| September 1, 2010 8:52 pm

The Elements of Typographic Style, Letterform AnatomySince starting work on the Open Source Writing project, I’ve become hyper attentive to many little things that I’d previously overlooked.  For example, I’ve started to notice the typefaces in books, magazines and advertisements and think, “I wonder what that is” and even contrive thoughts on how things might have been done better.

I’ve also started to visit my local bookstore much more frequently.  I go to browse the art and design books and the magazines.  I want to see what other authors are doing (particularly those of art, design and computer books).  I enjoy looking at their layouts and comparing them to the style I’ve chose to use.  I look at the prose and illustrations and think about components that I might make use of.  While in the store, I’ve also become interested in how people interact with the books on display.

If you’ve never people-watched in a bookstore, I highly recommend it.  It’s very revealing and you’ll immediately notice several different groups.  Some of the buyers like to pull multiple titles from the shelves and then go to the coffee shop to  review them; others will wander the aisles until they find a title that catches their eye; and still others will compare similar books side by side.

It doesn’t take long to see that book-store shoppers are very different than those who use sites such as Amazon.com.  Browsing in a store is a tactile and interactive experience, and for that reason, decisions are made based on sight and touch as much as they are on feedback, reviews and more logical factors.

For this reason, I want to see which books get picked up by shoppers, and, I want to know which ones stay in hand versus those that go back to the shelf.  I’d like to understand why a patron chooses one Photoshop or Illustrator book over another and what factors go into making a purchase.  Most importantly, though, I want to know if there are a few general principles that I can use to make my own work more attractive and, as a result, more likely to get bought.  (I’ve also spoken with the book store management and they’ve been kind enough to share some of the sales statistics with me.)

It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned many lessons that I’m trying to put into practice.

There is one lesson, however, that stands above the rest.  The art, design and computer books that are successful all share one thing in common: they are visually stunning and incorporate amazing examples.  Every last one of them.

In fact, stunning visuals might just be the single deciding factor as shoppers try and determine which book will go home with them.  The content, after all is mostly the same.  They all cover the same fundamental principles and techniques, and for that reason, must differentiate themselves on appearance.

And in the very best art/computer graphics/design books (such as Thinking with Type, the  Adobe Classroom in a Book series, and anything by Edward Tufte), the illustrations aren’t just stunning, they are positively lavish.  More than that, though, they are practical, illustrative, useful, and provide enormous value to the text.  They make an impact, and for that reason, they sell books.

The Typography Workbook, Letterform Anatomy

Page layout from the Typographic Workbook showing letterform anatomy.

Smoke Effects - Photoshop

Last step in a tutorial describing how to create a smoke effect using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.  Image taken from psdtuts+.

* * *

Stunning visuals and attention to detail sell more than just books, though.  It’s the little details, polish and refinements that give Macintosh computers their luxury distinction and are responsible for current surge in marketshare.  Moreover,  the inclusion of professionally designed, highly attractive templates is generally what distinguishes Keynote from PowerPoint (even though their feature sets are virtually identical).  Or the well-thought out interiors of a Mercedes Benz that prompts people to blow $50,000 when a $20,000 Dodge Stratus is just as serviceable.

Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed something else, and it’s something that scares me a great deal (particularly since I am an open source user, developer and sometimes advocate).  Very few of the books describing open source tools seem to incorporate such stunning examples.

In some cases, the authors seem to be actively competing in the creation of grotesque monstrosities.  Consider this example, from the Inkscape section from the otherwise excellent book “Crafting Digital Media.”

Crafting Digital Media - Inkscape

Other than it’s utility for demonstrating program features, in much the same fashion that a spec sheet might, I’m not sure what point this illustration serves.  It isn’t the type of graphic that I am trying to create, nor does it contain any effects that I would want to emulate in my own work.  To be honest, it’s downright ghastly and the first time I saw it, it caused me to dismiss the book out of hand.  It was only later, only after a friend recommended the work, that I took a second look.

(I’m really glad I did as the section on GIMP and Scribus have been helpful in determining the scope of my chapters on those subjects..)

But even though I would like to say that the example is singular in its hideousness, it isn’t, and, this distresses me.  Even though open source tools are extremely capable and can match proprietary equivalents in nearly every respect, the how-to literature is on the light end.  If you compare a high-quality book on Photoshop with an equivalent title on the GIMP, there is little contest.  The visuals in the Photoshop book will suck you in and inspire you.  Not only will you want to buy the book, but you will find yourself pining after the proprietary software so you can do similar stuff.  The GIMP book (like the program) is certainly serviceable, but without tangible examples, you would never know this.  In comparison, it even feels half baked and you might come away thinking that Photoshop is required in order to achieve stunning effects.

(In the art and design world, you would be amazed at how much credit is given to the tool rather than to the artistic ability and eye of the artist.)

I’m not really sure why open source how-to titles have this half-baked feeling.  Perhaps it’s because they lack the budget of the proprietary equivalents or maybe it’s because the authors don’t think they are targeting a professional audience.  In either case, however, it needs to be rectified.

We need to move beyond merely serviceableif we want to win users away from other solutions.  The software, the documentation and the examples that we show need to be spectacular.  Such examples certainly exist (such as the iamge below, which was produced using GIMP), as can be seen from work happening in the Blender project.

Some have even been worked into templates and are available for free.  But they aren’t getting disseminated, and they aren’t visible enough.

Chaos and Evolutions - GIMP Example

There are many beautiful examples of work produced with Open Source Tools, such as the character designs and illustrations done for Chaos and Evolutions, which were produced using the GIMP.

Until we can inspire potential users, open source isn’t going to gain much traction in the market nor is it going to get much respect.  I suppose this is fine, if you’re happy with a 1% to 2% market share and a permanent spot on the sidelines.

I, for one, am not.  When I finally finish and release my book, I want it to sell well.  I’d like for it to provide some kind of an income that allows me to work on similar projects.  It might even be nice if the market validated the insane amount of time I’ve spent working on it.  In short, I want to bring new users to the Open Source camp, not merely talk to those who already here.

But for any of that to happen, I need to create awesome visuals, insanely great text, and tremendously useful content.  I need to inspire people and that requires that I put my best foot forward.  In the drive to bring new users to open source and Linux, I would argue that the community needs to do likewise.


One Response to “Best Foot Forward”

Benjamin wrote a comment on December 8, 2010

I stumbled across your site while reading your message on the Ubuntu-art mailing list. I couldn’t agree more with many of the things you talk about, here in this post, and elsewhere on this site.

I’m a visual artist (working in clay), so I wasn’t ‘required’ to purchase the adobe suite in college. My sister though, who does in house graphic design for an art gallery, has gone this route. She loves her mac, (it is pretty cool) but has not given much consideration to open-source software, specifically Inkscape or Scribus.

I’ve learned to use these tools because they are free, but many other people need it to be free *and* sexy! Thanks for the fun posts!

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