a glance. Little annoying things included Windows 10 forgetting that I had set Cyberfox as my default browser—it really loves Edge, and admittedly, it is a nice, fast program—and the time zone changing without you noticing (I prefer GMT, but Windows kept altering it to NZDT). You have to dig a bit deeper into the menus to make these things stick, such as going through the default programs’ dialogue box, and turning off Windows’ ability to check the time. Having opted for UK English, Cortana refused to work—curiously, it claimed that the installed US English pack was an unsupported language, until I downloaded the same for UK English.


Cortana gives completely the wrong address for me. I wonder if the resident of 39A Aparima Avenue is getting identified as the home of a lot of Windows 10 users.

   There’s not an awful lot that Cortana can tell you. Most enquiries wind up on Bing, and she’s only really good for the weather and exchange rates (as I have discovered so far). There are a few fun questions you can throw at her, asking if she’s better than Siri, or whether if she’s met Bill Gates, but generally, but we’re far from Knight Rider or replicant technology here. A New Zealand accent presents no problems. One thing she gets very wrong is my location, which is allegedly 39A Aparima Avenue in Miramar. I’m not sure how she arrived at that address, as I don’t live there and I don’t believe I know the person who does.
   It’s not too unpleasant to look at although the mobile-specific features can get a bit annoying. The menus feel too large overall, because it’s all designed from a mobile-first standpoint, while the biggest gripe from me comes with the typography.
   Microsoft has ruined ClearType here in its attempt to make something for mobile first, and most type looks very poor on screen. Fortunately, a Japanese website still hosts the MacType plug-in, which brings the font display closer to what we experience on Mac OS X. It even goes beyond what we were used to in Windows 7, which had been Microsoft’s best use of its ClearType technology to date.


After installing MacType, ITC Legacy Serif looks far more like it does in print.

   You can alter the fonts through the Registry Editor, and I set about getting rid of Arial as always. Windows 10 doesn’t like you removing a system font, so the trick is to replace it with something else called Arial, then remove the original from HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Fonts.
   Windows 10 removes your ability to change the icon and menu fonts, and they now have to be changed in the registry, too, at HKCU\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics, and very carefully.
   After tinkering with those, the display began looking like what I was familiar with, otherwise there was a bit too much Segoe on screen.
   There have so far been no program incompatibilities. As upgrades go, it hasn’t been too bad, and I haven’t been stuck here forever downloading updates. Apple still gets higher marks for its OS upgrade processes (when they work) but given how much data I have on my main Windows machine, and how different each PC is, Microsoft has done a good job. I’m glad the system waited till now, and delivered me a relatively bug-free transition. Software upgrading is one area where I don’t mind not being first.

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Posted in design, technology, typography, USA, Wellington | No Comments »


What to do when Firefox for Windows Vista displays no text

28.12.2014

During the six hours wasted with Ubuntu today (13 would no longer upgrade, so I removed it and decided to start afresh with 14—big mistake, since it would not let me use the same hard drive), I had to open up my five-year-old Windows Vista laptop and upgrade my Firefox. After all, what were the odds that Mozilla would cock up its flagship browser on two OSs? After all, it’s fine on Mac OS X and Linux.
   As it turns out, pretty high. Just as in Windows 7, Firefox for Windows Vista displays no text. And unlike Windows 7, which was solved by switching on hardware acceleration, Windows Vista proved a bit of a bugger to fix.
   During the months where I was trouble-shooting, and after my last post, one of the more knowledgeable Mozilla volunteers admitted that there is a fault with the Cairo rendering engine in Firefox: ‘This means that (at least in your case) the issue is most likely specific to the cairo drawing backend. Good to know, thanks.’
   It is still definitely related to the 2011 bug I filed where PostScript Type 1 fonts were incompatible with Firefox due to something breaking that time.
   Firefox for Windows Vista’s bug, as far as I can make out, is down to Type 1 fonts being incompatible with the browser, even though they are compatible with nearly everything else on the OS. This is slightly different from the Windows 7 fault, as I still have PostScript Type 1 fonts on that computer, but Firefox simply ignores those when specified in a stylesheet in favour of what it can load under hardware acceleration (usually the default).
   Despite my updating some of the system fonts that were particular to my Vista set-up to OpenType (which Firefox might have trouble with sometimes, too), that did not fix it. Firefox requires you to delete fonts off your system.
   On some websites, including Facebook, Helvetica is specified before Arial in stylesheets. If your Helvetica (not Neue Helvetica) is PostScript Type 1—and it probably would be on a Windows machine—Firefox will detect it, and return blank spaces.
   This is still a daft state of affairs with Cairo. Here’s how (to my very basic layman’s mind, and obviously to the minds of everyone at Adobe and a bunch of other places) how a program should deal with fonts:

