Jul 21 2011


Fair warning. This will sound like a description of things I carefully and explicitly intended while working on Hollowpoint. It’s not. It’s a rationalization of a lot of instinctive stuff that went on that was related to events in a certain order. It feels, now, to me, like it was all deliberate and careful. But it wasn’t. So this is me making sense of how the part of my brain to which I do not have direct, narrative access to seems to work. That one time.

This game came out of discussions about non-violence. Now by that I don’t mean not hitting people, though that’s certainly part of it. I mean the kind of non-violence that J B Bell introduced me to as elaborated by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. The crux of this idea is that any human interaction in which a party engages by undermining the essential needs of the other party is violent. Killing is a trivial case–there are more subtle and interesting ways to be violent.

I was (and to some extent remain) skeptical of the utility of this approach and J B and I had a lot of lunch time discussions about this. Also at lunch we talked about game design. He was working on Chimaera at the time and one thing he was interested in was making it profitable to act in non-violent ways. Because most games assume you will do violence to everyone in order to get your way.

Well sort of. In fact as I thought about it I realized that I couldn’t really think of a game that took a solid stance one way or the other. Reign has Lie and Plead, which are both kind of violent in their way (undermining needs for honesty and peace and autonomy &c), but it also has Perform which really isn’t. Most games are like that, failing to take a side.

So J B wanted to explore nonviolence (and at this point I want to tell J B that his preferred spelling, with the space, has typographic issues and that he should reconsider it for the sake of aesthetics) in his new game. But can you make a fun and engaging game without violence? One way certainly would be to just have no violent skills, but this still allows the player to frame their use in a violent manner. So it’s not so simple as drafting skills.

Eventually we started talking about reward cycles and how one might make non-violent behaviour more appealing or at least competitively interesting. That’s all another story. because while I was ostensibly helping J B (see–it just doesn’t work J B) with his game, I was actually developing something else. Sure I stole his dice system, but my brain was heading over here: what if I made a game where you could only be violent? Where there was no way to frame any action in a non-violent sense. If non-violent-only games seemed boring, perhaps violent-only games would be awesome.

Well it turns out they are. In Hollowpoint, every core skill is a form of violence. You are KILLing, TERRORizing, obviously. But you are also COOL and aloof, completely apart from your opponent, degrading his self-image by comparing it to your own. You CON people rather than discuss or diplomatize or even haggle. You trick them. You are dishonest. And further, you do not buy or even beg — you TAKE. And when you want information you do not ask. You don’t even investigate. You DIG. You have more in common with a vicious, determined, investigative reporter (who, however laudable their work is, are essentially engaging in violent behaviour, strictly speaking) than an interviewer.

And hence this new game. It is a book that distills me wondering about a game where every option is violence.


Jul 18 2011

Skinning Hollowpoint

Sometime in the next short while we’ll release a style sheet for Hollowpoint skins.

Hollowpoint is crazy skinnable. So, per discussion in my last entry here, it seems like a good move for us to make some and for fans to make some and for us to organize them and distribute them and play the hell out of them. The game already pretty clearly states all of the elements that would go into a skin, but not really in one coherent location. Rather it’s scattered around the book as a bunch of implications. In retrospect, this is work that would have been very cool to have done for the book rather than after the fact, but, well, we didn’t think of it.

On the other hand, it nicely addresses the “free stuff” issue — gives us lots of things to put in the download section beside the toe tags.

The core elements of a Hollowpoint skin seem to be:

A concept. Some setting idea that has a team acting towards a mission and being super-competent and bad. As might be obvious already, I happen to think that the best way to deliver this is with a paragraph or two of fiction. A vignette or less, showing what these people are like.

The Agency: what is the organization that gives these people their missions?

The Charge: who or what does it protect?

The Era: when does this take place?

Character skills: are there special skills outside the usual set? Are some of the usual ones missing?

Character traits: how will these be generated? There are three options in the book but there could be others as well.

This is enough for a skin, but it would probably be a good idea to show at least one Mission outline as well, both to set the tone by example and to satisfy the desire for canned adventures. Canned adventures are a strange concept to me but the Hollowpoint framework for missions puts them in a context I can get my head around (they aren’t really fight-by-fight plans but rather lists of objectives and images and people) and they are in demand. People demand them. I mean seriously, people flat out insist that we make them.

