From dipthongs to tittles—everything you wanted to know about type but were afraid to ask.

September 9, 2009

A review of “The Typography Manual” for iPhone and iPod Touch.

Image of The Typography Manual iPhone App

My lifelong relationship with type began on my 7th birthday with the gift of a tiny hand cranked printing press. It used adhesive backed rubber type stuck to a revolving drum and inked by hand with a roller, known in the trade as a “brayer.” Fast forward 10 years to my high-school Graphic Arts class where I learned the mysteries of lead type. Hand kerning headlines, “locking up” a job with “furniture” and “quoins” and my immense pride at being able to correctly identify the contents of each compartment in a California job case¹ – those wonderful wooden drawers with a separate compartment for each and every character and punctuation mark in a font – blindfolded. Another 5-year leap forward to my first real job at a typesetting firm that used massive, vacuum tube eating, Mergenthaler Linotronic machines. The typesetter entered text and commands at a keypunch keyboard that output each job on a long strip, usually rolled, of punched paper tape. This roll was then fed into the output machine. These marvels used glass plate negatives of each font and an amazing electro-mechanical system of positioning these the glass plates then focusing light through the plate, through a lens to adjust the size, then onto photo-sensitive paper to expose each character. The bomb dropped by Apple, Adobe, Aldus and Linotype in 1984 changed this world forever… not entirely for the better. Anyone can now set their own type but not all have the knowledge, or the desire, to do it properly. I’m amazed and delighted by how far we’ve come in a mere quarter century and, yet, I can’t help but feel that something has been lost along the way. Still, the only remaining weak spot with the new technology is the portion between the seat and the keyboard and that’s exactly the part targeted by The Typography Manual, an application recently released for iPhone. Needless to say, as a bit of a type nerd, I just had to check it out. The Typography Manual is a compilation of reference materials and tools, divided into two groups in the interface, manual and resources. The manual section contains an assortment of information of the kind that one would expect to find in text or reference books. The contents are: a brief history of type, basics of type, typesetting, type on the Web, style guide, visual anatomy guide and typeface specimens. Let’s take a closer look. A brief history of type is just that, spanning from the earliest printed examples in 868 to the current time. Curiously, this history omits phototypesetting, the dominant technology for a quarter century from the late 50s to the late 80s but is otherwise accurate and interesting. The basics of type is an entry-level primer covering terminology, classification, measurement, alignment and other useful information for type neophytes. The typesetting section delves deeper into typography explaining alignment, dash types, hanging punctuation, leading, H&J, kerning, leading, tracking and a lot more. Although the material is still basic, this section is quite thorough and should prove useful to those unfamiliar with the craft of typesetting. Type on the Web covers Web-specific type issues. It also discusses CSS, sizing, aliasing, font replacement and more. Every designer who designs for the Web should read and understand this material. The manual section also contains a Strunk and White-like style guide for punctuation, a Type Anatomy guide, illuminating and defining every part of a letterform from Abrupt serifs to X-height and a specimen section featuring a small selection of popular typefaces with samples and history. The resources section includes a hodgepodge of tools and reference data including a measurement conversion table (inches/millimeters/points), an EM calculator, a font-size ruler (more of a size visualizer actually, you move the slider to see a serif or sans-serif font change size from 5 to 48 points), an HTML character reference, links to blogs and examples, a Mac keyboard character reference, a paper size guide, a list of periodicals and organizations, a standard “pica stick” type ruler, a list of type foundries, a Web-banner size reference and links to Web resources. It’s obvious that the developers have a love affair with type. Bringing this kind of reference to the iPhone is a great idea and I applaud their efforts to spread the word. I can’t help but get the feeling that the developers jammed everything they could think of that was remotely related to type into this little app. Some very useful, some less so. The sheer volume of content is impressive but a good deal of it will be read one time and never referenced again. Some of the content, such as the style guide, seems out of place in a typography manual. The style guide is useful enough that I’d gladly buy it as a standalone reference app so I’m definitely not complaining just noting that its inclusion, along with that of other loosely related content, seems a bit of a stretch in a self-described typography manual. Although The Typography Manual is a somewhat uneven mashup of tools and content, there’s plenty to like here. This app contains lots of solid information, particularly relevant for designers who have never hand kerned press type or used a waxer, but will also be appreciated by anyone with an interest in typography. At $5.00, The Typography Manual is a bargain and deserves a spot on any iPhone whose owner works or plays with type. Have you tried The Typography Manual? If so, what are your thoughts and what features would you like to see in future releases? ¹ The California Job Case was invented by the Hamilton Type Company in the late 19th century. It revolutionized the storage of type fonts by combining both capital letters and small letters in one case (drawer) thus allowing a single case to hold an entire font. This replaced the older method where two job cases for each font were arranged on the setup table. The upper case for capital letters and the lower case for small letters.

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