* Is it installed on the system? Yes.
* Use it.

Firefox seems to adopt this approach:

* Is it installed on the system? Yes.
* Let’s ignore the ones our programmers dislike in favour of the ones our programmers like, which would only be certain TrueType fonts, and to heck with the people who have licensed other fonts and installed them in good faith. Let’s punish anyone who decided to carry over older software. Let’s also fail selected OpenType fonts such as the italics in Source Sans Pro for no apparent reason. [PS.: If the first font family is incompatible, let’s display nothing. On a stylesheet, if one does not work, we won’t load the second one, but we will try to load the system font even if that is incompatible, too.]

   When it comes to stylesheets, neither OS makes much sense. Normally a program would go through each font specified, and display in the first one available. I don’t understand the rationale but Firefox will skip the ones in the stylesheet even when installed, even when compatible, and opt for system fonts or those specified as defaults in the program.
   All of this is counter-intuitive, and if it weren’t for what must be my OCD, I’d never have found out, and have given up to use another browser.
   Not that IE11 is much good:

Loading up the next ASCII character makes little sense, either.
   Firefox isn’t unique in mucking up type on Windows. Back in the days of versions 1 and 2, I avoided it because it was incapable of displaying ASCII characters above 128 in the same font. This still afflicted Opera, the last time I saw it in 2010. Chrome wasn’t much better: it will pick one character and display that in a different font or fail on the font-face spec in HTML. For years, Internet Explorer would only let you use TrueType.
   I don’t fully understand why Windows browsers must behave differently—no doubt it’s to do with Flash or HTML 5 or something connected with rendering—but it is very annoying when every other program I have gets this right.

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Firefox, Waterfox, Cyberfox displaying no text? Do the opposite of what you are told

24.12.2014

After months of avoiding the latest Mozilla Firefox because it would display no text, installing, removing, and reinstalling an older version of Waterfox just so I could do some work, and experimenting over the last day with Cyberfox, which included editing fonts, looking at GFX settings, editing the registry, and doing an awful lot of research, I have now fixed the problem of having no text in these browsers.
   As I discovered years ago, the trick is to do the exact opposite of what the experts suggest.
   When trying to set up the office network in the mid-2000s, the only way I could get it going was to do the exact opposite of expert advice, by making sure the speed on every device did not match.
   Tonight, the solution was as simple as pie. Almost every piece of advice I had received when reporting this issue was: turn off hardware acceleration. It was already turned off, so, logically, I kept looking at other things. It got to the point where I was advised by Loic, one of the helpful guys on the Mozilla forums who had hitherto walked me through possible solutions, ‘As you are able to reproduce it, could you use the tool mozregression to find a possible regression range, it will help to narrow the underlying regression.’
   Software people think I am a lot smarter than I really am, and I had to admit to the writer that I am a layman and I had no idea what he was talking about.
   The correct solution, if you want Firefox, Waterfox and Cyberfox to display text where there was none, is to turn on hardware acceleration.
   You can imagine my feeling right now: a sense of satisfaction knowing that I am running the latest, most secure browser and that I overcame this rather serious bug, with the usual disappointment in realizing that I trusted again in expert advice that wasted time for a lot of people, including those kind developers on the Mozilla forums, and Alex, the guy behind Waterfox, who were trying to find a solution for me. I simply do not know enough about computers and software beyond what I have to do to make a living.
   The concluding remark from one of the guys, Nicolas, on the Mozilla thread was, ‘This means that (at least in your case) the issue is most likely specific to the cairo drawing backend. Good to know, thanks.’
   I hope documenting this bug has helped someone out there. Merry Christmas!

