The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

January 28, 2015
by Dan

Our Dear, Departed Books…


Tom Gauld for the New Yorker.

January 28, 2015
by Dan

The Doves Type Revival


I missed this wonderful story about the infamous lost typeface of English Arts and Crafts publisher Doves Press — unceremoniously “bequeathed” to the Thames by one of the co-founders of the press —  in The Economist last month:

Between August 1916 and January 1917 Cobden-Sanderson, a printer and bookbinder, dropped more than a tonne of metal printing type from the west side of the bridge. He made around 170 trips in all from his bindery beside the pub, a distance of about half a mile, and always after dusk. At the start he hurled whole pages of type into the river; later he threw it like bird seed from his pockets. Then he found a small wooden box with a sliding lid, for which he made a handle out of tape—perfect for sprinkling the pieces into the water, and not too suspicious to bystanders.

Those tiny metal slugs belonged to a font of type used exclusively by the Doves Press, a printer of fine books that Cobden-Sanderson had co-founded 16 years earlier. The type was not his to destroy, so he concealed his trips from his friends and family and dropped his packages only when passing traffic would drown out the splash. There were slip-ups, all the same. One evening he nearly struck a boatman, whose vessel shot out unexpectedly from under the bridge. Another night he threw two cases of type short of the water. They landed on the pier below, out of reach but in plain sight. After sleepless nights he determined to retrieve them by boat, but they eventually washed away. After that he was more careful.

Now, almost 100 years after the original metal type was lost, Doves has been revived as a digital typeface:

For three years [Richard Green] has been crafting a digital reproduction of the famous face—the first fully usable Doves font since the original metal pieces were swallowed by the Thames. In search of perfect curves and precise serifs, he reckons he has redrawn it at least 120 times. “I’m not really sure why I started. In the end it took over my life.”

Intrepid fans have occasionally tried to recover pieces of the type from the river, but no one has ever found any, so Mr Green had to beg and borrow Doves books as a reference. That sounds simple—yet the uneven printing that letterpress-lovers cherish made tracing the type impossible. Once ink hits paper, no single letter is reproduced identically. Guessing the shape of the metal that made the marks takes time and patience. Guess wrong, and the error is imperceptible at first; but lined up in text the letter looks awkward, the typeface distracting.

That painstaking process is similar to the technique Cobden-Sanderson and Walker used to create the Doves type, itself a confection of two earlier designs. Doves owes most to the type of Nicholas Jenson, a Venetian printer from the 15th century whose clear and elegant texts shunned the gothic blackletter favoured by print’s early pioneers. A few letters were added, and others redrawn. The arrow-straight descender of its lower case ‘y’ divides critics; purists lament the thick crossbar of the upper case ‘H’. Most people neither notice nor care. “No more graceful Roman letter has ever been cut and cast,” opined A.W. Pollard, a contemporary critic, in the Times. Simon Garfield, a modern writer, celebrates its rickety form, which looks “as if someone had broken into the press after hours and banged into the compositor’s plates.”

You can read more about the history of Doves and the digital revival at Typespec.

And apparently a small amount of the original metal type was recently salvaged from the Thames too. Amazing.

January 26, 2015
by Dan

The Wolf Hall Fun Book


Tom Gauld.

January 23, 2015
by Dan

Student Editions by Ákos Polgárdi


These rather fabulous typographic covers were designed by Ákos Polgárdi for Európa Könyvkiadó‘s Student Editions series. Works of classic literature from Hungary and around the world, each cover features text from the book as a background pattern.

student-editions-1 student-editions-2student-editions-4 student-editions-3

You can see more of Ákos’ book covers on his website.

January 22, 2015
by Dan

We Were Not Made For This World


Directed by Colin West McDonald, We Were Not Made For This World is a short science fiction film based on the comic strip of the same name by cartoonist Paul Hornschemeier about a robot searching for his creator:


‘We Were Not Made for This World’ was first published in Project Telstar by AdHouse and later collected in Let Us Be Perfectly Clear by Fantagraphics.

January 20, 2015
by Dan

Ladybird by Design


The Guardian‘s Kathryn Hughes visits Ladybird By Design, an exhibition of over 200 original illustrations from the golden age of Ladybird Books:

To enter Ladybird’s world again is to relearn a universe that is both strange yet uncannily familiar. Inevitably the books express the values of their times. In the Peter and Jane series (aka Key Words Reading Scheme), Peter tends to hang out with Daddy in the garage, while Jane helps Mummy get the tea. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, every one in the children’s world looks exactly like them, apart from Pat the dog.

