Set Descenders To Stun
Typeset In The Future -
Typography And Design In
Science Fiction Movies
by Dave Addey
Abrams Books ISBN: 9781419727146
Well now. There are good things and bad things about this book, Typeset In The Future -
Typography And Design In Science Fiction Movies... but I’m still going to recommend the hell out of it because it was, well, both quite informative but, perhaps more importantly, really very funny. Well, funny if you’re into jokes about typography, at any rate. That is to say, there are some really great things about this book but, they’re not quite offset by the ‘Design guys, what were you thinking?’ vibe I was also getting from this one and, as such, the graphic designer part of me (yeah, that’s my day job) felt kinda torn. But, you know, kinda torn while also having fun when the author is constantly cracking jokes like... “There’s still something missing - we’ve forgotten to take into account the devastating Kern Wars of 2067.” And, I guess, if you don’t know what kerning1 is then you’re probably not going to laugh at quite so many of the jokes that pack out this fascinating look at the use of typography to populate the future in various science fiction films.
The book starts off with the author spotting the presence of Eurostile Bold Extended in too many science fiction films and going on from there. As I said, he’s extremely humorous and playful in his approach to what many may find an interesting subject and, possibly, many more might not. He even uses the captions on the various photographs in this book (most of which are screen captures from popular science fiction films) to reference his main text in a similarly humorous way and, honestly, if I was the kind of person who LOLs then I would definitely have been LOLling all over the place. For instance, he might say about experiencing the use of a specific typeface in his life thusly... “... whenever I see the typeface in real life - which happens a lot in my adopted home of California - I assume I’ve been transported to some futuristic dystopia in which a local nursing home is really a sinister government facility for scientific experimentation.” Then, later on down the page, you’ll find a photograph of a specific sign on the front of a local nursing home and the accompanying caption reads... “Idylwood Care Centre in Sunnyvale California. The existence of a secret underground cybernetics laboratory was unconfirmed at the time of printing.”2 I also love that, under one photo of two people sitting on either side of a person in a giant Mickey Mouse suit, he actually qualifies which of the three is in the Mickey suit (which is both delightfully sarcastic and a knowing wink at the same time, of course).
He then gets into a specific set of rules for mutilating Eurostile in order for your film’s typography to get closer to ‘the future’ with a hilarious ten point system including categories for things like extra kerning, slices out of the letter forms, slanty bits etc which makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. Especially when he then goes on to show you various bits of typography from science fiction films and rate them for there ‘futurity’ and you suddenly realise, Oh my gosh... he’s right!
He also looks at the way certain letters in a font are often substituted from another to bring words closer to what the typographer needed for the director’s vision and also looks at ways some designers will customise some of the letters to better fit what they need the words to do. So he mentions changing the zeros to upper case letter Os in Gill Sans Light in an example and, yeah, guilty as charged. I’ve done that for the odd job, for sure.
And he has lots of little personal obsessions with the things that people do to make their films seem more futuristic (not always completely centred on type) such as the use of scan lines from an old TV set to seal the visual cliché that you are watching footage of something on screen rather than the actual content itself or the sinister single words in titles where they’ve been deliberately widely spaced to show how sinister they are. Such as in the movie A L I E N which, interestly, shows how inferior the opening title sequence was on the two prequel movies in comparison to the way the letters appeared on screen, bit by bit, in the original (maybe a reflective comment on the quality of the prequels themselves, as far as this reader is concerned). And also a nice little rabbit hole of a moment where he talks about the way titles like Star Trek and Star Wars have end letters with custom trails added to them as yet another of his ‘laws of futurism’ (don’t get me started that Star Wars isn’t set in the future although, of course, in the first teaser trailers, it was).
Perhaps my favourite part of the book, though, is where he constantly refers to the effect of the Blaster Beam, the unusual instrument played by Craig Huxley on Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Star Trek The Motion Picture, as twangling. I assumed he’d made the word up and I was happy about that. However, the nit picky part of my brain just urged me to look up the term before typing this sentence, just in case it actually existed and, I’m even happier to now know that, not only is it a real word but he’s actually using it correctly. Although, I am sad to report that, although he’s content to go into a lot of diversions from the topic in hand, with interesting facts about the connections between, say, Blade Runner and that old vinyl album cover from An Evening With Groucho3 from the 1970s, he doesn’t remind us of the fact/possible urban myth (since I’ve never tried it myself) that playing a piece of music with a lot of the Blaster Beam instrument on it to a lady can often cause said cuteness to spontaneously orgasm. Which is a shame because, he manages to cover a lot of bases in this tome (just not third base, I guess).
