How to be a Parisian

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What you’ll need: a baguette, a beret

Songlist: April in Paris or any of these

Further reading: A Moveable Feast…or any of these.

Everyone has their own Paris.

My parents will be going to Paris in a few weeks, and everyone has advice for them. You must see this! You must eat here! You must! You must! You must!

Paris is the most-visited city in the world, and thus it’s not surprising that so many of their friends have visited, revisited, and made lists for themselves and acquaintances of what must be done in the City of Lights. But, of course, all this is a testament to the fact that you can’t go wrong in Paris. While those of us who have visited only a few times would recommend the few places we’ve been to, those who have lived in the city know that there is no one view of Paris. Each story written on the city is unique. We may think that the city itself is the story, but that is an illusion; Paris is impervious.

And so too, I think, are its inhabitants. How else could you deal with the influx of tourists, the requisition of so many public spaces for photo-ops and souvenir sellers?

This past April I flew to Paris to meet up with a friend studying in Fontainebleau, a town just 45 minutes to the south. I ended up spending only about 5 hours in the city itself. I’d been to Paris twice previously, spending about a week both times. I’d seen the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, even the Catacombs. So this time I planned visits to the Palais Garnier, the Marais district, and Notre Dame, which I’d only seen from the outside.

When I got back to Fontainebleau I flipped through a book of photographs of Paris from the air. I was amazed then to see so many gorgeous sights–French gardens, museums, palaces–that I’d never seen, never even considered visiting. I understood then that you could spend a lifetime walking the streets of Paris and never see everything.

Do you appreciate it if you’re Parisian? Do you notice that everything you pass by would be the most-visited tourist site in any other city?

One can only hope that the answer is yes. That day I spent in Paris this past April was cold and rainy, and my boots were soaked through immediately after exiting the Metro. But at the end of my few hours, I emerged at Cité, the Metro stop nearest Notre Dame, and found myself surrounded by a flower market. It was unexpected and breath-taking. Instead of going to the Cathedral right away, I strolled through aisles of hydrangeas, pressed my nose into roses, took pictures of lime trees and birds-of-paradise. I don’t think I could ever not love this.

Emerging from the Metro with the flower market behind

 

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Just my type

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Have you ever really thought about letters? About how the simple act of writing is an art form, and how the science of typography is at once omnipresent and therefore often unnoticed?

I asked my dad these questions the other night, feeling epiphanic. To which he responded, well, yes, actually.

Well, duh. My dad once worked as a graphic designer, is a calligrapher, and an artist of many forms. But I had not given much thought to typography until recently. It’s amazing, really, to consider the varieties of the Roman alphabet that we recognize. Sometimes I catch myself going in and out of cursive when I’m writing fast, and wonder what an alien would think if told that those two types of r signify the same sound. It was certainly confusing to the second- and third-grade students I tutored in literacy.

And, of course, the way we write our language communicates more than just sounds. Recently, Errol Morris provided a passage for the New York Times for readers to gauge whether they were optimists or pessimists. In fact, Morris was trying to prove “the effect of typefaces on truth.” The passage was written in one of six typefaces, and readers were randomly assigned which they read. Only a few readers realized something about the typeface was strange, and these were the readers who’d been assigned the notably bad Comic Sans. Morris found that, of the six typefaces, readers seemed to trust what was written in Baskerville the most. So, if you want people to believe you, choose Baskerville. (Don’t let politicians in on this secret).

