Where do you begin when you’re one of only twenty three people that gets to walk around New York with Tobias Frere-Jones hearing about his observations on type and how it influenced the great typeface Gotham? I know of one individual on the walking tour that had a hard time sleeping the night before b/c she was that excited – I’m sure she wasn’t the only one. On Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s Blog, there’s a google earth map of the entire route. I think it ended up being about three and a half hours of type bliss.
There was a lot type information covered with the tour and I don’t think I can remember everything word for word that Tobias shared, but here’s some of the stuff that seemed to stick with me. A lot of the type that we looked at was specifically designed to be on buildings, typically they were names of company’s or phrases that were quoted. I think that was important to understand what the context was. Whether it was someone chiselling out letters in stone or using a method by hand to be efficient, those type of techniques influenced how the type was set. And not to be forgotten, how the type would actually be read as someone walked by. By current standards, a lot of this information has been lost due to the advancements in computer technology where as when things were created by hand issues of speed were important. Hell we even saw every type of type in use on a building at the same time.
I really got the sense that Tobias had talked to a diverse group of individuals that are related to typography and more to the point sign makers from the past and other individuals that a lot of designers today may not communicate with on daily basis. Have you ever wondered why some signs have a drop shadow on the left and not on the right? For sign painters there’s more straight lines on the left as opposed to the right. And why is some type distorted horizontally pre-computer days? Sometimes signs are read as a person walks by and hence sees things on a slight angle.
Designers are brilliant observers, having eyes that look at everything that others might disregard or ignore makes the visual landscape. That’s often the case with street art as I’ve mentioned in the past that advertising grabs, but the same could be said with typography. Another theme was the hidden work that has been covered by other signs, on occasion by fluke, while other times haphazardness. Another issue is time, old buildings are bought and sold at an incredible pace which makes the signs that are on them likely not to last a long time these days.
My favourite building sign came from Cup & Saucer. It’s as simple as luving the angle type and the crazy ampersand. I also enjoyed hearing the smack down Tobias gave to one of the worst type examples in New York and possibly the world, Trajan on the Williamsburg Bridge.
In part the walk was inspired by the images that were taken to create Gotham. There was signs from fire departments, doors, schools and other places. I’ve never really thought of the open source philosophy to be part of the design world, but the fact that Tobias was more then happy to share everything that he could through his observations of type on buildings was pretty close to open source design as it’s going to get. I appreciated his effort and was humbled for the work that he and other typographers do.