TypograFriday: Ligatured Sans

You know ITC Avant Garde, the lame came-with-the-OS wannabe-Futura type. Designers among you probably know Avant Garde, the 1968-1971 magazine for which Herb Lubalin designed a fantastic and groundbreaking tightly kerned sans serif logotype. Lubalin expanded this all-caps logo into a rigidly geometric display and text face at ITC, where he was a cofounder. The digital version you’re familiar with is an imperfect digitization of the most uninteresting part of the original design, although the Pro version that adds back in the ligatures is now available.


Lubalin used it several times, always with the alternates and ligatures enabling incredibly tight settings, throughout the next few years, notably in U&LC magazine. And others began to use it, but not well. A few notes on its misuse from Thinking for a Living:

Tony DiSpigna, one of Lubalin’s partners and co-creator of ITC Lubalin Graph and ITC Serif Gothic, has been quoted as saying, “The first time Avant Garde was used was one of the few times it was used correctly. It’s become the most abused typeface in the world.” Ed Benguiat, one of type’s legends and a friend of Lubalin’s, commented, “The only place Avant Garde looks good is in the words Avant Garde. Everybody ruins it. They lean the letters the wrong way.” Steven Heller also noted that the”excessive number of ligatures […] were misused by designers who had no understanding of how to employ these typographic forms,” further commenting that “Avant Garde was Lubalin’s signature, and in his hands it had character; in others’ it was a flawed Futura-esque face.”

It’s been revived in the last decade quite a bit, first for music then for a certain scenester Vice ironic recapitualization of the Me-Generation?




Don’t get me wrong: I actually really like the examples above. It’s not even been that it’s been done a zillion times but after about six, it’s already been done to death. If you’re considering using Avant Garde ligatures and it’s not 1976, I ask you to reconsider. Either reference the seventies in a fresher way if that’s what you’re going for… or if what you’re liking is the interlocking ligatation of it, may we suggest a few alternatives?

Fedra Display by Typotheque, part of a megafamily that ranges from hairline to black with condensed and compressed weights.

Camera from Flat-It. Rounded and deco-style, this is quite a distance from Lubalin’s design. However it’ll still work if what you’re looking for is nested, tight lettersetting.

Sevigne by Reserves. This new face was actually the inspiration for this post. By combining Lubalinesque ligatures with the  classic proportions so popular now in typefaces like Gotham and Neutraface, and restraining it to lightweight and all caps, Reserves has put together an affordable, contemporary and altogether elegant face. It’s on special pricing right now; get it before Urban Outfitters goes and ruins it for all of us.

Etsy Schmetsy: cmd-s for later



Row 1:

  • Susan Kare’s pointer arrow became an icon of GUI and computing in general and is sort of overused in, say, ads of the last 10 years. However this inverted oversized heavy duty pointer cursor pin from qwertyfun is pretty snazzy and comes in a a swell package.
  • Speaking of Susan Kare, Toybreaker maintains that her Paint bucket icon tie is done in collaboration with Diesel Sweeties. Now, I’ve loved me some DieselSweeties in my time but that paint can is totally Kare/Apple/MacPaint/1984. That said, its aliased diagonals work fantastic on the diamond end of a tie.
  • There are plenty of etsy sellers that make upcycled jewelry from keyboards, but these silver-bezel set fkey vol up/down key earrings by creativedexterity are some of the nicest I have seen.

Row 2:

  • Gotta love a command-z joke: nothing says “I am ready to regret this evening” than going out with it around your neck. Undo necklace by plastique.
  • While not as retro as much of the rest of this list, the Photoshop (Cs4) icon pillow by Craftsquatch makes me happy with its combination of cutting edge and fleece.
  • I think computer users from the 80s will appreciate the 25 conductor cable belt by digiBling. Pretty sure I remember this running to the print ribbon of my ImageWriter.

