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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Typography: An Interview with Jim Felici

Frank Romano interviews Jim Felici about the evolution to digital type, "automating" typography, and his most and least favorite fonts.
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RIT Professor Emeritus and Contributor Frank Romano caught up with Jim Felici recently. The second edition of his The Complete Manual of Typography was just released, and Frank had some probing questions.

Frank Romano: The "Complete" Manual of Typography. Really? Complete?

Jim Felici: There’s a story behind that. When I wrote the book, its working title was simply “Setting Type.” At the time, the publishers thought that was pretty dull, but what they were proposing to me sounded like “Another Book About Fonts.” “The Complete Manual of Typography” was the compromise.

Were it to be really complete, it would have to cover many more design issues, because the term “typography” covers a lot of ground. But designing with type has been covered well by many others, although the craft of typesetting—the key to realizing any type-rich design—had never gotten its due. Since I come from a typesetting background, not a design background, that’s what I brought to the table. From that perspective, it’s about as complete as I could make it, without getting into the minutiae of which buttons to push in which programs—information that rapidly goes out of date in any case.

I thought about going into issues such as the principles of mixing and matching typefaces: which types look good—and bad—with which others and why. It’s certainly of concern to typographers. But at the end of the day, this discussion leads to some very general principles that aren’t easy to apply in a practical way. The person who reads my book will come away with a fundamental knowledge of why types looks the way they do, and this gets them a long way down the road to making informed design decisions.

Because most pages we read are mainly type, if you know how to set type well, many aspects of page design will take care of themselves. This may be like the tail wagging the dog, but we’re talking about a very big tail here.

So yes, “complete” is an overstatement, part of the poetic license exercised by the authors, publishers, and marketers. If the title were “The Complete Manual of Typesetting,” I’d defend it as being pretty close to right on. But by the rules of that same poetics of book titling, “Typesetting” isn’t nearly as sparkly as “Typography.”

Frank: "Setting Perfect Type"? We can't get folks to user real quote marks. Do we have to automate typography?

Jim: It’s funny, but just the other day a graphic artist from California said to me,” So why did you write that book? Typography just happens automatically these days, doesn’t it?” I tried to remain calm, but he had a point—sort of. A lot of typographic controls can be set to be exercised properly and automatically—if people make the effort. Even the most modest word processor can be set to automatically use real typographic quotation marks instead of the typewriter-style vertical ones. But someone has to flip the switch to make it happen, and most casual users don’t even know there is a switch, much less how to find it.

I was careful to include in the book an encyclopedic list of what typesetting programs can do (and should be able to do, if they can’t today) so that readers will know that the switches exist, although they may have to use their program’s manuals to find them. The principles of how they all should work are included in the discussion.

But even if someone has the best typesetting software and knows all of its ins and outs, there can’t be any “push-button typesetting” because the rules of typography change according to context. What works at 6-point doesn’t necessarily work at 72-point. Settings that work in narrow columns don’t necessarily work in wide columns. What works in black and white may produce illegible results in color. It’s all situational, so the typographer needs to know how type works in order to make the right adjustments.

I suppose that artificial intelligence could some day address some of these issues, at least partially. It could, for example, automatically adjust the hyphenation and justification specifications when a column of type narrows, like when it runs around an embedded graphic or photo. But for the time being, it’s up to the human mind, and especially the human eye, to divine the proper solutions. And this is not a bad thing, because when we learn about type we learn about our language, about how we communicate, and we appreciate what a long, slow evolution the written word has been through to get us to where we are today. I worry about the day coming when people think it’s all the result of some clever computer programmer somewhere.

Frank: "2nd Edition"? I thought the first edition was excellent. What required a 2nd edition?

Jim: The second edition was prompted mainly by technological advances. I’ve continued to learn about type, and the more type I set the more I learn about the craft of typesetting as well. That’s all in there too. But in eight years, typography hasn’t changed much, and the principles of good typesetting remain unchanged.

But to set type, you’re obliged to know about a lot of technical stuff, and this changes all the time, if only because Silicon Valley makes its money by tirelessly selling new stuff and obsoleting the old. When the first edition came out, OpenType was something new—now it’s the standard font format. The tools that Windows and the Mac use for managing fonts and providing access to large character sets have evolved. Unicode and Cascading Style Sheets were still exotic concepts. And the programs we use to set type, everything from Word to QuarkXPress and InDesign, get better bit by bit at doing what typographers need.

During the eight years between editions I kept writing notes to myself about new insights, typesetting techniques, ways of seeing, and sundry tips and tricks that I wanted to put in a second edition. There are no new chapters, but there are scads of fresh tidbits throughout. I should have counted them and put them on the cover to bolster my claims of completeness.

Frank: We have evolved from metal type to photo type and now digital type. What has been the most significant change?

Jim: On the grand scale, I’d say it’s access to tools. For an investment of $2,000 you can set type of a caliber that required a half-million-dollar investment just 25 or 30 years ago. This regime change was largely responsible for a huge loss of typesetting expertise as typesetters were thrown out of work wholesale. But it also took the practice of type out of the hands of a mandarin few and—for better and worse—made it available to everyone.

At the page level, though, the changes have been almost exclusively for the good. I miss the feel of a letterpress-printed page, with each character slightly dimpling the paper, but most of the type set for letterpress printing was awful. The economics of printing have always put a premium on money-saving shortcuts, and setting metal type to high standards needed lots of extra time and fastidiousness, and that’s expensive. When characters could be positioned without the physical restraints of metal castings, it became much cheaper and easier to set decent type, and the look of mass-produced type took a quality leap forward.

Phototype first made it possible, but digital type refined it further by allowing large points sizes—any point sizes—to be set on the same equipment as that used for text. Digital fonts are making large character sets the norm, so things as mundane as fractions look better than ever.

But mainly, from a typesetting perspective, it’s the precise control we now have over the spacing of type that is the big thing in the digital world. Computer-set type may lack some of the whimsy of old metal-set type, where baselines might wobble and word spacing could be somewhat eccentric. But for maximum readability, for a setting that makes for effortless reading and enhanced comprehension, we now have the best typesetting tools of all time.

Frank: What is your biggest peeve in current type use?

Jim: The emphasis on trendy typefaces. Everybody now has a favorite font. A few years ago, the trend was the impulse to use type in “new” ways, running it up and down, at weird angles, at shifting line lengths, in peculiar colors, type overlapping type and photos. That fortunately festered out because it turned out that no one wanted to read it, something that avant garde typographers in the 1920s had found out as well.

Advertisers need new typefaces to create distinctive messages, or at least think they do. Ads worked quite well even when the typeface repertoire was quite limited back in the metal and wood type days. But in today’s marketing-mad world, novelty is the thing, and many designers look for salvation in new and trendy types.

I remember Roger Black getting his hands on a beta version of Caslon 540 back in the days when desktop type consisted of Helvetica, Times, and Courier. For months, it seemed, he designed fabulous things—including, as I recall it, the brochure for the New York Type Directors’ Club meeting—using only one typeface. It was like a variation of the old question, “If you were stuck on a desert island with only one ....”

New golf clubs don’t make better golfers, and new typefaces don’t necessarily make better designs or designers. And anyway, as you so sagely pointed out in your foreword to the book, “In 2011 AD, there are almost 200,000 fonts (most of them based on Garamond).”

I guess what gets up my nose is that having more typefaces is equated with typographic progress. We’re not decorating our text here, we’re transmitting our culture, and that’s an important task. In fact, neither Quark nor Adobe does much anymore to advance the typographic capabilities of their programs, and designers and typesetters should be demanding more and better tools, not just more typefaces.

Thanks for the use of the soapbox.

Frank: The book is over 400 pages. Which page is your favorite?

Jim: That’s an easy one. It’s one with only two words on it: “for Jennifer.” I shudder to think of what kind of lazy lump I might have turned into without her good influences and loving patience over all the years.

Frank: What is your favorite type tip?

Jim: Use your eyes and have faith in them. That means never assuming that your computer or typesetting or page-layout program will do the right thing. For example, even after you’ve flipped the switch to automatically create real quotation marks, any computer program will sometimes insert closing quotes instead of opening ones, or vice versa. Likewise, your program doesn’t know whether the correct hyphenation is pre-sent (the verb) or pres-ent (the noun). It doesn’t know how to even out the spacing between characters in a headline, where even small irregularities are amplified into eye-catching gaps or pinches. Centered type often doesn’t look that way, and supposedly aligned objects look out of whack.

Apart from all the details of how to achieve this or that typographic goal, the book is basically about looking and seeing. As a typographer, you learn where to look for trouble spots and to see what’s happening there. No matter how much theory you may know about how type should be set, unless you train your eye to look and see what’s going on across the page, you can’t do the needful or fix the wrongful.

A corollary to this is to learn to keep your mouth shut among your friends and family regarding the typographic gaffes and flaws you spot. As interesting as it may be to you, it is deadly boring to most everyone else. You have to content yourself with being a guardian of the typographic excellence they mostly take for granted.

Frank: What is your favorite typeface? Least favorite?

Jim: Aah! There’s that question! I’m pretty fickle about this, and I’m coming off a second loving affair with Eric Gill’s Perpetua, which Frances Baca, the original designer of The Complete Manual of Typography, pulled out of her bag back in 2002. It has a lot of personality without drawing attention to itself. It has a lovely texture on the page.

That said, the typeface family I use most often is Matthew Carter’s Galliard. Matthew combines a breathtaking breadth of knowledge about typeface design with an aesthetic sense that casually informs the shapes of our everyday alphabet with great grace, but without making a big deal about it. The italics are knockouts. And it has a great collection of alternate sorts.

Least favorite? I must say that I’ve held an abiding distaste for University Roman for decades. I suspect my dislike for it may be genetically based. Other typefaces have offended my tender sensibilities without leaving lasting scars, but to this day I will not buy wine whose label is set in University.

I’m sick to death of seeing Times Roman used for books, but that’s not Times’s fault. It’s the fault of cheapskate publishers who use Times because it sets so compactly (it was designed for newspapers) and allows them to save a little paper over the length of a book.

Now, I’m not going to say that a good typesetter can make any typeface look good, but it’s safe to say that in the wrong hands, the most beautiful types in the world can look just awful.

Frank: Thanks Jim. We owe you for making good typography something all of us can achieve.

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