One of the most important things I’ve ever read about typography is Paul Elliman’s essay “My Typographies.” Here’s the sparkling gem of it that I’m so fond of quoting to my students:
Writing gives the impression of things. Conversely, things can give the impression of writing.
Beautifully put. In the essay that follows, Elliman dances among several examples of things that give the impression of writing, each of which is connected powerfully to our own origins and the rhythms of life on this planet. He reads the types of clouds in the sky, looks at constellations and signals sent to outer space through the Arecibo Message, unpacks the passing of Uruk tokens, scans the Talmud, finds our flickering digital beginnings in ASCII text and LED watches, then turns to alphabetic codes, GPS messages, and more. Perhaps his most intuitive example, though, is the alphabet of DNA, on which he quotes genetics professor Steve Jones:
It has a vocabulary (the genes themselves), a grammar (the way in which the inherited information is arranged), and a literature (the thousands of instructions needed to make a human being). The language is based on the DNA molecule, the famous double helix; the icon of the 20th century. It has a simple alphabet, not 26 letters, but just four, the four different DNA bases, A, C, G, and T for short.
And now, via Kottke, we learn of Christian Bök, who will encrypt a poem on a particularly resilient bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans. As Wired describes Bök’s process, part of the appeal of doing this (apart from seeing if it Can Be Done) seems to be about constraint:
Bök will have to choose his ciphers carefully, as his poem chemically ordains the sequence of amino acids that the bacteria will create in response. There are 8 trillion possible combinations, but depressingly few of them yield useful two-way vocabularies.
In many ways, Bök’s project reminds me of Emmett Williams’s work — Sweethearts, of course, but also his lesser-known IBM poem, which uses a technique called “expansion by alphabet,” a process I intend to write more about in the future. However, for the time being, let me just say that no sooner had I found a computational method for collecting Williams Words then I found out that Williams himself had been experimenting with computational verse using this form. Williams is always one step ahead — beautiful. More on the IBM poem here and here.
“You would have to look rather closely to see it. Extremely closely. In fact, someone could set the old logo and the new logo side by side and stare for some time before detecting even the slightest distinction. The folks who led the exhaustive makeover process couldn’t be more pleased.” NYT on the ginger redrawing of MoMA’s logo, set in Franklin Gothic No. 2, c. 2003. Shortly thereafter, NYT announced its own redrawing in the form of a slightly tweaked—but subtlely compelling—new Cheltenham. Whose ghost haunts these two typographic facelifts? Morris Fuller Benton, for one. Who else? Matthew Carter, of course. For further reading, try this interview with Carter, which helps connect some more dots between the two.
The older I get, the more I try to preserve the sense of wonder I had as a child learning to read, write, and draw. Thanks to the glory of YouTube, two classic cinematic takes on the ABC’s from Sesame Street are now online: one alphabet is made by a crowd of people and the other is made from NYC street signs. Both are glorious. So is the original set of 1951 Colorforms for the budding Bauhaus baby in your life.
To start, when I say the typographic “modern,” I don’t mean Modernity, even though the written distinction is typographic. The project of Modernity spanned a century or more; the novelty of modern typography lasted a few decades at best, and had its heyday in the latter half of the twentieth century, in the twilight, or perhaps even in the aftermath, of the Modern Age. Typographic theorists and thinkers were far less acclimated to philosophical tracts than they were to artistic manifestos, which were themselves generally non-comparative and often stridently rhetorical. So, as the manifesto-writers repackaged the philosophers, the typographers repackaged the manifesto-writers, and, here we have typography in its typical position: twice-removed. Contemporary designers Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller explain, “writing is… a set of signs for representing signs. The design of letterforms is removed one step further: it is a medium whose signified is not words but rather the alphabet.”