Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Design (page 1 of 2)

Make the interrobang banal‽

99% Invisible (a personal favorite podcast) just did a typically great short history of the interrobang and its fight for survival:

Today, the interrobang is just barely hanging in there. It has its own character in Unicode, the common directory of symbols which all computer fonts must reference. But Keith Houston points out that it still hasn’t cleared the biggest typographical obstacle of all: “I think that in order to really consider it to be a real mark of punctuation, people have to use it without thinking about it.” In other words: a truly remarkable mark of punctuation must be unremarkable.

I strongly believe in the interrobang. For my part, I created an iOS text replacement shortcut that replaces ?! with ‽ in my texts. This doesn’t pass the ease of use test, and it’s not available in every typeface. But it’s what I can do to help make the interrobang ubiquitous enough to save.

See also: Shady Characters

Ain’t no road just like Lake Shore Drive

And there ain’t no road just like it
Anywhere I found
Running south on Lake Shore Drive heading into town
Just slippin’ on by on LSD, Friday night trouble bound

“Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah

I’ve had occasion to drive into or through downtown Chicago several times recently, which is unusual. A few times it was for medical reasons, another for a conference in the Loop, and last Friday for a morning seminar at the University of Chicago.

Each time I do it I’m reminded of how beautiful Lake Shore Drive is.

If you’ve never been to Chicago: the city sits right next to Lake Michigan, and Lake Shore Drive runs north-south along the lakeshore. Except some museums, Navy Pier, Soldier Field, and one swanky skyscraper, it’s mostly beachfront and parks the whole way, so whichever direction you drive it (or bike or run it) will give you an amazing view of Chicago’s famous downtown architecture and the expansive lake at the same time.

On Friday I drove almost the whole stretch of the LSD, from the far north side to the far south side and back. Heading southbound, I think the scenic part of downtown begins at the Oak Street bend where the Drake Hotel sits. (Which to me always calls to mind the crucial Bible from the Drake Hotel in Mission: Impossible:  “They stamped it, didn’t they? Those damn Gideons.”)

And northbound from the University of Chicago it’s scenic pretty much the whole way. You can watch the skyscrapers get bigger and bigger until you’re almost among them.

I don’t know how many other cities have anything comparable to Lake Shore Drive, so I’m happy to have it.

Pattern-spotting in a Chicagoland alley

Though the cold, wintry weather has extended into April this year, the other day the sun beamed and the temperature jumped into the 60s. I decided to take a break from work and go for a short walk, and I soon ambled down one of the countless back alleys that cut through Chicagoland.

(Here’s the fascinating story of how Chicago became the “alley capital” of the United States.)

I noticed right away there was a wide variety of patterns on the garages and buildings that lined my walk, so I started snapping pictures of them:

New font based on Lithuania’s Act of Independence

Eimantas Paškonis made a beautiful new font based on the manuscript of the Act of Independence of Lithuania, passed in 1918:

The whole project took more than 6 months. First of all, a high-resolution scan of the Act of Independence of Lithuania had to be obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then the person who wrote the Act had to be identified because some characters were missing in the resolution of February the 16th. When the handwriting was established as Jurgis Šaulys’s, the missing characters were created according to other documents written by J. Šaulys and found in the archives. It took a highly skilled typographer over 120 hours to construct the font.

Previously under Russian rule, Lithuania was occupied by the German Empire during the First World War. It used the distraction of the war as another bid for independence, which Germany surprisingly agreed to with hopes Lithuania would “detach itself from Russia and establish a closer relationship with Germany.”

Indeed, they went for full independence, adopting a resolution “that an independent Lithuania should be established and that a closer relationship with Germany would be conditional on Germany’s formal recognition of the new state.”

Baller move, Lithuania. And cheers to 100 years!

Films Galore and other groovy ’70s library brochures

Digging around my library’s local history collection, I found a stack of trifold brochures promoting the services of the old North Suburban Library System (now RAILS) my library is part of. I’m guessing they’re from the 1970s since NSLS started in the late ’60s. Look at all these groovy logos and colors:

And then there’s the one that summarizes all the services:

All reference desks should have a “Just Ask” sign on them to encourage shy patrons. Maybe I’ll turn it into a button.

I’d love to talk to whoever designed these. Were the icons specially made for these brochures or did they come from somewhere else? Perhaps they could be repurposed for a digital marketing campaign, or at least a cool collage project.

Desire lines in dictatorships

I’m in the midst of Robert Moor’s fascinating On Trails: An Exploration, and he mentions desire lines. Defined as paths “created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal traffic,” they are usually a shortcut through grass that’s a more direct line between two points.

“They can be found in the parks of every major city on earth,” Moor writes, including those of repressive authoritarian regimes, where dictatorial architects despise them as “geographic graffiti” because they belie the “authoritarian failure to predict our needs our desires.” Efforts to remove or impede desire lines are almost always fruitless: “Wise designers sculpt with desire, not against it.”

Once you realize what a desire path is, you’ll see them everywhere. I love discovering terminology for everyday phenomena that I didn’t realize actually had a name. Here are a few more I like:

Slip lane: The diagonal lane at an intersection that allows you to turn right at an intersection without entering it.

Rumble bars (aka drunk bumps, growlers, drift lines): The slotted lines on highway shoulders that cause your tires to rumble when you drive over them.

Road verge (aka curb lawn, devil strip, easement, parkway, and many more): the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road.

They are specific but simply worded, almost onomatopoeic in how they describe common but often invisible design. Can’t wait to add more to this list. Any suggestions?

Man’s Search for Responsibility

Finally got around to reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In one part he talks about a hypothetical “Statue of Responsibility”:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Clever, I thought when I read it. But when I was researching Frankl after reading the book, I learned the Statue of Responsibility is (becoming) a real thing:

I like how it flips Liberty’s arm motif. There isn’t a permanent site for it yet, but I hope it comes together.

Some other quotes from the book I enjoyed:

  • “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
  • “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
  • “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
  • Prisoners looking at sunset: “How beautiful the world could be.”
  • “Self-actualization is possible only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence.”

Cmd + Ctrl: towards smarter searching and dumber devices

Let me echo Austin Kleon’s ode to the search box:

Maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.

I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.

Besides text messages and Snapchat pictures of my new nephew, I don’t get notifications on my phone and haven’t for a long time. I can’t imagine how people with news or social media apps subject themselves to the onslaught of Fresh Hell in their pockets all day.

In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory Doctorow writes about the need to be protected from computers as they burrow further into our lives and bodies:

I want to be sure that it is designed to take orders from its user, and to hide nothing.

Take orders and hide nothing. Command and control. Pull rather than push. Make Computers Dumb Again.

Relatedly, at Mashable, “Stop reading what Facebook tells you to read” calls for consumers to break out of Facebook’s detention center walled garden and use a web browser to find things:

By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control. And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.

See also: Just don’t look.

Here’s to smarter searching and clicking by everyone in 2018.

One Year in the Revolution

Tom Hanks, the most famous typewriter enthusiast in the world, couldn’t be a better ambassador for the field. Whether in a podcast or film or newspaper, he tells the Good News with his trademark charming gravitas. Though I’m sure longtime collectors wince at the thought of prices rising with such high-profile boosterism, it’s ultimately good for people and for typewriters—if only to save some from key-choppers or the dumpster.

A little over a year ago was when I first read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution, which set me off into this new world. I’m typing this draft on a Smith Corona Electra 12, the first typewriter I bought after enlisting in The Revolution. ($5 at Goodwill, still the lowest I’ve had to pay.) The Electra set me off into a typewriter mania, and my collection quickly burgeoned. Every antique mall and thrift shop was a potential holder of The Next One. I joined the Antique Typewriter Collectors Facebook group, read up on repair and maintenance, enlisted loved ones in searching for typewriters, annoyed friends and coworkers talking about my new hobby, and even took the plunge on an eBay purchase.

But once I hit my apartment’s MTC (Maximum Typewriter Capacity), I knew I had to temper my passions and come to balance. Once I realized I didn’t have to buy every decent typewriter I saw—that I had developed discernment (and a price limit) for what I really wanted—the ardor subsided and I’ve been able to appreciate what I have, while always keeping an eye open for a deal. All throughout, my wife has remained supportive (especially after I got her a pretty yellow Kmart 100), and continues to indulge me every time I describe my latest repair success or grumble about a particularly vexing dysfunction.

I wasn’t the tinkering kind of kid. I liked Legos and building forts, but lacked the mind for creative engineering that I saw in others. Even today I’m not a car guy and can only do basic home repairs. But I’ve really enjoyed learning typewriters. I’ve gradually gained the confidence to dig around inside them and learn how their innards work. Unlike computers, they are complicated but still able to be discerned. Though stunning works of art, they aren’t meant to sit in glass like an heirloom; they demand to be used and figured out.

When I casually grabbed The Typewriter Revolution off the library shelf, I couldn’t have guessed it would lead me into a new world of discovery and joy I enter every time I uncase a typewriter and roll some paper around the platen. But after a year of that, I’m still ready for more.

Now I Sit Me Down

“A chair is an everyday object with which the human body has an intimate relationship. You sit down in an armchair and it embraces you, you rub against it, you caress the fabric, touch the wood, grip the arms. It is this intimacy, not merely utility, that ultimately distinguishes a beautiful chair from a beautiful painting. If you sit on it, can it still be art? Perhaps it is more.”

Indeed it is. Witold Rybczynski’s new book Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History is one of my favorite genres: a nichestory (as in niche + history). Like the first Rybczynski book I read (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw), this one is a loving and learned micro-history of an everyday thing we usually don’t regard at all. The book weaves Rybczynski’s expertise and personal experience with stories about influential designers and craftsmen throughout history, along with some wider cultural criticism.

NPR’s review of the book has a nice collection of Rybczynski’s own illustrations from the book of the many different kinds of chairs he writes about. After reading this you’ll see them everywhere.

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