Right, I do have to report there’s a negative to the book here though and, ironically, it’s something the readers most interested in typography are probably going to most likely notice in a negative manner. And that is, the actual typography of the book itself. It’s got some beautiful layouts but, honestly, the body copy is absolutely littered with ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’. Since those terms have become diluted and confused over the years and are the subject of much argument by the small amount of the population that care about this stuff, I’ll explain it simply as the cases where words are left on their own.... either on their lonesome on a line or, indeed, on their own at the end of a line following a comma, colon, semi colon or full stop (that last is a ‘period’ to those of you reading in the US of A). These things are known, to those of us old enough to have been practicing the trade for decades, as something that any graphic designer should avoid like the plague. They make things hard to read but, hey ho, they seem to be more the norm nowadays because, like I mentioned earlier, ‘design cowboys’.
Wait, what? How, you ask me, can I talk that way about these dreadful blights on typography when this very blog is full of damned widows and orphans? Well I’m glad you asked and, unfortunately, that’s because the internet is a law unto itself. You can’t control the way the type flows properly on the internet and, even if you try, it would look completely different on a different kind of screen so, alas, in terms of the world wide web, designing things to look good is a bit like playing with dice and dropping words onto the screen and having to live with the way they fall. There’s no getting around it. It’s why a lot of old school designers tend to hate designing for the internet (where it is kind of like randomly throwing darts with a blindfold on and hoping some of them hit the board in the right place) and prefer working with print. Which is what this book is and why, obviously, there should be no widows or orphans found within its pages.
Furthermore, like most books, the body text contains horrible hyphenated words at the ends of lines. Okay, so this is nothing new for the publishing industry and they’re a tolerable evil but, when a book is actually expounding the virtues (or not) of the use of type, I wouldn’t expect to see hyphenated words at all. And I certainly wouldn’t expect to see sentences running on from the bottom of one column to the top of the next. Yeah, considering the pages in this book have mostly beautiful layouts, it seems a shame to have things like this coming into play. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing stuff like this unless I was being forced to comply with the instructions of a customer who, you know, knows nothing about what’s good for them. So, yeah, I loved this book but some of the elements of the layouts caused me actual twinges of physical pain. Like what you get when you are forced to watch a movie in the wrong aspect ratio, for example.
But, all in all, I would still recommend Typeset In The Future - Typography And Design In Science Fiction Movies to pretty much anyone I know because, yeah, it’s both the funniest thing I’ve read in quite a while and, well, it’s really illuminating and fascinating about the subject matter... even going so far as having discussions about some of these things in miniature interviews running throughout the book with legends like Michael Okuda4 and Paul Verhoeven. If I was the kind of person who actually gave a rating system on my reviews (and yeah, I know I never do but, you know, let’s just imagine for a moment) then I’d have to give this book 3 chimes of doom for the way the body text has been laid out on the pages here but a healthy 9 out of 10 twangles for the general content and layout of the book. Although, I would have to maybe deduct another half twangle for not mentioning the seemingly orgasmic properties of the Blaster Beam anywhere in the text. Still, it’s a book I will recommend to pretty much everyone and I’m really glad I’ve got this as a reference tome in my personal library. I’m probably going to have to dip in to this more than once for future reference, for sure.
1 Okay, so since I know at least one reader who will ask me, I’ll explain here that kerning is the horizontal spacing between letters in a line of type. Back in the day it used to mean the horizontal spacing around a letter in a line of type, when you would insert lines of metal to correct this. However, since typography started being a manipulative art on computers and, similarly, more often than not, electronically manipulated by a load of cowboys, it’s come to mean kerning is usually used to refer to the spacing between just two letters on one side (I think I’ve got that right). While the old meaning of kerning is nowadays referred to on a computer as tracking. None of that matters though because tracking is just a made up name for designers who don’t know their type history and so I am going to ignore people who don’t use kerning in the original sense... just like you all should. ;-)
2 Actually, it says Idylwood Care Center but, you know, I don’t want any of that dodgy American spelling sullying my bloggage.
3 Damn... I never did get around to picking that darned album up. I bet it’s out of print now.
4 Has the term ‘Okudagrams’ gone out of fashion now? He doesn’t mention it once.