One thing we can’t provide in the style sheet is the typefaces used in Hollowpoint. These are all commercial typefaces with no free equivalents and so I can’t give them away. But then, the type should really match the context and not the game, and the skin that gets written will define the context, really. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a certainly do-able skin for Hollowpoint) demands a rather different presentation than Black Loagoon does.

All this is just thinking out loud at the moment. When we publish the style sheet it will include whatever our plans are — will we wrangle them together and publish? Will we host them all somewhere easy to get to? Will we have a contest for the best ones? Hell, I don’t know.

But I’m thinking about it. And thanks to Jim for making that happen.


Feb 10 2011

Places we shoot ourselves

I am having a hell of a time laying out Hollowpoint.

Not in a good way. Here’s the issue: I am committed to using a 6″ x 9″ format for only one really good reason and one reason that’s pretty weak. Every other argument regarding this format is against it. The problem is, the two reasons for using it are both reasons that relate to the consumer. The arguments against it are all arguments that relate to the designer (me).

Here are the two pro reasons: it’s a very convenient format for a game. It travels well, it doesn’t take up a ton of table space, and it’s pretty. The other reason to use it is that I already did it once and it tickles me to make books that sit nicely together. The reasons we used it for Diaspora are basically the same: I like to use it and it sits beside my copy of Spirit of the Century nicely. These are reasons enough to use this format, as far as I am concerned.

It is, however, hell to lay out for.

The page is too wide for a single block of text in a reasonable typeface at a reasonable size. It results in long lines that are hard to read or in text that is too big and looks like a pre-school text. It’s crap for one column.

If you shrink that column to make some space for a sidebar, you discover that there isn’t enough. Sidebars are crowded affairs needing substantial massaging to work in the short line length remaining available. They do not work well here.

But you can’t go to two columns, which is what you would do in letter format, where you have far too much space for one column but plenty for two. Because there isn’t enough space for two columns here unless your type is extremely small.

So, basically, there as at once too much and too little space for the text. This is incredibly frustrating. It’s also a secret joy, of course, because trying to work inside a difficult constraint is puzzle-solving. I love this kind of work. But it is also crazy frustrating.

You can decorate your margins and suck in your column width. This is a pretty good solution if you have access to printing that can reliably get bleeds right. I probably can’t count on that — at least my experience is that I won’t be able to — and so I can’t afford to butt artwork up against the page edge unless I think really hard about the effect if the page trim is wrong and some white paper is revealed. So heavy and thoughtless decoration is out.

The other possibility is austerity. Stick to a narrow and legible single column and place it in a big empty space. This is actually very appealing to me and opens up some new possibilities.

Take for example contextual cues. In Diaspora we used italics and inset (from both sides) blocks to set fiction. When you see a narrow column of italic text, it’s always fiction. You are warned or cued depending on your interest. It doesn’t need to be explained. So by making the body text part of an austere and open margin design, we open up more opportunities for context because we have the space to expand into, or to set right or left of the body text. The text can acquire some dynamism not by being surrounded by art but by moving within the page space. The defect of the format becomes an opportunity.

It’s not clear that this is appropriate for the text in Hollowpoint. It might be, though — can the rythm of text position be made to imply the punctuality of the game’s pace? Can we fire paragraphs like gunshots?

Probably not. The audience for games is surprisingly conservative and isn’t likely to respond well to anything too clever. The taste is generally for conventional (within the context of games) layout: lots of art, border decoration, sidebars, and so on. Crowd the page and get as much stuff on it as possible. Invent page textures that make it hard to read, colour the page, blotch it, line it…make the reader feel like she got her money’s work at least in ink weight.

I worry that if I do that and subsequently run into Tufte, he’ll strangle me. Or drown me in my excess ink. I don’t want that to happen. So there’s likely to be a little avant garde design in Hollowpoint, though the garde it will be avant is the accepted forms for game text layout — certainly it won’t be avant the rest of the design world. This worked out okay for, say, Nobilis, though it had a lofty, airy context that aligned nicely with the layout. How can I get near that? Can I invent a context for Hollowpoint in which the space makes sense?

I don’t have answers yet. Which is why I am still laying out Hollowpoint. Endlessly.


Aug 11 2010

I am bound to silence

I have skipped a few days here because the Ennies have spurred some interesting business for me to deal with and it’s pretty much all I can talk about and, since I can’t talk about it all, it’s just best for everyone if I don’t even sit near a computer.

Now, however, one deal is in the bag and so I can talk about it. RetroPunk Game Design out of Brazil has acquired the license to translate Diaspora into Portuguese and publish that translation in PDF and hardcopy. These guys are great to deal with and just recently snagged some Evil Hat titles as well, and so we’re very excited about this development. I heard someone else got a deal for a Hebrew translation and now my inner typography geek is … aroused … over that possibility but I’m not actually pursuing it. What could be cooler than a Diaspora for the Diaspora though?

Anyway, I know we have at least a couple of Brazilian fans who are cheering, though I have to warn you that the finished work is a long ways away. Translation is not easy or cheap, friends.

I have a playtest session coming up tomorrow so I’ll have something more amusing then I expect. Until then, as one Brazilian fan shouted at me, sinistro! Which I think means, “you evil fuck.” Not sure.

Jul 24 2010


I did a ton of fiddling with my Terrible Grant® today, mostly working with some ideas for building a VSCA magazine as discussed in my previous post. Some cool stuff is coming together here and certainly having a full version of Adobe CS5 is making a big difference. And so this isn’t a long note, it’s just a loving one. This is for Mr. Terrible. This is the beginning of the evil I will use the grant to wreak upon the world.

Feb 1 2010

How Amazon and Apple stabbed me in the eye

Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue have already weighed in. I don’t have anything new to add except possibly my opinion which I think is completely uninteresting. Facts will carry the day and this is clearly a skirmish in the war that will occupy the next several years in the publishing business. The expected (and apropos) analogy with dinosaurs and mammals has been made repeatedly. I believe I alluded to it myself last year sometime.

The only thing I really care about is the fact that I enjoy layout as an art form and the electronic book market, given the direction it’s heading, is poised to change what that is a very great deal. And that’s scary. It means that just as the tools we use for layout are becoming mature, the game is changing under them and again layout is complicated. Complicated is interesting. I’m cool with that. Just scared.

Anyway, is making me re-think Deluge as a product and that’s also a good thing because it lets me address my release fear by not releasing. It’s currently designed as a hybrid product — a PDF that’s built on a US Letter page scaffold with the recognition that some significant body of readers will want to print it. It looks pretty printed — even clever — right now. It also works as a PDF. But as it is an experiment in current electronic publishing, it seems Steve Jobs has insisted that I make it work on a third axis. Okay fine.

So, it has to work in print. It has to work as a functional PDF (that is, printed and on screen). It has to work as a re-flowable form like MOBI or ePub. ePub is a supposedly heavily supported (partially designed) by Adobe. Yet the ePub output from InDesign looks like crap by default, assuming you concentrated on making a cool looking page. Pages are primary to InDesign’s operation and yet the ePub output has no page. You have to think in terms of the “story” and ignore the page for this to work (and yes that means making images inline, which almost always sucks and a half). Okay, I can do this.

Paper and PDF are paginated. ePub (and whatever I convert to from there) is not. I want to have products cross-correlate, so I think Toph’s page insertion scheme is ideal here — at the beginning of each page, the text will contain a reference to the page number, so a reflowed version will identify each page as it would have started in the paged version. I will try to automate this with InDesign and have some ideas. This is fairly inobtrusive (compared with treating the reflowed text as canonical and numbering some fundamental unit of the text, like paragraphs, which is slicker but uglier) but not without controversy. In particular, the implicit declaration that the paged version is canonical strikes me as wrong.

Images have to go inline. That means my lovely margin usage will vanish and images will simply interrupt the text. I can cope.