Still, if Ladybird books were conservative on gender and race, they were positively brisk on class. The world of Peter and Jane – and all the other children who appear in the Ladybird universe doing magic tricks, going to the shops, taking batteries apart or learning to swim – is both modern and modest. As illustrated by Berry, Wingfield and Martin Aitchison, the children appear to live in one of the postwar new towns. Their home is probably privately owned but it could conceivably be a newly built council house. Their adventures involve going on a train or to the beach with Mummy and Daddy. There are no prep-school japes here, no solving of improbable mysteries or clifftop rescues.

Perhaps this achievable utopia was a compensatory fantasy for the illustrators who, born around 1920, had mostly known childhoods far harder than this. Busy providing a safe, stable environment for their own little Peters and Janes, men such as Berry and Wingfield showed a world where things were, on the whole, getting better. Modernity increasingly presses into the frame: Jane and Peter eat off a table that looks like knock-off Habitat, Mummy wears slacks and Daddy even starts to help with the washing-up. More disruptive changes, though, are kept at a safe distance. Carnaby Street, with all its troubling freedoms, has no place in the Ladybird world, nor does the cold war or Vietnam.

For those of you who didn’t grow up in the UK, Ladybird Books were slim illustrated hardcover books for children. They were educational, or at least ‘improving’, and so creepy that I think they’ve actually scarred the national psyche. If you are of certain age, the books trigger a shiver of queasy nostalgia — without Ladybird Books the horrifying weird of The League of Gentleman or Scarfolk is just inconceivable — and yet I still think of them fondly. Sort of.
The exhibition, which opens later this week, takes its title from a forthcoming Penguin book called Ladybird by Design. Written by Lawrence Zeegen, Professor of Illustration and Dean of the School of Design at the London College of Communication, the book celebrates 100 years of Ladybird, and examines the social and design history of the publisher. It is sure to be smashing.

January 19, 2015
by Dan

50 Years Since the Great Poet’s Death


Tom Gauld‘s weekly strip is back in The Guardian.

January 17, 2015
by Dan

The Four Undramatic Plot Structures by Tom Gauld


Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.

January 16, 2015
by Dan

Art of the Title: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


The wonderful Art of Title looks back at the title sequence for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb designed by Pablo Ferro:

Pablo Ferro’s loose letterforms and slack compositions superimposed over aircraft footage represented a distinct departure from American title design of the time. Prior to 1966, the aesthetic of main titles was defined primarily by designers BinderBrownjohn, and Frankfurt and their symbolic geometry, clean typography, and bold graphic forms. The stage was set for Ferro’s strain of ambitious artistry. His lettering, variously squat, long, and lean, allows the footage to peek through, unobtrusive but utterly individual. It was all done by hand, with grease pencil on glass.

In an interview with Pablo Ferro himself, the designer discusses that distinctive lettering:

I tried to do the lettering like it’s usually done in films, but he said, “Pablo, I don’t know whether to look at the lettering or look at the plane. We have to see both at the same time.” I said to myself, oh boy, how could you do that? I remembered that I do my own lettering, just doodling around, thin and tall and things like that, and I thought I’d try that.

We did a test and it worked! Stanley filled the screen with my lettering. It was perfect! You could see the plane and you could see the lettering at the same time.

Coincidently, Vienna-based foundry FaceType actually released a typeface inspired by Ferro’s lettering called Strangelove Next a few years ago. I’m sure I’ve seen it on a couple of book covers.

January 15, 2015
by Dan

Noam Chomsky Series Design by David Pearson

Layout 1

Designer David Pearson has created some rather nice typographic covers for the UK editions of Noam Chomsky available from UK publisher Pluto Press.

Layout 1

In addition to the talented Mr. Pearson, Pluto Press’s design manager Melanie Patrick kindly let me know that the publisher is currently working with designers such as David Drummond, David Gee, Jamie Keenan, Dan Mogford, and Jarrod Taylor. You can see some of the results on their new Tumblr Pluto Press Covers, including this slick (ba-dum ching!) cover for the forthcoming Artwash by Mel Evans, designed by Mr. Keenan:


January 14, 2015
by Dan

Aaron Draplin on Logo Design

I doubt most of you don’t need advice on how to design a logo (or maybe you do? Who knows?), but Aaron Draplin enthusing about design is always fun. In this video for, Draplin talks about his design process for logos, and even manages to talk about a few of his favourite books along the way:

January 13, 2015
by Dan

Portrait of a Letterpress Printer

Portrait of a Letterpress Printer is a short documentary about William Amer, a letterpress printer and instructor based in Rockley NSW, Australia. I have serious shed envy…

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