Counterpunch

Several Reading University classmates of mine from the typeface design programme share a small house. On the dining room wall is a poster that reads:

To be blunt, and it is good advice to serious newcomers: do not make the mistake of being afraid to be labelled ‘conventional’, ‘traditional’, or any other such dusty term.

If someone is compiling recommendations for aspiring type designers, include this one. It comes from Fred Smeijers’ 2004 book, Type Now: A Manifesto. Eight years earlier, Hyphen Press — Type Now’s publisher — released Smeijers’, Counterpunch. A book about typeface design, Counterpunch is also about possible lessons that sixteenth-century punchcutters from France and the low countries have for all of us today.

counterpunch.jpg

Details

Fred Smeijers, Counterpunch: making type in the sixteenth century, designing typefaces now. London: Hyphen Press, 1996. 220 × 145mm, 192 pages. At the moment, only for sale at Typotheque.com. Typeset in Renard, which may be licensed from the Enschedé Font Foundry. Printed on really nice paper.

Why now?

Writing a review about Counterpunch is a daunting task. It feels a bit like travelling back in time to review Laurence Olivier on stage. Moreover, Smeijers is alive and well, teaching, designing, and moving our consciousness forward; since his book was published, it has been widely discussed, at least in typographic circles. My review comes 12 years late.

There has been much discussion about “recommended reading” on iLT as of late. After the recent review of the Logo, Font, and Lettering Bible, John asked me if I would write an article of my own. No single book can act as a complete introduction to typeface design, but everyone may have their own favourites — so sharing the titles can be a good idea. Counterpunch is one of these for me.

A bit like The Elements of Typographic Style, Letters of Credit, or The Stroke, Counterpunch can have a sort of messianic effect. When I was in college, I saw one student inspired to start cutting his own punches. It took me longer to move toward typeface design, but once I did, I was lucky to come across Counterpunch again. The note on my halftitle page reminds me that I bought it in March 2004. My copy has been well-worn ever since.

counterpunch1.jpg

Language

Most common typographic literature seems to be written in English these days, even by writers with other first languages. Whereas aspiring designers in continental Europe or other parts of the world may have problems parsing the lyrical texts of say, Robert Bringhurst, Smeijers writes with a direct, beautiful clarity. Is this a trait of his native Dutch? In many regards, if you aren’t a native English-speaker, Counterpunch might be a good first typography book; or at least your English-language one.

Lessons

Smeijers’ commentary on written strokes, how these relate to letters or words, and the different kinds of letter-making are worth the price of admission alone. This book, and much of his work itself, seems to have arisen out of a need to describe typography to engineers — but they are both more than just simple explanations. Each chapter could stand alone as a single lesson on a given topic. They work together, but separately form a collection of references that may be revisited individually at any time. I will spare you a repetition of Counterpunch’s contents and highlights — that would be like giving away the ending of a film. This is a review, not a summary.

Just as one cannot become a photographer by reading a book about Photoshop, typeface design is not about learning how to use FontLab, or even about learning how to control vector outlines. Many aspirants become seduced by flashy help guides, and think that simple software knowledge will take them to their goal. Smeijers explains how the masters of the past made type in actual size, at a “resolution” of c. 2540 dpi. Only a few names are mentioned in this book; that might be because these characters have each shaped the way that writing in the West would appear for centuries. The ways by which sixteenth century punchcutters thought is what must be comprehended, not the newest key combinations in the latest software programmes.

Software itself will offer no help — it is just a means to an end. This book hardly mentions font creation applications at all. Counterpunch could have been written today, or at any time since the mid-1980s. It doesn’t matter, because it gets to the root of typeface design rather quickly. Typeface design is about the interplay between black and white shapes. I know that this idea might sound cliché because you can read about it in every type designer interview. If you’ve seen the Helvetica movie, then you have heard it there, too. Isn’t there a clip on the Internet somewhere where Erik Spiekermann mentions it? This repetition is the truth. So take that clip of Erik’s voice and turn it up to 11. Then play it on auto-repeat.

