From an early age we are instructed by our parents ‘not to judge a book by its cover’. It is explained to us that this admonishment should not be interpreted literally, but it actually means we should not judge people by their appearance. Regardless, many of us do. Frequently. As someone who has taught design and typography for many years I’ve always been conscious of book cover design as an area of study and, without apology, am happy to admit I regularly find myself making instantaneous judgements based solely on appearance.
I never cease to be fascinated by how I can be informed, attracted — even seduced into a prompt purchase — by a well-designed book cover, or indeed any signage. In many respects it comes down to the choice and treatment of the two key elements: type and imagery, separately or together.
Ideally, a well-designed book cover is one which allows our rapid visual assessment to reflect the written content. While front and back covers should ideally entice and inform, in many instances only a tome’s spine is on view. Here a challenge is presented to a designer. With little opportunity to incorporate imagery, here the choice of typeface must really work hard. In terms of typography, size does matter. If the author is well-established, their name can be writ large. If they are little known but have given their book has a catchy title then this will more likely feature.
We ask a lot of typefaces. Following careful selection which renders the title and author legible and aesthetically pleasing, a typeface should then strive to convey something about the book: a sense of the subject matter; the period it is set in; perhaps its genre. Duly, choice of typeface can be critical. It acts as a conduit between the author’s words (in this instance the book title) and how the reader interprets them. While a bland typeface choice may not add or subtract to our understanding or attraction to design, distinctive typefaces have particular associations. The wrong choice can be downright misleading.
Recently, I was in my local public library perusing the DVD section. My eye was drawn to one title ‘Man Friday’, less by its name and more by the typeface. It featured one of my least favourites: ‘American Uncial’ (even saying it often induces an involuntary wince). Despite its name, it is a typeface that is perennially used to convey ‘Oirishness’. Its calligraphic style many people see as being evocative of the Book of Kells and similar manuscripts. Some might even regard it as a sort of unofficial ‘Typeface by Appointment to the Irish Nation’. Most Irish people would readily recognise American Uncial (*wince*), though few could probably name it. Think in particular of those fascias on Irish bars overseas, or the packaging for those cuddly leprechauns and other Carroll’s merchandise.
Curiously ‘American Uncial’, despite its association with all things Hibernian, was actually designed by an Austrian typographer, Victor Hammer, in 1943. He had fled his homeland four year previously and emigrated to the United States. ‘American Uncial’ has the distinction of probably being the most ubiquitous uncial typeface in the world – ‘uncial’ being a term used to describe a style of lettering which was used by European scribes from the 4th to the 9th century both for Latin and for Greek.
Although designed in upper and lower case, it is frequently employed solely in lower case; this can limit its effective usage and impair legibility, not that that seems to dissuade people from utilising it in all manner of ways. It has also been criticised for the angled linear dot on the ‘i’ which runs the risk of looking more like a fada.
As a nation, we reached ‘Uncial saturation’ a long while ago. In 1978 Kilkenny Design Workshops sponsored a competition to ‘Design an Irish Typeface’ – a ploy, I’d vouch, to break the stranglehold of ‘American Uncial’. The entries I’ve seen however all shared a similarity: they were uncial-based typefaces, albeit some with plenty of merit. This is evidence enough of Hammer’s success: his creation remains still the nation’s favourite and is deeply engrained in the nation’s psyche.
(Intriguingly, the DVD featuring ‘Americal Uncial’ that I picked up was ‘Man Friday’, a tale of Robinson Crusoe’s escapades on a Caribbean island. So where’s the Irish connection? Surely not rooted solely the star, Peter O’Toole, a man who apparently was never certain whether his birthplace was Connemara or Leeds? At best the link with ‘Man Friday’ is very, very tenuous. Baffling.)
In recent years I have been taking to the streets, smartphone in hand, and snapped all manner of things — often typographic — mainly to upload on Facebook or to use as images references in my lectures. Shop fascias particularly interest me as they often employ ‘display typefaces’ – those which have more personality, punch, and distinctiveness compared to ‘text typefaces’ which are chosen primarily for their legibility at smaller sizes.
A business that I pass regularly near Harold’s Cross Bridge uses a typeface to convey an ethnic association/. It is a massage parlour called ‘Orienthai Massage’, it’s name treated in bamboo-style letters. I would venture, there is a bit of a legibility issue here as until recently I always mistook it to read ‘Oriental’. Although the choice of typeface may conjure up an exotic, sensual image of the East for some, for me the angular shapes of the bamboo pieces look sharp, spiky and uninviting; as to what the experience inside is like, I cannot say. Some may justifiably question this sort of typeface selection which plays on national stereotypes, and might consider it to be a lazy, non-thinking approach that reinforces outmoded associations no longer relevant in our contemporary world.
Sometimes businesses that have a particular ethnic association such as restaurants choose a typeface that is at variance with the national associations they want to project. One such, that recently opened near me on Clanbrassil Street, is called ‘Petra Cafe.’ The cuisine is Kurdish but the name is set in a style of typeface commonly known as ‘Old English’, which for many has, as the name would suggest, an association with antique shops in the Cotswolds or tea shops in Stratford-upon-Avon, even if in this instance the fascia is a cheerful plastic red and orange.
Another shop that caught my eye recently is on Capel Street, and has the evocative name of ‘Wisteria’. It’s signage has been treated to some beautiful three-dimensional cursive letters that convey elegance, summery fragrances and sophistication. A shop specialising in women’s lingerie perhaps? Or a specialist tea rooms? Wisteria sells bargain shoes, with a particularly comprehensive range of Doc Martens. This leaves me baffled and bemused inequal measure. Why that name? Why that typeface?
While I’m always interested in the names and typeface choices for new businesses as they pop up around town, I also relish the old stuff too. I’m a particular admirer of 19th and 20th century shop and pub fascias as we have such a rich tradition of hand-painted and crafted ones in Ireland.
There are some splendid examples in Dublin but perhaps it is the small towns and villages that have succeed best in retaining their traditional fascias. In towns, pubs existed before cafés, and people would have met there to socialise. Perhaps through a more individualistic choice of typeface, the owners were in effect trying to convey a sense of character and a personality for their premises that would set them apart. Other businesses (butchers, bakeries, etc.) that still retain their original fascias often had a more no-nonsense approach to typeface selection and feature more standard choices, though they of course were also expertly hand-lettered and crafted.
As to why Ireland still has a relatively large number of pubs with original fascias, it may in part simply be a result of our traditionally high pubs per capita ratio. Additionally, pubs don’t seem to change hands or names as often as other business and often pass down through the generations. Pub regulars can have a strong sense of loyalty — even a proprietorial sense — to ‘their’ pub and might not take kindly to someone ‘messing about’ with the look of their pub. For these reasons, and I suppose in more recent decades a recognition that an authentic old pub front can draw in both new customers and tourists alike. The phenomenon of many faux old pub signs popping up at present is proof of an awareness that they have a commercial benefit. They are also, of course, part of our collective architectural heritage and are one piece in the large jigsaw that makes up our national visual identity.
Every so often when a shopfront fascia is removed we can get a glimpse of the past. Usually it is of a long gone shop name; in one that I came across on Upper Kevin Street recently, it just confirms that this has been a post office for many decades. I would love to see more hand lettering around the city — even when it is not very accomplished as in this instance. It has a particular human quality that can be so refreshing amid the sea of mass-produced plastic signs.
Rarely is a typographic sign so controversial that it whips up significant public interest but recently there was an online petition that garnered 19,000 signatures to retain a sign outside a on Capel Street. The sign, a vertical wall-mounted one is on Pantibar, the gay bar that is fronted by the redoubtable Ms Panti Bliss, the articulate, activist drag queen who championed the YES side. The sign was erected without planning permission — hardly the first to fall into this category — and a small number of people objected to it; currently Panti is appealing the decision that it must be removed.
A friend of mine, knowing that I have a design/typographic background and a particular interest in urban typography suggested that I might write something in support of its retention so I posted a few paragraphs on Facebook. For me this sign had been carefully considered in terms of typography and skillful 3D fabrication. I love its retro influence: the funky letters and the fact that they are constructed of light bulbs, a nod to the glamour of theatrical dressing rooms: perfect for the image projected by Panti. The scale also seems in harmony with the building, and when I’ve passed by the bar I’ve always noted with satisfaction that over the door the original name, Baxendales, has been deliberately retained which for me is indicative of owners who appreciate both fine typography and a sense of heritage.
Among a sea of mediocrity, this sign stands out for its brave (though not radical) design, created by award-winning Irish designer, Niall Sweeney. I would wish that more signs were put in the hands of qualified designers and we might have a more innovative, visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing streetscape in our capital. I for one, fervently hope the planners will also recognize its merits and allow it to be retained.
I was surprised by the large reaction that my Facebook post in support of the Pantibar sign received; doubtless this was in significant part due to Panti Bliss sharing my post on her FB page and also a sense by many that there may have been a homophobic motive underpinning the original objection rather than a genuine concern for following correct planning procedures. Either way, I was struck by the comments who argued passionately for its retention on aesthetic grounds and how they felt signs such as this enrich our urban environment and contribute to our capital’s typographic heritage. Interesting how a minor breach of planning regulations can generate a public discourse on the merits of typography, the like of which I never achieved at any lecture I gave on the subject!
Book cover, DVD, shopfront fascia: the dimensions and the principles of design are the same, and choice of typeface can be paramount. Different typefaces trigger different associations. Instances of design that cause us to double-take can serve as a salutary reminder that typefaces matter. They inform us as to content, and can attract and deceive onlookers. They form an integral part of a nation’s visual identity Typefaces matter to those of us who insist on judging books (amongst other things) by their covers. People like me.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney