In-use: FF Quadraat in ‘The Shape of Design’ – An interview with Frank Chimero
‘A fieldguide for makers. A love letter to Design.’
The Shape of Design is a beautiful and thought-provoking insight into the role of design as a way of planning and as a medium for change. It’s a veritable handbook not just for designers but for anyone who wants to make something.
Written by Frank Chimero, a designer, illustrator, teacher and writer based in New York, the book came about following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011. Set in our very own FF Quadraat by Fred Smeijers, the Shape of Design is available both in print and as an eBook.
FF Quadraat is one of the FontFont classics and has been part of our library since the early days. Over the years, it has grown into a formidable super family and in 2011 was completely overhauled and updated by Smeijers and our Type Department.
We spoke to Frank Chimero about his experience writing the book, his love of reading and his choice of typeface.
Over the past year, numerous great ideas have been brought about through Kickstarter, including films, products, even typefaces. Indeed at the next TypeCon 2012 there will be a whole panel discussion about using Kickstarter as a means to fund new typefaces. How did the experience influence your approach to writing the book?
Kickstarter opens up the creative process to an audience, and makes it feel less like a black box where ‘magic’ happens. This is both good and bad. It’s great because that openness turns a book into a continuum of experiences for the audience. They now have back-story and can connect to the work before they read it. There’s the story of making the story, and you can build a small community of people with that.
On the negative side, that openness turns the process into a kind of performance. The writer has people watching, and that can be stunting. There were several points while writing where things were a total mess, and I felt like I had to be very strategic about what I shared with the backers to make it seem like the train was still on the rails.
But let’s not be too dour about this stuff. The Kickstarter campaign gave me a year to think about the ideas I wanted to pursue. And now, there’s a group of smart people considering those ideas, and in certain cases, running with them. That’s marvelous. A miracle.
Frank Chimero’s ‘The Shape of Design’ – Table of contents; © Portrait by Jessica Hische
Your book is somewhat classical, in terms of proportion and layout. Your website is more whimsical and light-hearted. Did you find the printed book as a medium somewhat limiting, in terms of design and production possibilities?
No. My design choices were based on the writing, and I decided the words required a simple presentation. There was no need to get fussy with it, because I was confident in the ideas and happy with the writing’s clarity.
Many of the design decisions were also influenced by the affordances of ebooks and their readers. The cover was designed to be very iconic so I had a design system which could transition to each reading environment. The page size of the printed book was chosen to be similar in size to what would be experienced on an iPad or Kindle. The illustrations are two-color, because I knew I could make them look good on a Kindle, iPad, and in print.
Basically, I wanted to design a system that was flexible enough to keep its identity intact as the words went from place to place. I think it is possible to craft books in a way so that no reading environment is obviously inferior to another, whether printed book or ebook. Each piece has to shine on all the other parts to make a better whole.
Would you agree that The Shape of Design isn’t a traditional design book? Whilst there are passages where you mention things about your working process, there aren’t specific case studies presented, images of your work (other than the beautiful illustrations!), or a list of favorite clients, etc. Instead, your book is more a collection of stories about the design process?
I never wanted this book to be about my work or specifically anyone else’s. I think the title speaks to that: The Shape of Design is more about the field’s body of work. What happens if you group all the work together? What are the similarities, and what is it trying to do? Once you start thinking this way, personal examples or in-depth, individual case studies seem inappropriate.
The book is about being tasked to make useful things for others. That means being generous in who it uses as examples, whether graphic designer, poet, or chef. I wanted to pull insight from the outside. It also requires me to shine a light on the creative process in an abstract way, then consider the products of design as things that seek to produce change and be consequential. This runs counter to the usual presentation of design as a set of beautiful artifacts. There’s an important place for that sort of treatment, but this wasn’t it.
What was your ‘Why’ behind the Shape of Design?
I wrote the Shape of Design because I thought it was important to have a reminder of the effects of our work. There is beauty and consequence and joy to making things for other people, and I thought it deserved a rumination. I initially wrote it for my students, but in the process I discovered I needed it as well.
The Shape of Design is set in FF Quadraat, a rather traditional and classic text typeface. Why did you choose this one?
I read a book of essays by Michael Chabon typeset in FF Quadraat, and was really happy with the effect. The type felt warm and friendly, yet still refined and thoughtful. As you said, FF Quadraat isn’t a traditional text typeface, so reading Chabon’s book was a little bit less fluid than I was used to. It metered my consumption, and gave a better opportunity to reflect after each essay. I decided that this was something important to my book since it’s a shorter title, and while having a full arc, each of the chapters stands on its own.
You were an early adopter of webfonts. Is FF Quadraat the text typeface on your website at the moment because it is also the face of your book? Or, perhaps the other way around?
At first, my selection of FF Quadraat Web wasn’t an overtly conscious decision. I chose it as the typeface in Pages as I wrote, and my words seemed to grow into it. Then I stumbled upon Chabon’s book, became pleased with the fit, and changed my site to use the webfont. We’ve had a good relationship since then.
Your book is offered in a printed version and as an eBook. What is your preferred way of reading?
Fiction in print to shut out the world, non-fiction as an ebook to keep track of my marginalia. In either case, if I enjoyed what I read, I buy the nicest printed copy I can find. I want the things I love to be a part of my day-to-day life.
How did the process of writing this book compare to other long-term graphic design projects you have tackled?
I wrote this book over the course of a year, and I noticed that I developed a ‘window of approval’ that my lengthier design projects never had. I felt the things I had recently written were good, but the old parts always needed work, even if liked them before. So, I was perpetually out of sync with myself, where the person who was reading the words was conceptually further along than the writer who wrote them. It meant that I was growing, but it also felt like I was never getting closer to finishing, because I’d always have to go back two months later and fix what I wrote. Snake eating its tail, and all that.
My frustration came from a misunderstanding I think many of us have about creative work: we forget that doing the work makes us better, and being better makes us dislike the work that made us that way. Design seems to be more friendly to this problem, because big projects are typically released piece by piece, and you can course-correct over time. The work can exist in flux, where as a book has a canonical version. Books, unfortunately, must be printed all at once, so it’s easier to worry and toil endlessly. Now I understand why many authors spend five years on a book.
I thought writing a book wouldn’t be much different from writing essays. That was a naive thought. It is totally and fundamentally different, simply because you can’t hold a whole book in your head at once.
You have a fantastic ‘library’ section on your website, with brief descriptions of 45 books. Do you think that we’ll see more and more books like The Shape of Design in the future?
I hope so! There are solid fundraising platforms like Kickstarter, and small-run and vanity presses like Lulu and Blurb. Right now, there’s little in the way of someone publishing their thoughts, they only need to muster up the time and focus (which is a battle on its own).
I am excited about what’s to come. I foresee more opportunities to share what we write, and better things to read. It’s a good time to like words.