Love Affair with Letterforms

December 17, 2016

It can be so difficult sometimes to tell the truth.

I don't mean not telling lies. I mean something else, the way that words sometime feel like they're obscuring the thoughts in your head the second you try to dictate them. It's not to say that everything is like this, just that some truths are easier to express than others. For example

Jesus I could use some coffee right now

Is truthful and yet much easier to express than

I am having such a tough year, and I'm not sure why, and for the life of me when I try to explain it I can't

Which is, perhaps, why all you can express is a vague desire for caffeine when you wake up.

Long before I cared about letterforms I grew up in the 'burbs of a big city where everyone I met seemed to speak something else at home. On my street I grew up riding bikes with a Chilean girl whose mother would chain smoke cigarettes and offer us Coke in a gravelly voice. My sister would hang out with the French girl across the street whose mother would sit outside her house in a plastic armchair at all hours, watching the world pass by. (She and Pilar smoked together a lot, despite neither speaking English much at all; with neighborly gossip to be had by being completely unabashed in being snoops who cares about petty things like language.) Even the English spoken elsewhere seemed to be different in other people's houses: I became close friends with the girl next door whose mother spoke with a Georgian drawl that had been smoothed and sandpapered over the years by her time living outside a major city.

In middle school I ended up in the district where a lot of Korean students lived and started learning the occasional word from the Korean dramas they would recommend to me:


I became best friends with a girl who had been in remedial English until second grade because she had only spoken Vietnamese at home, and by high school I was spending many afternoons at her house as her mother would make us dishes translated on English menus as fish in clay pot and vermicelli noodles. She gave me a bootlegged version of Photoshop 7 her brother had taken from work and we would spend our afternoons making Final Fantasy X forum banners. At lunchtime my friends and I would draw and talk about the fan fiction we were writing and brainstorm plotlines together, despite how uncool we knew this made us.

Once, when researching some CSS for a LiveJournal theme I was writing, I learned about the study of typography. I thought to myself, "I should learn more about that," and then tucked the thought away for years.

In 9th grade I was finally allowed to take a language, and ended up in French. I sat next to a boy named Brian, and even then we were so desperate to talk to each other we'd talk in French (them's were the rules) even though we couldn't express anything worth saying yet:

J'aime la pizza

Tu es laid

Facebook messages, when, on a whim, I scrolled back in time, showed a progression in both our abilities to speak: where at first we spoke mostly in xD:), @@_, we eventually were able to speak in words, and phrases, and full thoughts.

In 11th grade I was allowed to drop gym for another elective, and I decided to enroll in Spanish. I spoke it with a French accent for a full two months until the other students had sufficiently mocked it out of me.

Perhaps most fascinating about the expression of truth is how languages can differ ever so slightly in how they express even the small things. For example:

мне холодно!

Saying "I'm cold" in Russian is more like "It is cold to me". Russian expresses the cold as something exterior; the cold is affecting me, it's doing something to me. In English, the cold becomes something you are. I think this is perhaps because Russians understand cold better than the English do; the way cold seeps through your coat, through your skin, and into your bones in a way that is impossible to shake with more clothing.

In French missing something is inverted; instead of

I miss you

we have

Tu me manques

As if the thing, or person, you are missing were a fundamental part of your being and when they are gone it is as if they have taken part of you that you are not whole without.

Some languages don't have the concept of "sir", or "mister"; in Vietnamese, for example, people are only referred to by title in their relation to you. The act of saying "Aunt Emily" becomes endlessly complicated: is this a younger or older sister to your mother? Are they your aunt on your mother or father's side? Because title is how you refer to everyone questions like this arise: If a man forgets his umbrella on the subway and you yell out to him, which version of "uncle" do you use?

In Spanish the very act of saying you is complicated. Are you addressing one person or multiple? Are you addressing these people formally or informally? It splits further across country: Are you from Spain, where vosotros is used as an informal plural, but isn't anywhere else? Are you from Central America, where many use vos among very close friends and family? Or are you from the parts where the formal is used sometimes with very close relations?

In the younger days of my marriage the sudden cacophony of my in-laws house in comparison to the relative silence of mine was shocking. A constant, mock annoyance:

Apuráaaate vos!

Bajáte d'allí!

Jajajaja cállase gordita!

These were the things that made learning other languages endlessly complicated and it was easy, delightful even, to fall into the rabbithole of questioning that is so often awkward for a native speakers who have never analyzed their speech in such a way before:

How would you address your colleagues at work? Formally or informally?

Which case would you use to express the idea "That car over there"?

Would you use the subjunctive here? Why?

Years later, with so many of these questions answered I still seem to constantly ask: Cómo se dice… Cómo se dice… Cómo se dice…

Learning the ways that each language I studied expressed the same ideas, the same thoughts, with different connotations revealed beauty if one had the patience for it. My favorite poem has long been a poem from Pushkin that modern English has lost the ability to give justice to as English no longer differentiates between the formal and informal you:

Пустое вы сердечным ты

Она, обмолвясь, заменила

И все счастливые мечты

В душе влюбленной возбудила.

Пред ней задумчиво стою,

Свести очей с нее нет силы;

И говорю ей: как вы милы!

И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

"Sweet thou for an empty you/She humorously substituted"…

Studying other languages showed me the beauty of my native tongue too; my brother-in-law once obstinately declared that Spanish was much more beautiful than English, thank-you-very-much, and I disagreed more passionately than I think he was expecting me to.