And what of poor Comic Sans? In this case readers trusted it the least, but other studies have shown that teaching concepts in difficult-to-read typefaces actually improves retention in learners. The study specifically tested easy-to-read Helvetica and Arial against Monotype Corsiva and Comic Sans Italicized. There was an uproar earlier in the summer when the the announcement of the Higgs boson particle was made in Comic Sans (one tweet said, “Every time you use Comic Sans on a powerpoint, God kills Schrödinger’s cat. Please think of the cat.”) But perhaps those who studied that powerpoint will remember the data forever. Even if it hadn’t been linked to the God particle, Comic Sans has been immortalized in McSweeney’s most popular article of all time, “I’m Comic Sans, asshole:”

There’s so much more to say about typography, but it’s getting late so I’ll just recommend checking out a few blogs on the subject: typographica, which publishes a favorite-typefaces-of-the-year list, chictype, which is full of lovely letters, and Kottke’s posts on type, which is where I got almost all my information on the subject. If you’re already a word whiz, try these challenges on kerning and letter shaping. And, after all that comic sansing, let’s clean our palettes by watching the wonderful chalk artist Dana Tanamachi create her letter art:

Color your world

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Can you paint with all the colors of the…pantone?

In my current job at an online eyewear company called Eyemusement, I often have minor assignments designing basic promotional materials–newsletters, postcards, press kits, etc. The founders of Eyemusement chose chocolate and turquoise as the main colors, which seem pretty straightforward. I’ve found out, though, that there are approximately 1 million shades of brown and 10 billion shades of turquoise (forget you, EL James–I’m sure there are at least 51 shades of gray!) I know this because I’ve spent many an afternoon trying to match one Hershey’s-chocolate brown logo to a Dove-chocolate brown box. Let’s not even get into the variations between “pool” and “Tiffany’s turquoise.”

Of course, this would all be easier if we chose one Pantone code for each of the two colors and stuck to it. Pantone is the bible of colorists and designers worldwide, offering color charts and palettes, forecasting which colors will be popular in a given year, even making up new colors. (Apparently, making up colors isn’t such a novel thing: a 19th-century British Prime Minister studied every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad and found no mentions of blue. In this Radiolab segment, a linguist and neuropsychologist discuss why, across cultures, blue is the last color to appear in human understanding).

While you or I might not associate 2009, for instance, with Palace Blue and Rose Dust (the colors forecasted that year), perhaps in some later year we’ll be able to see a pattern in the popular colors of the 2000s. I found a complete list of color-palette-by-decade since the 1880s, and there are some recognizable trends: the muted tones of the 1920s, the war-inspired colors of the 1940s, the neon-hued 1960s. And, of course, nothing is more iconic of the 1950s than Avocado and Harvest Gold. May they rest in peace.

After so much time spent matching colors, though, I was feeling pretty cocky. I thought I was pretty good at identifying when my chocolate brown needed just a little more red, or my turquoise needed a bit more yellow. And so, when I came across an online color challenge, I was sure I would get a great score. The challenge consists of 4 rows of 20 hues which you must arrange in order, from rose to turquoise to lavender and back. I lined them all up, checked my results…and found out I am terrible at distinguishing hues, except for in a few cases. I was shocked. But heck, even Monet got his colors off a little bit, especially near the end of his life. Maybe this test just signifies that I’m a genius.

Try it yourself.

What score did you get?

Monet: wrong? Or brilliantly right?

PS. Since everything relates back to books for me, here’s a list of 13 authors with corresponding color palettes. Lovely.

Judging a book by its…

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I’m a lifelong bibliophile, a perambulator of bookstores and libraries, wont to picking up books at random and taking them in on a whim. So, of course, I’m a lover of book covers.

And, except for those of us who judge books only on their e-readers, covers matter. A lot. Female British author Lionel Shriver wrote a scathing piece for The Guardian of the gender inequality of cover designs. She rightly complains that the pastel images of wistful women that her publisher’s designers suggest for her are based solely on her gender and have nothing to do with her books–intense narratives, even “nasty,” as she calls them. No one wants the label chic lit, even those who predominantly write for a female audience (I’m looking at you Jodi Picoult).

Book buyers tend to form judgements about unknown books within 10-20 seconds of seeing them. Which is why the hardcover copy of last year’s The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt:

 

 

makes such a better first impression than the paperback version:

 

 

The hardcover version is a visual double entendre, the paperback a pastel banality that makes me think I’m picking up a dry history of the wild west. Pass.

