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Man of Letters - Interview with Andy Crewdson
Interview, Satellite, Vol. 2, Iss. 4 - March 2001

He walks into the basement of Eshleman, our interview spot, and homes straight in on a framed poster leaning against a corner. "THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE," the elegantly printed and not entirely subtle sign says, "CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATIONS, REFUGE OF ALL THE ARTS." Andy Crewdson stands next to the sign, his neck craned down at it, and says practically without introductions: "That's a Beatrice Ward from 1932. That's really cool."

I look at the sign and he's right (the sign is a reprint), but he's right on both counts. Andy, a senior who has more or less devoted his free time to typography and reviving long out-of-use typefaces, goes on for about a minute--about the history of the sign (Ward created several important typefaces), the methods of printing it (Letterpress), and its rarity ("You don't see many of those"). He has all this to say about a sign hanging in my own office, a sign that I'd only given half a look at about three years ago, and it occurs to me that this is what graphic design is all about: recognizing type. This is also what magazine feature writing is about, for writing profiles like this one is really a combination of three things: writing, analysis, and perhaps most crucially, a sensitivity to people, or you could say, an eagerness to be judgmental, to classify personalities. A good interview writer must be able to commit a slender violence to his subject; he must be willing to psychologically flatten his subject's personality to a single story, in order to create an 'angle,' to reach and then transcend type and stereotype.

And graphic design too is an attempt to find character in type. While typography often conjures up the computerized nerd with his five thousand fonts, this is an essential misunderstanding of the art. The best use of typography is in refined expression, an abstracting of personality into geometric letterform. So, it's no coincidence that so much of our vocabulary of personality--character and style, type and (type)face--is also our vocabulary of letterform. We live in a type-conscious age, where nearly everything you perceive is mediated through type: your favorite novel, the billboard, the street signs, this interview. Typography should be something everyone is at least aware of--it is the weapon and it is the technology of advertisements and information. And more than anything else, type and design are our contemporary public art, the sublime blending of form and content, and the print ad, the magazine, the poster and the commercial are only a few of its genres.

You'd expect this kind of hyperbole from a graphic designer. But Andy Crewdson, the guy who reads type and design books in his spare time, says "I'm not really an artist. I have some really specific interests. A lot of artists get into design as a way to have money, but art and design seem to not have a lot to do with each other."

"And," Andy Crewdson adds, "I'm not really that interested in graphic design but in type."

Why then should 'average' people--civilians, I ask--be interested in type? His answer requires almost no thought: "I don't know that anyone has to be interested. I don't see it as some kind of injustice. If people don't find it interesting, that's great."

In a world where there is matter and there is art, Andy Crewdson seems to be all matter, less art. "I'd like to focus on type," he says, "it's not that it's smaller, it's just as expansive. The parameters are more well defined." He's a no-bullshit sort of guy, by which I mean pragmatic rather than daring; he says he'd like to do type design professionally, but "it's sort of dicey."

"People won't pay you to design fonts," he says. "That's probably an impractical thing."

When he says things, he qualifies them; when he expresses enthusiasm, like his muted 'wow,' it's always deadpan, monotonic. He is only 'pleased' by the Daily Californian redesign that he spearheaded; though he says coolly that he's 'amazed' by the feedback to his online type site, Lines & Splines, whose traffic has sometimes numbered even thousands in a day, though usually hits around two to three hundred. Lines & Splines is a web log, which means he updates it almost daily with a quirky mix of personal editorial ("Minion is the type without qualities") and commentary from designers so famous you've never heard of them (they send him fan mail). But he closes the topic by saying the entire project is "pleasant to keep from getting bored."

He is a history major doing history by default since he says he's not an artist; he's a tech-guy who wants parameters, not any misplaced idealism about ego or creativity or art. On college newspaper design, for example, he says "I must sound like a spoilsport. I'm usually against people's ideas when it comes to doing layout in college newspapers. There's not the time or expertise. This sounds kind of not too open minded, but a newspaper is a pretty specific environment."

