Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Type Nerd Strikes Again

I write this while awaiting for Pinterest to send me an invite to join their newly popular social sharing site. I am joining principally to be able to get a Pinterest badge to add to my blogs so that I can drive more traffic to them.

But that isn’t the only reason.

I am also joining because I can no longer resist their beautiful retro-looking logotype. To me it suggests class, tradition, and good design — all things I want my blog to be associated with.

Pinterest has thoughtfully shared the story of its logotype with the public.

Even though it has been designed especially to echo other classic American types and has a distinct 50’s feel, it is highly modern. This is because the designers worked the company’s logo (which is used by itself on share buttons) into the typeface itself, aware that today’s online readers (everyone) require visual shortcuts. The capital P looks like thread looping through a pin, with which to stab at items of interest (the other part of the word) and stitch them together coherently.

I could argue that Pinterest owes much of its success to its forethought in this regard, with people like me falling for it based on looks alone.

By “people like me,” I mean folks for whom Simon Garfield’s lovely book Just My Type, an anecdotal history of typography and typefaces is a compelling and necessary read. My Sweetheart delights in pointing out what a nerd I am, and in this he’s right; nerds are people for whom the invisible workings behind everyday things are of more interest than the things themselves. I pay attention to fonts. I know how they are built. I cause him to sigh when I suddenly exclaim, interrupting conversation, that someone-or-other is using Gotham in their menu bar. I am aware that normal people neither notice nor care.

 When I was a girl in the 1970s, I was given a Letraset catalogue and a huge sheaf of Letraset pages by a graphic designer clearing out his office. Henceforth, I was obsessed, tracing just the right typeface from the spiral-bound catalogue for my art projects, re-scaling them if needed. The pages of type themselves were thick and silky, slightly tacky on their business side, though protected by a slip of tissue. The letters themselves (mostly Cooper Black) were utterly opaque, and I loved to watch them pop off their backing when burnished (and “burnished it had to be”) with just the right tool. I always found the edge of an antique teaspoon to be perfect for the task.

Although my own handwriting left much to be desired, I spent hours spelling out the word “anyway” in a fluid script, enjoying the sensuous dips of the Ys and repetitive curves of the As. I produced page after page of loops and lines with pen and ink in copperplate, though they were nowhere as beautiful as my grandfather’s hand, even though he had very little formal education a century ago. The biro truly made decent handwriting hard to do, its ubiquity contributing greatly to the demise of script even before we all took to keyboards.

By the time I got to art school — one which had a typography department — I was deeply committed to the art of lettering. When I teach typography now, I have my students write a short paragraph anonymously, and we shuffle the results to take a look. I have found that it is possible to determine the gender of the hand who produced the text with astonishing accuracy — the class determining very quickly who wrote what based on nothing but hurriedly scribbled lines. It proves to be a productive exercise, giving rise to discussions about the expectations and assumptions we carry unconsciously regarding text.

Pinterest just sent me the invite, so if you look to the right, you can see their lovely badge. 

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