What’s Important and What the Norms Support

I’ve begun to think lately of the gap between what careful designers are concerned about and what clients see or object to. For instance, working on a technical educational report, I realized the author was not very consistent in using subheads, and that led me to think of how convoluted the sequence of heads should be. Five levels, plus a sixth boldface run in? Or at most two levels below the chapter title? Or even only one level, since (a) we do not speak in subheads, and (b) the subhead serves mainly to make a clear topical break in the text. In fact, newspaper style hardly ever goes beyond one level of subhead. And going way back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a much smaller range of types and the distinctions in the text were made more by spacing than by size and font.

Similarly, the author of an educational report disliked the wide margins in the sample layout I prepared. She said the clichéd words, “too much white space.” IKYN. And she also didn’t like the way I used a narrow column of text next to bar graphs, pie charts, and tables.

The only force that education can have in matters of community or societal norms is the force of respect and admiration. Good grammar is what is spoken by the most admired people in the group, community, or country; high fashion is what is worn by the most admired people (not necessarily what is designed by haute couture designers); the best music, art, literature, and so on is the stuff that is made and supported by the most admired people, too. Graphic design is one of those categories: just look at the vogue for grunge type and layout styles a while back. Someone adopted it from the street or alternate club scene, and then others concurred, and finally the larger public began to accept what these admired people (the publishers and commentators of “grunge” publications) had adopted


In the development of German, the vowel sounds in some words shifted, often a back vowel moving to a front position when pronounced. Such a change of sound is referred to as umlaut (German, um – around, Laut – sound). In German, a special diacritical mark [¨] is used to represent the change of the marked vowel, as in Fuß > Füße (foot > feet). Originally, the umlaut change was indicated by inserting an e after the affected vowel, such as in Mueller (miller) or by writing a small e above the vowel. By the 16th century, this scribal practice was beginning to appear in typeset text. Here is an example of a certificate from 1799 and a detail of the small superposed e to indicate the umlaut.

Here is a detail from the main heading.

Eventually, the thicker vertical strokes of the e were reduced to the two dots of the diacritical mark we now recognize as the Germanic umlaut.

Type Art Love

A disquisition on feelings and fealty

"Two Figures in a Room," acrylic on canvas, © 1983, 60" x 33"

It’s part of a comedian’s stock in trade to joke about how routine and stale sex gets in a long-term relationship. As Jay Leno once quipped about the clamor in California about same-sex marriage, “When you’re married, it’s all the same sex.” >rim shot<

They’re funny, but those jokes do a great disservice to long-term intimacy. The more you live with and know your partner, the more you learn about your shared pleasure and the ways you care about each other. And the more you look forward both to the known—and almost failure-proof—pleasures, as well as to the new discoveries and subtleties you may have missed before or just not gotten to yet.

The Bible uses the term “know” to refer to sexual intercourse. To make love many times over many years to the same person is to know that person so much more completely than to “be acquainted” with him or her—or “to be friends with” or “to live with,” even.

Consider the situation of the new lovers: In the very beginning, it’s all high expectations wrapped in the anxiety of “what if she [he] doesn’t like that?” The solution to that problem is to resort to two or three tried-and-true, pretty much off-the-shelf, sexologist-certified gambits . . . because you know—or at least, you strongly believe—that one of those gambits won’t fail. And for the next many encounters with each other, you repeat the great success of the first time with few variations or embellishments, and some lingering trepidations. Eventually, the apprehension goes away and you find you have settled into a familiar pattern. But then, you stumble onto that other sensitive spot that you didn’t know you or she [he] had, and then two days later, another one. And then one day, the carburetor doesn’t work, and you just laugh at the goofiness of it all. And the next day comes and there’s yet another thing that’s new.

What does this have to do with type and design?

Inevitably, graphic design—especially type-centric design—will be influenced by one’s relationship with typefaces. If you’ve spent a lot of time getting to know a small group of faces, you’ll be able to put their strengths to good use. Or there might be a few new ones you might be thinking of having a fling with.

You know the old faces well, just as you know your partner of many years. And you’ve discovered along the way that there are really sexy curves in that blandest of fonts, Helvetica, or that you were surprised when you were tickled by something you had not noticed before, like the way the right descending side of the l.c. “a” in Helvetica Bold was truncated and didn’t just slew into the baseline.

I’ve found that I am comfortable working with a small cadre of very familiar faces, and then occasionally I discover a new typeface that has as much allure and social confidence as the old faces. In the illustration above, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the faces in the first four lines. And then recently, I’ve made the acquaintance of the faces in the last two lines. I’ve set two books in Fontin, I’ve used Diavolo and Titillium in several posters and Kontrapunkt as the title font for two books on engineering.

The very last face, Formal 436, I discovered about six years ago, sort of lost in a big box of fonts (one of those 400,000 clip-art offers). What a discovery! A beautiful display font from Bitstream. To be truthful, at first I wasn’t so impressed with Formal. But I tried it. I liked it! And I came back to it more and more, reliving the same process of incremental delight in discovering other ways it enchanted me. The first several times I used Formal, I went for the tried-and-true successes, which just led to its other charms.

Apollo was like that. I ran across it two decades ago, trying to find a good substitute for Palatino. Designed by Adrian Frutiger, Apollo is very similar in appearance to Palatino, but it’s distinctively different. To me it feels more like a pen-drawn font. And it has a companion set of O.S. figures and small caps.

"Man with Tulips," oil on canvas, 48" x 48", 2009

Art, like design, type, and love, also follows the same route, namely, a long relationship with a small range of images and artistic choices. All of my paintings for the last 40 years have included a small number of components: abstract shapes and fields, a human figure (usually nude), and occasionally other objects (flowers, implements). In the continual revisiting of the same themes, subjects, and models, I look for the pleasures that I know will come but I am constantly surprised by some new twist or variation that I had not come across before—the way two colors mix when brushed together, the kind of edge formed by a brushstroke, the way some part of the body or the flower curves in a way I had not paid attention to before.

And then there is the other result: I decide to put away a technique that now has lost its frisson, its ability to stir or stimulate a sufficient response. I stop using a particular color, as I sometimes stop using a favorite font (for me, Cheltenham at one point). For more on my paintings, look at Figuring Things Out elsewhere on this website.

Three logos for one client

I struggled for several years developing my logo. Initially, I came up with an open book with the acronym, MBB&GD (Michael Brady Book & Graphic Design), which I used for just a short while until I reluctantly decided that the image said “old-technology,” my business name was too narrowly limited to books, and it was just plain too long.

I shortened it to Michael Brady Design, but I was still stuck for a logo.

I couldn’t settle on any device or abstract mark, and I didn’t want to go back to some illustrative image, like the book. What was left was a monogram, and M, B, and D, or m, b, and d, weren’t the most compatible three letters. I wracked my brains and wore out the tip of more than one pen trying to make them work in some kind of symmetrical way. Nothing. I began to think that maybe using the lowercase letters might lend itself more to a solution than the capitals, which were just unsuited to each other. The M is a square letter with points, and the B and D are both letters that are round on their right sides. What could I do with that? Hence, I began to work with the small letters, and I gave up the fruitless search for a fearful symmetry and started looking for asymmetries. Then I noticed how I could use the mirror-image similarities of the b and d, offset and overlap them, and use an especially crisp typeface, De Vinne by Bitstream (a digital recreation of George Bruce’s No. 11, not connected to Theodore Low De Vinne, btw). This was the result:

I added my full business name to the upper right corner, carrying through on the overall visual theme of bare, crisp type in an asymmetrical arrangement:

The full, complete logo and mark looked good, I liked it a lot, and it worked well in many situations. But it didn’t read well at very small sizes and, because the long name hung off the right side, it was hard to use in confined spaces, like the spine of a book. Nonetheless, I kept it because, frankly, I liked it a great deal and I was particularly enamored of the clean qualities of the type design.

However, over time, I looked again for a compact logo, probably a monogram. I took a cue from the Calvin Klein logo, cK, set in Bodoni, a face widely popular in the fashion press, and first set the M and D in smaller capital letters and the B larger, in the middle of them. It had possibilities, but the letters looked like three politicians standing stiffly shoulder to shoulder for a group photograph.

Then I saw it: I overlapped the D and B, producing a cluster of interlocking arcs, almost like the windows of a Gothic cathedral. But to complete the task, I needed a face with a splayed-leg M, a B with two almost equal counters, and a D with almost straight connectors between the vertical and the arced right side, so that it when it overlapped the B, the openings would be sufficiently large. I chose a font called Corrodet Classic Caps, by Manfred Klein.

That’s the bare logomark. In the layout, I add “Michael Brady Design” after the mark, often in Fontin. But I leave open the possibility to change the font of both the monogram and the name based on the layout needs (Optima is quite good for the monogram).