Adventures in Programming: It's All In A Letter
Programming is great. Not only do I get to select the programs I present, I am then rewarded 10 fold by attending interesting and entertaining programs and I get paid for it! What could be better? About a year ago I happened to be reading Christopher Gray’s Streetscapes column in the Real Estate Section of the Sunday New York Times. It is the first column I read in the Sunday paper. Generally the focus of the Streetscapes column is a building. However on Sunday, April 29, 2007 Christopher Gray did something quite different. On that day the Streetscapes column was devoted to a man, Paul Shaw. Mr. Shaw is a designer and design historian, specializing in architectural lettering.
The subject of the article was completely new to me and I found it fascinating, exciting even. In the article Christopher Gray went on a walking tour with Paul Shaw whose focus was on letters: letters on buildings, in the subway and on monuments, letters which appear everywhere in the city. After reading the article I had experienced a visual revelation, allowing me to see beyond my pedestrian eyes. I found myself looking anew at buildings, monuments and signs that before I would glance over.
I knew Paul Shaw would present a wonderful program and decided to invite him to come speak at the library. I contacted Christopher Gray and inquired about Mr. Shaw. Christopher confirmed my thoughts about Paul Shaw and happily provided me with contact information. After receiving Mr. Shaw’s email address I wrote a lengthy email to him, introducing myself and what I do, followed by a polite request for him to come speak at the library. My wishes were granted with a response of “yes, I’d be happy to speak at the library!”
Months went by and then came the creation of the promotional materials for the program. There was further correspondence between Paul and I about content and title of the program. Initially there was some confusion between Paul and I about what the title should be for the program. Paul’s title was, how should I say, not the most exciting it should be to attract an audience. Paul’s title seemed geared to a specific audience, with perhaps more expertise in the field of typographic design, definitely not appropriate for a general audience. We went back and forth on this discussion for a few more emails till Paul understood what I had been politely trying to tell him. We want people to come to the program, not avoid it. “Oh” he said. “You want something more jazzy sounding.” “Yep, exactly!” I said. The next title fell right into the perfect range of jazzy/sexy. Then came the wrangling with the look of the flyer. Naturally Paul wanted to see everything and I was happy to oblige. He is a designer and I was told by my supervisors to expect it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be problematic. We create an effective, nice looking flyer, with an already established template. It was initially created with lots of input from present and former employees. Hence we produce a solid looking flyer. Many of our patrons have told me how handsome the flyers look and I take this as a good sign. Paul made some comments and some changes and I tried to appease his requests. Finally we came to an agreement on an appropriate flyer that he could be happy with. Phew!
The night of the event we got our biggest crowd ever, 135 attended. And Paul Shaw did not disappoint. If ever there was a blockbuster program, this was it! Paul worked hard on his presentation, you could tell. He had us on the edge of our seats. He presented a program in three parts: letters in the subways, letters on apartment buildings and finally letters on department stores (Paul Shaw counts Lord & Taylor as a former client). Interesting stories, as well as a bit of design theory and history melded into a fascinating and visually exhilarating experience. It's all in a letter, I just never knew how much. Paul Shaw will be coming back in the fall to do another program. I hope you can attend!
Generally in the same subject area, I have included a review of Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary that uses the legendary typeface to weave a broader story about typography, graphic design and visual culture in the last half-century.