It’s pretty amazing when a book cover makes you do a double take, gives you a complete summary of the book in a single image. Designer Jenny Volvovski is currently creating new covers for books she’s read, and I love her take on Bradley Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist:

 

The main character has four wives, each with several children, and somehow the letters alone give you a sense of his life. There he is, the lonely O at the center of it all.

I could go on forever about amazing book covers, because there are so many good ones (and several blogs devoted to them). In case you’re interested, here are a lot more awesome book covers. And here’s a list of 30 books that “you should buy for the cover alone.”

But in the age of the e-reader, is the book cover an endangered art form? Chip Kidd, one of the most famous book cover designers of all time, thinks not. NPR quotes him as saying, “[Books] need some kind of visual representation, whether you’re going to be seeing them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone, or sitting on a table, or on a shelf, or in a bookstore.” Of course, he’s banking on that assumption, given that that’s how he makes a living. I hope he’s right.

Here’s his TED talk on the art of designing a book cover:

 

 

 

How to be a graphic designer

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What you’ll need: at least 2 monitors, Adobe creative suite

Songlist: anything by Bauhaus, Written in Reverse by Spoon

Further reading: um, a graphic novel? No wait, something about graphic design.

McKayla Maroney is not impressed with this logo.

Ok, last post about the Olympics. I swear.

Now, were you surprised at seeing an image as horrifically ugly as the logo above in a post about graphic design? I don’t know a whole lot about graphic design, so I didn’t follow the unveiling of the 2012 London Olympic logo or the subsequent typeface associated with it, and thus wasn’t aware of the outrage that predated my own. Because, for all my love of the Olympics, and for the million hours I spent watching TV over the past 2 weeks, I just could not get over that horrible, clunky, graceless font. (Last time I checked, the Olympics are not exactly a celebration of clunkiness).

Unfortunately, I didn’t rally any of my fellow Olympics-watchers to my cause:

“Isn’t the typography awful?”

“Eh.”

“I mean, seriously, doesn’t it just make you angry?”

“Shh, the girls are hitting the ball now.”

To console myself, I tried outlining a logo of my own, and quickly noticed that the first two letters of the host city’s name are quite similar to the current year. With a little work, something interesting could be done with that similarity. My own attempts weren’t great, but you’ll see what I mean in the following logo, created by British graphic designer Richard Voysey:

Ahhh, that’s more like it

I felt vindicated both by the Brits’ selection of Mr. Voysey’s design as the “favourite alternative logo” of the games, as well as this design blog’s list of the 8 worst fonts in the world. The London Olympics typeface, called 2012 Headline, ranks #1, worse than Papyrus, worse than Comic Sans (which didn’t even make the list). It can’t get any worse.

But I don’t just want to be one of those Debbie-downer-negative-Nancy complainers. I’ve become much more interested in graphic design over the last year or so, after a) reading blogs that frequently link to lovely infographics* and typefaces and b) having to do very basic graphic design myself for one of my jobs. On Saturday I lugged home 5 enormous history-of-graphic-design books from the library, and I mean to make a serious dent in them. At least by leafing through the pretty pictures.

Look out, world.

*The best infographics I’ve seen are by Nicholas Felton, who produces his annual Feltron report, and Warby Parker’s annual report. Here’s a sample of Nicholas Felton’s work:

Data done right.

Happily ever after

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The closing ceremonies of the Olympics are almost unbearably sad to me. Unlike the opening ceremonies when everyone dreams of winning a medal–realistically or not–the closing ceremonies are defined by the victories and defeats of the past 2 weeks. But whether or not they got the gold–and the majority of them didn’t–these athletes will be retelling their stories for the rest of their lives.

As I said to friends on Friday night, I feel so bad for most of these athletes who will spend the next 60 years wishing they’d gotten the gold medal. One friend responded, yeah, and we get to spend 80 years wishing we’d gotten a gold. Touché. Psychologically, however, it’s hardest on silver medalists. While bronze medalists are generally happy just to be on the podium, and non-medalists are generally happy to even be a part of the Olympics, silver medalists are those who missed out by a thousandth of a point or a thousandth of a second. Just ask Lashinda Demus, American hurdler who vowed to never quit until she bumped up her silver status to gold, or McKayla Maroney, whose sour expression on the second-tier silver podium spawned the meme McKayla is not impressed.

Not impressed.

And for those who did get the gold? What happens after the end of the fairy tale? What will Michael Phelps and Misty May Treanor do, for goodness sake, without swimming or beach volleyball?

The second half of the musical Into the Woods wonders what happens after “happily ever after,” and the answer is not a rosy picture. The show ends with the Children Will Listen, a song which cautions that wishes do come true, but “sometimes the spell may last / past what you may see / and turn against you.”

Hopefully that won’t be the case for the Olympians now returning to their home countries. Because, even if McKayla isn’t, we are certainly impressed with our fairy tale heroes and heroines, and hope that “happily ever after” really can come true.

Grimm and grimmer

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A few weeks ago I checked out Coursera, the website that grants access to free online classes in a range of topics led by professors at top universities. Pretty good deal, right? Several of the imminent classes sounded interesting: Introduction to Sustainability, for instance, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. However, knowing nothing about either of these subjects I decided to sign up for a class that I have some background in: a literature course called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. After signing up, though, I realized I didn’t really have an extra 10+ hours a week necessary for all the readings, lectures, and essays.

In fact, the main reason I was interested in the class was the first reading, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and thus I decided to just read them on my own.

As you might expect, the tales are odd. We know some of the famous ones–Hansel and Grethel, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella (called Aschenputtel in German, a decidedly unattractive name). And while there are several tales of beautiful maidens being rescued from evil stepmothers by kings, there are many more with talking animals and and lies that are not always punished. Most of the stories, really, seem written by children, with a child’s wandering logic and miscellaneous details and rules.

In the woods

Children’s tales are generally fashioned to teach lessons, but Grimm’s lessons are often puzzling. In Hansel and Grethel the poor father is loathe to leave his children in the forest, but agrees with his cruel wife. When his children reappear at the house after Hansel’s flint stones lead them back, the father is overjoyed yet must agree once more with his wife to bring them out into the woods. For, as the story asserts, “he who says A must say B too, and when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.”

In some stories, young girls who make promises are forced to make good on them (such as in The Frog Prince). Yet, in other instances, cruelty is rewarded. Cat and Mouse in Partnership tells the story of a cat and mouse who save a pot of fat to tide them through the upcoming winter. The cat can’t wait to eat it and steals away three times to eat it by himself. When the winter finally falls and the mouse discovers the cat’s duplicity, the cat eats the mouse. The final sentence of the story simply reads: “And that is the way of the world.” Hardly comforting. Likewise, in The Wolf and Seven Goslings, a wolf asks a baker to cover him in flour so that he might disguise himself and eat the eponymous goslings. The baker at first refuses, not wanting to collude with the evil wolf, but finally agrees. The story gives us this wisdom: “And that just shows what men are.”

Perhaps the strangest two stories I read, though, were The Death of the Hen and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. In the first, a hen dies choking and several animals join in to carry her body to a burial site. While crossing a stream, though, they all drown. Her husband remains, buries her, and then buries himself alongside because he’s so filled with grief.

In the second story, a straw, a coal, and a bean escape a woman’s stovetop and set out together on a journey. They, too, come to a stream and the straws lays himself across it so that his new friends might pass over. The coal stops in the middle of the straw out of fear, but the coal’s heat burns the straw and they both fall in the water and…die? Can we say that about a coal and a straw? Meanwhile, the bean finds his friends’ demise so hilarious that she literally bursts with laughter. A kind tailer sews her up with black thread. So, Grimms, what are we to make of it all? Only this: “All beans since then have a black seam.”

Ah yes, an important lesson to teach the children.