Friday, October 07, 2011

Letters, Type, and Steve Jobs

I thought I'd share my July 1995 newsletter (just text, no images at that time) which was inspired by Steve Jobs' commencement address at Stanford University. A few changes have been made as some of the links are no longer live.


"Letters are symbols that turn matter into spirit." 
Alphonse de Lamartine


July: Letters and Type

July is summer and vacation for many. I am taking a bit of a vacation from the norm in this July newsletter and indulging myself is something book related but not about books. On the Books Arts List (info on how to subscribe below), there was a posting about the commencement address by Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, at Stanford University. It is a moving statement of his experience and philosophy of life and I highly recommend reading it. One of his main points is that you can't understand the way the experiences in your life will connect until later. He refers specifically to his experience taking a calligraphy class at Reed College and its impact on the quality of typography in computers. 

"Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. 

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them." 

To read the full text of his speech, go to 

This all reminded me that my first entry into the world of visual art was calligraphy. I spent about eight years as a serious practitioner doing both commercial and creative work. For years I was deeply in love with the form of letters. In addition to letters on paper, I put them on my clothes, my kitchen tiles and dishes with the help of a potter friend, and made them in the sand when I went to the beach. For this issue, I've gathered some websites to increase awareness of the form of letters for both adults and children.

For Children

Found Alphabets 

The point of these is not learning the alphabet, although that can certainly be accomplished as well, but to increase children's sensitivity to the actual form and construction of letters. 

The Butterfly Alphabet
While not the first person to think of finding and photographing letters in nature and the landscape by any means, Kjell Sandved, who created a poster of letters photographed on butterfly wings, has done a lot to bring the idea to a wider audience. You can find his story here (scroll past the images to get to the story part):

The Alphabet by Abba Richman has beautiful black and white photos of the 26 letters found mostly in the urban landscape.

He has also made one of color photos.

For a found alphabet of pastels and watercolors from the urban landscape, check out Stephen T. Johnson's Alphabet City, a Caldecott Honor Book published by Penguin Putnam.

Bembo's Zoo is an alphabet book by deVicq de Crumptich. An abedecary of animals is created from the font Bembo. You can see a delightful animated version at 

If you or your children are interested in improving handwriting or just having fun writing, I recommend looking into Italic handwriting which is based on calligraphic forms. The best source is a series by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay.


Information About Typography, Calligraphy, and Letterform for Adults

The Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists guild has a couple of informative pages on calligraphy. When you get to the bottom of page on, go to the information on the history of the roman alphabet for a more detailed description of the changes in letterform through the ages.

A brief visual history of calligraphic forms can be found at

Calligraphy, Lettering, and Artist Books, curated by Cecelia
A site from Australia with lots of limnks including a Calligraphic and book Arts Worldwide Travel Guide


Reed College and Connections

I have a very removed connection to Reed College and calligraphy. One of the most influential calligraphy classes I took was a week-long workshop at a 1982 conference in Philadelphia with Jaki Svaren, author of the wonderful book Written Letters, who had studied with Lloyd Reynolds who was the key person responsible for calligraphy at Reed College. Other students of Lloyd Reynolds at Reed, in addition to Jaki and Steve Jobs, were the Beat poets Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen. My mentor, Jenny Hunter Groat, also studied with Lloyd Reynolds, as well as the authors of the series on Italic handwriting for children mentioned above.

For an appreciation of calligraphy at Reed College and the spirit of Lloyd Reynolds and his successor Bob Palladino and a lament for its demise, visit

For information about subscribing to the Book Arts List mentioned above, go to


Anonymous said...

Having an iMac since 1998 has enabled us to make our own books & CDs, we don't need the mainstream publishing & record houses any more & that is so freeing! scanning all my illustrations in process lets me take them way over the top as I can now go back to the point just before they went too far instead of destroying weeks of work in a moment of over enthusiastic mark making! & y'know I was so bad at lettering in art school all those years ago, measuring the distances between the letters and then adjusting the space to compensate if a letter was narrow or wide... all that was just too tedious! I loved letters and words but could never get it right til now! Our most recent collaboration- "An illuminated Book of Cats" is based on the Malinka the Cat Font from The Electronic Font Foundry in England
you can see it as an ebook here

please excuse the self promotion but it is an abecediary and thus relevant to this thread I hope!

Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord said...

Thanks for sharing Mo. It's such a beautiful book.

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