Row 3:

  • If I haven’t made it clear already, I was an Apple fan from the days of the rainbow logo and bauhausy “Cupertino” type. If I could pull off a mesh cap without looking totally absurd I’d totally rock the Vintage Apple trucker cap from housenmouse.
  • I may have to snatch up the circuitboard cufflinks on sale at VioletsNewVintage: yes circuitboard art may also be a cliche, but upcycled circuitboards are rarely cut with such considered composition; truly lovely.
  • Finally, we try not to feature the same sellers repeatedly on Schmetsies and I know I featured WeHateTShirts just last week with their Bill Murray shirt. However, when I looked at their shop last week I saw this Susan Kare (again) Smiley Mac/ITC Garamond Condensed/Brokeback Mountain mashup I wish I could force quit you shirt: the inspiration for this whole post.

TypograFriday: Shahn


One of my favorite artists ever is Ben Shahn; his linework was terrific, his color sense really interesting, his sociopolitics inspirational, and his handlettering fantastic.

Above and below, a few scans from the book November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three, a Wendell Berry poem about JFK’s death which he illustrated and lettered. I’ve tried lettering with jaunty mixes of thicks and thins like this before, and let me tell you, it’s super tough to keep it from not looking totally goofy. That he set type as serious as a poem about national grieving using it is astonishing.



A few other of his pieces which incorporate his fantastic lettering:


Public Sale, 1956


Parade for Repeal, 1933


Maimonides, 1954

Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress? Such a good quote.


For those of you who are font-hungry, there are (at least) two fonts on the market which are based on Shahn’s lettering: Bensfolk from Haroldsfonts and thorny tuscan Rendevous GRP from Grype. Although both are pretty nice, the supersmart Opentype version with dozens of smart contextual alternates that rotate in… is sadly yet to be made. You’ll just have to use a pen, folks.


Etsy Schmetsy: It’s me Ned. Ned Ryerson!

So yesterday was Groundhog’s Day, and Punxsutawney Phil did indeed see his shadow. Which means, for those of you not as up on minor holidays as us at the ‘Agree, six more weeks of winter. In honor of groundhogs, shadows and a long winter, here’s this week’s Schmetsy:




Row 1:

Groundhog Cupid rubber stamp by Rubberhedgehog

Vintage Paint by Number Painting by sweetcottagedreams

Groundhog money clip by SantanaBananaCompany

Row 2:

Shadows in the Snow pendant by ebonypaws

Tiny Groundhog by MossMountain

Shh Shadow felt coasters by studiowonjun

Row 3:

Bandit Groundhog by violastudio

Bill Murray shirt by WeHateTshirts

The Hirsute Hedgehog print by johnwgolden

TypograFriday: Movie Typecasting, Handlettering

The other day I got the most satisfying reaction to blogging I’ve had since Dr Bex Lewis responded to my Keep Calm post… Yves Peters cited my Gotham=Oscar Font hypothesis in his FontFeed column ScreenFonts. Which in my personal world is like getting featured in the Times or something. I mean the world of movie poster critiques is a small one, and his column is the top of the heap.

Ok, enough self-congratulations. In the vein of movie poster critique, there’s one type trick poster designers use that says “hey Owen you will probably like this movie film!” I speak of hand-rendered type and how it signifies indie quirky romance.

As this is no new observation, I thought I’d at least add some scientific method to my entry into the field. I’ve arranged dozens of these below, in chronological order (sorry about the small size: I guarantee a larger version is only a google search away). This list isn’t complete – though I would love to hear what I have missed so I can make a more complete one – and starts in the 80s, as before that handlettering was commonplace, signifying little more than the technology and style of the time (the exceptional Pablo Ferro and Saul Bass will have to wait for a later typecasting column).

I think it’s pretty clear that while the early adopters of the strategy were authentically unique handcrafted personal sorts of films, as time goes on its become as hardened and codified a strategy as “big red text for summer-dumber comedy.”

Some progenitors:

My read is, the handlettering in the first signify wacky and naive, in the middle dangerous and aggressively anti-normal, and in the last communitarian and personal. None of which is exactly indie-quirky yet, but they circle around the same ur-ideas.

The beginning of the trend:

Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls…I personally date the handlettered=indie trend with Geoff McFettridge’s handlettering on the poster — and more importantly titles — of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Referring less to previous cinematic examples than to the lettering teenagers scribble in their notebooks, the trend was initially conflated with indie movies about teenagers.

The Royal Tenenbaums I am including here isn’t the actual poster but Eric Chase Anderson’s Criterion cover, so it doesn’t really count: however both Wes Anderson’s deliberate and fetishistic use of Futura and his use of his brother’s naive-quirky drawings are spices that went into the recipe that would make up the eventual trend.

With Napoleon Dynamite‘s title sequence with type lettered in ketchup & mustard (by Pablo Ferro, establishing the lineage back to Dr Strangelove!) and then some of the quirkiest characters and plot ever filmed, the basic model for what constituted a handlettered poster was well underway. A smattering of indie-juvenalia films over the next few years used the technique, then Juno, which though it was drawing heavily on Napoleon Dynamite, nonetheless entered a few more ingredients into the mix. Outline or outline/shaded handdrawn sans serif caps, collaged crafty elements (in the titles), and a restructuring of what handlettering means: not just indie or just indie/teen, but indie romance – and of course, a trend whose parents are Napoleon Dynamite and Juno is quirky writ large.

The typecasting of handlettering in full effect

Here’s just six of many of the movies from the last two or three years that have used the typographic formula as shorthand. Note that they are all indie romantic comedies: they no longer have to involve adolescents, but gone are the dramas or stories of families. Not only are they all handlettering but they’re all outlined sans serifs, and four out of six of them involve torn paper/pen drawing/collage elements.

I’m not saying that these are bad or even formulaic films – each is genuinely an indie movie doing its own thing – only that they communicate to their potential audience at an immediate level, right from the type choice, this is going to be a film for this audience. For every person like me who saw Away We Go in part because the Juno-titles meet desaturated-Peter-Max with Juno type poster clearly communicated a witty and probably bittersweet sort of romance, I bet there were some who turned away from it, reading correctly the same signifiers and determining they were in the mood for something more saccharine.

Of all the typecasting trends, I don’t mind this one. Often they have really nice lettering, and the shortcut to my sensibilities is appreciated. I will only come to distrust it when a standard rom-com comes delivered in this package.

The other typecasting: Handlettering as Raw Earnest Imagination


There is a split trend in which handlettering is being used in movie posters – generally speaking neither outlined nor shadowed, but monoline letters. In these cases the letters indicate not quirky or romantic or even funny, but raw nerves, personal earnestness and unfettered imagination of childhood, whether literal childhood like Max’s in Where the Wild Things Are or the magical place Spike Jonze and the artists profiled in Beautiful Losers want to access in their creative art.

Where Juno and Napoleon Dynamite birthed the main trend, this secondary trend was born out of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (from the same year as The Virgin Suicides), The Squid and the Whale, and the visual art of cultural-artist handletters like Raymond Pettibon, Ed Fella, Wayne White and Barry McGee. In both of the above movies, the lettering is by Geoff McFetridge, the guy who arguably started the current trend with The Virgin Suicides and probably the single most influential letterer on this sub-trend.

I have more thoughts to write but need to close for the night; I will followup next week. Please do let me know some posters I have forgotten, and other sub-trends and analysis you’d like to add.

TypograFriday: Fonts of 2009

We’re a little late to the party here but the last month and a half has been a busy one. Here we are, weeks into 2010, finally getting around to bidding adieu to 2009’s year in type. Here’s some of our favorite typefaces released last year – please click through for larger more interactive samples:

Mark Simonson’s Mostra was on my watchlist back when it was an all-caps display face a la AM Cassandre with a few weights and stylistic alternates. Mostra Nueva adds several more weights as well as lowercase, making it a useful contender that one can set shorter text in as well as display type. I often find retro letterforms like those curved-line “s” distracting or inappropriate: for me a type is profoundly better when it offers the standard forms as options as well.

Underware makes our day with every release. Liza Pro, a lively upright brush script is perhaps their best yet. The caps version plays great with the script and the jauntiness of the whole thing is as right-on as House’s releases.

Some people hated Mrs. Eaves, Licko’s mid-nineties Baskerville with a zillion ligatures. We really liked it, though over time it sort of faded from our hearts. However, Mr. Eaves, the sans companions, are fantastic: the “sans” form is like Gill but with fewer awkward spots (and more resolved heavy weights and italics) while the “modern” version changes out some details to become a warmer Futura. Both are well-proportioned and quite beautiful.

