Power, Corruption & Lies (or how I became a typographer, pt. 1)

Occa­sion­ally I’m asked how I ended up with seem­ingly disparate profes­sional inter­ests: typog­raphy, program­ming, lawyering. Simple—much like our phys­ical universe, they emerge from a singu­larity.

As a kid in New Hamp­shire, I loved reading and creative writing and playing piano. Books and records were how I learned about what existed beyond my small town.

But as a left-hander who strug­gled with the cursive penman­ship then taught in schools—the Zaner-Bloser Method—my hand­writing was nigh illeg­ible. (As my teachers often reminded me.)

Speaking with my full authority as a person on the internet, Zaner-Bloser is an insult to written language, hand­writing, and chil­dren. It claims to be simple and easy to read. No—its loopy, indis­tinct shapes are a cari­ca­ture of more mannered hand­writing tradi­tions. Iron­i­cally, nothing says “childish” more than Z-B writing. This is why every Amer­ican taught this method finds a moment some­time before their 15th birthday to inde­pen­dently develop a less jejune hand­writing tech­nique.

My rebel­lion against Zaner-Bloser took a different path, however. I found any kind of hand­writing slow, and I envied the clean pages my mother was able to produce with her elec­tric type­writer. So for my 10th birthday, she got me my all-time favorite birthday gift: a manual type­writer in a case. (At the time, personal computers were still rare & expen­sive.) It was my first keyboarded writing tool.

Though I loved writing, I really loved writing with the type­writer. It was faster and easier. Most impor­tantly, adults in power stopped griping about my messy hand­writing. By the time I reached high school, I was the only student in my school who routinely typed essay assign­ments.

Over the years, when skep­tics have disputed the value of typog­raphy—e.g., “readers don’t pay atten­tion to the presen­ta­tion, just the substance”—I wonder what their child­hoods were like. Because from basi­cally the moment I started writing, I got the exact oppo­site message: people care a lot about the presen­ta­tion. And that it would be wise if I started sharing their interest.

Early in high school (1984–86), two other conse­quen­tial things happened. (Warning: plen­tiful Gen X cultural remi­nis­cences follow.)

First, the Macin­tosh computer arrived. It was cool, and the few people who had them were cool. Though I wouldn’t get one till later, a friend’s family had one. I spent as much time at their house as I plau­sibly could, learning how to use it.

Second, MTV—a then-newish cable channel that played music videos—and that I watched inces­santly—showed me this:

I was bowled over. What was I seeing? Today there’s nothing surprising about musi­cians lacon­i­cally standing behind machines. But at the time, music had never sounded like this; musi­cians had never performed like this. It was like these people had arrived from the future to destroy Amer­ican pop music. They were gear nerds who gave zero fucks and sounded fantastic. That drum solo? That bass solo? That frog solo?

I’m still bowled over. It’s a perfect work of art. Nearly 40 years later, nothing about this clip has aged a day (except the humans).

It was clear I had to join this cause imme­di­ately. At the begin­ning and end of every video, MTV would show a textual overlay at iden­ti­fying the band, song, and album. This was New Order, “The Perfect Kiss”, from the album Low-Life.

To be fair, in 1985, New Order wasn’t really new. But they weren’t widely known in the US. They weren’t big enough for main­stream radio. If you went to high school in a big city, or listened to college radio, or went to dance clubs, you were prob­ably familiar with them or their precursor, Joy Divi­sion. If you were really cool you knew about contem­po­raries like Gary Numan, Human League, Depeche Mode, and Kraftwerk. The rest of us depended on MTV.

When I got to the record store to get my vinyl copy, this is what I found:

It was arresting. What­ever it was, I wanted it. The photo depicts drummer Stephen Morris—maybe the first & only time in music history where the drummer had the front cover to himself. The typog­raphy is a work of elegance and beauty: every­thing was printed on a translu­cent strip of paper that wrapped around the sleeve and could slide off. (Without it, there was no type on the cover at all.) The font is Neuzeit S.

The word “Order” was printed in silver in perfect align­ment with the word “new” over­printed in black, the vertical stem of the “n” exactly over­laying that of the “d”. No color at all. (More shots.)

The cover was designed by Peter Saville, who handled all the record covers for Joy Divi­sion and New Order (and other acts at their label, Factory Records). I sought out the other ones too.

(Top to bottom: Move­ment, Factus 8, Power, Corrup­tion & Lies, and from later, Broth­er­hood and Tech­nique)

What I love about Saville’s work for New Order is that he manages to be both entirely consis­tent and utterly not. None of the covers look like any of the others. But they all combine a punchy, charis­matic visual concept with a certain sphinx-like mystery: the cover never reveals every­thing you, the poten­tial record buyer, were hoping to learn. You felt rewarded for your curiosity, a member of a semi-secret club.

According to new-wave lore, this approach was a little too effec­tive for Saville’s sleeve for New Order’s song “Blue Monday”—

The song was being released in England as a 12” single. Saville persuaded Factory Records to approve a cover design in the style of a floppy disk, with die-cut holes in the outer sleeve and a special grey inner sleeve to complete the effect. Allegedly, Factory had to sell each copy at a small loss, but went forward because it didn’t expect to sell many copies. When the song became a monster hit, Factory got soaked. This account has since been disputed by Saville. If you know anything about record-company accounting, it sounds like an awfully conve­nient response for when the band asks “hey, where’s all the money from our big single?” (New Order’s finan­cial woes are long­standing and infa­mous. Their bass player even wrote a book about their finan­cially ruinous expe­ri­ence starting a night­club, a deci­sion that only a rock band would imagine turning out any differ­ently.)

The peril of trusting the design intel­li­gence of pop-music buyers has been well sati­rized. But Saville under­stood that his covers were being displayed in record stores full of other albums (with bigger marketing budgets). His goal was not only truth and beauty—that is, making the outward presen­ta­tion a char­ac­ter­istic depic­tion of the music within—but also maximum effect for the design dollar. At a 1980s record store, the Fantin-Latour painting on the cover of Power, Corrup­tion & Lies stood out. Album covers of the era were typi­cally more of a blend of warmed-over 1970s imagery with corpo­ratist 1980s gloss, for instance:

Or this one, which seems like a big-budget, zero-taste knockoff of Saville:

My affec­tion for the type­writer had started me along a path. But seeing Saville’s work for New Order was the first time I recall becoming aware of the real expres­sive power of design. Saville never subscribed to the idea that the record cover is merely pack­aging, and that the designer should find a way to be cour­te­ously defer­en­tial to the band and the music. No, the record cover is not the desti­na­tion. But it is part of the journey. It can add comple­men­tary meaning and enjoy­ment to the expe­ri­ence of the music.

Outwardly, my work as a designer bears no resem­blance to Saville’s. (Indeed, he some­times uses no typog­raphy at all.) But his prin­ci­ples have stuck with me.

I always think about—and encourage others to think about—how design and typog­raphy can comple­ment the under­lying object by finding a way to commu­ni­cate its virtues. If your writing contains beau­tiful ideas, then your presen­ta­tion of that writing should be like­wise beau­tiful.

I also like that Saville never sold short the intel­lect and taste of his audi­ence. His work was never boring. And he always reserved a little of the heavy lifting for the person on the other side. Because as a reader—or record buyer, or soft­ware user—the journey becomes more mean­ingful when you contribute some of your own curiosity, because curiosity rein­forces reader atten­tion.

(By the way, if you haven’t listened to New Order, I recom­mend starting with Substance, then moving on to Power, Corrup­tion & Lies, Broth­er­hood, and Republic for the deeper cuts.)