ATypI 2015 in São Paolo

I first attended ATypI in 1987, in a year it was a joint conference with the Type Director’s Club, held in New York. My recollection is that Roger Black was the motive force behind it. This was during the dawn of Postscript, the Adobe-created language which made it possible for every man and woman to “typeset” documents that resembled the work us letterpress folk could produce with our hot metal and heavy machinery. Mind you, “cold type” had been around for a long time. But it, too, was mostly an elite process: except for Letraset and IBM Selectric “composers,” you had to spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment that could imitate our work.

This year I attended much of the 2015 ATypI conference, held in São Paolo, Brazil. Just as in 1987, the subjects of the conference revolved around the three elements of the type biz: art, craft, and commerce.

Sao Paulo architectural type

Sao Paulo architectural type

Art. Everyone loves the art. People dig up inscriptions on tombstones, the walls of old buildings, architectural details, natural forms, and old books to inspire the creation of “new” type designs. Only every few hundred years does something really new come along: think Carolingean minuscule or sans serif. But at every ATypI, many presentations tell us what we should be looking at.

I made it to perhaps a quarter of the talks that took place. I missed the boat sign painters of the Amazon region and the history of calligraphic models in Brazilian pedagogy. But I was there for Rob Saunders’ titillating us with samples from his Letterform Archive (Dwiggins, Koch, and Tschichold are among its strengths) and the amazing things keynoter Claudio Rocha showed (I was most blown away by the sand calligraphy of South African artist Andrew Van Der Merwe.) And there were glimpses of the avant garde: Tony de Marco took us word by word through a concrete poem by Augusto de Campos.

Craft. Although there was letterpress around the periphery (a collection of broadsides was on display in the gallery, and each attendee received a randomly-selected set of three in our welcome packet), the real “craft” was all the math behind those Postscript letters. Although I am personally fascinated by that stuff, most of the discussions of it took place before I arrived and after I left. (The whole conference was four days, but I only attended the middle two.)

A huge effort of thought and money is going into creating font formats which can support all of the world’s languages. Right to left and left to right, natch. But also top to bottom, bottom to top, and then–imagine the complexity–a language where each word can slant up and to the right, but the next word returns to the baseline. Or where letter combinations can become single-character diphthongs, but only under specific circumstances. ATypI is a rare occasion for all the people working on these problems can share their notes.

Kevin Larson explained how resolution relates to perception of type features (here, a Chinese character)

Kevin Larson explained how resolution relates to perception of type features (here, a Chinese character)

Another highly competitive field is the presentation of type on computer screens. Long gone are the days when every screen was presumed to be 72 pixels to the inch. Microsoft alone has a department of 9 people working on legibility. A far cry from 1987, when the issue was dots on a substrate.

Business. It was a subtext in almost every discussion, but not often the subject of stage presentations. (Coffee breaks and receptions are among the most important components of any conference.) One exception to that rule was the presentation from the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague, where a semester assignment was to see if it was possible to design and market a typeface expressly to be a “best seller.” With the cooperation of MyFonts, they first studied the elements of design, packaging (including the variety of styles within one “face”), and pricing which would lead to a winner. Then each student designed a font or groups of fonts, figured out a pricing policy, and sold his or her fonts through MyFonts (for a year as part of the study).

Attempted bestsellers. "Rukola," third row middle, was the winner.

Attempted bestsellers. “Rukola,” third row middle, was the winner.

Distribution of sales

Distribution of sales; pricing was a factor

I heard only only one presentation which dealt specifically with handmade or limited-edition books. Kara P. Camargo is a candidate for a Ph.D. in Design at the University of São Paulo, and her topic was “Typography in Fiction Books–from invisibility to visibility.” The first half I found to be a disappointment–she pictured the usual beautiful book suspects. But then she showed a few Latin American books books, none by publishers I had ever heard of. One couldn’t be sure from the photos: I doubt that they were letterpress. But some involved silk screen and other hand processes. All were highly conceptual.

She began with two books by the Brazilian publisher COSAC Naify, both designed by their Art Director, Elaine Ramos. The first was First Love by Samuel Becket, in French, designed by Elaine Ramos in 2004. The text is set in Univers Condensed on the left side, with free scratchings down the right. I believe she told us how the scratchings were created, but I did not make a note. This does not appear to be a limited edition. The second was Bartleby, The Scrivener, a 2008 production, which forced the purchaser to mutilate the book in order to read it: stitching had to be removed along the side which opened to reveal the text. My recollection is that she mentioned that it was a limited edition, but I have not found reference to that on the company web site. Next she showed Los Culpables (The Culprits), a 2008 book of fairy tales by Juan Villoro, which caused enough of a stir that the same publisher produced a limited edition (1000 copies) with illustrations by graphic artist Alejandro Magallanes in 2013. She concluded by showing a book object, where a book was destroyed to make an art piece.

2014-15 was a bad period for deaths of type designers. As always, a feature of the conference was eulogies about ones who had died during the prior year. Erich Alb paid homage to Hans Eduard Meier, Sumner Stone to Hermann Zapf, and Gerry Leonidas to Richard Southall; there were also tributes to Adrian Frutiger, Bernardo Faria, and Jean Larcher, but I can no longer summon up who gave them.

Sumner Stone pays tribute to Hermann Zapf

Sumner Stone pays tribute to Hermann Zapf

–Robert McCamant