It’s funny to think of type as commerce, but on some level the idea of making narrow and condensed forms of Gotham is as clearly a good idea as making a sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster. Gotham has been used all over the place in the last few years, and extending its range by making more condensed versions will only heighten its ubiquity. The narrow in particular I think we’ll see a lot of in 2010.

While the standard forms of Catacumba Pro are interesting and charming in a decidedly pre-digital way, the floriateed/tuscaned display version really shines. It’s so expressive and unusual I have found myself stealing its forked tongue serifing for type in my sketchbook.

Although it was released in 2009, Eloquent is a revival of a late 60s ad typeface. Given the enduring contemporary trends (mostly in music/culture) for retro swash ITC and, say, Avant Garde Ligatures + the Si Scott et al maximalist hyperswashiness, it’s not surprising this would be revived in (or feel so at home in) 2009.

You know we love Jessica Hische. Buttermilk is only her first foray into commercial typemaking, but we hope not the last. She’s an ace with the letters, for sure.

We also love slab serifs and are always on the lookout for more really fine examples. We only sometimes love reversed stress type (Ben Shahn did some fantastic ones) – generally speaking they’re not fit for consumption outside of circusy/western posters. Where Trilby differs from the PT Barnums of the world however is that its stress proportion is subtle and very considered: the balance of form and counterform in the face are as beautiful as Caecilla or Clarendon.

This sample doesn’t do it justice. A very legible face with fantastic sharp curves and bracketed serifs, Vesper is like faves Vendetta and Freight Micro but with a more calligraphic basis.

Like the titles of Dr. Strangelove, and more current films like Where the Wild Things Are, Hannah is handlettering in a confident monoline. Charmingly, it comes in three degrees of compression, which mix and match to great effect.

2009 was the year I learned how to write pointed pen (copperplate) calligraphy. In the course of that class, I was surprised to see that, while there are dozens of digital models of the form, there are few that are anything but stiffly mechanistic. Libelle corrects that lack; with plenty of contextual alternates plus a very warm flowing line, it feels more like what I went into that class to learn than anything I have seen on a computer screen.

(texts from Time’s list of top 10 Animal Stories of 2009 except Libelle’s — dang LinoType doesn’t have a previewer)

Sandbox Bakery

sandbox logo
While we are not foodbloggers here at the Experts Agree, we do like to share magical things when we find them. Such is the case with the recently opened Sandbox Bakery on Cortland. On a relatively unassuming block, past the bustle of Cortland proper and on the edge of where the neighborhood slides downhill to Bayshore, sits what may be my new favorite bakery in town. Sorry Tartine, sorry Cottage Bakery.


The owner is Japanese, and the bakery is done in the Japanese way, which is to say, sort of perfectly. The scones and muffins are adorably diminutive: the sort of size you’d criticize them for were it not that they are super yummy and also not-overpriced. There’s a selection of the usual favorites: fruit and nut scones; almond, chocolate and plain croissants; morning rolls; challah; etc. Then some plainly Japanese items: melon pan, curry [beef] pan. In the name of science, I am eating my way through the options, and I have yet to get to these last.


They also make, on occasion and in small batches, sandwiches. There’s a pink lady apple and gruyere on fresh multigrain roll I’ve had several times (to obtain a scientifically viable sample set!) and then earlier this week they had “burgers” of sushi rice buns and marinated tofu inside: delicious, filling and maybe $4.50?

Their coffee: Ritual Roasters or De la Paz, brewed individually. Their staff, hip and sweet and serene. From the fixtures to the details, everything is just so.


All images are from the Sandbox bakery site except the last shot which was done using Hipstamatic.



Hipstamatic is a little $1.99 app that we’ve had a lot of fun playing with over the holidays. It treats your iPhone pictures as you shoot them, applying filters and edge effects. Nothing we couldn’t do ourselves in Photoshop, but to have it happen semi-instantly is pretty rad and makes me feel way better about the iPhone’s dinky camera. The user interface is brilliantly analog retro, and there are alternate lens/film/flash pals at a small cost.

