My walking experience with the AIGA NY ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES

ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES

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.

ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES

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.

ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES

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.

"ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES"

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.

ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES

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.

ALPHABET/CITY: A WALKING TOUR WITH TOBIAS FRERE-JONES

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.

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  • http://flickr.com/photos/litherland/sets/72157602214284638/ litherland

    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.

    Yeah, but I bet I’m the only one dumb enough to admit it 😉

    Thanks for this encapsulation, Michael.

    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.

    One thing, though; unless you’re talking about the Frutiger that some poor designer was asked to apply to the photo in a developer’s promotional material, I think we’re really talking about lettering rather than typography here. The difference being I guess that most of the letters we looked at were unique, not identically reproduced by some mechanical means and then set.

    Thanks again for documenting this experience in a way that is at once comprehensive and pithy.

    C

  • http://www.mischiefmari.com mari

    Michael, while flipping through an old Elle Décor magazine the other night, I came across an ad for Typography.com and soon thereafter visited their site. I’ve always been fascinated by calligraphy and typography and frustrated by the lack of interesting fonts available on most computer software, so the site provided me hours of entertainment. As someone who makes a lot of hand-made things, I was struck by your comment about chiseling out letters (like litherland above)…What an interesting way to discover a part of the city you live in – a typography tour. It certainly made me miss NYC.

  • http://www.typography.com Tobias Frere-Jones

    Hi Michael —

    Thanks for coming on the tour, and for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Tobias

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