Sidebars have to go inline. Lots of electronic formats support sidebars but they all suck. The problem is that there’s just not enough real-estate on screen to give sidebars the function that they have on a page — they are either completely intrusive or they are a push-button away and switch between dominant and non-existent. These choices suck. Instead I think I will re-write so that they are not sidebars. This has worked for technical books for ages. Sidebars may be mostly a gimmick anyway–I’m not convinced of their utility beyond breaking up the page and providing visual landmarks.

Cross-references have to be logical rather than literal because they need to become actual links. This is all good.

The deepest issue is one of legibility — it’s not clear to me that a single set of choices will create a legible document when printed on US Letter as when viewed on the screen in print-preview (PDF) form as when viewed in a reflowable form. I can actually ignore the reflowable version — it’s pretty much guaranteed to be legible because its presentation is reader and user dependent.  But for the two presentations that are most deeply at odds, there are serious issues. I’m pretty sure, for example, that it will pay off to use a larger typeface than I would for print-only target because the sorts of devices used to view PDFs are myriad. But this is likely to make print ghastly and paper-intensive unless the intended print form is two-up or four-up. Can I make that assumption? I suppose I can declare it in the product.

The bottom line, though, is that doing layout just became a very different kind of job for RPGs. Novelists have it easy — one typeface and every page the same shape. No diagrams, no tables (ugh tables — that’s going to suck too), and one typeface. But with all these things there are so many opportunities for the RPG layouterizer to make elegant and beautiful choices. Most of which are undermined by the new technology. I think, though, that honestly Apple and Amazon have together changed the landscape.

It will be years before things shake out, but it’s clear that the shaking has started. And I am in a better position to be a mammal than a dinosaur. But fans of that analogy should keep clear in their heads that we still also have a lot of birds in this modern world. Recall that when mammals started eating their eggs, dinosaurs took to the air.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game. The best you can do is react, especially if you’re well positioned to do so cheaply.


Jan 25 2010

Publishing Deluge

I am going to publish the setting, Deluge, sometime in the next month or two. I did a bunch of new writing for it on the weekend and I feel inspired to do some artwork for it and I had fun experimenting with layout on it. So it’s fun, and you can have it if you want it. I want it — I’m playing it and having a great time.

Here are the four three experiments.

Systemless Experimentation

It’s an experiment in systemless setting design. Not just in whether or not that can be done — it’s been done often enough before that I see no essential controversy there — but whether there is a process for doing it. Is there a way to reliably take an idea and turn it into something others can and will use as a setting? So this process is pretty straightforward:

Describe the idea

Obviously you have to tell the audience what the setting is about. I’m looking at a very rapid development cycle here, so I’m not relying on writing a ton of exposition and fiction. I’m also using an original idea, so I can’t just point to existing canon and say, “like that.” Instead I am relying on the three solutions we used in Diaspora:  micro-fiction that delivers tiny scenes that illustrate how I feel about some aspect of the setting, mechanisms that deliberately create the tone I intend both in play and while reading, and a willingness to back away from stuff that I think is cool for the user to create.

Answer the question, “Who are these guys?”

Who are the agents in this place? Who will the players play? What kinds of characters live here that are worth pretending to be?

Answer the question, “What do they do?”

What do the characters do that’s fun? How do these activities chain together to form adventures? Why do the players care to pretend to do what the characters do? In Deluge we find the answer is (concisely) that they go on missions essential to the survival of communities that protect and love them. That last turns out to be important. Another post though.

The fact that they “go on missions” is not quite enough, though, and so there are mechanisms in Deluge that imply, suggest, bribe, and even bamboozle players into the mission mentality. Mission-driven gaming is one of the most profitable forms for me because you can get going so very fast and everyone knows what’s what right away. It’s why practically every MMO that makes a crapton of cash uses a quest scheme of some kind. And you can always excise it — if you sit down to play and describe the world and the players already know what they want to do, you can just sit back and watch it happen, regardless of whether or not a mission has been offered.

Answer the question, “Who opposes them?”

What is the nature of the conflicts that the characters will face but, more importantly, what are the agents on the other side of them? What are the monsters of this setting? In this setting the opposition takes many forms. The ultimate agents opposing humanity are the angels, but more immediately characters will confront other humans with opposing interests, wild animals, the environment itself, and the decaying ill-understood ruins of the old world.

This is tricky in a system-free setting because obviously you can’t provide stat blocks and stat blocks are part of what people expect to pay for. But you can talk about the kinds of mechanisms that need to come in to play for each form of opposition and you can talk vaguely about representation (these guys are strong and smart, but slow and ugly). So that’s a challenge.

Interface to systems

Finally, to be systemless, I choose to be explicit about where the user needs to attach her system. So throughout the document there are passages that are solely about ways to make the intended effect happen in any system, sometimes with examples from specific systems. Mostly, however, the concepts are general and the solutions will require a little work (but not a lot) from the user. The assumption underpinning this is that one person at every table (at least) loves this kind of thing. As evidence I offer the fact that most of the posts about Diaspora are about how to make it do something else. I expected that. I love that it came true. It might be an essential fact of populist role-playing games that they succeed when they facilitate mis-playing them.


Publication itself is going to be an experiment as well. I intend to publish Deluge solely as a PDF (I know you’ve read my opinions and blitherings about PDFs but a hallmark of experimentation is that it could come out either way — you don’t experiment when you believe you know the outcome with any certainty). I intend to make it cheap because it’s getting written whether I publish it or not because it’s in my head and trying to get out.

Perhaps oddly (but it’s my experiment so I can do what I want) I am laying it out as though it were destined for print. There are a few reasons for this, but foremost is that laying out for electronic use turns out to be a dull and aggravating job. It holds no artistic interest for me and the only academic interests in it have already been resolved and I see no need to re-explore them. Most of them stem from correlation between re-flowable and paged texts anyway, and this is not an issue here.

I am, however, laying it out as though it were destined for your printer. It will be on standard US Letter sized pages, though oriented in landscape, and it will use fonts and graphics that I have chosen partially for their functionality on the low resolution devices we have in our homes (and, secretly, our offices). It will assume double sided printing and binding, but only because that doesn’t hinder it much if you choose to print it single sided and staple the corner.

I will test its viability as a document viewed on a screen, but I don’t care if it works on my Kindle.


Deluge will be licensed under a Creative Commons license allowing free use, modification, distribution and all that good stuff provided it’s not for commercial purposes. I’ll be selling it but you can give it away once you have it. I think there is plenty to be learned from this, though it will be hard to disassociate other factors in sales and availability. Ultimately the normalising number I will need is evidence of actual play, and you can’t command that and you can’t even know what percentage of actual play is reported. So it will be hard to draw conclusions from this unless the results are dramatic.


Jan 18 2010

Learning to love constraint

I wish I had a layout project with more width in the pages. 6×9 is a lovely format for actual use, but for layout it has few opportunities compared to, say, a big square page. Inevitably some things suffer — you can’t really afford luxurious (sometimes even adequate) margins without inflating the page count or becoming a little precious. There’s only a narrow range of sensible font sizes available. Notes, callouts, whatever — the marginalia that seem to be necessary for a game text — have a limited method before they dominate the primarey text box so much that they might as well be a part of it.

If I had, say, nine inches of page width to work with, I could give myself an inch of margin and still have a couple inches to set aside as an outer column for side notes. Luxury!

Well I don’t. But I have said in the past, in different contexts, that constraint is essential to real creativity, and so I take a dose of my own medicine and try to make it work. When setting Diaspora, I think we made a poor call on line length — I’d love to have just a little more white space on all four margins, actually. So in future I’ll take my margin and then see what I get rather than choose the margin to achieve a follow-on effect (like page count, say). The thin margins forced our sidebars to be inset, though, which I like — they start further out than the main text block and they head well inside the text block, forcing text to flow around them. That breaks things up nicely and has a more dynamic feel to it, which I think you want in a text that is not read-in-one-go fiction, like a paperback novel.

Still, for my next couple of projects I’m pretty sure I want to get a little space to breathe, and so I’ll be setting aside some margin at the expense of pages. I think I can get away with this because Soft Horizon will have a relatively low page count compared to Diaspora. This also gives me more freedom for font size and choice, leading, justification, and a dozen other things. But it also means that the book will have around 30% more pages than it would have if I worked in the tighter environment I did before. I think that’s okay — I really want to build I will want to own above all.

The other constraint I have at the moment is print quality. While Lulu has been pretty good (and, honestly, getting better all the time — the latest books I have are much nicer than the first ones I saw), it’s still a 300dpi service built for volume and efficiency over quality and beauty. That’s fine — I know what I’m getting into — but now I know better what that constraint really means and can adapt to it. So, for example, Soft Horizon will probably avoid grays because they just suck at 300dpi black and white because they are just arrays of black dots. And they look like it. Frankly, that’s pretty ugly. If I could get gray ink (which would be a colour) I’d do it, but then the cost is exactly the same as a full colour run. That would be fun but not cost effective through Lulu. Maybe a future project.

So no gray because of the print quality. That means I probably won’t do the impinging-sidebar thing, because the gray background I used there seems essential for it to work– the sidebars need to come forward away from the text.  It also means I’m paying more attention to the text itself, assuming a lower resolution print run. So I’d love to get above the 9 point I chose for Diaspora because that’s risky at lower resolution. Either that or (or maybe both) use a medium instead of book weight — I happened to be reading over the shoulder of a fellow commuter, and he was reading a book on design that was set in a medium weight serifed font and it looked wonderful. So that might fly.

Anyway, that’s all detail and I could go on and on about the choices I’m making for this new project, but the point is that the constraint has actually driven a great deal more creativity than it has halted. Certainly there are options that are not open to me, but in desiring the impossible and faced with the constraint I have, I’ve also had to think about things I would not have addressed otherwise — a medium weight type face is one, but also working entirely in black gives me the opportunity to really revel in that — to use a lot of black and build a really stark positive/negative page. The darker text feeds into that as well. Now I’m starting to see an overall feel for the work, which was lacking before. It’s becoming distinct.

I still want a big page project. I think, however, that when I get one I will create some artificial constraints (providing I don’t discover enough new ones) when that happens. I suspect that perfect freedom might not help the creative process at all, except insofar as I get to choose constraints (a blank page is perfect freedom in which to write, but I can still choose to use it to write a sestina). I’m reminded now of a book I have that is set such that every page has a block of text on it that is exactly the same height and width and appears to be fully justified, but on inspection we discover that it is actually ragged, but each line is crafted such that it is almost exactly the same length as every other line. It’s a beautiful book full of beautiful pages.

The text is kind of crap though. There’s a lesson there too.


Jan 12 2010

By request: Choosing a Typeface

Here’s my disclaimer: I am an amateur. I didn’t go to art school and I haven’t done a lot of work but I’ve read a lot and I think I have a competent eye for these things. I might not.

Okay, so that out of the way, someone asked me a short time ago to talk a little about how I choose a typeface. That’s a tall order because I don’t have a process, but I am prepared to talk (possibly at annoying length) about the things I care about and how I find what suits my cares. My primary sources are The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst and every book Edward Tufte ever wrote. Tufte doesn’t speak specifically about typography, but thinking about type in terms of his general advice about graphic design yields fruit.

First off, I’m not all that interested in titling fonts. That is not to say that they are unimportant, but only that I think they require less detailed attention to get right — they only see use in limited parts of the text, and their usage is primarily in terms of a single image (the cover, the chapter head, etc.) and not in terms of text that will be read. So while it’s interesting, it’s more of a general graphic design problem than a typography problem.

So let’s think instead about setting a large body of text spanning several pages and containing some structure. The minimum faces I’ll want for this are a good body face for the text and a good italic for emphasis. My first cut will be to use these for everything, modulating mostly size for structure. After a lot of playing around I may decide to add a new face for headings and maybe another face for callouts or notes. But getting started all I want is the body text and its italic.

That may sound weird because most people are used to every typeface having italic as a setting. Well, most faces come with an italic, but there’s no interesting way in which the italic form is part of the roman form. Sometimes they are related (sometimes the italic is just the roman skewed to the right) but they don’t need to be. At the barest beginning of my process I will try my preferred roman’s built-in italic. But I might change it.

So this is really, hacking down to the root, about choosing a roman typeface for the body text.