Typografriday: Movie Typecasting, Gotham

I am late to the commenting-on-movie fonts game, having been beat to the punch by Yves Peter’s excellent ScreenFonts column (which analyzes contemporary movie posters) and of course Trajan is the Movie Font / Big Red Text / Hand-drawn Block Letters (youtube pieces which catalog movie poster type trends: Trajan on everything, Gill Sans Extra Bold et al in red on dumb summer comedies, handdrawn outline text for indie-quirky)

I want to take this opportunity to comment on something that according to my weak googling I may have the scoop on… I noticed it when I was flipping through the local newsweekly this week (early December) three presumably Oscar-aiming films, Invictus, A Single Man and The Lovely Bones.


You see it right? Gotham? Used in all caps in its bolder weights in 2009 it still carries strong resonances of HOPE and CHANGE and YES WE CAN. Indeed the upward flight of birds in The Lovely Bones poster and the upward looking Damon and serious looking Freeman are from not only the Obama/Hope playbook but also the rising swell of a John Williams score, the slow-mo on a triumphant smile, the whole town breaking into applause, the gleam of hope that this distillation of big hollywood production dollars into filmic pathos brings home the trophies.

A few years back, Trajan was still being used for this sort of film. But now it’s been relegated to the likes of Hellblazer and The Hills Have Eyes… to strike the right chord of gravitas and respectability in your drama, Gotham is the new go-to. I know a set of three does not exactly a trend make but take my word for it, there’ll be more. You heard it here first: Gotham is the Oscar Movie Font.


We’ve just wrapped up our last holiday sale of the year, whew! It was the RISD Alumni sale, which has somewhat of a different crowd (and vendors) than our usual craft fair. A snippet of dialogue overheard in the morning: “What’s RISD?” / “It’s the Rhode Island School of Design, the best art school in the country” / “Oh… Like, the street!” Non-SF readers please note that Rhode Island is a street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. SF readers, please note that it also is a state. Oh and that’s where the best art school in the country is, y’all.

Here’s some of our fellow alumni who were there with stellar work.


hk designs | Hiroko Kurihara
I got Sam one of her scarves a few years back: for every one of her items purchased she donates a polarfleece blanket to the homeless, which is a fantastically inspiring programs. Also, the felted wool scarves/blankets etc are superb and beautiful.

Pie Bird Press | Hannah Berman
We’re not in the habit of talking up other cardmakers but Hannah’s cards are really pretty special. You may have seen her work at Paper Source, on etsy (where you didn’t believe it could really be letterpress) or in magazines. Most letterpress work shies away from this sort of ink coverage, but she has giant swaths of bold color down.


Hillary Bird
While we’re on other cardmakers… we’re proud to welcome Ms. Bird, whose indie-quirky sensibilities and hybrid of analog and digital techniques makes charmingly cute cards and prints.

Sarah Richardson Jewelry
Sarah’s had a ton of really beautiful jewelry, but her pod series in sterling silver is gorgeous (look for Sam to be sportin’ one soon), and she was super friendly with advice for us on making a living from our art.


Lian Ng for PubliQue
His lasercut PopMats are so elegant and clever it’s hard to imagine throwing the fête that would be their match; this year there were votive holders as well that fold into a really interesting shape.

Mediums to Masses | Sarah Hirneisen
Sarah makes screenprinted glass jewelry, dishes and coasters under the name Mediums to Masses. But she’s definitely a consummate artist: not content to just have a successful product line, she’s produced a lot of thoughtful installation and gallery pieces too.


Eieio | Jean Orlebeck
We saw Eieio papers first like 8 years ago at Flax. They are some of the most elegant modern giftwraps (and endpapers) around, and the original design from way back then remains fresh and charming.

Aaron Silverstein
I think the photo-guided laser-cut ornaments and votive holders he was selling (and selling out of) at the show were slightly different than these, which he designed for Roost, but no less beautiful. Poking around his website for images of them, I found a range of remarkable work that I would love to see (and own); a fantastically talented industrial designer with elegant lines and a special attunement to nature’s forms.


James Cogbill
James had tshirts of this painting based on Midwestern fields for sale that I totally was coveting. His thoughtful abstractions wouldn’t seem out of place on my favorite blog but does it float

Daniel Oakley | Oliblock
Oliblock: Like Lego Technics met Frank Gehry, magnetic and interlocking and awesome.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin