Friday, September 24, 2010

Father Catich and the Serif: An Emendation


This is from your note on Cramsie’s book:

p. 43 “Some historians have linked the invention of the Roman serif to the carver’s chisel…. Another more recent theory has linked it to the invention of a square-cut writing implement; not a reed or quill, but a flat brush….”
[Father E.M. Catich should be identified as the author of the second theory which is now the preferred one.]

In saying this, like many others you do some injustice to W. R. Lethaby, who in his: ‘Editor’s preface’ to Edward Johnston, Writing and illuminating and lettering (London, John Hogg, 1906), pp. x-xi, has this:

“The Roman characters which are our letters today, although their earlier forms have only come down to us cut in stone, must have been formed by incessant practice with a flat, stiff brush, or some such tool. This disposition of the thicks and thins, and the exact shape of the curves, must have been settled by an instrument used rapidly; I suppose, indeed, that most of the great monumental inscriptions were designed in situ by a master writer, and only cut in by the mason, the cutting being merely a fixing, as it were, of the writing, and the cut inscriptions must always have been intended to be completed by painting.”

Lethaby was certainly the true ‘author’ of the theory.

James Mosley

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What’s Online no. 2: German Propaganda Archive

At TypeCon 2010 in Los Angeles last month I bought a copy of Der Schulungsbrief, a Nazi publication because it was dated January 1940 and I was curious about its typography. Unfamiliar with the periodical I Googled it and—to my surprise—came across an entire section of a website devoted to it. See operated by Prof. Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College, a specialist on Nazi propaganda. Der Schulungsbrief was a Nazi Party monthly magazine intended for political education. It presented Nazi ideology to the masses.

Prof. Bytwerk reproduces the covers of issues from 1942 to 1944. The mastheads are handlettered in uncial and roman. My copy, devoted to the history of the German army—complete with a reproduction of a painting of George Washington at Valley Forge and an article on the Hessians who aided the colonists’ fight against the British Empire—has a masthead (fig. 1) handlettered in schaftstiefelgrotesk, the mechanical version of textura that became popular from 1933 onwards. The interior is set in a Baroque fraktur, probably Walbaum Fraktur except for headlines in Gotenburg Halbfett by Friedrich Heinrichsen (D. Stempel, 1937). The inside front cover, entitled “Der Daxelhofen” by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825–1898), is set in Claudius (Klingspor, 1937) by Rudolf Koch. (The typeface was cut by Koch’s son Paul and issued posthumously.) The opening page (fig 2), with a greeting from the Führer, has the masthead excellently handlettered in a style mimicking Gotenburg Halbfett which is a typeface more stripped down than the standard textura but not as harsh as Element, National, Deutschland and other typical schaftstiefelgrotesk typefaces. The text of the greeting is in Koch’s Maximilian (Klingspor, 1913–1914). Heinrichsen (1901–1980) was a student of Koch’s at the Technischen Lehranstalt Offenbach. The back cover of Der Schulungsbrief depicts a German knight with a banner above his head bearing a quotation from Friedrich Schlegel written out in a Koch-influenced textura. Although Koch had nothing to do with the Nazis their publications often used typefaces that he or his students designed.

The discrepancy in typographic (and calligraphic) style between my copy of Der Schulungsbrief and Prof. Bytwerk’s copies is explained by the fact that on January 3, 1941 Martin Bormann issued a circular that claimed “in reality the so-called gothic script consists of Schwabacher-Jewish letters” and that henceforth “roman is to be designated as the standard letter” in the Reich.

Prof. Bytwerk’s post on Der Schulungsbrief is part of his larger website called the German Propaganda Archive whose “goal is to help people understand the great systems of the twentieth century by giving them access to primary material.” To further this aim there is a section called Visual Material which includes Nazi-era posters, racial wall charts, propaganda postage stamps, uniforms, etc. This section is a treasure trove for graphic design historians and in a future post I will talk more about this.

Archeology in New York: Missing Subway Map Revealed

Recently, there has been buzz because a Vignelli subway map has been discovered in situ in the New York City subway system at the IND station at 57th Street and Sixth Avenue (F train). Nicholas Hall posted a photograph of the map on September 10th on his Flickr site:

Then it was blogged about on Gothamist on September 16th by Jen Carlson who noted that it had appeared on the Forgotten New York website back in 1999:,%20outdated/oldsigns.html

Carlson’s description of the map as a redesign of “George Salomon’s New York Subway map” is incorrect since there were other subway maps in use by the NYCTA between 1958 when Solomon’s first appeared and 1972 when the Vignelli map was introduced (not the “late 1960s” as Kevin Walsh of Forgotten New York says). Details on the various iterations of the subway map will appear in Peter B. Lloyd’s book on the history of the New York City subway maps that is now in progress.

In 1999 Walsh noted that the Vignelli map was behind plexiglas and behind a modern map which apparently accounted for its survival. When I checked out the map two days ago it was exposed without any plexiglas or other protection (unlike the other side of the pylon where a contemporary subway map was displayed behind glass). It is also, as shown in the Hall photograph, in considerably worse shape than it was a decade ago—further torn and peeling. But it is still there, which in itself is a miracle.

The map is not from 1972 even though the basic design is. My examination of it revealed that the text of the key at the top and the various individual subway stops are all set in Trade Gothic rather than in Helvetica. This means the map is a later version that was “designed” by Diamond National, the company responsible in those years for printing the subway maps. [Greg D’Onofrio of Kind Company has pointed out to me since this post first went up that close examination of the 1999 Flickr photograph shows a date of August [xx] 1974 in the lower right hand corner. I had guessed at a date of 1976.]

Attached are some photographs of the map, including details where the difference in typefaces should be evident. Helvetica still survives as the typeface for major information such as the names of the boroughs.

Sic transit gloria.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The 1979 New York Subway Map: A Question of Authorship, Part II

“I thus decided to designate the 1979 map as the Tauranac-Hertz map”

Your reasoning is impeccable, but the semiotics may not communicate the reasoning clearly. The priority of names may be taken to imply priority of design. (Hertz complains of being “at the arse end of the hyphen”.) I prefer the neutral name “1979 MTA map”, which I believe Tauranac and Hertz find acceptable.

You quote from your book, “Conceived by John Tauranac; designed and executed by Michael Hertz Associates” and then say you are revising this as “While Tauranac played a vital role in the development of the map he neither conceived of it nor did he design it.”

What is it to ‘conceive’ a subway map? I know what it means to conceive a feature—the geographic realism (Tauranac), or the distortion of the geography to give enough space for the subway lines (Hertz), or the trunk-based color coding (Tauranac), or a particular way of doing this (Nobu Siraisi), or a set of trunk colors (Siraisi & Hertz), or the rush-hour express symbolism (Sirais),or the service table (Joe Korman) etc. To say that anyone conceived the whole map would imply that one individual conceived all the major design features. As far as I can see, nobody conceived the whole map, neither did anybody design the whole map. The map evolved through the interaction of the members of the committee and Michael Hertz Associates, as well as through the feedback from Bronzaft’s field tests and questionnaires, and the interaction with Phyllis Cerf Wagner.

It seems more apt to say that the 1979 MTA map grew organically, than that it was conceived, designed, and executed.

For the record: John Tauranac was ‘Chairman of the Subway Map Committee’ & ‘Project Manager’ for the the new map. The designations ‘chief designer’ or ‘design chief’ were later informal descriptive terms. Mike Hertz was hired by the MTA as ‘Design Consultant’. Nobu Siraisi was hired by Hertz as ‘Art Director’.


“The impetus for a new map began with the work of Stephen B. Dobrow, Bronzaft and Tim O’Hanlon who field-tested the Vignelli map in 1972 and 1973. The results of their tests led to the formation in 1976 of the Subway Map Committee”

This has been claimed by Bronazft and Dobrow but I have seen no official documentation on the instigation of the Subway Map Committee—its remit or the reason for its inception. Known facts are: Bronzaft carried out the study in 1972/73, and by the end of 1973 was sending preprints to public officials; in 1974 Tauranac joined the MTA and found in William Allinson a senior figure who shared his desire for geographic maps; during 1974-75 the MTA guidebook ‘Seeing NY’ was produced, in which Tauranac did the cartographic design of a new geographic map subway map, and Mike Hertz was hired for the graphic design; as soon as that finished at the end of 1975, Tauranac and Hertz were assigned to Wilkinson’s committee. I see four factors triggering the committee:
(a) David Yunich & Fred Wilkinson (ex Macy’s men) pushing new marketing methods for the MTA. (The map was seen by many people as a marketing tool primarily, and as a wayfinding tool secondarily.)
(b) Allinson advocating a geographic subway map at a senior TA level.
(c) Tauranac successfully completing the new geographic subway map in ‘Seeing NY’.
(d) Bronzaft & Dobrow firing off their study. (With due publicity: Bronzaft had been appointed by Mayor Lindsay to a transit Watchdog Committee; Dobrow was head of the Committee for Better Transit).
So, the Bronzaft-Dobrow report only added to the impetus to set up the committee.


“its first iteration of the new map in the Spring of 1978”

That was the 3rd of 4 prototypes that were exposed to the public: a 3-color map in May 1976; another 3-colour map, probably June 1976; a 1-color map at Cityana in February 1978; a 2-color map at Cooper Union in April 1978.

Peter B Lloyd

The 1979 New York City Subway Map: A Question of Authorship, Part I


Thanks for your posting on the 1979 subway map, which focuses attention on the difficult question of authorship.

A subway map comprises several connected elements, which may have resulted from distinct design decisions, by different individuals or voted by a committee. The 1979 MTA map was produced by a committee of 12 people plus 3 staff at Michael Hertz Associates, working for almost 3.5 years (Nov 1975 to Jun 1979). During this time the chair changed (Fred Wilkinson to John Tauranac), several prototypes were produced and rejected; and the MTA fundamentally changed the terms of reference by deciding that it would, after all, pay for the changes of signage that would ensue from a change of color-coding of subway routes -- thereby enabling a major shift of map design from route-coloring to trunk-coloring. The notion that one person had a ‘big vision’ and everything else fell into place without needing further creative design activity would be mistaken.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of detailed minutes and other documentation and the fading of memories of committee members over the intervening 35 years. The best that one can do is to sketch a plausible story based on fragments of documentation and triangulate different memories. This is what I have been doing in my spare time for the past few years. The best that I can come up with is an enumeration of design elements and a reasonable account of by whom, when, how, and why each decision was taken.

Another complexifying factor is the distinction between ‘cartographic design’ and ‘graphic design’. Some decisions have to do with the business purpose of the map, such as whether or not to include commuter lines (LIRR, ConRail, Amtrak). Other decisions have to do with the graphical representation, such as what set of colors to apply to the subway routes. So, when you write of who ‘designed’ the map, I fear that this conflates two different questions about the cartographic design and the graphic design. (It seems that within the design profession, a 'client' specifies the ‘requirements’ that a product must meet; and the ‘designer’ then designs a product that in some elegant and efficient way fulfils those requirements. In the development of the 1979 map, the MTA clearly had a role as a client specifying very high level requirements. But the committee straddled both roles of elaborating the detailed requirements as well as taking some of the design decisions.) In broad terms, the cartographic design was done collectively by the committee (led by Tauranac) and the graphic design was done by Michael Hertz Associates (led by Hertz). But the boundaries were blurred: the committee not only gave direction as to the cartographic design that was to be executed, but also gave specific instructions on graphical details (e.g. it is minuted that the use of London-style transfer symbols was stipulated by Tauranac). On the other hand, Mike Hertz himself was on the committee and took part in its discussions and votes. And occasionally map design ideas would arise from the graphic design team: for example, Siraisi came up with a way to express the peak-hour express trains, which is really an addition to the cartographic design. All of which suggests to me that it is not possible to make a clear distinction between the cartographic design and the graphic design of the 1979 MTA map.

As you kindly mentioned, I am writing a book on the history of the Subway Map, which (God willing) will be finished next year. Meanwhile the positive reception (and reprint!) of your magnificent book on the subway signage is an encouragement to me to keep on with this project in the belief that there may be an audience for it.

Peter B Lloyd

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What’s Online no. 1: Display

For years website designers Greg D’Onofrio and Patricia Belen of Kind Company (, best known for the design of the website Alvin Lustig 1915–1955: Modern Design Pioneer (, have been assiduously collecting examples of modern design from old books and periodicals to corporate brochures and other ephemera. Instead of hoarding their wealth of material, they have decided to generously share it with the rest of the world through Display, their new website (

Greg and Patricia are doing this not by slapping items up willy-nilly on Flickr but by creating Display, a website that seeks to maintain high editorial and curatorial standards. Thus, the items they post are fully sourced with information (where known or relevant) on title, client, designer, year, dimensions, page count, language and production method. Descriptions, most short but some the length of mini-essays, accompany each item. Their writing, echoing the spare aesthetic they appreciate in modernist design, is simple, intelligent and accessible. The mini-essays are accompanied by bibliographies that go beyond the usual second-hand sources.

The vast majority of the material on Display is largely unfamiliar, indicating how wide-ranging modernism was in the nearly forty years between the end of World War II and the birth of desktop publishing. Much of it is either the work of lesser-known designers or the lesser-known work of well-known designers. Among the former are Robert Büchler, Yves Zimmermann, and Fridolin Müller in Switzerland; Aldo Calabrese, Giulio Confalonieri and Lora Lamm in Italy; and Tomás Gonda, Manfred Winter and Hans G. Conrad in Germany. Among the latter are designs for the Carlyle Johnson Machine Company by Ladislav Sutnar, for Kaopectate by Lester Beall, and for General Electric by Herbert Bayer.

Two of the recent posts, the first devoted to the TM (Typographische Monatsblätter) covers of Yves Zimmermann and the second to advertising work from Pirelli, exemplify the strengths of Display. Zimmermann (b.1937), a protege of Emil Ruder, is absent from the sections on Swiss design in Meggs and the other graphic design surveys, yet his 1960 TM covers (seven designed, but only two published) are refreshing in their poetic spareness. The Pirelli advertisements—from a range of designers, including Bob Noorda and Alan Fletcher—represent a broader notion of modernism, one that is more playful and visually alluring. Once again, none of this work appears in the histories of graphic design.

This is what makes Display and similar sites such as Grain Edit ( the future of graphic design history* rather than the competing tomes of Philip Meggs and Alston Purvis, Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish, Roxane Jubert, Stephen Eskilson, and Patrick Cramsie. This is how those who have been overlooked will finally get their due. But it will only happen if others with similar passions and—equally important—a devotion to detail, share their graphic design collections online. Display covers only a small slice of the graphic design world. There is a lot more of it yet to be explored.

*Of course, the site is not all altruistic. There is a bookstore section ( where some of Greg and Patricia’s collection is for sale. Their prices are neither cheap nor stratospheric. But for those who cannot afford even those books priced as low as $100, the pictures in the collection section of Display are a welcome consolation.

Erhard Ratdolt’s 1486 type specimen

Patrick Cramsie is correct and I was wrong. The first known type specimen sheet, dated April 1486, was issued by Erhard Ratdolt at Augsburg (Germany). Only one copy survives. See Annals of Printing: A Chronological Encyclopedia by W. Turner Berry and H. Edmund Poole (London: Blandford Press, 1966), p. 56 which reproduces the sheet. It shows a decorated initial A in the white-vine style common in Paduan and Florentine manuscripts of the time, ten sizes of rotunda faces, three sizes of roman, and one of greek. The colophon reads:

Indicis characterum diversarum manerierum impressioni paratarum: Finis.

Erhardi Ratdolt Augustensis viri solertissinu: preclaro ingenio et mirifica arte: qua olim Venetiis excelluit celebratissimus. In imperiali nunc urbe Auguste vindelicorum laudatissime impressioni dedit. Anno quam salutis. M. CCCC. LXXXVI. Calendarium. Aprilis Sidere felici compleuit.

[I hope I have correctly written out the abbreviated Latin words.]

About Blue Pencil

Some people have misunderstood the lengthy postings about books on Blue Pencil as book reviews. They are not. The original impetus behind Blue Pencil was to provide detailed dissections of the shortcomings, both authorial and editorial, of books in the field of design, beginning with those devoted to the history of graphic design. The postings are intended to be the digital equivalent of the editor who, in the heyday of the 20th century, wielded a blue pencil with a vengeance to insure that a manuscript was fit for publication.

Blue Pencil exists because publishers today are abrogating their duty. Editors are focusing more on acquiring manuscripts than editing them, proofreaders are being replaced by spellchecking software, and fact checkers are becoming obsolete. Blue Pencil is stepping into this void. It is a form of consumer protection for teachers and students who need the books it dissects.

In parsing books Blue Pencil looks for factual, orthographical, grammatical and typographic errors and, on occasion, conceptual shortcomings. The latter is not the principal focus of a book’s dissection, but there are times when a comment or two in that direction is unavoidable. The goal of Blue Pencil is not to indicate whether or not a book in question is good or bad overall—though the number of errors in it is certainly a strong factor in such an assessment.

The graphic design history books that have been put under the Blue Pencil microscope are all worth owning in various degrees. Each brings a different perspective to bear on the subject and provides material not found in the others. Eventually, Blue Pencil plans to provide a more direct comparison of these books as well as others not yet dissected (including all four volumes of A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs).

Blue Pencil postings are time consuming. The most recent one on The Story of Graphic Design by Patrick Cramsie took over 64 hours to prepare—and it was the easiest of them all so far. This is my method: 1. I read the book and take longhand notes on its content as well as on any perceived errors; 2. I type up the errors I think I have found; 3. I reread the book to verify the errors I believe I have found and to look for others I may have missed; 4. I check the errors against information in books (using my personal library as well as the New York Public Library and the libraries at Columbia University) and on the Internet; and 5. I post my findings (including last minute adjustments) on the blog. After all this work I am sure that there are errors I have missed and worried that those I have identified are not errors after all. Blue Pencil is assuredly not perfect.