Glossary of Terms

This blog entry begins a new category on this blog site that will gradually be added to, though it will be by no means exhaustive.

The sign world has long had a collection of trade terms that are not well known outside the industry. And I have even met sign makers, some having been in business for years, who are not familiar with terms that were once commonplace among sign artists (for example, pounce pattern). And, as the sign business continues to move away from hand lettering and to blend with the printing trade and its related field of typography, terminology is often misunderstood by sign makers not familiar with print jargon. The terms logo and font are two examples of terms commonly misunderstood, or used imprecisely, both inside and outside the sign industry.

At the same time, language is not static. It is a living, breathing animal that is constantly changing. Definitions will continue to evolve.

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Metal printing press letters
Historically, fonts were collections of metal type that were stored in divided drawers or cases. A single font would have included an assortment of letters, punctuation and numbers in a single point size, although larger print shops may have owned multiple fonts of the same size to increase production. Modern-day fonts are software programs loaded onto computers. Font software is protected by copyright law in the US.

FONT  [n.]   Brit. FOUNT   a complete assortment of type of one style and size.

Origin: probably from Middle French fonte, the act of founding or casting, from Vulgar Latin fundita, fem. of funditas, a verbal noun, the past participle of Latin fundere, to found, pour or cast.

A font, or collection of type, was originally made of metal by the process of casting, or founding. The metal was commonly an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. Fonts were stored in print shops in compartmentalized drawers or cases. Type compositors stood in front of the font assortments, selecting type from either the ‘upper case’ (capital letters) or the ‘lower case’ (noncapital letters). Though printing is still accomplished using metal type, the vast majority of printing is now composed with digital type. Fonts are now pieces of software, programs really, that are loaded onto computers to drive printers and other output devices to produce lettering in a particular typeface. An analogy to music can help explain the difference between a typeface and a font: If a typeface is like a song, a font is like an mp3 file. The song is what you hear, but the file is what produces it. Similarly, a typestyle is what you see, while a font is the digital tool that produces it. In practice, the word font is often used without much precision, sometimes interchangeably with the word typeface. As the digital age continues, and the original meaning of the word font fades, the distinction between typeface and font may disappear altogether.—see related post, Sign painters didn’t use fonts

In the US, a font (the software) is protected by copyright, whereas a typestyle (the design) is not. Both the US Congress and the US Copyright Office have made it clear that the design of letters cannot be protected. However, the name of a font may receive trademark protection. —see related post, Is a typestyle protected by copyright?

 

 

 

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Does vinyl film have a shelf life?

Rolls of plastic

Yes, it does.

Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is the primary resin that makes up the vinyl sheeting used by the sign industry for computer-cut graphics as well as printed decals. The manufacture of vinyl sheet involves the blending of PVC resin with other ingredients, such as UV absorbers, heat stabilizers, pigments, fillers—and plasticizers.

Plasticizers are the reason for vinyl’s shelf life. Or rather, it is due to the phenomenon of “plasticizer migration.”

 

Plasticizers—What are they?

Plasticizers are generally clear liquid components that, when mixed with PVC, soften it, making it flexible, so that it can be formed, welded, etc.

There is an almost bewildering variety of vinyl films used in sign work—with a wide range of quality and cost. Some of the differences in the vinyls are due to the quality level of the raw materials used. The manufacturing process is also a factor. Less expensive vinyls are produced by an extrusion process called calendering, which uses heated rollers to process softened PVC into a thin film. Calendering lends itself to high production and lower manufacturing costs. More expensive vinyls are produced by casting, a process that starts with the PVC as a molten liquid which is then spread out or cast onto a moving web, a flat sheet that carries the layer of vinyl through a series of ovens that evaporate the solvents, leaving behind a thin dry film. Cast films are inherently more stable (they shrink less) and they are more durable. They retain color better and are more UV resistant longer.

The choice of plasticizers has an affect on quality, too. Cast vinyls, generally, are produced with higher grade plasticizers, allowing them to be more flexible and conformable. This allows for better performance over rivets, corrugations and complex curves. These plasticizers are also more stable, not as prone to migration. This is because their molecular weight is greater; the molecular chain is longer, more complex. It makes them more durable.

