Fast Company

An Inconvenient Typeface: How One Numeral *almost* Sunk Gore's New Book

Brioni

Typography, like the other infrastructural elements of our daily life, from subways to electricity, passes by most people unnoticed--except when something goes really wrong. So when type makes it into the news, the stories are about screw-ups (Ikea switching to Verdana) or fixes (the Federal Highway Administration updating its hard-to-read signs). A recent tale is no different, except for one thing: Al Gore.

Back in September, Gore was working with mgmt design and Melcher Media on his new book, Our Choice, a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth. mgmt had chosen to set the body text in Brioni, designed by Nikola Djurek for Peter Bil'ak's Typotheque foundry. Then, within weeks of the printing deadline, Gore and the editors noticed a disaster.

Bil'ak explained on his blog last week:

Brioni is a book typeface and comes with old style figures. Because of the fairly low x-height, the numeral one looks like a Roman one, like a shorter version of a capital letter I. It looks very elegant, but when combined into acronyms, it could be confusing.

Acronyms--the book had tons of em! Clarity was threatened, scientific formulas were in disarray, everything was at stake. With no time to lose, one idea was to replace the offending numeral with a lining figure (not old style) from Akkurat, the book's other typeface, but, said Alicia Cheng of mgmt, "we could do better." So they called the designer and asked him to make up a brand new numeral. How hard is that? Hard.

Cheng explains: "Usually, typefaces take months of massaging to create, so asking someone to change something within 10 hours... Let's put it this way, under these conditions, no one had ever done something like this before."

But it worked! The 1 was fixed (looks good), Gore was happy, and as for mgmt: "we maintained our typographic integrity," Cheng says. Designers make tiny modifications like kerning adjustments to other typographers' faces all the time ("hopefully with their blessing"), but this one was unique because it was so noticeable--even to Al Gore. Its story, and the new face it produced (available as an upgrade on Typotheque), "called attention to the typeface as having an author"--something, even in a post-Helvetica world, we can tend to forget. Unless there's a problem.

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11 Comments

  • Dennis Jacobs

    This article was a great way to generate interest in another of Al Gore's hyper-reality, alternate universe doomsday books. I look forward to seeing it on the shelves of my favorite bookstore, in the fiction section.

    BTW - doesn't publishing books kill trees? Maybe, this will be a Kindle only version.

  • Eric MacLeod

    I'm with Erica; it looks like the metrics wound up identical, and it wouldn't need any special kerns. This kind of change should have been done in house by the designer. Tsk tsk to unprofessional designers.

  • Alex Steger

    Dear Fast Company: Do not even try to pretend that the future of the planet hinges on Al Gore's "1's", or that it takes months to change a single character in a typeface.

  • Erica Fisher

    "Usually, typefaces take months of massaging to create, so asking someone to change something within 10 hours... Let's put it this way, under these conditions, no one had ever done something like this before."

    It takes months to create the entire character set, but 10 hours doesn't seem like a stretch to make a minor change to one character. Kudos to them for catching it though!