In Praise of Labor

Posted in graphic design, Something Great by DCroy on 5 September 2011

Something Great:

I know I’m usually complaining here (am I? it seems like I am), but here’s something great, about which I will be doing the opposite of complaining: the Bryson Apartments sign in Los Angeles.

Bryson Apartments, Los Angeles

Photo by Erin Amy

The lettering here is not simply one of the most perfect pieces of lettering* I’ve seen in a long time, but it gets more intriguingly, inventively perfect the closer you look at it.

Okay, so here’s a drawing I created of the lettering, based on a (more or less) straight on photo of the sign.

It's not perfect, but it's close (for a quickie).

And here’s some trenchant** analysis: First, it just feels right. That is hard enough to achieve on its own, and so I was then wondering if there’s a way to discover why it hangs together so elegantly. I have an answer, if not exactly the answer. But in digging into it, I just ended up with more and more respect for the inventiveness of the work, of the experience of the letterer, and just how much subtlety you can insert into what is, on its face, just a simple sans-serif logotype. But there is a lot more going on here than just a simple sans serif.

Off center centers:

Proportions and center lines.

I know that if I was doing it, I’d probably line up the centers of the B, R, Y, and S (in other words, making the S symmetrical). And that would be okay, but this is way better because f you lowered the crotch of the Y to match the intersection of the two bowls of the B, then arms of the Y end up being way too wide compared to the N, B, R, and S. Of course, you could then make the N wider (which would make sense in that it would closely match the width of the O). But if you did that, you’d want to make the B and R wider, and at that point you’d lose the overall character (this was a luxury hotel, and big fat letters wouldn’t have communicated the kind of elegance that was all over everything else).

The point of the above is that, especially when you’re doing a single word of lettering, everything affects everything else. You can’t change one letter at a time, because the letters don’t exist as discrete elements: they are parts of an integrated whole (this is what makes lettering such an intriguing puzzle to type dorks like me).

So, it’s not just the center lines (although, one last point about that – to my eye, the lower center line on the B, now slightly higher on the R, and higher still on the Y and S adds a very subtle lyrical element that is then finished by the diagonal of the N. This may or may not be intentional, but that’s the way I see it).

Harmony without uniformity:

Proportion Comparison

The above image shows how the proportions of the double-decker round letters relate. A: by themselves; B: overlapping; C: with the B and R flipped to show that the proportions all relate.

This is a kind of harmony that helps pull the overall piece together – each letter contains the same proportions, though deployed in different ways (in service to the requirements of keeping the within consistent widths, as we talked about before with the Y thing). What I’ve learned from considering this aspect of the letters is that harmony can be achieved without uniformity. Bryson here shows that you can make the viewer’s eye read a consistency that is created by a much more complicated relationships than simple things like aligning the centers or making the bowls the same size†.

 An O that is pure genius:

Spacing and Counters

In the above illustration, the blue is the width of the letters, the green is the width of the letter spacing, and the dark green is the counter space of the O (these are not, and are not meant to be, perfectly aligned with any part of a letter, since they are meant to indicate how things are seen, not how they aremeasured, because lettering is experienced via looking at it, not measuring it).

So anyway, we’ve settled on the widths of the letters BRSN owing to the constraints of the Y. But now we’ve got that O to deal with. Basically, you’ve got two options here – make it an oblong shape the same width as the other letters, or forget about all the complicated harmonies and just make a donut†† and hope for the best. But our designer did something way better – first, the O isn’t a donut, which helps it relate better with the B, R, and S, which aren’t geometric either. But here’s the genius: he created an O with a counter space that roughly equals the letter spacing of the other letters†. He’s showing us that the negative space, the counters, can be just as useful as the positive strokes of the lettering (something we all learn in Design 101, but that few of us use so masterfully) in creating the overall harmony of the word. So in other words, this is definitely something I’m going to steal in the future.

One more comparison:

Another Look

You can see here how the BR and S relate, how the non-geometric O works with the BRS, and how the Y and N hang together. And you can also see how lettering a word is not the same as creating a typeface. Jumbled like this, and without their correct letter spacing, the letters look weird and wrong. But when you put it all together, you get a masterpiece.

Simple, sans-serif, masterpiece.

* even more impressive when you consider it’s been rendered in steel by a sign company, most of which are notorious for ignoring the subtleties of letterforms.

** trenchant, I say!

† it may not seem like it, but this kind of thing totally blew my mind.

†† donut = geometric circle shaped O.

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