Fonts themselves are now platform agnostic. But typography as a craft is not — yet.
It has been almost two months now since the launch of The Daily. Soon after its release, I noted an observation: as far as I could tell, the only people singing its praises were “type people” — type designers, especially, but also type lovers. In many ways, the release of The Daily is a win for typography. The app calls on, after all, quality typefaces by talented designers — in a ballyhooed, well-funded publication on an exciting new digital platform. But is this a win for the craft of typography as a whole, or a win simply for type designers? And, how else is this a win?
First, a disclaimer: while a number of people have voiced interest in hearing my thoughts on The Daily, I’m a little late to this conversation. Others — Adam C. Engst, Marco Arment, and Stephen Coles, for example — have admirably covered much of the territory already, and I recommend reading their thoughts. But as a designer whose first medium was print, a designer who, like many of my colleagues, is currently traversing the strange evolutionary path from paper to screen, I have my own questions. What follows is an attempt to indulge my curiosity and to ask questions that I hope others will find fruitful, too. These thoughts and queries fall roughly in two categories, micro and macro. First, the micro.
Let’s start with what’s closest to my heart. In theory, I am with those type designers and typographic aficionados who want to see the beauty of typographic form proliferate through time and space. Like any designer, I could make intricate qualifications to that statement, but in general I believe that well designed typefaces, in the hands of anyone, is a win for all. So it’s no small thing for me to say that The Daily’s typography is possibly the least interesting aspect of the launch. In some ways, oddly, the type itself is the only thing that’s interesting about it — and therein lies the problem. Because the content is, by most accounts, such a miss, the beautiful typefaces on display come off as pure ornament. Kris Sowersby has crafted some stunning faces, three of which are on display here. But as an art director, I honestly wish the typography did not dwarf or outshine the content. (For what it’s worth, I am working with Chester Jenkins of Village, which distributes Sowersby’s work, on a bespoke typeface for my employer.)
Of style, I will not say much; instead, I will direct you to Stephen’s essay and the ensuing comments. For me, though, Founders Grotesk does not work well in a digital environment. As a family inspired by type from the early 1900s, it feels dated, even if it is highly refined. Its immensely constricted aperture — exhibited well, for instance, in the terminals of the C — is not suited for application at small sizes. Conversely, Tiempos and FF Unit Slab are both stylistically modern and seem appropriate as digital magazine typefaces. But Tiempos — as used in body text throughout — is not ideal, either. I am left wishing that the art direction allowed for a less conservative use of space. Indented paragraphs and tight leading make no sense to me: the beauty of the web is that space restrictions are nonexistent; readability would certainly be enhanced by added airiness. And the drawbacks of justified text are fodder for a separate essay.
My concerns, however, are not about the fonts; Sowersby’s craft (along with Erik Spiekermann and Christian Schwartz, who collaborated on the design of FF Unit Slab) is above par. My concerns correspond, rather, to the application of these forms.
Fonts themselves are now platform agnostic. But typography is not — yet. As a discipline, typography is informed by conventions that have remained more or less stable since Gutenberg. Yet, at this writing, each platform has specific requirements in order for good typography to be attained. It takes a tremendous amount of attentive work to finesse type, especially if it’s not specifically designed for the platform it inhabits. I know this in part because I spend many a day cramming type into places on the web where it wasn’t meant to go in the first place. Thus I am not of the camp that wishes for the proliferation of new typefaces merely for the sake of visual diversity. In theory, such diversity is great. But I would much rather see The Daily lovingly set entirely in a mix of, for example, ITC Franklin and Georgia than see beautiful faces misused. What some call “refined typographic taste” I call putting cart before the horse. Technology and its constraints ultimately promote a more refined typography on the web, not just refined type faces.
Having said all of that, the backdrop to my thoughts on The Daily comprises three main points of reference (macro scale issues which will likely continue to shape any long-form writing I produce in the future): content, experience, and the industry. Like any good typophile, I am captivated by what this publication means for the type industry. But again, I am also an art director and a graphic designer. I straddle the worlds of typography, design and interactive usability on a daily basis, and I am thus necessarily invested in more than typography alone. Content and design — that is, design as it pertains to usability — are different facets of the scenario that really get me thinking. These are large, complex issues. As related to digital design and publishing, content and usability are worthy of dedicated and continuous reflection.
So, on to the macro.
Stephen Coles recognizes this troublesome issue; it’s right there in the title of his post: “Design Trumps Content.” He points out that The Daily is “less a newspaper than a daily magazine with a bit of news.” Others agree. “It’s a strange mix of content,” says Magtastic’s Andrew Losowsky. “It doesn’t really hang together as a single entity, either in its writing or its design.” Noting that “the News section — 29 pages of the 113 — is very light, similar to the kind of thing you might read in Metro,” he gripes that “for a brave new force in journalism, its coverage is incredibly limited.”
But content obviously gives the industry purpose. Content gives typeface designers a reason to continue to create new faces; it gives designers their material. Without content, there is no Web. As Robin Sloan noted in his enlightened article “Stock and Flow,” content is the stock. There will always be “the feed,” he says. “It is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons — but we neglect stock at our own peril.”
I agree. We cannot ignore stock.
I recently had a dream which illustrated an odd point. A newly-minted, stubborn CEO (taking the form of the immature but resolute eldest brother, David, in The King’s Speech) was showing me around New York. Well dressed and sure-footed, he led me around SoHo, agitatedly gesturing at things. He complained about how dreary some of the places of the city had become, how unworthy they were of our collective attention for their apparent lack of sophistication, attractiveness, and convenience. He kept pointing to spots — fashion boutiques, cafés, newsstands — that were covered in scaffolding. This did not suit him. But many of these spots had people pouring out of them. A little grit and inconvenience did not keep line from forming out the door. Patiently braving puddles, brisk morning air, and unsavory details, these people were there to get what was inside: the experience at the end of the line.
I see this firsthand, every morning. On my way to work, I stop off for coffee. Usually, coffee is all I’m there for. But by the time I arrive at the counter, a transformation has occurred. All of the tangible elements and extrasensory facets that make up the waiting period finally reach their fruition and culminate in one complete, savory experience. All elements, from end of the line to countertop, are integral. The fellow customers, the ambiance, the employees and, finally, the product — when they fuse together effectively, this is a moment of complete satisfaction. I — we — bank on this every day. Why? Because beyond mere product, we need such relationships of trust. After the best of such experiences, we walk out smiling; we overlook incongruities and we return again for more.
While a single app will never command my undivided loyalty, I think this is how using apps on the iPad is, too. People come for the content. But not content alone. They also want an enjoyable, effective experience. A well-designed, well-paired set of fonts play into this, of course, but also factors like the quality of the UI, shareability, and app stability. I continuously return to a handful of apps — despite their annoyances — because they do a few things right. I return to the NPR app, for example, because, although it offers nothing stunningly extensive and crashes more often than many apps, it does give me things that I appreciate — quickly, fluidly, and enjoyably.
Over the last year, I have begun to think of myself as a publisher. Having meandered from a print design education through a boutique design shop, the agency world, and a start-up, I now find myself working in the mass market e-commerce space. For now, I am not in magazines or newspapers, online or off. But on a daily basis I am the producer and distributor of content — whether it reaches millions (the day job), hundreds (Twitter), or a handful of people (this blog). Anyone intimately involved with the creation or application of content — typeface designers, graphic designers, writers and developers — publishes. The lines dividing technology creation from content development are negligible. Our roles can shift, metamorphose. And if publishing wants to grow as an industry, it needs to admit that the borders are broken.
Jeffery Zeldman, at the close of SXSW Interactive 2011, posted to this effect on his blog, with a post named “You Are All in Publishing!” Later he elaborated on The Big Web Show (30:00). The writer and critic Howard Rheingold, too, in an interview with Tummelvision (25:40) noted that tables have turned: “the people that did not have power before do have power now … every computer, every phone is potentially a printing press, a broadcast station.”
We’ve all heard of reading between the lines. But it’s time we start reading in the margins — assuming that we can find them. It’s time we start writing, scribbling, and collaborating in those margins, in recognition of our independent roles in this amazing industry and the power we have as a unified collective. Especially if our digital future is to be a world divided by pay walls, I believe that strong, engaging and accessible content will lead the new industry. It will likely well up from unexpected and sporadic places, and it will probably not find its origins or sustenance in deep pockets. When we begin to view ourselves as publishers, as stewards and architects of a verdant future, platforms will cease to matter and quality content will come to life.
To circle back, I think it’s clear that The Daily is a win for type designers. But how else is this a win?
Really, who’s to say? I don’t see the launch of The Daily as a single-handed, game-changing milestone for graphic design or the craft of typography in the digital realm. What I do see, however, is that this is a great opportunity for learning. As a spark which has the potential to ignite dialog, and as a product against which we will forever compare all others, I see its existence as a good thing. For now it’s a reminder that the digital world is evolving rapidly, and that we — no matter our particular titles — have important, complimentary roles to play in this shifting period; we must constantly be aware, we must be pliable.
“It’s cliche,” said Mike Essl, in a recent 5by5 interview, “but publishers really don’t get the internet at all.” By the signs of it (look at the major print magazines’ attempts at adapting to the iPad space), I agree. But some of us do “get” the Internet. A number of people — possibly you — are immersed in the Web and its complex, tiered nuance. And thanks to this intimate relationship, and the genius that it potentially affords, this group (stake your claim now!) will blaze the trails toward the game-changing experiences, content and platforms of the future.