26 May 2011

Invisible Art

Cooper-Hewitt just awarded type designer Matthew Carter a National Design Award for lifetime achievement in the typographic arts. You know his work very well. You've seen it countless times. You're looking at it right now. He is the designer of the ubiquitous Microsoft system fonts Georgia, Tahoma and Verdana. I usually prefer Trebuchet for TLP, but in honor of Mr. Carter, today we're sporting Georgia.

Georgia and Verdana (Tahoma is very similar to the latter) are notable as being designed specifically for high-legibility on computer screens. Both are very extensively hand-hinted, meaning that the characters are carefully encoded with rasterization data for screen display. They are easy on the eyes and legible at very small point sizes. That's why countless Web pages have Georgia or Verdana set as their default fonts. You and I unknowingly drink in Carter's invisible art every day.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Carter's landmark fonts is that they have achieved a ubiquity and acceptance that very few fonts do, but are seen by designers as appropriate for screen-only use. Ikea caused a big dustup in 2009 when they adopted Verdana as their print catalog typeface, wanting to unify their Web and print look. Critics dubbed it Verdanagate, both miffed and bemused that so savvy a design company would willfully disregard good design, in some attempt to appeal to pedestrian comfort. It's like a worldclass print design firm decorating their offices in American Colonial because that's what most Americans have in their living rooms.

Ikea blew it off. Said a spokesflunky, "I think it’s mainly experts who have expressed their views, people who are interested in fonts. I don’t think the broad public is that interested. . . . [Verdana is] a simple, cost-effective font." Lame, Ikea. You did a Gap. Just own it. You know very well that good design isn't some when-convenient option. It's a way of life. You live the aesthetic life or you don't.

25 May 2011

Form and Content

I'm off next week to the national AAUP conference, at which Paper Age oldsters stagger around like Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," trying to work through the life-negating death of print publishing that (inexplicably) they never saw coming. Last year everyone suffered through session after session of bad news, then went looking for a bar to get proper drunk in. Academic publishing is suffering more than trade, in some respects, because its main customers, academic libraries, are defecting from paper books at an even faster rate than retail consumers.

Five years ago academic libraries were willing to pay $120 each for your arcane little monographs. Sell even 1000 copies at that price and you are still making money. Now libraries only want your publications if they come in huge, discounted ebook packages from vendors like Elsevier, where you may earn as little as a few dollars a title. No wonder the publishers' long faces.

The iPad is not helping things. It provides such a great reading experience that, not only do libraries not want to buy paper, soon nobody will want to read it. Publishing is just starting to reinvent its content for tablets, and already the results are astonishing. Obviously graphic-rich publications (glossy mags) benefit hugely, but more surprising is that even longform, text-heavy publications can, too.

John Biggs just discussed this with respect to the New Yorker. Talk about graphically spare. It's the anti-Wired. But even so, the iPad version is a substantial improvement over the paper.

    There are no graphical tricks, not too many multimedia events, and when there are, they’re great (one poetry reading by Sherman Alexie in the latest issue was amazing). And even the ads are unobtrusive and, dare I say it, beautiful in full living color. Everything about the iPad version is the same, yet strikingly different. This isn’t some rush-job given to a bunch of magazine designers who slap a little video in the corner of a horribly laid-out page. This is a full rethinking of the title and changes entirely how we consume long-form writing.

This leap to tablets is not just a design issue for publishers. It demands new forms of writing from authors. We'll start seeing more and more books like Al Gore's Our Choice, that simply "does things that no paper book ever could" (gushes Gizmodo). Designers like Craig Mod are completely rethinking what books without pages, designed for the "infinite content plane" of the iPad, should look like. On a multimedia device without any fixed content plane, or even the necessity of static content, do the monomedia codices of the Paper Age even make sense?

Reading habits change over time, always have, but the shift we are experiencing right now may be without parallel in its abruptness and rapidity. While the evidence is not unambiguous, I think longform has been in decline for some time, in part because the internet makes longform reading less necessary, or in many cases unnecessary, for informational purposes. (Thanks for that, Google.)  Certainly monographs are dying a slow death in academic publishing.

But writers have a bigger problem to worry about. They will increasingly, by themselves or collaboratively, be forced to become more than monomedia writers of words. The supplantation of books by multimedia tablets is already creating a new demand for rich content, even beyond the current demands of the internet. If hoary old standards like the New Yorker get that fact, this reality will very soon impose itself on even the most fusty Paper Age relics.

As print publishing dies, print writing will die with it. Words will still be words, and sentences sentences, but content will necessarily follow form. And the form of tablet publication is already so fantastic that even the internet looks dull and quaint beside it. Tablets must be recognized as new medium, and they are utterly irresistible.

23 May 2011

Why I Hate the Silver Screen

I don't know why it's taken me so long to come to this conclusion, but I don't like going to movies. Not at all. Now, I love movies, really, really love 'em. Or maybe, better said, I love "film." I love compelling visual narratives that make more sense of life than really exists in live. Great film has shaped my worldview much more than books have. That's how I'm wired. I'm a sensualist.

But movie theaters are a terrible place to see films, or movies. First, I don't know how to have a thoughtful and meditative encounter with a film when I'm sharing it with a couple hundred strangers. It's like reading a book with someone looking over my shoulder. But more basically, I just find theater speakers too loud and the screens too big. I have terrible, fussy eyes. I visually cannot take the whole movie screen in, and I find frenetic action on-screen, especially, to be visually and physically fatiguing. I've never wanted a 50" TV with 200w of surround sound at home. My little computer monitor and headphones are optimal, for me.

Worst of all are 3D movies. They are dim, the colors cold, the contrast low, the glasses uncomfortable, and they give me a headache. And 3D adds nothing to a movie's immersiveness. It's a gimmick to which you, in any case, quickly become habituated. I could go on, but Ebert has already given 3D a good and proper thrashing.

Now, as if I needed another reason to give up on movie theaters, I read today that many theaters are not bothering to change from their 3D to 2D lenses when showing the latter. The result is all the downsides of 3D (up to 85% darker, flat colors, plain ugly) even with 2D. The problem, apparently, is that the Sony 4k digital projectors that many theaters use are extremely tamper-resistant, making the lenses a pain to change. A small misstep and the projector can lock you out, causing logistical nightmares. Since the 3D lenses are of course absolutely necessary for 3D movies, some managers are saying, just leave 'em on.

So if you go to a 2D movie and it seems maddeningly dim, complain and ask for your money back. Hopefully a lot of other people will do the same. Customer contempt really should not be tolerated.

19 May 2011

Radically Purposive Blogging

I have not been blogging much lately, and it really has not been for lack of time. After a dissertation-imposed hiatus, I'm ready to get back to it. But the only blogging that really holds my sustained attention is blogging my hobbies and interests, and I find a general personal blog like Lithium Press to be a very poor vehicle for that. Fweem's project blogs have inspired me to rethink all this.

And in fact, I have started two other blogs in the past, but never did anything with them. One was on music, but I posted once and abandoned it entirely for TLP. The other was on wristwatches, which I seriously blogged for a month and then forsook. I went through a bit of a horological obsession in 2008, and like most of my obsessions, it cooled and I moved on. I remind myself too much of John Laroche, of Susan Orlean's "Orchid Fever"/Kaufman's Adaptation:

    Laroche grew up in Miami. He says he was a weird kid. This is not hard to believe. When he wanted a pet, he bought a little turtle, then bought ten little turtles, then tried to breed them, then started selling turtles to other kids, then decided his life wasn't worth living unless he acquired one of every species of rare turtle, including a three-hundred-pound exotic tortoise from the Galapagos Islands. Suddenly, another passion seized him. He became immersed in late-Ice Age fossils. Then he dropped turtles and Ice Age fossils and became obsessed with lapidary, and then after a while he dropped lapidary and got into collecting and resilvering old mirrors. His passions boil up quickly and end abruptly, like tornadoes. Usually, the end is accompanied by a dramatic pronouncement. When he was in his teens, he went through a tropical-fish phase, and he had sixty fishtanks in his house. He even went skin-diving for the fish himself. Then the end came. He didn't merely lose interest in collecting fish: he renounced it, as if he had kicked a habit. He declared that he would stop collecting fish forever. He also declared that he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was fifteen years ago. He lives a few miles from the Atlantic, but he has not gone near it since.

This may drive the people around me a bit crazy, and it's not easy for me either. I'd be more than happy to find that One True Thing that captivates me endlessly and forever. But that's not how I'm wired. At least my interests are somewhat cyclic. I'll take that.

So, wristwatches. I'll save how I got started into horology for a post on Wrist Watcher. Definitely one of my more hot-and-cold interests. But just eight posts on that blog, in November of 2008, has drawn 482 page views. Most of those (almost 300) have come since February of this year. I have no explanation. I have half a mind to start blogging horology again, for a change of pace, and because finding some consistent readers might be nice for a change.

The fact is, I follow a number of good topical blogs that are mostly dormant, but when updated, are of really great quality and always interesting. Like Muse-ings, Ed's Corner, and even a commercial blog, Small House Style. I actually like that the post count for all three is low, but the quality is high. And the posts are always on the blog's designated topic. No filtering required.

I think Lithium Press needs to be either shuttered or repurposed, and one or more topical blogs need to grow in its place. Ed Brandwein of Ed's Corner has even just turned a big chunk of his blog into an ebook that I'm going buy. (Need it in pdf, Ed!) I want a piece of that action—a blog or two (or why not dozen?) that would make sense as a book. Radically purposive blogging.