 

Plasticizer migration

A tech sheet from Arlon (April 2014), a vinyl manufacturer since 1958, indicates that the reason for vinyl’s limited shelf life is usually contamination of the adhesive by the plasticizer in the PVC. As vinyl ages, the plasticizer “migrates” to the surfaces front and back, and eventually saturates the adhesive, gradually “deadening” it. Adverse storage conditions, such as a hot supplier warehouse, can accelerate plasticizer migration. Also, cheaper vinyls use cheaper plasticizers that are less stable. They transfer to the adhesive more easily. Other vinyls have plasticizers that are more resistant to migration. Adhesives vary, too. Some are more resistant to plasticizer contamination than others.

Not all plastics rely on plasticizers the way PVC does. Most manufactured plasticizers are, in fact, made for PVC products. Vinyl sheeting for sign work may contain as much as 20-25% plasticizer.
Plasticizer migration is a cause of concern in some industries that use PVC extensively. This is because the plasticizer, though necessary, can also become a contaminant.  Examples of areas of concern are the manufacture of PVC products made for food storage and packaging, medical equipment (tubing, bags, etc), and the plastic sheet used as liners in landfills and water treatment plants.

 

 

What’s in a Logo design? What makes it good?

What exactly is a logo?

One dictionary defines it simply as “a symbol that represents an organization or company, used, for example, in its advertisements or on its products.” In the words of well-known designer Michael Bierut in his new book, How To:,

The logo is the simplest form of graphic communication. In essence, it is a signature, a way to say, “This is me.”

 

A logo can be very abstract. The Nike swoosh, for example, or the red triangle for Bass ale, one of the oldest logos. Other logo marks carry a more literal, less abstract, meaning. The Target target is an example. It is an obvious play on the word. The yellow shell for Shell Oil, and Apple’s apple with its cutesy bite, are two more examples.

Many logos are nothing more than typography. The 3M logo is simple Helvetica Black, in red. Other than the fact that the two letters kiss each other it is completely unstylized. The current Microsoft logo is a combination of typography and abstract symbol —the letterstyle Segoe is paired with four colored squares.

microsoft_new_logo_detail

When a logo is designed it is hoped that it will eventually come to provide instant recognition for a company or a brand. So that means that the design of the logo is extremely important, right? Well, isn’t it?

How important is the design of a logo?

My answer to that is that maybe it’s not as important as you might think. I believe that too much ado is often made of logo design, in the symbolism involved, and in the psychology of color. Michael Bierut, a partner at the design consultancy firm Pentagram, said, “people forget that a brand new logo seldom means a thing.” Noted designer and author John McWade said plainly, “The job of a logo is to identify, not sell or explain. That’s for marketing. Any simple image that does this will usually work. It helps if it’s attractive.” [my italics].

The current 3M logo, in its tomato-y helvetica-ness, might be considered a fail by many design standards. Yet it replaces an older logo that many designers found to be downright ugly. The two designs are as different as night and day. Would you consider either one to be the product of design genius? Nevertheless, the 3M brand has enjoyed a positive reputation for many, many years, through all of its design permutations, and there have been many. Does a logo make a company look good, or is it the other way round?

 

 

I am reminded of the words of a king considered to have been exceptionally wise: “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” (—Ecclesiastes 7:1 in the Christian Bible). How can the day of your death be better than your birthday? Well, when you are born, your life is like a book with blank pages. Will you be loved or hated? Admired or reviled? No one knows. On the other hand, by the time of your death, the pages are filled. Your reputation is established. If you die as someone beloved and admired by others, perhaps having lived a remarkable life of good works, then your day of death will be better than the day of your birth.

And so it is with the birth of a logo design. It is relatively unimportant.

Listen to the words of Michael Bierut: 

 

 

 

 


 

What, exactly, were they dumping?

The client, a property management group, said there was a problem with unauthorized dumping. They needed some signs and they wanted them worded exactly as shown below. We made them on heavy gauge aluminum and used reflective vinyl.

I’m sure no one will get the impression that bodies were being found at this unauthorized dumping site. Still, the awkward sentence structure made me smile… because surely even the worst builders and contractors deserve a decent burial!

 

NO DUMPING OF ANY KIND_10 May 2016

Prescient words from 1895.

I was browsing a digitized version of a trade journal for printers and allied trades called The Inland and American Printer and Lithographer, published in Chicago over 120 years ago, and I ran across a striking forecast. It appeared in the August, 1895, issue and was part of a contributed piece by a Mr. R. Coupland Harding.

Here’s what he wrote: “William Morris has predicted that typography will cease to exist during the next century, and he may be right in his forecast. I see it threatened by the camera, the etching fluid, and by the (at present) harmless and inoffensive ‘typewriter,’ in the keyboard of which lies the germ of something much greater in the future.”

Coupland Harding, if he were alive today, would be amazed to see the changes that have occurred in the printing industry because of the ‘harmless and inoffensive’ keyboard since he wrote those words. William Morris (designer, typographer, poet, writer, printer, artist, who died the year after the above article was written) would probably share Harding’s amazement to see how events have unfolded in the following 100 years as exploding technology made its impact on printing, as well as graphic art and design. Already, in the closing years of that century, patent applications were flooding the US Patent Office with designs and inventions for mechanized typesetting. The successful surviving technologies, Monotype and Linotype, were already found in bigger print shops, putting out of work many compositors, hand typesetters and the like. These metal monsters, controlled by a keyboard, would quickly dominate the world of typesetting and then die a slow death, eclipsed for a short while by photo typesetting processes, and then be gone forever by the end of the B.C. Era (Before Computers). Of course, the keyboard never died. It just morphed with the industry.

A similar deathfate has been experienced by a trade related to printing. Sign painting— hand lettering—though still kept alive by a few, has all but disappeared, also as a result of the ‘harmless’ keyboard. The keyboard is immortal. It is a changling. It will never die.

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R. Coupland Harding

Intrigued by his letter written to the Inland Printer, I found that Coupland Harding was an influential typographer and critic of his day. The son of a printer, he lived in New Zealand. Here is a link to some biographical information:

Short Biography of R. Coupland Harding

 

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William Morris

William Morris (1834–1896) was well known in the design world during his lifetime. He was known for his work in textiles, and he was a mover and shaker in the Arts & Crafts movement. A poet and novelist as well, he contributed to the fantasy genre in its infancy. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has an extensive collection of his wallpaper and tile designs.

William_Morris_age_53

 

What is a logo? What is it not?

The term logo is commonly misunderstood outside the graphic arts world.

At times we have had clients ask us to put a “logo” on a sign and then they provide us with an image they obtained from a clipart service. Once, someone asked me to “find a house logo” on the internet to put on some sign work. Both these requests illustrate how the word logo is commonly misunderstood by the general public. The misconception is that a logo is any graphic image or any piece of artwork.

 

What really is a logo?

Here is a clear and accurate definition of logo: a specially designed mark or emblem used by organizations to aid in promoting instant recognition. It may be composed of letters only or a graphic symbol, or a combination of both. It may embody a trade name or a trademark or both.

The word logo is actually an abbreviation of logotype. A logotype, in the days of printing with metal type, was a single word cast as one piece of type. A logotype was similar to a ligature, except that a ligature was only two or three letters joined in one casting rather than an entire word. In a ligature, the letters themselves are joined, too. Ligatures were created as a way of solving an awkward or unsightly spacing problem between a letter pair. In a logotype, letters may or may not have been joined, but they were cast all together as one large piece of metal type.

Row of ligatures in vintage wood type
Row of ligatures in vintage wood type. Ligatures were a way of modifying unsightly spaces between letters by joining the letters and rendering them on one block or slug of type.

 

By extension, logotype eventually came to mean more than just a casting of an entire word, but referred to any uniquely arranged set of letters. In common usage today, a logo is a specially designed word or symbol, or combination of word and symbol, that officially represents a company or organization, or that represents goods or services of  an organization. Legally, the name of a company is known as its trade name, and a logo may embody a trade name. If a logo or a name identifies a product or service of a company it may function as a trademark or service mark. If a trade name identifies goods or services of a company in addition to being the company name, it may serve as both trade name and trademark. For example, Sony is the name of an electronics company. On letterheads and business cards the Sony name functions as a trade name. But when it is used on consumer goods, such as televisions, it is a trademark.