Toward the end of Counterpunch, Smeijers’ tone takes on the timbre of a Jeremiah in the wilderness, a message that extends into Type Now. The methods we use in our work may not include the best possibilities, and it this reminder that can only be of benefit to us. Smeijers’ work illustrates tendencies that may be followed in word and deed. How many of us today are better, quicker, and more deliberate because of this book?

punchcutter

Meaning

Counterpunch is more than a book. It is also a love letter to Hendrik van den Keere and a type specimen for the Renard family. The reader will find much to discover, such as sound definitions for a few old terms, a narrative of a father–son relationship, commentary on a Harry Carter translation of a Pierre Simon Fournier tract; or information about the French punchcutter Pierre Haultin, who is more obscure than he deserves! Over 12 years, Counterpunch has meant many things to its readers. What it means to me today is an unsettling feeling, deep inside my gut. The feeling asks me, “Is Smeijers serious? Should I really turn a working method on it’s head? Is it a better to draw the counters first?”

I think so. Draw your letters from the inside out – they will be better.

[Dan Reynolds is a postgraduate student in typeface design as well as a foundry
copywriter. You can see his personal blog at www.typeoff.de
]


Tags:       

  1. zachary

    Dan, you beat me to it! I was going to recommend Counterpunch and then you mentioned it recently. As I said in another post, according to Hyphen Press, there is supposedly a new edition coming Early 2008. Can it be true? I will gladly buy a copy or two. Anything from Hyphen Press is quality and this book is worth it.

  2. zachary
    Yes, I believe that it can be true.

  3. ‘Type Now’ might be an interesting read. For typedesigners, that is. If you’re not a typedesigner, it is actually quite meagre and the subjects seem a little too ‘incrowd’ to me.
    On the other hand, half of the book is filled with Fred Smeijers’ impressive portfolio and beautiful type/writing samples.
    All in all, it is inspiring, but there’s not a lot in it that one hasn’t seen elsewhere, especially in ‘Counterpunch’, which I’ll be reading next.

  4. Although I wouldn’t call Type Now a sequel to Counterpunch, I do enjoy reading it afterwards, sort of like a post script! And you do get do see a lot of really great work in it. You’re very right about that, Klaas.

  5. Thanks for the review, Dan! I’ll have to add this to my reading list.

    I love how you mentioned what type the book was set in. Only on a typography site! :)

  6. Start with the counters?!?

    You just blew my mind a little…

  7. Christoph
    Thanks! I’ll be in your neighborhood for the next few weeks. Perhaps I’ll run into you?

    Hamish
    Mentioning the typeface this book is set in is really essential to any review of it, I think. Isn’t true for every type book, but here the typeface and the content really go hand and hand… they come from the same hand, or err… keyboard?

    Alec
    >You just blew my mind a little…

    That’s my job!

  8. Rafael

    What I like the most about this review is the language section. I was thinking about buying Designing Type by Karen Cheng, but now I’m having doubts.
    Thanks a lot for the great review!

  9. Nice to see you’re blowing minds, Dan. Your next article should come with a health warning ;)

    I’m a little surprised that no-one has mentioned Counterpunch’s lovely cover. It beautifully illustrates the inside-out approach.

  10. Dan Reynolds
    Ah. I just realized that Renard was in fact made by the author himself. I only read the article over this morning, and I haven’t had time to peruse all the links just yet. Hehe.

    But speaking of type in books, I’ve found it generally uncommon for most books I read to mention the typeface used (if present, it’s usually on the same page as publisher info, “If this book came without a cover…”, etc.) — though I suppose the average fantasy/fiction reader isn’t so inclined to know anyway. Just typo nuts like me. :)

  11. Dan,
    Well done! This piece is well-written, and although I haven’t read the book, I now have a good overview of what goes on between its covers. I’m going to add this book to my list of “books to look up/request from the library,” as I’m relatively poor (meaning, can’t buy all the type books I want!) and live in a rural area with few book stores (Cape Breton, as previously mentioned).

    Also, Renard is a really beautiful typeface, so I can imagine that Renard really nice paper would = a sensationally-delightful read (meaning, delightful for the senses — and a truly great book appeals to more than one.)

  12. leah
    That’s what libraries are great for! One of the things I like most about being back at University is the proximity to a well-stocked library.

  13. Ah, the library! Why didn’t I think of that?

    Turns out the nearest one has a copy of Counterpunch available right now. And also, Type now : a manifesto, which sounds familiar, anyone read it?

  14. Hamish
    Type now: a manifesto is the Type Now mentioned in this Counterpunch review and some of the comments above… it is the source of the Smeijers quote at the top of this thread. If they have the book available, read it too ;-)

  15. Counterpunch is an absolutely fascinating read.

  16. Kevin
    Good to hear. Slightly off topic, but your One Cat is certainly worthy of Lolcat fame.

  17. Thanks for the inspiring review. I’m itching to read it.

  18. Dan, you’ve sold me. Thankfully, you weren’t reviewing anything more expensive than a book!

    I do think the next big subject I’m interested in reading about is type and typography in relation to the book. And, for that matter, to the magazine, newspaper, brochure, etc.

    Reading about type in a sort of vacuum that focuses on designing type is nice; and necessary. But let us not forget that the point of all type is to make words that convey a message.

  19. Stephen
    >Reading about type in a sort of vacuum that focuses on designing type is nice; and necessary. But let us not forget that the point of all type is to make words that convey a message.

    Actually, type is not designed in a vacuum at all! Or at least good, successful typefaces aren’t. The best typefaces are designed with a specific purpose in mind, i.e., Bell Centennial for telephone books (small sizes, bad printing, poor quality paper), Meta also for telephone books, the Deutsche Bahn typefaces for railway time tables and other corporate documents, the original Times New Roman for the Times of London newspaper, the original Melior for late 1950s German newspapers, Jean François Porchez’s recent Mencken for the Baltimore Sun (and most likely it’s printing press specifically), etc.

    The good books about type designers (often by type designers) often tell the respective stories and purposes behind each of their typefaces! Smeijers’ other book, Type Now does do a bit of this, although I don’t think that is its main purpose.

  20. Dan,

    just drop us a line in time. We’ll be glad to see you here!
    Especially because I missed you at Typostammtisch …
    Cheers,

    Chris

  21. Chris
    All right, I’ll do that!

  22. Thanks for the review, :) Good stuff!

  23. Hi Robert. It is indeed a good review. If you all say nice things about Dan (perhaps send him a few Christmas presents), perhaps he’ll write another;)

  24. >perhaps he’ll write another

    Well… what does everybody want to read about?

  25. I’d love to see something on how type design is taught, with some personal insights; e.g. does Gerry Leonidas have students stand in the corner if they don’t balance their counters?

  26. >how type design is taught

    Well, it is taught differently in different places, and I’d certainly love to write about something the topic. I did touch a bit upon it in 2004 (on Typographica; I apologise for some of the heated comments on that thread. Also, all that stuff with the TypeOff collective never worked out, although the Typostammtisch does still meet monthly). As for Gerry and his methods, it would be better to let him speak for himself. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on anyone’s teaching philosophy, and I’ve only been his student since October.

  27. Dan
    Good. That Typophile thread is great. I’m reading through it now; thus far I’ve read until,

    All your taunts will never get me to give up my dream of developing a sense of humor.

    You certainly stoked some fires there ;)

  28. Dan, I think you demonstrate a sense of humor just fine. (Plus in the short time I’ve been exposed to your postings, I’ve found a measure of restraint and kindness in your tone.)

