Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘typography’

21 JULY, 2011

How Alex Steinweiss Invented the Album Cover


A brief history of music for the eyes, or how to go from brown paper to design revolution in 7 pounds.

Alex Steinweiss, father of the album cover, lived to be ninety-four, but his legacy will endure for centuries to come. The record sleeves and album artwork we know and love, and have come to take for granted, owe their existence to the iconic designer, who in 1940 created the first illustrated 78 rpm album package as a young art director at Columbia Records. The company took a chance on his idea — to replace the standard plain brown wrapper with an eye-catching poster-like illustration — and increased its record sales eightfold in mere months. His covers, blending bold typography with elegant, graphically ambitious artwork, forever changed not only the way albums were sold, but also the way audiences related to recorded music. He made, as critics now frequently say, “music for the eyes.”

I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.” ~ Alex Steinweiss

Steinweiss’ extraordinary work and legacy live on in Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover — a lavish Taschen volume by triple Grammy Award-winning art director Kevin Reagan and prolific design writer Steven Heller (yes, him again), cataloguing three decades’ worth of Steinweiss’s magnificent classical, jazz and popular records, as well as logos, labels, advertising ephemera and even his very own typeface, contextualized with essays that illuminate their historical importance, visual innovation and cultural legacy.

And because it’s Taschen, the 420-page tome weighs in at 7 pounds and is also available as a lust-worthy ultra-limited-edition of 1,500 copies, each signed by the artist and including a serigraph print, for $700. (Cue in donation prompt…)

Promotional card sent to Steinweiss' clients, ca. 1952.

Image courtesy of Taschen

Equal parts visual poetry, music and design history, and blueprint for creative entrepreneurship, Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover is an absolute treat from cover to glorious cover. For more on Steinweiss, you can explore the remarkable range of his work in Columbia Records’ Birka Jazz Archive.

Hat tip to studiomate Rob Weychert; images courtesy of Taschen

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18 JULY, 2011

A Brief Visual History of Vintage Typographic Scripts


From Victorian letters to modernist lettering, or what Venice has to do with children’s penmanship.

Iconic design writer Steven Heller has previously delighted us with a peek inside the sketchbooks of famous graphic designers and a fascinating look at the design and branding of dictatorships. Now, he and his partner of 28 years, acclaimed designer Louise Fili, are back with Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age — a treasure chest of typographic gems culled from advertising, street signage, type-specimen books, wedding invitations, restaurant menus and personal letters from the 19th to the mid-20th century. Ranging from the classic to the quirky, the 350 stunning images are unified by a common thread: All the typefaces featured are derived from handwriting or symbolic of the handwritten form, and the letters in each touch each other. And in a day and age when pundits are lamenting the death of handwriting as a much deeper cultural death, there’s a special kind of magic about the celebration of beautiful scripts.

We started gathering materials for the book by just going through the shelves of my studio: the stunningly timeless black, white and red St. Raphael enamel sign, French button cards, type specimen books and of course my albums of sign photos. While many of the selections were obvious, some were serendipitous: For example, while teaching a summer masters workshop in Venice, two of my students gave me a composition book they had unearthed from a recycling bin on the Grand Canal. It was from 1923 with verses written in perfect Italian school children’s penmanship.” ~ Louise Fili

At once sentimental and visionary, Scripts is a living capsule of the near-forgotten beauty and allure of vintage lettering, but also of books themselves — lavish, vibrant, tactile, with lush typography winking at you from the page in come-hither seduction unlike the screen ever could.

Images courtesy of Felt & Wire

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13 JULY, 2011

From Old Books: Heaven for the Visual Bibliophile


Making good use of geocentric models of the universe, or how to brush up on 18th-century British slang.

Thanks to the tireless curators behind brilliant sites such as 50 Watts, BibliOdyssey, Paleofuture, and How to Be a Retronaut, to name just a few of the Internet’s treasure troves, we now have collections of archival material that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

A newcomer to this stable of gems, From Old Books is similarly fueled by an individual’s passion for preserving graphics, and so also the culture, of bygone eras. Its creator, a British web developer named Liam Quin, has assembled a stellar selection of over 3,000 images from — and of — more than 180 rare antique books.

From fantastically creepy momento mori, to beautiful children’s book illustrations, and enough examples of typography that you could take up whole days just browsing, From Old Books is a fantastic place to look for royalty-free inspiration. We’ve gathered a small handful of the site’s weird and wonderful objects for your viewing pleasure.

Armillary Sphere

From Ebenezer Sibly's Astrology: A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences (1806)

I have subjoined a plate of the Armillary Sphere, which is an artificial contrivance, representing the several circles proper to the theory of the mundane world, put together in their natural order, to ease and assist the imagination in conceiving the constitution of the spheres, and the vairous phenomena of the celestial bodies. For this purpose the Earth is placed at the center, pierced by a line supposed to be its axis”

Strange Machine

From T. Antisell's Handbook of the Useful Arts (1852)

Hour Glass

From William Andrews's Curiosities of the Church: Studies of Curious Customs, Services and Records (1891)

Of the few remaining specimens of the hour-glass, a fine one is preserved in the church of St. Alban’s Wood Street, London. It is mounted on a spiral column near the pulpit, and the minister can conveniently reach it when preaching.”

