Deep Thoughts

I studied philosophy in college which means I’m supposed to actually have deep thoughts. But how profound is, for example, typography? Interesting or not, here are some unfiltered opinions.



Adobe Garamond: the perfect serif font.

Adobe Garamond is the most beautiful serif font, and I think we can all agree that the serif fonts are generally more characterful, more interesting and generally more lovely than the sans serif fonts. Which means that of all the fonts in the world, Adobe Garamond is the most beautiful font, period.

Arial vs. Helvetica. I was going to say what a piece of crap I thought Arial was compared to Helvetica—and I really detest it—but why? I hate the diagonally-cut terminals, but a few of the letterforms really are a bit better: the lower case “a” in the regular weight doesn’t have the quirky spur like Helvetica has, and the uppercase “G” is really quite lovely. But overall it’s just a bit too geometrical and somehow unrefined.


The new Helvetica, Frutiger, again designed by a Swiss guy. What is it about the Swiss and sans serif fonts?

Frutiger is fantastic. I used to think it was the “new” Helvetica and then I didn’t anymore and now I do again. It looks “modern” but also warm, friendly and open. But in a Minnesotan kinda way: happy enough to see you but not so much that we need to hug.


Herman Zapf’s Optima. Most of you will know his work from Zapf Dingbats

When I first started design work in the 1980s, Optima felt at first glance like what Frutiger actually is. I loved the humanist forms but Optima seldom worked right on the page. Ultimately I rarely used it. On the other hand, Frutiger works every time. The many weights speak to every kind of emphasis and it’s an easy-to-read sans-serif.


Hideous Times Roman on the left. Note how abruptly the bowl joins the stem; the chopped-off serif, the ungainly thin-thick weights. By contrast, the elegant Adobe Garamond is smooth and tasteful in every regard.

Every good designer I’ve worked with just LOVES type. If I were looking to hire a graphic designer, I’d ask them a question about Times Roman and see if they sneered, or I’d query them on kerning headlines. If they got a dreamy, far-off look in their eyes and they wouldn’t stop talking about it, I’d hire them on the spot.

Drawing Men’s Underwear

I already mentioned that if you were to tell any straight, adolescent boy that he’s going to grow up to draw underwear he’d be pretty excited. But then mention that it’s going to be men’s underwear and the smile would fade.

Drawing men’s underwear involves certain challenges. Here’s how that looks: First, all these illustrations are based on — and start with — photography. How do you ask a friend to model underwear (I’ve done that)? Usually I resort to self portraiture. But I’m no Charles Atlas so after overcoming the humiliation of picking the least offensive shot, I go to work in Photoshop and turn the pixels into an attractively shaped (and, well, sized) pair of underwear.

Size does matter, but not like that. The, uh, “junk” has to fill the underwear but not fill it too much (that would be porn) but not too little either. It has to look just respectably sized.
And then there’s detail. Or not so much: one should be able to guess at the constituent components but not really make out any kind of details.

Funny, when I was a little kid drawing planes, train and submarines, I didn’t see any of this coming.



Michelangelo: great artist but also just another gun-for-hire.

Now and again I’m accused of being an “artist.” Which is nonsense. I’m an illustrator and in spite of the expressions of pity I get when I insist on the difference (“why don’t you think you’re good enough to be called an artist?”), being an illustrator isn’t a bad, or even a lesser thing. For starters the pay tends to be much better. And as Charles Russell said, “Any man that can make a living doing what he likes is lucky, and I’m that.”

Here’s the difference: artists have something to say, some larger meaning to express. Illustrators just draw stuff. If I had something to say, I’d just say it out loud (my friends will all vouch for my unfiltered opinions). If I needed to get it out visually, then maybe you could call me an artist. But all I really want to do is have somebody hand me stuff to draw, or pages to lay out.

And another thing: all the great masters before the advent of photography were essentially for-hire illustrators, trying to find paying clients and getting long-term gigs: “I have this chapel celling I’d like you to look at painting. It’s pretty big, but it shouldn’t take too long,” or “you know, a lot of people at court love this portrait you painted of my wife. You could get plenty of work if you stuck around a while…” Yes, they were passionate about their work, yes they were gifted, yes they were creative, yes they were driven — often by their own demons; just like the best graphic designers and illustrators still are.

Being Self-employed

Why work 40 hours a week for somebody else when you can work 80 hours a week for yourself? But it’s not the same: there were many late days in the studio I hated to see come to an end. I think it’s about a kind of ownership you get as your own boss.

Illustration, Tracing and Photography


Speaking of using photographic reference, here’s a sample from the best-know illustrator ever, Norman Rockwell. His reference photo…


…and the final art. Note how broad the trooper’s shoulders have become and the changes in the boy’s position. Plus, the cook has become an older co-conspirator with the cop instead of just a young onlooker.

Folks probably think we illustrators pose a model or just “imagine” what something looks like and draw that. In fact, for the past 4-5 decades nearly every realistic-looking illustration you’ve see in a magazine, a catalog or on a book cover started it’s life as a photograph. I didn’t know that when I embarked on my career: I’d laboriously pose the things I had to draw and spend hours glancing back and forth, drawing, erasing, redrawing. The results were uneven at best. Then a friend who was a big-time illustrator suggesting shooting pictures and tracing the photos. “Everyone does that,” he said. “Do your clients really want to pay you to waste time?” I took his advice 23 years ago and haven’t looked back. So really I’m just a tracer.

The Curious Letter R

As Americans we give little thought to how special the sound of the letter R is, but ask any German (or Frenchman, or Italian, or Japanese person) to say “mirror” slowly and you might realize there’s something going on.

I’ve travelled some and listened a lot, and the only country besides Canada which uses our quirky R sound is Ireland. The English tend to swallow theirs, and the Scots trill theirs—much like Mexicans, Spaniards, Italians and southern Germans. The French turn their Rs into a gargle and the northern Germans and Swiss make it sound like they’re clearing their throats. Their R-sound is part of the reason German speakers make this joke: “German isn’t a language, it’s a throat disease.” The Japanese have a sound halfway between L and R.* All this reflects the history of this letter: for most of its life and in most places it was trilled; even in Shakespeare’s time it was known as the “dog’s name” (littera canina) because it was growled with a back-of-the-throat trill. Why and how we changed it into this weird sound, this easy-for-us pursing of the lips and tucking of the tongue, unpronounceable by most of the world, I do not know. Maybe we can blame the millions of Irish immigrants.

Because my name starts with an R, I’ve been overly fond of the letter since childhood. As a kid, nothing seemed odd about it, just another middle-of-the-alphabetic-pack hanger-on. Then I studied German, and then French (where I received my one college D—for “done” as it turned out) and realized how quirky our R was—and, by extension, how quirky our American speech is.

*This is no coincidence: both L and R are voiced (i.e., your vocal cords vibrate, unlike when you use the sound sh or ch) semivowels. That is, they’re related sounds. This accounts for the vaguely racist joke about Japanese people saying “flied lice” instead of “fried rice”. Though many languages distinguish between these sounds, many others do not. And let this be a lesson: there are lots of sounds available to speakers of other languages that we Americans can’t touch.