Robin here. Last week I mentioned that I should just write the damn book and so I’ve decided to get to it. I’m kicking off a brand new project and weekly newsletter so that you can follow along with my progress.
It’s called How Not To Make a Book. Go subscribe!
Each week I’ll write about what I’m working on and what I’ve learned so far. Some weeks will focus on the writing whilst others will be design-focused or gathering research. I’m sure I’ll be going through my library often to investigate how other folks have made beautiful books that might inspire this one. There’ll also be talk of paper-stock and binding and financing and a million other things that go into making a great book.
It’s going to be a whole lot of fun!
Also, I’m using Magnet by Inga Plönnigs here which is my favorite thing at the moment. It has these great big cuts in each letter that make the Headline version look italicized, as Inga wrote about in her excellent design notes:
Oh and don’t miss the upturned tick of the lowercase g which is spectacularly charming and odd all by itself…
Anyway, go subscribe to How Not To Make a Book because I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun for publishing and type nerds alike. The first one will be published tomorrow, Monday 5th. Prepare yourselves.
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
This week I’ve been watching Halt and Catch Fire again. It’s a TV show about personal computers, back in a time when ‘personal’ meant ‘beige corporate plastic’ and ‘computer’ meant ‘enormous house-sized box that sits in an office basement.’ There’s definitely some clunky writing in the show that sometimes feels like my dad is frantically trying to explain TikTok to me, but overall Halt and Catch Fire is just as hypnotic as the first time I watched it.
But—I realized this in the second watching—Halt and Catch Fire is not really a show about computers or tech or the Silicon Prairie. The tech isn’t the point. One of the main characters famously gets on his high horse and almost reviews the show himself: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
So what’s the “thing” of Halt and Catch Fire? It’s not the personal computer. I reckon it’s instead about doing the work and there are simply not enough shows about people doing the work, struggling with it, learning how to get better at whatever it is that they do, desperately throwing themselves at a vocation.
It’s a show about giving your whole life to a thing and all the consequences that befall you if you give too much.
Halt and Catch Fire is kinda like those montage scenes in movies where something is very difficult and then that same something is figured out over grueling weeks/months/years. The struggle! The drama! The work! Halt and Catch Fire frequently bottles up that feeling.
Something else that stood out to me this time round though were the letters in the opening title sequence. There’s a lot of thin compressed serifs all over the place:
Stephen Coles has of course already been there and done that. Writing on Quora 10 years ago, he explained…
It is Bembo, which is an odd choice for titling because it’s so wispy and delicate. It’s also negatively spaced to within a pica of its life. They would have done better with Bembo Book, which is essentially the same typeface but sturdier, more true to the original 15th-century design.
Bembo might be an odd choice but I think it kinda works here! Something about these letters just scream “computer” to me—but perhaps it’s not so much the letterforms as it is the spacing between them? Computer ads back in the 80s used thick and chunky serifs and also a lot of thin, compressed serifs that were, as Coles said, “negatively spaced to within a pica of its life.”
The 1980s were a time of letters forcibly squished together for no good reason like this:
I guess my question to the type community is why? Did folks squish these letters together because it looked cool or more…computery? Or is it a weird printing quirk? Did spacing letters correctly take a bunch of effort and these were just rushed printing jobs?
There must be some reason for all this squishing and I demand a typographic detective to explain why.
Until next time,