Saturday, June 27, 2009

Do Not Pass Text Design, Do Not Collect $200

A long time ago (I won't say just how long, but it'll soon become fairly obvious), I worked my first summer job at a computer-controlled font engraving place in Mountain View called Xybergraphics. Lots of stories from that summer, which I'll eventually get to when I want to talk about what happens when a 95-pounder drinks 42 ounces of caffeine-laden soda pop, or the beginnings of my fascination with the Police, or what a cubic spline is.

At any rate, my job, which paid me the princely sum of $2.85 each hour (workers under 16 could be paid somewhat under minimum wage), required me to encode fonts for the aforementioned computer-controlled engraver. Typically, the engraved letters would be in the neighborhood of an inch or two in height, but for better precision, the letterforms I worked from, designed by my immediate supervisor, were about 14 inches tall and drafted in pencil on vellum. My job was to take a mouse (this was before the Mac, mind you), and trace along the letterforms, clicking at appropriately spaced points, until the letter was entirely traced. A simple letter, like a capital I, might require 50 points; a more involved letter, such as lower-case m, might require as many as 150. This was a tedious and time-consuming job, you could well imagine.

But I'm nothing if not efficient at boring tasks, especially if I've got my tunes in the background, and in the meantime, I learned quite a lot about fonts—what they should look like, how features are shared in common by various letters, what design rules not to break, and so forth. All this that I learned is both fascinating (to me) and almost entirely useless, which means that it has lodged tight in my memory banks and won't budge.

As a result, I'm exceptionally sensitive to bad typography. For example, I was walking one day in the Denver airport, waiting for my next flight, when a store sign caught my eye. Bad Typography Alert! The capital A in the sign was reversed; its broad stroke went down to the left, rather than to the right, as it should in traditional serifed fonts. And this on the sign for a stationery store! I think you will properly apprehend the depth of my mania when I tell you that I actually reported it to the clerk. She seemed quite receptive to my complaint, although she probably promptly forgot about/rejected it as soon as I turned my head.

There's a similar problem with one of the signs where I work—the name of the building has a capital V in it, with its broad stroke, again, going down to the left. Alas, this is welded on and probably unmulliganable.

But my encounter with the very bottom, the absolute worst, came when I began frequenting a supermarket that opened near our house. There was little wrong with the typography at the supermarket, but across the street was this abomination:

This signage is simply staggering in its wrongness. It's hard for me to convey just how staggering, but the fact that you're reading this post is some indication. Click on the image to see an enlarged version and look at this tangle of thorns.

Practically any letter that could have been misplaced, was, and those that weren't, seem to have been correctly placed to highlight how wrong their identical partners were. To wit: The E in GERMAN is upside-down. The M and A in the same word are backwards. Unbelievably, the N is correctly placed. A mistake must have been made.

In CAR, the C is upside-down. The A is backwards. After the bad E in GERMAN, the E's in SERVICE are right, but the S and the C (again!) are upside-down, and the V is backwards.

The M in BMW is backwards. The W is very strange, it seems to have been made with a pair of leftover V's, both with one stroke broken in half. If so, they should have broken the other stroke on the right half, but I'll give them credit for showing some resourcefulness.

The horror continues in Volkswagen. This V is correct (what happened to the V in SERVICE?), but the l is backwards, the s is upside-down, and the w and even the g (!) are backwards again. How do you screw up the g? The lower-case s is upside-down again in Porsche, and the lower-case c joins its capital brethren in being inverted also.

The Audi is correct, but is set in a narrower font. Must have been added on later.

Considering that many of the letters couldn't have been placed incorrectly (either because they're totally symmetrical or totally unsymmetrical), the percentage of letters placed incorrectly runs at about 15/22 = 68 percent, by my reckoning. A dolphin without opposable thumbs flinging letters up randomly with its tail could have done better.

OK, I realize that I'm probably clinically unhinged on this point, but can we agree that someone screwed up royally here? I mean, please.


  1. Wow... that is a terrible sign. So many mistakes in one place.

  2. It's mindblowing. They really had to go out of their way to screw it up that bad. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on in their heads as they put those letters up.

  3. Remind me to get you a birthday card set in Papyrus: