Font-astic Friday

I could rattle off a string of technical typography characteristics; ascenders, descenders, kerning, leading, etc. etc. but when I see a font I really like, I usually have an emotionally associative reaction to it. Here are 6 of my favorite fonts with my very non-technical impressions of them.

You can see this font used in the header on this blog, too.

This font makes me want to visit 1895 Savannah, Georgia.

I used this font for my wedding programs in 2000.

This lighthearted Honeymooners-era font speaks of more innocent times.

This font reminds me of the Art Deco filled video game, BioShock.

I've never been to the Ravinia Festival north of Chicago but would like to go.

An Interview with Chicago Graphic Designer Brooke Becker

I was lucky enough to sit down with the lovely and talented Brooke Becker. In this interview she gives some insight into her design-rich background, what she digs about art, and how she stays sane as a graduate student and professional.


SARAH: Brooke, you’ve got a great sense of design. Did growing up around art influence your education?

BROOKE: My mom was an art teacher; I was exposed to art at an early age. Other than elementary and middle school art classes, my first art class was my senior year of high school. I played the viola and my mom insisted that I be in the orchestra all four years and take four years of math! So, this was the first year I had extra electives that I could take an art class. Thankfully, the teacher knew my mom and allowed me to join with the other senior classes, Illustration and Commercial Design. In college, I was a Visual Art major with a concentration in Graphic Design. This program didn’t really get established until my junior year, when they built a new Mac lab and brought in adjunct teachers who were in the industry. Currently, I am getting my Masters in Arts in New Media at DePaul University.

SARAH: What’s your favorite kind of art?

BROOKE: I have always been drawn to photography. I like the idea that the moment captured by the photographer will be forever saved and documented.

SARAH: What is your key advice to others just getting into the creative arts field?

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BROOKE: I recommend getting exposed to creative environments and industries by doing internships or summer jobs. I wish I would have been a bit more focused on the types of creative companies out there and tried to get in at the ones that excited me.

SARAH: What is your “expertise specialty”? Has this stemmed or grown from something else?

BROOKE: I consider myself an expert in design for print and web. I am much better executing print work. However, I feel I have become more of a design consultant for print and web projects. Assessing bad design and making it better. I think this has just stemmed from being exposed to both print and web design for so long, and having a strong art background helps me communicate my ideas.

SARAH: What have you found to be most valuable being in the New Media Studies Program?

BROOKE: I love the fact that the NMS program is interdisciplinary allowing each NMS student to explore their own interests. I also have enjoyed the people I have met and collaborated with on projects.

SARAH: How do you keep life balance as a “constantly connected” new media artist?

BROOKE:  I used to do a lot of improv comedy…I’m still doing a little here and there. I play volleyball. I’m also trying to take more fine art classes. I took an oil painting class last summer and it was amazing the amount of anxiety I had from starting the painting. You can always delete or create multiple versions in digital art, so I feel that pushing my creativity to be more decisive is a good thing.

SARAH: And lastly…where can we view your current portfolio?

BROOKE: – I use WordPress for my site which allows me to easily update work and include descriptions.

[And be sure to follow Brooke on Twitter]

Illustrator Aubrey Beardsley: Victorian Ink Lord

When I was a freshmen undergrad at Columbia College Chicago one of the first reports I gave was on the Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. I remember spending hours thumbing through his works and admiring his editorial-like style, with sweeping curves and masterful line control. His use of standard black and white mixed with provocative and sexually erotic subjects juxtaposed biting social commentary – he pulled culturally profound statements out of bottles of India ink. This I have a huge respect for. While Aubrey’s frustrations with Victorian society were apparent his scandalous drawings were consumed almost as a precursor to Playboy magazine.

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Per Wikipedia, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (21 August 1872 – 16 March 1898) was an English illustrator and author. His drawings, executed in black ink and influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler. Beardsley’s contribution to the development of the Art Nouveau style and the poster movement was significant, despite the brevity of his career before his early death from tuberculosis.

Bursting with talent from an early age, Aubrey began illustrating literature that he owned at age 15 (Madam Bovary and the like). A mix of the industrial age in which he lived and Greek art which one would find on a classical urn, his style was often described as “grotesque” and “naughty”. A homosexual who carved his name into art history with subjects including the evil female power figure Salome holding the severed head of John the Baptist, there is no question that a Victorian sensibility could be so easily offended. Amongst his famous works are illustrations for Le Morte D’arthur.

According to Erin Smith, he was fully aware that challenges to Victorian values came not only from the avant-garde, but from the Women’s Movement, which by the 1880’s, had made some gains in the areas of education and economic rights. Through his bizarre and symbolic style, Beardsley’s drawings blur gender lines and mock male superiority. They also play on Victorian anxieties about sexual expression and men’s fear of female superiority.

As a feminist, I am truly drawn (forgive the pun) to his fantastical and masterful ink drawings.

Further Resources:

The Savoy: The Art of Aubrey Beardsley

What You Don’t Know About My Kitchen Could Hurt You

When theoretical design concepts and practicality collide, it can be ugly. Our kitchen is a fine example of this. We bought our Chicago loft two years ago and the lady who lived here before was apparently into “novelty”…and pain. The cabinet pulls in our kitchen are knives, forks, and spoons and which one of our friends refers to as “knifey, forkey, and spoony”. Kitschy AND dangerous, they are hard metal and sharper than they appear. When you go to grab something you can expect anything from a light poking to an all-out stabbing. Every time my husband goes into the kitchen his pockets get caught on the sideways fork that is ironically the silverwear drawer.

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So why don’t we replace them you ask? We are saving up for a major upscale kitchen remodel and these ridiculous pieces of ornamental death, along with the felt stickers of palm trees that are randomly placed on the cabinets (God, yes, I know) – are reminders for us to strive for our redesign goal daily. It is an abomination to my sense of taste but it will make the day the tear-down comes all the more sweeter. I am enduring these pulls (in a first-world problem sense). And if you recall that scene in the movie Office Space where they destroyed that printer/copier in the field – that will be what I do to these stupid tablewear pulls.

So stick a fork in me, I’m done.

The Art Of Clawed Feet

I have a thing for clawfooted furniture. It is oddly escapist for me. It is in my remodeling plans, but I lust over the idea of having a clawfoot tub — a single slipper bisque beauty for my bathroom that I can sink myself into with a good book. Like the one pictured here:

I am lucky enough to own a unique piece of furniture-art that my talented woodworking dad made for me in 1995. A year before I graduated high school. He made it out of exotic woods and the top is a laminate set in Purpleheart wood. The seat is an old refinished piano seat and he carved for it clawed feet, whose toenails he painted to match the Purpleheart. This is where I sit and do all of my drawings. I love this desk and it has plenty of room for all of my tools – and I have many different tools and multiple light sources.

FUNNY STORY: Several months ago my niece was over for a visit. Her 2 year-old daughter, Sylvia, was with her. Sylvia was very curious and this was the first time she was able to totter around and explore our loft. She walked into the studio room where the desk was and then turned around and came out in a panic. She saw the clawed feet and thought the desk was a creature or monster and she was scared of it. I still laugh about that.

The other clawed foot craft that my dad and husband recently made is a wooden wine holder. I sketched out what I wanted and they brought it to life, using old hardware and some metal clawed feet. 

There is something cool and creepy in anthropomorphic furniture, but it is a constant reminder to keep a vivid imagination. The Victorian era is best known for the “claws”…an irony in that cordial politeness and status quo were also embodied in this staunchly role-driven era.

Perhaps where there was repressed expression, the creaturelike details were a manifestation of feelings that couldn’t be verbally stated.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge Pink Floyd fan. I have a black and white photo of the band, circa 1970, hanging by my computer at work, with a young David Gilmour (swoon) in the forefront. My very first CD was “The Division Bell” (1994) which I realize is  late in the band’s collection, but aside from the music, I loved the cover art.

Storm Thorgerson had the best job in the world. He was artistic adviser and graphic designer of Pink Floyd’s album covers. He has an online gallery that can be viewed at In the course of reading his book “Mind Over Matter 4: The Images of Pink Floyd” one cover in particular, the 1987 album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”, caught my attention, because of the story behind it but also because of Storm’s intense ability to pull together a vision with such scope in real life. That is a dedication to one’s art…FOR art. If I could ask Storm one question, it would be – in 2011 would you have set this up in real life again to photograph or rely more on computer graphics to create the vision?

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

According to Storm Thorgerson, “The idea for the beds comes from two sources. The first was a lyric line from ‘Yet Another Movie’ which read “A vision of an empty bed”. David [Gilmour] had drawn a picture for this which I liked, but not madly so I rearranged the words to become “a vision of empty beds” and that’s it. A long line of beds stretching across the landscape as far as the eye could see. Real beds in a real place. So many that the viewer might ask how it was done or what it might mean. The second source was a lonely rower, or sculler, rowing himself down a cracked, dry river bed. This was a reworking, I realise, of the swimmer in the dunes for WYWH. The beds then became arranged in a gentle curve stretching away from the camera, like a river, as in ‘river bed’!… The same rower, Langley Iddens, occupied a fast moving bed for the concert film for ‘On The Run’ from Dark Side, a hospital bed like the one from the cover. It all connects somehow and somewhere. But where to get all these beds and where to put them?…I wanted Victorian wrought iron, hospital type beds for dreamers, or mad people, or even ill people. Beds to dream in or beds to recover in. Lance Williams, location manager and all around good egg, somehow laid his hands on 700 beds and accompanying sheets, blankets and pillows, plus two articulated trucks and we took the whole lot down to Saunton Sands in North Devon and began to put them on the beach – one by one.”

He goes on to say that the weather didn’t cooperate at the beach and that after it started to rain they had to pick it all up and come back two weeks later. Additionally, the dogs in the photo were brought in with their trainer and the microlite in the sky had to be arranged along with rower, Langley Iddens, looking at himself in the mirror. A second shot of this scene was taken as the tide came in and if I’m not mistaken, this second photo was on the inside of the cover. The visuals that accompanied CDs were fun to look at. The art that accompanies MP3s online just isn’t…the same.

A truly haunting and beautiful photo created organically and orchestrated to fit the vision of the theme. The tight creative direction it must have taken to emulate the exact curve of the line of beds must have been time-consuming. The process is an art in itself and one that can come to really be appreciated knowing the lengths that a whole crew went to to set up this unforgettable shot.

My Dryer is a “Hottie”

We got a new washer and dryer set recently.  The curves and sleek cherry red paint job and chrome detailing remind me of a classic car.  Instead of “start” buttons, both units have large “play” and “pause” buttons that light up when pushed. They look like remediations of later generations of portable CD players. And, for example, when the dryer is done, it alerts you with a gentle ring-tone sound. Amazing AND pleasant. Not like the full volume “BEEEP!” my old dryer used to scream out giving me a heart attack if I was standing next to it. I never thought I’d be so excited about such items of domesticity…but the design of them has me excited. That is brilliant on many levels.

And now, I geek out about why this is cool:

What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media. New digital media oscillate between immediacy and hypermediacy, between transparency and opacity. This oscillation is the key to understanding how a medium refashions its predecessors and other contemporary media.

Donald Norman wrote a book called The Design of Everyday Things and makes the following points.

Designing with the user in mind has historically been a problem with telephones and their designs, as pointed out by the author (and to which I concur!). He notes the many different problems that can be experienced with a phone system for example, poor instructions, too many command functions, arbitrary letters (‘R’) on the phone, etc. The author notes that lack of visibility and a poor conceptual model create these phone problems, which in turn can create the “telephone chase” (of which I am also familiar with). Another problem is that any feature not associated with negativity, regardless of it creating a positive function, will likely be left alone by the designers, creating arbitrary and useless functions that don’t evolve out of the design.
Another aspect of design discussed is AFFORDANCES, or, “what the object is for” (perceived and actual properties of the item) which is embedded in the psychology of materials. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking at it: no pictures, label or instruction is required. When simple things need pictures, labels or instructions, the design has failed.
FEEDBACK is also an important aspect of successful design: sending back to the user information about what action has actually been done. i.e. When a button on the phone is pushed, one can hear a beep as a cause of their action of pushing it. “When an action has no apparent result, you may conclude that the action was ineffective. So you repeat it.” (This reminds me of the “click” sound of the clunky buttons on a cassette player walkman.)
Norman reminds us of the CONCEPTUAL MODEL, the mental simulation of a device’s operation. Other clues come from visible structures of items – in particular from AFFORDANCE, CONSTRAINTS, and MAPPINGS. Visible relationships help determine a discernable relationship between the actions and the end result as given in the example of the pair of scissors.
The author points out that fundamental principles of design for people 1) provide a good conceptual model and 2) make things visible. He uses the car as a good example of design because of visibility and placement of objects in a car (natural mappings). MAPPING, being the term for the relationship between two things. Some natural mappings are cultural or biological as in the rising level meaning a greater amount <and a diminishing level meaning less >.
MENTAL MODELS, the models people have of themselves, others, the environment and the things they interact with. The mental model of a device is formed by interpreting its perceived actions and its visible structure. The example of the refrigerator temperature control instructions design failure is given.  The visible part of the device is what the author calls the SYSTEM IMAGE. When the system image is incoherent or inappropriate such as in the refrigerator example, usability problems occur.  VCR programmability in the 1980s seemed to reflect this same problem.
An example of good design given is the 3 1/2 inch floppy diskette and the felt-tipped pen: subtle design cues on both that are functional, visible and aesthetically unobtrusive. I would also volunteer a door key (or skeleton key, for that matter) being of good design.
Design failures, even though the idea may be good (like voice commands on a camera), cannot take hold if they go through three redesigns after being released to the public. The general concensus is that the idea will fail. The author notes that it takes 5 or 6 tries to get an idea right within production.
The paradox of technology is that technology is intended to make life easier and that the development of technology typically goes through a U curve of complexity: starting high, dropping to a low, comfortable level then climbing again.


And in the end all I can say is “how cool is this?”