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Posted in internet, technology, typography | 4 Comments »


Cyberfox day two, or, the day it, too, stopped displaying text

24.12.2014

Rather than repeat the story in new words, here is a draft of the post that was sent to Cyberfox’s support forum.

The short story: Cyberfox no longer displays text as of this morning after working well for its first evening yesterday after installation for the first time. Glyphs that are not from a @font-face linked font will not show, so if a page is calling fonts from the system, the browser displays blank text. Nothing happened overnight. I switched the machine off, and when I switched it on again, Cyberfox exhibits this behaviour.
   The long story: in 2011, Firefox had a bug which meant there was no backward compatibility with PostScript Type 1 fonts (https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=628091). This is very similar to that except the text areas are blank, rather than filled with squares or hex codes.
   About two Firefox versions ago (I am guessing v. 32), the browser stopped showing text. I switched to Waterfox, which lasted one more version before it, too, stopped showing text. I downloaded Cyberfox last night and was truly pleased that here was a Firefox-based browser that actually worked. Text displayed as normal, and these were my Type 1, TrueType and OpenType fonts. To top it off, Cyberfox’s rasterizer and the way it handled sub-pixel rendering was superior to that of the other two browsers (see my blog post at http://jackyan.com/blog/2014/12/switching-to-cyberfox-after-waterfox-and-firefox-stopped-displaying-text/ for two screen shots of the type). Naturally, I was over the moon and made Cyberfox my default.
   Just to be on the safe side, I turned off hardware acceleration as when I posted the above bug to Mozilla Support, I was told that that could be a culprit. I made no change to OMTC.
   Today, as mentioned, Cyberfox has become just another Firefox where no text is displayed. But the really weird thing is that the typography, for the type that does show, is identical to Firefox and Cyberfox: the superior rendering is gone.
   Also, I’ve since altered the font family I use as a default for Windows displays to OpenType (I work in fonts), so there should no longer be an backward-incompatibility issue. Nvidia updated one of its drivers today, so I let that happen, and confirmed that all my drivers are up to date.
   Reinstallation (while keeping profile data) actually fixes everything: the type is back, rasterized more sharply,
   I was using Australis as the theme but have since gone back to classic.
   I’d be grateful for any light you can shed on this as I’m keen to stay within the Firefox 64-bit family. Whatever makes Cyberfox display better than the other two immediately after installation (though not after a reboot) solves this major problem of no type appearing.

   The different rendering method is the fix. The questions are: why does Cyberfox render type differently if it’s Mozilla Firefox-based? And why does rebooting my computer change this setting?

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Switching to Cyberfox, after Waterfox and Firefox stopped displaying text

23.12.2014

Since the Firefox for Windows updates in November, I’ve had a big problem with the Mozilla browser, and the Waterfox 64-bit version based on it: they won’t display text. I had to downgrade to Waterfox 32.0.3 for the last month or so, but it’s begun crashing more and more regularly (from once a day to thrice today—I visit largely the same sites, so why does software “decay” like this?).

   On the latest incarnations of Firefox and Waterfox, linked fonts work, but the majority of system fonts vanished from the browser. And, for once, I’m not alone, if Bugzilla is any indication. It is probably related to a bug I filed in 2011.
   I’ve had some very helpful people attend to the bug report—it’s great when you get into Bugzilla where the programming experts reside—but sadly, a lot of the fixes require words. And, unfortunately, those are the things that no longer displayed in Firefox, not even in safe mode.
   As many of you know, there’s no way I’d switch to Chrome (a.k.a. the ‘Aw, snap!’ browser) due to its frequent crashes on my set-up, and its memory hogging. There’s also that Google thing.
   After some searching tonight, I came across Cyberfox. It’s not a Firefox alternative that comes up very often. Pale Moon is the one that a lot of people recommend, but I have become accustomed to Firefox’s Chrome-like minimalism, and wanted something that had a Firefox open-source back end to accompany it. Cyberfox, which lets you choose your UI, has the familiar Firefox Australis built in.
   I made the switch. And all is well. Cyberfox forces you to make a new profile, something that Waterfox does not, but there isn’t much of an issue importing bookmarks (you have to surf to the directory where they are stored, and import the JSON file), and, of course, you have to get all your plug-ins and do all your opt-outs again. It also took me a while to program in my cookie blocks. But the important thing is: it displays text.
   You’d think that was a pretty fundamental feature for a web browser.
   The text rendering is different, and probably better. I’ve always preferred the way text is rendered on a Macintosh, so for Cyberfox to get a bit nearer that for some fonts is very positive. It took me by surprise, and my initial instinct was that the display was worse; on review, Firefox displayed EB Garamond, for example, in a slightly bitmapped fashion; Cyberfox’s antialiasing and subpixel rendering are better.

Firefox and Waterfox on Windows 7
Firefox_Screenshot_2014-12-23T14-14-06.693Z

Cyberfox on Windows 7
Firefox_Screenshot_2014-12-23T14-13-23.809Z

Here’s where the above text is from.
   Gone is the support for the old PostScript Type 1 fonts (yes, I still have some installed) but that’s not a big deal when almost everything is TrueType and OpenType these days.
   The fact Cyberfox works means one of two things: (a) Cyberfox handles typography differently; or (b) as Cyberfox forces us to have a new profile, then there is something in the old profiles that caused Firefox to display no text. That’s beyond my knowledge as a user, but, for now, my problems seem to be solved—at least until someone breaks another feature in the future!

PS.: That lasted all of a few hours. On rebooting, Cyberfox does exactly the same thing. All my text has vanished, and the rendering of the type has changed to what Firefox and Waterfox do. No changes to the settings were made while the computer was turned off, since, well, that would be impossible. Whomever said computers were logical devices?
   Of yesterday’s options, (a) is actually correct—but how do we get these browsers behaving the way they did in that situation? In addition, the PostScript Type 1 fonts that the browser was trying to access have since been replaced.

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Posted in internet, technology, typography | 3 Comments »


A tribute to Massimo Vignelli

29.05.2014

The below ran in Lucire today, though it is equally suited to the readers of this blog.


RIT

Massimo Vignelli, who passed away on May 27, was a hero of mine. When receiving the news shortly before it hit the media in a big way, from our mutual friend Stanley Moss, this title’s travel editor and CEO of the Medinge Group, I posted immediately on Facebook: ‘It is a sad duty to note the passing of Massimo Vignelli, one of my heroes in graphic design. When I was starting out in the business, Massimo was one of the greats: a proponent of modernism and simple, sharp typography. His influence is apparent in a lot of the work done by our brand consultancy and in our magazines, even in my 2013 mayoral campaign graphics. A lot of his work from half a century ago has stood the test of time. There was only one degree of separation between us, and I regret that we never connected during his lifetime. The passing of a legend.’
   This Facebook status only scratches the surface of my admiration for Vignelli. There have been more comprehensive obits already (Fast Company Design rightly called him ‘one of the greatest 20th century designers’), detailing his work notably for the New York subway map, and—curiously to me—glossing over the effect he had on corporate design, especially in the US.
   Vignelli, and his wife Lella, a designer in her own right and a qualified architect, set up the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in Milano in 1960, which had clients including Pirelli and Olivetti. In 1965, they moved to New York and Vignelli co-founded Unimark International (with Ralph Eckerstrom, James Fogelman, Wally Gutches, Larry Klein, and Bob Noorda), where he was design director. It was the world’s largest design and marketing firm till its closure in 1977.
   The 1960s were a great time for Vignelli and his corporate identities. He worked on American Airlines, Ford, Knoll, and J. C. Penney, and the work was strictly modernist, often employing Helvetica as the typeface family. Vignelli was known to have stuck with six families for most his work—Bodoni was another, a type family based around geometry that, on the surface, tied in to his modernist, logical approach. However, there were underlying reasons, including his belief that Helvetica had an ideal ratio between upper- and lowercase letters, with short ascenders and descenders, lending itself to what he considered classic proportions. The 1989 WTC Our Bodoni, created under Vignelli’s direction by Tom Carnase and commissioned by Bert di Pamphilis, adheres to the same proportions.
   Although my own typeface design background means that I could not adhere to six, there is something to be said for employing a logical approach to design. American corporate design went through a “cleaning up” in the 1960s, with a brighter, bolder sensibility. Detractors might accuse it of being stark, the Helveticization of American design making things too standard. Yet through the 1970s the influence remained, and to my young eyes that decade, this was how professional design should look, contrary to the low-budget work plaguing newspapers and books that I saw as I arrived in the occident.
   When the Vignellis left Unimark to set up Vignelli Associates in 1971 (and later Vignelli Designs in 1978), their stamp remained. The MTA launched Vignelli’s subway map the following year, and like the London Underground map by Harry Beck in 1931, it ignored what was above ground in favour of a logical diagram with the stops. Beck was a technical draftsman and the approach must have found favour with Vignelli, just as it did with those creating maps for the Paris Métropolitain and the Berlin U-bahn.
   New Yorkers didn’t take to the Vignelli map as well as Londoners and Parisians, and it was replaced in 1979 with one that was more geographically accurate to what was above ground.
   In 1973, Vignelli worked on the identity for Bloomingdale’s, and his work endures: the Big Brown Bag is his work, and it continues to be used by the chain today. Cinzano, Lancia and others continue with Vignelli’s designs.
   Ironically, despite a rejection of fashion in favour of timelessness, some of the work is identified with the 1960s and 1970s, notably thanks to the original cut of Helvetica, which has only recently been revived (a more modern cut is commonplace), and which is slightly less popular today. Others, benefiting from more modern layout programs and photography, look current to 2010s eyes, such as Vignelli Associates’ work for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
   The approach taken by Lucire in its print editions has a sense of modernism that has a direct Vignelli influence, including the use of related typeface families since we went to retail print editions in 2004. Our logotype itself, dating from 1997, has the sort of simplicity that I believe Vignelli would have approved of.
   Vignelli was, fortunately, fêted during his lifetime. He received the Compasso d’Oro from ADI twice (1964 and 1998), the AIGA Gold Medal (1983), the Presidential Design Award (1985), the Honorary Royal Designer for Industry Award from the Royal Society of Arts (1996), the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper–Hewitt National Museum of Design (2003), among many. He holds honorary doctorates from seven institutions, including the Rochester Institute of Technology (2002). Rochester has a Vignelli Center for Design Studies, whose website adheres to his design principles and where educational programmes espouse his modernist approach. It also houses the Vignellis’ professional archive.
   He is survived by his wife, Lella, who continues to work as CEO of Vignelli Associates and president of Vignelli Designs; their son, Luca, their daughter, Valentina Vignelli Zimmer, and three grandchildren.

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The religiosity of the superbrands

10.02.2014


Another friend asked the Windows laptop v. Macbook question on her Facebook today.
   You can predict what happens next. The cult came by. As with the last time a friend asked the same question.
   The cult always comes and proclaims the superiority of the Apple Macintosh. And it is a blinding proclamation, of messianic proportions, where one must behold the perfection and divinity of said technology. There is always one person who posts multiple times in an effort to convert you—bit like how one religion’s missionaries do those ten visits in an effort to get you to join. I think they might operate on a similar counting system.
   As someone who uses Mac, Windows and Linux regularly (Mac and Windows daily, Ubuntu twice weekly) and usually enters into the conversation with ‘At the end of the day, it’s just a computer,’ I find it unsettling.
   How unsettling?
   Basically, as unsettling as my atheist friends would find someone imposing religion on them. Their stance usually is: hey, good on you if it works for you. If it makes you a better person, great. But I’d rather you not preach about it to me.
   The proclamations are usually so one-sided that they leave holes for attack. ‘They are better’ is not really good evidence, and ‘a six-year-old machine can still run the latest OS’ is only dependent on the RAM. The existence of Windows crapware and a clogged-up registry are more the function of the user rather than the platform. I also level a lot of the blame on Windows’ clunkiness on Microsoft Office: I don’t use it, and I am happier for it. (In fact, Office may be the worst thing to happen to the more Windows OSs, as they let down what I regard as a pretty stable platform.)
   I don’t dislike the Mac ecosystem. I use it daily, though the hard grunt I’ll do on my Windows 7 machine. I love the way the Mac handles graphics and sound. Without speccing up my Windows machine, I wouldn’t have the same quality. Apple’s handling of type is better than Microsoft’s Cleartype, in my opinion.
   I like how the platforms now communicate readily with each other.
   But I have problems with the wifi dropping out on a Mac, though this happens less often after Mavericks came out. However, it’s on the Mac forums as one of those unsolved issues that’s been going on for four years without a resolution. InDesign, at least for us, crashes more often on Mac than on Windows. (Your mileage may vary.) Some programs update more easily on Windows—take my 79-year-old Dad, who would prefer clicking ‘Update’ when a new Flash arrives more than downloading a DMG file, opening it, and dragging an icon to the Applications. It’s harder to learn this stuff when you are nearly 80. And don’t get me started on the IBM PC Jr-style children’s keyboards. They sucked in the 1980s and there’s not much reason they don’t suck today. (I replace the Imac chiclet keyboards with after-market ones, though of course that’s not a realistic option if you are getting a Macbook.)
   Sure, these are minor issues. For each one of these I can name you Windows drawbacks, too, not least how the tech can date if you don’t buy expensively enough to begin with, and how you can still find innovations on an older Mac that Microsoft simply hasn’t caught up with. And even with some of the newer monitor-and-computer desktop units out there, none of them are as neatly designed and beautifully modernist as an Imac.
   The biggest problem I have with the Mac world is this. As I told my friend: ‘Any time I post about Windows going wrong, the Mac cult always surfaces and cries, “You should buy a Mac!” as though they were stalking my social networks. Any time I post about Macs going wrong … the cult hides away. You see, you are shattering the illusion that the machines are perfect.’ It’s been like this for years.
   It is and it isn’t a problem. It doesn’t sway me when I use the technology. But it’s hard for me, or anyone who sees through the fact that these are just computers, to want to be associated with that behaviour.
   The more level-headed Mac users—a few have helped me on social networks when I raise an issue, though they are far fewer than the ‘Buy a Mac!’ crowd—probably don’t want to be seen to be part of some élite, either.
   I should be more tolerant of this given my qualifications in branding. Good on Apple for creating such fervour. This is held up to us as something we should achieve with our own brands, with the traditional agencies usually naming Apple at number one. Kevin Roberts and Saatchi used to go on about ‘lovemarks’. It’s great that people see a bunch of bits as something so personal, so emotionally involved. Google is in the same boat—go to the forums and tell the senior support people there that their by-the-book, Google-is-right, you-must-be-doing-something-wrong answer is incorrect. You will simply be ignored, because it doesn’t fit into their world and their belief system.
   In both cases, I wonder if there is such a thing as overbranding: where consumers love something so much that it goes beyond comprehension, into the creepy stage. Some might call these ‘superbrands’, but there is an uncomfortable element of religiosity to it. I’m not so sure whether this is the function of branding—and we thus come back to what we wrote at the Medinge Group in 2003, where we proposed in Beyond Branding that brands really centred around humanism, integrity and transparency.
   I don’t recall anything about fervour.

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