My first question to myself is, “What is the time period that the text implies?” That is, does the content of the text seem to dwell in a particular century? Some texts have obvious answers — a book about Victorian adventurers will suggest 19th century typography. Some texts have less obvious answers — say I was setting Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone. When is that? Failing a clear referent I will either try to imagine a suitable era or possibly use the author’s era (I think Elric can be set non-ironally using faces iconic to the 1970s).

Basically I am looking for some criterion that can be common between the text and the type. Because type has evolved over time, time is a good place to start. It’s not the only place, mind you. For example, a science-fiction project might be written today and might be about the year 2900, but if it’s a certain kind of science-fiction it might be best served by a nice legible sans-serif from the fifties or sixties — Univers, say, or Helvetica. Pushing the analogy (to the point that it’s an in-joke) further, I might choose a very modern version — like Alright Sans. Hrm, I’m still thinking in terms of time. Maybe that is crucial after all.

So once I have an era I research it — find texts from that period and find typefaces that originate from or are related to the era. Bringhurst’s books is brilliant for this because there is a chapter devoted to typefaces and includes plenty of historical information. This lets me find a specific face, but it also shows me examples of, say, a Carolingian typeface, that I can then use to look for similar or related faces.

Having found some exemplar fonts, I usually make a test sheet with the widest variations, setting a column of text about three inches by three inches set in 10 point, and eyeball them. I print at 300dpi, which is about the worst case my published product will go out at. I am looking for:

Legibility. How easy is it to read this block of text. Is it annoying? Okay? Fun?

Tone. Does the face delivery the tone the text wants to deliver? If it’s playful and dynamic, is the text? If it’s solid and dour, is the text?

Colour. Does the block of text, seen as a patterned rectangle rather than as words, create a pleasing decoration? Does it look good in a rectangle on my page?

Robustness at resolution. Do these elegant letterforms look as good at 300dpi as they did on my screen blown up to 15cm? Some humanist faces can get quite ugly if the variation between thick and thin is too extreme — the poor resolution will amplify the difference and suck.

I might fiddle with leading and and point size in order to get a feel for variations.

Then I pick one. I’m not using that one, necessarily. My next step is to discover what I will use and this can be a longer journey. I start by examining the technical details of the typeface I have (assuming I have it — sometimes that prior research is done with a photocopier). My ideal font is in OTF format and has a complete set of features. Barring that, I personally care about:

Ligatures. If ffi looks stupid and there’s no ligature, I need a new font. If the text seems to demand decorative ligatures and I don’t have them (like ct, st, sometimes ck or even gt), I’ll need to make a choice now.

Text figures. I happen to really like my numbers in text — that is, the ones where the digits are treated as a first-class character, allowed to descend or ascend above a lower-case height. I almost always want that.

Cost. Can I afford this typeface? How much of it? I might want a bold, and italic, and a regular. Can I have it?

Now I start researching related fonts. Personally, I am a big fan of MyFonts because it has really good preview graphics and lots of them. They also seem to keep up well with new artists producing book faces (rather than titling or decorative faces), and their newsletter is great. So this is the fun part — I nose around the interweb and I talk to other designers and I bounce ideas off anyone who will listen.

And eventually I will find a typeface and use it. At some point in the project I will consider changing it. Sometimes I do, usually going through the whole process again and making some different decisions.


Jan 9 2010


Prototyping is a powerful tool in any development process, and making a book is no different. I’ve seen quite a few books lately, however, that don’t look like they’ve been prototyped, so here’s a primer.

A prototype is a category of simulation. Now everyone simulates all the time — it’s part of how being sapient works. When you wonder about how to solve a problem, you simulate the problem and the solution in your head and, presuming your simulation is adequate, you find out whether your idea is stupid before actually implementing it. In hardware design we do a lot of simulating too — we can’t afford to actually run trains around the office in the early stages of testing and development, so we have train simulations that supply identical inputs to the controlling software.

Simulations have limitations that need to be thought about very carefully (and there is a relationship to game design here that I won’t explore further in this article but you might want to file away for your own use later, because all games are also simulations). The first is, obviously, whether the simulation is correct — whether you are getting your math and logic right. This is also not something I want to explore because that’s part of testing the simulator. The two critical elements of the simulation that you need to think deeply about are the granularity and the scope.