If Andy sounds like a spoilsport to you, then that's because you're someone who believes in ideas, while he is someone who believes in the specific--that word which keeps coming up again--and in solidness of craft. He's very solid, almost in an old-fashioned sort of way, and seems like an icon of craft, a counter-symbol to those Pagemaker workshops at the dorms, those cheesy "Design for Dummies" booklets, and this late Twentieth Century idea that all one needs to be a good designer is an expensive computer.

Computers--the Internet and Desktop Publishing in particular--have made us more aware of type. "Whenever someone does something, they're confronted with a design decision," Andy says, "with actual fonts--no one picked their fonts before, now they download them, actually think of fonts as things." But he says this with the same subdued straight-man answering voice that deflates all hyperbole. We do live in a more type-conscious age, Andy agrees, but it's got its drawbacks, like that phase in adolescent graphic design, where talent is measured in the number of fonts on your computer ("a sort of compulsion you grow out of," he says, almost patronizingly).

This font-maven impulse emphasizes breadth and novelty--like the fun of fonts made entirely from women's faces or fish--while for Andy, novelty is really an error in perception. He starts talking about Zuzana Licko, the type-face pioneer from the deconstructionist type magazine Émigré, whose 'rough visual language' (which Andy describes as almost 'posthuman') started his interest in design when he saw Émigré at a high school journalism convention.

"You assume it's the influence by computer," he says, describing Émigré's characteristically strange bitmapped fonts, which often make it look like there's something wrong with your computer. But, he says, if you look at a number of Dutch modernist type specimens from 1929, you see it all there already, and then self-annotating, he quotes Fredric Goudy, the old man of American type: "The old fellows stole our best ideas."

Ideas aren't new--nothing is new; everything is craft. Andy is the unsentimental type. He doesn't even have a favorite font: "That's the thing people always ask. It's all about context for me. I don't see an ideal type." And once again, Andy Crewdson is about getting the job done and getting it done with depth, focused and premeditated. The depth of his typographical knowledge, which imbues his regular conversation ("Rick Poyner is the British Stephen Heller," "Robin Kinrost is the more historical Rick Poyner"), is an ever-present implication that in order to design, you actually have to know something. For Andy Crewdson, definitions are as set as column grids, in a world where "the word design doesn't mean anything anymore, it's just a moniker for 13-year olds fooling around in Photoshop," he says, critiquing the "whole font-collecting/font-making culture on the Internet," and its requisite "whole teen design phenomenon" where every personal vanity page always seems to have a section that says "interests: blah, blah, blah, graphic design."

But sometimes there is a kind of buoyant charm in both vanity pages and the crappy gradient-filled fonts they employ, by which I mean to ask--how exactly is Andy Crewdson goofy? The goal of an interview profile, as I said, is character assessment; is Andy Crewdson just the serious craftsman, all type and no character? "To be honest," he says, at the end of our talk, "I'm fine doing this interview, but I don't want to be too self-promotional." The problem only is, our interview has been all technique, and no self, promotion or otherwise. Our mutual friend had originally described him as almost obsessive when it comes to type, a witty leftover anglophile, who was somewhat hip, and, unfortunately, looked just like the crazy guy from his hometown who'd roamed the streets talking to himself.

Occasionally, there seem to be cracks in Andy Crewdson's explainer voice, where I can see the Normal Guy Andy Crewdson through the Typographer: he doesn't look at you when he talks; his hair is messed up in that fashionable bedhead sort of way; and he wants to be a professional magazine reviewer. But I can only occasionally note these things; the cracks close up again too quickly. Overall, I can't read his type--he's all shoptalk, a door with no key. For example: He talks about how type is usually designed to a scale. That's why Times New Roman looks the same at every size, and why Microsoft Word has the seemingly arbitrary settings of type in 12, 14, 16, and so on. "A guy from the 17th century would think that to be pretty strange," he says, and proceeds to describe how the printer would actually hand chisel the type into the individual printer keys. The letter 's,' for example, in size eight Emerson would need to be meticulously filed into metal at size eight, less than a tenth of an inch. "When type was designed in metal, every font is designed at the size it's meant to be used," he says. Printers might change the features of a font to make it work better at a different size, and as the printing press eroded from use, the fonts became corroded. They gained blemishes, the slight irregularities of character. The opposite idea, that one's type never changes from the first impression, that it lacks individual qualities that would set someone apart from the crowd--this is the domain of bad interview writing.

Andy describes how this kind of metal printing, called letterpress, is the ideal form of publishing, because it leaves a third dimension--the very physical imprint of the letter into the page. This is in contrast to offset press, the dominant form of printing, responsible for both Satellite and the Daily Cal, which turns everything into an image, with equal or little depth into the page. And, writing this, I can't help but feel that this interview is an offset article--presenting only the general image, but none of the details, the more characteristic impressions that would be so important to someone like Andy Crewdson. "It's interesting how people's consciousness of type changes," he says. "You can't help but look at the letters as things rather than as representations of things."

A Note of Explanation

Andy Crewdson recently shut down his web-log, Lines & Splines. Lines and Splines and type blogs in general were featured in a recent issue of Print, the Time of the graphic design world, and the site's demise has been discussed at both Metafilter and Satellite.

Shop talk

"With type," Andy says, "it's more distributed among a whole ton of books. you see something and you go find it." Here are some of his suggestions on good magazines and books for typography--and some of his comments on design in general, good or bad. He does mention that one of the best resources is the Bancroft Library, with its impressive collection of old and rare books that even inspired a visit from Adobe when the revived the Adobe Jenson typeface. "Having the library here, you couldn't be much luckier." The Bancroft also offers a printing class, where students can hand print their own books. the most labor-free resources, though, is of course Andy's own website: www.linesandsplines.com.

For magazines, Andy's first recommendation is Baseline, the premier type magazine for type only, quarterly, large format. From his bag, he pulls out the journal-like dot-dot-dot, which just released its second issue, and the very clean OH NO ("That's really hard to find, only a few copies printed.") and, barely mentioning the very mainstream Print magazine, he suggest Eye: "For design in general: Eye. It has a pretty typographical bent." Started by the very smart Rick Poyner, Eye is "not a magazine but a book, which is why it costs $25. It's really high quality." He's much harder on One, though: "One is kind of like Wallpaper except even more retarded. I don't really consider those serious magazine--that's just style-mongering." He's also rather unflattering on two strong design influences of the '90s--Emigre Magazine and former RayGun magazine designer David Carson. The early Emigre issues were great, he says, but now it "doesn't have too much to do with type anymore. They've sort of removed themselves from the debate because they see that there is no debate, but I still eagerly await each issue." And on David Carson, the closest thing to a rock star that design has, Andy says: "I think everyone goes through a David Carson phase because, wow, I've never thought of things that way, and if you look at his things now it's like a horrible parody. He's a show I think, kind of a non-story now."

For books, he assumes that everyone should start with the rule book, Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typography ("It's a good book"), though he takes issue with Bringhurst's somewhat romanticized notions about the art of type. He also likes Ruari McLean's Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography ("A book I still like but no one reads"), Warren Chapel's A Short History of the Printed Word (ed. Bringhurst), and Modern Typography by Robin Kinross. "Robin Kindross is more historical than Rick Poyner," Andy says. It's out of print, but a new edition will be out soon.

Crewdson on Decorating the Daily Californian

Having worked for the Daily Cal for the last three and a half years, Andy began planning the redesign last October. He says "We just wanted to try to reference some of the older models" and the result has been a kind of "historical pastiche" that shows the influences of more traditional early 20th century type (the kind that characterizes the NY Observer and the NY Times) as well as the much-lauded National Post in Canada. "I saw it this summer in Vancouver and wow, it looked like the best thing I'd ever seen." In general, some newspapers commission type themselves, but with less money, the Daily Cal acquired high quality type from the Cambridge-based Font Bureau: Mathew Carter's Miller and Jonathan Hoefler's Knockout.

"Not too many college newspapers," Andy says, "have tried to bring that level of quality." Though the result is quite professional, he says, "We struggle with it everyday. I think it was generally good to provide a base, something a little bit fresh." |||


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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