    Now—speaking of Typophile—if only people would lighten up about Comic Sans (which I’ve never actually used, but now would like to … in the words of a brilliant riff on “Seinfeld” about returning a jacket to a clothing store, “for spite”).

    That Typophile thread was a discussion that might have benefited from just a bit of humor. I had to stop reading for a coupla days when I saw how they attacked the guy who’d created it. Made me wonder how many of the most vociferous—aside from the obvious “names” who appear there—have ever actually gotten thru anything more than student type design projects.

  29. Okay, we just exchanged Christmas gifts—I’m in California, returning home to NY on Sunday (maybe, we hope, whether permitting). And, yesss!!! I’ll be heading to Boorders upon the return. So I’ll be getting or ordering Helvetica and Counterpunch. As it’s a gaudy gift card, I will, perhaps, have room for Samara’s Making & Breaking the Grid.

    That said, I already have another Samara book, something along the lines of a publications workbook. Not only am I not thrilled with that one, I wonder whether there’s overlap with Making & Breaking the Grid?

    But I would rather like to get something that might be of use in stretching my thoughts about book design. I have Bringhurst, Cheng (I know, not book, but type), and Lupton. I also have what I think is a great one, Designing Books by [escapes me] and Kinross. Any other suggestions? Anyone suggest an inexpensive source for Tschichold’s The Form of the Book?

    And to all a goodnight!

  30. Ko

    Living in the low countries and near Amsterdam in particular, I can recommend a visit to Nijhof & Lee in the Staalstraat in the old center of Amsterdam. Their collection of books on typography, and design and art in general, is outstanding. A couple of years ago I bought a copy of Counterpunch from them.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about typography in that context and getting away from the digital arena for a little while.

  31. Okay, so we exchanged Christmas gifts while in California, and the grandgrrrls and my stepdaughter and son-in-law gave me a large gift card for Border’s.

    It was hot in my pocket the next day on the plane ride home, Sunday. I wanted to save it for a live visit, but I broke down on Monday and went onto borders.com. One cool thing about the online shopping is that I’m able to find used books, thus maximizing the card.

    The first thing I ordered was Helvetica. The movie, that is. Believe it or not, it was $5 less than it’s priced in a brick-and-mortar Border’s

    I also bought—all used:

    Book Design (abrams studio) by Andrew Haslam;
    On Book Design by Rich Hendel;
    Design of Books, by Adrian Wilson; and
    Methods of Book Design, by Hugh Williamson (only thing of the bunch delivered so far)

    Howdya like dem apples?

  32. That said, I already have another Samara book, something along the lines of a publications workbook. Not only am I not thrilled with that one, I wonder whether there’s overlap with Making & Breaking the Grid?

  33. Well, I have both. Truthfully, I was less than thrilled with Samara’s Publication Design Workbook. I actually don’t find that it’s much in the style of a workbook at all. That said, tho’ I haven’t finished it and don’t know when I’ll make time to—actually got it to refer to from time to time for a bit of daylight on different ideas about setting up pages if I have a hard time getting started on a new book design—I notice that I like Making and Breaking the Grid better than PDW. I can’t quite say why, but that that I think it covers it’s subject more fully and the writing is better.

  34. Tom Van Damme

    For those of you desperately seeking a copy of Counterpunch (like me), apparently there will be a second edition due early 2009.
    Or so it says on the Hyphen Press website.

    The days have never been this long … (“sigh”)

previous post: Sunday Type: Present Type

next post: Sunday Type: x-rated type!

April Fonts January Fonts January Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts december Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March 2011 Fonts February 2011 Fonts January 2011 Fonts December 2010 Fonts November 2010 Fonts October 2010 Fonts September 2010 Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February 2010 featured fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts October Fonts September Fonts August Fonts July Fonts June Fonts May Fonts April Fonts March Fonts February Fonts January Fonts December Fonts November Fonts