This is the latest edition of Adventures in Typography, a newsletter by your friendly neighborhood blogger, Robin Rendle.
Whilst the outside world had become a nightmare of rain and demonic winds that thrashed at the windows mercilessly, the inside world—this little bunker of a room we had huddled together in—had taken on that warm, cozy feeling that is a quality only possible for rooms in Britain to possess.
Inside we had found ourselves watching a multicolor rainbow swash of illustrated figures, shapes, and typography flash on the projected screen before us. Click. With each new slide, a new book cover. Click. And each one was more dazzling than the last. Some had been illustrated by hand whilst others were just a single hue of color. There were book covers that screamed and those that whispered—I remember one design of pure white, with the title of the novel set in small caps at the very center.
I mention this because all the dazzling work I saw that day still haunts me.
Every designer talked about their project in turn; they showed a series of potential book covers that redesigned one of my favorite novels, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. And although every cover was different, they all captured something unique that felt familiar. It was simply fascinating because every pixel on that screen was a loving remix from a gang of designers that clearly adored the text as much as I did.
Although it was equal parts beautiful and devastating for me. I sat there flabbergasted, aloof, in complete disarray. All this beautiful work was just a series of sketches, half-baked suggestions of the final thing, yet it blew my projects out of the water. Their sense of color and shape, their eye for subtlety and charm, far surpassed my own. And it suddenly dawned on me just how much I had yet to learn, how much work was left to do.
I was so very far behind.
It was hard to take all this as inspiration, as encouragement; to try harder, to do better. But I think this moment was an important one. And the other day I remembered how this act—of remixing the things you love—can be a wonderful experiment and the best sort of teaching experience. If I could go back in time to teach my younger self about typesetting then I reckon that this is where I’d start: “Take your favorite book,” I’d say “and design the absolute heck out of it.”
Let’s say you want to learn how to set type on the web, for example. Then I would argue that it’s more important that you get the fundamentals of typography down first before you go and learn about React or some giant-framework-to-do-app-thing. And the easiest way to learn the fundamentals is copying all the text from To the Lighthouse or Moby Dick or whatever your favorite book happens to be, and throwing it into Codepen. Then you can try and make it all easier to read, slowly, bit by bit.
As an example, here’s most of the HTML for Moby Dick.
I would tell my younger self to look around Google Fonts and try to pick a typeface that suits the text—I’d ask myself to think about paragraph spacing and the type sizes across different devices. Next, what about the color of the text? After that, how do we make it not only legible, but also help inform the story? How do we make sure that the text doesn’t just get in the way?
I think this is why To the Lighthouse and Moby Dick have begun to hold a special place in my heart. Not just because of the writing but also because these two novels have found themselves in this infinite loop of redesigns over the course of a century. Book designer after book designer has taken up the challenge of reshaping the texts in their own way. And each one has contributed to this infinite remix.
All this reminds me of my favorite passage from Mary Reufle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. And I know I’ve mentioned this extract before, but it’s worth mentioning here again:
My idea for a class is you just sit in the classroom and read aloud until everyone is smiling, and then you look around, and if someone is not smiling you ask them why, and then you keep reading—it may take many different books—until they start smiling, too.
As Mary implies, reading any old book can be boring as hell if it just doesn’t grab your attention, and so it’s easy for typography to become this distant or pedantic thing in the same way. If we don’t care about the text we’re designing then we’ll get lazy, we’ll start taking shortcuts. But if we grab the text closest to us, the stuff that we really care about, then we’re sure to find that the work takes on this whole new meaning.
Because here’s the thing that I learned in that tiny room in the bunker that was under bombardment of that mean, English winter: remixing is the best way to learn something new.
Until next time,