English has its own charms, its own complications. Looking at a word and knowing how it is pronounced can be incredibly challenging for someone who isn't native: is the root of this word Greek, Germanic, or Latin? Or maybe it isn't any of those, and is a borrowed foreign word: all of those affect how it is pronounced. Which root determines its pluralization? Ask someone how they pluralize the word "octopus", and you will see what I mean. But therein lies my own love affair with the English language; the idea that a pidgin language, unconcerned with any academy's desire to regulate it, rolled along borrowing and morphing and transforming from olde to Shakespearean to anchor to Instagram memes and doge and l33t and all the other kinds of English that are being spoken simultaneously, in this very moment, people trying to express how they feel, all trying to get a little closer to giving shape to their truth - or to obscuring it.

As I steamrolled through an obsession with language with no good idea what to do with it - my conversation in French was stilted, my Spanish poorly accented, and Russian's just fucking hard - I also was still endlessly fiddling with computers and layouts, drawing, writing, and spending a great deal of time not being any good at any of those things either. Declaring a major in graphic design amidst the mess made more sense as an employable sort of confusion. The introductory level courses included

Introduction to Graphic Design

Typography 1

Introduction to Digital Media Design

Graphic Design History

Typography 2

Design for Print

In Type 1 the first assignment was to draw letterforms. I drew the letter k 10 times over, and we hung them up in front of the class and critiqued our ability to copy a typographers' work but moreover discovered and discussed just how much work someone had put into making that letter, that alphabet, the entire typeface. It takes forever, making characters. It takes forever being any good at something small and careful like that.

Never has such a small, check-mark completion assignment given me such strife. I agonized over that k.

We typeset articles, and posters, and booklets. The big assignment of the year was to write a 12-page paper and to typeset it into a booklet we constructed, and all of us groaned over writing, wasn't this the major for people who didn't like writing and having to print out hundreds of pages of paper for the endless number of times we seemed to screw up something on some page: a word was misspelled. An orphan on page 5. A widow on page 10. Rivers from justifying the copy on page 8. Type too small throughout; you'd change something small and all of the words would move, rearranged, and everything would need to change.

Typefaces, like the languages they express, have interesting histories and etymologies all their own. Baskerville is a popular story for illustrating this: as John Baskerville set to work on his typeface, he was simultaneously falling in love with his live-in housemaid, who it is believed had a great deal to do with the creation of that famous work. Centuries later Zuzana Licko created Mrs Eaves¹, a modern Baskerville type pairing, meant to acknowledge the work Ms. Eaves - eventually, Mrs. Baskerville - had contributed to Baskerville's creation in a time when women were not recognized in professional settings for their work.

You mustn't worry typeset in Baskerville and then again in Mrs. Eaves.

Modern stories are not dissimilar; typefaces are often created with a purpose in mind. The Wall Street Journal commissioned Retina because they wanted to typeset letters and numbers incredibly small, incredibly dense, without ink from the newspaper printing press bleeding².

Type specimen from Frere-Jones Type.

Sometimes content can change the form it's been put into so fundamentally the form is forever connotatively altered. In 2008 the Obama Hope poster was typeset in Gotham, forever changing that selection of typeface to have meaning beyond something that evokes New York to immediate transportation to a pivotal moment in our country's history. The Nazis used Fraktur, a popular blackletter at the time, in many of their campaigns giving a centuries old lettering process the new, less desirable connection to mass genocide³. Apple chose Helvetica Neue as the default iPhone font and had a hand in setting the stage for what clean, modern software was supposed to look like, and then captivated us all again when they switched to San Francisco⁴.

Welcome home typeset in both Helvetica Neue and San Francisco.

This is the odd thing about choosing a typeface: like choosing a language to give shape to ones' inner thoughts, you may end up expressing more than you originally intended, or in a better form. This is why choosing typefaces can be paralyzing, like editing copy: there are endless options and combinations, and choosing the one that feels right can seem impossible.

I was pulled from academic curiosity with language into its messier reality by a boy: late nights in a dorm room speaking Spanish with someone who found my attempts to speak his language full of endless mirth. The first step to being any good at anything is being really, really bad at it, after all.

Once my husband almost died from blood loss - a bad gash to the leg. I watched him pale and faint and in my panic I pounded on his chest, willing him to wake up with every fiber of my being more than really doing something useful, like calling an ambulance, fashioning a tourniquet. When he came to, he said

¿Que está pasando?

and I saw the tiny skip between thought and its worded expression and realized I'd jumped the gap closer to that amorphous thought, accidentally. Gotten one step closer to being in someone's head. Trauma bubbling out the words at the same time as truth was being woven in the neurons of his brain.

A friend the other day told me he didn't really like art. It was an odd thing to say but suddenly it wasn't: I've never been much of one for sports, and like that, I understood. It is odd then that I've come to find sports provide the perfect analogy for describing my love of typography: it is like loving baseball stats when what you really love is the game. I follow typographers like one tunes in to watch one's favorite tennis doubles play. I use typography in designs the way others move on a field: trying to get better, and sometimes succeeding, but mostly just enjoying the movement for the movement's own sake. It is not an obsession with typography, or even language: it is a love of human expression and the attempts therein.

A story from a math lover, of all things;

1 eez2epbaqgrq5n4zsepy4g

Somewhere, in the typographical mess of language we've created for ourselves - the texts on our phones, the paragraphs in our newspapers, the grocery lists we write, the words coming out of our mouths, the thoughts in our heads - we try to give shape to our understanding of things, our own thoughts. I don't know if we are getting closer to uncovering pre-existing doctrine that god has left behind for us, necessarily, in the pursuit; but it does feel impossible that anything could be this beautiful without design.

But even it if is: I lay before you my love affair with letterforms, the idea that all of us, in our own ways, on our own time, are merely trying to express our truths, and using the smallest of building blocks to do so.

¹, Mrs Eaves Design Information

², How Typographer Tobias Frere-Jones Revamped the Retina Font for Screens

³, 1941: The Nazis Ban Jewish Fonts

⁴, Introducing the New System Fonts