Machines for Boring Holes in Castle Walls

From Charles Knight's Old England: A Pictorial Museum (1845)


From Sydney F. Walker's Electric Lighting for Marine Engineers (1892)

It will be understood, of course, that there should be an ampère meter on each circuit, so that the engineer can see what is going on. This, however, is not always done. In many “tramps” not even one ampère meter is to be found.”

The Sun Typewriter

Advertisement from Charles Scribner's Scribner's Magazine No. 11 (1903)

Enjoy more gems on From Old Books — but don’t say we didn’t warn you: bibliophilia takes hold quickly, and as far as we know, there’s no cure.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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16 JUNE, 2011

10 Beautiful Typographic Covers of Non-Typography Books


What 12 million human emotions have to do with iconic industrial design and the science of memes.

Last week, I came across this lovely post on beautifully designed typographic covers of books that aren’t about typography, and it made me realize that the covers of some of my own most beloved books are also minimalist and typographic. So, here are 10 of my favorites.


Clay Shirky‘s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age landed atop my list of the best books in business, life and mind for 2010 and one of 7 must-read books on the future of the Internet. It takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential to build on humanity’s treasure trove of knowledge and bring about social change.


I was instantly taken with Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes, the most ambitious book project of 2010 — so ambitious, in fact, that nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable — and a proud topper of my selection of the best art, design and photography books of 2010. It’s a visionary piece of literary remix, “analog interactive storytelling” created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, and rearranging the text to form an entirely different story.


You may recall Listen to This by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross as one of these 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain. Though some say it doesn’t measure up to Ross’s remarkable The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (also a typographic-cover gem), it remains an outstanding effort to explain and understand the world through its musical proclivities, from European opera to Chinese classical music to Bjork.


If you’ve been reading closely enough, you’re probably raising your eyebrow at how I can be framing Nicholas Carr‘s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And you’d be right to. But while I wildly disagree with most of Carr’s quasi-scientific arguments, I do agree with his contention that implicit to every technology is an “intellectual ethic,” which shapes how we discover, acquire, and debate information, so I maintain that his is one of the 7 most important books on the future of the Internet. Besides, it does have a magnificent cover, and that’s what we’re looking at today.


Originally published in 1976 by legendary Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society — one of these 5 must-read books for language lovers — offers a fascinating and timeless lens on language from a cultural rather than etymological standpoint, examining the history of over 100 familiar yet misunderstood or ambiguous words, from ‘art’ to ‘nature’ to ‘welfare’ to ‘originality.’

The book begins with an essay on ‘culture’ itself, dissecting the historical development and social appropriation of this ubiquitous and far-reaching semantic construct. It paints a living portrait of the constant transformation of culture as reflected in natural language. So seminal was Williams’ work that in 2005, Blackwell attempted an ambitious update to his text in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, though the cover design falls completely flat.


In 2009, senior Harper’s editor Bill Wasik did what no other book had intelligently done before: He formalized a great deal of research and thinking about the age of memes and viral information in And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. Both the paperback…

…and hardcover are typograhic treats of the finest kind, though my vote is with the hardcover for the clever meta wink:


As Little Design As Possible: The Work of Dieter Rams is a fantastic new book about the greatest industrial designer of all time by British design historian Sophie Lovell, which I just reviewed in full last week. Its cover, clean, minimalist and to-the-point, pays proper homage to its subject and its title, illustrating in visceral terms that, indeed, “Good design is as little design as possible.”


Sure, I’ve reviewed it before, I’ve included it in these 10 essential primers on culture, and still I keep coming back to How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by New York Times columnist Stanley Fish — an inspired look at the beauty of language through its fundamental building block, the sentence. It doesn’t hurt that it sports an elegant typographic cover, either.


Negative space? Check. Typographic minimalism? Check. Black-white-red combo? Check. It hardly gets more designerly than the cover of Symbol by Steve Bateman and Angus Hyland — a visual morphology of 1300 classic and modern symbols, organized based on their visual characteristics and framed with contextual information on who the symbol was designed for, who designed it and when, and what it stands for.


We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion by visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris, based on the ongoing online experiment of the same name, visually explores 12 million human emotions recorded since 2005 through brilliantly curated words and images that make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.

Reviewed in full, with many images, here.

See more book cover candy on the relentlessly fascinating Book Cover Archive.

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16 MAY, 2011

Cultural Connectives: Understanding Arab Culture Through Typography


What typography has to do with cross-cultural understanding and linguistic minimalism.

I’m obsessed with language, such a crucial key to both how we understand the world and how the world understands us. In today’s political and media climate, we frequently encounter the Middle East in the course of our daily media diets, but these portrayals tend to be limited, one-note and reductionist. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. On the heels of last month’s excellent Arabic Graffiti comes Cultural Connectives — a cross-cultural bridge by way of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture.

Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.

The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:

We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran

Beautifully designed and conceptually thoughtful, Cultural Connectives is another gem from my friends at Mark Batty Publisher, firmly planting them as one of the most ambitious, creative and culturally relevant independent publishers of our time.

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