Blue Pencil

Blue Pencil is a “slog”: a slow blog. It does not get updated daily or even on a regular schedule. Instead, it gets updated when there is something of value to be posted. Postings often take a long time to prepare and appear at intervals of a few weeks or even months. Sometimes there is a flurry of postings within the span of a few days. Blue Pencil may be unpredictable in its frequency, but not in its purpose. Blue Pencil is fiercely dedicated to the 3Rs: research, reading and writing.

Tutorial no. 4—Designing with Lettering

When I began teaching calligraphy in the evening program at the School of Visual Arts in 1980 I found my students feared and loathed type. Their attitude was shared by many designers. This stemmed from the way in which typography was taught at the time in design schools. Metal type and letterpress printing equipment had been chucked out of most American design schools in the late 1960s as part of the transformation of the profession from its roots in commercial …
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Tutorial no. 3—Roundhand

In Tutorial no. 1 I mentioned the names of a number of individuals who were adept at Spencerian lettering. One of those was Jean Larcher, who lives in a suburb of Paris and has been doing lettering and calligraphy of all kinds since the early 1970s. James Mosley, retired librarian at the famous St. Bride Printing Library in London, noticed my reference and sent me the two images that are posted here. These are details from an envelope sent to …
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Addendum to Tutorial no. 2—Steinberg and Steinweiss

“The work I did for Saks is one of the very few pieces of lettering I’ve done that approaches calligraphic formality … and yet, no, that was not its intent. My direction from my clients, Michael Bierut at Pentagram, and Saks was to find a midway between the very formal Spencerian script of the Saks logo, and the energy of Saul Steinberg’s scrawl. It was meant to be vector smooth, but casual with an over-the-top freneticism of ‘wanting it.’ A …
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Tutorial no. 2—Marian Bantjes

Tutorial no. 1 was not meant to be a showdown between Tony DiSpigna and Marian Bantjes or a referendum on the entire body of work of either individual. My goal was to use single pieces by each of them to explain what I see as the hallmarks of a good piece of lettering. The tutorial is part of an ongoing discussion I have been having with calligraphers, letterers and type designers for over twenty years about the concept of good …
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Blue Pencil no. 7C—Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story

There has been a lot of controversy over who deserves credit for the design of the 1979 subway map. In Helvetica and the New York City Subway System I tried to avoid getting tangled up in the fight between Michael Hertz and John Tauranac, both of whom were very generous in providing me with material and information about developments in the sign system. The sign system, not the map, was my primary interest at the time.
As someone who has worked …
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Blue Pencil no. 7B—Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story

I recently revisited the Transit Archives and discovered the contact sheet for the full page photograph on p. 26 of Helvetica and the New York City Subway. My sources for the photograph did not provide a date and I guessed that it had been taken in 1965. However, the sheet is dated April 18, 1968. The caption (Fig. 74 on p. 27) needs to be corrected. The contact sheet can be found in NYCTA Photographic Unit Photo Print Collection 1968, …
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Tutorial no. 1—Spencerian Script

In Lettercentric, my blog for, I recently complained about the rise of the “squigglists”, young designers who have discovered the joys of handlettering but lack the experience and knowledge of the masters of the past. I compared the work of Marian Bantjes for Saks Fifth Avenue (art directed by Michael Bierut of Pentagram) to that of Tony DiSpigna, former member of Lubalin, Smith & Carnase. Unfortunately, was not the place for an extended explanation of why Bantjes’ …
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Legacy of Letters 1997–2000 Testimonials

“I was on the very first Legacy of the Letters trip to Rome and was so impressed I became addicted and went on a further two tours. On each occasion the trip was enjoyable and educational, informal and serious in its scholarship. I would unconditionally recommend these tours to anyone considering going to Italy to discover more of the arts and culture than is normally available through ordinary commercial tourism.”
Richard Kindersley, lettercutter, Richard Kindersley Studio, London
1997 Tour of Rome, 1999 …
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Legacy of Letters 2010

Paul Shaw and Alta Price, tour leaders

After a decade of quiescence Legacy of Letters is back with a new lettering tour of Italy. This time the tour, led by Paul Shaw and Alta Price, will bypass Rome and Florence and instead explore the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna regions. They are home to some of the most exciting, though lesser-known, lettering in a country rich in extraordinary lettering. The …
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Second Addendum to Tutorial no. 2—Hermann Ihlenburg

In Tutorial no. 2 I compared Marian Bantjes’ American Preview piece for Details magazine to brownstone decorations and 19th c. fancy types and artistic ornaments. Here are a few examples of these Victorian designs.
The first photograph is of a brownstone ornament in Hunters Point (Queens). The second is of an ornamented door on a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. And the third is from a brownstone in Park Slope (Brooklyn).

Below are two examples of Ihlenburg’s typographic work as reproduced in MacKellar, Smiths …
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Blue Pencil no. 7A—Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story

My posting of mistakes in Helvetica and the New York City Subway System immediately led to a few other mistakes being sent my way. Jackson Cavanaugh has pointed out the following errors:
p. 27 “They commissioned a new logo from Sundberg-Ferar, an industrial design firm responsible for designing a new subway car, and they created special strip maps (set in Futura) for use on the no. 7 Flushing Line (fig. 270).” The reference for the TA logo should be fig. 269.
p. …
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Blue Pencil no. 8—Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity

Above. Das A und O des Bauhauses edited by Ute Brüning (Berlin: Bauhaus Archiv and Edition Leipzig, 1995), p. 63 (plate 46). Joost Schmidt. Plakat. 1922/1923. Lithografie. Druck: Reineck & Klein, Weimar. (60.5x48cm). Bauhaus Archiv.

Below. Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity edited by Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), p. 153 (plate 194). Joost Schmidt. Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. 1922–1923. Lithograph on paper. …
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Blue Pencil no.7—Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story

Blue Pencil has gained a reputation for hyper-vigilance in looking for errors of all kinds in design books. This does not mean that I expect such books to be completely error-free. That is an unreasonable expectation. Errors are inevitable. They are part of human nature and the products that humans make. However, it is the sheer number of mistakes, from the trivial to the substantive, in so many books today …
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From the Archives no. 9—Typographic Sanity

The May 1930 issue of The Linotype Magazine (vol. 19, no. 2) issued by Mergenthaler Linotype is entitled “Typographic Sanity.” It opens with this look back at the typography of the 1920s:
“As the cold gray dawn breaks upon the morning after an orgy of tangled type design, a weary printing industry shakes its aching head and asks, ‘Whither are we bound?’
“The descent was …
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Caslon’s Italian by James Clough

Paul Shaw mentions two commercial, digital versions of Caslon’s Italian: an accurate revival done by Paul Barnes from original smokeproofs in the St. Bride Library and the playful Slab Sheriff by Alex Sheldon. To put the record straight, some months before he died in 2005, Justin Howes kindly passed on to me his own digital revival of Caslon’s Italian. His starting point was the smoke proofs in the St. Bride Library (the same ones later used by Paul Barnes). Last …
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Blue Pencil no. 6 addendum no. 2

James Mosley, former librarian at St. Bride Printing Library in London (one of the great repositories of type specimens), has this to say about the Claude Lamesle specimen in Type: A Visual History:
“…the big “thin” Gros Canon italic in the Lamesle specimen is Robert Granjon’s (not Jannon’s), and was used together with the “thin” Gros Canon roman (which is Garamond’s) in the Imitatio Christi of 1640, the first title from the Imprimerie Royale in Paris. There is a lot of …
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