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Why the Bay Area is swarming with people who love letters

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
When I scan a menu, I notice the errors. When I read a book, I circle the typos. Like the author of the best-selling grammar title Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I have the urge when passing billboards that incorrectly use "its" instead of "it's" to climb up with a giant Sharpie and insert the apostrophe myself. It's bad enough to be obsessed by words. But to be obsessed by typography -- not just grammar and syntax and content, but also the very forms that make up the words, plus the area around each letter, the space between each line, the way the characters look on the page or screen -- is hard to imagine. Strange, then, that San Francisco is filled with these poor souls.

Two weeks ago I joined about 500 of them at 111 Minna, which was hosting the first public viewing of the Typophile Film Festival, an hourlong compilation of 15 brief movies about letters. The gallery's huge L-shaped space was packed; the folks taking names and tickets had to explain patiently, over and over again, that the two screenings were already sold out. As the first show began, the crowd of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings filled the 300-plus folding chairs and leaned against the walls. Some of these people had seen the film festival before, at a convention here last summer called TypeCon, but many were seeing it for the first time. They were jazzed.

Jared Benson, the founder of the Web forum Typophile ( and creative director and partner in the local design firm Punchcut, which co-hosted the film fest (and operates Typophile), stood up to welcome the audience. "In high school," he said, "we'd be so beat up by now." Everyone laughed knowingly. It's not exactly true, though: These designers, typographers, printers, producers, artists, Web developers, and writers -- talkative and friendly, well dressed but not overly hip, of every perceivable race -- were probably always cool, if perhaps a little bookish. These were geeks, yes, but type geeks. They hold a special place in this town.

Any big city will draw artists and designers. As Benson said to me later, a metropolis "provides a lot of texture and inspiration for the designer to tap into his creative core." But San Francisco (and the larger Bay Area) seems to have drawn an inordinate number of type types -- and they've all come out of the woodwork lately. Besides Typophile, which has more than 5,100 registered members and gets almost 3 million hits a month, locals have founded numerous other online type communities, among them SOTA (, the Society of Typographic Aficionados, headed by Alameda's Tamye Riggs, which boasts 300 members internationally, sponsors TypeCon annually, and also co-hosted the festival; the blog Typographica (, started by recent S.F. transplant Stephen Coles and his friend Joshua Lurie-Terrell of Sacramento, which gets around 2,000 hits a day; and Xtypa (, courtesy of Berkeley student Aaron Sittig. There are a million and one independent type designers and shops large and small here, from the renowned Jim Parkinson in Oakland to FontShop in SOMA (where Riggs and Coles work, and the final host of the festival) to Emigre in Berkeley. San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books releases a steady stream of books about type, including three this past fall. There's even a show up at SFMOMA called "Belles Lettres: The Art of Typography," and next Monday the Thick House in Potrero Hill launches the play The Typographer's Dream.

The Typophile Film Fest merely brought these lettering fanatics together under one roof. And it was easy to see why they'd come.

I couldn't get anyone interested in going to the festival with me. Seems the idea of watching films about typography wasn't luring my usual suspects. But as it turns out, the shorts on view would have charmed even the least visual of my friends and loved ones. They were clever and funny and instructive -- and often downright beautiful. Plus, the show had a great soundtrack.

The opening sequence, by the Punchcut guys, started with a retro look that combined found film clips and cool music with amusing takes on pop culture (like a title card advertising Queer Eye for the Helvetica Condensed Guy). The sound of electro-funk moved us into a promotional spot by a Connecticut team, sort of a "Things I can do with letters" bit, which closed with a bald scientist opening his lab door to a giant, mutant R. Then came a series of quick promos, one musicless, one set to snappy free jazz, three with typical movie music, and a hand-drawn ad for the National Football Conference on Fox television accompanied by the game's pervasive heavy-metal crunch.

The first true "film" was a five-minute piece called 06/23/1967 by Berkeley's Bonnie Berry, a narrative about the adoptee finding her birth parents. Its elegant, subtle use of type -- names appearing and fading, a family tree growing like the periodic table -- made me think, maybe for the first time, about the letters used in movies, about how they can distract you or lure you in, how they can be annoyingly clever or appealingly clean. Berry's were just right for her point.

A retro-swank groove brought us to Helvetica It Hurts, whose title made the audience members laugh out loud. A mesmerizing black-and-white meditation on a very popular font, its cool op art sensibility produced big cheers and whoops at the end, as compared to strong but polite applause for everything before it.

In every entertainment a little education must fall, and so it was with Typomania, an engaging seven-minute excerpt from a BBC special about typography set to disco, opera, and everything in between. Its bow-tied narrator was Erik Spiekermann, a part-time San Franciscan and full-time designer and writer who was at the film fest. His most salient point may help explain the ubiquity of type fanatics: "There are as many different typefaces as there are voices, languages, and emotions."

A remix of Billie Holiday singing "God Bless the Child" led into an ugly but gripping animated birth announcement, in which the streets and landmarks of New York City were replaced with words ("building," "taxi," "hospital"). After that came an excerpt from a Twilight Zone episode in which evil takes the form of Burgess Meredith, playing a scary whiz on the Linotype machine (which allowed printers to automatically set a complete line of lead type at once, instead of having to put each letter in place by hand). Ah, how technology has changed.

The last two films, both by Emeryville's "Cheshire Dave" Beckerman, were corny and silly but still amusing. Etched in Stone told the improbable story of a serial killer -- a personification of the overused real-life typeface Trajan, named after the Roman emperor -- who murders producers who stop using the font on their movies' promotional posters. Its animation was awful, but the argument was sound: Once you see the film's faked posters, you realize that Trajan really is everywhere. And Behind the Typeface: Cooper Black was a funny VH1-style exposé on the lettering style you've overlooked for years -- on Top Ramen's packaging, the logo for Payless ShoeSource, iron-on T-shirt messages from the 1970s, and countless other aberrations. I've seen the movie before, but it was still funny.

Why do people get so caught up with type? Because, as the SOTA Web site explains, it "help[s] us to communicate our thoughts, our feelings, our wants, our needs -- and to understand those of our fellow man." Locally, that need for connection has hit a tipping point; these events and communities are popping up because designing is, like writing, a solitary, behind-the-scenes career (without the byline). And there's no avoiding it: We're bombarded by lettering. Take a minute and look around you -- every single character you see was designed by a person. That billboard with the bad grammar? As Jared Benson put it, "Someone spent a year of his life creating that A." The menu whose errors drive you crazy? A designer had to buy the typeface used on it. And that book in which you circle typos? Oh, those make the letter-lovers nuts, too. "I have a hard time reading books," says Typographica's Stephen Coles, "because I can't get past the design or the way things are put on the page. Or maybe I just have ADD, I don't know."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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