A logo may be very simple, such as the 3M logo,

3M_ok

or elaborate like the Anheuser-Busch logo.

Anheuser-Busch

It is of note that the 3M logo is type only, devoid of any design treatment other than the fact that the letters kiss. And it is composed of one of the most ubiquitous of letterstyles: Helvetica. By many logo design standards, it would be considered a fail. Yet the 3M brand has been highly regarded for many years, proof that a logo is not what constitutes a brand. Further, while a logo is important, its design may not be as important as some (designers) would have you believe. Logo design, along with other trade dress is not unimportant or trivial. But successful branding involves far more than the design of a logo. Indeed, a brand may develop a reputation of high esteem quite apart from any graphics design associated with it. In contrast, another brand may acquire a bad reputation in spite of excellent design work in its advertising and trade dress.

Some logos are not composed of type at all, but are abstract. The Nike swoosh and the McDonald’s arches carry little meaning intrinsically, but have acquired meaning with time and can easily stand alone and convey meaning without words. The McDonald’s arches are so distinctive that, sitting atop a highway sign, they can be recognized from distances long before lettering is legible. The triangle shape that is part of the Bass ale logo is one of the simplest as well as one of the oldest logomarks in existence.

Bass_Ale

Can a photograph be the basis for a logo? Well, the Michael Jordan “jump man” silhouette, a logo created for Nike, is based on a posed photograph. Other logos incorporate photos also, though it’s not a common treatment.

Nike’s Michael Jordan logo is based on a posed photo of the athlete executing a ballet move.
Nike’s Michael Jordan logo is based on a posed photo of the athlete executing a ballet move.

 

What a logo is not.

Can a clipart image be a logo?  Generally, no.

paint man clipart
A clipart provider typically prohibits the use of its images, such as this one from Adobe Stock, in logos, trademarks and branding.

 

Remember that a logo represents a company or its products or services. It serves to aid in identifying a company, making it recognizable apart from others. By definition it should be unique. A graphic image that is sold by a clipart supplier is legally available to anyone and cannot function as a unique identifier. For example, if a number of house painting companies all use the same stock image of a man with a paint brush on their signs and printed literature, the image fails to identify any one company. Rather, using the same image can give the appearance that the companies are related in some way, perhaps even all part of the same company. Does this not defeat the purpose of a having a logo? Further, none of these companies could legally own their logo if it contains clipart that they don’t own. What good is a logo if you cannot own it and protect it? Clipart companies do not normally sell complete ownership of their images. They are merely licensing them to users, usually for limited use. A company’s logo should be a design that belongs to the company, not a design that is just rented. If a company tries to exercise ownership of a design that incorporates clipart, it is a violation of many clipart agreements. Many clipart providers, in fact, specifically forbid the use of their images as part of a logo design or branding scheme.

Here is a link to iStock Photo’s license agreement forbidding use of its images in logo designs:

http://www.istockphoto.com/legal/license-agreement

A logo design that incorporates clipart would probably not be granted trademark registration in the US. It is not protectable as intellectual property.

Can a logo design use an image that is in the public domain? Well, how could such a design function as a unique identifier if it’s available to everyone? And again, how could it be protected? How could it receive trademark protection if it cannot be owned?

 

Does it really matter how we use the word logo?

Is using terminology correctly really so important? After all, the word logo is not really a legal term in the world of intellectual property. And its meaning has changed over the years. So what’s the big deal?

Think about this: as designers and makers of signs, we are actually in the business of communication. Good sign work involves effective communication, and should impart information clearly, and ideally, in a minimum amount of time. Signs that do not clearly communicate serve only to create problems, and in the end, waste a client’s money.

Clear communication is not just important for the messages on signs. It is necessary for business in general, at all levels and in every aspect. Using incorrect terminology in the sign and design world may not be life-threatening or create health risks like it does in some fields (healthcare, for example), but it can have detrimental effects in many areas leading to: lost productivity, duplication of effort, poor quality, increased costs, wasted time, client dissatisfaction, liability issues.

Communication between sign designer, sign builder and sign buyer should be free of confusion and clearly understood. The sign/design game has a unique vocabulary of terms that are often misunderstood by those outside the business. The continued success of the industry depends, at least in part, on clear communication among all the players.

Is trademark infringement really wrong?

When a company takes legal action over a perceived trademark infringement, it is sometimes accused of being a bully.

A pub in the St. Louis area began selling a drink with a name similar to a Starbucks drink name. So Starbucks sent a cease-and desist letter to the owner. In the world of intellectual property, a cease-and-desist letter is a routine first step in defending a trademark against infringement. These types of letters are sent all the time and are rarely newsworthy.

The sending of the Starbucks letter, however, was picked up by news media and the result was a little storm of bad publicity, with Starbucks being accused of heavy-handedly overreacting. Public sentiment favored the pub owner and the account read like a David and Goliath story.

My first reaction was, “but, trademark infringement is wrong, isn’t it?” My next thought was, “wait a minute, who is overreacting here?” A cease-and-desist letter is not heavy-handed. It’s a warning shot, the smallest warning shot possible, really. It is intended to stop an infringement at its earliest stage, to nip it in the bud, before costly litigation becomes necessary.

As I learned in intellectual property class at the community college, if a company does not vigorously defend its trademarks against even small infringements, it can have a harder time defending them later from more significant threats. Failure to defend a trademark in the early stages of infringement can weaken a trademark suit later in court.

But Americans love an underdog. A little guy is often perceived as the good guy and a big corporation is seen as the bad guy for no other reason than size. It’s a well-worn Hollywood stereotype: small is good, big is bad. The bigger, the badder.

On the other hand, might this little hoo-ha over a Starbucks trademark be more than just an example of the underdog effect at work? Could it also be an indication that many do not view intellectual property as legitimate property? And that infringement is not really wrong? I suspect so.

The truth is, intellectual property, be it a trademark or a copyright, is property in every sense of the word. It can be bought, sold or leased. It can be bequeathed, inherited, left in a will. In some cases it can have great value. It is worthy of protection, just like any piece of property that has value.

If someone broke into the offices of a large real estate company and stole a dozen “For Sale” signs, who would blame the company for prosecuting the thief? Would the company be accused of being a bully, of overreacting? Yet, to a company like ReMax Real Estate its trademarks are far more valuable than a few yard signs. That’s why it is known for aggressively pursuing infringers. A trademark may be one of a company’s most valuable assets. It has been estimated that the Coca-Cola logo is worth 70 billion dollars. Is it any wonder that a company would take measures to protect such a valuable asset?

I believe that many people do not fully appreciate that intellectual property really is property. A house or land, even a car is easier for them to think of as property, because you can see and touch these things. The loss of these is often difficult to recover from financially.

For a business, the loss of valued trademarks could inflict irreparable damage. It is no wonder that for certain types of willful trademark infringement in the US, the penalties can be in the millions of dollars.

 

 

Is a typestyle protected by copyright?

No, it isn’t. At least, not in the United States. On the other hand, a font IS protected by copyright.

Does this seem confusing? If so, it’s because so many people use the term “font” to refer to a “typestyle” or “typeface.” The two terms are really not interchangeable.

A typeface, or typestyle, is a set of letters, including numbers, punctuation and assorted glyphs, that all share similar design characteristics. They may have similar shapes, strokes, serifs and other details. In printed form, they all look to be part of the same family due to their design. In the United States, a letterstyle  does not qualify for copyright registration.

So what is a font? Though many people use the word ‘font’ as a synonym for letterstyle, it is really what is used to produce letters in a form that can be viewed. A font is a piece of software, a program really, that allows a computer to command a printer (or router, or laser engraver, or embroidery machine) to produce the letters in physical form. Originally, a font was a set of metal type pieces in a particular size and typestyle for loading onto a printing press. To create a complete font of type was labor-intensive and expensive. Nowadays, a font is generally composed of unique digital code. This code is protected by copyright, and it cannot be copied without permission from the copyright owner.

Additionally, font names can be protected by trademark law, just like brand names. This is why you can buy a font (actually, a license to use the font) for your computer for printing letters that look exactly like Helvetica, but they are called something else. Someone owns the Helvetica font, the name and the underlying software, and that’s not the license you bought. You bought a license to use a differently programmed piece of software with a different name. But what you print looks just like Helvetica letters, because the Helvetica font owners don’t own what the letters look like, the design.

Of course, this is US law. The laws on fonts and typestyles may  and does vary in other countries.

Helvetica       Helvetica

Helvetica   Swiss

Optical illusions in letter construction

straight_round

When I first watched a sign painter hand lettering, I was spellbound by his ability to shape beautifully consistent letter forms with a quill, his name for a lettering brush. He didn’t draw the letters first, other than some quick marks for placement. I also noticed that he made the round letters, like the ‘S’ and the ‘O,’ slightly taller than the straight letters. The round letters protruded above and below the lines. Thinking these were mistakes at first, I soon saw he was making the letters bigger intentionally. When I asked him why, he said it was “so they would all look the same height.”

So began my introduction to the many optical illusions involved in lettering. Since then I have learned that there is even a typographical name for the degree to which a round letter extends beyond the lines—it’s called “overshoot.” And I have learned there are many other optical illusions at work in typography, so that frequently things need to be drawn differently to make them look the same.

When round letters are placed next to straight letters of the exact same height, the round letters will always look shorter. Why is this? It seems to be because less of the round letter reaches it tallest point. The rest of the letter falls rapidly away from this high point, so that most of the letter actually is shorter, leading our brain to perceive the round letter as shorter overall. The exact mathematical height of a letter is not as important as how tall it appears. When I was an apprentice, I was told, “It doesn’t matter what the yardstick says. If it looks right, it is right.” In the words of noted typographer Tobias Frere-Jones, “we read with our eyes, not with rulers, so the eye should win every time.” Consequently, round letters must be made slightly taller to compensate for the optical illusion.

How much is the overshoot of round letters? While 1-3 percent of the height is common, the overshoot varies with the letterstyle (and with type designer). Letters with wider, more gradual curves will show less overshoot than letters with narrower, tighter curves. A letterstyle like Eurostile, for example, with its squarish letters, has little overshoot. In fact, from a distance it’s hard to tell the caps apart from each other—they all resemble soft squares. On a sign, Eurostile, especially the upper case, is not the best choice, and must be used carefully to avoid illegibility.

overshoot comparison01

 

For a well-articulated explanation of overshoot, with illustrations, see Frere-Jones’ post:

Tobias Frere-Jones on “overshoot”

Book Review: Signs, Streets and Storefronts by Martin Treu

Signs Streets and Storefronts

Signs, Streets and Storefronts. A History of Architecture and Graphics along America’s Commercial Corridors. Martin Treu (John Hopkins University Press, 2012)

This a history book. But a very focused one.

Signs, Streets and Storefronts uniquely fills a niche in the world of architecture and graphic design history, and will probably stand alone in this role for many years to come.

The evolution of American culture as reflected by its signs, and in particular, by the look of its urban commercial districts, is a fascinating study. Even if you are not so much interested in architecture, you will find this book to be an insightful record of the sign industry in America from its earliest beginnings in the 1700s. Martin Treu is an architect and environmental graphic designer, and his research is painstaking and exhaustive. The pictures alone kept me spellbound for hours (I am a sign designer).

It is captivating to see, through Treu’s eyes, how the design of signs and commercial buildings has transformed through history, reflecting the social thinking of successive generations of architects, advertisers, preservationists  and governmental authorities. The changes brought about in the sign industry by advancing technology, electricity in particular, is a story all its own. This history of signs and storefronts is rich with photographs and well documented.

Published in 2012, if this book is not already on the shelves of many architects I will be surprised. I expect it to become essential reading as a design history.

For a much better and more comprehensive review of this book, see Ann Weiser’s in The Architect’s Newspaper:

Ann Weiser review

Also,  see Amy Korte’s review in Chicago Architecture:

Amy Korte review