The granularity of a simulation is the minimum unit on each metric that you will care about. You cannot simulate continuous time or continuous distance, so instead you chop your simulation up into, say, 1 second intervals and centimeter segments. This is your granularity. Because you decided it carefully, you  know that it is a strict limitation on the functionality of your simulation by design — you know that if you measure an event that takes 1.7 seconds, that you only know it’s around 2 seconds. And you know that if you need to know what happens in a half-second interval, then your 1 second granularity is broken.

The scope of the simulation is the range of values over which it will operate. This has direct bearing on game systems because we don’t often thibnk about it very hard and assume, consequently, that the scope is infinite. It isn’t. All simulations have limited scope and it’s better to design it than discover it. So a simulation that is designed to consider weather events over a six hour period has nothing whatsoever to say about month-long weather cycles. A simulation that considers only wind speed and humidity has nothing to say about suspended particles. Not “little” or “weak” information, but none.

Okay so prototypes. A prototype is a physical model of your end product. Its objective is to broaden both scope and granularity past the point that intellectual or software simulation can achieve by using the real (continuous — baring quantum limits) world for some parameters. So when you want to see if your new electric shaver design is comfortable to hold, you could simulate holding it in a computer, or you could build a little plastic one and weight it so that it’s the same as the real thing would be and then, well, hold it. Your scope is still limited (it doesn’t shave anything) but within the scope you intend, you have nearly perfect granularity.

Okay so books. When you are laying out a book in software, you are working with a book simulator. It has intrinsic scope and granularity choices and you did not make them. Consequently you may not be entirely clear on what they are. For example, you cannot see the whitespace effect of your margins, because your artboard is usually laid down on a white background (change request for Adobe — please make the unused portion of my artboard black or something). You cannot see how your fonts will work because your screen is only a hundred dpi or less and your paper is between three- and fifteen-hundred. You cannot see how your artwork’s colour will look on the shelf because your screen has a different colour gamut than print (there are colours you cannot display that you can print and vice versa) and because your screen has different refelctivity and diffusion characteristics than your paper (and you will choose between a wide range of papers).

When you understand the limitations of your simulation, you begin to understand first that you must have a prototype relatively early in the production and that you now know roughly what its scope is.

So, when you are making a book, while you are still playing with layout ideas, make prototypes. Here’s what I do. I print a half-dozen or so spreads (left and right pages) at full size so that the output art and type are exactly the size they will be in print. I then trim the paper to my actual paper size (printing with registration and crop markings will help you get this as right as you can) — there is zero value in printing 6×9 pages zoomed up to your letter size paper, or real size in the middle of the whitespace of a too large page.

Then I assemble a mini-book by stapling or otherwise fixing these pages together. My printer doesn’t print on both sides, so I glue odd pages to their even back face. Now you can detect things that will have escaped you before. You are not done, though — you need to use the prototype properly. So sit down and read your book. Don’t skim it. Read it. Come on, it’s only twelve pages and it’s your job.

Does your printed line slide into the gutter in an aggravating way? This will now be brutally obvious. Are your margins too thin? Are the lines too long? Is the font too large or too small? Is the page colour good? Do those callouts or sidebars invite or obstruct? Is that too many fonts maybe (chaotic page colour)? Is that really the green you want there? Does this ampersand really work with full-height caps in the context of the page it’s on? Are the headings distinguishing their associated text from the rest of the page? Can you even see black print on that grey? Is that even a number there with all that fooferah — it looks awfully foggy now.

Does the spread look good? Is a blank page or a full page illustration maybe better on the left to balance the chapter heading whitsepace? Does the eye move across the spread the way you want? Is turning the page to continue reading annoying in this particular context, inviting re-flowing to keep stuff in one spread?

The earlier you do this the better you’ll unerstand what you’re making. Waiting until you get your test copy back from the printer is hundreds of man-hours too bloody late — you will now be under pressure to live with your errors because you’re so far along. So do not wait. Prototype now and prototype often.